Ghent, a southern town in the north! :
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Ghent, a southern town in the north!
Ghent, a southern town in the north!
Ghent has everything going for it. Steeped in history, Charles V's birthplace is also a big university town with countless bars and small cafés. Full of charming old districts, good Flemish fare is celebrated on every street corner. See the map of Ghent
Nicknamed the Amsterdam of Flanders, Ghent is known for its student nightlife, sustained by innumerable bars, cafés and estaminets, while its inhabitants have a reputation for rebelling against the established order. The roots of this tradition of insubordination stretch far back in history to the 13th century, when the people's representatives the powerful guilds managed to make the feudal powers dance to their tune. Much later, during the industrial revolution, the town became the bastion of the workers' movement in Belgium. Built in 1900, the monumental house of the "socialist workers' association" (Socialistische Werkersvereenigingen, Ons Huis), located on the Vrijdagmarkt (Friday market), bears witness to this. Today, this small town is still a big village where neighbours greet each other, and a relative social mix still prevails.
Ghent's historic centre has a radius of barely more than one kilometre and can easily be covered on foot. Begin with St-Baafskathedraal (St Bavon's Cathedral) which houses one of the founding works of the history of western painting, the polyptych of The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by the Van Eyck brothers. Such a masterpiece, the first to use oil to blend pigments on canvas, defies all explanation! The crypt the biggest one in Flanders acts as the Museum of Fine Arts during the closure of the latter: beautiful paintings abound, from Justus of Ghent to Rogier van der Weyden, with two by Bosch including a crucifixion in extraordinary close-up.
Begun in the 16th century and finished in the 18th century, the Stadhuis (town hall) has two very distinct façades, one in excessively refined Flamboyant Gothic style, the other inspired by the Italian Renaissance. Even though it is currently closed for work, take a walk around the impressively massive St-Niklaaskerk (St Nicholas' church) next door. The east façade gives on to the Korenmarkt (corn market) where, on fine days, the local students (there are more than 20,000) throng to the many terraces.
The Korenlei leads to the Museum voor Sierkunst en Vormgeving (Museum of Decorative Arts and Design) whose collections are housed in a magnificent 18th century Rococo mansion. The contrasts are striking: on the ground floor you can admire the dining room of a Flemish patrician family, with its wooden chandelier, woodwork and china; in the immaculate white modern wing, you go from an Art Nouveau interior by Henry van de Velde to an extraordinary, colourful armchair by Alessandro Mendini. After your visit, you can stop for tea, coffee or hot chocolate at Brooderie (brood means bread in Flemish), an organic tea room where you can also sample a delicious vegetarian dish of the day.
When you leave, turn right into the Geldmunt, then immediately right again into Plotersgracht to reach one of Ghent's oldest districts, Patershol. Destined for destruction over twenty years ago, this old weavers' district consists of a dense network of alleys lined with small, low red brick houses (the oldest ones date back to the 12th century) but also the old cloisters of the Calced Carmelites and the Chapel of the Drongenhof as well as several mansions. Today it has several trendy boutiques, numerous cafés and restaurants such as De 3 Biggetjes and Bij den Wijzen en Den Zot which last year won the award for the best waterzoï (stew) in Ghent.
Refreshed and ready for action, you will find yourself on the Kraanlei (Crane Quay) where the small houses and Gothic chapel of the Huis van Alijn (hospice of the Alijn children) await; these are connected by a courtyard and form the Museum of Folklore. The popular arts and traditions of Flanders are tastefully reconstructed in its tiny rooms.
Next up is Temmerman, a renowned confectioner's shop where the speciality is cuberdon, a sweet cone filled with raspberry jam.
A stone's throw away, the Vleeshuis (15th century meat hall), located at the Groentenmarkt (vegetable market), is a long stone building decorated with a series of crow-stepped gables. Beneath the timber frame inside it hosts a market for regional produce. Now's the time to sample a speciality such as mattetaarten, a cake made with almond paste, or advocat, an alcoholic cream made with egg yolks. On the other side of the square, the Tierenteyn-Verlent grocer's shop is famous for its extra-strong hand-made mustard, concocted in the shop's cellar. A soldier of Napoléon's Old Guard, from Dijon, is said to have revealed the recipe while in bed with a beautiful Flemish girl! The customers all regulars come here to fill their own stoneware pots.
Kammer Straat leads to the Vrijdagmarkt (Friday market), a vast square lined with old gabled houses (such as the 15th century turreted house Het Toreken) and more recent buildings. In the centre the statue of Jacob van Artevelde takes pride of place, commemorating the assassination of the man who took sides with England against France when France wanted to ban the importation of English wool. Behind this square, a flea market takes place around St-Jacobskerk (St Jacob's church) every Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
L. Van Hoorebeke, St-Baafsplein
Dreupelkot, Groetenmarkt, 12
Temmerman, Kraanlei 79
De 3 Biggetjes (Bib gourmand in the MICHELIN Guide selection)
Bij den Wijzen en Den Zot
With thanks to Gilles Joye of the Belga Queen restaurant, Graslei, 10