Our next stop on our European adventure was Belgium, specifically Ghent and Bruges. We decided the train was the best way to get across the channel, so we took the Eurostar over to Brussels. Having really only been on the CalTrain here, I wasn't totally sure what to expect train-wise, but the Eurostar was awesome. Once we got to Brussels, we picked up our rental car to drive to Ghent.
Driving in Belgium was a bit of an adventure. I was going to tell you the whole story about getting lost and me nearly losing my sh*t in the passenger seat, but I may save that for its own post. So let's just say that we don't recommend driving in Belgium. There are plenty of trains and buses to get you where you need to go.
Let's move on...
Here's how the Lonely Planet guide describes the city of Ghent, "Ghent is one of Europe's greatest discoveries - small enough to feel cosy but big enough to stay vibrant and dynamic. It has enough frivolity to create a spectacle but retains a gritty industrial edge that keeps things 'real'." There was definitely some grittiness to it, but it was still charming and fairly touristy. There's a canal that runs through the city and you can take boat tours from a couple of different spots. There's enough museums and old churches and buildings that they offer 2 or 3 day passes that get you in to most of the tourist attractions. There was also plenty of beer.
Some Ghent highlights:
Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant Bierhuis - over 100 Belgian beers, right on the edge of the canal and next to a place that had a variety of infused gins (which were quite tasty). This was also the only place I was able to find gluten-free Belgian beer.
Design Museum Ghent - the downstairs had some old rooms full of old furniture that were interesting but sort of meh (unless maybe you like that sort of thing). Upstairs had exhibits on Peter Behrens and Peter DeGreef, which were both very good, as well as some other permanent exhibits. We spent the most time wandering through the Behrens exhibit where we discovered that he had spent some time in Darmstadt which, by complete coincidence, was where we were headed later in our trip.
Canal Boats Tours - definitely one of the highlights. Our tour guide gave the tour in 3 languages, and was originally from the area so had lots to tell us, and you get a different view of the city from the canal. Certain boat tours are covered on the museum day pass, but at 6 Euros each, I thought it was totally worth it.
The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb - is a 15th century Early Flemish polyptych panel painting inside Saint Bavo cathedral. I believe it was 5 Euros each to get in and you get a hand held audio thingie to listen to information about each panel of the painting while you admire it. The rest of the cathedral is open to the public so you can wander through and ogle the architecture and stained glass.
The Count's Castle (Castle Gravensteen) - Built in 1180 and unique because it's in the middle of the town. The self guided tour winds you through various rooms in the castle with suits of armor, weapons, and torture devices. Eventually you end up at the top of the castle with a lovely view of the city (that's the view in the photo above).
The Belfry of Ghent - one of the tallest belfrys in existence (91 metres high) and overlooks the old town centre. This is another attraction with a self guided tour that has you stop in various rooms, some with the old bells from the tower, and some with the old metal dragons that used to be on the top of the spire (the dragon has become a mascot for the town). We didn't make it all the way to the top, but it was interesting to climb through and learn about the belfry. We were also there while there was a fencing exhibit going on so we paid extra to take a look at that.
We spent 4 full days in Ghent, and I think that was plenty. There was definitely more to see but we were castled and churched out.
And since this post got so long, I think I'll save Bruges for the next post...