As high-speed trains open Europe up to tourists, Sarah O’Meara takes a ride to Ghent and discovers a perfect weekend break
Throwing inimitable Flemish phrases this way and that, hoards of guttural-sounding teenagers with brightly-coloured 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.
Tired after our journey, we wait for the surge of hormones to wash round our suitcases and on to trains bound for Brussels and beyond.
Business Cards From Only £10.95 Delivered www.myprint-247.co.ukView details
Contact: 01858 468192
Valid until: Sunday, June 30 2013
“I think this might be a university town,” I say wisely, as the tide of blunt fringes, blank stares and skinny jeans 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 trip from London. Then we saw the glowing sign of the Marriot hotel beaming down from an attractive, historic red-brick house.
The charm of this medieval city has already started to rub off, and night 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, 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 in.
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, 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.
Next morning, we started with the basics and a little walk round the car-free city centre, taking in the impressive 14th century cathedral St Baafskathedraal (also known as St Bavo’s).
We 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. Despite its landmark tourist sites and powerfully-beautiful medieval aesthetic, this city isn’t overwhelmed by tourists. In the afternoon, we wandered north of the historic centre to find independent clothes shops, boutiques, eclectic vintage shops.
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.
Near the castle, chef Danny De Cleyn has received deservedly high praise for his exquisite food.
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.
And I’m pretty sure if I lived in Ghent I’d rarely leave. It wasn’t easy to convince ourselves to get back on the train.
Sarah O’Meara’s visit to Ghent was arranged by Railbookers, which offers three nights B&B during
, 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); (£76); Oxford (£31) and Birmingham (£40).
Railbookers: 020 3327 0812 or: