When you are thinking of a destination for a three-night break, it is unlikely that Ghent will find a place on your shortlist. All the old favourites will be considered; Paris, Prague, Amsterdam, Bruges, and Barcelona, alongside others, perhaps further afield. But what if you have already visited these before, possibly several times? And what if you don’t want the hassle of flying, and getting out of Central London, to an airport?
In 2007, I was going to be fifty-five years old. Julie had already taken me to Rome, for my fiftieth birthday, and wanted to mark the occasion this time, with another short trip, that did not waste too much of the time in travelling. She asked if I had anywhere in mind. I had never been to Budapest, Vienna, Lisbon, or Venice, so these places were all considered. I also added Ghent to the list of possibles, as I had seen it once, passing through on a train to Bruges. I had looked it up back then, and it had an historic centre, and seemed to be an attractive place. As it was accessible by Eurostar, via Brussels, we decided to look into it more.
Despite being the second largest city in Belgium, and attractively situated on a river and canal system, Ghent is always overshadowed by its near neighbour, Bruges, in terms of tourism. In medieval times, Ghent was the second largest city in Europe, after Paris, and the centre of trade for all cloth and wool. Despite being occupied during both world wars, it was never badly damaged, and much of the original architecture remains intact. The general lack of interest in visiting the city, at least by most of us in the UK, means that good deals are available for those willing to try it out. Add this to the fact that we then lived very close to the Eurostar terminal in London, and we decided to take my birthday break there.
Julie managed to book us into the Sofitel Hotel, slap bang in the centre of the old city, and a stone’s throw from everything of interest, to the short-stay tourist. We had three nights on a bed and breakfast basis, with my actual birthday at the end of the stay. As my birthday is in March, we were not expecting fabulous weather, but we felt the unusual setting would more than make up for lack of sunshine. The trip started off unusually well. On arrival at the station, we were offered a free upgrade to First Class, by Eurostar. We naturally accepted, as there is the benefit of slightly better seats, complimentary drinks, and more importantly, escape from the hordes of children running around, and generally squealing, as they head for EuroDisney. At Brussels station, it was very easy to find our connection to Ghent, and the ticket took us straight through. The journey is short, and is on a regular Belgian passenger train, where our holiday baggage looked out of place.
A brief taxi ride from Ghent Station, and we arrived at the Sofitel Belfort Hotel. As promised, it was in the middle of the old city, in an area mostly pedestrianised. We had the second pleasant surprise of the day, at the reception desk. They had not got the booking right, it seemed. We had requested a smoking room, (something still available then) and they had already allocated all those available. They apologised for their mistake, and offered us a ‘mini-suite’ instead, where we could smoke, and have better facilities, at no extra charge. I couldn’t have been happier. Free upgrade on the train, followed by a luxury upgrade in a swish hotel. This was shaping up to be a memorable birthday.
A short walk from the hotel took us to the River Leie, and the districts of Graslei, and Korenlei, on opposite sides of the large river basin and former harbour. Here, you can take short boat trips, or just admire the wonderful architecture. There are pavement cafes, a good choice of restaurants, and a feel-good atmosphere. The early evening is a popular time for students to congregate along the bank-sides here, and sitting enjoying a Belgian beer at one of the cafes, is a relaxing way to while away some time. Ghent is famous for its three towers; The Belfry, St Bavo Cathedral, and St Nicholas Church, and there is an impressive castle, The Gravensteen, which has been extensively restored. Numerous small shops offer the local speciality, Belgian Chocolate, and others cater for any gifts or souvenirs you may want to buy. The lack of traffic makes wandering around trouble-free, and the landmarks make it well nigh impossible to get lost, at least in the main part of the old city. The language of the city is Flemish, not French, but it was never an issue, as we did not meet anyone who didn’t speak some English.
We found somewhere that looked good to have dinner that evening, an old cellar/store house converted into a Flemish restaurant. It faced the quay, and offered the local traditional dish of choice, Waterzooi, a peasant stew, with a choice of fish, chicken, or rabbit, as the main ingredient. We enjoyed a delicious meal there, and I was keen to go back another evening, as the combination of good food, and authentic atmosphere, really rounded off the day. The next day, after more wandering around, we used the good fortune of bright weather, to go on one of the short boat trips offered at the Graslei. It was an interesting meander through the back streets of the city, on small canals, as well as the river, and we got to see more of the town’s distinctive architecture, as well as getting some idea of the size of the place, outside of the centre. Strolling back later, we spotted an interesting restaurant, in the shadow of the castle. It offered a creole menu, as well as local delicacies, and also advertised a Jazz theme, and music. We decided to eat there that night, and returned later, to do just that.
This was a very interesting place. the friendly owner turned out to be an elderly black American lady, who had lived in Belgium for many years. She sat at our table for a while, and chatted, asking us about our lives, and telling us her history. With the unusual theme, great food, and such a nice welcome, it was a memorable evening indeed. The castle looked good at night, lit by floodlights, imposing, yet strangely out of place, surrounded by more modern buildings. I suggested we go there the next day as a treat for my birthday, before returning to the cellar restaurant again, to have a farewell meal. Back at the hotel, we relaxed on the sofas in the room, dressed in our luxurious complimentary dressing gowns and slippers, and enjoyed a drink of another local delicacy, Genever. This gin-like drink is flavoured, in our case with lemon, and is less harsh to the taste, than the dry gin that we are used to in the UK. It is drunk without a mixer, more like a liqueur, and slips down very easily; it is not expensive, and is sold in most of the shops in the city. Though hard to find outside of Belgium and Holland, it is delicious, and should be tried, if you ever have the opportunity.
The next day was the morning of my birthday. Julie had packed my card, and my presents, so that I could have the full birthday experience, despite being away from home. After breakfast, we set off to visit the castle, The Gravensteen. This was built in the 12th Century, by Philip of Alsace, and later served as the seat of the Count of Flanders. Despite falling into disrepair later, and once being considered for demolition, it was sympathetically restored, to become a popular tourist attraction. At the cash desk, we saw a sign that said that Pensioners could get in at a greatly reduced rate. As the age limits accompanying this information stated fifty-five as a pensionable age, Julie informed the attendant that it was my fifty-fifth birthday, that very day. He wished me a happy birthday, and was pleased to allow me entry on a reduced rate ticket. Julie thought it hilarious, that I was able to get in in this fashion. The castle has exhibits of various weapons, torture implements, and tools of execution. It is all accessible to visitors, even the upper levels. As a lover of castles anyway, it was a real birthday treat for me. We later had a drink and snack at one of the harbour-side cafes, before returning to the hotel, to get ready for dinner.
Before going out that evening, I did something that gave Julie one of the biggest laughs of her life. One of my gifts was a copy of the Film ‘Borat’, on DVD. This comedy character is well-known in the UK, and on the TV show (and the film) he wears a lime-green ‘Mankini’. For those who have no idea what this is, look it up, as I don’t want to show a picture here! My special edition DVD film came with a ‘free Mankini’, and I slipped this on, when Julie was in the shower. When she came back out into the bedroom, I was lying seductively on the bed, wearing this strange garment. She laughed so hard, I thought she would burst. She continued to chuckle about it all night, and for years later.
There are many restaurants in the city, hundreds in fact, so it might seem boring, that I wanted to go back to the same one we had visited on our first night. However, as it was such a short stay, I didn’t want to chance an indifferent meal on my birthday, and knew what to expect, where we were going. It lived up to those expectations, and we had another great meal, and I had a fair bit to drink as well. We departed the city the following day, after another hearty breakfast at the Sofitel, and went off to get the train to connect with the Eurostar back to London. It was a really nice holiday for my birthday, in a welcoming city, with a terrific old quarter, and a destination that I can really recommend.