48 hours in Ghent

Take a trip to this canal-riven patchwork Belgian city to catch the annual antiques fair - and wander the cobbled streets between snacks and saunas, says Cathy Packe
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The Independent Travel

WHY GO NOW?

WHY GO NOW?

Even Ghent's own residents regard their city as a big village, which makes it an ideal place to explore in a weekend, particularly at this time of year before the main influx of tourists begins at Easter. Starting today until 1 February, the city will be a magnet for antiques enthusiasts who will come for the annual antiques fair, which is held in St Pieter's Abbey at 9 Sint-Pieters Plein (00 32 9 243 97 30), open from 2-8pm on weekdays and 11am-5.30pm at weekends.

BEAM DOWN

Ghent, like any Belgian city, is accessible from London Waterloo via Brussels for a flat rate of £59 return, if you book far enough ahead through Eurostar (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com). The main airlines from the UK to Brussels National airport are British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com), BMI (0870 60 70 555, www.flybmi.com) and SN Brussels (08707 352 345; www.flysns.com). Five trains an hour link Brussels Midi with Sint-Pieters station , most of them taking less than half an hour; there are less frequent direct services from Brussels airport, taking around an hour. Trams with numbers beginning with a 1 will take you from the station to the city centre. Tickets cost €1 (70p), and can be bought on board. A taxi from the station to the centre will cost around €10 (£7).

GET YOUR BEARINGS

A network of canals has turned the centre of the city into a patchwork, with bridges connecting up the squares and cobbled streets. Orientation is provided by Ghent's three towers: the cathedral , the belfry and St Nicholas' church . The old town is focused around two main squares, the Vrijdagmarkt and the larger Gouden Leeuwplein to the south. The tourist office is on the edge of this square, at 17 Botermarkt (00 32 9 266 52 32; www.visitgent.be) and is open 9.30am-4.30pm every day. Buy a museum pass here: for €12.50 (£9), you will get entrance to 15 of the city's main attractions. The pass is valid for three days from the time it is first used. A listings pamphlet, Week Up is available free in bars, cafés and some shops; you can check out future events at www.weekup.be.

CHECK IN

At the comfortable and friendly Gravensteen at 35 Jan Breydelstraat (00 32 9 225 11 50; www.gravensteen.be), double rooms start at €128 (£88) and singles at €111 (£78) including breakfast. Most of the other city centre choices are chains, including the Novotel on the main square at 5 Goudenleeuwplein (00 32 9 224 22 30m; www.novotel. com) which has excellent facilities, and where rooms cost €159 (£113), with an extra €14 (£10) per person for breakfast. Engelen aan de Waterkant at 30 Ter Platen (00 32 9 223 08 83; www.engelenaandewaterkant.be) is a luxurious bed and breakfast in an attractive canalside house, where a suite costs €100 (£70) for two people and €90 (£64) for one, including breakfast and a bottle of wine.

TAKE A VIEW

Not only is the belfry on Emile Braunplein one of the landmarks on the skyline, it also offers the best views over the city. Part watchtower, part storehouse for important city documents, its most interesting feature is the mechanism of the clock, which strikes every 15 minutes, and is still partially operated by hand. The belfry is closed until 15 March, after which it will be open every day from 10am-12.30pm and 2-5.30pm; entrance costs €3 (£2). If you can't wait until spring for a great panorama of the city, take a look at the skyline from St Michael's bridge.

TAKE A RIDE

Open-topped and covered boats (00 32 9 225 15 05; www.gent-watertoerist.be) ferry visitors around the canals; cruises last around 40 minutes. Boats leave from Graslei and Korenlei quays. There are departures every hour from March and more frequently as the season gets into full swing. Single tickets cost €10 (£7).

TAKE A HIKE

Start a walk around the oldest part of Ghent in the Vridagmarkt, which has been the heart of the city since the 12th century. Still the location for the weekly Friday market, this was where the local soldiers would assemble before going off to war, and was also the site of executions in the 16th century. Close by is the Flemish church of St Jacob . One of the oldest houses in the city is Van Rehovens Steen in a small alley off Hoogpoort, which was once the headquarters of the Calvinists in the city. In the main square, Goudenleeuwplein is the church of St Nicholas , which is open 10am-5pm every day, with its baroque altarpieces and life-sized statues of the apostles.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

One Ghent institution is Bloch , at 60 Veldstraat, which has light meals and lots of cakes. An alternative is Brooderie , at 8 Jan Breydelstraat, which specialises in sandwiches made with home-baked bread, and salads. If you need a sweet snack to follow, the best ice cream in town comes from Veneziana on Sint-Veerleplein, opposite the main entrance to the castle.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

For a perspective on all that the city has to offer, start at the Huis van Alijn at 65 Kraanlei (00 32 9 269 23 50; www.huisvanalijn.be), with its collection of 19th-century room settings. The museum opens 11am-5pm every day except Monday, admission €2.50 (£1.75). The new wing at the Design Museum at 5 Jan Breydelstraat (00 32 9 267 99 99; www.design.museum.gent.be) reflects the development of the fine arts in Belgium, particularly the growth of art nouveau and art deco, and is open 10am-6pm every day except Mondays with admission costing €2.50 (£1.75). Coming right up to date is the collection at SMAK, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Citadelpark (00 32 9 221 17 03; www.smak.be), where the collection of modern art is open 10am-6pm every day except Mondays with admission costing €5 (£3.50).

WINDOW SHOPPING

Veldstraat is the best browsing thoroughfare, with the department store Innovation , and a number of specialist shops. Daskalides on Mageleinstraat: he is the only chocolate-maker in the city who still makes his own. Other local edible treats are on sale at the old meat market, the Groot Vleet Huis , open 10am-6pm every day except Mondays. For clothes shopping, the place to go is Obius at 7 Vridagmarkt, which has a good selection of designs by the collection of Belgian designers known as the Antwerp Six.

AN APERITIF

Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant on Groentenmarkt stocks more than 100 Belgian beers, enough to keep the most serious drinker busy for more than a weekend. Another Belgian speciality is on sale next door: Dreupelkot stocks 212 kinds of the gin-based liqueur, genever. Not far away, on Groentenmarkt, is 't Galgenhuisje , the smallest pub in town, and the place where condemned criminals would come for a final drink before they were hanged; only 20 people can fit inside at a time.

DINNER WITH THE LOCALS

The cities of Belgium vie with each other to have the best restaurants, and Ghent has plenty of top-class choices; dishes to look out for include rabbit, anything cooked in beer, and waterzooi, traditionally a combination of river fish boiled with carrots, leeks and potatoes; sophisticated modern tastes have led to the addition of cream. Head for the Petershol area, once the site of a monastery, where restaurants and private housing are carefully integrated to avoid a tourist ghetto. Try De 3 Biggetjes at 7 Zeugsteeg (00 32 9 224 46 48), where Belgian cuisine is given an oriental twist. There is plenty of traditional Belgian food at De Hel at 81 Kranlei (00 32 9 224 32 40), or, for a lighter meal with good seafood, try Pakhuis at 4 Schuurkenstraat (00 32 9 223 55 55 www.pakhuis.be).

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

St Bavo's Cathedral (00 32 9 269 20 45, open 8.30am-5pm daily) may not be the most beautiful of Ghent's 59 churches but the works of art inside are unsurpassed. The highlight of these is the Adoration of the Lamb, an altarpiece by the 15th-century painter Jan van Eyck and his brother Hubert, which is housed in its own separate chapel (open 10.30am-4pm daily, entrance €2.50/£1.75). There are a couple of pictures by Rubens here, too, and while the Fine Arts Museum is undergoing restoration work, part of its collection is on display in the cathedral crypt.

OUT TO BRUNCH

The residents of Ghent have their own take on brunch: champagne and oysters from the blue kiosk in the corner of Kouterplein not far from the opera house; a portion will set you back €5 (£3.50). An added attraction in the square is the weekend flower market. Best for a more substantial brunch is Handelsbeurs at 29 Kouter (00 32 9 265 91 60; www.handelsbeurs.be), an 18th-century venue now used for concerts, where there is a very good café.

A WALK ALONG THE CANALS

Although many of Ghent's original canals have disappeared, there is still plenty to explore in the old port area, along the quaysides of Korenlei and Graslei . All the buildings were once ancient guild houses, and each is different, with its own style of gabling.

WRITE A POSTCARD

...from Ghent's fairy-tale castle. The Counts' Castle on Sint-Veerleplein (00 32 9 225 93 06) is a storybook reconstruction of a medieval castle, most of it dating from the 20th century. The original structure was the home of the Counts of Flanders; now it contains an interesting collection of instruments of torture. It is open 9am-4.15pm daily, entrance €6 (£4).

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

If you have some spare time during a late afternoon or evening in Ghent, join the locals in their latest enthusiasm, taking a sauna. The best place to go is Aqua Azul at 2 Drongenhof (00 32 9 225 09 57; www.aqua-azul.be), a mixed sauna with a variety of different kinds of baths. It opens 3-11pm daily, admission €15 (£10).

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