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Posted at: Jun 9, 2019, 2:05 AM; last updated: Jun 9, 2019, 2:05 AM (IST)

Where the alternative is mainstream

Heritage alleys awash with themed cafes and hidden restaurants abound Belgium’s Ghent, the city which has revelled in its history while edging towards a sustainable future
Where the alternative is mainstream
St Michael’s Church

Akash Mehrotra

Ghent might be less renowned than its classy neighbour Bruges but it’s still full of history and culture. Passing through the old streets, Ghent gives the feeling of a city that lives in the present and loves the past. The Castle of the Count is a constant reminder of its brilliant past. Built not for defence but for keeping the recalcitrant, a visit down to its dungeons is a path down to the eerie past of the city. And certainly not to be missed are the Gothic spires of St Bavo Cathedral. The church hosts the famous Jan van Eyck’s 15th-century altarpiece Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, a towering, multi-panel painting.

In the Middle Ages, Ghent grew both in reputation and riches on cloth and wool. It was the second-biggest town in Europe, after Paris. Today the medieval heritage still lives on an old merchants’ street that run along the banks of Leie River. The street is steeped with Gothic houses, with stepped roofs and ornately carved façades. A little east of this street lie the splendid  St Nicholas church and St Bavo Cathedral. 

One of the great things about Ghent is the way it has managed to reinvent itself. The heritage alleys are awash with themed cafes, rib joints and hidden restaurants. The eat-out culture is pacing up, with young people starting up new bars and cafes, bringing in palates with cultural mixes, dishing out novel ideas. Designated places have been allowed for experimental artistic collective and concerts. Some old spots have just worn a new look, and new age, experimental chefs, are doing their bit to upscale the culinary heritage of Ghent. Be it art or music, Ghent has learned to make the alternative, mainstream. To get a flavour of art and design is the must-visit Blanco Gallery, a space inside the Nucleo studio complex. But these days art is thriving outside the walls of galleries and studios too, in the young and fresh space of DOK, an artist-run exhibition, work and concert space. The space was once a welding factory. The streets are a vibrant display of art, and design. Artwork of local, lesser-known painters can be seen all over the town. Make a mark at the junction of Sleepstraat, Grauwpoort and Rodelijvekensstraat, where most Ghent street artists have made a tableau.  The city’s music and art mix well with its café scene. Ghent’s café culture is vibrant, and you can pass woozy afternoons in many bars and restaurants, or the narrow streets in search of classic Ghentian specialty ‘waterzooi stew’. Spend some time strolling up and along the harbour, admiring old Gothic-styled buildings, churches, old and refurbished markets, and stopping to indulge in some talks with the locals. Gentenaars are incredibly friendly, and take pride in their Flemish lineage. They take pride in the fact that Ghent has been the epicenter of many novel ideas. Ghent has happily embraced new ideas of veganism, urban farming, and biking. Nowhere else will you find as many vegan restaurants as you will in Ghent. A new revolution of urban farming is underway to make the city sustainable.

Fact file

  • How to reach: Ghent is an hour’s train journey from Brussels, Belgium.
  • Where to eat: For great cocktails, and food, the best pick is Mosquito Coast. Do go in for a customary stopping at popular coffee bar De Mokabon. Ghent food scene is incomplete without the mention of traveller’s favourite Oak.
  • Must visit: There’s lots to explore: St Bavo Cathedral, St Nicholas church, St Michael Church,Blanco Gallery, Graslei and Korenlei, and more. 

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