With its scenic canals, excellent local cheese and beer, and thousands of bicyclists clattering over cobblestone streets, Ghent mimics Amsterdam in many ways. Even the language — Dutch — is the same.
But while Ghent, located 20 minutes northwest of Brussels in Flemish Belgium, offers a similar ambience to its much larger Dutch cousin, it does so with fewer tourists, and its compact size makes it easy to cover the entire historic city center in a day. Ghent was Europe’s second-biggest city until the 13th century (only Paris was bigger) and still has one of the best-preserved medieval city centers on the Continent. Often overlooked by the hordes of tourists flocking to nearby Bruges, Ghent is equally as beautiful and is a great choice for a one-or two-day visit.
I took a morning train from Brussels to the Gent-Sint-Pieters train station and hopped aboard a narrow, yellow tram that transported me from the city’s post-war commercial center to Sint-Baafsplein (St. Bavo Square), the historic center of Ghent since the eighth century.
Although I usually avoid sightseeing tours, I couldn’t help joining a guided, two-hour bike trek arranged by VIZIT (www.vizit.be). The tour, called “Nibbling through Ghent,” included stops along the way for traditional snacks from Ghent’s historic food purveyors.
Riding rented bicycles (walking versions can also be arranged) along Ghent’s flat, cobblestone streets and through large squares in the historic district, we stopped first at the 58-year-old Fevery Bakery for morning coffee and a mastel,a small, doughnut-shaped, brioche-style roll with cinnamon. We then rode a few minutes to Daskalidès (www.daskalides .be), a Greek family-owned store that has been making chocolate since 1931. Here we sampled several types of delicious chocolates, including their famous merveilleux (chocolate on a base of hazelnut paste).
At the tiny cheese shop Petite Normandie (Donkersteeg 21), owner Gino Carels gave us French bread and samples of Belgian gouda, strong-smelling Herve and creamy Passendale, named after the Flemish village Passchendaele.
Riding slowly over the narrow, sometimes bumpy streets to the Groentenmarkt, a vegetable market since the 18th century, we arrived at Vve Tierenteyn-Verlent (www.tierenteyn-verlent.be), which has been selling its own mustard in the same small building since 1790. After tasting a spoonful of this thick, handmade condiment, I could understand why it has been a local favorite for 221 years.
The mustard was a great accompaniment at our last stop, across the square at Het Groot Vleeshuis, Ghent’s former Great Butchers’ Hall, where dozens of huge Ganda hams hang from wooden ceiling timbers in the restored 15th-century building. In the modern pub attached to Vleeshuis, bartender Wannes Schellaert presented us with slices of Ganda ham, an East Flanders specialty, and tall glasses of Belgian beer.
After the tour, I needed to ride off my snacks before even thinking about dinner, and my guide, Leentje, recommended biking along the rivers and canals a few miles west of the city. The Flemish countryside was beautiful and quiet; the flat, well-marked bike paths meandered through idyllic, canal-side villages, farm land and across miniature drawbridges. Occasionally I untied a small pontoon to ferry the bike across a narrow waterway.
Two restaurants, Belga Queen (www.belgaqueen.com) and Brasserie Pakhuis (www.pakhuis.be), are stand-outs for dinner; but before turning in at a hotel in Ghent or returning to Brussels, head to Brasserie Aba-Jour (Oudburg 20), a tiny bar located on the River Leie in the historic Patershol area. Here you can end your night with a drink at a candle-lit café table overlooking the river.
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