Imagine you’ve finished work on a Tuesday afternoon, and three hours later you suddenly find yourself in a different country. All you need to do is hop on a train from Amsterdam to the medieval Belgian city of Ghent – or ‘Hent’, as pronounced in Flemish which is a very cute version of Dutch. No borders, no customs and no need for a visa – something that I, as a Lebanese, can’t help but appreciate every time (Lebanon borders two countries: one is impossible to enter “Israel”, the other is too dangerous “Syria”. We also need a visa to almost every other country in the world).
Although I had booked a couple of weeks earlier, the day before traveling was a little stressful. I got annoyed for the first time with NS, the national public transportation sector here – for once joining the big chorus of Dutch complaining about their national rail road (although I still think that it’s pretty good, normally). Their website mentioned delays due to works on railways. It did not give alternative times or routes to take, particularly for those making international travels. Eventually, it all went well and we made it in a very short time.
Once in Belgium, and although borders have been open for decades, the scenery still changes in subtle, but sudden ways. Colors of trees and houses become completely different so does the shape of inner city roads. It all looks less identical and orderly compared to The Netherlands. Arriving to Ghent feels like walking into the 13th century, when most of its buildings were constructed, and then back into the 21st century with all its modern restaurants, cafés, museums, markets and shopping districts. Locals are very friendly and welcoming. Prices are affordable, food is exquisite; I had the best steak ever, and there is lots and lots of beer: hundreds of flavors and suggestions to match your meal perfectly (So you get beer instead of wine suggestions with your meal – wonderful).
I ended up visiting the same places over and over. Cour St Georges or Sint-Jorishof was one of my favorites. A steakhouse throwback to the middle ages. Wooden floors were covered in quilt, skins of some hunted animals were hanging on the walls and liter sized clay pots of beer stood on the shelves of the bar. A room on a higher floor is dedicated to smokers – one would imagine a group of rowdy horsemen smoking pipes and drinking pints of ale. You can either order a normal portion size from the menu or pick your piece of meat from a large display in the vitrine. We ended up sharing a 350 grams of beef steak with two liters of beer and a large bowl of fries.
Another nice spot for dinner or lunch is restaurant de Graslei. It offers a great view over the colorful old buildings of Ghent on both sides of the canal. We tried the “moules et frites” seasoned with fresh garlic, obviously. It was delicious. Although I don’t recommend eating chunks of garlic for dinner. I ended up smelling like garlic for two days (and, I’ve been told, burping out fumes throughout the night). Not very classy.
Before leaving Ghent, we had to visit Gentse Gruut or the city’s brewery. There, you can actually have beer tasting, get a walking or boat tour to know more about its history. After your visit, the short tasting session you had helps you learn about various beers and their characteristics. Then you can create your own beer as a beer alchemist. As we showed up about 30 minutes before closing time and thus missed the 3-hour beer walk, we only made it to the degustation part where you’re offered five different kinds of beer in small glasses. I returned home quite satisfied (and appie!).
There are many small bars in the city but Café t’ Galgenhuis is the smallest, oldest and most “gezellig” in Ghent. Behind its small roof, public humiliation or shameful exposure of prisoners and offenders took place. Apparently, this was immensely fashionable in the Middle Ages. Used usually to punish less serious crimes, the show offered viewers the opportunity to shout or throw things at those accused. Both physical and verbal abuse could be inflicted. Prisoners were held in a pillory, a device made of a wooden or metal framework with holes for securing the head and hands. Now you can just sit outside on the terrace and enjoy a cold glass of beer in the sun. This was our late afternoon ritual in the couple of days we spent in the city. Throwing it at people is no longer allowed.
We found several impressive churches in Ghent, but just like many European cities, most holy places are now serving other purposes: theatre, festivals, exhibitions and food markets. The Holy Food Market in Ghent used to be a chapel that goes back to the 16th century but was transformed into an indoor food court with various food stands including Lebanese mezze. Make no mistake dear believers, almost everything in there takes into consideration religion, but now as foodies’ religion. You’ll find a holy gin bar, holy Malaysian cuisine, a Magnum pleasure store, a Karnivoor stand for meat lovers and Yalla Yalla Beirut street food among others. Once you finish, a sign at the door asks you to please the lord and clear your table.
It’s almost midnight and you don’t want to go home, because you’re on holiday. Mosquito Coast is where we ended up almost every night. An unconventional alternative cafe with old stickers and posters on the walls. Various photographs and souvenirs from different parts of the world are displayed in the corners of the restaurant. Many go back to Congo, a former Belgian colony. Here you can find Belgian beer of course, and all the delicious cocktails you can drink to cool down and get to sleep in the hot summer nights – which do not occur often enough in Northern Europe.