Having spent over a year living in Europe, and traveling some major touristy destinations, I contemplate visiting smaller towns or villages this year, which are some serious answers to the quest of pure local flavour. The idea of visiting Ghent, a town in the Flemish region of Belgium, came up as a result of my habit of incessant internet browsing, googling anything under the sun ( and beyond it too), ever since I have been staying at home, without an office life to look forward to. Not that I hadn’t heard of Ghent before, but choosing to visit it crossed my mind only recently.
We ( my husband and I ) traveled from Amsterdam by a bus that makes regular journeys to Ghent. Train journeys are available too, but last minute bookings can be rather expensive. Train fares in Europe can sometimes be more expensive than airfares. And we were on a budget trip. Now the idea of this journey was rather impulsive, and the thought of checking up the weather report never occurred to me while buying the tickets. The morning was dark and there were predictions of rain. Keeping fingers crossed for a bright and sunny day no longer made any difference. We arrived at Ghent after a three hour journey and it took us a while to locate our hotel, with the rain playing spoilsport. Nevertheless we checked in, and headed straight to the city centre. Here’s a piece of advice. After having made a significant number of trips to different cities across Europe, I have inferred that the best locations to put up for the night are those within the city centre itself. One might have to shell out more, in terms of money, but in any case, it makes more sense. It also makes the trip more worthwhile, since it saves both commuting time, and money.
Ghent has a wide network of trams connecting to the city centre. There are hourly tickets, day passes, ten-trip tickets, and group passes. We opted for the hourly ticket. Almost everything that one would want to see in Ghent is around the city centre. One just needs to walk around. We arrived hungry, since we had skipped breakfast.There are plenty of options for the foodie, and Ghent being a town populated with students, the options multiply. We grabbed a quick lunch at a local burger joint, after which we immediately set off to explore the town on foot. The church of St. Nicholas is the first prominent piece of architecture that one can see right at the centre of the Korenmarket. It is also a mandatory photo stop. A typically pretty European bridge connects to the equally ornate church of St. Michael. A walk down the bridge leads to the scenic canal, where people laze around or take a cruise, or hire private boats. It is a place where stopping by for a moment is quintessential; that place where one would love to sit back, unwind, and watch life pass by.
We continued strolling around, discovering in every bit, the vibrant spirits of this little place. Our next stop was the Castle of the Counts, a medieval castle, partly surrounded by a moat. There is a torture museum inside the castle, but we purposefully skipped visiting that.The rains forced us to wind up our evening earlier than usual and we were left with no other option but to head back to the hotel, but only after we picked up some Belgian beer from a local shop. Beer and Belgium go together, always.
The weather, as I said earlier, never turned in our favour throughout the trip. What seemed to begin as a bright morning, turned grey an hour later. Nevertheless, we continued exploring around. This time it was the famous Belfry of Ghent, the tallest medieval tower in the town. It is part of the UNESCO World Heritage List.
A tiny detour leads to a narrow lane known as the Graffiti Street, with very vivid and striking wall art. Art lovers can paint their hearts out on these alleys, while keeping the rest of the city free of any graffiti. It is a place for the bohemian heart to be. Though a little overrated, yet it is worth a visit.
As much as we had wanted to, we could hardly stroll around for less than half the day since it began pouring in heavily. I never stopped clicking though. There is always so much happening at a city centre that a hungry eye, with a camera down the neck, wants to capture all, and a lot more. I personally love the little kiosks that locals put up to sell their own produce, be it food or flowers, or anything else.
We had to retreat to a cafe, where we savoured some hot cappuccino, and Belgium’s famous waffles, a much needed booster to beat the cold. A pizza-pasta lunch, and with it our weekend almost came to an end. In the tram we met an old Flemish gentleman who spoke to us through the ride about language, culture, and cycles, and India of course, a usual conversation people pick up when they meet Indians. Here is what he suggested, “Come back in the summers; you will have a great time”.
From the horse’s mouth :
- Plan your stay at the city centre; there is no dearth of options.
- Google the weather forecast; at best, travel during the summers.
- Trams are expensive and rides are short; buy a day pass instead of hourly tickets.
- Take a canal cruise; have some cash in hand for that.
- Fries, waffles, and beer.
- Eat local.