I arrived at the city of Ghent (Gent) on a Saturday night in the mid of January, as part of an official visit. Ghent is the capital of the East Flanders province and is located on the North Western part of Belgium. I was scheduled to stay in Ghent for the next two weeks and with a full Sunday at my disposal, I decided to explore the city. Though I must admit being skeptical about the city, wondering if it was worth spending a day (thanks to my ignorance), by the time I finished my exploration, it couldn’t digest the fact that why such a beautiful city didn’t get its rightful place in the tourist map of Europe. I did read somewhere that Ghent is called as Europe’s best kept secret and it indeed remains hidden in the tourist maps, with all its beauty in hand.
January weather in Ghent
From a tourist’s perspective, it isn’t the right time to visit Ghent (or Belgium), as its winter time and the months of January and February records the coldest temperature (average temperature of 3-5 degree Celsius). Also it can rain and sunlight will be limited as well (9:00AM to 4:30 PM). However, it makes total sense for someone from Scandinavian region or other Northern European region to visit Belgium, as they can escape from the freezing temperatures back home. As I came prepared for the worst (waterproof winter jacket, woolen socks, hard leather shoes, thermal wear, woolen muffler and hand gloves) , I didn’t feel much of a discomfort. I suggest for someone like me, born and brought up in a tropical place, not to miss the above accessories, if planning a visit, during winter.
Exploring the city
Ghent is known for top class educational institutions as well as medieval architecture. Moreover, the two rivers, Scheldt, Leie and its tributaries runs within the city, giving a Venetian charm to the landscape. I took a bus from near Sint Pieters station (close to my accommodation), went to Dampoort (to get my Lyca Mobile sim card activated) and from there decided to take a walking tour of the city (with Google as my guide). The city is well connected by public transport (Bus and tram operated by De Lijn). Each ticket costs 3 Euros and is valid for 1 hour.
My target was to visit Gravensteen castle and on the way I went past Sint-Macharius kerk (church), Portus Ganda (Bridge), Sint-Jacobskerk (church), Groot Kanon (a medieval supergun) and Groot Vleeshuis (Great Butcher’s Hall) and by now I had covered almost 2.5 kms by walk.
Gravensteen is a castle built during 11th century AD, on the banks of the river Lieve. The name of the castle means “Castle of the Counts” and it served as the seat of the Count of Flanders until 14th century. During the course of time, the castle was used as a court, prison and now serves as museum with Flemish army artifacts and torture instruments used in early ages. For details about timings, entry fee etc. check here.
My walk continued through the streets of Ghent and I could see many taking the Sunday break, sitting together in pubs and restaurants, enjoying the varieties of Belgian beer. I walked along river Leie, Korenmarkt shopping area and went past a couple more churches (Sint-Michielskerk and Saint Nicholas’ Church) before reaching the next main attraction, the Belfry of Ghent.
Belfry of Ghent
Belfries/Belforts are typical of Belgium and Northern France, which are civic towers served as bell towers (to announce the time and various warnings) and also as watch towers. With a height of 91m, the Belfry of Ghent is the tallest of its kind in Belgium and is one among the belfries listed in UNESCO’s World Heritage list.
The entry fee to the observation deck (at level 3) is 8 EUR for adults and elevator is available from level 0 till observation deck (with exhibits and stops at levels 1 and 2). Level 0 displays the scale models of the tower, level 1 displays a number of bells, level 2 has a big bell on display and level 3 displays a bell drum. The observation deck at level 3 gives a 360 degree view of the city and its quite a view from up there.
Saint Bavo’s Cathedral
Well I was disappointed for not being able to enter any of the churches I went past, but was happy to see the doors of St. Bavo’s cathedral open. The 89m tall Gothic cathedral is located very near to the Belfry.
I continued exploring by foot, checked on a few souvenirs (got a fridge magnet), grabbed a Duvel, sat on bench overlooking the giant ferris wheel in front of St. Nicholas Church, sipped the last drop of Duvel, cherishing the wonderful Sunday I had. For those who had visited Belgian cities except Ghent, I feel sorry for you as you indeed missed this gem and I hope the rest don’t commit the same mistake. Well it isn’t the best or the biggest, yet it packs a charm of its own that can leave a lasting impression.