Flower festivals, boat trips and great food make Ghent irresistible. By Frank Partridge
Saturday 09 April 2005
If Bruges is too picture-perfect for you, get to Ghent. The largest city of East Flanders overflows with historic, architectural and culinary interest, not to mention the two rivers and network of canals that have created a thriving port fully 70km from the coast. The Vikings first settled at the confluence of the rivers Leie and Scheldt, but by the Middle Ages the hub of the city had moved a couple of kilometres to the west, and was entirely surrounded by waterways. That is not quite the case today, but work is underway to disinter a long-buried tributary, and turn the lovely Old Town into an island once again.
Today, most visitors arrive by rail from Brussels, with half-hourly trains (and one an hour direct from Brussels airport) to Ghent Sint-Pieters station, itself a 10-minute tram ride from the centre.
The tourist office at 17 Botermarkt (00 32 9 266 52 32; www.visitgent.be) is easy to find, in a crypt below the city's tallest tower, the Belfry. The office opens 9.30am-6.30pm every day, and until 9pm during the summer festival. Free street maps are available, but more user-friendly maps are distributed by Use-it, an information exchange for young people, based at Sint-Pietersnieuwstraat 21 (00 32 9 324 39 06; www.use-it.be).
The centre of Ghent has accommodation to suit all pockets. Top of the range is the four-star Sofitel (63 Hoogpoort; 00 32 9 233 33 31; www.sofitel.com) where doubles start at €250 (£175) and breakfast is an extra €19.50 (£13.50). At the other end of the spectrum is Ghent's widely admired youth hostel, De Draecke (St Widostraat 11; 00 32 9 233 70 50), where a double room, including breakfast, is €38 (£26). In the middle range, the three-star Hotel Gravensteen (Jan Breydelstraat 35, 00 32 9 225 11 50; www.gravensteen.be) is a beautifully restored 19th-century mansion. Doubles, including breakfast, from €145 (£101).
One hotel that might not be exaggerating when it describes itself as "a little corner of Paradise on earth" is the Monasterium PoortAckere at Oude Houtlei 56 (00 32 9 269 22 10; www.monasterium.be), which has been sensitively converted from a 13th-century convent. A double in the old cloister, plus breakfast in the refectory, starts at €100 (£70).
By law, B&B establishments are restricted to three rooms. Chambre Plus (Hoogpoort 31; 00 32 9 225 37 75; www.chambreplus.be) has made the most of its allowance, creating three exotic rooms inspired by the Congo, the Far East and the Mediterranean. The last of these has a jacuzzi with a retractable roof for bathing under the stars on summer nights. A superb stay for two from just €75 (£52).
Every five years, Ghent hosts an international flower festival, the Floralies, as it does this year between 15 and 24 April. Growers from 46 countries will converge on the Flanders Expo (Citadelpark; 00 32 9 241 50 90; www.floralien.be), and tens of thousands of visitors will follow. There are 750 different competitions. To see the flowers in their full glory, try to get there during the first five days.
Ghent's summer highlight is the 10-day cultural festival, the Gentse Feesten, held in the streets and squares of the old town. There's a great deal of music, street theatre, puppetry, film and stage shows. All normal work in the city will cease between 16 and 25 July, as locals (many on paid leave from work) enter into the spirit of things. More details from the tourist office or at www.gentsefeesten.be.
Ghent has a colourful variety of weekend markets around the centre. One specialises in the bizarre combination of fowl, rabbits and secondhand bicycles. Others are devoted to birds, junk, flowers, fish and paintings. Sunday morning is the time to go.
Half a millennium ago Ghent was four times the size of London and second only to Paris in northern Europe. Today it's not even the second city of Belgium (that's Antwerp), but many relics of its mediaeval greatness remain - often cheek by jowl with buildings from other periods. And while the pedestrianised centre is quiet enough for you to be woken by a cuckoo or cockerel, the huge student population of about 45,000 adds colour and vigour to the café and river society.
The cathedral, St Bavo's ( www.sintbaafskathedraalgent.be) is more interesting inside than outside, because of the art treasures it contains. The baroque organ is massive and the oak and marble pulpit stunning. And there's the Van Eyck painting widely regarded as the high point of 15th-century Flemish art, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, housed behind bullet-proof glass and €3 (£2) to view. A copy can be scrutinised free of charge in a side chapel. The cathedral opens 8.30am-6pm daily.
Nearby, the Belfry offers the best views of the city, from a height of 95m. There are 444 steps to the top, but a lift takes you most of the way for €3 (£2). The clocktower, a little below the summit, contains a typically Flemish carillon. This organ-like instrument enables the bells to be played by a single operator, who does so around noon every Friday and Sunday. When set to automatic, the chimes reflect the city's reputation for quirky non-conformism. Only in Ghent would the clock strike six times at 5.30pm, just as a reminder that six o'clock is on its way. The tower is open from 10am-12.30pm and 2-5.30pm - even if it sounds like six o'clock.
The third unmissable landmark is the Castle of the Counts, also known as Gravensteen. The original castle was built around 1180 but was almost totally reconstructed in the early 20th century. It's unusual to have a castle so close to the centre of a city, and there's much to see, including exhibitions of mediaeval weaponry, instruments of torture, fine battlements and Belgium's last guillotine. Admission is €6 (£4); open 9am-6pm daily.
In this city of waterways, at least one boat trip is essential. Three companies run excursions (€5/£3.60 for a 40-minute ride) from either side of the River Leie (or Lys). Boats glide past the two glorious thoroughfares, Graslei and Korenlei, lined by imposing and intricate guild houses of different ages and styles. Look out for the exquisite Toll House at Graslei 11, the smallest dwelling in the city.
The Design Museum at Jan Breydelstraat 5 (00 32 9 267 99 99; design.museum.gent.be) is the best of Ghent's many museums. Exhibits range from the 15th century to the present, featuring Art Nouveau and Art Deco collections along the way. Admission €2.50 (£1.75), open 10am-6pm daily except Monday.
Ghent's highest land is just 29m above sea level, and because much of the centre is pedestrianised, walking is the ideal way to counteract the effects of indulging in Belgium's two national pastimes, eating and drinking. All three can be combined in one of the Yummy Walks laid on by the guided tour group Vizit Gent (00 32 9 233 76 89; www.vizit.be) every Saturday between April and October. There are two levels of yumminess. "Nibbling through Ghent" (4-6pm) visits local stores to sample regional specialities such as chocolate, cheese and meats; €10 (£7) a head. The "Walking Dinner" (6-10pm) is altogether more serious, visiting four of the city's top restaurants and sampling a course in each - gourmet gorging for €45 (£31), including drinks.
Other local specialities to try are ganda ham and the distinctive tierenteyn mustard, sold at the shop Tierenteyn-Verlent at Groentenmarkt 3. Near the Belfry, Mageleinstraat has several interesting clothes and shoe shops, as well as the distinguished chocolate-makers, Van Hoorebeke. Overall, though, shopping ranks a distant second to socialising, and nowhere is it done with more gusto than at Rococo (Corduwaniersstraat 57), the front room of an 18th-century house, serving its own liqueur and a limited menu of pork sausages, boiled eggs or cake. Betty, the singer who owns it, occasionally gives jazz recitals, with her brother accompanying her on the piano. And because the place has no electricity it all happens by candle-light.
You can reach Brussels Midi station from London Waterloo in as little as 2 hours and 15 minutes on Eurostar (08705 186 186, www.eurostar.com); from Ashford International, the journey is about 40 minutes faster. Fares start at £59 return; the earlier you book, and the more flexible you can be when selecting dates and times, the lower the price. There are quick and easy connections at Brussels Midi to stations all over Belgium.
One great advantage of Eurostar is that your ticket entitles you to onward travel to any station in the country, including the cities of Flanders covered in this special section. You simply show your international ticket on the train. It is valid for 24 hours in either direction, so you can take a short stopover in Brussels en route to or from one of the other cities of Flanders.
The main approaches direct to Belgium are on P&O Ferries (08705 980 333; www.poferries.com) from Hull to Zeebrugge; and Superfast Ferries (0870-234 0870) from Rosyth to Zeebrugge. DFDS Seaways (08705 333 111; www.dfdsseaways.co.uk) sails from Newcastle to Ijmuiden near Amsterdam, from where you can travel on to Flanders; Alternatively, you could take one of the shorter sea crossings. From Dover, Norfolkline (0870 870 10 20; www.norfolkline.com) sails to Dunkirk; Hoverspeed (08705 240 241; www.hoverspeed.co.uk), P&O Ferries (08705 20 20 20; www.poferries.com) and SeaFrance (08705 711 711; www.seafrance.com) sail to Calais. From Folkestone, Eurotunnel (08705 353535; www.eurotunnel.com) has car-carrying shuttles to Calais. Road links from Calais and Dunkirk to Flanders are excellent. Note that Eurotunnel and Norfolkline and do not accept foot passengers, only vehicles.
The main airline flying from the UK to Brussels National airport is SN Brussels (08707 352 345, www.flysn.com), which has links from London Heathrow and Gatwick, Birmingham, Bristol, Jersey, Manchester and Newcastle. From 2 June SN Brussels will also be flying to the capital from Glasgow.
From Brussels airport, frequent trains run to the capital, with some continuing to Ghent and Bruges. There is also a bus from the airport to Antwerp.
Antwerp's Deurne airport is served from London City, Jersey, Liverpool, Manchester and Southampton by VLM Airlines (020-7476 6677; www.flyvlm.com).
VLM also flies from London City to Brussels National.
For more information, contact Tourism Flanders-Brussels, Flanders House, 1a Cavendish Square, London W1G 0LD (0906 302 0245 [calls cost 60p per minute]; www.visit-flanders.co.uk)
FIVE FOR FOOD AND DRINK
Bij den Wijzen en den Zot (Hertogstraat 42; 00 32 9 223 42 30). In the mazy Patershol district, this is the place to go for the Ghent speciality of waterzooi, the creamy fish or chicken stew.
Pakhuis (Schuurkenstraat 4, 00 32 9 223 55 55; www.pakhuis.be). A former warehouse with a stylish oyster bar, brasserie and bustling atmosphere. A place where people go to be seen.
Belga Queen (Graslei 10, 00 32 9 280 01 00; www.belgaqueen.be). Housed in a medieval warehouse on the canal, with ultra-modern brick and aluminium decor and a strongly Belgian-flavoured menu.
The House of Eliott (Jan Breydelstraat 36; 00 32 9 225 21 28; www.thehouseofeliott.be). Great food theatrically presented in intimate surroundings crammed with antique bricabrac. In summer, the riverside terrace is an added delight.
De Grade (Charles de Kerckhovelaan 79; 00 32 9 224 43 85; www.grade.be). This former gastronomy academy is now part restaurant, part lounge bar. The food is nicely presented and the service friendly.
For more information, contact the Ghent tourist office on 0032 9 266 52 32; www.gent.be
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