Ghent again, I know. But it’s hard to resist such a wonderfully tempting city! Ghent is one of those places that few people have heard of and no one really thinks about – and turns out to be a hidden treasure trove for those who do somehow wind up here. The Flemish city of Ghent (or ‘Ganda,’ as it was once known, meaning ‘Confluence’) did indeed start as a settlement at the confluence of two local rivers, the Scheldt, and the Leie, though Ghent’s glory days were really in the Middle Ages, when mercantile trade and agriculture from the rich green fields outside the city caused Ghent to become one of Europe’s richest and most populous cities of the time (50-60,000 citizens), leading to the explosion of building projects. In particular, the wool industry was an important generator of wealth for the city-state, even going so far as to create one of Europe’s first successful industrialised zones. But history aside, Ghent’s lucrative Middle Ages left an important mark on the city, particularly in architecture. In more recent times, perhaps owing to the fact that Bruges and Brussels are more influenced by tourism and international politics than the overlooked Ghent, Ghent was left to its own devices to find its individual core – which turns out to be pure hipster! The Art Nouveau style took off in Ghent, as did many unique-concept ideas such as the ‘Wasbar,’ a local dish called ‘Balls & Glory,’ and an art project that constructed a hotel room at the top of the train station’s clock tower (read this post for more info). The student atmosphere is strong here, cafes are popular and numerous, bookshops and antique stores dot the city, trees line the canals and the possibiltles for enjoyment are really endless.
For reasons unknown to me, Belgium gets a bad rep, mostly from the Brits. There seems to be a running joke that Belgium is boring and useless, which is difficult to understand for any tourists who visit this small European treasure! The Fairytale Town of Bruges is most certainly the nation’s crown jewel. It has everything a traveller would want: Belgian waffles and fries sold every 10 steps (though not together!), oh-so-much chocolate, beautiful buildings, old Gothic-style halls and belfries, canals, cobblestones, fantastic beer, not-s0-terrible prices (in comparison to its neighbours, the UK and France!), and cheap, easy connections to other Belgian cities such as Ghent, Antwerp and Brussels. If you’ve seen In Bruges, you’ll see the foreigners’ “dislike” of Belgium in general and Bruges in particular, but at the same time, the boss (minus the swearing) hits the nail on the head while bewilderingly responding to his employee’s response that “Bruges isn’t his ‘thing’: “It’s a fairytale town, isn’t it? How can a fairytale town not be somebody’s thing? How can all those canals and bridges and cobbled streets and those churches, all that beautiful fairytale stuff, how can that not be somebody’s thing, eh? How can swans not be somebody’s thing, eh? How can that be??!” How indeed?