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krisek Ghent - A travel report by Krys
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Ghent,  Belgium - flag Belgium -  Oost-Vlaanderen
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krisek's travel reports

Pretty town, often omitted from visits. Ghent.

  11 votes
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Ghent, for some reason, does not enjoy as a great reputation as Antwerp, Brugge or Brussels, considered Belgium's finest. And yet, it is a great city with enough to see, and its restaurants are amongst the best in the country.

Mansions along the Ghent's canals
Mansions along the Ghent's canals
It has been almost two years since I decided to come and visit Ghent again. Now, as my friend moved there from much smaller and much less interesting town nearby, it became much easier to reach that decision.

This will probably not going to be a typical travel report of mine. I definitely wanted to wander about the city and soak its great atmosphere, but my friend could not wait until we went on a trip somewhere else. I did get a tour with plenty of interesting facts about Ghent, its history and present, but if I had been on my own, I would have taken more time to explore it at a different pace. I would also have taken more photographs, I am sure.

Anyway, Ghent, I was told, in the Middle Ages, was a very credible rival to Paris. Its trading position and flamboyant architecture did not even have to try too hard. It was just a bit closer to the rest of Europe and many of the Hanseatic cities, which controlled commerce on the continent. Ghent is surprisingly large. I did not remember it like that. This time, when my friend took me on a quick tour, I thought it was just going to be 'it', but it was more and more around every corner. I quickly realised that on my first visit, I only scratched the surface. And still have a feeling that when I come back later this year, I will discover more.

On this trip, also for the first time, I had a chance to taste Ghent's nightlife. On two nights! It opened my eyes, as I thought slightly differently about the ways that the Belgians partied, I have to admit. And I had been to Belgium on very, very many occasions (Brussels airport is, apart from my home airport of London Heathrow, my most travelled to airport on this planet), and it was Ghent that showed me surprising and new things about 'Belgium At Night'.

Favourite spots:
Canals of Ghent
Canals of Ghent
The central market, called Friday Market, would almost certainly be amongst the best spots of the city, but I liked the little squares scattered around the old town, criss-crossed by canals. Many of them have small cafes and bars frequented by the locals, who sip their coffees and beers. Actually, there were quite a few cafe clusters dotted around the city and some along the canals. Some of the clusters along the canals contained just one cafe, and yet these looked not a slightest bit less promising than all the larger groups. Particularly in the evening.

One of the most atmospheric squares was the one just by the austere castle. It was really small, it had only two sides of a square, actually, and a couple of rather ordinary cafes/bars, but there was something about it. I cannot explain its mysterious magnetism. Perhaps it was the unique history locked in the buildings' facades that overlooked the stronghold, which once was a prison. It silently emanated from the buildings.

What's really great:
The castle
The castle
The castle standing there, right in the heart of the old town, looked so mysterious and grim as if it was taken from a fairy tale about evil witches, scary ghosts, fearless knights, brave hunters, duels and that blonde long-legged princess, who needed to be rescued from marriage her cruel father had arranged. The dark-looking structure was extremely surprising in this once glamourous city, almost as surprising as its location in the centre of everything. Perhaps when it was erected, it was not finding itself in the absolute centre of town, but now it is, and it makes an impact so hard to describe. It is almost shocking and it froze me the first time I saw it. And this time round, when weather was more dramatic with dark clouds hanging low, the atmosphere got ever more spooky. It was almost unbelievable how it contrasted with the surroundings, and how easy people found it to just pass it by without paying too much attention.

Ghent travelogue picture
The old town of Ghent had a number of prominent attractions. Apart from the castle, I liked so much, there were also a few flamboyant guild houses and very old warehouses, which stood up amongst the large number of exceptionally attractive structures, palaces, chapels, towers, a townhall, train station.

Medieval themes dominated the city, but many facades had been updated with more decorative Renaissance motifs, reliefs and even frescoes.

Ghent boasted also a number of good size cathedral churches and palaces. I did not take names of them, and I think it felt good and thrilling to just wander around and admire them in their 'incognito' state. It might not necessarily have been mysterious, but it was intriguingly cathartic, if that is the right word. My friend managed to tell me a condensed story of each of the main attractions (I am leaving them unnamed for the purpose of the mystery), and the fact that I did not have to look them up or find out about them left me conveniently idle.

Ghent travelogue picture
I was lucky that I did not need to rent accommodation on this trip, and could stay at my friend's. Ghent did not have too many cheapish or budget accommodation options and the mid-range places all seemed to be terribly overpriced. Some of the well known chain hotels that were present in the city, Marriott, Novotel, Ibis, Astoria, Chamade, offered relatively good value in the weekends. The hostels, and there were a good number of those, charged between €18-€30 per bed, which in contrast did not seem a great value at all. Of course depending on the budget, adding €15 could actually secure a single room at Ibis with buffet breakfast. It is therefore always worth to invest some time to investigate thoroughly, if one plans to spend a few days in the city.

Ghent travelogue picture
There was plenty to do at night in Ghent. On a short visit it was actually hard to choose from the many cafes, bars, and plenty of clubs. A fantastically obvious place to party was the Overpoort area. It boasted a good number small clubs, like Cuba Libre, Dekadance, an Irish Pub, and a large bar with pool tables and ten pin bowling - the Overpoort Pools.

I started with the latter, but I did not bowl or shoot pool, just sat down and enjoyed my somewhat watered down hoegaarden beer. Then, my friend took me to the Dekadance. The entry was €6. The club had two rooms playing two different style of music. Unfortunately, the one that played r'n'b was completely empty. So, after about an hour, I moved to the Irish Pub, which was packed! They played curious mix of music and people hopped a bit everywhere. It was a great fun.

The other night, we went to Bar Des Amis in the centre (no cover charge). It was fantastic! It had two levels, played 1980s/90s tunes and attracted a good mix of people.

Ghent travelogue picture
The canals appear to be one of the greatest ways to see the city but also to relax, sit back, kill time and admire the great architecture of the city. However, I was not sure I really wanted to do any boating that weekend. But the myriad of cafes absolutely everywhere provided at least equal opportunity to lounge and soak the atmosphere of this grand medieval city.

Also, at the outskirts of the historic core of the old town, was a small park, which contained mainly a large lawn, which was frequented by Africans, who managed, one way or anther, by mainly through marrying a European, to migrate to Belgium. Just like my friend. It was really interesting to find out about their perspective on the life in Europe. Many of them confessed that they had not realise how much harder it was to survive in Europe compared to Africa. How hard it was to make friends and integrate with the rest of the society. How infrequently friends manged to meet with one another. How unhappy life could be. Hmm...

Ghent travelogue picture
From the myriad of Ghent's restaurants, I chose a couple at the main square, and... I was not sure what I was looking for, although I remembered that the Belgians were good in cooking steaks. I had one with great pepper sauce. It was perfect! At this stage, I will not recommend a specific restaurant, because any decent looking place around Ghent's old town would guarantee a great dining experience. Not necessarily cheap, but definitely making the taste buds very happy indeed.

Interestingly, Ghent boasted a huge number of pizza places. The majority were Italian pizzerias, but a large proportion of the others were funny tasting 'fakes' prepared by the Middle-Eastern cooks. The same responsible for bringing kebab to Belgium. Unsurprisingly, around Overpoort, there were many 'holes in the wall' selling unsophisticated pizza slices and various forms of kebab for a few euros. Not my first choice, of course!

Other recommendations:
Ghent's old town
Ghent's old town
Ghent is on the main train line, on the crossing of two routes; one running between Brussels and Brugge; the other running from Antwerp to Lille in France. The trains are quite frequent. There are typically two types of trains, the IC (InterCity) and IR (InterRegio). The former are faster and stop less frequently on their routes - for example, an IC from Ghent to Brugge or to Brussels would stop only once en route or would not stop at all, taking about 25 minutes. While an IR from Ghent to Brussels could take over 45 minutes. The tickets cost the same - about €9 return on a weekend.

Public transport, buses and trams, cover most of the city. A ticket valid for one hour can be bought on the buses for €1.60 or €1.20 in kiosks, and must be stamped inside the bus to validate it - indicate until what time it will be valid.

Published on Saturday May 9th, 2009

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Sat, May 09 2009 - 11:07 PM rating by jacko1

Once again Krys, a superb, welll written, detailed report, I am rather jealous of your descriptive talents which would be an asset to any major publication, more of the same type please!!.

Sat, May 09 2009 - 10:17 AM rating by porto

Fantabulous report and pics Krys,I like the canals and the pizzerias sound great too.

Sat, May 09 2009 - 06:03 AM rating by basia

Great report (as always), I like reading your reports, there is a lot of important information given in an interesting way.

Sat, May 09 2009 - 03:39 AM rating by pesu

Again: I love to read your reports, Krys. Thanks for leaving the 'mistery' for potential Ghent visitors... Your text and your pics are inviting enough.

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