Category Archives: Belgium

A Christmas Market Weekend in Ghent : Part ii.

(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.

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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…

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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.

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IMG_1591Being 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…

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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.

IMG_1588The 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.

IMG_1568With 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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

A Christmas Market Weekend in Ghent : Part i. (in Association with Eurostar)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!)

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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.

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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.

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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!