We were all set to spend Saturday in Bruges until we started talking to locals in Brussels. They said real Belgians go to Ghent and tourists go to Bruges. Sheesh. (But we are tourists, I pointed out.) When we got to the train station Saturday morning and found that Ghent is both 20 minutes closer and 20 euros cheaper a train ticket to Bruges, our decision was made. No regrets. Ghent was drop dead gorgeous and the highlight of our trip to Belgium. We’ll go to Bruges next time…probably.
Moreover, there is one thing Ghent has that no other city can top: The Ghent Altarpiece.
Also called The Lamb of God, this 15th century Flemish artwork is sometimes referred to as the “most coveted piece of art in the world” since it has been stolen so many times–twice by the Germans (WWI and WWII) and again by an art thief. One panel still remains at-large. A priest said he knew where it was hidden, but died before he could reveal its location! People have been looking for it since. If you’ve seen the film Monuments Men, then you know that this piece was Hitler’s crown jewel of stolen art.
Today, the altar piece resides under lock and key in its original home, Saint Bavo Cathedral. I’m not normally one for heavily symbolic, religious art, but it is truly something to behold. I felt as though I was in the presence of art that helped cultures understand and define beauty.
There is a 4 euro entry fee to see the Ghent Altarpiece; it’s very worth it.
Another worth-the-entrance-fee attraction is Ghent’s castle, Granvensteen.
I’ve been to many castles after living 18 months in Europe, but Gravensteen is a special one. It’s incredibly well-preserved for something built in the Middle Ages and the information in its exhibits reveals quite a bit about Ghent’s history. It also has a torture room that will give you the willies!
After Gravensteen we needed to warm up a bit when we stumbled upon the Design Museum Ghent. The museum building itself is an incredible canal home and the collection inside was très cool–equal parts educational and avant-garde. The permanent collection traces centuries of Belgium’s history through home furnishings design. I loved seeing how something as innocuous as the evolution of a chair could provide a timeline of Belgium–its occupation under the Netherlands and France, its financial boom and both world wars.
Patting ourselves on the back for having taken in so much culture, we sought out an afternoon aperitif. We ended up finding what will be remembered as one of our all-time-favorite bars, granted we found it under the most unusual circumstances. Walking down a street we saw a tiny sign for the “Hot Club of Ghent” and an arrow pointing down a pretty menacing-looking alley. Knowing my love of the Hot Club of France, my husband motioned me down the dark corridor. A waiter was sweeping up in The Hot Club–too early for jazz he said, but that we should try the neighboring “genever bar.”
Within five minutes of walking in the back door of Dreupelkot, the place became packed. We were in one of Ghent’s major hotspots and we still couldn’t figure out what a “genever bar” is…but that was the only thing on the menu. No wine, no beer. Just genever. And in about 50 different flavors ranging from alpine herbs to iced coffee. In half French/half Flemish, the owner explained that genevers is a locally made liqueur. All I can attest is that it goes down easily!
I wish we made genever in Geneva.
We had so much fun in Ghent we ended up catching the very last train back to Brussels. I hope you’re getting into a little mischief this weekend…but for now, a few links:
- The Ghent Altarpiece: The truth about the most stolen artwork of all time (The Guardian)
- First Belgian Genever Imported to the U.S. (The Perfect Spot SF)
- 30 Great Weekend Songs (Paste Magazine)