When it comes to nicknames for its cities, Belgium goes all out. Brussels is seen as the ‘Capital of Europe’, Bruges is oft dubbed the ‘Venice of the North’, and Antwerp shimmers as the ‘City of Diamonds’. Ghent? Well, exactly. Not that this bothers the locals; they’re more than happy for tourists to bypass their backyard and head elsewhere, leaving their city with just a handful of the visitors that nearby Bruges draws in. And it all works in Ghent’s favour. The result is a laid-back city that has managed to hold on to its slightly irreverent personality — proud local traditions and a quirky history still hold sway in this thriving student city. And although the students keep the place feeling young and vibrant, don’t be fooled; the city wears its years well. The Belgian beauty still seduces with pretty, small-town Flemish charm, and is packed with history, too, glimpsed in the likes of fairy-tale castle turrets, historic quaysides and dreamy belfries that dominate the skyline. Throw in leisurely walks along the canals, big bowls of mussels in creaky wooden pubs and a car-free cobbled centre, and you’ve got a failsafe recipe for your next city break.
Keep it cultured
You probably had no idea that Ghent was one of northern Europe’s largest cities in the Middle Ages, second only to Paris. To learn more about the city’s long, fascinating (and often rebellious) history, check out the city museum (STAM). Artsy types will love the exhibitions at the Design Museum, and don’t miss The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb in St Bavo’s Cathedral — the Van Eyck masterpiece is the most stolen work in history.
The Sunday flower market is a must. Hordes of flower sellers come to sell their leafy, florid wares on the Kouter, making it a technicolour joy to walk around. Even if you don’t end up buying the blooms, stop off at the Blue Kiosk at the end of the market for some oysters and a tipple.
For the best beds in town, check in to 1898 The Post, which cuts a handsome gothic-revival figure on Graslei, by the river. Unwind amid huge windows, moody clay and bottle-green tones, and curios carefully selected to reflect its bygone days as the city’s former post office. Standard doubles from €180 (£158), room only.
Step up to the plate
Ghent is in the grip of a foodie boom. You can still get your fix of waffles and frites, although exciting culinary offerings are now putting Ghent firmly on the gastronomic map. Try Cochon De Luxe for fun (but delicious) plates, or, if you can bag a table, the lauded Chambre Séparée — a laid-back showstopper of an evening out, with a roster of ever-changing courses from star of Flanders’ food scene, Kobe Desramaults. Book online well in advance.
Ambling through the city after dusk. Ghent has a special lighting system that illuminates all its glorious towers and turrets, making the city look all the more like a fairy tale.
Three to try…
Called ‘Ghent noses’ in Dutch, these are popular with the locals, so grab some while you can from the stalls at Groentenmarkt. Sweet and squidgy, think grown-up jelly babies.
Aged for 10-16 months, rose-hued Ganda has a deliciously deep, mature flavour. Try a few slices with some Limburger cheese bought from Petite Normandie cheese shop.
The Tierenteyn-Verlent mustard shop has been making the condiment since 1790. You can only buy it here, and its recipe is a closely guarded secret.
Beers, bikes and bengals
“Mayor of the Night?” I ask as we enter Café den Turk, supposedly the oldest pub in Ghent. The city’s most venerable watering hole is a contested title, but with its low ceilings and warped wooden beams, den Turk makes a convincing case. Around us there’s a quiet clink as people finish their meals; an obscure chanson française comes from a radio somewhere. “A Mayor of the Night does sound like an exciting title.”
Tall, bespectacled Mong Cocquyt looks at me sceptically. “It’s a stupid title, actually. I just have to make sure all the pubs and bars in Ghent are full of money, and people are so drunk they’re crawling back home on all fours.”
It’s a novel way to say he’s responsible for keeping Ghent’s nightlife thriving, but he’s probably the best man for the job. By day he’s a cartographer and spent three years calling in at every pub in Ghent, Antwerp and Brussels to make a comprehensive map of the three cities’ pubs and bars. As a proud Ghentian through and through, nobody knows the city’s pubs better. “So, we’ll go to all the best pubs in Ghent,” he says. “You have lots of nice restaurants and bars here, but you can find them anywhere in the world. This is the [real] Ghent.”
I don’t know what he’s ordered us, but two glasses of frothy, maple-coloured beer are in his hands. “You see this part here,” he says, pointing to the fluted bottom half of the glass. “You hold this part because it avoids contact with the glass. If you hold the smooth glass at the top then your body heat warms the beer and that’s a sin.”
Life lesson learned, we head out to ’t Dreupelkot, a tiny little bar by the canal. It’s so crowded inside that locals are spilling out on to the street and the air is thick with the smell of hops and liqueur. And the floor is so sticky I find myself walking on the spot just so I don’t get stuck. Bizarrely, it’s wonderful.
I’m handed a shot of Albatross, a strong, sweet lurid liqueur that could have featured in my university days. I prefer the beer.
From there, we wander to our third port of call, in the quiet maze that is the Patershol district, where streets that are quiet by day now simmer with life. We squeeze into ‘t Velootje, a little townhouse clad in flashing lights, street signs and flags. Inside, hundreds of bikes hang from the ceiling of the tiny room and towering piles of boxes and books surround just a handful of benches. Cramped it may be, but ’t Velootje is still buzzing; a dozen or so Ghentians are sipping away to the soundtrack of crackly tunes coming from an iPhone somewhere in the corner. Liewen, the white-bearded owner, eventually emerges from a doorway cradling a Bengal cat.
I say to Mong: “I assume he’s a Ghentian?” He beams: “Ah, yes, he’s my king. He is the real Ghent.”
Published in the Jul/Aug 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)