After falling in love with Bruges, Belgium, we looked to explore similar cities in the “Battlefield of Europe.” (Yes, this is Belgium’s nickname). We chose Ghent, a port city in northwest Belgium known for its medieval architecture and authenticity. The city, nicknamed “Medieval Manhatten” (seriously, who comes up with these nicknames), was largely spared from the wars and is full of character with its interconnected canals winding through the city.
Recommended by friends (and also a location where my former employer had an office), we always heard, “skip Brussels, go to Ghent!”. While we didn’t heed that advice initially and visited Brussels first, we finally were making our way to Ghent for a weekend in May.
When determining how to get to Ghent, we had to get creative. It was just as easy to get there on a train as on a plane. However, I was only six points away from reaching the coveted “Gold” status on KLM/Air France, and my qualification period ended at the end of May. I should have had all the credits I needed from a recent trip back to the states for work, but Air France never responded to my email inquiry about missing credits.
Getting “Gold” status on KLM/Air France would be worth trying for the six points. The upgraded status would allow us to have “priority access” in many airports, which would let us skip the general security line. After seeing all the chaos from summer travel in Europe, this would be a huge benefit! It would give us free lounge access in many airports too. While I’m not going to pay for the added luxury, I will take advantage of it if available! Finally, it will give us a free extra checked bag when we move home. Our shipping container will take a couple of months to arrive in the US, so we will take what we can on the plane!
After searching every route available, we chose to fly from Lyon, France, to Lille, France, take an Uber to the train station, and then finish by train to Ghent. A train would have been less chaotic at the end of the day. The prices were comparable, and the total travel time was the same, so we risked booking our flights to Lille. This booking would give me precisely the six points needed to move to “Gold” status.
When all was said and done, our Uber dropped us off at the train station with ten minutes to spare to catch the last train of the evening. We cut it a little too close for my comfort. But, I achieved “Gold” status!
If you look to go to Belgium, add Ghent to your list. The city was small enough not to feel overwhelming but large enough that we weren’t bored after a day. It was easy to walk everywhere, and the unique historical buildings provided stunning picturesque views. And when our feet needed a break, we took an alternative way to get around Ghent by water.
The interlinked waterways traverse past the city’s highlights. We decided last minute to take a canal cruise as it was a beautiful sunny day. We inadvertently timed it perfect as we were the last two to board before it took off. The almost hour trip took us through the narrow and peaceful waterways, giving us a beautiful view of the city from a different angle. While on the boat, we passed underneath a willow tree. The guide explained it was a french tradition for couples to kiss underneath a willow tree, as they would receive a long life full of love in return. We didn’t kiss, as I didn’t want to buy into the superstition. But really, it was because no one else did either!
No trip to Belgium would be complete without indulging in Belgian beer and treats. I found one bar that had over 500 options of beers available, many local to Belgium. It was here that Jordan saw everyone drinking from a large glass with a rounded bottom and posts to keep the glass balanced upright. He knew he had to give it a try, too.
After Jordan placed the order, the waiter asked Jordan for one of his shoes. Not an ID, not a credit card, but a shoe. We laughed, thinking it was a joke, but soon looked down and saw most men only wearing one shoe! The waiter took Jordan’s shoe with his bare hand and added it to a net of other patrons’ shoes hoisted up high by the ceiling. Well, that’s one way to hold someone accountable! After Jordan returned the large glass without damaging it, the waiter again united Jordan with his right shoe.
While we aren’t big liquor drinkers, we found a place that served almost a hundred types of jenever. Grains like corn, malted barley, or rye are distilled to create a tasty drink. It’s uniquely local to Belgium and the Netherlands and made way for the more widely known gin.
We entered the tiny bar of ‘t dreupelkot, maybe the size of a home office room, with bottles upon bottles of homemade jenever decorating the shelves. We took a few minutes to scan the long list of delicious tasting flavors before settling on a strawberry margarita and blood orange jenever shot.
The jenever shot is not one you shoot back, although I’m confident many do, but rather one to sip and enjoy. The first sip went down smoothly, with no bitter aftertaste or scrunched-up face as a typical alcoholic shot would cause. It was absolutely a treat to enjoy! And while typically we associate beer with Belgium, trying a jenever shot is an absolute must. The strawberry margarita was our favorite.
Looking for additional traditional treats, we sought out a famous local delicacy, the cuberdon. The cuberdon is a small, sugary treat with a hard outside and a gelatinous inside. In Dutch, it is known as a “neus,” translating to “nose” for its similarity to, you guessed it, a nose. Just one, and you will be on a sugar high!
After a weekend full of exploring, it was hard not to compare Ghent to it’s nearby fairytale town Bruges. The only thing Ghent may have been missing that Bruges was full of? Swans.
While there weren’t any real swans in Ghent, there was a gold symbol of two swans facing away from each other on one of the buildings. Back when literacy was low, buildings used illustrative marks above their shops to designate the shop’s purpose. There may have been a symbol of sails, where ship captains would visit to seek help getting their sails repaired, or a symbol of a fish above a fish monger. Think of these symbols as early pictograms or emojis.
And for the building with the symbol of two swans facing away from each other? That is the symbol of a brothel. The building is now a Marriott. The more you know!
Overall, everyone’s recommendation to visit Ghent was spot on. Another Belgium city checked off our list!