Modern Traveller strolls the streets of this historic city in search of the beating heart between its magnificent medieval buildings.
Before one visits a place, it’s customary to peruse a selection of prior experiences – perhaps on an internet forum, or a reviews website – as well as taking advice from guide books and travel sites.
Does this very act, though, plant expectations which change one’s experience of a destination before it’s even begun?
See, as we arrive in Ghent, dropping our bags at an AirBnb much further from the historic centre than anticipated, and stroll in to the middle from the north of the city, the relentless positivity of our guidebook is rather at odds with the suburban neighbourhood through which we are traversing.
As trams thread between rough-fronted buildings, there’s little here to suggest a city of historical significance or “the new Bruges”, as many have dubbed Ghent.
Having subconsciously come to expect an instantaneous affection for this age-old conurbation, we’re somewhat thrown to find ourselves searching for signs of life as we follow the tram lines towards what we believe to be the centre.
Eventually, of course, the rails converge in front of the magnificent 12th-century Gravensteen castle, sitting as a proud guardian to the streets that wind around it, as if dropped straight from a child’s dream of medieval make-believe.
Here, we begin to find the Ghent that has travellers talking in hushed tones: it’s a city that’s still alive, still working, with lives threading along and between the cobbled streets and winding waterways, with ancient architecture as its incredible backdrop.
As we dodge heavy duty road works – repairing and upgrading the tram lines – and cross a temporary bridge over the Leie, it’s clear that this is no sanitised city. Whilst the evening light catching the tell-tale stepped rooftops is truly a sight to behold, this remains a city of people.
Where Bruges has the feel of a city cleanly cast for touristic delectation, Ghent remains a bustling place where its residents flood its arteries. Even on weekday evenings the streets fill with drinkers and diners, a sense of hubbub throbbing in the air as couples and groups sip wine from cups, their legs dangling over the edge of the narrow river.
There are tourists, of course – and with such sights as the Ghent Altarpiece, perhaps history’s most stolen piece of artwork, to be absorbed, it’s easy to see why; but, unlike Bruges, the visiting crowds far from outnumber the residents going about their days.
From Soup’r – a simple but delicious soup café – to Mosquito Coast, a vibrant, travel-themed eatery, you’re as likely to see locals enjoying dishes and drinks here as you are travellers stumbling in, struggling with even an attempt at the Flemish language.
The fine frontages and arresting architecture along the Graslei harbour, too, are as likely to draw Ghent residents to their vicinity as they are to bring the inevitable camera-toting hordes to their doors.
Where Bruges has become known almost for its history and beauty alone, Ghent strikes one as a city blessed by history, with a host of stories to tell, but not beholden to it: life goes on for Ghent, and it thrives.
Whether one of the multitude of design shops or the incongruous ‘Graffiti Street’, Ghent possesses a modern undercurrent, a sense that it is continuing to evolve with and around its heritage.
One telling graffiti mural paints the side of a traditional building with depictions of fire, war and a hidden Ghent Altarpiece, perhaps alluding to the efforts made to protect this piece of 15th-century Flemish history through two wars, suggesting not some jarring contradiction between then and now, but a healthy evolution.
From an uncertain start to a sad farewell, in its small ways, its gradual embrace, Ghent opened up to us not just as a city of check-list sights and must-see photo spots, but as one that, behind these easy attractions, hums with life like the trams that forever weave through its streets.
If you’re visiting Belgium, visit Ghent – but do so without expectation: don’t build it into something it isn’t. Instead, allow it to show you around, to shelter you beneath its marvellously modern City Pavilion, to whisper the locations of its best bars, to offer up its river banks for you to rest upon.
Hard as it is for the traveller on a timescale to drop the itinerary, being brave enough to simply explore is truly the way to get to grips with Ghent.
WORDS & IMAGES BY CHRIS ROWLANDS
Content correct at time of publication. A changing world is one of the joys of travelling!