Belgium

Ghent, Belgium

Some places are unfairly passed over as an afterthought, and you wouldn’t blame Ghent’s residents for becoming bitter watching their PR-savvy neighbours and competitors receive fawning adulation and a conveyor belt of tourists whom you only need to prod in order for money to fall out. However, hiding very much in plain sight, they appear to be very happy with this arrangement.

Situated between Bruges and Brussels, Ghent could hardly be overlooked on a map, being one of Belgium’s most sizeable cities. When it comes to self-promotion however, it appears to be a little on the shy side, perhaps featuring in a few cruise offers in Sunday supplements, always itself in supplement to a bigger site such as the medieval streets and canals of Bruges or the Grand Platz in Brussels, always with the implication it is lesser, auxiliary, inessential. Would it shock you to learn that Ghent has sights more impressive than either city can muster?

Whoa.

Yes, I don’t think it is hyperbole on my part. Plus, these pictures offer only a hint of the overall impression Ghent will leave you with.

It would be tempting to see Ghent as a halfway house between the preserved medieval aura of Bruges and the enormous drama and scope of Brussels. This does indeed serve as a useful marker in many ways, but it’s important to pay attention to Ghent’s qualities in their own right, rather than always seeking to juxtapose what it has to offer over other places. Maybe by doing so it can step out of their shadow.

It’s true, Ghent does have its own network of canals, plenty of classic stepped gable burgher houses and hanseatic era atmosphere, as it does almshouses and quaint parks. Similarly it is a large and quite sprawling city with a lively nightlife and impressive monuments. But there are particulars to Ghent which are worthy of note in their own right.

Such as?

Although Bruges certainly carries gothic elements, Ghent takes gothic splendour to a whole other scale. The city centre is at certain viewpoints an almost unbroken panorama of towers, spires and ornate stone gothic architecture unmatched anywhere in the country. I found the feeling of passing over the bridge towards the cathedral, particularly at night especially impressive and powerful, but this is one experience that appears to be, as yet unrecognised.

The cathedral itself contains a famous Altarpiece which you can see (for a fee, naturally), which was stolen and damaged, a dramatic and fascinating story to read about. There are various other works by the Dutch masters and, although your appreciation of these may depend on your interest in religion and indeed art, without this you can still appreciate the cultural significance of the place. Ghent is not to be trifled with.

There are various other eyecatching buildings in the centre, such as a gigantic and long almshouse (pictured above) and Het Gravensteen castle, one of only a few renaissance-era castles which opted to recreate gothic middle ages rather than fairytale romance gothic. The canalside setting is unbelievably dramatic at day and night, mainly because it is so impossible to prepare you for, even seeing images of it before hand. Although the structure may have a rather strange position in the heritage of the city itself, the brutal grey battlements and completeness are sympathetic with Ghent’s gothic core and make the place more interesting.

Ghent is also a thriving university town, as well as being a socialist hub in what is generally a more economically right-wing area of Belgium. The Vooruit is a centre celebrating that, as well as being connected to the university campus and having ongoing activities. Any budding activist or sympathizer could do worse than dropping by there for an hour to see how it’s shaping up in Belgium. It’s also a timely reminder that socialism came about through recognising the exploitation of workers by their employers, something which we could do well to think about at the moment. There are also some really striking hypermodern buildings that come into their own at night. Even those people not fond of modernist architecture would at least be impressed by the sheer monumental size.

I expect there’s good nightlife then.

Oh yes, it goes with the territory. What I found enjoyable about Ghent as a night out, versus Bruges or Brussels was the predominantly local life. Bruges has some excellent pubs but some are now captured wholly by tourists, meaning you can enjoy the shell but there is few or no ‘regular trade’, which is essential to giving a place true character. Brussels is big enough to have enclaves of local life, but also big enough to lack the cohesive feel Ghent possesses, in a similar way to somewhere like Newcastle or Sheffield. A night out in Ghent feels like being part of a community assembly. Also, if you’re into that sort of thing, it goes on for longer, if you know what I mean.

I would recommend Waterhuis aan de Bierkant and Galgenhuis for places in the centre. They are obvious, so no trade secrets here, but they are recommended for a good reason. Galgenhuis is terrifically atmospheric based within a strange and charmingly small property. Wooden panelled bench seating and patterned tiles, it’s a classic pub but with that extra element that elevates it above the rest. Similarly, the crowd in Café Den Turk near the cathedral are following a well-trodden path, the pub bathes in its own history and it’s very pleasant dropping by to be part of that for a couple of hours.

Just to really hammer home Ghent’s untouched charms, it also happens to be the base for a unique beer style, ‘Gruut’, adding herbs and spices in substitution for, or in addition to hops. This often brings out a whole heap of other qualities in the beer. You can buy other Gruut/Gruit beer, it is however Ghent’s own brewery, Gentse Gruut Stadsbrouwerij that can reasonably be called the chief purveyor and protector of the style itself, and a wander to their brewery tap, only 15-20 minutes from the centre, is essential for any beer fan.

Anything else?

I would have thought that was enough to be going along with! Gent’s gothic centre and street layout may at times be surprisingly familiar feeling to lots of UK citizens, as well the way the waterside setting is exploited. However, the differences start creeping in, the trams, the cyclists, and those stepped gables, the lovely, lovely beer, and yes, this really is a slice of classic Belgium.

Take a moment to pause and reflect before committing to Brussels, Bruges or Antwerp only. Ghent may not have opened its arms in the same way but that doesn’t mean it won’t cradle you to its bosom. Ghent. It’s Grrrrrrrruuuuuuuuut! *gets coat*