Bee Says: I had barely stepped foot back onto English soil from gallivanting around Paris (read all about it here and here) when I was packing my suitcase and heading back onto my new favourite form of transport; the Eurostar! My mum and I have a tradition of going on a weekend city break every year. We’ve been known to pack ourselves off to chic European locations like Paris… Bruges… Liverpool… Manchester… Nottingham (it honestly is chic! more here) and Lille (more here). This trip was an extra special one for us, because we’ve been planning it since before Nick & I went off backpacking around the world and it was sort of an anchor in the future where we knew we’d be reunited and have some real quality time.
Our criteria for this trip was:
- Somewhere we could reach on the Eurostar (it’s faster & greener than flying, and as this blog reveals; I have clocked up way too many air-miles in the last year)
- Not too far to travel / easy connections
- Something festive!
- Walk-able once there
- Delicious Food / Wine
I was fortunate enough to be approached by Eurostar who told me all about their “Any Belgian Station” deal as we got to planning our trip, and it seemed to be the perfect solution. “Any Belgian Station” tickets start at £79 return and the offer includes Antwerp, Ghent, Bruges and stations along the Belgian Coast. So all we had to do was pick one! In the end we selected Ghent because we have already been to Bruges and when we did, we passed through Ghent on the train and had both noted how beautiful it looked. Plus… we knew that Ghent could easily tick off the something festive criteria, as it is famous for the traditional Christmas market.
Soon enough the first weekend in December rolled around and we were up at the crack of dawn to escape London before the rush hour crush. On the journey over we were in the standard premier coach which was lovely; spacious, with plush leather seats, those fancy little table lights, free magazines (in three languages; if you fancy testing your skills) and breakfast consisting of oodles of tea/coffee, fresh bread, croissants and jam. The staff were so friendly and it made for a really pleasant experience as we zoomed out to Brussels. The Any Belgian Station ticket means you can swiftly change at Brussels onto your connecting train; a top tip is to work out online what the final destination of the train you need might be; as with our train Ghent wasn’t the last stop. The clouds gathered and swirled as we set off towards Ghent, and by the time we arrived we were met with pouring rain. This made navigating our way to our hotel slightly tricky, as I held a map my mum had smartly printed out in one hand and tried to connect to Google maps in the other. The train station is a 45 minute walk out of the town centre, and our grand plans for walking along to canal into town were soggily spoilt as we admitted defeat after becoming lost within 5 minutes! We did stumble across the most bikes I have ever seen in one place though. Ghent is all about the cycling, I don’t think I saw one taxi, and barely any buses, the whole time I was there.
Damp and disorientated we spotted a very swanky looking opticians and felt so self concious as we rolled our suitcase in; creating puddles in the lovely shop and clearly not looking to buy a new set of specs! But immediately a very dapper Belgian map swept us inside, printed off non-rain-soaked maps and set us off in the way of the tram that would take us almost right to the door of our hotel. He was so kind and generous; and it really turned our spirits around! It turned out that getting into central Ghent was super easy; there’s a #1 tram that runs into town about every 5 minutes and leaves from right outside the train station. We were soon in eyesight of our hotel; which we didn’t know when we booked was on the most photographed street in all of Ghent; Korenlei. You can see why!
Because Eurostar had kindly covered my travel costs, we decided to use the money saved there and treat ourself to a more upmarket hotel than we might usually opt for. The Marriott in Ghent is their flagship hotel, and you can absolutely see why. I wouldn’t say either my mum or I know much about hotels and chains and brands; or have a preference. In fact, our standard choice is a Premier Inn! But after being thoroughly spoilt in our Marriott experience I think we have both been utterly convinced by this trip that we would seek out a Marriott wherever we go in future! Firstly it helped that on arrival we could hardly believe our eyes that we were staying on the most picturesque, stunning strip of Ghent. Then the welcome we received was so genuine, and nothing was too much trouble for the staff who checked us in (between us we managed to have a lot of questions!) and the hotel itself is SO cool. A combination of authentic old stone and modern glass structure; the lobby area was home to a huge Christmas tree and a cosy bar and restaurant area. At night there were carol singers around a piano, which was an unexpected festive touch. That’s not to mention our room. Despite being a standard room it was mammoth, with two huge beds as soft and magical as sleeping on an actual cloud and a bath for us to rest weary legs after days pounding the cobbles. The atmosphere in the hotel was so homely that it was very tempting just to stay lazing in our room reading (we did that a lot) or sitting underneath the tree drinking coffee, that always came with a shot of chocolate Jenever, a local Belgian liquor, in a glass filled with whipped cream. No matter what time of day! It worked a treat at thawing out numb toes and fingers; as it was barely above 0 degrees for our entire trip.
Dry, rested and happy; we eventually bundled up in all our winter woollens and headed out to the Ghent Christmas Market, which fortunately was having its opening night on the exact day we arrived. The hotel was in perfect location for the market, which was taking place about a five minute walk away with chalets, fairground rides and bars winding their way from Korenmarkt up to Sint-Baafsplein. We explored about half of the market; taking in all the smells and sights of mulled-everything, local cheeses, chocolate and knitted bits and bobs. We happened across an ice rink in the centre and to celebrate the opening night there was a performance from some professional skaters, which was way more impressive than watching Londoners who’ve drunk too much mulled wine stumbling around clinging to the edges (my usual Christmas ice rink experience!)
Unfortunately the rain from earlier had now turned in to some sort of ice rain that was seeping in through our hats and scarves. We set out towards Patershol; the historic restaurant quarter in the hope we could find some local delicacies. I blame our Jenever-addled brains as unfortunately we set off in entirely the wrong direction, managed to find ourselves on the only sketchy isolated street in all of Ghent (!) and then alongside a canal on the outskirts of town. By this point we were really cold and really wet; so we walked back to the lights of the big wheel in the distance and then decided to go to a restaurant called Monopol (Korenmarkt 37) that was just round the corner from our hotel. Most of the eating places near our hotel had been quite cookie-cutter looking places with tourist menus and outside eating areas covered in plastic (that I imagine are gorgeous in summer months). Monopol had stood out; set slightly back off the street with cosy candle-lit tables and an ambience you could pick up even from outside. As we blustered in from the wintry weather, we were seated next to a radiator where we laid out all our sorry soggy knitwear. The restaurant seemed to be run by just one chap who was doing everything and managing an amazing job of seeming attentive and calm, when it was quite bustling and there was a large rowdy-sounding group in a room upstairs.
The food was AMAZING. I honestly don’t think we could have found anything better even if we had walked for hours, successfully located Patershol and tried every place we liked the look of. We shared cheese croquettes and shrimp in garlic for starter, then I had steak with Roquefort and my mum had something that had curiously been called “cuckoo” on the menu but was actually a local dish made up of chicken in a pastry en croute case with sausage meat and white sauce. I had instant uncontrollable food envy, despite my steak being perfect. Also please note the Everest-sized mountain of frites. I never thought I could be defeated by frites aka one of my favourite foods, but this portion left me shamefully sending some back un-devoured. We had a lovely rose wine, that was unlike any I have had before in that it was a little bit sparkling. I am kicking myself for not making a note of the name now.
On the walk back to our hotel we had chance to admire the Ghent light plan. As if Ghent could get any more beautiful than in daylight; the city has an award-winning lighting plan. When the sun sets, the city lights up again in a new way, as thousands of lights are switched on. It’s not a mishmash of styles, but a carefully crafted network of atmospheres and accents that make the most of light and shadows to create a totally different looking place to the one you’ve walked around all day. The concept was developed by the famous lighting designer Roland Jéol and I feel like this is something that gives Ghent the edge on anywhere else I have been in Europe; as it’s unusual to be able to explore a city in an entirely new way once darkness falls.
Bee’s Mum Says: What an honour, and unexpected surprise, to be asked to write my thoughts about Ghent. I have read every Twenty Something Burn Out blog and loved sharing all the ‘armchair’ experiences over the last year; and now I am to make my own real life contribution – a bit scary, but fun too!
I don’t expect many readers of this blog are as old as me, but, like Bee, you might one day take an older relative to Ghent, so I will tell you a few relevant snippets that may be helpful. Firstly, we didn’t realise it but we went a month too soon for me – in Ghent Senior Concessions start at the age of 65, not 60 as is usual in the UK. Secondly, and this would apply to any age, but more so for older people, if you have a suitcase with a handle that usually seamlessly follows along behind you on our pavements, then think again before you go to Ghent. There are cobbled streets everywhere and it feels like you have to haul the suitcase over every join in the cobbles, to and from the hotel! Thirdly, and we were lucky that this wasn’t a factor on our visit, if it was at all icy then those cobbles would have been treacherous and I don’t think I would have dared go out at all. When we arrived it was damp and a kind fellow tourist grabbed our case and took it down some very slippery looking steps by a bridge – only one example of the friendliness that we found everywhere, from locals and tourists alike.
Having said all that I must say we had a brilliant weekend, and fell in love with Ghent. The weather, which is of course unpredictable, is the only other factor to take into consideration, and on our full day of exploring we were lucky enough to have sun and blue sky all day, which enhanced the whole experience for us. I will leave Bee to give you the low down of how we spent our time, and the wonderful hotel experience. I can’t wait for our next adventure!
Bee Says: Thanks Mum – a most VIP blogging guest! I’ll leave you here for now; with part iicoming soon and taking us to the castle, a riverboat tour, back for Christmas Market the sequel and St Nicholas’ church. You will also have a sneak peek of how Nick spent his time, whilst we were getting festive without him. As I mentioned, Eurostar very kindly covered my tickets to Ghent in exchange for sharing the details of Any Belgian Station deal wide and far. I have to say that it took less time to get from London to Ghent (just under 3 hours) than it sometimes takes me to get home to Bradford! So it really is easily done for a weekend. Another perk of Eurostar is the baggage allowance in comparison to a plane, which I definitely needed once I had hit the chocolate shops on our last day. I also hadn’t previously known that Eurostar tickets give you 2 for 1 entry in some museums and galleries in Paris, Lille and Brussels which is a good excuse for me to go back to all three. If you fancy exploring Belgium then you can buy tickets here or by phoning 08432 186186. You even have a few days left to get over there and hit the Christmas markets if you’re behind on your shopping!