Every bit as pretty as Bruges and easy to get to from Hull, Richard Sutcliffe explores the Belgian city of Ghent.
Belgium doesn’t always have it easy. Cruelly derided as “boring” by some, the country is often dismissed as merely somewhere that the Eurocrats rule the roost and whose most famous resident is a fictional character.
Dig even slightly below the surface, however, and the reality could not be more different, as countless visitors from Yorkshire have discovered down the years. Having the port of Hull on our doorstep has helped enormously in that respect, the overnight ferry to Zeebrugge providing the county’s folk with an easy gateway to a country that contains many hidden gems.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the north-west of the country, where Bruges is rightly regarded as one of Europe’s most beautiful cities and Antwerp a bohemian enclave.
Often overlooked, however, amid the charms of these two jewels and the capital Brussels is Ghent. And, since P&O Ferries introduced regular mini-cruises to the city from Hull last year, Ghent has never been easier to reach from God’s Own Country. Just as importantly, it is well worth a visit. Ghent is a city full of charm and history, every bit as beautiful as nearby Bruges.
As a result, Ghent’s charming cobbled lanes are quieter and easier to navigate. So, too, canals that are every bit as dreamy as those in Bruges, while its picturesque market squares are just begging to be photographed.
We visited recently and, although there was a need to wrap up warm against a biting cold wind, the effort to get out and about was well worth it.
P&O’s mini-cruises to Ghent involve sailing overnight before being whisked from Zeebrugge by bus. After that, the rest is up to the individual, with some of our fellow travellers disembarking in the city centre with a detailed itinerary of sights to tick off during the eight or so hours available before catching the return bus.
Never having been the most organised of travellers, my wife and I opted, instead, to merely meander our way around the streets and take our fancy with what was on offer. Such a relaxed approach worked well, as we sauntered around what is, like nearby Bruges, a compact centre. Highlights included the rather forbidding Castle of the Counts, complete with dungeon and guillotine, and the imposing Belfry.
The Graslei, lined on each side by historic houses with a canal running through the centre, seems to be the locals’ meeting place of choice and a great place to watch the world go by, while no tourist can surely leave Ghent without having stood on St Michael’s Bridge and captured on camera the city’s three giant church towers.
St Bavo’s Cathedral is the last of these three towers and, for now, unfortunately covered in scaffolding due to restoration works that are due to go on for a few more years yet. The locals, though, say the wait will be worth it.
This being Belgium, beer was always going to feature heavily in our visit. Walk into any bar that takes beer seriously and the choice on offer can be daunting. Light, dark, wheat, craft – you name it, every taste is accounted for in the estimated 320 cafes and bars that populate the city centre.
The one piece of advice worth remembering is just how deceptively strong Belgian beer can be. Brews coming in at anywhere between six and ten per cent abound so be careful.
Our afternoon passed via a mixture of cafes and shopping – I did the first, my wife did a bit of the first and a lot of the second – in a city that is as welcoming as it is beautiful looking.
Eventually, though, it was time to go. Our bus back to the port was due and we had to be on board. It was a shame to bid farewell to Ghent, though the consolation was that an enjoyable night still lay in wait.
The Pride of York has everything a sea-goer could want, including three bars, two restaurants, a cinema and a casino. Best of all for a native Tyke, after a restful night’s sleep in a two-berth cabin, the morning dawned back in Yorkshire.
Richard travelled with P&O from Hull to Zeebrugge. Fares for Ghent mini-cruises, incl cabin, start at £89 for two people until March under the terms of a “2-for-1” offer. For more details, visit poferries.com/2for1