Today witnesses the dawning of a new era in Belgian history as Crown Prince Philippe officially becomes the new King of Belgium. Playing our own part in marking this momentous occasion, we take a look at another of Belgium’s glorious gems, Ghent.
Reminiscent of Bruges, Ghent is a most attractive and vibrant city, thanks to the beautiful quayside buildings with lavishly decorated façades of the Graslei and Korenlei lining the waterways, together with its excellent mix of bars, cafés, restaurants and shops spilling out on to the cobbled streets. Yet its position on the confluence of the Scheldt and Leie Rivers, and its thriving student population, also make this a city of diversity, where maritime activity and university life sit proudly alongside tourism in Ghent’s commercial make up.
Most visitors to Ghent begin in the historical (and mainly pedestrian) centre, admiring the magnificent Flemish architecture including the famous Three Towers – the Gothic church of St Nicholas, the Belfry and, above all else, St Bavo’s Cathedral. This splendid building evolved between the 12th and 16th centuries and houses fabulous works of art including one of van Eyck’s finest, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb which claims the dubious honour of being the most stolen artwork in the world. Another must-see is the 12th-century Castle of the Counts, which in its time has served as a castle, mint, law court, a prison and even a cotton mill.
From a cultural perspective, the Municipal Museum of Contemporary Art (SMAK) and its neighbour, the Museum of Fine Arts (Museum voor Schone Kunsten) are both well worth a visit, the latter dividing its rich collection between the early Flemish primitives, and the 19th and 20th centuries including works by prestigious names such as van Dyck, Rubens, Ensor and Magritte. Other attractions include the recently-opened STAM, situated on the Bijloke and offering a historical overview of the city; the Museum of Industry, Labour and Textiles (MIAT) located in a former cotton mill; the Design Museum, featuring examples of many eras of design including Art Deco and Art Nouveau (the toilet wing is apparently most impressive!); the Dr Guislain Museum, housed in Belgium’s oldest psychiatric hospital; and the World of Kina, home to indigenous birds, spiders and 1000 different plant species.
Running until 29th July, the Ghent Festivities is a 10-day-long city festival now in its 170th year comprising music, theatre, circus, comedy, children’s animation, parades, fairs and much more. Also worth checking out is the city’s annual internationally-renowned jazz festival taking place in early July with previous highlights including Jamie Cullum, Madeleine Peyroux, Diana Krall, Bryan Ferry and Elvis Costello. There’s also an annual film festival in October. When it comes to the Ghent nightlife, stay in the area of the Three Towers, for this is where the most popular bars, clubs and restaurants are to be found. For something a little more romantic, enjoy the illuminations from a riverboat or head for the Patershol quarter, close to the castle and renowned for its excellent restaurants.