We drove from Germany to Belgium on Sunday with me clapping the crossing of each border. It still thrills me, the idea of cruising from one country to the next, no passports, no planes, no … nothing. One minute you’re in Germany, then you’re in Holland. Then Belgium. No big deal. I also pointed out every number-plate. ‘German!’ ‘Dutch!’ ‘Lithuanian!’ ‘Polish truck!’ ‘Pom! He’s on the right side of the car!’ Annoying, yet necessary. Sharing roads with cars of all nationalities feels so marvellously exciting. It’s the little things.
Our first stop was Gent/Ghent, a city, I have to confess, I had previously heard approximately nothing of. Brussels, yes. Bruges, yes. Ghent? No. But thank God the SG suggested we stop by for a visit – Ghent is, quite frankly, wonderful.
The city, that flourished in the middle ages, was a medieval fairytale, and I, its princess. There was even a fortress with a tower and a view across the entire, pointy-rooved city. I tried to let down my golden hair, but it didn’t quite work. So instead, I settled for skipping down little lanes and gazing at florists and cake shops. The old buildings have been lovingly preserved and restored, maintaining their medieval facades and architecture.
Upon arrival we did the most important thing one must do when in Belgium. Ate pommes. Belgian food is heart-clenchingly hearty, pivoting on the axes of meat, pommes (and a healthy pump of mayonnaise), waffles and chocolate, with the ubiquitous buckets of mussels tossed in for good measure. Do not bother searching for light alternatives, they do not exist. Just give yourself a couple of kilos leeway and dig in.
The rest of the moody afternoon was spent strolling. Down tiny streets, over glistening canals, past strange little shops crammed full of handmade and vntage gifts. If you’re ever there, and into things of days gone by, look out for Fallen Angels. The city was busy, but not stiflingly so, and when dusk hit and we were still exploring, a lovely peace descended. It was so pleasant to be somewhere so beautiful and so obviously aware of its tourism industry – but so sweetly quiet.
Dinner proved tricky. Not because there was a shortage of places to go – oh no, Ghent is full of places to go – but because they were all jam packed. Perhaps this is why the streets were so quiet – everyone was gorging on beef stew and beer. The first three places we tried had not a table between them. We ended up in a table by the kitchen door in a great Turkish restaurant called Ankara. Reasonably priced and perfectly tasty. And sans pommes which, for my arteries, was a positive thing. Ghent isn’t a cheap city, by the way, if you’re going to eat out, don’t be surprised by mains upwards of 20 euro.
Monday dawned brilliantly bright and sunny. The city looked scrubbed clean. We found waffles and take out coffee, went into severe sugar shock overlooking a canal and then went to inspect the fortress. 8 euro (4, if you’re under 26. Not if you are 26. I checked.) and you can walk through the magnificent Gravensteen Castle. Built in 1108, and renovated in the late 1800s, it was apparently constructed not to defend the city from foreign attack, but to defend the King from the stubborn Ghent inhabitants who were not too shy to let their displeasure known. Up until the 14th century it was the seat of the Counts of Flanders, then a courthouse, a prison, a mill and a factory.
It was also something of a rather large torture chamber. Today, ticket holders, as well as acting out Rapunzel fantasies, can see some of the original devices used on criminals, the mentally ill and those with epilepsy (epilepsy was seen as mental illness and in some cases possession). There’s even a fully functional guillotine complete with an original blade and a head bag. I commented on the grisliness of the concept of a head bag, to which SG, ever the pragmatist, said ‘better than having heads flying around everywhere.’
On that note, we departed. Bruges – with big shoes to fill and more pommes to wedge down our gullets – was waiting.
But Ghent, you can guarantee it, I’ll be back. And I won’t be leaving your vintage stores empty handed. I can promise you that.