A weekend in Ghent
Trip: A weeked in Ghent Date: 25 – 27 November 2016
Route: Delft – Roosendaal – Antwerp – Ghent
Transport to Ghent: Train Transport in Ghent: Tram, bus, walking
Company: Aegee Delft Stayed the night at: Hosted at someone’s house Highlights: Gentse Gruut Brewery
Faraway places with incomprehensble languages, white sand beaches, never-ending rainforests or fields of eternal snow are the dream of any traveller. However, sometimes we should not forget to explore the gems closer to home. Especially when you are working or studying fulltime it can be hard to travel as often as you want and as far as you want. The positive side of this is that you start appreciating what lies more at reach. One of these destinations for me was Ghent, in Belgium. Of most destinations I go to I have certain expectation. I do my research well and know all the things I want to do and see. When I meet people who did things that weren’t yet on my list, that list will just expand and expand. For Ghent this wasn’t the case. Just another city not too far from home where they brew good beers. Alright then. However, Ghent managed to positively suprise me. For example, how many cities have a castle right in the middle of it? Or that sweets exist that you had never heard of before? Or that it is possible to brew beer without the use of hop?
The way to Ghent
We would be travelling with a group, but obviously I was to busy on Friday to leave with the rest of us, so I was afraid I would have to follow all alone, roaming through Ghent trying to find the adress of the girl that would host us. I got lucky though, another friend wasn’t able to make the early depart so we ended up able to travel together. It is funny how that was an enormous relief, even for someone who has travelled to the other side of the world on her own. Except for a relief it was also nice to have some company. Ghent is not the best reachable place in Belgium and the way to it consisted of a lot of waiting, more waiting and falling asleep, but waking up on time for your next train. The presence of military soldiers (that are there after the high frequency of attempted terrorist attacks in Belgium) on Antwerp Central Station does not really add to your sense of feeling at ease. There is a direct link from Amsterdam to Ghent which can get you there faster, however this involves taking the luxurious, but expensive Thalys. Not the first choice in a country where public transport is already horribly expensive. A Go-Pass slightly reduces the price though, but I will explain more about that in a later post about transport in Europe.
Finally arrived in Ghent I was happy I had quickly taken the time to download an offline-map app on my phone. The house we were staying at was far away from the city centre and the information desk at the station was already closed. This meant walking was our only option and this wet alright, considering that it was winter and quite a long walk. However, without the offline map app, we would have been completely lost. All streets were deserted at 10 p.m. on a Friday night. A sight I seldom see. A surprising discovery After finishing our long walk to the house, our legs were tired, our phones empty and our shoulders painful from carrying around sleeping bags and matresses all day. It was 11 p.m. and we had to rush to catch the last bus towards the city centre, an effort I did not really want to make, resulting in the first night in Ghent not being a very interesting one: I caught up on some sleep. The rest of the group returned home around 4 a.m. briefly waking me from my dreams, but not thoroughly disturbing my rest. For some reason everybody was up and awake at 8 a.m. the next morning, looking as energetic as if I wasn’t the only one who had had a full night’s sleep. Everybody was hungry though, so the first quest was to find some food.
Luckily trams can get you to the city centre a bit faster than your feet can, plus you don’t have to look around searching for street names all over the place, which is nice, especially in the morning. Getting of the tram, my senses were triggered by something I had never seen before: a street vendor selling purple cones. I don’t mean that I have never seen a street vendor before, but I had never seen those purple cones and I was in Belgium, only 165 km away from home. I knew Belgium was known for great beers, waffles from Brussels, waffles from Liège, chocolate, fries and a cute accent, but how come I had never heard of purple cones?! The mystery goods are called Cuberdons or Gentse Neuzen (Dutch for Ghent noses). Though the noses we see now are in the shape of a cone, the originial ones used to be shaped like faces. The faced shape ones are only still sold in one spot in town: the oldest sweets shop in Ghent. This might just give away what the purple cones actually are: they are sweets. And sweet they are. They are raspberry flavoured with a hard outside and fluid, super sweet inside. I am not sure if I actually like them, but sometimes you have to set aside your preferences for the sake of trying regional products. Cuberdons can only be preserved for about three weeks and are therefore not normally exporterd. This might explain my lack of knowledge about this Belgian product. Cuberdons are obviously not a proper breakfast though (although they do seem to contain enough sugar to keep you going for the rest of the week) so I topped it up with a chocolate waffle and a sandwhich from the near croissanterie. The Design Museum Next stop: the design museum. My relationship with museums is one of both love and hate. Some museums are excessively interesting, whereas in others there is nothing to see. In addition to this, I am really bad at not touching things, which regularly gets my in trouble with the museum emplyees. It is not as if I touch oil paintings or anything, but this time the lady got mad for me touching a a design kitchen counter… I mean… That thing is DESIGNed for being used right? Anyway. Apart from the grumpy lady on the ground floor, this museum is alright. It is not super interesting looking at chairs that I could have found in IKEA by my opinion, but some expositions showed how an artist had experimented with different materials and why he or she had chosen a certain one for the final result. Some materials and designs were super interesting and creative and all these ideas for other shapes and materials really give you an idea of the thinking process in the head of the designer.
The best part is, the museum had included many Lego and Playmobil figure hanging around on the design object. They are probably meant to keep young children interested, but it worked for me too! Entrance to the museum is free if you are younger than 18, €2.- if you are between 18 and 25, €8.- for adults and €6.- for those aged over 65 or groups of over 15. It was a great morning activity that was certainly worth my €2.-
Free Walking Tour
After horsing around in the Design muesum and refueling our bodies with a well-needed hot chocolate to prepare ourselves for a cold afternoon outside, it was time for the city tour. Now I can’t imagine I have never mentioned free walking tours before, as they are basically my brief history of a city in three hours book. Obviously every city has got signs to read, or if not, Google can help you answer all your questions, but the thing with a good tour guide is that they get you interested in things that you had never thought you would be interested in. Now the problem is, how can you find a good tour guide? As a child I never liked to take tours as the guide often seemed to have learned a Wikipedia page by heart. Free walking tours are the solution for this. It works like this: regular tours are held, in principle for free. However you can imagine that a free tour is not possible if there is staff that needs to get paid. There isn’t. The tour guides earn no wages whatsoever from the company for their stories and their time. They do however inform you that it is possible to pay whatever the tour was worth to you at the end of the tour. This means you are allowed to pay nothing, there surely are people who do, however, a decent, well-raised human being would help the tourguide pay for their weekly beer, by giving them a small amount of money. Now if I genuinly enjoyed a tour, I would be much more willing to pay a higher amount of money to my guide whereas if the tour sucked I would go with whatever coin was still in my wallet just to not be a complete asshole. I am not the only person that works like this, most of us do and the tour guides know this very well. This means that any tour guide that works for a Free Walking Tour company will do their utmost best to make sure that their customers have a good time, turning the tour almost into a cabaret, but including a true history and city anecdotes. A necessity in a city such as Ghent with its many churches and towers. Because of our lovely guide I now actually remember that the dragon on top of the Belfort has been stolen and replaced multiple times, that the river Lieve has long been so polluted (and smelly) that nothing would live in there, that the St. Michiels chuch was never finished, not because of a shortage of money, but because of danger of collapsing, that two swans facing away from each other used to indicate a brothel in the old days… and much, much more.
It would be dishonouring to speak about any place in Belgium without mentioning its beers, so a brewery was the next stop. Special about this brewery however is that the beer is not brewed using the four traditional elements, which are, according to the purity law of 1516: water, malted barley, hop and yeast. In the Gentse Gruut brewery they broke the law and used gruit (an old-fashioned herb mixture) instead of hop, making the beer less bitter, but the disadvantage is that it lasts less long. For €9.- each, you can visit the brewery wherere this craft beer is brewed and you get a an explanation about the brewing process and 3 beers to try out. There is a possibility to have a traditional Ghent dinner in the brewery as well, but of course you need to pay extra for that and reserve well in advance.
Brewing with Gruit is not the only special thing you can find about Gentse Gruit. The coasters are interesting as well, as hey are decorated with an anamorphosis. This means that the picture on the coaster is out of shape when you look straight at it, but will shape to correct dimensions when you look at its mirror image in your glass. Pretty cool huh? The anamorphis on the coaster shows a couple dancing, however in the brewery itself are two somewhat more erotical scene which is where the anamorphis idea came from. Naked women were not allowed to use in beer advertisement, but the one with with distorted dimensions was. All in all, a pretty smart move.
Once you start on the Belgium beers, you are hooked, so of course the rest of the night brought more beers. Even though Ghent is full of different bars, it wasn’t easy to find one that was not crammed on a saturday night. “De Trollenkelder” meaning basement of the trolls looked interesting and is obviously based on the beer “cuvée des trolls”. The interior consists of a lot of wood, giving it a cosy atmosphere that is finished by troll puppets. Seemed like a good place to go, but unfortunately there was not enough place.
The second try was “De Dulle Griet”, a pub where most of the group had already been the night before when I was still on the train. This should be a good place that sells many different craft beers. To order a half liter Pauwel Kwak (in a very special glass) you need to hand in one shoe is of tradition. When you order this specific beer, the bartender makes a basket (full of shoes) come down, puts your shoe inside and pulls the basket back up. The shoe is kept safe in the basket untill you return the glass undamaged. If you happened to be to drunk to keep the glass in one piece or if you want to take it home with you, but you do like to get your shoe back, you can pay 26 Euros for the glass.
Unfortunately, De Dulle Griet did not have place for a group our size either, so we had to move on to a weird sports pub where a not-so-high-quality rap-metal combination concert was going on. At least we had half the place for ourselves to enjoy our beers and they were good. But if you are in Ghent on the weekend with a large group, make sure to get your ass into a pub on time!
Gravensteen – Castle of the Counts
A perfect activity for the day after a night of drinking beer is visiting Castle Gravensteen – Castle of the Counts. It was built by Philip of Alsace in 1180 to show the people of Ghent who was the boss. The castle was meant only to show off and not for defending purposes, which is why it was built very unstratetically, but impressively in the middle of the city center. A nice feauture for present-day tourists in Ghent. Despite that the castle was not built for battle it as been under siege thrice… by the people of Ghent. When they disagreed with new rules in Ghent (such as raising the beer price by a cent), they stromed the walls and besieged the castle. Funnily, this is still done yearly to celebrate the headstrongness of the inhabitants of Ghent.
The castle was abandoned in the 14th century, after the Duke of Flanders built a new one, becuase his wives complained that the Castle of the Counts was too cold and not cosy enough. Later the castle was used as both a factory and a prison, influencing whether rich merchants or poor factory workers inhabited the neighbourhouds around the castle. Finally the castle was scheduled to be demolished at the end of the 19th century, but it was bought, saved and renovated by the city of Ghent. A smart move as the beautiful castle in the middle of the city really adds value to the city. Besides, the castle hosts a museum of torture inside. Well worth a visit and not super expensive. €10.- regular price, free for under 19s, and €6.- for 19-26 year olds, if you come in a large group or are 65+ you can enter for €7.50.
After visiting the castle we spend some time shopping for souvenirs (craft beer), it was time to go home. Not often do I have the feeling that I spent enough time in one place, but after visiting Ghent, I was satisfied. Ghent is a beautiful city and amazing for one weekend. The combination of culture and beer is perfect for a short time away, whether it is with friends, family or your partner. Take your time and have fun! (: