By Eurostar to Brussels, then onwards to Ghent. The city, emerging from the dazzle of near neighbour Bruges, was recently named one of the world’s top destinations. I found five more good reasons to visit this marvellous mediaeval gem. (Some details and prices are out of date in this piece I originally wrote for the Mail on Sunday. But it’s still very easy by train. London to Ghent starts at £62 one way or £98 return.)
Transport of delight
Ghent is as close to London as places in the UK. Take Eurostar from London St Pancras to Brussels Midi, and it’s a 100 metre walk to the platforms for the regular, often non-stop, trains to the city. My connection took 30 minutes, and cost nothing. Eurostar tickets give free onward travel to any Belgian destination. (Station to station, it was three hours.) Sint Pieters station is a 25 minute walk from the historic centre, if that is where you’re staying, so take the No. 1 tram and relish the old streets as you ride, lined with independent chocolatiers, bakers, delicatessens and fashion boutiques. The Ghent Museum Card gives three days free travel and entry to the main museums. www.b-rail.be. Eurostar, www.raileurope.co.uk By road, Ghent is 95 minutes from Calais.
Out on Top
Let’s turn a big, bright spotlight on Ghent, so long the understudy to Antwerp and Bruges. National Geographic’s Center for Sustainable Destinations named the mediaeval city centre the world’s third most authentic historic destination. Only Austria’s Melk Abbey, and Ontario’s Rideau Canal corridor scored higher. The judges wandered Ghent’s cobbled streets and canal and river banks, checking 900 listed buildings, including the famous ‘Ghent Towers’, Saint Nicholas’ Church, the Belfry and Saint Bavo’s Cathedral, many built when this was Europe’s largest cloth producer. (It survived two world wars largely intact.) They looked to see how Ghent balanced tourism and care for its fine old buildings, and placed it alongside the top towns and cities on their list.
From my B&B bathroom I could see the three glorious Ghent towers, St Nicholas’ Church, the Belfry and St Bavo’s Cathedral. But there is nothing ‘mere’ about B&B De Waterzooi. Kay and Christian Delens performed wonders transforming this riverside house, dating from 1737, in the old city. Opened in 2008, it meets standards fit for the Dukes of Flanders. There are just two suites, up a wooden staircase, full of high-end features, such as a ‘tropical rain’ shower and Tempur bed which yields blissfully to your personal contours. My private sitting room full of plush settees faced the C12th castle. Downstairs Kay served me a gourmet breakfast at a wooden banqueting table, and coffee in the guests’s riverside lounge, before a roaring fire. www.dewaterzooi.be, €150 a night.
Six centuries ago, when painted images were the epic movies of the day, a Ghent merchant asked Jan and Hubert Van Eyck to produce a real blockbuster for St Bavo cathedral. Their complex 24 panel altarpiece, Adoration of the Lamb of God, was completed in 1432. The glory is in the fabulous detail and colour of so many things, from the clothing of the multitude — prophets philosophers, apostles, Popes, martyrs and St Christopher — who turn up to behold the Lamb, to the intricate flower-strewn landscape. Historians can even tell which notes the angels were singing through their facial expressions. Inspect a full-size copy, on the cathedral wall where the original once stood. Then find the original (moved for security) in a quiet chapel within the cathedral, safe behind glass.
(Restorers have worked for years on the triptych’s central panel. But…‘Irrevocable mistakes were made during the restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece triptych by Jan van Eyck, and its central panel titled The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, two Van Eyck experts said, who are asking for the restoration to be stopped.’ The Brussels Times, Dec, 2023. https://www.brusselstimes.com/847289/experts-demand-immediate-halt-to-disastrous-restoration-of-ghent-altarpiece).
I spotted the latest Jamie Oliver in a Ghent bookshop, translated into Flemish. They are keen fans of his no nonsense cookery here. Belga Queen is a fine example of the new Belgian cuisine. This classy brasserie is friendly and not too formal, with no-fuss dishes ‘served without showing off.’ Antoine Pinto converted a 13th century riverside grain warehouse, among the renaissance guild houses along the Graslei, and promoted his ‘Made in Belgium’ philosophy. He favours ingredients sourced within Belgium, cooking with Belgian beer. Wine comes from Belgian winegrowers, world wide. My dried ham from the Sûre valley, with lettuce shoots and mixed herbs, followed by rack of lamb with vegetables prepared in a wok and gratinated potatoes were superb. 0032 9 280 01 00; www.belgaqueen.be
Good news city
Two famous pieces of news left Ghent. In 1815 the world heard that the treaty signed in the city had ended the war between Britain and the new USA (see the plaque on the side of 45-47 Veldstraat) and we had relinquished our claim to the colony. The second was told to the rhythm of horses’ hooves in Browning’s eternal poem How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix. The ‘news’ was imaginary, but you can follow part of the 125 mile route to modern day Aachen (Aix) by bike across the flat countryside. Lokeren, where ‘the cocks crew and twilight dawned clear’ is an easy 12 miles. Boom, where ‘a great yellow star came out to see’ is 30 miles (http://maps.google.co.uk). Bike hire – www.visitgent.be.
‘Until 2010, a Eurostar ticket to Brussels was valid to any station in Belgium. The arrangement ceased in October 2010, and there are now two separate destinations shown on the Eurostar website, Brussels if you just want Brussels itself and Any Belgian Station if you want to travel beyond Brussels, the latter priced higher than Brussels.’ – https://www.seat61.com/Belgium.htm#other-destinations-in-belgium
London to Any Belgian Station including Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, Liege starts at £62 one way or £98 return – www.seat61.com.