My Belgian adventures continue…From Antwerp, I caught a one-hour train to Ghent. The trains in Belgium make exploring the country so easy. From the train station, I took a taxi to the historic centre of town and my hotel, the Pillows Grand Hotel Reylof. The hotel was once the home of wealthy poet Baron Olivier Reylof, built in 1712. Newly renovated, the 157-room accommodation had a unique library/lounge area atop a sweeping staircase where I was able to sort out my plans and sip a cup of coffee before exploring.
Ghent is crammed with castles, churches and shops, plus there’s a huge university so students are everywhere. I purchased a Ghent City Card and the first place I visited was the Castle of the Counts. Armed with headset and remote, I embarked on an entertaining, self-guided tour through the massive stone structure and learned of the original inhabitants – Philip the Good, Count of Flanders, and his wife Elizabeth, and second wife Isabella. Not merely a home, this stronghold in the center of downtown Ghent, was also where justice was meted out and many a grisly execution occurred here.
One of the best ways to get to know a place is by taking a tour with a local guide. Ghent native Patty Delanghe walked me through the ancient city and helped unravel many tangled tales. She told me that in the Middle Ages, Ghent was very wealthy, due to the wool trade. During the Industrial Revolution, the textile industry really took off and Ghent remained a leading, quality cloth producer right up until the 1980s.
Wandering around Ghent’s streets was like walking into a fairy tale. Small tour boats plied the waters of the Lys and Scheldt rivers, ancient homes and businesses lined the river banks, church spires rose among the clouds and young people swarmed the streets and cafes. Of Ghent’s 250,000 population, students comprise 70,000, the largest in the country.
We stopped into St. Bavo’s Cathedral, the city’s oldest parish church, to see a world renown treasure. The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (also known as the Ghent Altarpiece) was painted in 1432 by Hubert van Eyck. After his death, it was said that his brother Jan, a diplomat and artist, completed the work. Patty explained that the oak panels were first covered with an extremely fine layer of chalk and then van Eyck painted the figures on in layers. Close up, the fine details of the faces were exquisite and realistic. There was a translucence to the piece that almost made it glow. Patty noted that in 1934, two panels of the altarpiece, The Just Judges and John the Baptist, were stolen. “The diocese of Ghent received a number of ransom notes and one panel, John the Baptist, was returned to lend weight to the demands. But no ransom was ever paid, nor was the other panel returned. The mystery remains unsolved to this day.” Currently, a team of specialists is working to restore the vibrancy of the original colours which have dimmed due to layers of varnish, fire damage and other environmental factors over the years.
Another highpoint (literally!) was the belfry, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where the huge alarm bell to protect the city’s citizens resides. I also enjoyed seeing St. Nicholas’ Church from the early 12th century, and the Great Butcher’s Hall that dates back to the 15th century where locally cured Ganda hams hang from the ceiling. Walking along the winding cobblestoned streets Patty also pointed out beguines, clusters of houses where single women (often widows of knights who fought in various crusades) lived together as a Catholic community.
After a full day on my feet, my appetite was fierce and I stopped into Souvenir, a tiny gem of a restaurant helmed by chef Vilhjalmur “Villy” Sigurdarson. I opted for the 9-course carte blanche menu with paired wines. The dishes were largely planted-based and delightful. I started with the house cocktail, made with gin, tonic, green tea and elderberry flowers – light, crisp and a tad tangy. “Tonight, we serve dishes made with plants from West Flanders, as well was fish from the North Sea,” Villy explained. The small plates included an oyster with young white cabbage and fennel, hake smoked in hay with kohlrabi and marigold flowers, three types of mushrooms, white and green asparagus with charred leeks, skate baked in butter and a dessert of Jerusalem artichoke with brown sugar and winter thyme cream. Delicious.
The second night I went to Mémé Gusta, a bustling spot filled with families and a funky, vintage décor – comfy sofas, flowered wallpaper, wooden tables and funky chandeliers. “The owners won a chef challenge on TV to open this restaurant based on their grandmother’s recipes,” Patty explained. I started with a small bowl of grey shrimp the size of my baby toe, then proceeded with buttery, pan-fried sole, and the mandatory frites with a pot of mayonnaise for dipping.
Ghent may be a place nobody has heard of, but in a way that is great. It’s a place where locals go about their business undisturbed and visitors can fit right in.