(Hold your horses! Have you read Part i?)
Bee Says: Although Ghent had been kind to us so far, the weather unfortunately hadn’t. So imagine our surprise when we woke up on Saturday morning to clear blue skies and dazzling winter sunshine. As this was our only full day for exploring, it made the drizzly start and finish completely worth it. We had quite the packed agenda which took in the really diverse offerings Ghent has in bucketloads. Firstly we wanted to take a walk to the tourist information office, just to double check they didn’t have any top tips that we had missed with our Google researching.
If you are heading off to Ghent, one of my tips would be… don’t bother with the Tourist Information office! Talk about the opposite of helpful; it has recently had a make-over and inside is so slick and swanky that actually there is barely any information, there were no leaflets in English that we could see (!) and the staff were the least friendly people we met in all of Ghent (when everyone on the whole was SO friendly) so yeah, not a exactly helpful on the tourist or information front. We decided to stick to our planned schedule and hunted out the part of Ghent we were most excited about… the castle! Having already visited the magnificent Kalmar castle during my Swedish summer adventure I had high hopes. It was looking pretty good from the outside though…
Another top tip about Ghent, is that if you are under 25 you get cheap tickets EVERYWHERE. So make sure you mention it, and milk it! I only know this fact because every time I tried to go somewhere or eat something I’d be asked my age. I was left entirely baffled by this (is there an age limit for this castle? What kind of castle IS this?!) until I realised that I was actually receiving the best Christmas present of all. Multiple people were thinking I was under 25! And I wasn’t even wearing make up for the whole trip! Thanks Ghent, having turned the dreaded 3-0 this year, you were a huge confidence boost to this old face.
The castle was in its Winter Wonderland phase, which seemed to just be the average castle lay out but with the odd jarring sight; such as an unexpected giant polar bear statue that took up an entire room and a huge Christmas tree with cushions underneath for kids to sit on… right next to a room of torture instruments. There were a few rooms filled with armour, maps, guns and various bits of military before we followed signs to a windy narrow spiral stone staircase that felt like it went on forever. Luckily there were little slits so you could judge that solid ground was creeping further and further away, otherwise it might have started to feel a bit Groundhog Day. Eventually we burst out into the sunshine again and were at the top of the castle; where we took in gorgeous birds eye views of Ghent; the rivers and stacked higgeldy-piggeldy buildings. I’d be roaming around taking photos and craning my neck over the top of the battlements, when I realised I had been stood on a rickety looking plank of wood with absolutely nothing beneath it. So I snapped another shot of my death-defying moment and hurried back towards the safety of the long stroll back down.
Being King (or Queen Bee!) of the castle at the top was definitely the highlight, but if you are into the grizzlier aspects of history then a treat awaits.The main exhibition in the castle gives detailed accounts of the various forms of torture that was committed there; with demonstrations, detailed graphic drawings and models. It felt a bit of a shame that here everything was translated into perfect English, whereas that wasn’t the case in the rest of the castle! So I can tell you far more about the torture than any of the actual history. The main thing that I picked up was that the fancy folk who it was initially built for quickly pronounced it was TOO COLD, moved out, and it became mainly used for fighting and torture. I can sympathise with the cold thing. When George R R Martin wrote this, I swear he was talking about Ghent in winter…
After our jaunt in the castle it was time to hoover up some lunch, so we decided to go graze on some festive fare. The day before at the market I had seen a quirky looking stall that sold something called a potato Twizzler. They had this nifty contraption where the lads on the stall stick a potato through what looks like a Play-Doh factory, and it spirals the potato onto a wooden stick. That’s then fried and covered in whatever spice/herb combo takes your fancy. We opted for their recommended house mixed spice and paprika, wish lashing of mayo.
The result it a hybrid of crisps and fried potato, and insanely tasty. We asked the boys on the stall a million questions; which resulted in them very sincerely informing us that their boss had patented the contraption and you couldn’t get these Twizzlers in London or even ENGLAND yet. So I had to laugh when last week I went to Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park, London and saw a stall selling the exact same thing under a different name! At least it meant Nick got to taste them too. The Twizzlers were handily positioned right next to a stall selling my all time favourite dessert of the sugar, cinnamony, deep fried variety. With added Nutella. Ah… it would have been rude not to.
With warm bellies, we set off on a less historical mission. Let’s gloss over the fact I was a wannabe graffiti artist as a teen (true story, but you have to buy me mulled wine to hear the cringy details and just how legal it all was!) That aside, I’ve always been a huge street art admirer and Nick’s elder brother Chris had told me there was some nice art here to scope out. It turns out that there is an actual street art heaven in the form of Werregarenstraat that is a long stretch of alley, entirely legal and constantly changing with new pieces and paste ups. Definitely worth a detour, for a contemporary taste of Belgium.
Next on the Ghent tour was a BOAT ride! It felt like time to give our numb toes a rest from pounding the cobbles, and there is always something extra to gain from viewing a city from a new, watery angle. There seemed to be two main tour operators running from just outside the Marriott along Korenlei, they were the same price and the only difference was that one side had open top boats, the other closed. Despite the chill, we wanted a decent view so opted for the open top boat. We had to wait about 20 minutes, but were soon boarding and setting off for the tour which was a generous 30 minutes. I was too busy gazing and listening to take too many snaps, but the tour took us to every corner of Ghent and offered us a look at places we wouldn’t have had time to walk to. The tour guide did a great job of translating into 4 languages, although my ear muffs might have prevented me hearing quite all the details to report back here. It was enjoyable all the same, and I’d definitely recommend taking the tour to learn alot of facts in a small amount of time.
After all that it was time to retreat for some more cloud-bed reading (I had my nose stuck in a particularly gripping Tana French novel and was itching to read some more). Earlier in the day we had made an executive decision which is quite unusual for us. Usually we sample as many different restaurants and cafes as possible… but the meal at Monopol the night before had been so amazingly good, and the service so perfect (aka left alone to natter a million miles a minute without disruption!) we booked a table again! I also had a case of serious unfinished business. Remember my massive case of food envy? Well I fixed that by ordering myself the mysterious delicious cuckoo dish. Oh! But prior to that we built up our appetite with one last look at the market and a go on the carousel. I know, we are far too old for carousels, but they are about the bravest either of us gets at the fairground and we can never resist going on; if we are together we share the embarrassment.
After another incredible nights sleep, we woke feeling really sad that it was our last day in Ghent. The weather mimicked our mood; and the sleety ice rain was back. We had a lazy morning, getting breakfast in the hotel before one last mission… a tour around St Nicholas’ church! In the centre of Ghent there are three beautiful churches laid out in a line. St Nicholas’ is the middle, and in my opinion, most impressive. Am I biased because my fiance is called Nicholas and encouraged us to go and see his namesake? Yes, yes I am!
I’m not usually too into churches, but this one really had something about it.The huge stone pillars, intricate wood carvings depicting all sorts of fruit, fauna, cherubs and heavenly goings ons. There was a real sense of calm and freedom as we walked around; both particularly noting the organ that was set way up in the top of the church; which must be quite something to see when it’s being played. It was a lovely place to hide from the damp outdoors and definitely worth popping in; it’s free!
All that was left before catching our train was to potter through a few more streets en route to the tram that would whisk us back to the train station. We felt like we’d really only scratched the surface of Ghent, slightly due to weather and slightly due to the Marriott luring us into spending so much time lazing there! I am so glad we did though, as for once I returned to work refreshed rather than needing another break from my break. It also means there is a lot of reasons to return, which I’d really like to do but perhaps in summer to explore the parks and outdoor space, and slurp a fruit beer on the river side.
Nick Says: Hello! I’ve been missing in action the last few entries, forgive me! While Bee was off gallivanting around Europe’s most underrated country, I wasn’t just sitting around in my boxers watching films and drinking beer (I was). I also returned to the West Country, scene of Bee’s birthday surprise and more recently the beginning of my epic British road-trip.I spent the weekend with my brother, my sister-in-law, and my adorable nephew and niece. My nephew Riley is 4, and has just realised how amazing Christmas is. He woke me at 7am one morning with the rapid-fire, no pausing for breath sentence, ‘It’s 19 days to Christmas. Do you know it’s 19 days to Christmas? I love Christmas. Do you love Christmas?’. He also asked me how Father Christmas knew where to find me and Bee last year (as we were in Colombia), so I told the tiny true believer that my Mum & Dad (aka Nanny & Da) wrote him a letter. I have a feeling he’s going to be one excited little boy in a few days. Anyway, I then returned to find a tired but happy Bee, laden with delicious Belgian chocolates for me. Win!
Bee Says: Thanks again to Eurostar for the generous covering of my travel, and enabling me to discover the Marriott with the saved pennies; a new home from home. Thanks mum for being a fantastic travel companion and giving me such a lovely excursion from London rat racing; and quite a different trip to the tropical ones I was taking this time last year. Ghent really does have something for everyone, and I think it’s time it stepped out of Bruges shadows. I enjoyed it just as much, if not more.