The city name of “Ghent” sticks in the brain of students of US History: they remember that it was the Treaty of Ghent that finally ended the War of 1812 between the U.S. and the British. In that era, communication was slow and hand-delivered. Then-General Andrew Jackson continued to bring troops to New Orleans to fight not knowing a treaty had already been signed. Fortunately for national pride, he still won.
In those days, Ghent was one of Europe’s most populous and powerful cities and it belonged to the Netherlands. Now it is a part of Belgium. Belgians note amongst themselves that Ghent is “authentic,” meaning slightly different from what is normally found in touristic destinations. With a university there, it has the vibe that people speak of when they talk about, say, Austin, TX being “weird” or “avant-garde.” There are lots of things to do that aren’t expensive.
What to do in Ghent
Do as the locals do. Check out a tiny, friendly bar that was once the town’s gallows: ‘t Galgenhuisje. It has just a few tables on each level, but they have local microbrews on tap and jenevers (a juniper-flavored and strongly alcoholic traditional liquor of the Netherlands and Belgium) stocked. Dogs are allowed in and sometimes, they even squeeze some live music in there.
Visit the Mystic Lamb: a famous Christian work of art visited by people from around the world that is missing a panel. Even the police can’t track it down. In Ghent Cathedral, the Van Eyck brothers painted a unique altarpiece for the church in 1432. Through all kinds of wars and turmoil, the masterpiece has survived, except for the panel that went missing in 1934.
Visit the “prison”: At top of the former entrance to the city prison, now the city’s tourism center, is the “mammelokker” statue. It depicts a Roman legend of Cimon, who was condemned to death by starvation but saved by his daughter … breast feeding him. Reputedly, the new tourism director is “well-endowed” and takes the jests in very good stride.
What to eat in Ghent
In the center of town is another set of secrets: the noses or “neuzen” as they are called, are these weird, hyper-sweet raspberry jelly candies shaped like noses that ooze purple snot-like thick liquid. It’s a Ghent thing. Two nose carts stand next to each other, each seller claiming to have the better secret recipe. The two guys truly hate each other; the police have been called in to break up disturbances between them. Both of the noses taste exactly the same.
Just behind the nose sellers is a local mustard boutique, Tierenteyn-Verlent. They make fresh mustard without preservatives according to a secret recipe. There are two mustard shops in Ghent with the same name, each founded by brothers who don’t get along and who each claim to have the best secret mustard recipe. With all of the in-fighting in Ghent, it’s surprising we had our treaty signed there!
Here’s an easy on the budget secret for meals, open late for dinner: the local McDonald’s. Oh sure, the Europeans talk a lot of smack about our American mainstay, but Ghent’s branch location has a purely Belgian sandwich — a McBaguette. It’s made with a fresh baguette, hangar steak, béarnaise and Emmenthaler cheese. Apparently, they also have colorful macarons (different from macaroons), that you see at posh society weddings. The restaurant also has free WiFi, which is great when you’re phone is turned to airplane mode.
Where to stay in Ghent
The Marriott is a convenient and cool place to stay in Ghent. It has a scandalous past: the place used to be a brothel for probably hundreds of years! They proudly keep the insignia denoting that fact outside: two gold swans facing against each other, not mating for life… a Belgian way of saying, “No strings attached.” You’ll find American standards of comfort here: King-sized beds, lots of good pillows, a bathtub. At breakfast, they serve an exquisite, locally produced brand of jam called Callas Confiture, that’s quietly available for purchase at the front desk.