Our first impression of Flanders was gazing up at the atrium of the amazing multi storey station at Antwerp Central. It has been called the cathedral of the railways. I should have taken photographs but as so often in railway stations, we were in a hurry to get somewhere.
We were on our way to Ghent, which I got the impression was F’s favourite destination on our trip. Being upgraded to an executive club suite on our first night probably helped, as did the afternoon spent at the hotel’s outdoor pool. Maybe the kayaking adventure contributed, and she definitely enjoyed the horrible histories style tour of a castle. It could have been all of the above, coupled with the fact that Ghent is an undeniably beautiful city sporting a historic centre filled with traditional Flemish architecture and punctuated with picturesque waterways.
A recurring theme of our Netherlands and Belgium trip was touring cities by boat. With its river and canals, Ghent was no different, except F and I decided to propel ourselves by kayak, or canoe as I still prefer to call it. We had to collect our boat from Kajaks Korenlei, which was not on Korenlei as you would think, but up some steps from the west side of the waterway on Sint Michielsplein at a hostel reception. This fooled us for nearly an hour despite arriving on the waterfront just a few metres from the said location, from where it is not visible!
We did launch our boat at Korenlei in the centre of the city. It is prettily lined with grand Flemish buildings, restaurants and hotels. We paddled up the Leie and turned right at a fork in the waterway following the main channel to a quieter stretch. Heading away from the centre, it got so quiet that we decided to double back. Had we carried on, we would have eventually arrived at Ghent’s busy port area. We returned to the fork and went the other way along a channel called the Lieve. After paddling under a low bridge, we discovered a mediaeval castle, that we were later to explore. Gravensteen was home to the former Counts of Flanders.
As we splashed our way back to Korenlei, S stood on the shore snapping away with her camera. She seemed to expect us to come in, but we carried on past as F announced to me “I’ll stay out as long as you want to”. More used to hearing wifi zone withdrawal symptoms, I assumed this meant she was enjoying it.
Ghent’s main shopping centre was to our left, although we couldn’t see it from our low vantage position. As we paddled further, the regular drips of water from my paddle were making my shorts wetter and wetter. By the time they were soaked, I suggested to F that we return to the Korenlei and she agreed. It had been a lovely way to explore the city, but by the time we finished, I was looking forward to a good shower and change of clothes!
After a good night’s sleep, we embarked on a tour of Gravensteen castle which is remarkably intact for its age. We walked through grand halls, dungeons, and along castle ramparts to the top of a tower which afforded grand views of the city.
We were accompanied by an audio guide narrated by a local comedian who told us of Baldwin who eloped with Judith in the 9th century. There was a slight problem in that Judith was a princess and daughter of Charles the Bald, King of West Francia. Charles was originally quite hostile to the union, but eventually came around to the idea and granted Baldwin additional lands, making him Count of Flanders. The couple settled in Ghent and established a fortress here.
The current castle was built by Baldwin’s successors in 12th century. We heard hilarious stories including one recounting choking conversations with unidentifiable people in a smoke-filled hall, until somebody invented the chimney. Another was about the Count’s toilet seat which was built straight above the river. Our narrator imagined scenes where loyal peasants on the banks below applauded each aristocratic plop. The audio guide was certainly a hit with F who rated this tour as one of her top 3 experiences in the Netherlands and Belgium. Those with younger children should be aware that it contains some mild swearing and maybe a little scary. Here is my 11 year old’s take on it though:
“The Gravensteen, a castle in the glorious city of Ghent, doesn’t look like something that would interest many people around the ages of 1-15, but it might surprise you. An audio guide is supplied, included in the entrance cost, and is anything but boring. Both adults and kids alike may enjoy it. The guide is an array of short stories, some gory, some romantic and some utterly hilarious. One story tells you the narrator’s personal favourite executions that took place in the castle and I have to admit, that is probably my favourite. There are also some reinless walls where you can simply sit and enjoy the views, or use your phone” (ed: watch little ones here).
After leaving the castle, we ambled through the city’s cobbled streets, along its canals and crossed its grand squares. We didn’t do much shopping, but did find an outlet dedicated to the Smurfs, the little blue natives of Belgium. We ventured into the cathedral and listened to a guide in front of a copy of “The Mystic Lamb” by Van Eyck. Dating from the early 15th century, The Mystic Lamb is thought to be the first ever oil painting. It used to be in the main cathedral but is now housed in a separate room due to it value.
We exited the cathedral and passed the 91m tall mediaeval Belfry, a symbol of civic pride unconnected to St Bavo’s or St Nicholas churches either side of it.
You can climb to the top of this World Heritage listed structure but for us, the hotel pool was calling.
Ghent is in Flanders, Belgium, 57kms from Brussels and 51kms from Bruges
The city has regular train services from Brussels (30 mins), which has high speed connections from many European cities including London. Trains from Antwerp take about 55 minutes. The nearest major airport is Brussels
We hired our kayak from Kajaks Korenlei, which rents boats for up to 3 hours from the reception of Hostel Uppelink, Sint Michielsplein. Click the links for information on Gravensteen Castle and Ghent
We stayed at the Novotel Gent Centrum, a comfortable hotel with an outdoor pool (summer only) and children’s games to keep the family entertained. Hostel Uppelink is a budget option with a fantastic position. Click here for other options
Ghent has a bit of a foodie reputation and boasts plenty of restaurants of all kinds, often with a price tag to match. Family and budget options include Pizza Hut which does set dinners that keep the young ones happy. Clothes and goods store Hema has a first floor café with a terrace that serves good value breakfasts and lunches while Albert Heijn supermarket is popular with backpackers purchasing a takeaway lunch to eat around the corner on the banks of the Korenlei. All these are located on the impressive Korenmarkt