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Ghent, Belgium - At some point during my weekend in Ghent, I began to suspect the inhabitants were playing tricks on me. Was I really being served cuckoo for lunch?
And were the biscuits I was given really called “bald heads” and the sweets “noses” (I have a large one of both)?
When I was told the locals are known as Stroppendragers because they sometimes go around with a hangman’s noose (strop) around their necks, I began to wonder: Ghent’s inhabitants clearly love a joke . . . but was the joke on me?
Perhaps I hadn’t undertaken the trip in the right spirit. I’d heard Ghent had just introduced a new city card which gave unlimited use of local transport and entry to attractions and thought: it’s only three hours by Eurostar — why not knock off the sights in a day?
Several reasons, as I was to discover. Though it might be less renowned than Bruges, it still has a lot to offer: a beautiful historic quarter and bags of culture.
Thanks to the university and its 65 000 students, it’s buzzier and less Disneyfied than its neighbour, and the city hosts festivals galore all year.
Across its rivers and canals, you can lose yourself in narrow streets that lead you to fascinating squares with beautiful churches, magnificent castles and bars serving some of the world’s best beers. St Bavo’s Cathedral is home to the “most stolen artwork in the world” (The Adoration Of The Mystic Lamb by the Van Eyck brothers).
Ghent has one of Europe’s largest pedestrianised shopping areas, excellent food and artisan coffee shops — check out Labath or Simon Says — and these things take time to explore. Yet what a fun, if foolish, quest. And because cars are banned from large parts of the city, strolling around is a joy.
It started with the Sunday morning ritual beloved of many a Stroppendrager. From the historic quarter, they migrate south, poking around the antique and book markets before ending up in the flower market at Kouter, one of the city’s grandest squares. Nicole Kidman recently shot film scenes here for Grace Of Monaco before the grand frontage of the Club des Nobles.
After browsing, you can join locals eating oysters and sipping champagne at the Blue Kiosk. I had a lunch of spicy steak tartare at the Theatre Cafe (voted ‘best in Belgium’), then went sight-seeing like a mad thing.
Central Ghent is divided in two by a left turn in the river. South is the student and arts quarter; north is the historic hub.
A ten-minute tram ride from the centre gets you to the newest museum, the Stam (for the history of the city) and the Municipal Museum of Contemporary Art (SMAK), which is next to the Museum of Fine Arts. Give yourself time to enjoy them. The occult-inspired installations and surreal film shows of shouty clowns and bizarre objects seemed like a lunatic asylum — but then, maybe that’s the idea.
I took the Museum of Fine Arts at a canter, too, before heading back up through the student area — think bars and graffiti. Prominent wallworks are marked on the tourist map and there is even a graffiti alley in the historic district.
It was too early fora beer with the students, so instead I sought out the Gruut brewery, the only one within the city limits. It is a restaurant/bar run by a lady, Annick de Splenter, and the beer is brewed in coppers just inside the door. Lovely stuff.
The good folk of Ghent love to eat the finer things — the city has no big supermarkets in the city: artisan food shops are where to shop for everything from handmade chocolate (try tiny all-made-on-the-premises Van Hecke) to the finest mustard you might ever taste (from the olde worlde Tierenteyn-Verlent shop).
At the bijou Oud Huis Himschoot bakery I bought a mastel — a sort of bagel that my guide said I should “keep in tin foil and iron”. Well, obviously.
At Bel Artisan I was sold those “noses” — soft, jelly fruit cones called cuberdons.
Astoundingly good beers are served all over the city, and if you want something a little stronger, the Dreupelkot has hundreds of varieties of Jenever, a light gin. The bar will reportedly stay open until the owner falls asleep in his chair in the window.
In between all this snacking and jollity, there are beautiful churches and period architecture, although not all of it is as old as it looks.
The towers of Ghent’s historic look-out — the Belfry (with the best view of the city), St Nicholas’s Church and St Bavo’s — form a famous line when viewed from St Michael’s bridge. I whizzed through them.
The Castle of the Count was built not for defence but to keep the famously stubborn locals in their place. Still, a visit to the castle dungeons gave me a merry half-hour.
The Restaurant du Progres served me an excellent plate of hearty fare, and the Marriott was a modern gem of a hotel concealed behind a beautiful old frontage (the two swans on the front betray its past as a brothel).
Its location on the Korenlei, by the water, is hard to better.
I haven’t mentioned Charles V, the Holy Roman emperor who was born here and is the reason the locals love their nooses.
After they they revolted in 1539, he humiliated the town’s burghers by parading them in the streets with nooses round their necks. After that the noose became a badge of honour for those who stood up to oppressors.
And the lunch of cuckoo? It’s the name for a type of chicken, which cropped up in the classic waterzooi stew I had for lunch at the plush Belga Queen. Honest.
For guided walking tours, see vizit.be. For city pass information, see visitgent.be. More information at visitflanders.co.uk. - Daily Mail