Ghent: Alterpieces, Dragons and Veggie Burgers
Around a thousand years ago Ghent was the second largest city in Europe, second only to Paris. Its wealth built on textiles.
It thrived for centuries until it rebelled against Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, over taxes, despite being born in the city he publicly humiliated the rebels.
Now? It’s beautiful, photogenic, fascinating and a vegetarian paradise!
Wait, vegetarian? Ghent is the vegetarian capital of Europe, there are apparently more veggie restaurants here (in proportion to its size) than any other European city and every Thursday is Veggie Day: the inhabitants are encouraged to eat veggie and the state schools offer a meat-free menu – how awesome is that!
There is a Veggie Gent map, available at Tourist Info, which pinpoints all the veg, vegan and veg friendly restaurants in town. I had the best veggie burger I’ve ever eaten in one of the veggie burger bars: I can wholly recommend the Winterburger in Tasty World!
So, I could eat well, now to get settled in and explore. We booked ourselves into Ghent Ecohostel Andromeda: a hostel on a barge!
We stayed in a dorm on this cosy ship, the green reed bed on the top of the boat purifies water and the hostel is carbon neutral. It’s always fun to stay somewhere different.
The historic centre is beautiful with canals, grand buildings and fine churches. We did a free tour with Gent Free Walking Tours: our guide Fabi was full of facts and info, revealing the history behind the buildings and hidden corners of the city.
The grand Town Hall with all its differing facades is hard to miss but the hidden graffiti alleys are a surprise: these dedicated graffiti spots help to prevent the ancient monuments and buildings being defaced, a great idea!
Looking up, the decorations on the old houses reveal the occupation and religion of the inhabitants, a fascinating view of who lived where.
Ghent is a university city and one of the more famous traditions, Fabi explained, is for students to toss their bike into the canals when their studies end (Ghent is a city of cyclists) meaning the canals are full of rusty bikes.
We spotted these guys tidying the canal of submerged bicycles, salvaging the metal and keeping the waterways clear.
Ghent appears to have a row of spires and towers: all churches, one after the other, except the Belfort which is fiercely topped by a gleaming dragon.
The Belfort can be climbed for wonderful views over the city, I say climb, there is a smooth lift which transports you effortlessly up to the viewing balcony.
On the way up or down the tower you can come face to face with two of the earlier dragon weather vanes, they may look cute but in medieval times they would appear to breathe fire into the night sky to scare off invaders.
There is also a bell museum (where I sat through a long video showing the lengthy procedure for ‘founding’ a bell!) and on another floor you come across a huge musical box: a clock that turns the barrel which plays the bells.
From the Belfort you can see the huge Sint-Baafskathedraal – although not photogenic at the moment as it is completely contained within scaffolding as it is under renovation.
Within this Cathedral is an exquisite altarpiece dating from the 1400’s, painted by the Van Eyck brothers. This Polyptych, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, has had a dramatic history, which has included theft, Napoleon and the Nazis.
In 1934 two of the panels were stolen, one was returned but the panel of the ‘Just Judges’ is still missing to this day and is replaced by a reproduction.
The cathedral is beautiful and free to look around, the Adoration of the Lamb costs €6 and is exhibited currently in a darkened room, behind glass. The price includes a personal audio guide which talks you through the different panels and the history of the artwork.
I’m glad I went to see it, the piece was far more extraordinary than I expected.
And when it rains, just like Bruges (which is 20 minutes away by train), there are plenty of bars to find shelter and sample more of Belgium’s famous ales!
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Did you know how veggie-fabulous Ghent is? Have you been?