It’s 9.30am and I’m the only person over the age of 16 on the top deck of a crowded double decker train heading at breakneck speed towards somewhere in Belgium that lies way, way in the opposite direction of where I want to be. I’ve become a frantic blue dot on a Google map on a dying phone, lurching southwards until I am replaced entirely by a blank screen, filled with the realisation that I may spend the rest of the day on a bizarre trans-Europe express adventure with a school party from Brussels. I dig deep for my schoolgirl French.
There is a much, much easier way to get to Ghent, my weekend destination. The early morning flight from Edinburgh takes just over an hour, hop on a train from the airport to St Peter’s station in Ghent and in another hour you’re there. Or not, if you go the ‘long’ way…
My home for the weekend is Zannier Hotels 1898 The Post in the heart of the historical centre of Ghent, a dramatic Neo-Gothic structure next to the river Leie. I step off the tram and gaze upwards at the 54-metre clock tower spire as it chimes 1pm (only two hours later than my ETA…); I half expect a bat to fly past and the north wind to blow an unexpected, chilling gust. Standing on St Michael’s Bridge, I feel as if I’m about to enter my own little dark fairytale.
Ghent feels like a hidden treasure, slightly off the radar in comparison to neighbouring Bruges. It’s a university town with 14 centuries of history on show through its blend of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture and cobbled streets, sitting on the banks of a web of meandering canals.
The approach to the hotel, once a historic post office building is through an illuminated flower garden and once you’re in the building you’re presented with an imposing, cast iron spiral staircase that winds all the way up to the tower – an altogether unique entrance.
In stark comparison to the grand, dark and intimidating exterior, the inside of the hotel has a warm, inviting feel. It’s like stepping into an elegant timewarp of 20th century European casual refinement.
Luxurious, comfortable and quirky, 1898 The Post is a characterful slice of gothic marvelousness with personality in every room, corridor, nook and cranny; there’s always something I’m gravitating towards to pick up, read, look at quizzically and photograph.
It all feels entirely authentic and a shade eccentric, as if every object has travelled great distances through history and time to spend the rest of its days in the great company of similar items, a kind of curio nirvana. Nothing feels staged or contrived. Everything feels slightly like a museum of world travel.
My room is a moody blend of dark hues; deep-green walls, antique furniture including a writing desk adorned with curious trinkets and postcards, a double height ceiling, expansive windows dressed with heavy cross grey curtains, wooden floors and a staircase that winds upwards to the bathroom on the mezzanine floor.
Octagonal white marble bathroom tiles, a huge walk in shower room and dark brass fixtures give a contemporary but luxuriously retro feel. Vintage books sit on either side of my bed alongside that small rectangular hole in the wall that any traveler finds huge comfort in seeing – the thoughtfully placed USB charging port.
The room has generous open storage and the chicest mini-bar I have ever encountered; a huge collection of spirits, cocktail making accoutrements and importantly, the right types of glasses, so you can mix your own Negroni in style with everything you need.
The earthy interiors of 1898 The Post lull you into a dark and dreamy escape where time seems to exist elsewhere; it’s so tempting to be seduced by my sultry surroundings with the glowy amber light shining onto my enormous crisp white linen covered bed, and just cosy up and close my eyes but explore I must.
I’m delighted that my tourist adventures begin right at the doorstep to my hotel, the Graslei which sits on the right bank of the Leie river. Once a medieval port, this is now one of the city’s tourist and cultural hotspots with a collection of bars and restaurants occupying the ground floor of town houses and guildhalls that ooze history and tales from the city’s merchant past.
A five-minute wander and I’m at Gravensteen, a 12th Century stone castle with a moat, turrets and torture museum. Beautiful from the outside and fascinating I’m sure on the inside but I have so much ground I want to cover in less than 48 hours so I dig out my map and 30 Euro City Card and get walking.
Everything you’d want to see is probably within a ten-minute walking radius in the historic centre. Have a quiet mosey around the streets and churchyard of the Saint-Elisabeth Beguinage, an enclosed religious community established for women in the 13th century during the Crusades.
A two-minute walk and you’re back in amongst the meandering throng where you can wander down towards Korenlei, opposite Graslei, passing the famous Fallen Angels shop which houses the most enthralling mix of nostalgia in its window display (I have never seen such impressive window displays in any city – Ghent really has the edge on this…).
Street art is a big thing in Ghent, but you’ll have to seek it out as it’s all in the one place – Graffiti Street on Werregarenstraatje, a five minute walk from Patershol where artists are free to tag as they wish.
Learn more about the secrets of the city in a 40-min boat tour and view Ghent’s architectural gems from the water as you drift along the canals.
A visit to Saint Bavo’s Cathedral is a must. Home of the Van Eyck brother’s masterpiece, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, the cathedral has the most breathtaking Gothic façade and a rich, Baroque interior filled with sculptures, carved tombs and religious artefacts and paintings.
Cross the square and climb the stairs of The Ghent Belfry, a recognised UNESCO World Heritage to enjoy a 360 vista of Ghent from 91 metres up.
Have a wander round the Design Museum, which has a collection of more than 20,000 objects and decorative arts from the 18th century to present day.
Ghent is also a shopper’s paradise, whether you’re looking for high end fashion, quirky boutiques, charming gift shops or gourmet food stores.
Head to Veldstraat, the main shopping area and wander aimlessly through the twisting cobbled lanes of Patershol, the culinary heart of Ghent; a charming, picturesque collection of old-fashioned shops, cosy dining spots, bohemian vibe and some of the oldest bakeries and confectioners in the city.
Ghent offers an array of gastronomic experiences; the food here is very, very good and the city is home to some of Belgium’s best restaurants. Visit Brasserie Pakhuis, a warehouse from the 1800s that’s been turned into a three-level restaurant with a very super cool, relaxed vibe serving local dishes with a modern twist.
Beer and frites is big on my to do list; for the former I visit Dulle Griet, which offers a selection of 500 beers. If you’ve got your ‘good’ socks on, order the Max van het Huis, served in a traditional Kwak glass.
You’ll have to swap one of your shoes as insurance for the glass (the pub was losing 4000 Euros worth of glasses a year with tourists smuggling them out as souvenirs) before you sit back with your beer, relax and watch as your shoe is hoisted up to the ceiling in a basket.
Visit Michelin star-chef Sergio Herman’s Frites Atelier, recently named Europe’s No 1 place for fries, for a box with their freshly made sauce and a beer while you watch the world go by in Groentemarkt square.
Ghent has a gentle tranquility, there’s a dreamy stillness even amongst the bustle around the city’s cobbled streets and canal side eateries, possibly due to the fact that there are very few cars; it’s mostly pedestrianised, so the only sound of traffic you’ll hear is a bicycle bell and a tram as its glides past. The pace is slow and one thing that’s really noticeable is that everyone is really enjoying life and their surroundings, stress free.
Pretty by day, Ghent by night feels like a glittering costume change thanks to the city’s award-winning light plan which provides sustainable lighting without wasting energy.
Museums, streets, shops and squares are lit up, casting soft light and shadows across the surrounding buildings, transforming the city into a twinkling wonderland.
You can’t help but feel drawn in by the magic around you and filled with the urge to wander further in and out of the winding streets and alleyways, exploring the light and dark corners of the city, which of course you can do in the city’s Light Walk.
My 48 hours immersed Ghent’s old-world charm, rich history and culture and cool, cosmopolitan vibe has left me feeling completely enchanted, enough to tempt me back for another adventure and most certainly, for these frites…
Rates start at €180.00 per room per night including city tax, excluding breakfast. www.zannierhotels.com
For information on visiting Ghent, visit www.visit.gent.be/en