Travel: Star struck in Flanders

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
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