When we told people we were going to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary in Ghent we got very mixed responses: from those that had been “It’s amazing you’ll love it!”; from those that hadn’t “Where?”. It’s true that Ghent isn’t on most people’s bucket lists of must see places, but it should be. We had a fantastic three nights in this beautiful city, made even better by our trip coinciding with annual The Ghent Festivities.
We’d originally planned to return to Dubrovnik for a few days where we’d honeymooned ten years earlier during Dubrovnik’s own Summer Festival, however the infrequency of flights and the cost of the hotel meant this really wasn’t practical. We only wanted to leave the children for two or three nights and so we had to consider other options. Whilst at work (for Great Escapes) I’d seen a free third night offer at the Sandton Grand Hotel Reylof in Ghent – the hotel looked ideal with nice rooms, a spa and champagne bar. Plus, I remembered reading about the ten-day festival that takes place each July. When I suggested it to my husband I got a blank look and the same response “where?” but when I mentioned Belgian beer and mussels he was convinced.
As it turned out I’m glad we chose Ghent over Dubrovnik, the city was equally beautiful, the hotel just as nice and the festival was a great addition.
We travelled by Eurostar in the Standard Premier cabin which meant we got food and drinks on board and it’s great value as the ticket entitles you to onward travel to any Belgian city. Ghent (Gent) was only one stop on from the Eurostar terminal in Brussels and once we’d figured out which platform we needed to get to (it can be a little confusing) we managed to get straight on a train and were in Ghent in around 25 minutes. One tip – the trains often refer to the station’s name rather than the city itself. We were panicking slightly after our train departed and the announcements failed to mention Ghent in the list of destinations – listen out for Sint Pieters.
The hotel itself is quite grand with an impressive entrance hall and reception area. Whilst checking in we realised we’d made a good choice – a similar standard of hotel in Paris or London would have cost a fortune. It was the first time we’d left the children (now 9 & 6) for this long and we wanted a little luxury.
After unpacking we headed out to explore, it was just a couple of minutes’ walk over St Michael’s Bridge to the medieval city. Walking over the bridge provides an impressive first glimpse of the city centre with its gothic towers and medieval buildings – National Geographic Traveler Magazine named Ghent as the most authentic historic city in the world, and Lonely Planet called it “Europe’s best kept secret.” We wanted to discover its secret.
The Ghent Festivities
Below St Michael’s Bridge is the River Leie and on opposite sides of the river are the Korenlei and Graslei – probably the two most picturesque and most photographed areas of Ghent. Whilst we were there the historic buildings were partly hidden by outdoor bars and stages that had been built on the riverbank and pontoons on the river itself, but for us this only added to the atmosphere. Although I’d read about the festival I never realised quite how big it is – it dominates the city with around 10 stages set up in squares all over Ghent.
Each day we’d stumble across new areas we hadn’t discovered before and listen to some different genres of music. Most of the bands are Belgian and little known to the UK market but there are some international bands and we saw a Jamaican Jazz Orchestra, a British Blues band, a rather dodgy rock band and Black Elvis amongst many others. Slade were performing whilst we were there, but luckily we missed them. It’s said to be Europe’s biggest free festival and also incorporates a circus acts, puppetry, comedy and street performers.
Exploring with the Ghent City Card
It wasn’t all about the festival though, there’s a lot more to this little city, the centre of which is virtually all pedestrianized. We got a Ghent City Card which costs 30 euros for 48 hours or 35 euros for 72 hours and gives free access to most of the city’s attractions, bus and tram travel and a boat trip. We climbed the Belfry which gives great views of the city but the 365 tiny winding stairs did make me a little nervous, luckily there’s a lift which we took on the way down.
The card also gave us a complimentary 40-minute boat trip with an English-speaking guide. We’d followed a walking tour independently the previous day so had seen much of the city but the boat trip gave a different view from the river and it was useful to have a guide, even if his accent made it a little tricky to understand every word. If you’re travelling with children there are boat trips aimed specifically at families with river monsters, pirates and witches giving the tour. I’ve no idea if these are included with the City Card, I’m just relieved Ben (my husband) and I didn’t end up on one of these by mistake! During our 3 night trip the weather was beautiful – in the late 20s – so we’d headed out early on our last day for the boat trip. Before boarding the boat we were offered a complimentary Belgian beer but as it was only 10am we’d declined. However whilst sat on the boat waiting to depart, the guide came round again confused why we didn’t have our beer. My will power remained, as you can see my husband couldn’t refuse!