Ghent, Belgium: How I love thee!

After our 3 day bike excursion in South Holland, we took the train over to Ghent, Belgium. Perfect timing because Ghent was in the midst of Europe’s largest open air festival, with over 2 million people, the Ghent Festival aka Gentse Feesten. It was just one big, non-stop party that lasted for ten days. Cuh-razeeeee! Music stages were scattered throughout old Ghent next to medieval cathedrals and castles. The best part about this? It’s all FREE. Yes, 10 whole days of free live entertainment all over the city. Amazing.

Ghent Festival 2012

Drew and I stayed at the Hotel Harmony, right on the edge of the festival. Every day we’d walk out and head either left or right and we’d be in the middle of a ton of people. But it was not right in the middle of the action so that we could get our sleep at night. By the way, the people at this hotel, and most of Ghent for that matter, are some of the FRIENDLIEST people we’ve ever met while traveling. If you’re ever in Belgium, I’d say skip Brugge and Brussels and head straight to Ghent. A LOT more character and a lot less touristy. And hopefully you go in July so that you can revel in the festivities as well!
Less than a five minute walk from our hotel is Gravensteen castle, or Castle of the Count. My first castle ever, sigh. I was so enamored that we had to go inside.
The castle was built in 1180 by Count Philip of Alsace. Did you know that during medieval times, Ghent was Europe’s second largest city, right behind Paris?

View of the city from the top of the castle. It feels like you’ve traveled back in time just looking at it. The second building from the left is the Belfry tower which once served as a fortified watchtower.

There was a section full of medieval weapons on display. It just blows my mind that this time period we only see in the movies (or on great HBO shows like Game of Thrones -Sesason 3 cannot come soon enough!) actually existed. Drew was so inspired by this knight that he bought a little one to take home.

The preservation of architecture in this city is incredible.

Guild houses of Ghent from the Renaissance era.

It was raining on and off the first few days of our stay in Ghent. That didn’t stop people from attending the festival though. I love how this tour boat had rainbow umbrellas to brighten up the gloomy day!

This reminds me of the Muppets Theater. There’s a restaurant/bar on the bottom floor and a huge stage set up to the left of this image.

Though known for their chocolate, it seems many Belgians love their cuberdons, cone-shaped candy with a hard gummy outside and gooey sweetness inside. This is the childhood candy many of them grew up eating.

After all that walking, I was dying for some chocolate. Chocolate shops are abundant, but you gotta ask around to find the good ones.

We were constantly carrying around an umbrella the first few days. Sometimes it came in handy.
Sometimes it was just for fun.

Fooling around in the Patershol district near our hotel.

When in Ghent, take some time to wander around Patershol. It’s a small area, but very charming and full of GREAT restaurants. We decided to dine at the De 3 Biggetjes (The 3 Little Piggies) one evening and were not disappointed in any dish that was served. Chef Cuong had fled from Vietnam as a teenager and ended up in Belgium, where he studied the art of French cuisine, which he mixes with Belgian and a touch of Vietnamese in his restaurant. We got the chance to speak with him and found out that he and I were on the same Malaysian island at the same time when we escaped Vietnam. (Wow! -well, at least for me.) His proud mom is a wonderful Belgian lady who adopted him when he arrived, and is now one of the hostesses at his restaurant.

At night, whether it was wet or dry, the streets were packed with people. Rain cannot stop people who want to party. You gotta love it. What I really loved was that no matter how crowded it was (and there was an insane number of people!), and how much drinking was done, no fights broke out (at least, none that we saw). I gotta give props to the Europeans who expose their kids to responsible drinking at an early age, so that when they’re older, it’s not such a big deal, and they don’t go crazy binge drinking once they turn 21. Everyone’s just out to have a good time. =)

One late morning, we walked a few steps out from our hotel and happened upon a live orchestra playing in the courtyard of a building on the same street as our hotel. It was a magnificent show.

This nice man invited us to sit down next to him while the orchestra played. The courtyard was crowded so we happily accepted. Come to find out, he was a civil engineer who has traveled the world for work, but his real passion in life? Tango dancing. Wherever he travels, he finds a place to dance the tango. He gave me his business card, and under his name, the title reads “Milonguero de Corazon” – rough translation: Tango dancer of the heart. The best thing he said was that he loves his life so much that if he had to come back and live life again, he’d life his same life over again. That is one HAPPY man!

The beauty of the Ghent Festival is that you can listen all types of music: classical, reggae, classic rock, jazz, and so much more. You just have to know where, or be lucky enough to happen upon it. But it’s so easy to wander around the city blocks and find a stage or little alcove playing something you like. Jazz here.

Street performers entertain between the different stages.

This young boy was playing one of my favorite songs from Amelie.

There was a huge dance floor set up in the park for dancers. At different times of the day, there’d be swing dancing, tango, etc.

The canal area was the most packed, probably because of the numerous restaurants and bars on either side of it, along with a huge stage.

At night, it reminds me of Disney’s “It’s a Small World” ride.

I think I’ll end this Ghent post with my favorite thing about Belgium, the beer. They really know how to make strong beer taste DELICIOUS!!! And there’s so MANY breweries out there. After coming home, that’s the only beer I go for now and I wish we imported more of them. Sigh.

This just means another trip to Belgium is in order one day.

Next post: Antwerp!

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