Monday, March 11, 2013

Ghent - Pretty, beautiful and magical

Ghent [pronounced `Gend’] is one of the largest cities in Belgium. It’s located close to the North Sea. Ghent does not have its own airport, the closest being Brussels some 54 minutes away. We got into Ghent via the Eurostar. The Eurostar is most convenient. You go to St Pancras International the Eurostar station and catch your train. Some 2 hours later you are in Brussels. You get off, change platforms and get onto a train to Ghent. Some 25 minutes later you are in Ghent. When buying the Eurostar ticket you have an option of buying one that takes you to any Belgian station. This is completely sensible. You don’t have to buy a separate ticket from Brussels to Ghent.

On reaching Ghent we hailed a taxi and drove to our hotel. It was a depressing drive, like being in a sort of Soviet Era city. Grey, broken down and most uninteresting. I groaned inwardly thinking to myself, how the heck will we spend 3 days in this most depressing city. We got to the hotel, checked in settled down and went to the Concierge to get a map and our bearings. The Concierge marked out the important sites, indicated where our hotel was in relation to the sites and told us to walk out from the small back door of the hotel.

We did and I was, dumbstruck. It was a most beautiful site I have seen in a long long time. A river, boats, castles, churches, old buildings, bridges and God knows what else. It was like being on a beautiful movie set. It was so pretty I was and still am at a loss of words on how to describe this.

Ghent has been variously described as `Europe’s Best Kept Secret’, Lonely Planet has said its one of the top ten places to visit before you die. Let me tell you they are correct. Ghent is utterly magical. The Historic part of Ghent is the centre and all easily walkable many times over. It is a compact little town so there is no need for a car or any public transport. In fact most of the centre is pedestrianised. Only trams thunder past and bicycles at times use the centre of the road.

As far as sightseeing is concerned, there are a few things you should do. One is to go to the top of the Belfry a very high tower from where you can have spectacular views of Ghent. You should also see their Castle. The Design Museum is nice but a bit skimpy. Take a boat ride it is fun and the guides can be quite good. Go to the various squares. Walk, walk and walk some more. You will be continually fascinated by the buildings.

In the Sint-Baafs Cathedral, though it is being renovated, is a painting which has been often described as being better than the Mona Lisa. It is the Painter Van Eyck's Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, regarded as one of the 15th century's finest works of art. This painting depicts a medieval view of heaven and has truly astonishing imagination and detail. The picture was stolen by Napoleon and then seized by the Nazis (who hid it in an Austrian salt mine, where it was very nearly blown to bits), so it's a miracle it's survived at all. You must see this.

Another local speciality is something called a Ghent Nose. This is a triangular raspberry flavoured sweet that looks like a persons nose. These are sold at many shops. Buy a small bag. Childish but fun all the same.

If you want to shop, then, what you need to buy is the fantastic Mustard available here. There is one shop that is the big daddy of all mustard sold in Ghent it is called - Tierenteyn-Verlent. The story of the shop is fascinating. Originally mustard was made in a mortar and pestle. This took a lot of time for a very small quantity. Then one day in Dijon the French had discovered they could grind mustard seed readily by grinding stones rather than using the tedious mortar-and-pestle method. All you did was grind the seed and add water and vinegar to keep the mixture liquid. Mustard seeds are very high in oil so without the addition of water the stones would stop working as the oil would create sludge.  In Belgium this grinding-stone process was as yet unknown. A member of the Tierenteyn-Verlent family, who had to serve in the military in France, probably in Dijon, learned to produce a mustard similar to the one he had savoured there, using the grinding-stone process. He started to make and sell mustard using this method in Ghent. This business continued with the same family from 1790 till 1958 when it was sold. Today the same shop continues to make the mustard and sell it. The mustard is fresh without preservatives so it has to be refrigerated. We have bought a few jars which are in the hotel Mini Bar fridge. They will hopefully make the long journey back to Mumbai over the next few days.

Ghent has two rivers flowing thru it; therefore there are a lot of canals and lots of bridges. Like in Amsterdam lots of bicycles. Also like Amsterdam, lots of bicycles as simply chucked into the canals. Every year the water in the canals is drained and the level brought down to a mere 80 centimetres. This allows two things. It allows the canals to be cleaned and it allows the people who stay along the canals to carry out repairs to their houses and re-waterproof them as necessary. Now is that not clever and considerate?

Ghent is top class. If you have to visit Europe, I seriously suggest you come to Ghent. It has been a most wonderful destination. The food is cheap and the beers are cheaper.

I am including just some photographs here. If you want to see more please do click on this link.

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