Mick and I have always threatened to go to Belgium, the land of beer and chocolate. This year we made good on that threat. On Stephen’s Day, with our bellies still full from Christmas dinner the day before, we caught a 10:30am flight to Brussels. An hour later we were floating down a river made of chocolate, drinking beer that fell from the sky. Okay maybe not, but we were on a train to Ghent. After a bit of confusion with the Tram system, we made our way to the Ghent River Hotel. Unfortunately, our first impressions were not great. Our ground floor, next to the bar, facing a alley, double room consisted of 2 single beds pushed together, with two very small single duvets. We decided to worry about that later and hit the city.
We were excited to get out and see Ghent. I was looking forward to walking around one of the older cities in Europe that was untouched during the war. Our hotel was based just around the corner from Gravensteen Castle (built in 1180) so it was our first stop of the day. The castle was lovely and decorated throughout with a christmas theme for children visiting. The castle is known for housing a torture museum in it’s dungeon, I found this a bit strange with all the kids running around. I imagine most parents were saying, “now you be good or you’re going to get disembowelled and put on the stretcher…”. There as also a small museum containing original suits of armour, broadswords and other battle instruments. All very interesting.
Moving on, we were delighted to see that the Christmas market in the center of Ghent was still on. After a few gluehwein’s (with amaretto!) and bratwurst for dinner we decided we better drink a few beers. We headed to Het Waterhuis (Bierhaus) which boasts the largest variety of belgian beers in Ghent.
We woke up saturday to a flurry of snow, it was cold outside. We had come prepared for cold but not quite that cold! We put on pretty much all the clothes we brought and headed out to see more sites. We strolled passed all powerful Dulle Griet, Graslei and Korenlei harbour lined with beautiful historical buildings before we reached the city’s main square flanked with the three towers of St Nicholas Church, the Belfort and St Bavo’s Cathedral.
Up the Belfort (belfry/bell tower) we went, we were more than impressed. We opted to take the steps up the round tower to the top stopping along the way to learn about the history of the 700 year old building. On the second floor we were greeted by the original guided dragon that use to reside on top of the tower looking over the city. He was a patchwork of steel plates and rivets from repairs over the years. But the real star of the show as on the 4th floor, was the original Carillon (1659) which still functions today to play the chiming of the bells every hour.
Across the square stands St. Bavo’s Cathedral which houses one of the art worlds most treasured pieces, the Ghent Altarpiece aka The Adoration of the Majestic Lamb by the Van Eyke Brothers in the 1430’s. I left Mick to explore the cathedral while I paid in to see the Altarpiece. It was stunning, it contained such detail and rich colour, something that was not/could not be replicated by the projector in Art History class all those years ago.
After some tasty waffles, smothered in nutella, we decided it was time to do what we came to Belgium to do. We headed to Gruut Brewery. After sampling a few hop-less beers, we went in search of some food. Outside a thick layer of snow had fallen over the city. We continued on back to the city centre, walking through the back streets of Ghent. When we walked into Restaurant Du Progres, I thought we had fallen into a tourist trap (as I got the recommendation out of a tourist book). But it did not disappoint. I had the most amazing deer stew and Mick had a similarly amazing steak. Both served with sides of famous Belgian fries.
Sunday, we headed to Bruges. Looking to get the tram down to the train station, we realised we had no money to buy tram tickets. We went in search of an ATM, heading the direction of the station. No ATM’s in site. No more trams in site either (sunday schedule?). We ended up walking the hour to to the station where we finally found an ATM. Finally on the train we had a lovely 30min trip and arrived in Bruges shortly after 1 in the afternoon. Along with all the other tourists, we hopped on the bus to head to the city center, realising later that there was no need for a bus as it was a short stroll from the station. The appeal of Bruges was immediately apparent, the large medieval Market square is surrounded by beautiful historical buildings, and at this time had a large Christmas market set up. First things first, gluehwein.
On to Burg Square, to step inside Bruge’s City Hall (1376), one of oldest City Hall’s in the Low Countries. Even more impressive than the high gold guided ceilings was the Brugse Vrije (1581) an enormous fireplace and chimney intricately carved from wood and marble.
After City Hall we went a-strolling, through cobblestoned alleys over picturesque bridges. Finally finding ourselves at the Groeningemuseum, where i was particularly interested in seeing Hieronymus Bosch‘s Last Judgement (1486). I always find Bosch’s work so interesting, it seems that at a time when every other artist was trying to capture the human form in it’s likeness, Bosch was channeling a Salvador Dali from the future. Truly bizarre and fascinating work. De Halve Maan Brewery was our next stop. A few pints and then on again for some grub.
Our last stop in Bruges was a museum called the Retsin’s Lucifernum, this placed was described as
“An amazing (private) art gallery with Gothic cemetery in a subtropic garden located in the old Freemasons temple (1756 – 1882) 1000m2 art and mystery in Bruges’ old city center. Only 0pen on Sundays from 19:00 till 21:00”
Well that definitely sounded interesting and as we just happened to be in Bruges on Sunday we thought we’d give it a go. We strolled back across the now lit up city. When we arrived at on the right street we came to two large doors with a sign “Lucifernum” written across, they were closed tightly and not a light on in the place. However glowing a little further down the road there was an entrance. In a small atrium decorated with all sorts of ‘gothic/junk’ tat sat a sign saying “Ring the bell to enter, €10″. After a small debate, will we or won’t we ring… Mick with one foot out the door, I rang the bell (hell, we only live once!)
After a few minutes we were greater by an older (75 to be exact) gentleman wearing a tux with an Iron cross pined to it. He ushered us into yet another room where he asked us to wait so he could turn the lights on, as we were the first visitors that evening. When the lights were on we were told we had free reign of the house and any door that was open, and when we were finished to join him in the bar for a drink. So, we explored the many rooms with beautiful paintings ranging form pop-art style collages, eery vampires, amazing thrashing boat seascapes and what I’m calling the ‘Kama Sutra Room”.
We had the place to ourselves for the better part of an hour. We heard the bell ring and another couple showed up and we headed to the bar for that drink. Here we entered area resembling the bow of a ship, where we were greeted by a woman (we can only assume our Host’s wife) who lead us to a few seats and gave us a few cocktail menus. Rum was the house/ship drink of choice, I chose a vanilla and Mick a fruity one. They were triple-measured rocket fuel! As our drinks lowered a few more joined us in the bar, while our hosts (and son?) went from table to table chatting to their ‘guests’. I had a since that this is what artistic socialite society was like in the 1920’s.
We would have liked to have stayed longer, but unfortunately we had to catch the last train back to Ghent at 10pm. So we said varwell and headed back to the train station.
Monday was our last day in Ghent. We decided we were going to do some sort of city tour. Seeing as the walking tour was out of season, we opted for an open top riverboat tour. We bought our tickets and had a 15 min wait, which then turned into a 45 min wait, as apparently the boat ‘broke down’ and was stuck in the middle of the river. This was not a good sign but we were assured a new boat was being sent… As we board the open top (!!!) boat it began to downpour! Luckily our guides provided us with large colourful umbrellas as shelter. Other’s weren’t so happy with and tried to leave, but were stopped abruptly as the boat pulled away from the dock, Mick and I snickered at the hilarity of it all. Shortly after the tour began the rain stopped and the tour was lovely. Through small canals and down larger rivers we learned some more history of the medieval city.
The rest of the day was spent meandering the streets, eating waffles, drinking gluehwein and generally waiting to go to the airport.
I thoroughly enjoyed our trip to Ghent and Bruges! The history of these cities is ancient, fascinating and sometimes terrifying.
|Ghent and Brugges|