Ghentlemen Prefer Blondes (and Dunkels, and Tripels)

From Spain to the Spanish Netherlands. As I contemplate writing up this trip it dawns upon me that this is the first time I’ve blogged Belgium, and only my third visit to the country. Conclusion: I don’t get to Belgium half as much as I should. For so long Belgium was, to Britain, merely the butt of jokes in bad TV comedies. Yet the defence of this place across the water was what dragged us into World War I, and the swift Eurostar connection to Brussels means that these days we can go abroad and explore a relatively unfamiliar country without having to endure the awful experience of airports, and with a quicker journey time than we face going to Newcastle or Glasgow (although who knows what obstacles Brexit will place in our way). When Belgium was at its most unfashionable, Jonathan Meades made his celebrated film arguing that it was interesting because as devout Catholics, Belgians paired the same death-cult as Spain or Italy (where it is leavened by sunny skies and the blue Mediterranean) with perpetually grey skies that rain more than Yorkshire. My own great fondness for the place can probably be attributed, at least in part, to the fact that its brilliance is unsung, under-the-radar, and a wonderful surprise. The tourist goes to Venice in full expectation that he will find one of the most beautiful cities in the world, but what knows the tourist of Ghent? Until recently, not so much, but its greater accessibility these days seems to be waking Brits up to the fact that Belgium has the best beer, chips and chocolate on God’s earth, and much else besides.

On my first two visits I had been to the obvious ones, Brussels and Bruges; one is one of the great capitals that boomed during the Scramble for Africa, where art nouveau houses are as common as pebbles on Brighton beach, the other is one of Europe’s great time-capsule cities where the medieval world is palpable. Ghent is not as famous as either of these, but it sits on the halfway point of the Brussels-Bruges train line and I found that it offered the best of these contrasting worlds. The cities of Flanders flourished from their cloth trade, the canals making them busy ports, but Bruges was stopped dead in its development when the canals silted up, and it stayed frozen in time for several centuries until Georges Rodenbach wrote his wonderful Bruges-la-Morte, the original for the Vertigo plotline, and tourists flocked to sample its dainty time-travel charm. Ghent, meanwhile, boomed just as much during the Industrial Revolution (earning as a backhanded compliment the title ‘the Manchester of Europe’), but has taken good care of its historic core, patching up what needed to be patched up and preserving the Vermeerish look of its houses, canals and side-streets.

Between the old town and the train station is a city that sprung up at the same time as our Victorian cities, but with a bamboozling diversity of architecture that is very Belgian; neo-classical, cutting-edge modern and plenty of art nouveau. As around Brussels, because Belgian law encouraged the litigiousness of architects every house on a street ends up with a different design. Coming from London’s uniform Victorian terraces it is quite a sight. Only having a weekend we largely stuck to the historic core, but I am sure there is much excellent stuff in the suburbs. The presence of a huge university, meanwhile, gives Ghent a buzz and an energy that can be missing in the sleeping beauty of Bruges, but that unlike Brussels, never feels edgy or hostile. Ghent is Goldilocks’ proverbial porridge.

Ghent had been on my mind in the preceding months as I had been bingeing on Jacques Brel, who when he is not ripping the piss out of church, state and oppressed people, delivers dizzyingly poetic songs that somehow succeed in making Flanders’ flat fields, its pallid light, and the carpet of drizzle coming from low, grey skies seem as appealing as the green hills of Umbria. The torch song ‘Marieke’ recalls a time when he was 20 and loved a girl in Bruges and Ghent, but gets increasingly swooning and delirious as it mixes up his memories until you’re not sure whether his emotions are more exercised by the girl, his lost youth, or “mijn platte land, mijn vlaanderen land”.

Ghent also plays a starring role in Stefan Hertmans’ fascinating War & Turpentine, an Art Spiegelman/Laurent Binet-ish not-quite-novel written around the discovery of his late grandfather’s autobiographical notebooks, which is frank about the difficulties of their relationship and the imperfections of telling his story in the novelistic format. His grandfather was the son of a church fresco painter who grew up in belle époque Ghent, was sent on countless suicide missions in WWI and somehow survived being twice shot, only for the love of his life to be carried off by the Spanish flu, compelling him into a passionless marriage with her frumpy older sister. The book is his story but it also brings to life the city in another age, when French-speakers were a ruling elite in the cities and the army, and Flemish speakers (these days doing rather well for themselves) were in every way second-class citizens. Industry having packed up and left, the French-speaking half of Belgium is reputed to be as depressed and deprived as our own North, I ought to go to Liège or Namur and see for myself.

As with most cities of the Low Countries, the old core is vaguely marked off by the canals that used to move the goods in and out. Canals from three separate directions run into the very centre and meet in a Y-shape that sits at the very heart of Ghent. Our flat was on a quiet street around the corner from one of these canals, in a four-storey school building that has been converted into luxury flats (which seems a sad fate, but one in which we were evidently complicit).

It was a fairly privileged location as each time we headed out we would stroll round the corner, passing the flat-topped, unfinished tower of Sint-Michielskerk and a bar that was always full of pensioners playing cards or dominoes, onto Sint-Michielsbrug and straight into what must be one of the finest views in all of Europe. The fine clock tower, the crenellated old post office building and all the grand old merchant’s houses lining the canal, and behind these the tripytch of Sint-Niklaaskerk, the towering Belfort, and Sint-Baafskathedraal at the rear, all laid out in one gloroius perspective. Standing on the bridge felt like holding this great historical city in the palm of your hand.

It was a view that made the spirit soar, and put me in tune with Brel’s ‘Marieke’ right away. Whether at early morning, on a sunny afternoon, at sunset or late at night, I couldn’t get enough of it.

On this bridge (a fairly ornamented bridge in its own right, note the winged archangel slaying a dragon) the centre is before you and the famous Graslei is on your left, a canalside where the three waterways converge, lined with huge ziggurat-gabled guildhalls for the merchants, sailors and stevedores, and one that is generally considered the most pictureseque spot in the city.

Some are of a piece with the Dutch golden age, some look more primitively medieval with their slabs of rough stone. Apparently not every building is as ancient as it looks, the area having been touched up for a World Fair in the early C20th. Most of the buildings are now hotels or high-end restaurants, but there is plenty of space by the canal and it is a prime meeting place for the city’s students. Someone told us that it gets so busy at summer it is known as ‘the beach’.

Although Ghent is a surprisingly big hitter for museums, a primary attraction is simply walking around the historic quarter, enjoying all the old streets and houses, and stopping off for an occasional super-strength beer, which is how we spent the first day.

There are certain landmarks and squares we found ourselves drawn back to, like the squares around the old fish market and butchers’ hall. The latter, the Vleeshuis, is long and slender and sits right at the sweet spot where the three canals meet. There’s now a posh market of local produce inside, and they’ve kept the cute Madonna & child over the doorway. Het Waterhuis, pictured across the street, is one of the best bars with a hefty menu of wonderful beers.

Around the corner, the former fishmarket sits on a handsome square that turns its back on the canals and faces the Gravensteen castle. With enjoyable C19th bombast, the entrance gate is watched over by Neptune, standing astride the wild horses of the waves and a couple that represent the main local rivers. Along its side, the hall is decorated with carved representation of various fish, eels and stingrays.

Further in comes that trio of St Nicholas, the great Belfry and its adjoining Town Hall, and St Bavo’s, each increasingly grand.

St Bavo’s is the city cathedral, and contains what must be its most famous resident in the Ghent Altarpiece- more of which later. Its facade has been sandblasted clean, which I’m never sure about. Clean as a white shirt, it now looks like a gleaming apparition as you stumble into its path, but isn’t it better for these old churches to look lived-in by the centuries?

Between the Town Hall and St Bavo’s is a proud theatre looking onto a windswept square, with bronzes of Dutch-looking men in floppy hats standing proudly in niches, looking onto a coy statue partially draped in a robe. On top is a wispy bronze thing plucking on a miniature harp.

In the streets around this area, not all is medieval by any means. Curving away from the theatre are a number of art nouveau jewels, and on the other side of the belfry a square is covered by a weird, modern, open-plan pavilion with shards of timber forming a glass-coated roof as they rest on four concrete boulders. It is very abstract but its jagged shape seeks to echo the Gothic piles that surround it, in the same way that Seville’s wooden mushrooms carry an unconscious ripple of the cathedral.

The streets to the north of this area lead to Vrijdagmarkt, another principal gathering place for the city, lined with restaurants and pavement cafés in fine C18th buildings. The statue at its centre is Jacob van Artevelde, a C14th political of leader of the city’s merchants who sprung into action to defend their trade interests when England and France began the Hundred Years War. This perhaps makes him a medieval counterpart to the fictitious German car manufacturers that are going to force Brussels to give us a favourable Brexit deal (tellingly, this stance got him excommunicated and killed). His hand is outstretched towards his allies in Britain, but local wags say he is trying to work out if it’s starting to rain.

As a crucible of the early Industrial Revolution, Ghent is also an important city in the formation of socialism and a unified labour movement. Stefan Hertmans’ book mentions the pitched battles between the assertive trade unions and the Catholic conservatives in his family, terrified that revolution will lead to the departure of the bourgeoisie and the loss of their jobs skivvying for them. One of their headquarters is the Vooruit building, another is Vrijdagmarkt’s Ons Huis. This palace of the workers towers over the genteel gables surrounding it; its intention is clearly to be monumental and an unmissable part of the city’s fabric, and to show that the workers deserve fine things too.

On the second day, we decided to start going into things instead of combing the streets, and splashed out on the Ghent city card. At €30 for 48 hours or €35 for 72 it sounds like a lot, but allows you to save a bomb if you’re planning on seeing enough things. The card covers you for all the museums, all the trams, a climb up the Belfry and a boat ride. And there are quite a lot of museums. We started with the #1 attraction and went inside St Bavo to see the Ghent Altarpiece, also known as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.

St Bavo is structurally akin to the great Dutch churches I’ve been in, with the obvious difference that it is Catholic and has a bit more bling, such as countless side chapels. There’s a quite large crypt beneath with scraps of very old fresco painting. At it’s centre the choir is all very dark wood and white marble trim; the monochrome has a very stark effect, like the neo-classical room at the end of 2001. One baroque flourish is marble statues of the Holy Family gathering around a rising bronze skeleton.

The Cathderal is free entry but the altarpiece is kept in a dark room to the side, which is liable to fill up with tour groups of pensioners. Now, unfortunately photography of the altarpiece is strictly verboten and it is closely watched over, but there was a tiny poster reproduction elsewhere in the church that is pictured here (a third of the panels are in any case being restored at the museum, the missing ones replaced by replicas). I didn’t pay extra for the audioguide but I was able to understand most of the Italian audioguide the bloke beside me was holding. The Ghent Altarpiece is an enormous thing with panels on both sides that can be held open or closed over, and it was painted in the early C15th by the famous Jan van Eyck and his brother Hubert. The Flemish Primitives (I’m never sure what’s ‘primitive’ about their brilliant work) were important because they started adding egg to the paint and, appropriately for textile cities, were able to depict these lush silks and velvets and rugs that you feel like you could reach into the painting and stroke.

The painting’s cachet is intertwined with its history; altarpieces of this size were a big deal to the cities that commissioned them, but the Reformation put any kind of religious art in great peril and this piece only survived by being dismembered and carefully hidden. Later, the Adam & Eve panels were removed after their nudity offended Hapsburg Emperor Joseph II. The altarpiece was plundered as war booty by Napoleon and the Kaiser, two panels were stolen in the thirties, one of which has never been found, and during WWII the Belgians were sending it to the Vatican for safekeeping just as Italy entered on the Axis side. Vichy France handed it to Hitler, Göring stole it from him, then Hitler stole it back and kept it in Neuschwanstein until the air raids got serious, at which point it had to hide out in a salt mine until the collapse of the Third Reich. As for the piece itself, I will have little (if anything) of worth to add to centuries of art criticism, but to me mystic is the word. You would need a PhD in theology to decode all of the images, but perhaps form is of greater relevance than content; in the faces and the naturalistic settings, it is a leap forward for the art of painting. The centrepiece is the most striking for me, blood springing from the side of a very unperturbed-looking lamb than stands on its altar as crowds of Popes, saints, angels and martyrs emerge from the forest into a clearing. Their convergence on this point makes the lamb seem like a bizzare rock star. I also find the depiction of God unusual. We see him on the Sistine Chapel, of course, but mostly the central throne is occupied by Mary or JC and it isn’t that often anyone tries a figurative depiction of God. Moreover, instead of the wise old man in white with the beard, God looks quite young, his hair is brown and he is dressed in faintly blasphemous robes of scarlet.

Next we pop into the Gravensteen, one of the most striking landmarks in Ghent. Right in the centre and using the canals as a moat, this is a castle of the terrifying-and-primal variety rather than the prettified Victorian type. Translated into English as the Castle of the Counts, the Gravensteen was the powerbase of the landowners whose interests would clash with those of the merchant families, and presumably played a large role in the failure of the Reformation to take hold in what is now Belgium. These castles normally sit on top of the highest hill in the city, apart and aloof from their subjects, but this one has been plonked down on right into the fabric of the city streets, on the corner of a traffic-heavy thoroughfare (there’s even a bus stop outside) and it is disorientating to see such a building at ground level, as if Reinhard Heydrich had walked into your local Wetherspoons and sat down at your table.

As for the interior, we probably wouldn’t have bothered if it weren’t on the combined ticket but it’s the kind of thing that will appeal to kids who like Horrid Histories. The halls contain suits of armour, hunting horns, medieval weaponry, a guillotine complete with head basket, and a room devoted to the history of torture (lots of thumb screws, vices, racks and waxwork torturers funnel-feeding their victims).

You can climb onto the roof tower or the top of the outer walls for excellent views of Ghent. In the C19th the castle hosted a cotton mill and provided housing for the labourers; one photo shows rows of shop units, now demolished, built onto the exterior of the castle walls.

While the sun was shining, after the castle we took the boat trip. The boats leave from Korenlei, facing Graslei, and take you on a gentle meander in each of the three directions, turning back at the old town’s city limits. Our skipper was a woman called Astrid who rolled off her well-honed jokes and anecdotes (“during the Reformation, people could walk across this canal because so many books had been thrown in when the monastery library was ransacked, and to this day Ghent has the most learned fish in the world”) whilst effortlessly jumping back and forth between Dutch, French and English.

It’s fun to get a gondola’s-eye-view of the sights, and as the boat reaches the canal limits you see some new places; there are odd sandstone sculptures on a bridge near the birthplace of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who ended up crushing his home town after they rebelled over tax rises, and similiar outside the Augustinian monastery. On the canal that would have led to England, we stop at the Rabot towers, a surviving fragment of the old city’s defensive walls.

Up the Belfry next, campanile-cum-watchtower for the old city. It’s C14th, albeit with various modifications over the centuries.

After ascending the usual claustrophobic spiral staircase you get the usual birds-eye-views of the city & what lies beyond it. The walkways are very narrow and not designed to accommodate large numbers so there’s a fair bit of waiting for a balcony spot to become available. My vertigo-suffering wife visited Sint-Niklaaskerk instead and reported it to be inessential.

In the last hour before the museums shut we popped into the Design Museum, housed in a fine old merchant house. Astrid had drily pointed it out, saying “I think you would like the Design Museum… because it has a public toilet”. The merchant house is full of students packing stuff away and laying stuff out and it all seems like a situationist prank, until they direct us to the swanky new extension behind the house where the museum proper lives. There are the usual bits and bobs that these places have.

After dark Ghent redoubles its magic, when the canals are tastefully illuminated and reflect the buildings above. It’s atmospheric and quite Venetian.

Next day, we take a tram back down towards the station and Ghent’s ‘arts quarter’, where the fine arts and modern art museums sit in one corner of a park. One of the fancy houses out here accommodates an amsuing cat-and-dog sculpture, and there’s a sighting of the George Costanza mannequin that recently went viral on Twitter.

The facades of the buildings are very faithful reflections of their contents; one completely C19th, the other completely C20th. SMAK stands for ‘Stedelijk Museum voor Actual Kunst’ but one suspects they know what they’re doing here. Behind the portico, the fine art museum has sgrafitto renderings of Alma-Tadema beauties.

Ghent used to be a very big hitter in terms of paintings, but Napoleon’s forces carted it all off and they have rebuilt a substanial collection as a matter of pride. We work through chronologically, so the best stuff comes in the first rooms, including a Bosch I’m delighted to see in the flesh. Large glass panels allow visitors to look into the workshop where the Ghent Altarpiece is being restored bit by bit, although on a Saturday morning no-one is on duty.

The rest is swelling Mannerism, pretty landscapes, and a zip through male-gaze Romanticism, Impressionism and De Chirico Surrealism.

One atrium has been handed over to a modern (or are they post-modern?) artist for a sort of three-dimensional Jackson Pollock thing.

The temporary exhibition focuses on Goya and contained quite a lot of food for thought. I know Goya’s portraits of Wellington and the fancy ladies, but it had never fully clicked with me; what I didn’t know were his posthumously-exhibited Disasters of War etchings based on the plunder of Spain by Napoleon’s forces and the subsequently returning Bourbons. With their simple, plaintive, “are we not people?” captions they depict injustices and atrocities where the strong inflict violence on the weak, and there is no suggestion of heroism or redemption; this is Wilfrid Owen a hundred years before the trenches. There are also some of his Caprichos, a series of etchings letting fly at the superstitions, follies and prejudices of C18th Spain.

SMAK next door was less to my liking, although the café did great meals. They were exhibiting the works of three artists; an American whose stuff I thought utter wank, a Belgian who made stick-men that looked vaguely like farming types, and a German woman who died in the 90s.

The German woman’s stuff looked at first glance like the useless hoardings of a lunatic, but it is the only one that stayed with me afterwards. It seemed to be about obsession, memory, our mania for reproduction, and the way the complexity of the world can bewilder and paralyse. I’d still rather have a Giotto, but it made me think.

There were still more museums; a tram back to Ghent and another one into the northern suburbs took us to the Museum Dr Guislain, a still-functioning mental asylum with a museum on the history of mental health. The building is neat, eccelesiastical-looking C19th redbrick and consists of two long wings with gardens between. The patients are allowed to roam the grounds; I don’t have any interactions myself but one approaches my wife as she is headed for the café, tells her “I want you to be satisfied” and asks if she’ll have a drink with him.

The museum is huge. It starts with a temporary exhibition of the early C19th caricatures of J-J Grandville, whose world-turned-upside down wit was an influence on everything from Surrealism to Lewis Carroll.

We continue through to some of the old wards, seeing the beds and the equipment used in electro-shock therapy.

There are all sorts of bits and pieces like an exhibition based on the infamous Tintin au Congo, pieces of Nazi propaganda and phrenological portrait photos of ‘deviant’ criminals.

There’s a large section displaying the works of Gustav Mesmer (nothing to do with Franz, who gave us ‘mesmerising’), an outsider artist who spent his life building all different kinds of preposterous flying machines, not one of which ever succeeded in attaining flight, and a video installation from the guy who made the dolls for Bowie’s ‘Where Are We Now?’ video. There’s also a separate wing which is choc-full of yet more outsider art by people with mental illness, some of it pretty good in a naive art brut way.

Whilst north of the centre we take a look at one of Ghent’s beguinages (pseudo-nunneries that would house unmarried women). Unlike Bruges the one we see has had its external walls dismantled but the cobbled alleys and whitewashed bungalows have retained the same tranquil mood. And on the way there, we pass some pretty arresting modern housing.

After all these museums it’s a slight relief to by shooed out of Het Huis van Alijn, a museum of the C20th life and the domestic home that is closing in half an hour and whose staff are frankly insulted that we propose to give the museum just 30 minutes of our time. The bar in their courtyard is still open, however, so we sit in a far corner to soak up the last rays of the sun whilst old ladies serve everyone glorious Belgian beers.

Speaking of food and drink. I’m not a particularly big beer drinker, I usually prefer wine to lager and craft beer tends to disappoint me. But the Belgians have elevated beer to a fine art. You can’t drink more than a couple as they tend to be around 10%, but how flavoursome and complex and irresistible they are. I could have stayed for a week just to visit all the pubs and brown cafés. Apart from the aforementioned museum and Het Waterhuis, there was a jazz bar at the top of our street called Hotsy Totsy that was great for a nightcap. We also enjoyed ’t Galgenhuis, a tiny two-floor bar squeezed up against the Vleeshuis, and the site of the gallows in centuries past. The walls have modern, humorous versions of the classic blue-on-white illustrated Dutch tiles, depicting objects like packets of Rizla.

Perhaps the most famous bar in Ghent is Dulle Griet on Vrijdagmarkt, named after a large cannon that still sits by one of the canals. It’s an eccentric old place crammed with bric-a-brac of the Manneken Pis variety like bare-breasted garden gnomes, dolls of priests being hanged from the ceiling, and a church altarpiece in which an icon of Christ posed surrounded by beer glasses. The menu is huge and one of the beers, Kwak, comes in a fancy glass supported by a wooden frame that looks like the equipment of some Hogwarts alchemist. If you order this, you have to hand over one of your shoes as a deposit which is kept in a ceiling basket that the bar staff move up and down on a pulley.

The place is busy and we end up on stools around a huge beer barrel, being joined by a group of Danish university students. We do get a demonstration of one patron’s shoe being taken in.

To soak up the strong beers, there are of course several options for chips, which are not particularly cheap but are as good as chips come, thanks to the famous Belgian technique of frying twice for extra crispness. They come with all kinds of sauces beyond the classic mayo and we end up eating tarragon-heavy bearnaise most of the time. There are also street stalls through the centre selling these purple cone-shaped things that looked like bath bombs, but turn out to be candies called cuberdons, or Ghent noses. These are a bit like jelly babies, but with a crisper shell and a runnier jelly inside. The raspberry-flavoured purple noses are the traditional variety but they come in different colours too. After we visited, the BBC made a short video about how the two men in the square opposite ’t Galgenhuis had been waging a long-running ‘War of the Noses’. These sweets are never exported, because the liquid jelly crystallises if they are not eaten within three weeks.

One of the first art nouveau-ish buildings to catch my eye was Max café, which turned out to be something of a local institution; it is apparently the place where Belgian waffles were invented.

It’s pretty expensive but swish and professional, with waiters in bow-ties and waistcoats and a jolly Fortnums-style interior. People are drenching their waffles in whipped cream, ice cream, or fruit salad but we go for the classic icing sugar and let the waffle speak for itself. Like the Ghent noses, it’s crisp on the outside and soft, light and chewy on the inside.

As for restaurants, there are probably plenty of student-friendly places if you venture away from the old centre, but this seemed to be one area where Ghent let itself down; they were all very expensive. Baulking at the prices of the upmarket and mid-range places, we looked at the cheaper ones but even the curry houses and scruffy sushi bars selling things like ‘sexy roll’ were asking €20+ for a main course. In the end we ate in the flat most nights (although we were caught out on the first night by the Belgian habit of supermarkets closing at 6pm; fair play to the unexploited Belgian workforce) and saved our money for a blowout at ’t Klokhuys, one of the nice places in the atmospheric Patershol quarter, on our last night. The one cheap option for restaurants appeared to be Amadeus, a chain of all-you-can-eat places specialising, improbably, in ribs, and whose egregious mascot was a man dressed as Mozart.

On the final day, we leave Ghent as we arrived, through the large and fantastical station a long way south of the centre whose heraldic Arts and Crafts fantasy in the upper gallery makes a comical contrast with the 1970s looking British Rail signage on the ground floor.

The train pulls into Brussels, dominated by the grotesquely outsize crown atop the scaffolded Palais de Justice (memorably described by Jonathan Meades as “a dwarf with a penis enlargement”), and we have an hour before our Eurostar takes us on to Lille and London; too long to sit around, too short to get to any part of Brussels that is nice. We go for a short stroll in the St Gilles district.

Not expecting to see much, we do get the Brussels experience where, as in Schaerbeek, even the rough and run-down tenement streets are very decorative and full of pretty craftsmanship from the days of plentiful Congolese rubber. The place we end up seems to be four parts North African to one part newly-arrived hipster. It’s a sleepy Sunday afternoon, the kids are playing in the square, and it’s time to say a reluctant farewell to Belgium until our next visit.

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