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The International Writers Magazine: Belgium

Postcard from Ghent
• Colin Todhunter
Leaving India on a very early morning flight out of Cochin and arriving in Ghent in Belgium later on the same day. From a hot December in South India to zero degrees in Europe in a mere 12 hours. The city had been high up on my ‘to see’ list for quite some time.

Sint-Pieters station

Those wintry online images of snow dusted Ghent, its frost-coated trees and rooftops and its icy-smooth canals had enticed me. And how many Decembers had I spent in India yearning to be in snow covered Europe? Quite a few, if the truth be told.

The idea of trading tropical coconut tree South Indiafor blistering cold Europe seemed all well and good when purchasing my ticket online in the warmth and comfort of Kerala. Now reality had kicked in. A jetlagged reality of coldness, of a biting breeze gnawing at the face and of a freezing Ghent. I shivered my way through a 40 minute walk from Sint-Pieters, the city’s main railway station, to a barge on one of the city’s many lovely canals. An old barge converted into a hostel, no less.

Despite the bleak European winter and the bone-chilling wind, after walking into the centre I soon discovered what I had hoped to discover – that Ghent truly sizzles! Ghent is on fire, no matter what time of the year. The sizzling might not melt any ice or snow, but it is certainly heartwarming.

This small city brims with magnificent churches, towers and fairytale castle. It oozes glassy, tree-lined canals, typical Dutch/Flemish crow-stepped gabled houses and neat little bridges. It drips beauty and splendour. Simply put, it’s a city not to be missed if you happen to venture into northwest Europe.A quarter of its 250,000 population comprises higher education students.

It might be bathed in medieval architecture, but its student population provides Ghent with a certain laid back ambience, a palpable positive vibe. As the trams glide by and students cycle past en masse along the cobblestone streets and narrow lanes, you get the impression that this isn’t merely a city with a bygone history, it’s a city that that is still going somewhere.

And, unlike its close neighbour Bruges, Ghent is not an open-air museum. Some of its outer neighbourhoods might look a bit ‘tired’ in places, but it’s a ‘proper’ city, a cosmopolitan city. It plays host to communities from Africa and Turkey, whose members came in search of a better life, and it attracts young people to study and settle from all over Belgium and beyond.

I stayed on an ‘eco-hostel’, an intimate barge with two small dorms and two double rooms that adheres to a ‘green’ philosophy of sustainable living. But that’s the kind of thing you might come to expect of Ghent, with its vibrant, youthful population. It is one of Europe’s most vegetarian-friendly cities, for instance, and has quite an array of veggie/vegan restaurants to choose from. An often quoted claim is that Ghent has the world's largest number of vegetarian restaurants per capita. Thursdays are even officially designated ‘vegetarian’ day, when locals are encouraged to go ‘meat free’.

Very forward looking, especially for a city so obviously steeped in its own past. And the past is everywhere. Its medieval architecture is up their withEurope’s best. The centre of Ghent is artistically wrought with its own uncontrived beauty and entangled in its own elegance. No, you are not living in a fairytale, but sometimes when walking in Ghent, you might think you could be.

Stroll around the twisting lanes and you’ll stumble upon small city squares and large city squares that open out to reveal gem after glistening gem of intriguing structures and monuments. Getting lost in the centre of Ghent really does make you appreciate that it truly is a remarkable city.

During the Middle Ages, it was one of the richest and most powerful cities in Europe. Once considered the second largest city north of the Alps, after Paris, the impact of this rich past is reflected by the beautiful architecture, including the houses of rich traders. In fact, the city centre exudes all the character of a well-off, late-medieval city state.

Gravensteen The name Ghent derives from the Celtic word 'ganda', which means 'confluence' (that of the Scheldt and Lys Rivers). Ghent's Castle of the Counts was built by Filip van den Elzas (Filip of Alsasse) who was Count of Flanders from 1157 until 1191. He modelled it after crusader castles that he saw in Syria during his time at the Crusades. . A typical medieval fortress, it possesses a dungeon surrounded by high crenellated walls and towers as well as a moat. And believe me, it’s imposingly impressive.

Built by Count Philip of Alsace, count of Flanders, it boasts two-metre thick walls, battlements and turrets and what was once a very effective torture chamber inside.

St Bravo started out as a chapel in 942 and is the oldest religious institution in Ghent. A first church was built on the site in the 11th century. Today, ‘Sint-Baafskathedraal’ (to give it its proper name) comprises Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque architecture, constructed in three phases, between the early 14th and 16th century.

Another city landmark, the Belfry was a symbol of the city's autonomy. Construction started in 1313 and was completed in 1380. This municipal tower holds the city’s ancient great bells, which have rung out across fields and town for centuries. And then there is Sint-Niklaaskerk, a mixture of surviving Romanesque elements of the Flemish architectural style ‘Schelde Gothic’. This eye-catching 13th to 15th-century church was paid for by Ghent's wealthy medieval merchants and guilds.

History and architecture aside, modern Ghentprovides excellent samples of Flemish cuisine, which combines the best of French delicacies with northern European staples. How about some home-grown bites, such as mussels, spare ribs or 'stoverij' (tender meat cooked for three hours in dark beer with a brown gravy) with Belgian fries? Or what about ‘Gentse waterzooi’ (‘boiled water from Ghent’)? This was the food for the poor originally, a stew of cheap fish (usually turbot) and vegetables. Now it is often made with chicken.

In recent years, Ghent has appeared on numerous ‘best kept secrets’ lists and has been described as an ‘undiscovered gem’. As a result, it is no longer ‘undiscovered’ or a ‘secret’. However, unlike stuffy Bruges or flamboyant Venice, more down-to-earth Ghent is no sugar-coated tourist trap. There are no coachloads of camera snapping tourists descending on the place. It attracts its fair share of sight-seers, but, if anything and to the city’s credit, tourism is fairly low key.

If you like eating or drinking coffee at outdoor tables in ambient city squares surrounded by medieval merchants’ houses, Ghent is the place for you. By the way, that’s another thing Ghent does well: pavement cafes (and famous Belgian beers). If you like traffic free lanes or roads (apart from the cyclists) where the pedestrian is the boss, Ghent could also be for you. Most of all, if you want to see Europe at its neatly planned and architectural best, you could do a lot worse than visit Ghent.

Let’s face it, I gave up ‘God’s own country’ - Kerala - to come and visit the city in bleak winter. I froze on a boat, I shivered my way through the streets, my feet ended up blistered, but it was certainly worth the effort.

© Colin Todunter 2014
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