AS high-speed trains open Europe up to tourists, Sarah O’Meara takes a ride to Ghent and discovers a perfect city break destination.
Throwing inimitable Flemish phrases this way and that, hoards of guttural-sounding teenagers with brightly coloured, nylon rucksacks meet me and my mother at Gent Sint Pieters station.
The national language of Belgium, Flemish is a variant of Dutch, and quite hard on the ears. So, tired after our journey, we stop and wait for the surge of hormones to wash round our wheelie suitcases and on to trains bound for Brussels and beyond, taking advantage of the breather to absorb our new weekend home.
“I think this might be a university town,” I say wisely, as the tide of blunt fringes, blank stares and skinny jeans gradually dissipates.
Up until this moment, our journey to Ghent, a thriving city half an hour from the Belgian capital, has been non-stop. A three-hour, streamlined and futuristic 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 just 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.
After bouncing our suitcases over cobbles for half an hour, we finally saw the glowing sign of the Marriot beaming down from an attractive, historic red-brick house, metres away from where we’d been all along. But the charm of this medieval city has already started to rub off, and shoving frustration to the back of our minds, we tore up to the entrance, determined to unpack and rejoin this magical city as quickly as possible.
It was growing late by the time we actually made it back out (post snooze and some inconclusive chit chat about making a holiday ‘plan’). And by that time, the night had transformed Ghent’s gothic stone skyline into a romantic, back-lit film set.
As we gazed at ornate churches and 16th century renaissance homes, we were on the lookout for The Belga Queen (www.belgaqueen.be), a grain store-turned-restaurant that came highly recommended in our guide books for its stunning architecture.
Happening upon a facade of blank, heavy stone, obscured by an outdoor seating area with dull furniture and boring topiary, we noticed the restaurant’s name, and walked hesitantly inside.
The interior took our breath away. We stood looking wide-eyed at suspended glass walkways, steel staircases and slouchy, leather chairs, as the hostess explained that unlike other buildings in Ghent, which combine historic facades with modern interiors (much like our Marriot hotel), this building has been restored without touching a millimetre of its 13th century structure.
Instead, a free-standing, self-supporting steel and wood skeleton has been built, creating three floors of bar and dining space.
Encouraged by this display of Belgian cultural sophistication, I took a chance and ordered a traditional Flanders (the name for the northern part of Belgium) stew with waterzooi, aka cuckoo. Sadly, I think their neighbours - France - win on the peasant food front. I didn’t get very far with this unseasoned milky soup, in which sat unappealing hunks of leeks, carrots and bony bird.
Returning home, flushed from wine and gossiping, we began perusing the mountains of tourist information we’d gathered in advance of our trip.
Quite apart from the collection of churches (complete with Rubens paintings) and gorgeous views, there were museums devoted to everything from psychiatry and outsider art at the Dr Guislain Museum, to a Design museum that boasted a nine-metre vase by Italian designer Andrea Branzi.
Each experience sounded rich and vivid, and more thought-provoking than your traditional visitor fodder.
We started with the basics and a little walk round the car-free city centre, taking in St Baafskathedraal (also known as St Bavo’s).
While not the place for a relaxing catch-up with your maker, this 14th century Gothic style cathedral is nevertheless impressive. 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 Belgian’s most famous baroque painter Rubens.
Reminders of the country’s strident artistic influence back in the 17th century, when the so-called ‘Flemish Masters’ such as Vermeer reigned supreme, 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). It’s unusual for any city’s tourist brochure to bear a picture of a woman biting into a bloody dove, but doubtless the ‘Masters’ would have approved.
We then headed over to the Castle of the Counts - a massive 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, just a few steps away.
Despite its landmark tourist sites and powerfully beautiful medieval aesthetic, this city isn’t overwhelmed by tourists.
Both the third largest city in the country, and the capital city of North Flanders with a population of 235,000, it has a port, university and relatively thriving local economy of its own, making it ideal for Eurostar fans who’ve done the cutesy trip to Bruges or enjoyed the bureaucratic beauty of Brussels.
In the afternoon, we wandered north of the historic centre to find independent clothes shops, interior design boutiques, eclectic vintage shops such as Tijdreizen Bureau (http://tijdreisbureau.be) and fantastic value second-hand furniture at Antiek-Depot (www.antiek-depot.com).
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 historical avenue near the castle (think the Mayfair of Ghent), chef Danny De Cleyn has received deservedly high levels of praise for his exquisite food.
In this design-conscious, yet understated Flemish townhouse, 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. It was the kind of meal that stops you in your tracks, and we reminisced over its subtle combinations of flavours until we dozed off to sleep later that night.
Another discrete treasure, tucked behind apparently domestic doors, is the Aqua Azul spa (www.aqua-azul.be).
Unlike any spa I’ve ever visited, the upper floors remain faithful to its art nouveau roots (it was originally the home of textile baron Juliaan Vandamme) 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 then start all over again.
It’s all rather hypnotic and addictive. And I’m pretty sure if I lived in Ghent I’d rarely leave. In fact, it wasn’t easy to convince ourselves to get back on the train.
Key facts - Ghent
:: Best for: A weekend of cultural pottering.
:: Time to go: Ghent is an all-year-round destination, but take plenty of layers in winter.
:: Don’t miss: If you like interiors, leave enough room in your suitcase for impulse buys.
:: Need to know: Don’t leave town without eating at De Blauwe Zalm (www.deblauwezalm.be).
:: Don’t forget: With so many museums to enjoy, make a plan before you head out.
Sarah O’Meara’s visit to Ghent was arranged by Railbookers, which offers three nights’ B&B during 2012 at the four-star Marriott Hotel from £309, including return rail travel from St Pancras International.
Supplements for return rail travel from regional departures include Glasgow (£76); Manchester (£53); Edinburgh (£76); Oxford (£31) and Birmingham (40).
Railbookers: 020 3327 0812 or www.railbookers.com.
Destination information available at www.flanders.co.uk