Little did I know that Ghent, sandwiched between bureaucratic Brussels and industrial Antwerp, would be my favorite city in Belgium – and maybe one of the best cities I’ve visited.
I visited Belgium in part because I absolutely loved In Bruges (both the comedy and the scenery). So I had big expectations for Bruges. But in the end, Ghent was better in every way.
Ghent lies right in the center of the country, a big trading port that was the second-largest Northern European city (after Paris) for much of the middle ages. It was also a big brewing city, home of beguinages (monasteries for women), and had a large wool industry.
There are two central areas of the city, one the crossroads of a few canals, the other a row of large squares near the two dominant church buildings (Saint Nicholas’ Church and Saint Baavos’ Cathedral). The whole center is stunning, with little windy streets, the largest pedestrian zone in Belgium, canals, castles, chocolates, beer.
I took the canal tour, of course, but two years on I remember little except that the guide was funny. I love canal or boat tours of any city I visit. It’s provides a different, lower perspective that meanders to unexpected parts of the city – and it’s relaxing to boot.
Ghent has a community of local artists, so there were cool local sculptures along the canal, including a totally badass avenging angel.
I knew in advance of my trip that scheduling my visit for October was asking for trouble – it’s the rainy season in Belgium. It was a bit of a bummer, but on the other hand there were few other tourists and I knew that I wanted the most authentic experience possible later, when I visited the World War One battlefields. The only downside is that grey skies can make for some boring pictures.
One of the big highlights of the city – at least, one of the things that you can’t avoid when you visit – is the castle that looms over the canal, and which presides over the northwest part of the city. This castle, called Gravensteen, dates back to the twelfth century, but it fell out of use during the industrial revolution and was in the process of being converted into other buildings when it was saved as a historical landmark – but it was already in deep ruin; the restoration process was intensive.
I got tickets and took a self-guided tour, and it feels a bit like a Disneyland castle. There was a weapons exhibit complete with guillotine, and it’s tough to tell what’s original and what’s not. The view, at least, is great. But I think I would have been better served going to the top of the cathedral.
I was staying at an AirBnB location run by two gay guys, and I talked with them a bit. Like most of the other AirBnBs, they had something like 4 steep stories. They lived on two, rented one on AirBnB and rented out two tiny apartments to college students. I never saw the college students.
It was interesting talking to the hosts, though. They were watching a soccer game on my first night, a world cup preliminary. Belgium is one of those world-cup teams with a ton of huge names, that just doesn’t gel. They outperform their population and underperform expectations, if that makes any sense.
We also talked a bit about the divide in Belgium. As you may or may not know, there’s no real reason for Belgium to exist as a country. IT sort of fell together. It’s divided into two sections, a Flemish-speaking Northern portion and a French-speaking southern portion, and there’s separatists. It’s a bit like the US, the southern portion is more rural and there’s ill-will that they’re dragging down the richer urban north. The Flemish speakers want to do their own thing.
Aside from all the cathedrals and boats and beautiful streets (and a few hours where I was violently ill), my most enduring memory of Belgium is when I knocked on the door of the main floor living area and opened it to find these two guys sitting together right by the door, on a little couch, looking utterly content.