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Ghent: true Belgium, no waffle
July 13, 2011 | By:

The food is described as 'French cooking with German portions', and the streets are straight out of a 17th-century painting. What's not to love about Ghent, asks Oliver Bennett

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The town’s medieval wealth had its origins in its river trade

There are at least ten famous Belgians, and at least three famous Belgian towns. Bruges is a canal toytown of impossible quaintness. Antwerp is bigger, brasher and oddly fashionable. Brussels has Art Nouveau buildings, cool neighbourhoods and a sculpture of a chubby putto urinating.

All have double-cooked chips and strong beer: a combination that alone makes it worth the ticket price to the Franco-Flemish federation.

In my opinion, though, Ghent is the nicest of all Belgian weekending towns. It’s more quotidian: a working and studying town with 50,000 students and four times as many inhabitants, but crammed with major medieval treasures and a city centre that looks like it has stepped out of a 17th-century painting. It also has some creative and somewhat eccentric tourism providers.

My guest quarters, for example, were a bit odd. The Baeten B&B not only had a somewhat MI5-esque way of gaining access (you ring the remote owners, who give you a keypad code), but also because you walk to your room through a cavernous shop crammed with mid-century modern furniture.

I lay down on my bed, hoping it wouldn’t be sold beneath me, enjoying the quietly modern interior and a Vermeer-like shaft of light from the walled garden. But Ghent beckoned. After a restorative coffee from the nearby brown café I hit the sights, in which Ghent – as a great medieval trading city – is incredibly rich. Many of central Ghent’s names, from Korenmarkt to Botermarkt, speak of old business, when doublet-clad merchants crowded the quays, no doubt looking splendid in front of the stepped gabled warehouses.

Ghent’s got-to is Saint Bavo Cathedral. This mighty Gothic edifice evinces the kind of soaring awesomeness that could almost turn Richard Dawkins into a believer. But the real reason you’re in Bavo’s joint is to see the Ghent altarpiece, aka The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, painted by the Van Eyck brothers in 1432. It’s an ensemble piece, like Leonardo’s The Last Supper; a storyboard of medieval piety.

Back out in Sint-Baafsplein, I milled around among the tourists, watching archeologists busying their way through the city centre soil. (There’s a lot of landscaping here, as Ghent raises its tourist game.) And a short totter away was the other vertiginous biggie, the Belfont or Belfry, again from the Middle Ages and built with mercantile money. Both the cathedral and belfry are vast, making central Ghent a soaring Gotham of the Middle Ages: Mammon competing with God.

Of course, a visit to Gravensteen was a must. With its spooky name and chain-rattling dungeons, this moated castle is a real horror-show pile, also bang in the centre of town. I walked around and enjoyed those Flemish gables from the battlements.

Enough history already? Perhaps, especially when it’s time for lunch. I went to Het Groot Vleeshuis, the old butcher’s hall and a vision of heartiness with dishes such as Gentse Waterzooi, a stew made of either fish or chicken, depending on which scripture you follow (but purists prefer freshwater fish). You can see why Belgian food has been characterised as ‘French cooking with German portions’.

It certainly set me up for the best experience in town: an afternoon’s loafing round the student quarter. In these cobbled streets, fuelled by the occasional Duvel beer, I wandered through a glorious maze of coffee bars and ramshackle vintage shops, emerging back on to the arterial Burgstraat, where the prices of the antiques gained a few noughts.

Further on past the quarter was Citadelpark with its two art galleries: the Museum voor Schone Kunsten, which includes Rubens and Magritte, and SMAK, Ghent’s museum of contemporary art.

In my curious B&B, I relaxed with my vintage bounty of 1950s lampshades and old film posters, then went out on the Ghentish town. The first stop was the town’s medieval port, built on both banks of the river (the Kraanlei and Korenlei). I had another beer in the Korenlei Twee – as pretty as the name suggests – watching the mixture of sauntering visitors and carousing boors, then ate oysters in the Pakhuis, a 19th-century warehouse from Ghent’s glorious industrial age, with delicate iron pillars.

What then? Well, there’s one nightcap joint you have to see, and that’s the Dreupelkot in Groentenmarkt. At this strange bar, there is only one drink: genièvre or gin, over 200 different types of it, many in ceramic bottles. The owner, Pol, is a marvellous cigar-smoking chap who is both lugubrious and friendly, offering his recommendations of old gins. I walked back over the river, where the moon’s reflection gave the town a Magritte-like cast, and slept like an antique.

• For further information, go to the Visit Flanders website