Ghent is a gem. Cobbled streets, canals, impressive architecture, great galleries and museums and cool design bits on every corner. Back in medieval days, it was Europe’s second largest city after Paris thanks to the textile trade. Since then it’s morphed into a lively university city with a strong art vibe. As pretty as the Venice-like Bruges, Ghent has somehow escaped the tourist mobbing, despite having a barge load of listed buildings.
SEE: Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s flashy “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb“, in St Bavo’s Cathedral, with an accompanying audio guide that’s actually worth the listen. Hieronymus Bosch’s freak-filled “Christ Carrying the Cross” at Museum voor Schone Kunsten. The Castle of the Counts (Gravensteen) for the ye olde ramparts and suits of armour but mostly for the grisly tools of torture museum: thumb screws, leg weights, rack, cleavers, a straight jacket, a guillotine blade plus illustrations showing them hard at work. Shudder.
BUY: Belgian designer threads by Bruno Pieters, Haider Ackermann, Dries van Noten or A.F Vandervorst at fashionista favourite Het Oorcussen. Flemish goodies from La Grande Bucherie (Groentenmarkt 7), an old wooden market dating back to the 15thC that pushes the Flemish food barrow: mustard, cuberdons (candy cones that are jube-hard on the outside and gooey inside), caramel flavoured babeluttes, mastelles (cinnamon flecked buns), cured Ganda ham, horse and garlic sausage, and all kinds of beer with which to wash it down. An immaculate white cotton peignor from Home Linen (Korenlei 3). Lip-licking truffe spéculoos from Daskalidès, or a block of Starbrook Airlines’ dark orange; the chocolate is delish but it’s the retro packaging that I can’t get enough of. There’s nostalgia in spades, too, at The Fallen Angels, a den filled with vintage movie posters, biscuit tins, postcards and well-loved bears, and the kitschy kitschy Zsa Zsa Rouge. I’ll take the King Louis wraparound dresses, dank u very much.
STAY: The Ghent Marriot has the location, location, location thing covered. Perched on the Lys canal, the city’s historic Graslei district is right on the doorstep. Gorgeous in daylight but at night, those gothic guild houses really shine. If you want to skip the cookie cutter hotel experience, and live like a local, try Angels on the Waterfront (Engelen Aan De Waterkant). Just a 15 minute walk from the city centre, this classy BnB is all the work of interior designer and owner Ann Willems.
EAT: Belgian oysters, herrings and cucumber, and poulet de Bresse at Pakhuis, a revamped warehouse with soaring ceiling and steel girders, a definite buzz and a Belgian-French- brasserie feel. Or, juicy pink lamb fillet and super wines at Vintage. Cocktails at Jigger’s (Oudburg 16). You need to call to reserve a spot; not because it’s exclusive say locals but because there’s only room for a couple of dozen people. Once in, tell the bartender your poison and he’ll surprise you. (Open from 4pm for reservations. Love the stuffed Mr Fox in the front window.) Plus, there are cafes and eating spots galore in the narrow alleys of Patershol, the medieval heart of the city. Befitting her name, canal-side Mrs Beanz plies a decent coffee but the breakfast boiled eggs (Mrs Soldiers) on our visit were gruesomely undercooked and inedible. Bletch. Seems there are great breakfasts to be had – fresh orange juice, ham and cheese with doorstops of bread – but not here. Next time.