Day 9: Nothing Compares 2 U

Today was our last full day in Ghent and our last day in Belgium for a little over a week, as tomorrow we’ll be heading into the Normandy area of France. I’m really excited to see Normandy but I’m very sad to be leaving Ghent, it has left quite the impression on me.

We were all feeling lazy this morning, so we slowly got ready, and Ma and Pa headed to the post office to mail back some gifts we have accumulated. I headed to this great little cafe called Wasbar for a bizarro breakfast – speculoos latte, orange juice, pain au chocolate, one egg, cheese, 3 pieces of toast, butter, jam and chocolate spread. It was a weird combo, but also delicious.

One of Pa’s travel traditions is that he likes to collect Harley Davidson t-shirts from where ever we visit, so while he grabbed a cab and headed to the shop, Ma and I wandered and chatted about travel to come. We met Pa an hour later, now getting close to lunch time and headed to our new favourite haunt, Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant for a last hurrah there (this included a few beers). After the beers we headed back into one of the many great squares, and Pa and I had some frites from Peter’s and Ma had a waffle with caramel.

Ma had decided that she wanted to head back to St Bavo’s Cathedral to get some photos of the dramatic alter piece (Catholics, am I right?) so we all went, the cool Cathedral a welcome respite from the increasingly aggressive afternoon sun.

We decided for old time’s sake to get a few chocolates from the gourmet chocolatery (I got whipped coffee cream and creme brûlée), grabbed a bench in St Bavo’s square and watched the bubble man delight the children.

I decided that this guy has a great job. He doesn’t really have to talk to anyone, I’ll be let no one calls him an asshole, he doesn’t have coworkers who conspire against him. He just grabs his bucket of suds, his homemade bubble wand, sets out his hat and stands in the square, entertaining eager children. Benefits are probably shit, though.

Ma wanted some introvert recharge time, so while she went back to the hotel, Pa and I went to this other bar we had been eyeing, the outdoor portion wedged between 2 buildings and quite literally right on the canal. Had a taken one step to the left, I would have been wet.

While Pa and I were imbibing away the afternoon, a husband and wife in a kayak paddled up to the bar, right at our feet. The husband got out of the kayak (with Pa’s help), went in to the bar and came out with 2 bottles of kriek beer, 2 glasses and a role of duct tape. With his wife still in the kayak, he took out the duct tape, wrapped it around his wife’s sleeve and then to the brick ground. He literally taped his wife to the ground. He then poured their beers, they enjoyed them, and he was back in the kayak, un-taping his wife, then paddling on their merry way. It was one of the weirdest and most hilarious things I’ve seen in a while. I’d tried to stealthily grab some snaps on my phone:

After finishing off a second round, it was time to meet Ma at the Castle of the Counts for some more photos, followed by a traditional Flemish dinner of frites, waterzooi stew and meatballs.

We wandered back to our hotel, drinking in this wonderful city for the last time.

Day 8: I Know I’m Awake But I feel like I’m in a Dream

This morning we got up at a decent time and hit up an adorable little bakery around the corner for breakfast. At Julie’s we had iced lattes, cuberdon steamed milk, cinnamon buns and scones with jam and cream. Feeling satisfied we hopped a train northbound to the fairytale town of Bruges (or Brugge). Bruges was a sleepier town until the 2008 hit movie “In Bruges” (highly recommend, unless you’re offended by the word “fuck”) came out and tourism has skyrocketed. Apparently Ghent and Bruges are bitter rivals.

We walked the kilometre from the train station to the main market square – along with gobs of other tourists and travelers, some stopping right in front of you and blocking the entire narrow sidewalk to get the perfect shot.

We got to the busy market square and things were hoppin’ – tourists, waiters, horse drawn buggies and food carts crammed every corner. We were feeling a little overwhelmed and a little disoriented, so we stopped for a beer.

After some beers in some pretty ridiculous bar ware, we started our Rick Steves walking tour, starting at the belfry (as seen in In Bruges).

They’ve boarded up some of the viewing points on the upper part of the Belfry, thanks to a particular scene from the movie. Bruges is capital of West Flanders and is encircled and connected by waterways, where swans and tour boats are king.

Ma didn’t get a waffle the last time she and Pa were in Bruges, so we stopped by Fred’s and each had a delicious Liege-style waffle.

After our sweet treats, we wandered around the old squares, ancient houses, former markets, breweries and abbeys.

Everywhere we turned there were people. And not just people, but tourists (like us). We decided that we wanted to do my favourite thing – boat tour!

Our boat captain/tour guide was hilarious, with a dry sense of humour and cracking wise in 3 different languages (I’m assuming he was funny in Dutch, I can only vouch for English and French).

After 30 minutes of putting around the moat, Pa and I decided we were thirsty and had noticed a neat looking brewery on our boat trip – Bourgogne de Flanders – so we tracked it down, each got a flight of 6 beers and grabbed a table at the hip brewery (some hits, some weird misses).

We were almost Bruges’d out, but Pa had something to show me – the Bottle Shop.

This shop is like Mecca for good beer fans – ceiling to floor, wall to wall of brews, including a whole section of krieks. Truly breath taking!

We headed back to the square and grabbed a cab back to the train station and trained back to Ghent, where we had some delicious pizza and pasta for dinner and headed back to the hotel.

There are quite a few articles on the internet about Bruges vs Ghent and here is my opinion – Bruges is beautiful and cute and it is a fairytale town for a lot to see and a fun boat tour, but I got the sense that the town itself is disingenuous – like it existed solely as a tourist town. I don’t know how many Belgians actually live there. Ghent is also beautiful and interesting, but it just seems like it’s more of an authentic Belgian experience, because so many of the people there are native Gentenaars and the town doesn’t feel like it exists for tourism, which is how I felt about Bruges. Bruges is not a fucking shit hole, but if it came down to the 2 towns, I’m on team Ghent.

Day 7: It Simply Isn’t An Adventure Worth Telling if There Aren’t Any Dragons

So Ghent apparently hasn’t gotten the memo that September is here and it’s time to cool off – we woke up to blue skies and an already warm sun. Today we wanted to do a Rick Steves walking tour where we download his guidebook and follow the tour he outlines, with plenty of stops for photos and beers.

We breakfasted on croissants and coffee in one of the many old squares and then popped into a mustard shop next door – the shop’s recipe is heavy on horseradish and the mustard is put together in the cool basement and pumped into a barrel on the shop floor, where they put it in whatever sized jar you’d like.

We started our walk in the Korenmarkt Square where you can see Ghent’s “three main buildings” – church of St Nicholas, the belfry, and St. Bavo’s Cathedral.

We first peeked down at the St Michael’s bridge, which offers stunning views of a lot of the old town. This used to be the bustling city centre at the confluence of 2 rivers, a fish market and a nearby meat hall.

We headed back over to St Nicholas church and strolled around inside. I’ve been in many a European church on my sojourns and this one was sadly nothing to write home about. It was built mostly in the 13th century and was stripped of the fancy catholic accoutrements by the Calvinists during the Reformations (they also destroyed almost all of the medieval glass in the city).

Leaving the church we took a look at the Mason’s Guildhouse with its 6 dancers, only discovers in the 1970s after having been hidden behind a wall for ages.

We crossed the street to the City Market Hall, a newer wooden roof structure with panels missing for the light to shine through.

We continued on to the Belfry, part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of belfries of East Flanders. On the hour the carillon plays the anthem of Ghent and the dragon sits atop is to represent defence.

Leaving the cloth hall of the belfry (Pa climbed all the stairs to the top – Ma and I did not) we walked into St. Bavo’s Square, where stands St. Bavo’s Cathedral. The square houses a few restaurants, a theatre and a statue representing Dutch revival in a once French controlled area. We took a quick sneak into a nearby chocolate shop Chocolatier Van Hoorebeke and just HAD to purchase a few samples (I had caramel and creme caramel and they were UNBELIEVABLE).

We turned to St Bavo’s Cathedral, a gothic church that houses a very often stolen alter piece of Jan van Eyck – The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. The piece was finished in 1432 and is important in the art world as it is one representing the more humanist style of the Renaissance. The piece was stolen many times throughout history, most notably by Hitler and recovered by the “monuments men”. It’s made up of 12 panels, one of which was stolen by a local and never recovered. The thief who took the panel essentially on his deathbed said “you’ll never find it”. It’s been replaced by a very accurate replica. We paid out 4€ and went in for a look – it was a very “Mona Lisa”-like experience, with people crowded around, elbow to elbow and all the tall people in the front. We badgered our way up to catch a glimpse. Impressive in size, but otherwise I felt very little.

The cathedral itself is very large, and feels like it’s been stuffed with a hodgepodge of different catholic trinkets and things.

After the Cathedral we decided to take a beer and frites break on the square.

We walked towards the area of Hoogeport, where the old city hall sits, dating from the 16th century.

We then took a step back into the 21st century and turned down Werregarenstraat, also known as “Graffiti Street”. Belgian police have, instead of busting people on graffiti altogether, designated this long alley to street artists who can paint without getting in trouble.

We then decided to take another beer break in a square dedicated to a Ghent wool trader. The square also houses the House of the People, headquarters for the area’s socialist movement (Belgium is apparently very left-leaning).

Our walking tour ended in the Patershol area where our hotel is, so we decided we wanted to do one of my favourite things – take a boat tour!

On the 45 minute tour we learned a little more about local trade, history, beer and Ghent University, with 75,000 students enrolled. Ghent, like Delft, is a university town so there’s always a bunch of young people hanging about.

Another building we learned about is the “Castle of the Counts”, or Castle Gravensteen. The Castle was built in 1180 to intimidate the locals against any sort of rebellion, and was only conquered twice – the second time being in 1949 when the city hiked the price of beer which enraged the local student body, so the students overtook the castle and pelted surrounding police and fire crew with potatoes and onions. The students were never arrested because the locals sided with them and the price of beer was brought back to normal.

For dinner we went to a frites place that’s locally famous – Peter’s – a little hut attached to the old meat hall. Peter double fries his frites in ox fat and has a variety of toppings (I stuck with mayonnaise). It was fucking delicious. After a quick ice cream for dessert, we slowly wandered back to the Patershol for the night.

Day 6: She’s Leavin’

This morning we leisurely got ready and ate our breakfast, as we were leaving not only Delft but also the Netherlands for the next leg of our trip. I wrote a whole mess of postcards and we checked out, sad to say goodbye to our 400 year old hotel room, delicious breakfasts and quaint surroundings. Today was definitely our most complicated travel day, with 3 trains (and one dicey connection time) taking us from the heart of the Netherlands to East Flanders. Ghent (or Gand in French and Gent in Dutch) is our first stop in Belgium on this trip, and I was VERY excited, half expecting to see groups of short little curvy people who look vaguely like me and Pa guzzling brews and cramming waffles and frites into their faces.

Our first train trip took us out of Delft and eventually into a Dutch city called Breda, and because we were on a Dutch train and not a German one, the train was late and we missed our connection. We waited around Breda for an hour and hopped the next train, this time into Antwerp (also late). We huffed it from track 23 to track 1 (the Antwerp train station is a beautiful Art Deco behemoth) and made our final train from Antwerp to Ghent.

Right away you could tell the difference in the Dutch architecture from the Belgian – Belgian buildings in Ghent are taller and broader, less big windowed facades, but still ornate and beautiful.

We grabbed a cab at the Gent-Sint-Pietrs train station and headed into the old town, winding down streets lined by cafes, bars, restaurants, and galleries. We’re staying in the historic Patershol neighbourhood, which was in years past a working and warehouse quarter (Vancouverites, think Yaletown) and is now very trendy.

Our hotel is right on the canal and is actually 2 rooms let out by an enthusiastic Argentinian artist who has a gallery and her own housing on the main floor and the rooms to let above.

We dropped our luggage and hit the town, thirsty for our first taste of real Belgian beer. I had seen in photos a place called Her Waterhuis aan de Bierkant which is right on the canal and right over the bridge from our hotel, so we headed there. We found a table on the canal, Pa ordered a blonde on tap called Augustijn and I ordered the kriek on tap and we were in Belgian heaven.

At the table next to us sat 4 Americans who all work for Pepsi and are on their 7th annual Belgian beer sojourn. They get together, tour around and drink and take photos of all the beers, which sounds like the dream.

We polished off our second beers and ambled off in search of actual sustenance and happened upon a cuberdon stand that I had read about in my trip research.

Cuberdons are a Ghent candy, also known as “Ghent noses” because of their conical shape. The original flavour is raspberry, and they’re chewy on the outside and liquid in the middle. There are 2 cuberdons hawkers in the main square and apparently they are bitter rivals – apparently one gives you a better deal than the other. We decided to get a 3€ bag (he just grabs a handful and puts it in a bag) and move on…right next door to a waffle place. The last time Ma and Pa were in Belgium they didn’t get to have real Belgian waffles, so we made sure we took care of that on the first day here – so we each ordered one, crispy and covered in caramel.

A small waffle wasn’t quite enough food (seeing as we had all missed out on lunch) so we walked around in search of more substantial food, which isn’t hard to find in Ghent as there are restaurants and cafes tucked around every corner.

We settled on a restaurant, sat outside in the sunshine and had some more beer (quelle surprise) frites and mayonnaise. Thoroughly stuffed, we waddled back to the hotel to relax for the night.