Thursday, July 5, 2012

Ghent impressions

Sint-Bavo as seen from the belfry
Just a short post owing to lack of time (ommelgang celebration in Brussels in an hour!) and because I only spent about half a day and a night in Ghent. There are surely many more sights to see and places to visit in Ghent, but I'm pretty confident that for tourist purposes all that Ghent has to offer could be reliably seen in a day. I began my visit near the St. Michael's church in the historical centre of Ghent, but the church was closed that day so I didn't go inside. The Sint-Michelsbrug (bridge) leads from the church to the proper historical, religious and tourist centre of Ghent. There are immediately a few of the key tourist locations to see, conveniently grouped together: the Sintniklaaskerk (church of Saint Nicholas), the city's belfry, the Sint-Baafskathedral (Saint Bavo's cathedral), and the Stadhuis (the city hall), as well as other assorted medieval and renaissance buildings. Sintniklaaskerk is a very imposing and beautiful church from the inside, but there is nothing to see there other than the stained glass windows, architecture, the stone work, and a dizzying view up into the interior of the church's tower. I took a few pictures (admission is free, but not allowed during service and on Sundays) and that was it. Sint-Baaf is much more interesting because the entrance is free, there is a gorgeous and very interesting modern religious art exhibit inside, and of course one of the wonders of medieval Europe - the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb altar by the Van Eycks. It is breathtakings... To see the altar and the very interesting crypts of the cathedral costs only 4 euros, so I highly recommend it. Don't forget to take the free audio-tour for the altar to get the maximum effect. Immediately after Sint-Baaf I visited the square where the Stadhuis is located, and then took the climb up the belfry. It's not free (6 euros), and you can climb all the way up, or climb about a third of the way up and then take the elevator. On the way you can check out the bells, the Big Roland (enormous bell) and the city's dragon. This centuries-old dragon statue was taken down and replaced with a more recent replica but the original is on display in the belfry. Speaking of which, the view from the top is amazing! Totally worth the climb and the admission price, but not for those who are afraid of heights. It is VERY tight and windy up there.

Jesus prays over beers at Dulle Griet
After catching my breath from the belfry trip I took a short walk on Graslei street by the canal and took a canal trip. Honestly it was a big disappointment. It is far less interesting than the Amsterdam and Bruges boat rides, just as expensive and shorter. Skip it and just walk around the northern part of the historic quarter including the glowering grey Gravensteen castle (inside is a museum of medieval relics, weapons and torture instruments plus a tour of the castle walls), the tiny restaurant streets, and the Ghent museum of design. There, you've seen the major Ghent tourist sites and saved 8 euros. Afterwards my father and I decided to look for a place to eat, and that turned out to be a challenge. Be warned! In Ghent proper restaurants are closed until 6 or 7, and brasseries (bars basically) and fast food (whether chains or street food vendors) are the only sources of food for tourists. Also, very few places have menus in English unlike Antwerp, Amsterdam, the Hague or Bruges, and I also found that the locals don't really like the tourists much compared to these other places. Could just be my experience though. Good food can be had at Vrijdagmarkt at reasonable prices (again, no English menus), but the real attract at Vrijdagmarkt was the "Dulle Griet". No, not the Brueghel painting (although named after it). This is an amazing pub, for its selection of beers (over 250 Belgian beers, plus a variety of German, Dutch and English beers), its nice atmosphere (beer kegs used for tables, tapestries cover the walls and ceilings), friendly staff, and awesome prices. Be sure to try their Kwak - it's beer poured into an exceptionally tall glass that you need a special wooden frame to hold on to; by the end the only way to finish it safely is to chug it. The catch is that you have to give the pub staff your shoe (right or left, doesn't matter) that they deposit into a basket which is then pulled up to the ceiling using a winch. You don't get the shoe back until the Kwak is finished and the staff is adamant about it! The shoe is returned to its inebriated owner with the ringing of a bell and much pomp afterwards. Anyway, that's pretty much Ghent. I didn't visit any museums there, but there aren't any museums that interest me there anyway, however, if design and modern art are your thing then visit Ghent's museum of modern art (SMAK) and the Ghent museum of design. SMAK recently reopened and is supposed to be quite a sight inside. Meanwhile I'm finishing my trip in Brussels!