Peter Morrell enjoys the history, the heritage, the food and, of course, the beer in this part of Belgium which is still has the feel of the Golden Age.
After a harrowing but unmissable couple of days in the Flanders battlefields I had allowed myself 36 hours, first in Ghent and then Bruges, to soak up the culture, the cuisine and the atmosphere of these two beautifully preserved medieval cities. As time was short I was determined to pack in as much as possible.
Getting to Flanders is quick and convenient, it’s a 90-minute mini-cruise on a comfortable P&O ferry, and I would recommend the extra luxury of the club lounge, which serves a complimentary glass of bubbly for the non-drivers. Once the ferry has docked it’s a 90-minute drive either to Ypres, the epicentre of the World War 1 battles, or to Ghent.
My accommodation in Ghent for the night was the beautifully positioned Hotel Harmony. Overlooking one of the major canals, it was within a stroll of all the important cultural and culinary interest points in the city and the balcony of my room offered a panoramic view of the waterway and the skyline.
The Nibbling Tour
I spent the afternoon with a guide from Vizit on a nibbling tour but it turned out to be much more than that. My guide was a veritable mine of information on the city so, not only did I get to taste some of the local specialities, but I also learnt a huge amount about Ghent’s culture.
We started just a few steps away from my hotel in the area known as Patershol, a jumble of quaint, cobbled streets that houses a range of small restaurants, serving everything from Flemish to Thai food. This was originally the spiritual heart of the city and had a very historic feel to it.
Walking down a narrow alley we emerged by the Castle of the Counts, built by Philip of Alsace in 1180, with its imposing battlements presiding broodily over the city. We viewed the fortifications from a charming gable fringed square, in one corner was the entrance to the Oude Vismijn, the Old Fish Market. This is now the location of the Ghent Tourist office and the smart bar/brassiere Feestzalen, with huge windows overlooking a canal.
Across the bridge is the Groot Vleeshuis, the Great Butcher’s Hall which dates back to the 15th century. Hanging inside, from the wooden trusses of the roof, are the famous air-dried Ganda Hams. I tasted slices of it at the cafe in Hall, the intense flavour enhanced by a dab of local mustard from the nearby shop, Tierenteyn.
We wandered from there towards Sint Baafskathedraal, the cathedral, but stopping at a deli, Kookpunt, to taste some of the local cheeses, hard and soft, young and old, they all had their own distinct characters.
Just around the corner is a shop selling what everyone comes to Belgium for – chocolate. The family Van Hecke has been making this confectionary by hand for 75 years. I sampled a range of their products and, needless to say, they were all a chocoholic’s dream.
Currently the cathedral, which holds Van Eycks’ famous painting, Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, is swathed in scaffolding for a major renovation so its true beauty was hidden. Between the cathedral and the famous Ghent Belfry is the controversial new Market Hall building, acclaimed by some, derided by others. It’s an open space under a double apex barn roof that is used for entertainment and other events.
As we walked back to the hotel we passed the Town Hall which is an intriguing mix of architectural styles. The more sober and later part is a result of punitive measures by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V who, despite being Ghent born, cut off the money to the city. This was thanks to the 1539 Revolt of Ghent, when the local citizens refused to pay him more taxes.
A further punishment forced the city’s nobles to walk in front of the emperor barefoot in white shrouds with a noose around their necks. Since this incident, the people of Ghent have been called “Stroppendragers” or noose carriers and you can still see nooses hanging up around the city today.
Before the end of the tour there was one more treat to taste, cuberdons, gums with a liquid raspberry centre. The liquid quickly crystallises, so they can’t travel, and can only be bought fresh in Ghent. We headed off to the family run Temmerman, a charming old-fashioned sweet shop. Cuberdons are usually in the shape of neuzekes or little noses but here they were head shaped. The filling was very rich and fruity but it was counteracted by being given the sourest sweet I have ever tried.
Graslei and the Boat Tour
After a rewarding two hours with a very good guide is was time to take a look at the Graslei, one of the city’s most scenic spots. This is the old dock area and, as Ghent was connected by canal to the sea, it became a vibrant trade centre. Sightseeing boats run from the quay and I hopped on one, using my good value Ghent City Card. This one-hour, duck’s eye view gave a totally different perspective of the architecture and the layout of the streets.
The buildings along the Graslei are in Flemish style but are all different. Originally, places such as the house of the Grain Weighers or the Guildhall of the Free Boatmen, they are now cafes and restaurants. One, which came highly recommended, was Belga Queen, so I booked to return later in the evening.
Food and Drink
I left the hotel early for a pre-dinner drink and, as this was Belgium, it had to be a beer. Opposite my hotel was Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant, a pub with a drinks list as long as your arm. With alcohol strengths up to 12% and names like Delirium Tremens choosing was difficult. So I played safe with the Antwerp brewed De Koninck, poured from height into a bowl shaped ‘bolleke’ glass, to release the beer’s complex flavours.
Dinner at Belga Queen was superb. The menu cleverly used fresh, local, seasonal ingredients and dining in this historic building added an extra dimension. My companion and I shared the shrimp croquettes and a salad with Ganda ham, duck and marinated salmon followed by mains of wild sea bass and belly pork. This was a memorable meal and at the end I popped into the kitchen to thank head chef Tom Vansteenkiste.
Time for a nightcap, and the must visit place is ‘t Dreupelkot, a bar serving more than 200 varieties of genever (the local version of gin). Cigar chewing owner Pol is a real character and has been dispensing genever in small and large glasses for what seems like an eternity. The bar gets packed with a jolly crowd and I was soon in conversation with a group of Poles, Indians and French, in Ghent for a business conference. It’s worth keeping an eye on the time for as long as you keep drinking Pol will keep serving.
What a day, Ghent has got a very atmospheric and timeless feel to it and there were points when I could have almost slipped back in time to the medieval period.
Next morning it was a 45-minute drive to the very picturesque city of Bruges. Time was short here and I made straight for the Grote Markt, the main square over which the world famous belfry presides. I was there to visit, Historium, a unique four dimensional romp through 15th century Bruges, featuring the painter Van Eyck as he worked on his masterpiece, Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele. Themed rooms engage all the senses and you can smell, feel, hear and see what the city would have been like in the Golden Age.
My other priority was to see the works of Frank Brangwyn, a British artist who was born in Bruges. He gave the city many of his works, which are now exhibited in Arentshuis, an elegant 18th century town house. Brangwyn had a very powerful, figurative style and, although he is not well known, his works are well worth seeing.
Again Bruges is a fascinating city and offers many cultural attractions. For example the Arentshuis is next door to the Groeningemuseum which has an impressive collection of Fleming primitive paintings and the Church of our Lady holds one of the city’s most prized treasures, a white marble sculpture of the Madonna and Child, created by Michelangelo around 1504
I can thoroughly recommend a short break to Flanders. It is very accessible. There is a lot to see and do and you can definitely taste the difference in the local foods and drinks.