Our journey to Ghent, a thriving city half an hour from the Belgian capital, is a non-stop, three-hour trip from London. Just over four years ago, Britain joined Europe’s rail fun and opened its first high-speed rail line (HS1) between London and the Channel Tunnel, which reduced the journey time from London to Brussels to 1 hour and 51 minutes.
However, what they couldn’t reduce was the length of time it might take two women, one of whom is still struggling to convince her dubious daughter that Gent, Gand and Ghent are three ways of spelling the same place, to find a central, canalside hotel, on arrival. Later our exploring started with a little walk round the car-free city centre, taking in St Baafskathedraal (also known as St Bavo’s).
This 14th century Gothic style cathedral is big on sculptures featuring tormented souls, it also boasts the Van Eyck brothers’ 15th century polyptych altarpiece The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, as well as Saint Bavo Enters The Convent At Ghent by Rubens. Reminders of the country’s artistic influences can also be seen across the city’s modern cultural life, as you wander past modern art galleries with strikingly bold and challenging sculptures and paintings. There’s also a thriving young artists’ community, kept alive by the university and made visible at SMAK (the city’s museum for contemporary art).
We then headed over to the Castle of the Counts – a huge medieval fortress in the heart of the city built in 1180, before stopping for a cup of tea in an uncrowded coffee shop overlooking the canal, a few steps away.
Despite its landmark tourist sites and powerfully beautiful medieval aesthetic, this city isn’t overwhelmed by tourists. It has a port, university and relatively thriving local economy of its own.
There’s an artistic, boho vibe to Ghent, which is distinctly high-end, and nowhere is this better reflected than new restaurant De Blauwe Zalm. Set in a quiet, semi-residential avenue near the castle (think the Mayfair of Ghent), chef Danny De Cleyn has received high levels of praise.
We sipped smoky halibut soup, flavoured with ginger and caramel, before devouring delicious lobster risotto and a clean dessert that left our mouths feeling fresh and sweet.
Another discrete treasure is the Aqua Azul spa (www.aqua-azul.be). The upper floors remain faithful to its art nouveau roots complete with polished light wood floors and period furniture, while in the basement is a lavish spa, with tiled walls, grotto-style Jacuzzi, steam room and saunas, as well as an outdoor Japanese-inspired cooling area. In this silent spa, you move carefully, under instruction from the owner, between the different temperature saunas, plunge pools and showers, before heading upstairs to relax in the library, have a massage, and start all over again.
Getting there: Sarah O’Meara’s visit was arranged by Railbookers, which offers three nights’ B&B at the four-star Marriott Hotel from £309, including return rail travel from St Pancras International. 020 3327 0812 or www.railbookers.com.