After a poignant two days visiting the World War 1 battlefields in Flanders I took 24 hours out in Ghent to soak up the culture, cuisine and atmosphere of this beautifully preserved medieval city.
The rooftops of Ghent from the Hotel Harmony - Photo by Peter Morrell
My overnight accommodation was the Hotel Harmony, overlooking one of the major canals. From the balcony of my room there was a panoramic view of the skyline and the city sights were just a short stroll away.
I spent the afternoon with a guide from Vizit on a nibbling tour, but it turned out to be much more than that. She was a veritable mine of information and got me to taste many of the local specialities while learning a huge amount about Ghent's culture.
The tour started just a few steps away from my hotel in the area called Patershol, a jumble of quaint, cobbled streets, now known for its restaurants. This was originally the spiritual heart of the city and has a very historic feel to it. We emerged from an alley right by the Castle of the Counts, built by Philip of Alsace in 1180; its imposing battlements presiding broodily over the city.
The Castle of the Counts - Photo by Peter Morrell
Crossing a bridge over the main canal we came to the Groot Vleeshuis, the Great Butcher's Hall that dates back to the 15th century. Hanging inside from the wooden trusses of the roof were the famous air-dried Ganda Hams. I tasted slices in the Hall's cafe, its intense flavour enhanced by a dab of local mustard from the nearby shop, Tierenteyn.
Next stop it was an opportunity to sample Belgium's most famous product - chocolates. The family Van Hecke have been making these by hand for 75 years and tasting their range was a chocoholic's dream.
The chocolate display in Van Hecke - Photo by Peter Morrell
Chatting to the guide I learnt that in 1539 the local citizens refused to pay the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V more taxes. This incident, known as the Revolt of Ghent, resulted in the city's nobles being punished by having to walk in front of the emperor barefoot in white shrouds with a noose around their necks. Since then the people of Ghent have been called "Stroppendragers" or noose carriers and you can still see nooses hanging up around the city today.
The final treat was Temmerman, a charming old-fashioned sweet shop selling cuberdons, normally looking like little noses, these were head shaped gums with a very fruity raspberry flavoured filling.
The facades along the Graslei - Photo by Peter Morrell
Tour over it was time to take a look at the Graslei, a row of scenic medieval buildings lining the old dock, a hangover from Ghent's vibrant trading past. The facades along the Graslei are in Flemish style but are all different. Originally, the houses of the Grain Weighers and the Guildhall of the Free Boatmen, they are now cafes and restaurants. One, Belga Queen, came highly recommended and I would eat there later.
Sightseeing boats run from the dock so I hopped on one, using my good value Ghent City Card. This one-hour, duck's eye view gave a totally different perspective of the city's architecture and layout.
As this was Belgium my pre-dinner drink that evening had to be a beer, so I popped in to Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkan, a pub that boasted a drinks list as long as your arm. With alcohol strengths up to 12% and names like Delirium Tremens I played safe with the Antwerp brewed De Koninck. It was served in a bowl shaped 'bolleke' glass to release the beer's complex flavours.
The view from Belga Queen across the canal - Photo by Peter Morrell
Dinner at Belga Queen was superb. The menu featured local, seasonal ingredients and the view to the historic buildings across the canal added an extra dimension. My companion and I shared shrimp croquettes, Ganda ham, duck and marinated salmon followed by mains of wild sea bass and belly pork. This was a memorable meal cooked perfectly by head chef Tom Vansteenkiste.
Pol the owner of 't Dreupelkot - Photo by Peter Morrell
The unmissable place for a nightcap is 't Dreupelkot, a bar serving more than 200 varieties of genever (the local version of gin). Cigar chewing owner Pol is a real character and has been dispensing genever for what seems like an eternity. There's a real party atmosphere in the bar and it's worth keeping an eye on the time, for as long as you drink Pol will stay up and serve.
Ghent has a very atmospheric and timeless feel to it and there were points when I could have almost slipped back in time to the medieval period. Easy to get to with lots to see makes it an ideal short break destination.
Ghent Information - www.visitgent.be/en/home
Flanders information - www.visitflanders.co.uk
Going directly to Ghent is quick and convenient, it's a 90-minute mini-cruise on a comfortable P&O ferry. Once the ferry has docked in Calais it's a 90-minute drive on the motorway to the city.