Travel: Star struck in Flanders

Coming to a Low Country near you: the Ghent Film Festival.

Although the scenic city has had only a few bit parts, it

possesses just the stuff for gripping drama.

Long on atmosphere and short on tourists, Ghent is a pocket-sized compendium of Low Countries history. But, while it's home to the Benelux countries' best film festival, the historic town is still looking for that elusive big-screen break.

It's had a few bit parts - like Malpertius (a deranged Seventies drama in which Orson Welles lolls in a sick bed near the 12th-century Gravensteen castle) and its idyllic canals serve as extras in a Fanny Ardant vehicle - but film-makers have not flocked to cast the city in a starring role.

Five years back, the star-crossed Flemish city had a brush with fame when Armando Acosta filmed an unorthodox Romeo & Juliet with John Hurt and hundreds of cats. But don't expect to be mobbed by fame-seeking felines as you cross the cobbled cathedral square; at best, you'll meet a pair of well-mannered police dogs who are in town for an episode of a Flemish TV series.

For all its medieval charms, Ghent has never sold itself as well as Bruges. And that's a shame because the city is everything Belgium supposedly isn't: progressive, creative and proud. Few towns can boast a post office resembling a Gothic town hall, or a train station styled like a Moorish castle. The city has an ombudswoman, a condom-seller who patrols the main square on Saturday night, and some of Europe's few human-powered taxis: sleek yellow tricycles pedalled by breathless students through the pedestrianised centre.

With more listed buildings than any other Belgian town, Ghent is the perfect place for pondering your movie masterpiece. In fact, if you visit the stern Saint Nicholas church, you'd be forgiven for thinking that someone else had got there first. Bombed in the Second World War and neglected for decades, the part-Romanesque interior has all the chaos and disorder of a film set, with randomly placed statues and half-a-dozen disgruntled gargoyles mounted forlornly on chipboard.

As you'd expect from a place that was once one of Western Europe's wealthiest cities, the burghers' attempts to maintain their status in feudal Europe are just the stuff for gripping period drama. Start from St Michael's Bridge with the city's most famous view: the spires of Saint Nicholas, Saint Bavo's Cathedral and the Belfry. Then track left down the waterfront, to the stone gabled guildhouses on the Graslei, noting the golden ship figurine of the sailors' building.

Whether it's merchants against nobles, everyone against the Hapsburgs, or Flemish proles against French-speaking aristocrats, the people of Ghent have always had a self-destructive appetite for a scrap. The Ghent-born Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, quashed tax revolts in the 1530s by storming the town, revoking its privileges and forcing guildsmen to walk round the city walls wearing nooses round their necks. It took the blocking of the city's trade route, the River Scheldt, to suppress the merchants, but Ghent's economy bounced back, thanks to a young Fleming who smuggled a spinning jenny out of England.

Away from the obvious romance of the Graslei, you'll find traces of the city's insolence in the local ale, named stropke (noose), and in the natives' refusal to acknowledge Charles V. Only one tiny statue of him exists, on the out-of-the-way Prinsenhof, and even the commemoration of his 500th birthday in 2000 will be marred by dons disgusted that anyone should celebrate the man.

Stepping into modern times, Ghent's industrial heritage and left-leaning political tradition could easily be tweaked into a heartstring-tugging tale of class struggle centred on Edward Van Anseele, Belgium's first socialist minister and a founder of the Vooruit (Progress) workers' movement.

Vooruit produced a newspaper and organised cultural events as well as lobbying for better working conditions. You can see the old newspaper office on Sint Pietersnieuwstraat near the splendid Art Nouveau-inspired theatre building, now a cutting edge cultural centre. The equally magnificent Vooruit HQ stands on the Vrijdagmarkt opposite a statue of a rebellious 15th-century local hero, Van Artevelde.

When you've had your fill of period drama, bend your brain to a fiendish unsolved mystery, involving one of Christendom's greatest treasures. In 1934, a panel of Van Eyck's altarpiece, Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, was stolen from Saint Bavo's. The villain, whose identity is unknown, died before he could ransom the painting, and its location remains a puzzle that countless conspiracy theories have failed to crack.

Belgian film-makers have often been tempted by the retable's colourful history, bits of which have been bought or stolen by Napoleon, Prussia's King Friedrich Wilhelm III and the Nazis: all they need is a suitably conclusive ending.

While combing the city's eerily calm canals and cobbled streets, you might find the perfect setting for a supernatural chiller. The forces of good and evil are all around: in Bosch's Journey to the Cross, with Jesus surrounded by penitents and jabbering grotesques; in shop and restaurant names like Lucifer, Avalon, De Hel, Fallen Angel; and in the spindly devils, dancing angels and carvings of the senses adorning so many of the houses on Sint-Baafsplein or in the Patershol district, once a working class neighbourhood, now the culinary heart of the city.

It's hard to get spooked as you stroll the immaculate Korenmarkt, but you'll get a sense of the city's shadier side if you follow the waterways out of the centre, passing derelict warehouses, disused buildings and, towards the port, the lonesome Mercury bar.

Even the centre of town offers an unusually shocking experience. Squint your way up the dingy steps of the Belfry, spattered with the heads of statues, and take the glass lift that shoots through the dark, silent tower. Wonder about the giant barrel perched in the belfry as you squeeze on to the narrow parapet, then try not to fall as all hell breaks loose as a 54-bell automated carillon grinds into action without warning. Fans of The Thirty-Nine Steps will have no trouble imagining its hero clinging to the wings of the golden dragon that tops the spire - a symbol of the city's freedom.

Film festival guests from across the Atlantic insist on visiting the museum town, Bruges, but why bother when you can enjoy history, and a much livelier present, in Ghent? Get there now - before Hollywood hits town.

The Ghent Film Festival (00 32 9 225 3641) begins on 6 October and continues to 17 October. Guests include Alain Resnais, Julia Ormond and Christopher Hampton.

The Flanders Festival (00 32 9 233 7788) ends on 29 October.

Tourism Flanders Brussels, which promotes Ghent in the UK, is at 31 Pepper Street, London E14 9RW. Call 0171-458 2888 between 1 and 5pm, Monday- Friday, or the premium-rate brochure line on 0891 887799.

By rail, Eurostar (0345 303030) sells a return from to London to Ghent (or anywhere else in Belgium) via Brussels for pounds 89. Book a week in advance.

By sea, the closest link to Ghent is from Dover to Ostend on Hoverspeed (0990 595522).

By air, the main carrier to Belgium is Sabena (0181-780 1444). It flies to Brussels from Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds/ Bradford, Manchester and Newcastle. From Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted, Virgin Express (0800 891199) sells tickets starting at pounds 39 one-way. Trains from Brussels airport to Ghent take around 50 minutes

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week