Belgium with an extra helping of fun

Forget Brussels or Bruges, head to Ghent for a wild time, writes John Brunton
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The Independent Travel

Tell friends you're off for a wild weekend in Ghent and the most likely response will be a blank expression, followed by "Where?" and "Why on earth...?" So much the better, because this little-known Belgian city is one of Europe's best-kept secrets. The Eurostar zaps over to Brussels, and a local train delivers you to Ghent in 30 minutes. Forget cars and taxis, the city centre is so small everything is within walking distance, which is good when you stumble out of that final late-night club.

Tell friends you're off for a wild weekend in Ghent and the most likely response will be a blank expression, followed by "Where?" and "Why on earth...?" So much the better, because this little-known Belgian city is one of Europe's best-kept secrets. The Eurostar zaps over to Brussels, and a local train delivers you to Ghent in 30 minutes. Forget cars and taxis, the city centre is so small everything is within walking distance, which is good when you stumble out of that final late-night club.

Unlike its more famous neighbour, Bruges, where life revolves around the tourism industry, Ghent is prosperous, innovative and exciting, with a large student population. It has superb shopping, lively bars and restaurants and an exhausting nightlife scene.

During the day, go sightseeing. Wander along the romantic canals lined with beautiful medieval guildhouses, visit interesting museums, such as the one devoted to decorative arts, and take in grand Gothic castles, cathedrals and towers.

But make no mistake, this is not a sterile "museum city". The best place to start your visit is in the Patershol district, a kind of mini-Soho, a maze of narrow, cobbled streets and 14th-century artisans' cottages that have been transformed into design showrooms, fashion ateliers, art galleries and great restaurants.

And don't think you will escape the nation's favourite beverage: beer. Ghent has its fair share of pubs, offering a couple of hundred different ales. But there are also dozens of funky cocktail bars, baroque wine bars and futuristic brasseries. After-hours clubbing is frenetic, but the atmosphere remains cool, because there are no rigorous door policies or entrance fees, and drinks don't cost a fortune.

When to go

Although the city is prettiest from spring to autumn, this is an all-year-round destination - even winter, when the weather isn't great - because of the variety of things to do.

Getting there

By far the best way to get to Ghent is by Eurostar, via Brussels. A seven-day advance-purchase return costs from £90 per person in November.

Getting around

This is a pedestrian-friendly city. Everything to see is clustered in the tiny city centre, which you can walk around in an hour and a half. Bicycles can be hired at the train station for 345 Belgian francs (£5) a day, and a very pleasant way to get a feel for Ghent's medieval architecture and romantic canals is to take a lazy boat trip from the Graslei. A 35-minute excursion costs BFr170.

Where to stay

There is a wide selection of small, family-run hotels here to meet all budgets. The Cour St George, at Botermarkt 2 (tel: 00 32 9 224 2424; fax: 00 32 9 224 2640), founded in 1228 and claiming to be the oldest hotel in Europe, has pleasant rooms from BFr3,700 and sumptuous suites from BFr4,400. While the Erasmus, at Poel 25, is a chic spot to stay, beautifully decorated and with a small garden for early evening cocktails. Double rooms cost from BFr3,000 (tel: 00 32 9 224 2195; fax: 00 32 9 233 4241).

For a really original weekend, make a reservation on The Boatel, Voorhootkaai 29 ( tel: 00 32 9 267 1030; fax: 00 32 9 267 1039), a boat-turned-seven-room floating hotel. Prices start from BFr3,800 per night.

What to see and do

The one obligatory "must-see" for visitors to Ghent is St Bavo's cathedral, a grand, Gothic monument that dominates the city. Most tourists form a tedious queue to view Van Eyck's masterpiece, The Mystic Lamb, displayed behind a glass screen, but a much better bet is to explore the cavernous Romanesque crypt, covered with fabulous pastel frescoes.

There are several surprising, original museums dotted around town, and it is worth taking time to visit two of them. The Museum of Folklore, at Kraanlei 65, occupies an ancient almshouse, and meticulously re-creates daily life in Ghent as it was at the turn of the century. Eight tiny cottages surrounding a landscaped garden reveal a labyrinth of dolls' house rooms, each one dedicated to a different trade - baker, brewer, shoemaker, candlestick maker.

Nearby is the Museum of Decorative Arts, at Jan Breydelstraat 5. Set in a beautiful mansion, this well-planned museum has an eclectic collection of objects from the 17th century to the present day. Just opposite, there's a charming bakery-café, Brooderie, that offers irresistible home-baked cakes.

Don't be surprised if you end up doing as much shopping here as sightseeing. To catch one of the rising stars of Belgium's vibrant fashion scene, visit the showroom of Ann Huybens, at Trommelstrat 4. You are likely to find the friendly young designer in the store, as her workshop is upstairs. Huybens creates seductive, fluid robes, in soft, pastel colours.

For a complete change, visit Pink Flamingo, at Onderstraat 55, an outrageous temple of bad taste dedicated to cult film icon Divine. The camp owner serves coffee and cakes, and also sells wonderfully kitsch pieces, such as a chandelier made from Barbie dolls. The one design space not to miss is Cargo, at Kromme Wal 1, a huge showroom, exhibiting incredible one-off lighting designs, closer to works of art than simple light fittings.

No matter how late you stay out on Saturday night, save some energy for the city's sprawling Sunday markets. Start at the animal market in the Vrijdagmarkt Square, then sift through incredible bargains you'll find at the main flea market outside St Jacob's church. Finally, finish off either at the painters' market or the colourful flower market.

Food and drink

Ghent claims to have a bar for every 13 inhabitants, but there is one obligatory stop, the Dreupelkot, at Groentenmarkt 12. I have to describe this as a "gin bar", because the only drink served by the genial owner, Pol, is "geniÿvre", a flavoured gin. Stocked behind his minuscule counter are 120 different varieties of the wicked potion, and the dreupelkot - "the little glass" - they are served in, looks tiny.

However, after a few of these potions, don't be surprised if you spend the remainder of the night here, as most of Ghent seems to drop in at some point. It is the ideal place to meet friendly locals.

If you prefer a Martini, mojito or margarita, check out the sultry bar of the Hotsy Totsy Club, at Hoogstraat 1, and, before heading off for dinner, drop in at the city's weirdest watering hole, t'Velootje at Kalversteeg 2. Frankly, it's an extremely difficult place to describe, half-bar, half-bicycle museum, run by a highly eccentric curator/barman. You step into a dark, Gothic, vaulted cellar, lit only by hundreds of candles, crammed with scores of baroque religious statues, with dozens of bicycles suspended from the ceiling.

There are almost as many restaurants as bars here, and the standard of cuisine is generally excellent. The Pakhuis, at Schuurkenstraat 4 (tel: 223 5555), is a vast, Quaglino-style industrial space that serves brasserie-orientated cuisine, with fresh oysters, and local dishes such as anguille au vert, eels cooked in a green parsley sauce, or carbonnade á là flammande, beef braised in beer. Prices from £20 per person, including wine.

Vier Tafels, at Plotersfracht 6 (tel: 225 0525), is in the heart of lively Patershol, and the long dining-room stretches into an open-air garden, and then transforms into a late-night bar, called Virus. The food is fun, and reasonably priced, with dishes and wines from 20 different countries, from Argentina to Australia to New Orleans. Prices from £15 per person.

T'Galgenhuisje - The Gallow's House - at Groentenmarkt 5 (tel: 233 4251), was where prisoners once awaited execution. It looks just like a tiny bar, but an unmarked door takes you down a steep flight of steps into a vaulted tunnel of a dining room, right underneath the river Leie. Try Ghent's most famous recipe, waterzooi, a delicious, hearty soup served as a main course, brimming with chicken or freshwater fish. Prices from £15 per person.

Nightlife

Serious nightlife only starts after midnight, but then most clubs and bars with live music and dance floors carry on until dawn. A great place to kick off is the cool, underground Sous-Sol, at Hoogport 41. The scene here is more about posing than dancing, but there is an excellent DJ.

A very different crowd packs the dance floor of El Latino, at Stopenberghestraat 5, which showcases live salsa bands, while Charlatan, at Vlasmarkt 6, has funk and soul.

Deals and packages

Thomson Breakaway (tel: 0870 606 1476) offers three nights in Ghent from £199 per person, including return fares on Eurostar and b&b accommodation in a three-star hotel. Inntravel (tel: 01653 629001) offers two nights in Ghent from £164 per person, based on two sharing, including return fares on Eurostar and b&b accommodation in a three-star hotel.

Further information

The local tourism office in Ghent has all the information you could possibly want, and has the added advantage of friendly, English-speaking staff. It is centrally positioned beneath the Belfry tower in St Bavo's square. Pick up the free what's on listing, Week Up, for all the latest concerts and exhibitions.

For accommodation and restaurants, contact Toerisme Gent, Predikherenlei 2, B-9000 Gent (tel: 00 32 9 225 36 41; fax: 00 32 9 225 62 88; email: toerisme@gent.be; net: www.gent.be).

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