I left Antwerp early… again. Today I was heading towards Ghent, a town I knew had a history. The train ride was only about 30 minutes so I’d get to Ghent early and have all day to explore. Until the train stopped. Seemed that there was a train stopped on the tracks ahead of us and a voice came over the intercom informing us we’d be delayed a few minutes. In Dutch. A nice gentleman sitting across from me translated so I could keep up.
No problem. I took out my book and read a few pages until the announcement came again. I looked up and my friend the translator told me we were still delayed. This happened a few more times until the last one, when we’d started moving again. By then, I was able to piece together the idea we were running about 20 minutes late. I looked it my friend for confirmation. “Happy to see your Dutch is improving” he said, smiling.
Finally got to Ghent and I followed the directions to the Hostel Uppelink which turned out to be in an old building right in the heart of the old town! It was beautiful. Of course, as I was there early again, there was no way to check in, so I just dropped my bags off and headed out. As I was walking out the door the person working behind the counter told me about a free walking tour which left from the hostel at 1pm. I made plans to be back.
Then I was out the door and meandering around. From the get go, I liked Ghent. The old town was beautiful! Our hostel was next to a historic bridge, which spanned a small river. As you crossed the bridge heading away from the hostel, you could see what I would later learn are Ghent’s “Three Towers.” Being January, there was a bit of construction going on (January is NOT the tourist season in Belgium) but that was okay. It was still gorgeous to see.
As I am wont to do, I followed signs and found the Tourist information office to get myself a self-guided tour. Here, as opposed to the €1.50 I was charged in Rotterdam, I was given the map. And here, I want to call out the Ghentian tourist office for being brilliant. On almost all of the maps one gets for tours, the map itself is printed on one side of the page (or, as in the Rotterdam case, a fold out on the back page) while the descriptions of what you’re looking at covers separate pages. The end result is a lot of folding and unfolding and flipping back and forth, which eventually causes rips and tears, and is not convenient or expedient and when your hands are incredibly cold and encased in knitted gloves, a huge pain in the ass.
But not in Ghent! In Ghent the same map is on both sides of the page so you can read what you’re looking at without having to fold the map away. As a seasoned walker, I say “Well done, Ghent!” Since the old town is not very large, the tour itself didn’t cover an expansive area. This left time to do things like go to the top of the belfry to see the dragon, wander around Saint Bavo Cathedral and see all the squares. I wandered along the riverside and stopped for a waffle for breakfast (how they can charge €.50 for a packet of jam is beyond me).
As I headed back to the hostel, I passed the boat tour companies. There were two, on opposite sides of the bridge, and I checked them both. Seemed the main difference was one had covered boats and the other didn’t. Each also listed the last ride of the day at 4 o’clock, which should give me plenty of time after the tour to officially check in and then come back.
I went back to the hostel and waited in the common room for the tour to start. Looked like several people were there for the same thing, and boy, were we a lively bunch. I sat in a chair, quiet and almost falling asleep and there were several people around me who looked to be in the same shape. Finally, 1 o’clock came and our guide showed up and herded us all outside. I noticed that most people seemed to be in couples or groups except for one young lady. Sure enough, like me she was on her own. I suggested we be “photo buddies” so we always had someone to take a picture of us (my selfie stick had broken earlier in the trip – and yes, I will defend the appropriate use of selfie sticks to the end). We introduced ourselves and Martina from Buenos Aires and I became friends.
Maria, our tour guide, was a transplant from St. Petersburg and obviously loved Ghent and within five minutes of the start I knew this would be one of the best walking tours ever. She knew the material with the dedication of a convert, someone who chose this city rather than being born into it and it shows in her depth of knowledge, variety of stories and the enthusiasm with which she shares it all.
She led us around for over two hours and regaled us with fabulous tales, a few of which I’d like to share. Across the street from Gravensteen castle (come on, the best named castle…ever!) is where the old fish market was (I’d been there earlier since it was also the home of the Tourist office). Turns out, as this is an old castle (originally constructed in 1180 as the seat of power for several Counts, then renovated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries into a museum) it stands to reason executions took place nearby. Some happened on the bridge nearby and some happened in the fish market square. Naturally, this put a bit of a stink (pun intended) on the area as we moved into the modern age. The city, doing something incredibly cool, decided to try and change the image of the square and had three double light poles installed (you can see one in the bottom left of the picture of Neptune). These lights are wired directly to the local hospital and are set up to flash every time a new citizen of Ghent comes into this world. So rather then celebrate the deaths, they are now celebrating life.
One other story, which I found more personally interesting, goes way back for me to when I’d eaten at a Belgian restaurant in London called Belgo. Great place, served frittes and moules and all the waiters were dressed like Trappist monks. But they had a particular beer, which came in a very cool glass and they had a problem with people swiping the glass. So when you ordered one, you had to give them a shoe as insurance. I loved this idea and of course, ordered one and handed over my shoe. Turns out, this either originated in (or migrated to) Ghent as there was a bar which bordered on the Friday market square which did the same thing.
Maria also showed us an alley designated for graffiti artists, where to get the best beer and Jenever in town and generally gave us all an entertaining walk.
As our tour ended Maria posed us all for a picture on their website and thanked us all for coming. Now, with other “free” tours, they let you know at the outset (rightly so) that this is their job and they live on tips. I kept waiting for Maria to mention that. She never did. The only time she mentioned tips was casually at the very end of the tour, almost as an off-hand remembrance. So great information, fun tour and no pressure. Just perfect! So in conclusion, let me say, the Gent Free Walking Tour company is doing it right.
Martina and I decided to grab a bite to eat afterwards and I convinced her to join me on the boat tour. She was under a slight time pressure as she had to get back to Brussels for an evening train to Paris (this is European travel at its finest) but the boat was only a 45 minute ride so it was all good. The ride itself was interesting. About half of it was similar to stories we’d heard with Maria. It’s fun to hear different people tell the same story and see where the changes are made (sometimes they also differ from the guidebook). In the end, they’re all just stories, and stories is all we are. And this boat ride was ripe for stories.
See, the pair of young ladies across from us where from Peru and so spoke Spanish. Our guide spoke English and French. Martina spoke all three and so was translating. There was also a nice couple sitting in the back of the boat. At one point, the Peruvians started getting excited and were trying to get the guide’s attention. Martina translated. In the end it was determined that the nice young couple in the back? They’d literally JUST gotten engaged! Right then! He’d proposed, she said yes and now we were all making a big deal out of it! The new groom to be was embarrassed while his betrothed was smiling to outdo the Cheshire Cat and showing off her new ring. The guide though, he was the best. He was absolutely flabbergasted. Couldn’t speak. Evidently this was a first for him. It was certainly a most brilliant way to end the tour.
Martina and I took a quick spin through the Saint Bavo Cathedral before she got on a tram to continue her journeys and I, finally, headed back to the hostel to check in and get settled. I was staying in a large dorm and Uppelink had one of the cleverest designs I’d ever seen. The room was laid out in such a way as to provide maximum privacy for everyone. Sure, it was a dorm so it wasn’t absolute, but it was possible for me to have my reading light on and not disturb anyone else in the room, which is pretty remarkable.
When I came down, the guy at the desk gave me a great recommendation for dinner, a place called ‘t Oud Clooster. The place is a little off the beaten path, but well worth finding. The food is great (I had the venison stew) and plentiful (it came with a salad and more fries than three people could comfortably eat). Inside it’s homey and not too bright. There were candles on the tables, mismatched chairs to sit in and lively conversation all around. Being in Belgium, of course, I had a couple of beers which meant by the time I got back to my bed, I was exhausted. I had to sleep since Brugge was coming up the next day!