Bruges and Brussels step aside; if you want to experience Belgium (and, by extension, Europe) in a gorgeously mediaeval microcosm, then get yourself to Ghent, home of tottering townhouses, a car-free cobbled Old Town, cool canalside drinkeries, and an uncommonly intact castle. Here’s our get-the-most-out-of-it guide…
WHAT TO EAT
Going over to Julie’s House for a salty breakfast sounds rather risqué, until you realise Julie is the proprietor of a beloved local bakery, and her breakfasts are a choice of healthy, salty, sweet or hangover-curing. Opposite Gravensteen Castle, local cook Sara Van Damme has transformed a dilapidated ice cream parlour into Boon: a fresh and friendly vegan lunch bar. Rescuing a brick-strewn courtyard with outdoor seating and an arresting green tiled wall, her eye-catching salads are just the ticket for fending off the lingering ague of last night’s Trappist excesses. But then it’s from virtue back to sin as you fail to resist her glorious puds: zingy panna cottas, dreamy affogatos and pile upon pile of the fluffiest pancakes in town. For a more intimate meal or afternoon tea, dine at Maison Elsa, whose secret terrace peeps onto the canal from an otherwise sheer, mediaeval wall.
WHERE TO DRINK
Ghent’s most atmospheric drinking hole is Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant, lined with flower baskets right on the canal. Its Trappist and Abbey beers range from blonde and breezy to jet-black and brain-scrambling. A short stroll from the Old Town you’ll find Vooruit, a very active arts centre founded as a workers’ co-operative in 1880. The leafy, open-air terrace of this muscular, turreted building draws creatives for coffee, beer and light lunches. Further south, Portuguese Didier Faustino has clad the futuristic XYZ Lounge in hallucinatory pink marble and olive green panels, which ascend into a spire-shaped funnel. It’s enough to send you spinning (if the cocktails haven’t already).
STOP TO SHOP
A few doors down from Vooruit is Rewind, where sparse white walls and hardwood floors let the men’s and women’s garments do the talking. Expect charcoal, navy and white to dominate, for outfits such as edgily patterned wool paired with oversized Dr Martens – all with a healthy dose of avant-garde. Eva Bos is a more glamorous affair, housed in a tiny art deco shop and specialising in tailored 1950s dresses. Look out for the rail hung with Eva’s own designs. For handmade jewellery, leather goods and fair-trade cosmetics, pop in to Catalogus, whose founder Sophie Speck is obsessed with unusual items carrying eco-friendly backstories.
A FIRST-CLASS STAY
The city’s gothic splendour has been channelled expertly into what was the old post office, right on the city’s famous mediaeval quay, the Graslei. 1898 The Post is a brooding boutique hotel bristling with fairytale turrets and tall windows overlooking the canal. Postal paraphernalia such as writing bureaus and antique pencil cases can be found in the hallways and deliciously dark-walled rooms – all of it reassuringly kitsch-free. Socialise over cocktails in the Cobbler or fix a drink and settle in with some Edgar Allen Poe in the turret-set honesty bar, replete with rows of leather-bound tomes and stag beetles in glass cases.
EXPLORING THE CITY
Gawp at one of the world’s most influential paintings, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, housed inside St Bavo’s Cathedral. The history of the Van Eyck brothers’ 15th-century altarpiece is just as intriguing as some of its shocking details (whoa there, lady with the pincered tongue). It holds the curious accolade of being the world’s most stolen painting, with one panel, the ‘Just Judges’, the subject of Da Vinci Code levels of intrigue. Evidence unearthed this year suggests the panel, which disappeared in 1934, might be buried beneath one of Ghent’s cobbled squares. Looking in such fine fettle you might think it was assembled for a Disney film, Gravensteen is in fact a 12th-century castle set smack-bang in the city centre. Its untainted condition is due to the fact it was only ever invaded once, in 1949, by local students protesting the rising price of beer. Students, eh?
While you’re on the Eurostar route, why not stop off in Paris for a long lunch?