Journey to the West: Ghent & Bruges

“Why Ghent? Actually, where’s Ghent?”

Those were the common questions I would get when I share about our little holiday. I first read about Ghent when I was trying to find a common place to stay when we travel between Bruges and Brussels. I knew those two places are very touristy and my idea was to settle at a quieter area after the hustles and bustles of Paris.

Some online research led me to places like Ghent and Antwerp, with many seasoned travelers vouching for the first. Ghent is situated strategically between Brussels and Bruges, just a half hour train ride between those two and I was particularly intrigued to discover this “hidden gem”.

So we left the Gare du Nord station for Bruxelles Midi via the Thalys network. While the Eurostar impressed us earlier on, the Thalys did not disappoint either. The journey was smooth and speedy and within an hour we found ourselves on Belgian soil. We then boarded the Belgian IC (intercity) train from Brussels to Gent Sint Pieters, where mom and I accidentally sat in the first class coach. The conductor politely ushered us to the second class coach and we were equally amazed at the legroom of these trains. These trains are specially designed to allow people and their bicycles on board, since cycling is a large part of the Belgian transportation system.

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— The Gent St Pieters. It’s really quite an iconic sight.
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— The roads around the neighbourhood of our AirBnb

The difference of pace and atmosphere was immediately felt when we arrived at Ghent – everything was slower-paced and a lot more foreign. Yes, more foreign than Paris. They don’t have tourist-friendly instructions and signs, and even their ticketing machines have poor English translations. The irony was, however, the people there have a generally good command of English and aren’t reluctant to speak to you – unlike the French. So the best way to get around is to just ask the locals.

Our AirBnb in Ghent was probably three times larger than the one in Paris, at half the cost.  Francis, our host kindly rushed from Brussels to meet us and he gladly provided instructions of how things work in the house and the general places we could go in Ghent. At one point, we did not know how to operate the washing machine and he came back to help us out. It was a funny moment because he, too, did not know how to operate the machine and we both spent the next half hour downloading the original manuals from the Internet and turning every possible knob we could find. Soon, the combo of an iOS app developer and an oil & gas engineer would discover that this bloody piece of German engineering was disabled by a child’s lock.

The apartment we stayed in was located near the river that connects us to the main city, which was such a joy each time we walked alongside it because it was so peaceful and serene. There aren’t any metros or trains in the city itself, and everyone travels by tram, bicycles or foot. Mom and I walked most of the time because the tram ride was quite pricey for the short distance it covered.

--- Trams run through the medieval city to the outer parts of town very frequently.
— Trams run through the medieval city to the outer parts of town very frequently.

We explored the city a little bit and discovered what could be the best Chinese restaurant in the whole of Belgium, before we called it a night. It was nice to walk all over the place without being approached by gypsies and con men or worry that we might get our pockets picked.

--- Our AirBnb is located along the river, which leads straight to the city center. We loved our walks!
— Our AirBnb is located along the river, which leads straight to the city center. We loved our walks!
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— The route that leads to the city center!

The next morning we set out for Bruges and did what most tourists would do – visit the Choco Factory, the Beer Museum, ate mussels (oh, the white wine and butter!), ogle at beautiful laces and tapestry and shopped for chocolates!  And we had the best Belgian waffles in our lives in an unsuspecting little cafe with lots of elderly customers (I suppose they’ve been regulars for a long time). There’s plenty to see and do in Bruges, and everything is within walking distance. Like Ghent, Bruges is also a beautiful medieval canal city with plenty of history to go around. Again, forego the expensive trams and public transportation – even the walk from the train station to the city center is scenic – and absolutely safe!

--- We're in Bruges! Just like Ghent, it's a medieval city that blends both culture and modern art.
— We’re in Bruges! Just like Ghent, it’s a medieval city that blends both culture and modern art.

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--- The cobble stone streets can be quite tough on the feet - so make sure you have comfy shoes!
— The cobble stone streets can be quite tough on the feet – so make sure you have comfy shoes!

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--- A small display of modern sculpture.
— A small display of modern sculpture.
--- When you see the Belfry, you're in the Markt square!
— When you see the Belfry, you’re in the Markt square!
--- Horses and carriages! Mom was a wee afraid to go too near.
— Horses and carriages! Mom was a wee afraid to go too near.
--- Us! Pardon the no-head-sculpture of Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck. They're patriotic heroes credited for the uprising against Philip the Fair.
— Us! Behind us is the sculpture of Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck. They’re patriotic heroes credited for the uprising against Philip the Fair.
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— Apart from chocolate, Ghent is well-known for its tapestry and lace. They’re not cheap, these little delicate things.
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— At the Choco Factory! Mom receiving her cup of hot cocoa.
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— One of the things mom inherited to me is her taste and interest in china. We love, love, love the details that adorn cups and plates!
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— This. This is a cupboard filled with handbags made of chocolate. No kidding. EVERYTHING in that cupboard is made of chocolate. Probably a woman’s kind of heaven.
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— We were shown how chocolate truffles are made, and of course, we also get to eat them too!
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— At the Beer Factory! Nothing better than to down all that chocolate with beer!
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— Our ticket came with three complimentary glasses of beer EACH. Yes, EACH. I finished two, and mom finished one. Next time, we’ll just opt for the beer-tasting ticket for one.
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— This is probably the first time I’ve seen mom drink beer! They’re so good!
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— One of the many little shops that mom fell in love with. It’s almost like Santa’s workshop.
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— Mussels! Ahhh.. I can still remember how juicy and sweet they were in the white wine and garlic sauce. That pot was huge, we couldn’t finish it! Since then I’ve never had the frozen mussels back home anymore.
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— At the Basilica of the Holy Blood. This church houses the Holy Blood allegedly collected by Joseph. In the next room was where the relic was placed.
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— After a day’s worth of fun, we took a slow, relaxing stroll back to the station. I think that’s our favourite part about our Belgian chapter – the walks.
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— My mommy is pretty, yes? 🙂

We spent the next day just taking in whatever Ghent had to offer. As we entered the city center we were treated to the famous “three towers” — the towers of Saint Nicholas Church, the Belfry and the Saint Bavo’s Cathedral. We also took a boat ride down the canal – and we were given a treat with the scenic view of tightly squeezed colorful shop houses, the Castle of the Counts (aka Gravensteen) and the Kissing Tree. For lunch, we stopped by Gruut – a beer factory / restaurant and tried waterzooi (stewed chicken in vegetable and beer broth) for the first time and loved it. (Trivia: Thursday is Veggie Day in Ghent where the locals sorta become vegetarians for a day in the week)

--- The Three towers.
— The Three towers.
--- It's Market day! Everyone's all out to play!
— It’s Market day! Everyone’s all out to play!
--- This is a truck. I kid you not. It's a truck turned into a full-fledged Belgian Ayamas. Raw section also got!
— This is a truck. I kid you not. It’s a truck turned into a full-fledged Belgian Ayamas. Raw section also got!
--- Mom buying strawberries from the nice ol' lady after being snubbed by another fruit seller. More story on that in the later paragraphs.
— Mom buying strawberries from the nice ol’ lady after being snubbed by another fruit seller. More story on that in the later paragraphs.
--- Then you have the flea market with all sorts of stuff in the next street.
— Then you have the flea market with all sorts of stuff in the next street.

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--- At the Gruut brewery/restaurant.
— At the Gruut brewery/restaurant.
--- Waterzooi! Yummy!
— Waterzooi! Yummy!
--- How can we not take a boat ride along this beautiful canal?
— How can we not take a boat ride along this beautiful canal?
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— Thank God for beaaaaauuutiful weather!
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— That’s the “kissing tree” at the back!
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— The Gravensteen
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— Even people stopping by the bridge are so beautiful! It was a good day, indeed.

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One of the highlights of our time in Ghent, thanks to my mother’s research and recommendation, was when we visited the Ghent Altarpiece (also known as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb) – a massive 12-panel complex painting masterpiece by the Van Eyck brothers in the 15th century. It is probably one of the only artwork out there that details out the major characters from the Holy Bible so intricately – even all the way to their clothing.

However, what makes it even more fascinating is that it is also one of the greatest art theft mysteries of all time. In 1934, two of the 12 panels were stolen by someone who left behind nothing but the initials D.U.A (later found as an anagram for A.V.D.).  The thief demanded a ransom of 1 million Belgian francs, and returned one of the stolen panels (John the Baptist) to prove that he is really in possession of the other (the Just Judges). Not long after, the self-proclaimed thief, Arsène Goedertier, revealed on his deathbed to his lawyer that he was the only one who knew where the masterpiece was hidden, and that he would take the secret to his grave. In one of his unsent ransom notes, was the sentence, “[it] rests in a place where neither I, nor anybody else, can take it away without arousing the attention of the public.”

The lost panel remains undiscovered today and investigations are still ongoing. The current Just Judges panel is a replica produced by Belgian copyist Jef Van der Veken. There is a section in the Ghent museum dedicated to this mystery alone.

After all this… I can’t believe I can’t find a single photo of the artwork! I don’t remember if we were prohibited to take photos – or maybe I was so intrigued I forgot. But if you Google it, you’ll see the complete artwork. But but but… here’s to make up for it:

--- Behold - the best waffles I've ever had in my life. No cream or fruits or any fancy toppings - just slightly crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside - perfect.
— Behold – the best waffles I’ve ever had in my life. No cream or fruits or any fancy toppings – just slightly crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside – perfect.

 

--- Our tummies decided to get chow mein and pork ribs for dinner. Perks of having mom around is she also makes sure we get our fruits! Wine was complimentary from our AirBnb host.
— Our tummies decided to get chow mein and pork ribs for dinner. Perks of having mom around is she also makes sure we get our fruits! Wine was complimentary from our AirBnb host.
--- We lived right opposite the Ghent STAM museum. The receptionist decided that I was a student and mom was a senior citizen so that we could both get half price because we were the first visitors of the day. How nice!
— We lived right opposite the Ghent STAM museum. The receptionist decided that I was a student and mom was a senior citizen so that we could both get half price because we were the first visitors of the day. How nice!
--- This museum was very well-curated. You could see Ghent's past, present and future all in one place.
— This museum was very well-curated. You could see Ghent’s past, present and future all in one place.

Now Ghent isn’t without her flaws. One of the cons of not-so commercialized cities like these is the lack of tourist hospitality. We have encountered several occasions where we were snubbed for being Asians, such as the time when mom was ignored by a local fruits seller even though she was standing right in front of him, waiting to pay (we resorted to buying strawberries from a nicer old lady at another stall). Or the time when I was asking around on how to pay for our tram fare but was met with passengers who simply avoided me (I got fed up and decided we’d just ride for free – don’t mess with a Penangite who can’t tolerate such bullshit).

But all that experience has made our trip a little more enriching – the grass is not always greener on the other side. Racism exists everywhere, and this time we were on the shorter end of the stick. I think that’s how some of the migrant workers feel in Malaysia. That’s probably why I enjoy traveling so much – it’s one of the only times to be on the other side of the glass, looking in – my perspectives are always changed each time I visit a new place.

To be honest I do think our trip to Belgium was a bit too short this time. There’s a certain charm in this Flemish region that I personally would like to experience a little bit more. Given a few more days we might have spent some time in Brussels too. Maybe next time, we’ll come back to the little cafe for those delectable waffles. And many rounds of Gruut beer.

--- Despite all the ups and downs, it was the quality time with mom that I treasured most. Next stop: Rainy London, and sunny Leigh & Cambridge!
— Despite all the ups and downs, it was the quality time with mom that I treasured most. Next stop: Rainy London, and sunny Leigh & Cambridge!
Read the previous posts of our little adventure here:

 

4 Replies to “Journey to the West: Ghent & Bruges”

  1. Nooooo, pic of panels replaced by waffles! Hahahaha. I do hear from people that their waffles are the best! Would love to try one some day. Entertaining read, anf im amazed by your memory on the trip details.

    1. I miss Bruges too, and I think the outskirts of the main city center would’ve been equally lovely. 🙂 Yes yes, the London post will be up soon!

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