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Things to do in Ghent, a Belgian Gem.
Ghent is picturesque, quaint and – like many Belgian cities – quirky. It has an enviable skyline of gables and spires each of which comprises parts of its history. Every building seems to tell a story, from the Stadhuis where the treaty of Ghent was signed in 1814 to the edifices on the Vrijdachsmarkt that have witnessed much of the city’s turbulent and rebellious past. There are plenty of things to do in Ghent, the city boasts an architectural cocktail from the medieval to the twenty-first century via Gothic, Renaissance, neo-Gothic, and Modernist design which makes for a fascinating walking tour of the town. Indoors there are museums, restaurants, bars and boutiques galore which are a world away from the uniformed row of branded stores and chain eateries with which we are all too familiar.
In town to see the excellent Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution exhibition, we took the opportunity to explore Ghent over a couple of days. We began with a cultural walking tour (this and many other walks can be arranged by the Ghent Tourist Office) which not only gives the visitor an overview of the city and tips on where to return to later but also introduces one to a local tour guide who knows and loves their city. This being Ghent, we were greeted by a wonderful guide whose red beret and red and black stylish earrings were not only chic, but as bright as her personality on a cold day where gale-force winds and rain would suggest spending the day drinking hot chocolate rather than sight-seeing.
Eating and museum visits are my favourite activities when travelling and we zigzagged for two days between venues. We spent many engrossing hours at the Fine Arts Museum (MSK) which is hosting the Van Eyck exhibition and in Saint Bavo’s Cathedral to see the unforgettable Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. This set of artworks is in itself worth making a trip to Ghent, yet there is far more to see. Simply walking along the streets enjoying the turrets and towers, steeples and gables is awe-inspiring. Some parts of the historic centre, such as the Graslei and the Korenlei (where our hotel, Ghent Marriot was situated on the river Leie) are almost perfectly restored. It is film-set beautiful
Architecture is a striking feature of the city and many of its museums. We dropped into the Design Museum which was gearing up for a new show inspired by Van Eyck’s use of colour. It is a building worth visiting in its own right no matter what exhibition is on.
We spent hours at STAM (Ghent City Museum) – the museum that comprehensively unfolds the story of Ghent’s history through the display of artefacts, documents, artwork and interactive displays. The most popular part of the museum is The Story of Ghent – a large room with an enormous satellite map of the city on which visitors can walk. It is a wonderfully creative way to lay down the cityscape and is understandably very popular with all ages.
The STAM museum is situated on the site of the Bijloke Abbey which was founded in the Middle Ages. The refectory boasts a fresco of The Last Supper as well as other wall decorations that take one straight back to the 14th century. We sat in reverential silence, the entire space to ourselves.
Ghent’s culinary traditions also go back centuries and I tasted my way through many of the local products in the medieval Great Butcher’s Hall where rows of Ganda hams hang from the wooden beams. On the Groentenmarkt, where there are a host of renowned food shops, I bought several jars of mustard from Tierneteyn-Verlent. Only the meagre size of my hand luggage prevented me from buying some of their pretty ceramic mustard pots. Outside the shop stands a wooden cart brimming with sweets known as cuberdons. Cone-shaped, known locally as little noses, they are chewy and filled with an intensely sweet, gooey centre. I tried the traditional raspberry flavour but there was a rainbow of choice.
Also on the Groentenmarkt, we found the Himschoot bakery that sells in the region of 65 different breads. Not for the indecisive, especially as there is a queue for their wares. Even though we had recently eaten breakfast, we could not resist sharing a large slice of the award-winning bread pudding and tucked a healthy, seed loaf shaped like a giant toadstool into our shopping bag to eat on the train home. Around the corner on Sint Baafsplein, we happily parted with our euros in exchange for a variety of slabs of chocolate from Chocolaterie Luc Van Hoorebeke. The Ruby chocolate, a glorious pink, transported me to childhood – it is milky and sweet and very moreish. You can watch chocolate being made in the basement kitchen. Buy more than you think you need – it won’t last long.
Belgium is renowned for its breweries and we had to choose wisely as our time was limited. One afternoon, the rain pelting down, we found our way to the Patershol, a medieval part of town that was saved from demolition and has become the trendy home to art galleries, restaurants and bars. From the outside, Café Folklore did not look like much, the small patio deserted in the inclement weather. Once inside this small neighbourhood bar, we received the warmest welcome. The proprietor cleared away a heap of coats to offer us the last two seats at a tiny table. She helped us navigate the extensive beer menu. I was advised to try a fruity, light beer which was more refreshing than my usual afternoon beverage – a mug of English Breakfast tea. The bar was filled with the happy laughter of a large group of older patrons who seemed to be out celebrating. Café Folklore is known not only for its ambience but also for its bar snacks. A side plate was served filled with a freshly cooked serving of kroakemandels – deep-fried, salted peas. I thought that perhaps they were originally the poor person’s alternative to salted nuts. Having walked around the city for hours in the rain, we were most grateful for a tasty snack.
Later that night we made our way back to the Patershol. The city buildings are illuminated until midnight and a post-prandial walk is highly recommended to see the beautiful facades lit up, giving a magical effect to the town.
We were headed for Rococo – a candlelit front room cum bar that opens from 9 pm to 5 am. You sit elbow to elbow with a couple of dozen guests at a collection of communal wooden tables. The owner, Betty, is as rococo as is the interior. We sat in front of a huge fireplace; a log smouldered in the grate while wax dripped from the candelabras perched on each table. We sipped small glasses of unspecified liqueurs – one called Liqueur d’Amour and the other, more pungent, named Liqueur Rococo.
While Ghent has endless opportunities for having a drink, we also enjoyed some excellent meals. Ghent has a table for all pockets and, while it is particularly strong on vegan and vegetarian fare , it caters brilliantly for meat-eaters or pescatarians like myself.
We visited Volta on a very windy night yet the restaurant was full and atmospheric. It is housed in a redeveloped electricity station – I assumed this is why is it called Volta – and is decorated in bursts of orange, from the extraordinary, giant-sized light fitting centrepiece which is a sculptural artwork in itself, down to the menus, printed on orange paper.
Volta is a very well known restaurant in Ghent and the erstwhile chef, Olly Ceulenaere, has now opened his own restaurant across town, called Publiek.
A Negroni for me and a Volta gin and tonic for my partner got the evening off to a very smooth start. There is an impressive list of gins and beers as one might expect in Belgium. The menu is concise – five starters and mains and four desserts. While one can order a set menu where the chef chooses the starters, we decided on selecting 2 starters each as the waiter recommended. Leaving out the steak tartare – two pescatarians we are – we selected the remaining four dishes.
The waiter, having consulted with the sommelier, brought two bottles to the table for us to taste and select. The wine glasses were quite beautiful. Terra Noble Gran Reserva Chardonnay 2018 was intense and fresh, perfectly up to the task of complementing the strong flavours of the food. The wine was kept cool in a huge ice bucket in the centre of the room with our table number written on the bottle, the sommelier keeping an eye on our glasses.
The highlight of the starters was a smoked eel served on a round of brioche with chopped boiled egg and dill. The salmon starter was a delicate tartare, tiny cubes of fresh and flavoursome salmon, lots of dill and a buttermilk sauce. Warm cauliflower with parmesan and dukkah was a top-quality cauliflower cheese with parmesan cream, rich and decadent. While I am a great oyster enthusiast, the pairing with cabbage didn’t quite hit the right spot for my taste.
The main course of skrei in a curry cream sauce was a beautifully composed dish with an unusual combination of fruit, vegetable and fish providing hues of emerald green and pink. Radish provided a crunchy, fresh foil to the fish. The curry sauce provided balance and did not overpower the delicate flavour of the skrei which is a seasonal treat. Sweet, soft cubes of mango added extra notes of flavour and textural contrast along with the chives.
The dessert course brought a tartiflette with poached pear, a gorgeous disc of chocolate balancing above, alongside a Roquefort ice cream. A crumble of oatmeal provided much textural interest to the ice cream of beurre noisette and the sour cherry. These are the sorts of desserts one really wants to eat – creative, tasty and lovely to look at.
Espresso and mint tea were accompanied by Volta rocky road chocolate with pecan nuts as well as rum cakes with lemongrass. Volta has a sophisticated ambience, yet is relaxed and very welcoming, The menu is short but packed with interesting options, the service is excellent.
The following evening, we ate at Pakhuis brasserie. Translating as ‘warehouse’, Pakhuis is a renovated industrial space which is all restored ironwork, chicly painted in an olive green. It is a very large space divided into with several areas so doesn’t feel too big. We sat on a mezzanine overlooking the action below. It is a very lively brasserie and was packed to the rafters on a Saturday night.
The restaurant is big on provenance and has its own farm in France from where its Bresse chickens are sourced. I once drove across France to have lunch in Bresse so I appreciated the superb quality chicken on offer. Pakhuis also raises its own lamb, guinea fowl and free-range pork.
A wonderful list of gin and tonics, ports, sherry and even my all-time favourite aperitif were on offer – Pineau des Charentes. However, being in Ghent, I wanted to savour something local so chose RoomeR which is a fortified wine made with elderflower. It was served on ice and was delicate and refreshing.
The menu was extensive and tempting in every direction from that Bresse chicken to a vast array of crustaceans, oysters, fish and meat dishes. I found it very hard to choose what to eat but, being pescatarian these days and a shellfish lover, I finally plumbed for grilled and tartare langoustines to be followed by a grilled lobster. My partner chose the scallops.
The langoustines were a revelation served as a tartare. I had misread the menu and hadn’t realised the tartare would be wrapped in cecina – an air-dried beef, like bresaola. Although I generally don’t eat red meat this was scrumptious. The contrasting langoustines were served grilled with an avocado cream – delicate, sweet and herby. A first-class dish.
The grilled lobsters looked great – they were very fresh, tender and sweet. I would prefer garlicky, lemony rice to that cooked in coconut milk but that is just my preference. Despite this, I polished off every morsel of this decadent treat.
The dessert menu was also comprehensive. My partner chose a chocolate moelleux which was heavenly. A most impressive chocolate fondant was served with grapes, caramel ice cream and chocolate gravel.
I ordered a dish comprising some of my favourite ingredients. The fruit was served simply slices with chocolate chip scattered about along with a gorgeous saffron-infused ice cream.
Our last meal in Ghent was more pedestrian. Before heading home we just had to have a plate of frites and did so in a small, neighbourhood eatery devoted to all things fried. From there we waited in Sint-Pieters railway station which is emblazoned with lunette shaped murals and a stunning painted ceiling created for the 1913 World Exhibition.
From arrival to departure, Ghent surprised me at every turn. Romantic, stylish, quaint but also modern, Ghent’s cultural heritage shares space with innovative architecture, magnificent artworks and an extensive range of restaurants, bars and shops. It truly is a Belgian gem.