A few weeks ago I headed off to Belgium on a mini road trip with my lovely friend Claudia who I met in Nicaragua on my G-Adventure Tour. We were extremely lucky to have bonded so well and have kept in touch over the years. We have since taken a trip to Myanmar together, as well as visiting each other in our native countries – me in the UK and Claudia in Holland! With Claudia being such a short drive, from the south of Holland into the Belgium, we decided to visit Belgium.
Our day trip soon turned into a long weekend when Eurostar had one of their regular sales on, and I was able to buy my train tickets for just £58 return from London direct to Brussels. With an early start, and armed with my mini Lonely Planet Encounter guide book, off I went! Eurostar is so handy for anyone living in London. With a journey time of 2 hours, that takes you directly into Brussels city centre, this was a much better option than flying. Worth noting, that the Eurostar arrived into the South Station, rather than the Central Station. You’ll need to jump on the local train for one stop, which will take you no more than a 5 minutes, and the fare is included within your Eurostar ticket.
As Claudia had parked up in Brussels Central Station, I met her there for a quick bite to eat and a coffee. We didn’t plan to spend any more time in Brussels as we wanted to head straight out to Ghent that morning, but we couldn’t head off without seeing the famous Manneken Pis statue. Much like the leaning tower of Pisa, this city landmark (a statue of a little boy peeing) is absolutely hilarious! Firstly, at 61cm tall, he was so tiny that I was grateful my camera has a decent zoom on it, and secondly he had a funny little outfit on that he could still pee from! Just around the corner Jeanneke Pis, a little girl peeing statue, could also be found. Perhaps this was his sister or girlfriend?
After our bite to eat and my first glimpse of Belgium chocolate and waffle shops, we headed off to Ghent where we would spend one evening and two days before moving into Bruges.
Our drive from Brussels to Ghent took just under an hour via the motorway. We would have preferred to stay in a small B&B or guesthouse, but we were pretty slack in booking our accommodation so ended up at the NH Ghent hotel, an extremely central hotel just a stone throw from the Belfry. For anyone driving, hotel guests can park in their car park for €25 / 24 hrs, which might sound pricey, but was the best price for parking we found in the city centre. Non-guests are charged €50 / 24 hrs.
With a population of roughly 250,000 people and the city centre being just 156 sqm in size, this really was a teeny tiny town to visit – and we absolutely loved it! Everything is so close together, it’s the perfect town to just walk around and get lost to properly explore.
There were a few highlights, so read on down to make sure you don’t miss them!
Ghent’s main attraction is without a doubt The Belfort (also known as The Belfry), constructed in 1313 this is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There was an €8 entry fee, which allows you to climb the tower and view several display rooms. Before you head up the tower, keep an eye out for the giant stand displaying the ‘Belfy app’ that you can download beforehand for information on the building and it’s history. Annoyingly this didn’t work for me, but there is also a lot of info on their website if not!
Upon entry you’ll pass by the gift shop before making your way to the tower. As well as the watchtower there were also a number of display rooms that you could visit. Each room is located on a different floor and included; the secrecy room (ground floor), the tower keeper’s room (floor 1), the bell museum (floor 2), the Roland bell (floor 3), and the mechanical clockwork and drum (floor 4). The circular staircase to reach the top of the watchtower has extremely narrow steps, especially towards the very top, so here’s hoping you don’t have size ten feet when you attempt to climb the staircase!
This magnificent medieval moated castle sits right in the heart of the city centre, and is a must see for anyone visiting Ghent! The castle dates back to the early 11th century (seriously old stuff here!), and was full of informative display boards throughout, detailing the colourful history of the castle.
Once the former royal residence of the Counts, this castle has also seen its share of terrifying moments. During the 14th century the castle became home to the courts of justice, where over the years many suspects were imprisoned, tortured and executed within the castle walls or occasionally publicly by the main gate.
There was a €10 entry fee per adult, and you could then wander throughout the castle and its grounds at your own pace, which took us around an hour. 90 minute guided tours were also available, but were pretty pricey at €85 pp. Make sure you make your way up to the top of the observation tower for lovely city views, and also keep an eye out for those jousting in the foregrounds as you enter.
A great way to see the city is from one of the many canals that wind throughout the town. You can either take a 40 minute boat ride for €7 per person, or rent a kayak to paddle at your own leisure. Check out the guys below who were having a whale of a time in the sunshine! Claudia suggested we did this, however I have a feeling she’d be the one at the front with her beer 🙂
The town of Ghent has an aim to keep the streets clean of any graffiti, so they have allowed one street in particular, Werregarenstraat, to legally be graffitied by anyone. Despite the street art changing constantly, at the time of our visit there was some cool pieces of art up on the walls.
For anyone who can’t go on holiday without a spot of shopping, or like me, who forgets to pack their jim-jams, you’ll be pleased to know there are two main shopping streets. Langemunt Street had a number of high street shops including a Primark, and Veldstraat Street, where you can find H&M & Massimo Dutti etc.
So this was totally random and I’m not entirely sure why we even headed out there, but roughly a half an hour’s walk from the city centre will take you to the outer suburbs where you can visit this museum. This former psychiatric hospital is now home to The Dr Guislain Museum, which holds a permanent exhibition on ‘the history of psychiatry’, questioning how we define what is ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ in terms of mental health. There was an €8 entry fee that also included entry to an art collection, however this place spooked us out before we’d even opened the doors, when an old man with a slight limp and a twitchy eye wandered past us. I’m pretty sure he was harmless but we couldn’t help but want to head back to the town.
As we walked back to the town centre from the Dr Guislain Museum, we found ourselves walking through a street full of Eastern European mini markets, fresh food stalls, fast food restaurants and many other stores owned by those from Eastern Europe.
This trio of a museum, cafe and museum shop, is located within a restored 1363 children’s hospice complex. Entry costs €6 pp. The museum examines how everyday life was lived from the 1890s through to the 1970s. The exhibits vary from a 1960’s and 1970’s themed rooms, photos of wedding fashions, a collection of original home video’s, as well as recreated shop interiors. Worth noting that not all the displays as translated into English, however most are self explanatory.
Despite the size of Ghent, there was no shortage of restaurants, cafes and bars to choose from, and being in a town that is built around a never ending canal system, pretty much most places have a wonderful view too! We were really lucky with the weather being so hot, so we had several iced coffee and beer stops to break up our day.
We only spent the one night in Ghent, so chose to eat at The Witte Leeuw (The White Lion), a local Burgundian restaurant on Graslei Street with outdoor seating facing the canal. Food was lovely and portions were huge! We later headed one road back to Korenmarkt Street, which had an abundance of bars and restaurants, perfect for relaxing whilst you sample some of the local beers!
The following day we stopped by The Wasbar for lunch. Filled bagels came with a complimentary homemade soup, and the salads were super yummy. As the name implies, this lovely cafe is actually a launderette too, so on the upper floor there were a number self service washing machines and a collection of tables where people were enjoying a bite to eat or working on their laptops. I really liked this idea – laundry made that little bit more interesting!
Keep an eye out for next week’s post, Belgium Road Trip Part Two – Bruges & The Surrounding Beaches, which will cover the second half of our road trip!