travel guide

The Flower City of Belgium

Ghent is The flower city of Belgium, and, like Bruges, a one time harbour. Lying on the confluence of the Leie and Scheldt rivers, the city is cut through by many waterways and canals so that it is a city made up of a number of small islands all connected by a network of around 200 bridges. It is often missed off the tourist list but is a Gothic wonder and another place you won’t want to miss. It is a university town so there is a fairly large population of young people and students and, as a consequence, Ghent has become an important cultural centre. During the Middle Ages Ghent was a prominent city-state and consequently, today, there is much of historical interest to see and a beautiful view of much of this can be seen from St. Michael’s Bridge.

In one direction is the Engilade des Monuments, consisting of St. Nicholas Church, Cloth Hall and adjoining Belfry, and the famous St. Bavo’s Cathedral. In the other direction are several Romanesque houses and the Castle of the Counts, (the Gravensteen). Its pedestrianized centre is renowned for its medieval architecture such as the 12th centrury Gravensteen castle and the beautiful areas of Graslei Street and Koornlei Street which lie along the banks of the old harbour right in the city centre. Beautiful 12th and 13th century houses line each street, each one a legacy of the wealth and power of medieval Flemish trade and the importance of Ghent in this. . Other places to see are the Hotel de Ville, the Abbey de la Byloke, the Chateau of Gerard the Devil, ruins of St. Bavo Abbey.

There are many important art galleries and museums in Ghent such as the Museum voor Schone Kunsten (The Museum of Fine Arts) which houses paintings by Hieronymus Bosch, Peter Paul Rubens and many of the Flemis masters.  The SMAK (Stedelikj Museum voor Actuele Kunst – City Museum for Contemporary Art) displays 20th century artists which include Andey Warhol and Joseph Beuys.  The Design Museum of Ghent has masterpieces of Le Corbusier and Victor Horta amongst in collection and, finally the Huis van Alijn, which was originally a beguinage, now houses artefacts of folk art and performs puppet shows and theatre during the tourist season.  The STAM or Stadsmuseum presents a wonderful overview of the history of Ghent and its inhabitants. 

Culturally, Ghent has plenty to offer throughout the year.  It hosts music festivals, film festivals and, of course, the wonderful botanical exhibition the Gentse Floralien.  This latter festival occurs every five years and is quite unique.  The Flanders Festival Ghent is an international music festival hosted in the city and its surrounding regions of East Flanders.  It focuses on classical music, World music and Jazz attracting world famous artists, up and coming talent and thousands of music lovers. 

A cuberdon is a cone-shaped Belgian candy

There are many delicious culinary traditions to try when visiting Ghent.  Within the city and the regions of Eastern Flanders the mastellen (mastel is singular) is ubiquitous.   It is a doughnut shaped bun which is very like a bagel. 
It is also known as ‘St. Hubert Bread’ because on the 3rd November which is the Saint’s feast day, the bakers bring their batches to the early Mass to be blessed. In medieval times it was thought that blessed mastellen immunized against rabies.  The traditional confectionery is the cuberdon (also known as neuzekes or little noses). These are conical sweets with a soft centre, usually raspberry but other flavours can be found on the many street stalls around the city. Between 2011 and 2015 a feud between two local vendors made international news. They  both have a stall in the market place, next to each other, and constantly tried to steal each other’s custom.  This finally led to blows and a court case where their licenses were revoked for two weeks! Other local delicacies are the praline chocolates from local producers such as Leonidas, the  cone-shaped purple jelly-filled candies, ‘babelutten’ (‘babblers’), hard butterscotch-like fudge-like sweet, and of course, on the more fiery side, the famous ‘Tierenteyn’, a hot but refined mustard that has some affinity to French ‘Dijon’ mustard.

Stoverij is a classic Flemish meat stew, preferably made with a generous addition of brown ‘Trappist’ (strong abbey beer) and served with French fries. ‘Waterzooi’ is a local stew originally made from freshwater fish caught in the rivers and creeks of Ghent, but nowadays often made with chicken instead of fish. It is usually served nouvelle-cuisine-style, and will be supplemented by a large pot on the side.

Since 2009 the city of Ghent has promoted a meat-free day on Thursdays called Donderdag Veggiedag with vegetarian food being promoted in public canteens for civil servants and elected councillors, in all city funded schools, and promotion of vegetarian eating options in town (through the distribution of “veggie street maps”). This campaign is linked to the recognition of the detrimental environmental effects of meat production, which the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization has established to represent nearly one-fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions.  The concept of a meat-free Thursday has now been adopted by many European cities.