The two historic cities of Ghent and Bruges in northwest Belgium are memorable stops on a Belgium itinerary with both dating from the Middle Ages and sharing their architectural and artistic treasures with today’s visitors by virtue of being spared major destruction during the last two World Wars. The easy way to reach them is by a one-hour journey northwest from Brussels on the Belgium National Railways to Bruges, near the North Sea, and half that distance to Ghent.
We chose to start our journey in Bruges and work our way back toward Brussels, a sequence allowing comparison of the two cities over three days and night in each. It is an experience of two living history museums, but also two vibrant towns with subtle yet visible contemporary differences. Our Bruges city guide Ann Plovic described the people of Bruges as “always fairly conservative” in comparison to Ghent which “was more of an industrial revolution town.”
Unfortunately, according the Plovic, the close proximity of Belgian cities means many visitors choose to stay in Brussels and come to Bruges and Ghent on day trips rather than immerse themselves as overnighters. The day-trippers miss much of the local vibrancy that fills the towns starting in late afternoon after the tourist buses depart.
The UNESCO City
Bruges Canal tour passes St. John's Hospital, dating from 1180. All photos by Maureen Stone
The entire city center of Bruges was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000, in part for its remarkably preserved brick Gothic architecture that extends throughout the area. Our Lady’s Church, started in 900 and rebuilt from 1300 to 1600, is the highest brick tower in Europe at 122 meters (400 feet) in height. The church was closed to us in early October due to ongoing renovations, but visitors arriving after this December will be able to enter to view Michelangelo’s revered sculpture of the Madonna and Child that resides within.
The Bruges Town Hall on the Burg Square dates from 1376. The St. John’s Hospital, a campus complex run by religious orders over centuries to care for sick and poor people, was opened in the year 1180. These staggering dates of origin in Bruges describe a city whose golden age under wealthy merchant guilds ran from 1200 to 1500, three centuries in which it became the largest commercial center after Paris in Europe, but later fell into decline as European trade shifted elsewhere.
Hilda Proot our city guide in Ghent, showed us the 12th-century Romanesque St. Bavo Cathedral, which she described as “the richest decorated church in Belgium.” She also showed us frescoes in the church crypt, uncovered beneath plaster just prior to World War II, that were painted around 1500 by unknown artists depicting scenes of pilgrims who stopped in this church to worship on their way to Jerusalem.
Belgium’s Most Famed Painting
Ghent’s St. Bavo’s cathedral also contains Europe’s most famous painting of the 15th century and Belgium’s single most-renowned art piece, “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” painted by Ghent native Jan Van Eyck in 1438. This multi-paneled scene from the Biblical book of Revelations, an oil painted on wood, is first described by guides in a copy displayed on a side altar of the church before visitors are brought to separate dedicated room to view the original. The colors of the piece, which has undergone much restoration, are vivid and the main scene reveals medieval images of Belgian cityscapes in the background and the deep reverence Flemish people have held for religious subjects, in this case worship of the Lamb of God, in the foreground.
Ghent visitors also learn about this writer’s personal favorite, the Gravensteen Castle, started in the 12th century, abandoned by the counts of Flanders after the 14th century and later used as a prisoner for Flemish rebels by Spanish conquerers in the 16th century. It later fell into disrepair before being renovated by the city starting in 1885.
Our Ghent canal boat city tour guide, Medi Noel, gave his take on why Ghent has a different modern vibe than the more sedate, touristic city of Bruges.
“Ghent has 80,000 (university) students. It is a lively city… not a museum like Bruges,” said Noel with good-natured ribbing. He added that Ghent’s tourism explosion, contrary to Bruges, has only occurred over the last 10 years. “Ghent developed a bad reputation as a city of rebels because of our socialist reputation, not a political socialist attitude but a cultural one. We are seen in Ghent as the mavericks of Flanders.”
Bruges’ “KookEet” Fest and Ghent Design
River rafters rest at Ghent's Gravensteen Castle. All photos by Maureen Stone
Both cities offered unique experiences that helped understand how local residents like to spend free time. In Bruges we were able to catch the last day of the 3rd-annual “KookEet” food and wine festival, which takes place at the end of September. There were 30 exhibition stands set up in the city’s Zand Square, where thousands of locals showed up to sample appetizer portions, most priced at 6 Euros (US$ 8.25) each, served by local Bruges-area chefs, including five who have earned a total of 10 Michelin stars.
We were able to meet and sample the foods of three-star Michelin chefs Geert Van Hecke of “De Karmeliet” Restaurant and Gert De Mangeleer of “Jan Hertog” Restaurant, as well as the two-star Filip Claeys of “De Jonkman” Restaurant and the single-Michelin-star chefs Henk Van Oudenhove of “Sans Cravate” Restaurant and Wout Bru of “Chez Bru” Restaurant. In addition to such pleasures as Van Hecke’s king crab with smoked chicken and De Mongeleer’s creamy blomme cheese with potato, onion and truffles, there were surprises at every stand. One was a Japanese savory vegetable pancake from “Tanuki” Restaurant and another an ice cream, chocolate crumble and caramel confection from “The Chocolate Line” patisserie. We spent seven hours at KookEet that felt like 90 minutes.
In Ghent we visited the Design Museum in the city center for a career retrospective of Peter Behrens (1868 -1940), a German master of Art Nouveau design and the first European industrial designer of the 21st century. Behrens, who was both director of the School of Art in Dusseldorf, and a professor of architecture for a group of his disciples in Berlin, was a contemporary of designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh of Scotland. He is credited, like Henri Toulouse Lautrec in France, with creating the first artistic business advertising in Germany in the early 20th century. All of Behrens’ works were represented in the Ghent exhibition including many pieces from the design of his own 1901 home in Darmstdt, Germany, considered the height of European Art Nouveau, for which he designed every furnishing and fixture. Visitors interested in the development of contemporary European design should make the Ghent Museum of Design a stop in the city, however brief.
Belgian Beer Pubs
View from a Ghent waterfront beer pub. All photos by Maureen Stone
No report on Bruges and Ghent would be complete without reporting some of the favorite pubs we discovered for enjoying Belgium’s favorite beverage, which could be challenged only by the Germans as the world’s best brew. Expect in most places to find about a dozen choices of beer on tap, and dozens if not hundreds more in bottles.
The number of choices are dizzying so it is best, if unfamiliar, to describe your choice of taste from light to dark, from sweet to bitter, and from soft to heavy. Most servers are knowledgeable and can offer suggestions, but keep in mind the pub’s own house beer affiliated with a regional brewery is often best. We found it is reasonable to expect to pay between 2 Euros and 3 Euros (US$ 2.75 – 4.00) for a 25 cl glass equal to 8 ½ ounces, between 3 and 4 Euros (US$ 4 – 5.50) for a 33 cl glass equal to 11 ounces, and from 6 to 7 euros (US$ 8 – 9) for a double-size beer of about 22 ounces. The prices are a bargain compared to what one would pay in the U.S. for a Belgian beer of comparable quality.
The best two Bruges beer pubs we found worth seeking out are “Brugs Beertje”, a small pub considered the city’s best and winner of the Bruges 2010 city tourism award, and “Café Vissinghe”, the city’s oldest continually operated pub dating from 1515. The friendliness of the local patrons in the Vlissinghe, combined with the creaky wood paneling, pictures of old Bruges, and historic local figures on the walls made a beer stop here a memorable experience of imagining a visit to one’s local Flemish pub in the 16th century.
The Café Vlissinghe, opened in 1515, is Bruge's Oldest Pub. All photos by Maureen Stone
Equally as enjoyable, if not better, were the beer pubs in Ghent where the university student population creates a lively atmosphere. We enjoyed “De Planke”, located on a floating barge on the Ter Platen canal near the Museum of Fine Arts. Another great choice is Het Waterhuis overlooking the Leie River in the city center on the opposite bank from Gravensteen Castle. Look for the big “Bierhaus” sign near the top of the building facing the river. Day and evening this pub, with brick lined walls inside and umbrella covered tables along the riverbank outside, is one of the more popular places in town.
Hotels with Personality
Notre Dame Church Bruges seen from Bonobo hotel patio. All photos by Maureen Stone
Our hotel choices in Bruges included the Bonobo Apartment Hotel one of our best accommodations in Belgium. Hosts Hans and Magda, with many years of experience running youth hostels before opening Bonobo several years ago, are wonderful proprietors who offer guidance, tip sheets on Bruges, and personal assistance during days or early evenings. The property, located within 10 minutes’ walk of Bruges’ main square, has several spacious apartments, including galley kitchens, with outdoor patios affording a spectacular view of the Notre Dame church tower just down the street and around the corner. Our apartment was a roomy duplex with steps to the upstairs bedroom and bath, but guests should ask for single-floor accommodations if stairs are an issue. We prepaid 78 Euros (US$ 107)per night without breakfast, which was a bargain for the central location and accommodations.
Another hotel choice we visited in Bruges is the Hotel Montanus, which has a gourmet restaurant serving generous buffet breakfasts, included with the room, and dinners, which are optional. This is a former school converted to a small hotel with rooms, each with an outdoor patio table and chairs, facing a picturesque garden with a sculpted fountain. There are several levels of accommodations, each including a spacious bedroom and separate living area, but no kitchen. Rates range for 99 Euros (US$ 137) per night for a minimum two-night special in a standard garden room to 199 Euros (US$ 275) per night in a suite.
Thanks to the helpful Ghent tourist office, located in the square opposite Gravensteen Castle, we were fortunate to book an apartment in Atgenesis B&B, hosted by owner Gaby De Schepper in her home at 15 Hertogstraat, one half block from the River Leie in the city center. Gaby is an active artist and desiger who went to art school in Prague, and part of the enjoyment of staying in one of her two apartment suites is visiting her downstairs design studio and hearing about some of her own travel adventures.
Atgenesis is an excellent choice for location, hospitality and comfort. The price for two is 96 Euros (US$ 132) per night including a generous continental breakfast. Our third-floor apartment included a galley kitchen and rooftop view of the top of Gravensteen Castle but, as with the Bonobo in Bruges, it was necessary to climb stairs to enjoy the accommodations and view.
Another excellent accommodation in Ghent, convenient to the nearby central rail station, is the four-star NH Hotel St. Pieters, located at 121 Konig Albertlaan. Comfortable clean rooms here start at 85 Euros (US$ 117 per night for two, including a full hot breakfast buffet. The front desk staff provides excellent business services at little cost. All of the selected included free WiFi.