A Weekend in Ghent (Part One)

After several weekends at home, it was time to take off for another adventure, this time to Belgium. I decided to go to Ghent this time as I’d done Brussels, Bruges and Antwerp before and the city looked pretty. Now, I thought I could do the trip to Ghent in one post, but I was looking through my photos and realized that I fit a ridiculous amount of activities into my one day in Ghent. I think I’m going to need to split this one up into two.

I flew into Brussels on Friday night, stayed the night near the airport and took a train to Ghent on Saturday morning. It was all pretty easy and smooth train ride (only an hour too).

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Got in just before noon, which gave me time to catch the tram to the city center, check into my hotel (right along the river), throw my stuff into the room and go out into the city for lunch. Now, being in Belgium, I had some pretty good options for food, but what sounded best at the time was pizza. It wasn’t just pizza; it was pizza that was baked using the same yeast that is used for Duvel beer and that’s a pretty solid brand of beer. What was probably a little more strange was the fact that I went with the nacho pizza, but there was guacamole and it’s been too long since I’ve had guacamole. The views from where I was sitting weren’t too bad either.

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I had scheduled myself on a 3 pm tour of the city and had a few hours to kill between lunch and the tour. I started venturing out towards an abbey across town before realizing that it was 1) not open yet and 2) a pretty long walk, so I turned around. I got a quick stop through Graffiti Street, one of several streets in Ghent that graffiti and street art is legal.

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I made my way back towards the restaurant because the Gravensteen Castle was just around the corner. It costs 10 euros to get into the castle and entry comes with a pretty entertaining audio guide, so it’s well-worth the visit.

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So, the Gravensteen (or Castle of the Counts) was built in the 1100s by Philip of Alsace, who seemed like a pretty interesting guy (for a lack of better words). It is surrounded by a moat and has a generally interesting history. After serving as the count’s residence, it spent quite a bit of time as a court and prison, was the national mint for a while, and (before there was a major renovation of a lot of the historical buildings in Ghent) was actually the site of a factory.

Of course, the most important fact that I learned had to do with the castle’s toilet. According to the audio guide, the Philip could go to the bathroom and the droppings could be heard by residents. This was apparently public entertainment and people would cheer when they heard plops. Don’t know if this was the audio guide making a joke, but I do hope it was true.

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Other highlights of the tour included the room of Medieval torture devices, the room where individuals would be tortured for confessions and the view you get when you climb to the top of the castle. You get a pretty nice view of the castle from up there. Also, the castle had an oubliette. Until that castle tour, I thought that oubliettes were made up for the movie the Labyrinth. It’s nice to learn something new, right? I’d post a picture of it, but it really is not that exciting to look at (even if it may have been used as a beer cellar at some point).

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It was a bit of a climb up and down those stairs of the castle though and the weather was strangely hot and cold at the same time. It’s all a recipe to be easily wiped out by the whole castle adventure. Before heading back to the hotel for a quick break, I grabbed another one of Belgium’s specialties, a Belgian waffle.

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After a break, I decided to reschedule my city tour in favor of going out to see the abbey I wanted to see earlier in the day. Saint Bavo’s Abbey is a former abbey from the 7th century. It’s not in operation anymore, but the abbey and some of the surrounding structures are still around. It was about a 2.5 km (?) walk from the city center.

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It took some circling around the abbey to figure out how to get in, but it was beautiful, quiet and peaceful on the inside. There was a rather large tour group rushing through the abbey when I got there. Otherwise, there were one or two other groups of people there and it generally felt like I had the abbey all to myself. Ghent is a bustling city, but it’s not really that crowded. Nevertheless, there was something nice about how quiet it was in they abbey. My only regret is not being able to find the place where they accept donations for the abbey.

After a while, it was time to step back out into the real world. Fun fact about Ghent is that there’s street art all over the city. There’s so much street art that there’s actually a map that you can get at the Visitor’s Center that tells you where you can find street art throughout the city. I started trying to find some of the nearby sites and didn’t end up being too successful. Saw some stuff, but it was certainly not the street art adventure I set out to have.

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I made my way back towards the city center, passing by what apparently was the tail end of Ghent’s Pride Festival on the way back. I was a little hungry at that time and, even though the last thing I had was a waffle, I also knew that there was an institution in town known for its waffles that was about to close and also shared its name with my uncle’s dog who had just crossed the rainbow bridge days before.

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It was meant to be and it was only fitting to have a tribute waffle in honor of Maximus.

The other big activity I had planned for the day was to do the illuminated walk around the city center. Given how far north I was, I knew that I wouldn’t really get a good experience with the illuminated walk until after ten, which would mean I would be wandering the city pretty late. It called for a hotel break, after which I ventured back out into the real world for dinner.

The great dinner adventure proved to be much more of a challenge than I expected. After a pizza lunch, I felt that a Belgian dinner was in order. Unfortunately, timing dinner with sunset meant that I was out and about in search of a restaurant at almost nine. That alone narrowed my choices and the few Belgian restaurants that I had to choose from were jam-packed. I ended up actually all the way back at the hotel and went with a cute Italian restaurant that I saw at the start of my evening. It was good Italian food, though.

After dinner, it was just dark enough to start on my illuminated walk. For several hours in the evening, the city lights up some of the historical buildings for visitors to explore. It’s quite nice and I caught a few spots that I had not seen at all earlier in the day, including the old courthouse.

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The illuminated walk is definitely a worthwhile activity for Ghent and it was also the best way to walk off a dinner of Italian food.

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And it’s at this point that I will leave you for the time being, as it’s always easy to split up the post into the two days. It was an exhausting day and another one of those days where I managed to pretty quickly rack up over ten miles of walking. I’ll pick up with day two later this week.

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