After two nights in Bruges, my travel-buddy assistante and I took the train over to Ghent, our next destination in Belgium. Also located on the Dutch side of the country, this city is just as small and quaint as Bruges itself, and it is also a university town with a large (and young) population.
Because of the student life, Ghent has plenty of bars and inexpensive food joints, including a progressive vegetarian/vegan scene; the assistante with whom I traveled was vegetarian, and so she was certainly happy with that! Additionally, there were bicycles everywhere (and I do mean everywhere); it’s a thing for students to bike around town, especially in one as small as Ghent, so many of the streets had specifically-designed bike lanes; I even saw a four-story parking structure just dedicated to bicycles themselves.
Perhaps you may or may not have heard of Ghent before, since other Belgian cities like Bruges and Brussels (even Antwerp) are the touristy parts of the country. I admit, I hadn’t heard of Ghent before until I saw gorgeous photos of it on Tumblr. After scrolling through endless photos of its quaint canals and austere, narrow cobblestone streets, I knew I had to go there when I had the chance- and I’m so glad that I did.
Any case, the assistante and I arrived in Ghent close to noon and headed straight to our hostel, which was housed in this really cool, antique building which I assumed used to be an old mansion or boarding place. It was too early to check in, but we were able to drop off our bags and take the free walking tour around town. Our tour guide started us off in the main, historic quarter, with the distinctive, step-roof buildings along the calm waters of the canal. Some of these buildings used to process wheat back in the day, which was then used to make beer (and you know how crazy Belgians are with their beers, with over 100 varieties, I’ve heard!).
Besides beer buildings, we also passed through a few churches including St. Niklas Church and St. Michael’s Church. We saw the Belfry of Ghent in the distance, too. But what struck me was the Gravensteen, a castle from the Middle Ages that was once a prison and today houses the museum of torture. How cheery, eh?
Next, we were shown around Oudburg Street, which was essentially the “international cuisine” street- not just Belgian food itself! There was also the graffitistraatje, or “graffiti street” that is dedicated to tons of street artwork, which before I hadn’t had interest in, but now fascinated me. Considering that graffiti art is considered looked down upon, even taboo, in the United States, it’s interesting to find small, hidden areas like this in which it’s legal to graffiti. Makes the otherwise austere city look just a bit more colorful!
We also passed by the city hall, where the tour guide informed us that the city’s current mayor was voted second-best in all of Europe, which was quite impressive! Finally, we finished the walking tour in front of the Belfry after three exhausting (but informative) hours on our feet. We got a glimpse into the main attractions in Ghent and afterwards the assistante and I decided to return to our hostel where we could check in and relax for the afternoon. We were placed in the same room with around ten other people; to this day, that hostel remains one of my favorites that I’d stayed in during my travels in Europe. Much of it is due to the view just right outside of my bunk; mine was facing the window, and I didn’t mind waking up to a view like this one!
Later that evening, we went out again to Korenmarkt, the town square near our hostel with plenty of restaurants and shopping to do. We found a small bar that served jenever, which we’d learned from our walking tour is a Belgian specialty; essentially, it’s a juniper-flavored malt liquor and I tried a shot of it. Definitely strong like vodka, but it had a distinctive flavor that I couldn’t quite pinpoint (probably from the malt?). I wouldn’t choose to have it again anytime soon, but at least I got to taste a bit of the Belgian culture!
Recalling back to the fact that Ghent is a college town with a notable vegetarian/vegan scene, the (vegetarian) assistante and I decided after the bar to find a vegetarian, Belgian-fry joint to see if the fries tasted any different with those cooked in animal fat. We walked for quite some time before we came across one sort of outside the city. We ordered our respective fries, but ended up sharing them, because the portions were HUGE. I’m not kidding; it was a dinner in itself!
With our bellies full from fries, we headed back to our hostel for the night, even though it was only 21h00. Interestingly, lots of places were shut for the night, but at the same time, it was very calming; the lights along the water were gorgeous.
I woke up early the next morning to do some exploring on my own in town. I returned to Korenmarkt where I bought a few travel-sized bottles to store my shampoo and other toiletries in, since I would be taking the plane over to Prague later during les vacances. I also went into Primark, which is now one of my favorite, inexpensive clothing stores in Europe, where I bought myself a winter coat, considering that I hadn’t brought many thick jackets with me to France (again, a Los Angeles girl at heart!).
On my way back to the hostel, I passed by a cuberdon stand, where a man was selling, well, cuberdons. They are nose-shaped Belgian candies and while I didn’t get any at the stand, I had them later at a chocolate shop and although I love desserts, I didn’t particularly like cuberdons. The best way to describe the taste was that they resemble that of melted Laffy Taffys- overly sweet and artificial-tasting. Not my cup of tea.
I arrived back at the hostel where the assistante was just getting ready to go out for the day. We had the included breakfast at the hostel before we headed out to explore the student quarter of Ghent. We took Veldstraat all the way down, passing by Ghent University and had to be careful not to get in the way of the students, who were cycling to school. We got sandwiches for lunch, passed in front of St. Peter’s Church, and stopped by a modern shopping center with a library and everything before we returned to the historic quarter and took a break in a chocolate shop where we sampled pieces of artisanal Belgian chocolate, along with hot chocolate. My platter of eight chocolates (with flavors like praline, basil, currant, etc.) and hot chocolate came out to almost 10 euros, which doesn’t seem like a lot, but me being cheap, I didn’t mind the splurge!
Later that evening, I went out on my own for dinner; I came across a small kebab shop around the student quarter where I got the pita version of the mitraillette, which is a massive sandwich stuffed with meat, even fries, in it! I was hungry, so I didn’t mind that it was so enormous and greasy; again, things are unhealthy (but so tasty) in Belgium!
On the way back to the hostel, I popped into a small bar where I tried kwak, which I’d learned from the tour guide the day before that it’s a type of Belgian beer served in a distinctively-shaped glass that resemble something of a chemistry test tube. The beer was okay (not really a beer person), but I got to try this interesting Belgian specialty, at the very least!
Super stuffed from the food and beer (and slightly tipsy; I’d discovered that Belgian beer was notably stronger than that in France), I walked back to my hostel where I relaxed in my room for the rest of the night. The next morning was our last day in Ghent, and I woke up early to head to the Laundromat to do my laundry before we left for our next destination around noontime.
I have to say, Ghent remains one of my favorite places to visit during les vacances. Quaint and pretty, the city is small and, I would have to say, less touristy than Bruges and more local than Brussels, which we visited after. Two nights was enough to see the highlights, but I’d choose to return if I decide to head get to Belgium anytime soon.
Next up: Brussels, Belgium!