Gentlefolk in gentle Ghent

Ghent is a youthful town that was abuzz with a local festival that we happened to stumble upon. Each summer, Ghent holds a 10-day festival that runs all day and that continues, in some bars and restaurants, all the way through the night. (This was according to a local café owner who comes to work at 6AM, when some people are just concluding their share in the nightlife.) Restaurants were bustling, fair rides a-swinging, and street performers were a-dancing and we just happened to fall right into it! Part of some of fun was watching the street performers that would set themselves up on random corners. And they were really good! And the variety! There were jazz bands, street vaudevillian slight of handers, and a cross between an oompah band and house-cleaners (think people dancing with feather dusters).

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Towards the afternoon we went on a boat ride that was very affordable (only 7 euro and choice of free ice cream or free beer – as if it was even a choice…) The guide was knowledgeable of the town and impressively did the tour in English, Dutch and a little French (and in some cases, one needed to pardon his French). He knew some idiomatic expressions and made little jokes along the way, keeping us all entertained. All in all, the tour lasted for one hour, and we learned a lot about Ghent. It was well worth the 7 euro.

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Matt, too enthusiastic about 7 euro boat rides to realize he’s blocking Michelle

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Old Town Ghent is quite attractive!

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Can you spot Ghent’s narrowest home?

Perhaps it was partially because we stumbled upon the festival, but we really enjoyed Ghent’s youthful vibe. The town felt active and alive, with people of all ages enjoying the festivities together. The city, which also was built around a canal system (and referred to as “the Venice of the North” by our tour guide… le sigh), and was very attractive, just as Bruges was. However, the energy exuded by Ghent made it a more consistently enjoyable experience. While we highly recommend a day trip to Bruges, we would choose Ghent as a home base over Bruges on our next visit. Matt and Michelle noticed that the city felt more “lived in,” as opposed to Bruges, which seemed solely occupied by travelers and seemed to lack an identity.

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This old castle, “Castle of the Counts,”  is no longer lived in, but Philip of Alsace built it in 1180 and presumably spent some time there.

On our tour, we learned some interesting information about Ghent. Many of its buildings also date back to the medieval times, as Ghent for a time held much power and responsibility within Europe. We also learned the significance of the use of swans on facades of 17 century buildings (you may have noticed them before). If two swans were swimming away from each other, it symbolized unfaithfulness, and meant that the building was used as a location of the, er, oldest profession (John: what? A union of carpenters?) And finally, we learned how Belgium gained its reputation as perhaps the beer-making capital of the world. In the 13th century, Ghent’s rivers ran with the sewage of the city, making the water deadly to drink. So instead with the availability of plenty of wheat, people made and drank beer, with the fermentation process killing the germs. People ended up drinking beer all day, from morning until night – which wouldn’t have as adverse an effect as you may imagine, as the beer that was consumed as regular “drinking beer” had a very, very low alcohol content. In fact it was consumed by the entire family. But nevertheless, the beer culture in Belgium was born, and lives down to this day. Breweries such as Leffe have been producing beer in Belgium since the 13th century.

So that was it for Ghent. While we didn’t have time to sample Brussels or Antwerp, we highly recommend a trip to Ghent if you ever make it to Belgium.

And here’s a mini-movie of our time in Belgium. It’s dedicated to Matt and Michele.

Up next: Paris! Stay tuned for how we survived a summer trip in Paris with the temperatures at a balmy 59 degrees! Yowser!

Travel Tip! Ladies, don’t forget your heavy pashmina, even on a summer trip. At this point in our travels, the weather started to change and get colder (preparing us for Paris, I guess.) I was very glad I had brought along my giant pashmina. I typically just bring it on the plane and use it for a blanket, pillow, … or shroud if something is freaking me out. But it can also double as a picnic blanket, scarf, and so on. I never thought that in summer I’d need to wear it, but it was a life saver! I don’t care if we travel next to Ecuador, this thing is coming with me!

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