Jet lag is the two-faced goddess of travellers.
On one hand she disrupts sleep, confuses the appetite and disturbs perceptions. But she rewards, too, by leading the sleepless out onto streets at strange and beautiful hours.
In Ghent, I stumble through my hotel lobby at 5 a.m., past a wall of windows framing a still dark sky. I grab a coffee from a drowsy fellow in the café and head out to watch the sunrise over the city.
Walking out the front door of my modern hotel is like stepping through a portal – a time warp. In front of me is the River Leie and the quays of the ancient and beautiful Graslei and Korenlei, cobbled walkways that line either side of the canal. The waterway – once one of the major trading routes of Europe from the 11th century until the late Middle Ages – is lined with step-gabled canal houses and guild halls. This is Belgium’s longest car-free area, so traffic is non-existent, and if I squint a bit, and imagine, the St. Michael’s bridge could be a bridge to the past. The outline of St. Bavo’s Cathedral and the Belfort look as they must have in the 14th century.
Slowly, cafés open, locals amble to work and Ghent awakes.
This, I realize, is a city worth losing sleep for. Ghent is blessed with a medieval centre which retains its ancient canals and gabled buildings but doesn’t suffer from overexposure. It remains easily walkable with an energetic student population, an active socialist-leaning political climate and a street life that fills the squares and cafés till the small hours of the morning. It is a city whose museums treasure the great works of the Golden Age as well as the challenges of Outsider Art, or “art brut,” such as the prominent collection displayed in the Dr. Guislain Museum. As summer approaches, the city prepares to celebrate, with the Ghent Festivities, 10 days of music, street theatre and plays, and the Ghent Jazz Festival in July.
I am in Ghent principally to see its art and architectural treasures. One of the 10 most important works of art in Western civilization hangs in the St. Bavo’s Cathedral, says professor Anne Grevenstein, who is part of the team restoring The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.
The multipanelled altarpiece consists of a series of oil paintings on wood that marks one of the first examples of realism in European art. The depiction of Adam and Eve is touchingly human and personal – both of them pale skinned, veiny, hollow-eyed and frightened. The 1432 work is so stunning that people have been trying to steal it for centuries, including Hitler. (In the movie The Monuments Men, George Clooney and Matt Damon portray part of the military team that saves the Van Eyck masterpiece as well as many others.)
Despite its “wrinkle in time” feel, Ghent is not a museum town. It is a university city, full of energy. The cool factor is high: Just stroll along the Werregarenstraat, a.k.a. Graffiti Street, a narrow alleyway lined with street art that changes daily. As I cross the Vrijdagmarkt, a funk rock group performs to a swaying crowd, singing half in English, half in Flemish, on a raised stage in the shadow of the statue of Jacob van Artevelde, the heroic 41st-century “wise man of Ghent.” And cool? This is the city that The Bachelorette chose to film one of its episodes.
It is also a city with a thriving culinary scene, home to more than 320 cafés and a pub culture that celebrates great beer and live music. To explore that face of the city, I meet up with a guide for a walk through the old quarters.
In the ancient Butchers’ Hall (Het Groot Vleeshuis), I sample paper-thin slices of Ghent’s delicious Ganda ham, which is cured without additives, just sea salt, for a minimum of 10 months: The method produces a tender and moist ham, with layers of flavour.
At the Tierenteyn Verlent shop across the square from the Butchers’ Hall, I sample what I think is the best mustard I have ever tasted – robust, grainy, nippy, sweet and acidic – and I consider myself a mustard addict. Here, the condiment is made as it always has been, since 1790, in small batches by hand and packaged in grey-blue pots, stamped with the Tierenteyn name and topped with cork. It is lethally addictive. I buy four pots, with no idea how I am going to get them home.
There are also cuberdons to taste, the odd little soft-centred and slightly perfumed candies that look like noses, and some ripe and runny cheeses, decadent Belgian chocolate and pralines and butter pastries. My guide and I drink RoomeR, Ghent’s elderflower blossom aperitif and decide its summery notes would make it a perfect preprandial cocktail. The people of Ghent, I decide, eat and drink very well
Later, as the light turns pink on the Korenlei, I head back down narrow streets and meet friends at the t’Dreupelkot (the little drop). In this dark and intimate space, hardly bigger than my dining room at home, local legend Pol blends his one-of-a-kind genever, the blended “gin” beloved by Belgians and Dutch, in more than 200 flavours: pomegranate, chile, chocolate, lychee, even a pina colada version.
I am inducted into the drinking ritual: The glasses are always filled too full to lift to your mouth without spilling, so you must bring your mouth down to the glass for a first slurp. There’s no dignity here, but that, I think, is the point.
On this fine evening, the many small pubs nestled in the narrow streets are happy places, full of folks enjoying world-renowned Belgian beers. The best-loved local brand is Gruut, brewed with herbs and spices instead of hops. It pairs nicely with classic specialties such as waterzooi, a kind of chicken or fish stew, and stoverji, a Flemish beef dish.
After dinner, I return to my hotel, passing through the stately entrance of a medieval canal house on the Graslei side, to the lobby’s contemporary sharpness.
I mention to the smiling woman at the front desk that I’m afraid I might forget the precious pots of mustard I’ve stored in my room, she suggests I put a reminder on my cellphone. “And if you lock your passport in the safe, put one of your shoes in there with it. You can’t go anywhere with one shoe.”
It’s amazing what you pick up when travelling: mustard, useful tips and an appreciation for history and art.
You can always sleep later. Do the time warp while you can.
The writer travelled courtesy of Visit Flanders. It did not review or approve this article.
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