Although I began working the first week of October, we received two weeks off of work for Vacances de Toussaint at the end of that month! As I was previously unaware of this vacation, I didn’t really have a game plan for my days off. After spending a day relaxing for my first day on holiday, I researched some ticket prices and booked a ten-day trip in Belgium and the Netherlands! My first stop – Ghent! (Or, in French, Gand!) While in Ireland the weekend before this, a fellow traveler I crossed paths with told me that this was his favorite city in Belgium and highly recommended I check it out!
According to Google, most travelers spend about a day or two in this city. I didn’t intend on staying more than two days, but the only open hostel that weekend had a three night minimum. (Benefits of booking a trip 24 hours in advance.) So three days it was! This ended up being a blessing in disguise, because I absolutely fell in love with Ghent! I got to leisurely explore the city over a long weekend. Ghent is incredibly charming. I’ve been to Bruges, and I loved it as well, but there was something about Ghent that won me over! They say it has the fairytale beauty of Bruges, but with a modern twist as it is still a living, breathing city.
I said before that I love doing walking tours. The hostel at which I was staying gives free walking tours everyday at 1:00pm, so that was my first solid plan apart from eating. The tourguide was pretty funny; he is Spanish but he moved to Ghent years ago to follow a love interest. As he stated, it didn’t work out with the woman, but Ghent is so charming he decided to stay! I booked this trip last minute and was hence very unfamiliar with the city. This walking tour was the perfect start to my visit! I loved hearing the local insight and cultural history right off the bat!
Before the walking tour, I had totally forgotten that this city is home to the famous Ghent Altarpiece! I studied this tryptic in depth in my art history course! It was amazing to see this piece of artwork in person after studying it. The altarpiece is truly breathtaking and definitely worth the couple euros it costs to view it. You can visit the altarpiece inside the St. Bavo’s Cathedral. One of the panels is a recreation, as it was mysteriously stolen in 1934 and has never been recovered. At the STAM city museum, one of the rooms goes into detail about the mystery surrounding the robbery of two panels from the altarpiece and the potential thieves. They have some clips from newspapers during the robbery and everything! I loved hearing all the speculation and conspiracies surrounding it.
The weekend I visited was apparently the tail end of the Ghent Film Festival. After checking out the schedule, I decided to go to the closing film – Souvenir. Before the film started, there was a man announcing things. I have zero context as to what he was saying, because he was speaking in Flemish. I’ve got to say, there is nothing quite like being surrounded by a completely unfamiliar language. It’s humbling, amusing, and terrifying all at once. This experience gave me a whole new appreciation for my French abilities (which are still limited at best)! In the middle of a long spew of strange Flemish words, all of a sudden the whole theater started bending over and reaching under their seats. I tentatively reached under my own seat (monkey see, monkey do), and surprise! There was a card! I won ten euros to play on EuroMillions lottery! 😀
Ghent is a small town, but there’s tons of things to see and do despite the size! Prices are discounted at most places for under-25s like me, but I decided to get a weekend pass anyways. I went to enough museums and attractions to get my money’s worth and more! During my weekend, I road a little boat around Ghent, went up the belfry for a gorgeous view of the city, and walked to see some of the local street art. A well-known attraction is “graffitistraatje” or Graffiti street. Beyond this mini graffiti street, there is also a ton of great street art scattered around the city. Street artists can actually apply for a space to paint and they are PAID to paint walls in Ghent!
Aside from all the amazing attractions, Ghent is a wonderful city to simply take a stroll and take in the view. The city is full of gorgeous Flemish architecture, some original and some recreated. This adorable city is not only easy on the eyes, but it also has a rich history. The Ghent locals call themselves ‘stroppendragers’ or noose bearers. This name recalls a proud rebellious history, referring back to 1540 when Emperor Charles forced the dignitaries to march through the city with nooses around their necks. One of the local brews is even named for this! Gentse Strop has a man in a noose depicted in the logo.
Ghent quickly jumped up to being ranked one of my top favorite cities in Europe! I’d highly recommend the visit to anyone. It was the perfect way to start off my first holiday while working in France. After my three days in Ghent, I spent a night in Antwerpen, then headed to Rotterdam and Amsterdam before returning home. My next blog will be about the Netherlands. 🙂