“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.
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.
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.
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 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)
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:
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.
Read the previous posts of our little adventure here: