Ghent: Our First Adventure in Belgium



Ahhh yes, Ghent. Let me tell you about the wonderfully dynamic medieval Ghent, capital and largest city of East Flanders province in the Flemish region of Belgium.  First, I LOVED this city, and I will definitely go back one day.  So you know, back in the Middle Ages Ghent was one of Northern Europe's biggest and wealthiest cities, and it grew to be the second biggest city in Europe by the 13th century - Paris coming first.  The medieval architecture is really impressive, it has been preserved and restored with great care throughout time.     



The day we arrived, it was gloomy and had been raining, the entire city appeared vacant since its inhabitants were likely in hibernation due to the terrible weather.  The result was a very creepy feeling, as we rode the completely empty tram from the desolate train station through the quiet streets, we both wondered what the city might (or might not) hold in store for us. It was while we were on that tram that my brother turned to me and asked "Why did you want to come here? What is here?" I'll admit, for a moment I doubted my better judgment and shook my head in puzzlement, having pondered that same thought in the moments prior. I think my response was something like "Well, I read that Ghent is one of the most beautiful cities in Belgium, and I really loved Brugge, so I wanted to see other Belgian cities and this one was highly recommended." My brother raised his eyebrows in momentary skepticism and I turned to look out the window, perhaps in search of something that would reassure me. I'd be lying if I said a part of my brain wasn't already racing through ideas to remedy the potential problem, after all I had booked five days in Ghent. Five days that, at that very moment, seemed excessive and left me wondering what the hell I was thinking when I made that booking. Ironically, those five days ended up being five of the BEST days of the entire trip through Europe, five days I will never ever forget. But first, before I get to the good stuff, my preface must continue. Let me paint the entire picture for you...




Luckily the rain stopped before we arrived at our stop, where we then lugged our stuff off the tram and began walking in the direction that the conductor had pointed us, in search of our hotel. The streets were quiet, the sun was going down, and the sound of our suitcases bumbling down the uneven cobblestone streets was deafening.  But let me tell you, despite the conditions, our short walk from the tram stop to our hotel was impressive!  The rustic medieval architecture is in-your-face fascinating:




Above is the Belfry of Ghent, it is the tallest belfry in all of Belgium and was completed in 1380.  It belongs to UNESCO's World Heritage list and is among three hallmark towers in Ghent's historical center.  Initially, the bells in the belfry were only used for religious purposes, but over time their use eased into a daily secular function by chiming in the hours and giving 

The belfry is amongst a medieval cluster of large closely situated landmarks, at first sight it really overwhelms you with a sense of awe...



This area is the historical center of Ghent, it's packed with closely situated landmarks of incredible medieval Gothic architecture, it overwhelms you with a sense of awe! On the far left above is Saint-Nicholas Church, the tower in the middle is the belfry of Ghent, and in the distance on the left (blocked out by some scaffolding on another building) is Saint Bavo Cathedral - home of the famous paneled paintings by Flemish brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck: "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb"  (also known as The Ghent Altarpiece).  



Below is the church of Saint Nicholas, a very old and important landmark of Ghent.  Its construction began in the early 13th century, in the Scheldt Gothic style - which is named after a river in the area.  Up until the belfry was built, the central tower on this church was used as the bell tower and observation post for the city.  It underwent a major renovation at the turn of and throughout the 20th century:




Large open plaza lined with restaurants, stores, and historic buildings….check…!   These are the norm in Europe, and I love them!  When they're filled with sunshine and people of course…  This is the area to the left of the image above, in front of the Saint Nicholas church:





Above is the old post office, a dramatically detailed building for sure!  We didn't know it yet, but our hotel was just beyond this building, over the bridge ahead and to the right along the river behind it...


As always, I was preoccupied with the sky and rustic architectural details set against it...


As we crossed the bridge, we came across this massive structure right on the Lys River...


This is Saint Michael's Church, its construction lasted from 1105 all the way to 1828 with the installation of a roof (finally!) over the unfinished tower.  The reason for such a long construction period?  Oh, just the same reasons for lots of other architectural destruction over the centuries: fires and religious conflict.  This place was built and destroyed several times, twice by fire and several other times by the aforementioned religious conflicts.


The placid river running alongside the church was so beautiful, it reflected everything in perfect detail...  This is something you will notice in many of my photos from Ghent, it's absolutely hypnotizing!  The church is peppered with gorgeous oxidized domes and pitched roof of all sizes and shapes.  I have much better photos, taken on sunny blue-sky days, to share with you in another upcoming post.  


We continued down the bridge alongside the church, where we found moss covered trees looming against its beautiful arched stained glass windows...


Just one of the many dreamy medieval buildings that we spotted on our way to check in at the hotel:


We found our hotel, a Marriott right on Korenlei street, which is on the Lys River across from Graslei street.  It was right behind the city square and churches I just showed you above.  This turned out to be a really popular area in Ghent, the historical city center, an area we spent most of our time in.  The facade is a very very old building right on the Lys River, and the back is a larger new addition that is connected, it has a cool glass wall that curves into a domed ceiling.  At night it lights up, and since there are open hallways on each floor going all the way up, this is what you see when you leave your hotel room:




In the photo above you can see where the newer building connects to the older original brick building in the lower right corner, off of the open lobby below.  That hallway leads you to the hotel restaurant in the front, and to the automatic doors that let you out right in front of the river.  One of the locals that we met while in Ghent told us that the building now occupied by the Marriott used to be a brothel!  He said that in the old days when the area in front of this building was a bustling port along the Lys River, the establishment was perfectly situated for hungry sailors and fisherman, ha!  




This was the view from the front entrance of the hotel, looking at the shadowy buildings across the river...


After settling in and freshening up, we headed back out to explore.  By the time we walked around a bit and got hungry, it was almost one o'clock in the morning and we were out of luck. Like I said, the sun sets at nearly 11pm in these parts, so you easily get lulled into a false sense of time. You'd think we would have learned our lesson after this night full of hungry desperation and the disturbing adventure that unfolded as a result, but of course not: we ended up in this predicament several times throughout the trip in various cities. Doh!

I think I'll spare you the details of the adventure I mentioned above, let's just say it was an odd and disturbing encounter with the tired angry owner of a small (completely empty) restaurant that was still open when we found it just after 1am. At the end of the night, actually early morning (3am), we ended up settling for room service, which was reasonably priced for a Croque-Monsieur - a French grilled ham and cheese sandwich with lots of Gruyer cheese melted and browned on top, served with Dijon mustard.  We ate many of these on our trip through Europe, mostly in Belgium and France, and they were all different.  Some were delicious, others not so much.  Anyway, we laughed and shook our heads over the terrifying woman from the restaurant, who we nicknamed The Wicked Witch and will surely never forget. Yeah, she traumatized us a bit. We were humming the theme tune from the Wicked Witch scenes in The Wizard of Oz for days. 




Saint-Nicholas Church and the Belfry all lit up at night!






    

Old red post office boxes, statues and fountains throughout the streets...



Cannons too!




Anarchy graffiti that says "No Future"




The shadowy faces and figures on this statue looked great all lit up at night:

    



    

Plenty of public drinking fountains around Europe, this one was conveniently emitting a nice cold stream all night long.  I wonder about that though...



Passing by Saint Michael's Church all lit up, and passing over Saint Michael's bridge admiring its intricate details...



This was the dark serene view from Saint Michael's bridge, looking towards our hotel (on the left) along the glassy Lys River...


When we woke up the next day, it was still raining and dark out. Sadly, there wasn't much to do other than stay in bed and watch tv until the rain stopped enough for us to venture out. By the time the rain subsided, we were chomping at the bit to break out of that hotel room and see some of the city. We roamed around from the late afternoon to well into the night, this is what we saw:


This is the view back towards the Saint Michael Church and bridge over the Lys River, half of which runs through Belgium, the other half in France.


I'm standing opposite the Saint Michael's Bridge on the Grass Bridge, and you'll notice this became one of my favorite spots to take photos from. Wait until you see the photos I took on the sunny days! Oh man, I still get all giddy at the memory of being there, it's so picturesque!




We walked back over to Saint Michael's Church again (above), and the front of Saint-Nicholas Church below…



I don't know what was up with that inflated Jesus statue wearing the shirt with Belgian flag colors, but I did get a kick out of the guy speeding by on the bike with the tented child seat! I first saw this in Amsterdam, a woman toting two small children around, seen in this post




We walked around in the area pictured above for a while before heading back along the Lys river on Graslei street.  I was admiring the leaning building facades and the guy who had just finished trimming the little bushes lining the outdoor dining area...






    


As you can see, not many people were out on this day either, which was a nice calm change from Amsterdam, but still a little discouraging.



This was the view across the river looking at our hotel (the one with two gold circles on the facade)...



I was obsessed with the weather vane on the building two doors down from the hotel, it was a shiny gold ship!  It looks so cool turning with the wind, especially when it's gleaming in sunshine on better days... 

    



 Most places were slow to open due to the rain, or they're cafes/bars that open later, but we found the place recommended by our hotel called De Graslei.  It was delicious!  The service was excellent too, something that I found to be rare in Europe, believe it or not.  It's right on the same river across from the hotel we stayed in...




They provided yummy complimentary crab salad tapas, bread, and water (a rare complimentary item in European restaurants).  The Belgian house silhouette logo on their napkin and cutlery sleeves really caught my eye, cute! 

    

And hey, news flash, you cannot visit Belgium without drinking one of their amazing beers. Key word: DARK, dark dark strong beer.  10.5% alcohol by volume strong:



I think I had a beer of over 12 or 13% alcohol later in another Belgian city, but this was the most delicious beer I tried!  Gulden Draak (Golden Dragon).


And to top it off, I ordered a classic Flemish beef stew called 'Stoverij' that's made with dark beer called 'Trappist' (which is strong abbey beer) and served with french fries.  Fries are a big BIG thing in Amsterdam and Belgium, there are various french fry chains throughout the cities we visited and they serve a variety of sauces with the fries, the most popular of which is some type of doctored mayonnaise.  At first (in Amsterdam) my brother and I thought the whole mayo on fries craze was gross, but then we tried it and were sold!  I don't know what they put in this mayo, but it is awesomesauce!  I asked several people, but they all swear it's simply mayo.  I don't believe it.  As for the fries, they are ten times more delicious than any fries you've ever had, I guarantee it.  Anyway, back to the beer beef stew…  It was really heavenly, so dark and thick and well made, not to mention it had great presentation on the plate with that adorable little white ceramic crock pot.  Ideally, it could have used some chunks of carrots, potato, even onion… but it was simple and divine without them too.  I really want to try and make this beef stew, I know I can knock it out of the park!




This was one of my favorite meals on the whole trip…  The beef stew left such a good flavor in my mouth!  Next time I visit Ghent I will make sure to have it again, along with another popular dish called Waterzooi, a fish stew.  I almost ordered it instead of the stew, but since I can be fickle about my relationship with fishy foods, I changed my mind.  Next time I'll be brave!



During the meal it started to drizzle again, and it was cold, but we still decided to take a walk and make the most of what was left of the day….

    


I enjoyed walking through this alleyway full of graffiti, then again I love to photograph graffiti on my trips to Europe.  Graffiti can be so eclectic and interesting.  I did a post about the graffiti that I spotted in Istanbul a few years ago, check it out here.  I've also done posts on Mona Lisa graffiti, and graffiti of The Beatles and their famous lyrics




LOL!  T-Rex and Triceratops going at it…  I ran that conversation through a translator, apparently it's Dutch and this is what it might say:


"You left my calls?  To vote on your left lies."
"You chose Rex." 
"Poor choice."

I have no idea what that means, I can only guess maybe it's some kind of political statement.




Even this large fence and its gate weren't safe from the graffiti artists!  I really liked it!

    

The purple with black and white stripes reminds me of those snake creatures in the movie Beetlejuice.  



What's really pretty is the sharp contrast of the graffiti covered gate and the manicured lawn and building beyond that it encloses….



    


We went through a set of tunnels before the alley ended...


It was a busy visual feast of art and expression….




From there we walked over a few more bridges...


Marveled at more architecture...


The amazing architectural detail on this building drew us in for a closer look at all the anatomically correct details...


Gazed out over canals and rivers and the pattern of rain on the surface...


The building below on the right is called The Gravensteen, which means "Castle of the Count" in Dutch.  It dates back to the Middle Ages, but of course has been rebuilt and restored since then:




I spot another attractive door knocker with a knight on his horse…  Although the one in Amsterdam with the hand holding the apple is much cooler!






And of course, would any post be complete without some roses?  It wouldn't!



The next couple days in Ghent were absolutely incredible, the atmosphere there went from dreary to beyond lively, overnight! Wait until you see my next few posts, like I said - Ghent is a dynamic city.  I think it's a bohemian traveler's paradise, what with all the beautiful artistic people (mostly students) lounging in the sun on the mossy cobblestones along the quay of the river, drinking wine and picnicking. We spent our best days lounging and picnicking right along with them, gazing at the radiant sunny day and the mesmerized by the architecture popping out against the blue sky before us.  Stay tuned!

In case you missed my first posts on this trip, read (and see) all about my first stop in Amsterdam here:

Catherine


(All images in this post are the original photographs of the author of this blog. Do not copy or reuse any images on this site without written consent from www.InspireBohemia.com)

1 comment:

  1. Entertaining and beautiful tour through Ghent.

    ReplyDelete