Quirky customs, diverse architecture define Ghent

Associate editor Caroline Scutt spent some time exploring Ghent, Belgium. Her report follows:

GHENT, Belgium -- As my gaze wandered from the hanging basket filled with shoes, down to my exposed right foot and then into my giant, test-tube-like glass of beer, I wondered if I was not just a bit too old for partaking in this ritual.

But if you want to sample the infamous Kwak ale at Mad Meg's pub, this ritual is a must. For those not eager to part with a shoe, (which is returned once the "test tube" is emptied and not broken from hitting its holder), this crowded, boisterous pub has a selection of 209 other beers from which to choose.

This is Belgium after all, home of at least 400 different brews, which flow freely in this university city. Although the Kwak ale was tasty (though certainly not one of Belgium's finest ambers), the tradition of taking off the shoe was a great way to meet some of the locals, who seemed never to tire of watching yet another visitor get christened with a Kwak.

Quirky drinking at Mad Meg's is just one of many endearing oddities that amuses visitors to Ghent. The city doesn't boast the picturesque (and sometimes Disney-like) charm of Bruges, the chic, cosmopolitan flair of Antwerp or an awe-inspiring town square such as Brussels' Grand' Place. What this metropolis of alternatively bland and eye-catching architecture does boast is surprising pockets of hidden treasures and a history dating to Roman times.

Located in the center of Flanders (the Flemish-speaking region of Belgium), Ghent prospered as the heart of the Flemish cloth trade in the 14th century, but today this city of approximately 230,000 inhabitants tends to be ignored by tourists or is just a quick stop on their itineraries. Ghent is a 45-minute train ride from Brussels and one hour by car, although driving in the city center is not recommended.

Image Architecturally, Ghent is a mix of unassuming industrial-age structures and striking, ornate facades from the 12th to 17th centuries. The contrast reflects the ups and downs of the city's history.

After the decline of a profitable cloth trade in the early 16th century, the city turned from industry to trade and suffered from revolts against taxation. In the centuries that followed, the city slipped into a slow decline until the industrial boom of the 19th century. Today, cobblestone streets lined with unremarkable buildings unfold onto the Sint-Baafsplein square and the Cathedral of St. Bavo (Sint-Baafskathedraal), a melding of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque architecture. In the baptistery hangs a masterpiece painting by the Van Eyck brothers, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.

Sint-Baafsplein is the site of the city's other most impressive structure, the Belfry, with its 300-foot-high tower symbolizing the power of the craftsmen and merchants' guilds in the Middle Ages, and the adjoining Cloth Hall. Opposite the Belfry is the Town Hall (Stadhuis), which dates to 1482.

A short walk brings you to the Sint-Michielsbrug bridge, which bends across the river Leie and offers wonderful views of the Inner Town. Graslei and Korenlei streets, lined with striking guild houses dating from the 12th to the 17th centuries, flank the Leie. Boats take passengers along the river past the imposing 12th century Gravensteen Castle or Castle of the Count of Flanders -- an image to behold when it is lighted up against the night sky.

The entire city remains aglow once the sun goes down -- and not just because spotlights shine on the guildhouses and other historical buildings. Ghent has an atmosphere that is charged with electricity when evening descends and the Town Criers take to the streets, leading groups on pub crawls around the city. These entertaining guides not only know where to go for the best brews but are full of anecdotes and historical information about their city. The cost of hiring a guide, which can be done through the Ghent Tourist Office, varies depending on the size of the group and length of the tour.

Ghent also prides itself on its collection of museums and other attractions, but the nightlife alone is reason enough to spend more than a few hours sightseeing (a two-night stay is recommended by the tourist office), and during the summer months the city offers a respite from Belgium's busier tourist centers.

Belgian Tourist Office, Phone: (212) 758-8130, Fax: (212) 355-7675, E-mail: [email protected]

Two places to grab a bite

In addition to numerous drinking establishments, this city is home to more than 350 restaurants that serve everything from traditional Belgian dishes to Indian, French and Continental cuisine. Two eateries that are worth experiencing are:

  • The 't Galgenhuisje (the Gallow House) is along the river in a cavelike vault that was once the holding space for people condemned to death by hanging. This cozy, popular restaurant specializes in Belgian dishes such as waterzooi (pronounced va-ter-zoo-e), a soup-stew combination made with fish or chicken and boiled vegetables and potatoes in a cream sauce. Call (011) 32-9 233-4251.
  • Pakhuis Restaurant, a 15-minute walk from the river, copies the spacious, sleek dining establishments that have sprouted in the U.S. and London. Steak and seafood are the specialties at this trendy nightspot. Call (011) 32-9 223-5555. Both restaurants offer main courses starting at around $14.
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