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The good news from Ghent

By Roger St Pierre

Historic Ghent’s misfortune is, maybe, its location – being sandwiched between fairytale Bruges and EU powerhouse Brussels.

It’s a great shame that the capital of Dutch-speaking Flanders is overshadowed in this way for it’s a great destination in it’s own right.



It’s perhaps no surprise that the classic Robert Browning poem ‘How They Brought The Good News From Ghent To Aix’, taught in so many UK schools down the years, is almost unknown in Belgium – but at least the Visit Flanders people are now making strident efforts to spread the news of Gent’s attractions to a wider audience than it has previoualy enjoyed



Call it Ghent (in English), Gand (in French) or Gent (in Flemish), this gem fully deserves a place on the tourism map.



It has an ancient castle at its heart, straddles a web of picturesque canals, boasts atmospheric cobbled streets, is renowned for its fashion boutiques and has good hotels and outstanding restaurants where Flemish cuisine proudly flaunts its inimitable flavours – don’t miss waterzooi, a deliciously unctuous stew made with fish or chicken or, for the adventurous, both.



Importantly for weekenders, this city of 232,000 is very easy to access, being just a 30-minute ride from Brussels by frequent local train.



Tacking my own trip on the end of a week in London, I took the superb Eurostar high-speed service from Kings Cross St. Pancras and simply had to make an easy platform change when I go to the Belgian capital. The whole trip from London to my hotel room took little more than three hours. If I’d flown from Belfast, allowing for a change of planes and that half-hour train ride, it would maybe have taken five.



I’ve been to Ghent many times down the years and thought I knew it like the proverbial back of my hand but found plenty of new discoveries.



Of course, even in such a historic place as Ghent, things are always evolving, but I was surprised to find that the Coeur St. Georges, for centuries the city’s most renowned hotel, is currently closed and in the process of being totally gutted – and nobody could tell me if it would ever re-open as a place to stay.



I can be forgiven for feeling a certain sense of poetic justice for, many years ago, l spent a nightmarish dead of winter night huddled in a phone box during a raging snow blizzard, having been inadvertently locked out of this very establishment – unable to enjoy a room that I’d pre-paid for at five-star prices.



Ghent, like my experiences there, has had its ups and downs. In 1550, just 10-years after Charles V had humiliatingly subjugated the town, it was back on its feet ­– and had become larger than London and second in size to just Paris.



Things started going wrong at the end of the 16th Century, when the river silted up, destroying access to the sea, and with disastrous loss of trade the population halved.



The industrial revolution brought new prosperity as Ghent became a manufacturing powerhouse – at one time the biggest in all Europe.



Today it is the education sector that drives Ghent’s fortunes. Given its huge student population more than 30,000 of them – it is no surprise to find that the arts, culture and nightlife are all flourishing,



The 14th Century Belfry, the 15th Century Cloth Hall and two sprawling fortified major mediaevel religious settlements are on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list, while locals will assure you that if the painting of ‘The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’, which you can marvel at in the mighty St Save’s Cathedral (Sint Baff in Flemish), was on display in the Louvre it would outshine ‘The Mona Lisa’ in renown. Many art historians agree. Be prepared for a crush of people waiting to admire this wonder.



This ultimate masterpiece of mediaeval art was created as an altarpiece by the Van Eyck brothers, Hubert and Jan, in 1432, It survived the religious wars and was requisitioned in turn by Napoleon and the Nazis. Stolen in 1934, the original ‘The Just Judges’ panel is still missing, its place taken by a reproduction,



Situated on a curving axis along with the cathedral are Duivesteen, the Belfry, Sint Niklasskerk and St. Michiell’s Kerk – each a wonder of religious architecture.



But do yourself a favour and dive into the maze of narrow little backstreets to discover the real spirit of this city that manages to be cast in stone yet gloriously, optimistically, contemporary at the same time,



En-route you’ll find museums and other attractions aplenty and the €20 museum pass is a well worthwhile investment. It’s available from the Tourist Information Centre, participating museums and most hotels.



A good starting point for your explorations in a compact and thoroughly walkable downtown is STAM, the recently opened city museum which, along with the adjacent 14th Century abbey, 17th Century monastery and 20th Century gatehouse gives a perfect introduction to Ghent’s potent blend of ancient and modern,



At two ends of the spectrum but both not be missed are the richly endowed Museum Of Fine Arts and S.M.A.K, which might read like an acronym for a branch of the Russian Secret Service but is actually the name of the exemplary Municipal Museum of Contemporary Art,



A Visual Arts Flanders 2012 programme is currently in place, bringing together celebrations at five towns and cities across the region, including Ghent, where pieces of sculpture and other works have been placed in parks and squares dotted around the city.



Running through to September 16, the Ghent project is titled Track ( www.track.be) and has been created by the S.M.A.C.K team.



Taking an easy to follow trail through often overlooked parts of the city, the perambulatory exhibition has been designed to fuse with the cultural ambience of six city districts, with artists from a dozen countries, as far flung as Mexico, China and Japan, participating as well as creative talents from Flanders’ own burgeoning arts scene.



For further information on Ghent contact Tourism Flanders-Brussels on 0207 307 7738 (live operator line, Mon – Fri) or visit www.visitflanders.co.uk and www.visitgent.be

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