Blog for February 2018 with Photographs of Pubs and Cycling
Sunday February 11th 2018
It has been a few years since we visited Belgium and we were rather missing the place. As a result, we pencilled in a trip to Gent [I prefer to adhere to Flemish spelling] for a few days of piling on calories with beer drinking, eating out and popping the odd chocolate truffle in our mouths. We like to travel by train and tend to get an early Eurostar service to maximise our first day's enjoyment. This means an overnight stay somewhere near St. Pancras. Of course, this presents an opportunity to explore a little around London.
Camden Market is generally vibrant on Sundays so we headed that way to marvel at the array of goods on sale. You can buy just about anything at Camden, particularly if you are looking for retro stuff. I thought the prices were quite keen at several stalls. We selected a spot to regroup should we get lost amid the thronging crowd. The place was heaving.
The main reason for heading towards Camden was to visit the local brewery tap. It is only a short walk to Wilkin Street Mews where the brewery specialising in lager have a modest drinking room beneath the arches of Kentish Town West Station. This is not our normal type of drinking experience as it is not a pub and we are not really fans of lager. But, hey, it was something different to do on a cold Sunday in London.
Our reception was warm and the young woman behind the counter supplied us with what seem to be called flight boards these days. I know these as tipple boards. Anyway, five glasses of third-pint beers was fairly priced at around £7.50p. She carefully ensured the glasses were lined up in order of ABV and each had a small information card. There are also beer menus on the tables with tasting notes for the brewery' range. We found this delightful.
The lagers were pleasant enough and the drinking environment agreeable. One criticism is that two customers were allowed to take their children to the counter when being served. I can understand not wanting to leave your precious offspring unattended but plonking them on the counter whilst ordering your beer is a faux pas in my book and, as a former licensee, something that should not be allowed. Besides if you want to spend some quality time with your children then take them to a place where they will be engaged or entertained - a museum or park for example. A bar is not the place for children.
The emphasis on lager is due to the founder having Australian ancestry and brewing heritage. Jasper Cuppaidge founded the brewery in 2010 after running The Horseshoe at Hampstead. I had no prior knowledge of the business before our visit and was surprised to learn that the brewery had been bought out by world's largest brewer, Anheuser-Busch InBev, in a deal estimated to be worth £85 million. Jasper Cuppaidge was lambasted for "selling-out" but put yourself in his shoes - would you remain independent or would you take the cash?
After quaffing our beers we were hungry. We remembered that we had seen a tasty-looking falafel outlet at Camden Locks so headed back towards the madding crowds. We walked along Harmood Street, one of the early thoroughfares at Chalk Farm. The small cottages probably housed those working on the canals or railways but the once-cheap working-class properties now sell for around £1m. Most of the old shops have gone, though one survivor is Walden Books, an emporium where you can blow the dust and cobwebs off an old tome in tranquillity.
The Pure Vegan Magic Falafel kiosk at Camden Market is sensational. They have 5-Stars on Happy Cow and Trip Advisor and, after our experience, I can say that they deserve top marks. You also get to meet interesting people in the queue. I was talking footy with two guys from Bermuda who were feeling the London weather a little frosty for their liking. Magic Falafel sell pittas, platters and salads and are really friendly people too.
It is another short walk through busy Camden Town to Bayham Street where Scottish brewers Brewdog have a tap house. Located on the corner of Greenland Street, the building was formerly a Charrington's pub called the Laurel Tree. It was here that Coldplay played their debut gig - an excuse perhaps for continuing past to another establishment! However, there is a long list of artists with more street-cred who have patronised the boozer in the past. The upstairs function room of the Laurel Tree was where the legendary club night "Blow Up" was launched by DJ Paul Tunkin in October 1993. I have a bit of claim-to-fame music history here for it was just up the road at the Electric Ballroom that I attended the Creation Records All-Dayer in the late 80s [I think it was 1987] when the bill featured The House of Love, My Bloody Valentine, The Jasmine Minks et al. The doors opened at lunchtime and we were there till late at night - it was incredible, though exhausting!
Trendy Brewdog may have been at the vanguard of Britain's craft beer scene for some time but they hardly lavish money on their venues. This place still has some of its Britpop grime and the toilets are a health hazard. As part of the perceived "sell-out", the brewery were one of the first to refuse entry to casks from the Camden Town Brewery after their sale to Anheuser-Busch InBev. However, the company really ought to explain to customers why their prices are so ridiculous. I once paid £14.40p for two pints in their Birmingham outlet. I have never been back. Here however, I am on holiday and biting the bullet. This tipple board, which is essentially a pint and a third, cost almost £11. Yes, I'm not even bothering with abbreviations - I'm stating "For Fuck's Sake" in full. There wasn't anything here to get too excited about, the Libertine Black Ale being the pick of the bunch.
Monday February 12th 2018
After a very comfortable journey via Brussels, we arrived in Gent by early afternoon. It was a case of dumping the luggage and getting out-and-about to make the most of the lovely sunshine. It was extremely cold but the crisp weather was refreshing.
Our last visit to Gent was back in 2009 and we were amazed at how different the city felt. The local economy is seemingly more geared up for tourism so this canal city is fast catching up with Brugge. However, it is still very much a working city and, coupled with the large student population, this makes Gent such a vibrant place to visit. We love it.
Walking into the city centre we managed to catch this lovely sunny late afternoon view of Het Groot Vleeshuis [the Great Butcher's Hall], an early 15th century structure that now houses the centre for the promotion of regional products. Up until the late 19th century this acted as Gent's covered meat market and guildhall. Meat retailing was controlled and centralised in most medieval cities and, accordingly, large halls were erected for the sale of goods. It was in 1407 that Gills de Suttere ordered the construction of this large meat house, replacing a wooden structure built in the mid-13th century. The building fell into disrepair when the market was moved to Sint-Veerleplein in the late 19th century. Gent's hosting of a World Exhibition in 1913 acted as the impetus for the restoration of this historic building. This work was conducted by Ernest Van Hamme.
We spent a couple of hours in the late afternoon sunshine getting to know Gent again. We have visited several times and sometimes it can feel like putting on a comfy pair of slippers but Gent is so dynamic there is always a surprise around the corner. We have explored the streets in fine detail on previous trips. Consequently, we wondered whether we would find enough new things to do over the next four days but, as it turned out, we didn't have enough hours to do all the things we had planned. There's nothing for it - we'll have to return! One palpable change in the city centre is that there are less cars and traffic. The local authorities have seemingly realised that people want to visit Gent on foot and bicycle - besides, if you really want to be transported about there is a superb tram and bus network. There is even a FREE Wandelbus on which you can hop on and off anywhere on the route.
If you are new to Gent then the first port-of-call is the Tourist Information Centre to pick up your free guide and map. However, don't miss out on the advice from the friendly team behind the desk, especially if you get stuck with the multimedia table. There is also a good vista from a glass viewing point that looks out onto the old gateway at Sint-Veerleplein. I fully recommend the purchase of a Gent City Card. For €35 you can buy a 72 hour card with which you can visit 17 museums, use all the trams and buses, get a full day's bicycle hire and also a guided boat trip. What a bargain!
With the light fading and armed with notes and information we thought we'd sit down and plan our strategy for the next four days. Actually we had come with our pre-prepared map marked with the locations of all the cafés and restaurants we wanted to visit. Now, as I have stated, we have been here before so we have visited many of the well-known cafés and we wanted to try out new places. So, for example, we didn't visit bars like Dulle Griet, Trollekelder or the Trappistenhuis.
Before setting off I had looked up some cafés recommended by locals and was looking forward to visiting Het Onverwacht Geluk or The Unexpected Happiness which I noted was a brown café with old furnishings, a lovely landlady and Tripel Karmeliet on tap. A decade ago it wasn't that easy to find Tripel Karmeliet on tap so this was a big draw with the Venerable Bead. We got a little confused when we arrived at Burgstraat 59. Indeed, for a moment I thought I had written down the wrong address. However, I realised that the bar had completely changed. The new owner had only just opened a few days earlier with a new look and a new name - Bar Mirwaar. It looked a bit more trendy than we'd like but our reticence on venturing inside was overcome by the sight of the Tripel Karmeliet tap.
I can imagine that the makeover and refurbishment is not to the liking of the regulars of Het Onverwacht Geluk but there is plenty to justify spending a few hours in here. For starters the beer choice is much bigger than you would imagine. Two beers from De Ranke were among many of our favourites on the menu. Secondly, the new landlady was very friendly and kept supplying us with free dishes of popcorn. And thirdly, the bar has a massive [and I mean seriously massive] vinyl record collection. I pulled out a couple to see if they were simply shelf-fillers but was surprised to find some treasures. I believe that Het Onverwacht Geluk had jazz overtones at the weekend but Bar Mirwaar looks set to be more eclectic and possibly even esoteric. As for the Tripel Karmeliet there seems to have been a shift in the taste since it has entered the keg mainstream. We found it in on tap in plenty of other bars during the week. We double checked over the next few days and it doesn't seem to be the Tripel Karmeliet of old. Still pleasant enough but there's just something missing that once made your palate go ping. Not that this detracted from what was a pleasant visit to Bar Mirwaar.
On our first evening we headed to Lekker Gec on Poel, a smart veggie/vegan buffet restaurant that I believe was previously located out of town but had recently took the plunge with paying higher rates for increased footfall. We did enjoy our experience here but buffets can tend to be a little like school dinners. Meals are paid for by the weight. Unlike the early 60s supermarkets that had the slogan of "stack 'em high, flog it cheap," at Lekker Gec they have more of a Waitrose approach in that there is a bit of a premium for quality nosh. The plates you see above were both just under €20.
Beer choice at Lekker Gec is interesting as, in common with their general ethos, they stock a range of bio beers. The unfiltered bottle-fermented Belgoo Bio Blond is brewed with three organic cereals and has no additives. At 6.4% ABV, this is a punchy little number and the citrus overtones are quite refreshing. Formerly branded with the rather unflattering Bioloo Blond tag, this beer was a gold medal winner at Strasbourg in 2011.
Slightly stronger at 8.0% ABV, Le Zoeval is another beer with excellent credentials in terms of making beer for the right reasons. It is brewed at La Brasserie de la Lesse, a co-operative based near Rochefort. Comprising of many farmers, aspiring brewers and locals with noble intentions, the brewery uses locally grown barley and organic hops. The latter shine in this very nice Belgian strong golden ale that is quite fruity in character.
Gent is quite enchanting in the evening. With bellies laden with nice food and lovely beer, your journey on foot back to your hotel or guest house is rewarded by the sight of major buildings illuminated and reflected in the canals and rivers. The journey should always be enjoyed at a leisurely pace with perhaps the odd diversion along the way.
Tuesday February 13th 2018
Breakfast in Gent was more of an issue than we could have imagined. Finding the perfect café that sold porridge was ridiculously difficult. We're not far removed from being vegans. We have managed to replace many dairy products with soya-based alternatives. However, I do still like an egg. As a committed cyclist [note I avoided the term athlete though 10,000kms per year is demanding for most body tissue,] I have to get some vital protein during my day and there are only so many pulses you can cope with before being branded anti-social by those around you.
Walking into town we passed an interesting-looking place. Wasbar on Nederkouter offers breakfasts and lunches for those wishing to combine the drudge of washing laundry with a nice coffee, a newspaper or a periodical. The relaxed vibe and friendly service was spoiled somewhat by the lack of eggs. A café without eggs! Apparently, a change of supplier had caused a hiccup but the owners didn't seem too fussed about running up the road to the supermarket for a quick restock. We stayed but were amazed at the price of €3 for a plain croissant. Our toast and tea was €14 which, if I lived in Gent, would make me think about saving up for a nice washing machine, toaster and coffee machine! There are, of course, other reasons for wanting to wash your smalls in the company of others. There is a green argument for communal washing facilities. I did like the concept but not the dent in my pocket for a bit of toast.
Crossing the Ketelvaart near the confluence of the Leie presented us with an opportunity to look at the Justitiepaleis [Palace of Justice], a building that we had seen illuminated on the previous evening [see above]. The Italian Renaissance-style building was designed by Louis Roelandt and erected between 1836 and 1846 on the site of the Recollets Monastery. In front of the main entrance is a statue to Hippolyte Metdepenningen, a lawyer who co-founded the Liberal Party following Belgium's independence in 1830. The statue is the work of Julien Dillens and it was for this piece that the Antwerpen-born sculptor was awarded the medal of honour at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1899.
Much as we like to appreciate architecture and public art works, when we were standing in Koophandelsplein our eyes were drawn to a miniature delight that presented us with our first cycling opportunity of the holiday. Yes, it's for children but some people never grow up! In the words of former BBC cycling commentator Hugh Porter, we were on the mini-velodrome like a rash. No wonder the Belgians totally rock in the world of cycling - from a young age they are dreaming of being a star of 6-day racing. In England, you get a coin-fed Postman Pat van or something similar. In Belgium you stick your kids on here and get them to spin their legs in a wild frenzy to get on the podium. I wonder if Iljo Keisse had a go on one of these as a youngster? More about him later in this blog.
The weather was simply gorgeous today. Cold, but the sunshine was near perfection for the time of year. Just the weather to wrap up and do some cycling. So we headed into the city centre to collect our hire bikes as part of our city card deal. We walked past the richly decorated former post office building on the corner of Korenmarkt. The building had not long opened as a luxury hotel with a shopping centre on the ground floor. Featuring a 52-metre tower, the old post office was designed by Louis Cloquet in collaboration with Stéphane Mortier, and erected between 1898 and 1910. The eclectic style of architecture has been described as neo-Gothic and neo-Renaissance. The structure's key influence, however, is the façade of the Guild House of the Free Boatmen on nearby Graslei.
In the short space of time since visiting Gent and typing this blog I think the assigned bike shop has rebranded. It looks the same and they have the same red bicycles. The customer service was very friendly and they were generous with the rental period so we got half a day extra for free! The bikes are fairly basic but the three gears are all you need for Gent which is mainly flat. We enjoyed a lovely canal route out towards Vlaams Wielercentrum Eddy Merckx. On a previous trip to Gent we paid homage at the city's famous 't Kuipke Velodrome in the Citadelpark, the venue for legendary 6-day races and the place where Tom Simpson became a favourite with the locals. On this trip we just wanted to look at Belgium's version of British Cycling's set-up. Unfortunately for us, it was a quiet day and there wasn't any red-hot training action to watch. Still, it is another cycling venue notched up by suckers for anything velo.
We didn't have a strict plan for the morning but simply enjoyed cycling around the streets of Gent, some of which have original pavé which is rather exciting. The canal paths have, in places, become cycle superhighways. Typically, the Belgians have made things easier for cyclists by building projecting ramps and jetties so that riders are overlooking the water and not having to worry about negotiating road junctions and historic canal infrastructure. This is how to make a place cycle friendly. In comparison, the UK is a total joke. In my region the Rea Valley Cycle Route is an attempt to create a commuter run in-and-out of Birmingham but compared to Gent it is a half-hearted endeavour to get people on two wheels. Indeed, in places the Rea Valley Cycle Route is quite pathetic. On the streets of Gent every other vehicle gives way to cyclists - it has become a cultural understanding that is instilled from birth.
Gent does have a parking problem but only for bicycles. With so many people undertaking two-wheeled journeys, it can be hard to remember where exactly you have parked your bike! From the railway station we cycled along one of my favourite streets of Gent, if not the world. Prinses Clementinalaan is named after the fourth child of King Leopold II and Queen Marie Henriette. The thoroughfare was developed around 1905 amid the burgeoning district surrounding the northern side of the railway line. The tree-lined avenue formed part of the main route between the railway station and the site of the 1913 World Exhibition. Little wonder therefore that no expense was spared on some of the grandiose residences. Prinses Clementinalaan has the highest concentration of Art Nouveau houses in Gent. The street however is a marvellous mish-mash of eclectic architectural styles and there are later insertions, some boasting art deco detail. Impressive as it is now, the avenue would have looked magnificent in its heyday. There would have been fewer cars, more trees and many of the original properties had, by Royal Decree, enclosed front gardens flourishing behind decorative wrought ironwork.
Today, I only took photographs of buildings that were not spoilt by parked vehicles. In such a wonderful street, cars and vans are a dreadful impediment to the aesthetic of the built environment. Here, towards the left of this image, you can see a pair of art nouveau houses by the architect Leon De Keyser. Dating from 1908, the house on the left has a superb curved wooden bay window crowned by a small balcony enclosed within wrought iron railings. Beneath the window is a decorative band of tiling. Indeed, the building boasts several fine motifs in glazed tiling, particularly beneath the cornice. These were sourced from the Céramiques Décoratives de Hasselt, a highly-regarded factory founded in 1895. The work of this firm can also be seen on the façade of the neighbouring house which is also a real beauty. The four-storey residence features projecting windows, the composition being capped by a metal canopy. This property looks more fanciful, due in part to the floral-inspired tiled panels. The houses to the right are more understated but they form part of a most appealing row of properties.
Numbers 20 and 22 are another lovely pairing. Number 20, in the centre of this image, has retained its small front garden which is enclosed by wrought-iron work. Largely comprising of a frontage in white glazed bricks, the house was designed by the Rennes architect Urbain Crommen in 1909. Horseshoe-arched windows feature on the ground floor but above is more angular. The house features decorative tiling by Helman of Brussels. The frieze beneath the cornice comprises the date of 1910 so the construction period was relatively rapid. The neighbouring house, to the left in this image, is the work of the architects A. Poppe, Van Herrewege and De Wilde and features tiling by the Leeds Fireclay Company Limited. This is balanced with highly decorative terracotta that includes a balustrade above the projecting bay window, the corbel of which has a sculptural depiction of a ram's head, set against a background of fruits, floral motifs and ribbons.
Heading southwards, on crossing the railway line, the property prices in one pocket of Gent head towards the stratosphere. The district of Sint-Pieters-Alst has been dubbed the Miljoenenkwartier as it was here that the well-heeled bourgeoisie sanctioned creative architects to draw up plans for some of the city's most idiosyncratic houses. The land here was once the market garden for Gent and cultivated by the monks of Saint Peter's Abbey. The district's close proximity to the railway station made it the ideal location for the World Exhibition of 1913. The street layout still reveals the outline of the grounds used for the exhibition with Paul de Smet de Naeyerpark acting as the centrepiece of the show grounds. The park was named after the event, paying homage to the honorary president of the exhibition. One of the few remnants to survive from 1913 is the monumental bronze statue in the centre of the pond. The work of the Belgian sculptors Aloïs de Beule and Domien Ingels, it depicts the Ros Reyaert, the magical horse Bayard and The Four Sons of Aymon who revolted against the emperor Charlemagne. In the medieval tale the knight Renaud de Montauban was forced to cede Bayard to Charlemagne who ordered a large rock to be tied to the beast and pushed into the river as retribution. However, the horse smashed the stone with his hooves and escaped to the woods for eternity.
The exploits of the city council almost added to the mythology of Bayard for they attempted to remove the statue after the exhibition. However, the beast was so firmly anchored it proved impossible to shift. The exhibition grounds were eventually sold off to those seeking leafy green suburbia to the south of the city. Between 1927 and 1939 there were 250 houses built in the locality, the work of 126 different architects. Consequently, the district features some wonderfully eclectic styles of architecture but, crucially, highly representative of an era when domestic buildings moved towards modernity. We cycled gently around the Miljoenenkwartier admiring the creations of Gent's architects, some flamboyant, others more reserved. In the above image [taken on a previous trip] I am showing a house at Vaderlandstraat 19 that I particularly like. This street was parcelled in 1926 and most of the buildings date from the late 1920s and early 1930s. There is something about the simple lines and uniformity of the windows that drew me to this building. Featuring elements of art-deco, it was designed by the architect P. Vandevelde, and constructed between 1929-30. The bay windows and upper single window feature green faience tiles, complemented by green flamed glass in the upper lights.
By now we were very hungry but were fortunately in a good location for lunch. We were not too far from De Appelier on Citadellaan, a fabulous vegetarian restaurant where we have enjoyed fantastic lunches in the past. However, as we were in 'trying out new places' mode, we headed towards Ottergemsesteenweg to check out Hashtag Falafel. That's a name that will quickly date no doubt. However, the business is relatively new and is making a splash in the vegan world as the falafels are highly rated on sites like Happy Cow. And, indeed, we enjoyed one of the tastiest lunches for a ridiculously low price. Friendly service, top-notch falafel, free salad bar, homemade sauces - all for €5 each. What's not to like?
After our excellent repast at Hashtag Falafel we headed towards the River Scheldt and headed northwards past riverboats and cruisers to the confluence of the Muinkscheldte, a straightening of the water route into the city. If you follow the route along Stropkaai look out for the cast-iron mooring posts with the clawing lion coat-of-arms dating from the late 19th century. This thoroughfare's name derives from Het Strop where an ancient tavern served those patronising a pleasure garden, the site of which was later occupied by a charitable institution. It is possible to use a cycle ramp beneath the main road but I took the above photograph from an elevated position to show both the canal and Ter Platen, where at Number 17 there is a rather fine café.
The houses on Ter Platen facing the canal formed part of a late 19th century improvement scheme that replaced the slum dwellings of poor textile workers in what was a rough part of the city. The properties are modest in scale in comparison to some of the streets we have visited. Designed for the lower middle classes, this is however very good housing stock. Many of the properties have plastered neoclassical façades, many have projecting windows and some boast sgraffito panels. The canal route is lined with trees and the locals only have to wander a few metres to enjoy an evening in Bierhuis De Brouwzaele.
De Brouwzaele stands on the junction of Ter Platen and William Wenemaerstraat, the latter commemorating the patrician and knight who, along with his wife Margaret de Brune, founded a hospital and almshouses for the poor of Gent. He was killed by Robert of Cassel at Recklyn in July 1325. A sepulchral brass featuring the knight has survived and perhaps the brass rubbing of this should have been featured on the frontage of Bierhuis De Brouwzaele when it was recently repainted with the outline of a glass of Duvel.
On the original sepulchral brass featuring William Wenemaer he is depicted with his drawn sword upraised, upon which there is an inscription along its length. Translated this reads "Erst while the devil quaked to see me drawn." Ironic perhaps that Duvel is now served here at Bierhuis De Brouwzaele. The street in front of the building has been improved since our last visit. Parking spaces in front of the café have been replaced by an enlarged pavement corner that facilitates an outdoor drinking space. This street realignment may have been the result of the construction of the new cinema across the road - a source of improved trade perhaps?
Missing on this visit was the sawdust which was once liberally spread on the bare floorboards inside the café. The servery is central to Bierhuis De Brouwzaele and comprises of an old brewing copper. This makes for a spectacular interior feature in a drinking establishment stocking more than 100 beers. Meals are served in the evenings and, despite the poor choice of vegetarian options, we have enjoyed a dinner in here. This was probably our fifth visit to Bierhuis De Brouwzaele and, for some reason, we associate this place as a venue to drink Gouden Carolus Classic, a fine dark ale made at the Het Anker in Mechelen. It is so good we have made a pilgrimage to the brewery in the past. Indeed, we have bought crates of the lovely stuff and brought it home. It is a great beer to drink with those hot winter meals such as stew or dumplings. The brewery describe the dark ale as "a unique beer that unites the warmth of wine and the freshness of beer."
Following the canal northwards towards the city it is not too far to the next crossroads where, on the corner of François Benardstraat, stands In Den Hemel. Indeed, we were looking forward to being "In Heaven" as I had read that this building boasted the oldest surviving brown café interior in Gent. Alas, we were too late. After a period of closure, the café has re-opened as Bavet which is billed as a spaghetti bar. The combination of Belgian beer and Italian pasta sounds interesting but I was disappointed to see that the interior has been altered. However, I could only view the place from outside as it was closed for the afternoon. With the early use of concrete for the façade, the exterior remains of interest. Designed by the D'Havé architect brothers, some art nouveau elements are featured within a building dating from 1905.
From the bridge close to In Den Hemel there is a good view of Muinkkaai, the name deriving from the Monks who worked the meadows close to Saint Peter's Abbey. Now sprinkled with mature chestnut trees, this locality was developed in the mid-19th century. Muinkkaai still features some nice housing from the late 19th century though some more recent buildings are gradually replacing the old façades. The buildings look across the canal to Sint-Pietersabdij, a former Benedictine abbey founded in the late 7th century by the missionary Amandus. The abbey is now used as a museum and exhibition centre.
We headed off along François Benardstraat and through Muinkpark, the modest remnant of Gent's zoo which was opened in 1851 by the city's Natural History Society. The surrounding street names such as Leeuwstraat or Zebrastraat serve as a reminder of this short-lived venture. However, we did spot an elephant at Jules de Bruyckerdreef bordering Koning Albertpark. The street name commemorates Gent-born Jules de Bruycker, an eminent graphic artist and painter who produced some marvellous scenes of his hometown. The Weeping Elephant is the third project undertaken by the artist Jantien Mook for "Ode to the Wilderness," in which she expresses her wonder and love for nature through sculptures and drawings. The African elephant is being moved around cities, where she 'weeps' to make her presence felt. She was moved to Gent after a period in Brussels following spells in Hamburg, Amsterdam and Rotterdam.
Koning Albertpark was created on the former site of Gent's South Station, the city's main rail terminus until the construction of Ghent-Sint-Pieters. The old station was closed and demolished in 1928 and the park was laid out in art deco style, though much of its original character has been altered over subsequent years. We cycled along Vijfwindgatenstraat, a mid-19th century thoroughfare laid out close to the site of a fortified gateway into the city. The name derives from the five winding gates. From here it is a short distance to the Beguinage of Our Lady at Hoyen [Small Beguinage] in Lange Violettestraat. The land for this sanctuary was donated by Countess Johanna van Constantinopel around 1235. Though not serving its original role [Hermina Hoogewijs, the last Beguine to reside here, died in 2005], the Klein Begijnhof has largely retained most of its original allotment, though the pastoral garden was lost to training grounds for cavalry militia in the 19th century. The Church of Our Lady at Hoyen and the former graveyard form the centrepiece of the housing and convents, along with the Holy Sepulchre Chapel and Saint Godelieve Chapel.
Erected in the late renaissance-early Baroque style, the Church of Our Lady at Hoyen was reconstructed in 1658, though the façade was only added in 1720 when sufficient funding was raised to replace the original made of wood. The Holy Sepulchre Chapel and adjacent buildings were repaired as part of a restoration programme of recent years. The date of 1662 can be seen within a cartouche on the façade of this small chapel. It is thought to have replaced a larger chapel close to the entrance to the beguinage. The chapel is named after the stone statue of Christ in his grave, which was rediscovered in 1933 under the altar, along with a statue of Our Lady of Seven Sorrows. The beguinage became a protected monument in October 1963.
We headed to the river and cycled north alongside the water until we reached Portus Ganda. The marina is the confluence of the Leie and Scheldt, the communications of which were central to the development of a city where the woollen trade could be conducted. With Celtic or Germanic origins, Ganda is the old name for Gent and means 'confluence or mouth.' Despite its historical importance the old port and quays were left to decay and there was even infilling for the motor car. Thankfully, the city authorities saw sense and Portus Ganda was restored in order to provide a tourist hub for leisure craft. The locality has benefited from the urban investment and new shops and cafés are emerging. Oh, don't forget to check out Zwembad Van Eyck, the frontage of which dates back to 1886 and has been fully restored.
The cycle path along the Leie is excellent and we were thrilled to explore a part of Gent that was new to us. We headed to the Museum of Industry, Work and Textiles which is housed in an old cotton mill that dates back to the early 19th century, though the present building was constructed in 1905. The extensive collection of exhibits inside the former cotton mill includes the Mule Jenny illicitly imported from England in 1798 by Lieven Bauwens, the industrial spy credited with initiating the industrial revolution in Flanders. We enjoyed a couple of hours in this fascinating and stimulating museum. Even the garden is linked to the key theme of the textile industry as it contains plants used in the production of dyes. The garden is also home to a bronze statue to Pierre De Geyter, the Gent-born socialist who composed The Internationale. The museum has a decent licensed café so you can also toast De Geyter with a post-industrial beer. Bar Mitte also hosts live music, comedy, poetry evenings, book performances, and board games.
The area around MIAT is a part of Gent to which we are going to return for further investigation. For now, we regrouped at our guest house in order to refresh before a meal at Le Botaniste, a highly-rated vegan restaurant at Hornstraat 13. Despite wanting to become the latest devotees to this quirky eating experience, we left a little flat because, well, to be honest, the food was not that tasty - dare I say a little bland. However, I did like the overall vibe, the friendly staff who wear white lab coats and the fact that they sell a few interesting bio-beers. By the way, I think the lab coats are a symbolic gesture suggesting that their food is akin to medication - a sort of 'you are what you eat' principle. I quite enjoyed the Modeste Tripel, a beer produced by the Strubbe family-run brewery at Ichtegem. The cloudy ale had more than a hint of spice and was refreshingly fruity on the palate.
Our local café for the duration of our stay was a small bar at Kortrijksepoortstraat 210 called Sint Hubert. For some reason or another, this is not the sort of establishment that makes it into the Good Beer Guide for Belgium, a tome to which we sometimes refer but often go off-piste to find our own little jewels in a back street where the locals are the only patrons. This strategy is a hit-and-miss affair but is far more exciting than following in the trail of real ale geeks or beer tourists. Don't get me wrong - we too visit the recognised beer palaces but they are often so full of other tourists that there is no local flavour or character to be savoured. This is where the locals' tavern is to be treasured. True, our very presence is perhaps debasing the tavern's homespun atmosphere but we are generally well received as guests. Sint Hubert is a cosy little place where football is generally on the screens - more cycling please, this is Belgium! A nice atmosphere pervades, the gaffer is friendly and there are around fifty beers to choose from. They have a beer of the week which tends to be discounted. However, I eschewed the lovely Hommelbier in favour of some Rochefort 8, one of the most consistent beers on the planet. And here it hit all the right notes in all the right places.
Wednesday February 14th 2018
This was another day of cycling in the sun. Prior to our trip the weather forecast for the Gent area was very sketchy with lots of rain. Luckily for us it was the complete opposite and we had a fantastic week of bright skies. So the morning was spent riding the pavé around some of Gent's historic streets and the canal network. Some level of bike-handling skills are required at times as it is very bobbly. Perhaps because I was concentrating on riding I didn't take too many photographs during the morning so I have uploaded some older images of buildings that we passed and admired again.
The day got off to a good start for we found a place that sells porridge. Located at Oude Houtlei 1, Café Labath Koffiehuis has established itself as one of the most popular coffee houses in Gent. Finding a seat can be an issue where seemingly everybody wants to hang out. Large windows facilitate a good backdrop for people-watching during breakfast, though some patrons will insist on staring into an electronic screen during their entire visit, hardly looking up when the friendly staff are placing their order before them! Café Labath may have an enviable reputation for their coffees but I believe I can teach them a thing or two about serving the perfect bowl of porridge. Still, it was a passable effort. Café Labath does have that on-trend vibe which makes it a great place to visit. The interior feels a little 60s in style, a legacy perhaps of the counter and some fittings that were retained. However, the proprietors decorated when they moved in around seven years ago - their tiling is commendable. Loaded up with oat-filled bellies we undertook a lovely tour of Gent by bike.
We weren't a million miles from the Prinsenhof and Rabot districts so we pedalled in that direction. Besides, the locale around the Lieve Canal is very tranquil and arguably undervalued by visitors. The streets however have plenty of interest. For example, in Prinsenhofplein there is a splendid fusion of the old and new. The centrepiece of the square is the statue of Keizer Karel, the Emperor Charles V, a gift to the city of Gent from the Spanish city of Toledo. The folk of Gent have historically had a prickly relationship with the man born in Prinsenhof in 1500. Indeed, before the statue of Charles was unveiled a sign had been hung around his neck bearing the message "we shall put up with you, but without enthusiasm." This act of dissent was perhaps the Stroppendrager's wraakactie!
In previous centuries Prinsenhofplein is thought to have been part of a large forecourt to the walled fortification of the Prinsenhof Palace. Parts of the old castle have been excavated between Simon de Mirabellostraat and Sanderswal. Zilverhof formed an avenue to the castle with a historic entrance gate close to Prinsenhofplein. The palace was originally built for Simon de Mirabello, a wealthy Flemish banker, knight and patron of Italian descent. He was eventually murdered by his opponents and the Prinsenhof became the seat of the Dukes of Burgundy. The above extract from a painting held by Gent STAM, shows a romantic portrayal of the baptism ceremony of Charles V.
The last Burgundian ruler of Flanders was Charles the Bold, grandfather of the aforementioned Charles V - the supposed link between his birth and the palace, though some assert that the Holy Roman Emperor was actually born in Eeklo. Whatever, he was less than generous to his subjects in Flanders and forced them to pay taxes to fund his military exploits. Typically, the townsfolk of Gent, always up for the occasional revolt, led an uprising in 1539. Charles crushed the rebellion and executed the ringleaders. In an act intended to humiliate the city's dignitaries, he forced them to walk barefoot around the streets in their nightshirts wearing nooses around their necks. Since this time, those born in Gent are known as a stropke, or stroppendrager. For several centuries there was an element of shame attached to this title but it eventually became a badge of honour and, for some, it is a title worn with pride. Little wonder therefore that Stropke has appeared on beer bottles. I was determined to toast the defiant Gent Stroppendragers and did so the following day when I ordered Gentse Strop, a beer produced by Brouwerij Roman, thought to be the oldest family-run brewery in Belgium. Based at nearby Oudenaarde, this beer is a relative newcomer to their range but is a very pleasant and refreshing light crisp ale clocking in at 6.9% The blond beer has a fruity aroma and a subtle hoppiness - it went perfectly with my pasta dish!
The work of the Gent artist Chris Demangel, the statue of the Stroppendrager was unveiled in September 2000. The Stroppendrager stands facing the Donkere Poort [Dark Gate], the last remnant of the old Prinsenhof. It was near this spot that the noose-bearers completed their humiliating walk around the city and begged Charles V for mercy, though the artist has shown an irreverent thumb behind the back of the Stroppendrager, an act of defiance from the Burghers of Gent.
The factory complex next to the Stroppendrager was formerly a cotton mill owned by the Van Acker-Vanden Broecke family. The square chimney dates from around 1850. Pre-dating chimneys of circular design, this is quite a rare surviving element of industrial architecture - I will leave you to guess why this design was not so robust and durable in comparison to circular chimneys. It is quite logical when you think about it. By the way, I think Vizit occupy part of this building. They offer guided tours of Gent in addition to organising concerts, conferences and tasting events.
A former brewery was also located next to the Donkere Poort. Established in the early 19th century, the Brouwerij Gebroeders Vanden Berghe produced beers here in a relatively small two-storey building. The complex was expanded with additional maltings later in the century by Fiévé-Legers and Brouwerij E. Verhulst. Following the brewery's closure part of the complex was used as a sawmill. I have posted a few old Gent beer labels above. The city has lost a number of old breweries. Indeed, for such an important city, there is very little brewing activity in the 21st century.
Commemorating Louis II, Count of Flanders, Lodewijk van Malestraat passes over the Lieve Canal and is a good vantage point for Het Rabot, the only remaining city gate of Gent. Dubbed the Three Little Towers, this acted as a toll gate until the mid-19th century. The privilege of imposing tolls was first granted to Het Rabothouders. Erected as an improvement on the city's defence system, the fortified gateway was built in the late 15th century, a few years after an attack on the city by Maximilian of Burgundy. Although Het Rabot was spared during the removal of the city's gates, the original fortified appearance was lost during restoration work. Incidentally, the tower block on the right in the background was one of three built near Het Rabot in 1970. Cost-cutting savings to the original plans of the architect Jules Trenteseau, resulted in poor construction with cheap materials. During our visit in February 2018 this block was almost half-demolished. Now, if only they had copied the work of Gent's 15th century builders they too may have lasted as long as Het Rabot.
We cycled back along the northern side of the Lieve Canal. Near Lodewijk van Malestraat there is a significant amount of new development where warehouses once stood alongside the waterway. This has resulted in a change of character in recent years but it remains a pleasant part of Gent. Named after the archers' guild of Saint Anthony, this former canal wharf is called Sint-Antoniuskaai. The bridge midway along the canal is a relatively recent pedestrian crossing. The Brug der Keizerlijke Geneugten [Bridge of Imperial Pleasures] is also known as Keizer Karelbrug as it was placed here during the quincentenary of Charles V in 2000. It was a cooperative work led by Walter De Buck. The four main sculptures illustrate romanticised legends of Keizer Karel. If I am honest I find it all rather garish and the sort of gaudy display normally reserved for theme parks. I don't think I am alone in this view - the locals have dubbed it the Brug met de Bloemkolen or Bridge of Cauliflowers.
This is a view of the Lieve Canal looking towards the historic monastery from the Brug der Keizerlijke Geneugten. Although the bridge connects Sint-Antoniuskaai with Zilverhof, its main aim seems to be the provision of an excellent vantage point. The Lieve Canal was constructed for Gent's prosperous textile trade. Existing waterways required heavy tolls and the typically recalcitrant Gent merchants plumped for navigable independence. The waterway was required to bring in wool from England and to export finished goods to the rest of the world. Construction started in 1251 to connect Gent with Damme on the Zwin.
Close to the Brug der Keizerlijke Geneugten is the former Sint-Antoniusgilde. This 17th century building is rather hemmed in by new development but I have used a photograph that I took in 2008 when the frontage enjoyed more space. This was the headquarters of the haakbusschieters and kanonniers, [riflemen and gunners] of the Guild of Saint Anthony. The guild trained on land behind this building. Well, they did until the French took over the building for use as a barracks. They added equine outbuildings on the rifle range to the rear. In the mid-18th century the building was converted into a military hospital but was later used as almshouses. This was the foundation of the Sint-Antoniushospitaal and a monastic community. Part of the old guild house was demolished in order to construct the Sint-Vincentius van Padua, a chapel that can be visited today - and worth a look inside for the ornate decoration.
Continuing along the quay you approach the bridge carrying Zilverhof over the canal, next to which is the historic Augustinian Monastery. With the blessing of the Bishop of Tournai, the friars arrived in Gent during 1295 and founded this monastery during the following year. Much of the complex dates from restoration work of the 17th and 18th centuries. With dwindling numbers, the friars have had to be creative in raising funds and part of the monastery is used for student accommodation. It is a case of t'was ever thus for in previous decades they rented out buildings for industrial use. Originally, the monastery was able to collect taxes on fish brought into the city via the canal. The church, rebuilt following a fire in the 1930s, is dedicated to Saint Stephen.
We cycled around the canal to the next crossing which is Lievebrug, affording this view back along Augustijnenkaai which, although close to the city centre, is a tranquil and lovely pocket of Gent. Indeed, this is perhaps one of the most romantic locations in Gent. However, despite the presence of the historic monastery, this part of the Prinsenhof Quarter was once a busy harbour during the golden era of Gent's textile trade. Here there was once a large turning area for canal barges and a crane operated by kraankinders. The basin created a peculiar dichotomy of lifestyles between the alleged debauchery of beer-swilling boatmen of Lievekaai and the piety displayed by the friars across the water.
From the Lievebrug we enjoyed a really bumpy ride around the cobbled streets of Patershol, the once grubby den of iniquity that is getting more trendy as the 21st century progresses. I have some notes for a nice walk around this district and will post them in another blog. We pedalled to the area around Sint-Jacobskerk, a district that was somewhat gentrified by the middle classes during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This pattern is exemplified in Wolfstraat, a narrow thoroughfare containing a delightful and eclectic assortment of town houses built for Gent's bourgeoisie.
The majority of these properties were designed by the Gent-born architect and builder Jacob Gustaaf Semey. Combining his artistic flair with acute business acumen, he teamed up with land speculators and mortgage companies to build more than three hundred houses in the city between the late-1880s up until the First World War. His style of design incorporated many decorative elements of the neo-Flemish renaissance, as part of a wider cultural movement where former French influence was eschewed as Belgium, a relatively new independent nation, became more established.
Always outspoken in public life, it would appear that Semey wished to leave a legacy of his ideology by incorporating slogans within the fabric of his later designs. The properties in Wolfstraat were built in the early years of the 20th century and, here on the inner corner of a L-shaped street, this building, erected in 1904, features the slogans: "Put water in barrels for a hundred years, it will never be a wine, " and "No injustice will ever be right, no matter how old or the date is true." A very similar building a few yards away on the corner of Penitentenstraat, also built in 1904, bears the motto: "There is only one happiness : duty, one consolation : labour, one pleasure : beauty." which, combined, perhaps encapsulates the work ethic of Jacob Gustaaf Semey.
Jacob Semey generally seemed to move into part of his latest development. Whether this was a marketing ploy I do not know but there was perhaps an element of "if it's good enough for the architect, then it's good enough for us." Whatever, he and his family moved into Wolfstraat 12 in the outer corner of the L-shaped thoroughfare. Naturally, as the building was for his own personal use, he pulled out all the stops to create a real showcase of eclecticism gone wild. Named Huis de Passer, the four-storey two-bay property was erected in 1906 and is largely finished in white glazed bricks and coloured tiles above a base of bluestone and limestone. In common with the architect's penchant for the neo-Baroque, the façades features an enchanting avant-corps with a beautiful window of tinted-glass. The building boasts much symbolic and allegorical decoration and figureheads, incorporating the seven arts of Architecture, Sculpture, Painting, Music, Poetry, Dance and Performing. The last time I checked out this building it was being used as student accommodation - now that's what you call studying in style!
Along Baudelostraat there is another glorious succession of eclecticism exhibited within the fabric of the façades. Unsurprisingly, Jacob Semey was busy on his drawing board and his signature style is omnipresent. This starts with the former iron and steel workshops immediately facing Wolfstraat. Erected in 1902 the building at Baudelostraat 15 has the inscription "Charpentes Metalliques" which translates to "Steel Structures." A smaller inscription reads "Collones en fonte" or "Cast iron columns," all indicative of the type of metalwork traded at these premises. The two cartouches further symbolise the industry conducted by the firm. For such a functional building, Semey was very playful with the façade, though he probably had the greater vision of Baudelostraat in mind. This was a planned commercial development built on land formerly occupied by workers cottages.
Baudelostraat was named after the Baudelo Abbey which stood nearby at Beverhoutplein. Very little remains of what was once the largest of Gent's abbeys. The nearby Baudelopark was originally a market garden serving the abbey where the monks brewed their own ale. The French are blamed for driving out the monks during the late 18th century after which most of the buildings were razed or converted for other uses. Calculatingly curved to attract footfall from the Vrijdagmarkt, Baudelostraat was planned as an upmarket shopping boulevard but the scheme ultimately failed. However, the delightful buildings are an exquisite addition to Gent's rich heritage of late 19th and early 20th century architecture. The building on the corner of Vrijdagmarkt and Baudelostraat, shown in the photograph above is another creation of Jacob Semey. Dating from 1902, this building features an elaborate neo-Baroque gable incorporating an oculus, volutes and a shell-shaped base for the pinnacle.
And so we rolled into Vrijdagmarkt, a magnificent cobbled square lined with buildings of different periods, many from the 17th and 18th centuries. The square has been the site of a weekly market since the 15th century. The square has played a significant role in Gent's ceremonial and public affairs. Although many festivals have been staged here, it has also been the site of the odd riot and ding-dong. I'd expect nothing less of the Flemish! Troops were mustered in this square and the Vrijdagmarkt was also where the city's executioner dispatched miscreants. Some of Gent's violent history is commemorated by the magnificent statue of Jacob van Artevelde erected at a time when Flanders ardently celebrated key historical figures in order to cultivate a national identity within a relatively new nation state.
Also known as the Brewer of Ghent, Jacob van Artevelde made a fortune in the textile industry and, through the guilds, was elevated to a key position of influence. In order to maintain trade with England, he outmanoeuvred the French rulers by securing a trade deal with the English on whom the city depended for the supply of wool. It is claimed that he even persuaded his countrymen to recognise King Edward III as sovereign of France and overlord of Flanders. The English monarch regarded him as Prince of Flanders. Trade flourished under Artevelde's semi-dictatorial rule and life was good ... for a while. Jacob van Artevelde is alleged to have promised Edward III funds for his war chest against the French in the Hundred Years' War. Coupled with allegations of corruption and excommunication from Rome, he was forced to seek refuge in England. His return to Gent coincided with a weavers' revolt and during the unrest Artevelde was killed by an angry mob. In the background of the above photograph is an important building known as Ons Huis or Our House which has great significance with Ghent's early socialist movement. Designed by Ferdinand Dierkens, the building has been described as being in the macaroni style, in that its classical influences have been pick'n'mixed.
A detailed survey of the Vrijdagmarkt demands a separate page on the website so, for now, I will focus on one place. Although we did not patronise Dulle Griet on this occasion, it would be remiss not to mention the café whilst in the Vrijdagmarkt. As we have enjoyed beers in here on more than one occasion, we did not cross the threshold during this holiday. We would have squeezed in a visit to this place if we had a little more time in Gent. However, we tried to adhere to our plan of visiting new bars and cafés. It is true that we would later patronise the Waterhuis aan de Bierkant but that is because that bar always seems to have a top-drawer beer on draught. Dulle Griet, on the other hand, although stocking up to 500 beers [a figure claimed on their website], tends to be a place to drink from the bottle. The signage on this photograph from 2008 shows that the choice used to be 250 beers. Reportedly this has increased to around 500. Whatever the reality is, if you can't find a beer you like on their menu then you have a problem.
I took this interior photograph of Dulle Griet in 2008 in the hazy days before the smoking ban. The image is still valid because this is a café that, in terms of decor, has witnessed little change. I believe that they still go through the motions of hoisting your shoe up to the ceiling if you order a Max beer. It is a ritual for which the café has become noted. Rather than acting as a deposit for the wooden/glass vessel, it is more of a quirky performance or comedic act to amuse the tourists. The glass, rather like a miniature yard of ale in a wooden stand with handle can hardly be pilfered - it is simply too big to sneak out.
The beer sold in these glasses is Pauwel Kwak - well, that's what a waiter from years ago told me. This amber beer of 8.4% is a pleasant mix of malt and fruit, has caramel overtones and finishes with a spicy kick. It is generally sold in a similar Koetsiersglas. Legend has it that these were used by drivers of Belgian stagecoaches in Napoleonic times. It is a good story and one that has been marketed by the family brewery since 1980. Some traditions never last however - the Bosteels family sold out to global beer giant AB InBev during the autumn of 2016. At least for now the brewery, located to the east of Gent at Buggenhout, still enjoys some autonomy. I suspect that the takeover by AB InBev is the reason for the increasing presence of the aforementioned Tripel Karmeliet, another of the Bosteels portfolio. I also suspect that because Dulle Griet is popular with tourists the prices carry some sort of premium. It certainly seems more expensive to drink in here than other cafés around Gent. I note also that there are some shocking reviews posted on Trip Advisor, mainly for rude or offensive behaviour by the non-indigenous staff. I have not experienced this myself but we were served a few years back when the waiters and bar staff all seemed to be Belgian. You'll just have to nip inside for a couple of beers and try out the experience for yourself. Note : if you wish to pay homage to Brouwerij Bosteels you can get there easily via the train to Mechelen. Buggenhout is also home to Brouwerij Malheur, the former De Landtsheer brewery.
The beer emporium on Vrijdagmarkt is named after the Dulle Griet, the Great Cannon which is located in the adjacent Grootkanonplein. Also dubbed The Red Devil, this mighty weapon is thought to have been cast in the 15th century for the Dukes of Burgundy. Weighing over 16,000 kilograms, it was hauled to Gent from Oudenaarde in 1578, principally to augment the city's artillery in defence against the Spanish. The cannon has not fired a shot in anger and has been in this position for a few centuries.
With brilliant sunshine we decided to park the bikes and enjoy a panoramic view of Gent from Het Belfort - we have been up before but it is a fun thing to do ... so, what the heck. Once we got our silly photographs and selfies out of the way, we spent some time looking down on the cityscape of Gent and surveying the view out across the suburbs. The landscape around Gent is pretty flat so you can see for a considerable distance. Thought to be the largest Belfry in Belgium, the townsfolk, under the direction of master mason Jan van Haelst, started to construct their watchtower in 1313. It was almost seventy years before the task was completed and the gilded dragon mounted at the top. There have been additions and alterations over the centuries, most noticeably the neo-Gothic spire which, in its original form, appeared in the mid-19th century. The Belfort was used to store the city's treasures and documents but, most importantly, was used as a lookout for enemy forces and to sound the alarm if a fire broke out within the timber buildings down below. Dating from 1325, the ancient Klokke Roeland was installed and if this sounded then the citizens would either have to ready themselves for military action or to assist with extinguishing the flames of a fire.
One of the most surprising changes to the city since our last visit, an action in which I was somewhat taken aback, was the relocating of the famous Klokke Roeland. You can see it in its new position in the above photograph - I will discuss this bell in more detail when I share the divine experience of supping an ale named in honour of it. But, the surprise of the bell's relocation, was nothing compared to our first sighting of a stonking great building that had been erected since our last visit. The Stadshal, a large canopy construction, appeared in 2012 and due to its large size and use of modern materials, has been lambasted in some circles. The City Pavilion, as it is also known, certainly has a detrimental visual impact on the surrounding historic buildings. Moreover, it has sparked controversy because the existing landscape around the famous three towers has evolved over time and is lodged in the minds of every citizen, whereas the forcible introduction of a such a striking new building will take some getting used to. Perhaps the people of Gent will grow to love it? For now, however, the jury is out.
One of the things I love about the Belgians is their irreverent use of words. For example, if you look at the level of the Belfort's clock face you will notice a stone sentry at each corner of the building. These eventually replaced the human lookouts that had to stand on watch for hour after hour. The medieval shift was a long one indeed - none of your nine 'til five in those days! In a case of "once you were up you were up," a sentry was not allowed to clamber down the stairs to visit the toilet and read Ye Olde Newspaper. If they did, enemy forces would simply wait for a call of nature to launch a surprise attack on the city. Consequently, the lookout guards were each issued with a can which they brought back a little heavier than the one they carried up the stairs. The stone statues you see today are colloquially known as kannenschijters or can shitters!
Right, on that note it was time for lunch. A decade ago we frequented a lovely little vegan restaurant at Geldmunt 32 called Avalon. This may have been a restaurant with a mythical name but one that served legendary quiches for lunch. We were on it. Or so we thought. We couldn't find the place - I thought for a while that my memory was playing up. Confused, we wandered into Boon, a relatively new restaurant a few doors away from where we thought Avalon was located. Although not exclusively vegetarian, this place also sells fantastic quiches with a lovely salad. Oh, we had a pudding too and it was rather delicious!
After our lunch, I couldn't resist asking Sara, proprietor of this new venture, what had happened to Avalon? By the way, Sara is lovely and was very accommodating with my enquiry. She told me that rent increases, coupled with a restriction on opening during the evening had made it impossible for Tine, the woman running Avalon, to run a viable business. As a result, she was forced to close in August 2017. However, the indefatigable Tine, who combined healthy food within a spiritual lifestyle, has emerged at Avalonhoeve, a community-based biodiversity project at Scheldewindeke to the south of Gent. Under the banner Soul Food, she offers organic cooking and training in market gardening techniques.
Former teacher Sara Van Damme's Boon may not have the spiritual philosophy of Avalon but the business is run under the 'Pure Food, Pure Taste' stance and there is no doubting her commitment and passion for cooking. She only uses fresh ingredients and is an avid supporter of "Too Good to Go". So, you can turn up with a box at closing time and walk away with a bargain-priced container of leftovers! By the way, we are not normally prone to devouring a pudding but when you see the desserts on offer in here you'll be salivating like a hungry boxer dog!
Boon offers a lovely environment in which to enjoy the delicious food. However, there is a tinge of sadness because the premises were formerly something of an institution in Gent. Almost everybody of a certain age has memories of stepping across the terrazzo mosaic floor of Laveneziana and entering the art-deco shop in which the Zangrando family served what was considered the most delicious ice cream in Gent. After the closure of the ice cream parlour the premises were used for a number of ventures including an après-ski bar. Yes, an après-ski bar in Gent for heaven's sake. During this time the interior had deteriorated and the place was a mess when Sara Van Damme and her partner Dieter De Clercq were handed the keys. It just so happens that he is an architect and, together, they had a vision for restoring the interior to its former glory. Dieter poured his soul into the project and now Boon boasts lovely flooring, serving counter and wall murals. Their plans for the future include creating a courtyard where good food will be combined with music events.
We tried to burn off our pudding by cycling around Gent in the afternoon sun. A futile effort really as we were about to add a few more calories in the form of beer! We decided to spend the late afternoon in a sort of cycling homage. Consequently, we rolled up to Café De Karper at Kortrijksesteenweg 2, a bar run by the Keisse family. Now, if you are not cycling obsessives you may not know the name. However, thanks to the success of one of Gent's very own, Café De Karper is a very hallowed place.
Gent-born Iljo Keisse is often to be seen on the front of the peloton working his arse off for the Quick-Step Floors team. However, it is his exploits down the road at t'Kuipke velodrome in the Citadelpark for which he is best known. He has won the Six Days of Ghent six times and reached the podium a total of 11 times. This has elevated him to legendary status in the city. On the road the Jolly Jumper has won stage races in Turkey and in the Giro d'Italia. Photographs of these hard-fought victories are amongst a gallery of framed images on display in the café. Look up to the ceiling and you will see many of Iljo Keisse's race jerseys from his illustrious career.
De Karper must have a fantastic atmosphere during the Zesdaagse Vlaanderen-Gent event held annually a short distance from the café. And it is little wonder that many of the stars come to this place to celebrate with a few beers. Here you can see Iljo's father Ronie sharing a great moment with Mark Cavendish. There is another of Bradley Wiggins enjoying himself after he and Cav had claimed the Six Day title, an event in which Iljo Keisse finished third with his team mate Elia Viviani. The family are clearly very proud of Iljo Keisse - his sister Drieka, who was working behind the bar during our visit, came across to talk about the photographs on display in the café.
De Karper is a lively place to visit. Apart from being a cycling museum, it hosts live sports and music. Oh, and board games too. They stage a World Cup for Risk. There is a good selection of beer too! Up to 50 different beers are on the menu. This is a place I would like to have as a local.
From Café De Karper you can follow Kortrijksesteenweg towards the city centre and the road becomes Nederkouter. At Number 141 there is another cycling legend. The cycle shop called Plum may have an unassuming frontage but the store is packed floor-to-ceiling with bikes and equipment. If you're looking for a part for your 1950's derailleur they probably have one in a box within a drawer behind a shelf under a crate up in the attic! What's great about Plum is that the owner Pierre Simoens and his team behind the counter greet you like a long-lost friend. They realise you are a tourist and not there to spend a lot of money on a new bike but they still find time to talk to you. I did spend a little cash by purchasing one of their Plum cycling jerseys. Man, I will look so cool riding around The Alps wearing that!
The history of Plum goes back to 1910 when it was called PDS, an abbreviation of the shop's founder Pol Desnerck. However, after a few years of trading under this name he changed it to La Plume, French for feather. It was his son, Marcel Desnerck, who put some Flandrian pride in the name by eschewing the French version. The shop used to build their own bike frames but production ceased in the 1970s. In addition to sponsoring race teams, the shop was famous for housing neo-pros who came to Gent seeking fame and fortune. The roster of young riders who came to Plum includes Tom Simpson and Gary Wiggins, father of Sir Brad.
Pierre Simoens started working for Marcel Desnerck in 1969. He took over eleven years later. He has accumulated some very rare and interesting machines which he houses in a museum to the rear of the shop. Well, not quite to the rear as you lose your bearings inside the labyrinth that is Plum. The workshop is a sight to behold and the envy no doubt of every independent bike retailer across Europe. The shop is not packed with high-end carbon race machines as the shop sensibly makes its bread-and-butter by catering for the everyday cyclist, of which there are thousands in Gent. But you do not come here to see the latest technological advances in speed weaponry, you linger in the store to soak up some bona-fide cycling history and heritage. My life was enriched by visiting Plum - I shall wear my jersey with pride.
For the evening we had reserved a table at Marco Polo Trattoria at Serpentstraat 11, an Italian slow-food restaurant that we visited a decade earlier. Indeed, it was such a good experience in 2008 we thought we'd go for a repeat. They do say that you should never go back in life and perhaps our memories of this place are now a little tarnished. The food was much more expensive than I remember and not that tasty this time around. It was definitely not slow cooked as it appeared in front of us in no time. I am quite a dab hand at cooking Italian meals and felt that I could have done a much better job with the same ingredients. The Venerable Bead ordered a pizza and this was of a very poor standard - hardly any topping and dry as a bone. On the plus side, and to my surprise, Marco Polo still stocks Oerbier, exactly as they did ten years ago.
Oerbier is a lovely dark ale from De Dolle Brouwers based at Esen to the east of Diksmuide. Oerbier translates to "Original" and was something of an experimental brew by two students who, on the basis of their successful recipe, resurrected the old brewery at Esen with origins dating back to the 1830s. After drinking this slightly tart but wholesome beer some years ago, I brought a crate home along with a couple of the brewery's glasses. It was a lovely treat to dip into my stocks and a little sad when they were depleted. The beer contains a variety of malts which are combined with our favourite hops grown around the delightful town of Poperinge. De Dolle Brouwers also produce a few other excellent beers in their portfolio. I have particularly enjoyed their Arabier, a lighter golden ale and also Stille Nacht, the brewery's special festive brew which blows your Christmas stockings off.
Look, I am not going to hide the fact that I was a little inebriated here. My droopy eyelids tell the tale! What happened was that we were early for the Marco Polo Trattoria so we nipped into Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant just to see what was on draught. Well, how can you resist a beer named after the famous Klokke Roeland? This tasted fantastic. Then I had some Oerbier in the restaurant. Shall we just nip back to the Waterhuis to try a little more Klokke Roeland. Well, why not? Yes, it's great. One for the road? It would be rude not to. I notice on the RateBeer website that this 11% spicy amber beer gets a few 'average' reviews. But on this night with this particular keg it hit the spot for me. Produced at Brouwerij Van Steenberge, it is quite sweet, has caramel overtones but enough spicy orange flavour to deliver a refreshing moreish ale despite being so strong. But there's the rub - I should have restricted myself to one instead of three. Amazingly, although a bit groggy, my head wasn't too bad in the morning. At least my head was not splitting which was the fate of Klokke Roeland when a electrically powered mechanism was hooked up in 1914 and the vibration split the famous bell.
It was not until 1948 that the Klokke Roeland was replaced with a new bell and the old giant moved to the foot of The Belfort as a monument. I am not sure that the bell should have been repaired but the split was fixed in a restoration of 2002-3. I felt that the crack was an integral part of its story. However, I must stress that this was not the original Klokke Roeland, though much of it features its predecessor. Named after the knight Roeland, the original bell was cast in 1314 and lasted until 1660 when it was melted down in order to recast a new Klokke Roeland. When Emile Braunplein was reconfigured between 2009 and 2012 the bell, also known as The Great Triumphant, was moved to a concrete display base. I liked it in its old position and below I have featured a photograph of the bell's former position. I took this photograph in 2008.
Thursday February 15th 2018
Being as I was in no fit state to do so last night I am going to make an observation this morning. I have been meaning to get it off my chest for a while. Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant has a worldwide reputation for selling a wide range of beer. However, it would appear that the young staff behind the servery do not have a clue how to pour the product they sell. Mind you, I am not singling them out for criticism because I am seeing poor standards of service throughout Belgium of late. There used to be a certain level of professionalism within the Belgian beer retail industry and the people who worked in cafés were paid a decent rate because they were not just students or global travellers doing a bit of part-time bar work. No, they were trained properly and paid accordingly.
In the Good Beer Guide to Belgium, a tome put together by Tim Webb and Joe Stange, there is even a section on how to pour a beer. I would go a little further in what they write. Allow me to tell you how I was taught by Sammy Saunders, the consummate bar manager who shared a lot of his skills with me. The beer is always presented and poured directly in front of the customer - and in the correct glass. Once the bottle top or stopper is removed, allow a moment or two for the beer to breathe. Then hold the bottle so that the customer can see the label whilst you are concentrating on the liquid inside from the rear. This means fingers and thumbs so that the label is clearly visible to the customer throughout the pouring action. Gently pour over the lip, a couple of centimetres below the rim of the glass and allow the beer to flow smoothly. With skill and practice one learns which beers are livelier than others and this determines whether the contact point is higher in the glass or towards the bowl, the objective is to produce a beer with a nice head but not so that it is flowing over the rim. Pouring ceases just before the yeasty sediment at the bottom is about to flow out of the bottle. This means that a very small amount of beer is left in the bottle. Experienced or seasoned customers may express that they wish to have the yeast added to the head of the beer otherwise it is not served. The bottle can be left with the customer so that they can read the label information and choose whether to add the yeast at a later point. By the way, the sediment can, but not always, upset the tummy and this is a key reason why it is not served. The glass is then presented to the customer with the logo facing them and the bottle label is also placed likewise. This is how to pour a Belgian beer. It is not, as was witnessed last night in Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant, simply poured vertically from a great height so that some of the beer ends up on the drip tray of the servery. They also pour the whole lot in, sediment included. There, I have got it off my chest now!
Overnight rain meant that it was a bit soggy this morning. Not to worry as we were largely scheduled for indoor activities. After breakfast we headed to Kraanlei to visit the former Folklore Museum that has been rejuvenated as the Huis van Alijn, the former children's hospital charity or Kinderen Alijnshospitaal. The above photograph was taken from De Binnentuin and shows De Catharinakapel. The story of the old building is somewhat lost amid the museum's focus on the daily life of the ordinary citizen. However, the chronological displays augmented by video and audio, is a most engaging experience. Some of the old footage is simply wonderful. The only negative aspect of wandering through the exhibition is that you see your life passing in front of you! As you can see, the courtyard was a bit soggy during our visit but on a sunny day this is a very nice place to enjoy a cuppa from the museum's cafe. Oh, the chapel dates from the mid-16th century but the history of the hospital goes back to the 14th century, the result of a feud between the Rijm and Alijns families.
For some reason, we had never visited the Gravensteen on previous visits to Gent. I guess I was a little sceptical about a fortress that had been so heavily restored, particularly as the process involved adding romantic elements associated with 19th literature. However, we really enjoyed our tour. Erected on the site of an older wooden fortification, work on a stone-built Gravensteen, or Castle of The Counts, was started in the late 12th century by instructions of Philip of Alsace. The draughty old fortress was the residence of The Counts until they moved to the Prinsenhof during the 14th century. The abandoned castle served a variety of functions over subsequent centuries but generally it fell into decay. The city eventually acquired the castle in the late 19th century and initiated a restoration programme. There is plenty to see, some of it rather gruesome. The weapons collection is extensive and there is a room dedicated to instruments of torture. At times you cannot believe how human beings could be treated in such a manner. It is uncomfortable viewing but quite compelling.
I particularly enjoying wandering around the parapet walk of the castle as this afforded views of Gent that I had not previously appreciated. The elevated views of Sint-Veerleplein are particularly striking. This square was intrinsically linked with the Gravensteen and its close proximity to the fortification led to the development of a market where fish and produce was traded. Indeed, this commercial activity led to the development of an early port via the Nieuwe Leie which was excavated as early as the 10th century and still forms the boundary around the modern tourist information centre which is accessed via the square. Some fragments remain of the Sint-Veerlekerk which served as a place of worship for the castle's incumbents. The property at No.2, Huis De Waterzooi, was built on the site of the church in the early 18th century and part of its fabric is comprised of the old stonework.
Following the departure of the Counts of Flanders from the castle in the 14th century, the Gravensteen served as a prison during the Burgundian years. As a result, Sint-Veerleplein was the location of a court for criminals. Up until the 18th century the square was exclusively used by the Flandrian courts to hear cases against counterfeiters. This is commemorated by the pillar, crowned with a lion, that acts as a centrepiece for the square. Erected in 1913 for the World Exhibition, the column is known as Sire van Maldegem, derived from Sire Gheleyn van Maldeghem, a man who had violated the privileges of the Gentenaars, following which he was ordered to replace the city's four wooden poles demarcating the bounds of the vegetable market with stone examples. Like this modern Gedenkzuil, these were crowned with a lion carrying a flag of Ghent. Oh, did I mention that the counterfeiters that were found guilty at the court here were thrown into a vat of boiling oil - what a way to exit this mortal coil.
From the Gravensteen we headed to Kraanlei to undertake our free boat trip. Well, free in that is part of the Gent City Card offer. This is a very touristy thing to do and, as we were fairly well versed in the history of Gent's famous buildings, we were not going to learn much. However, it is another fun thing to do and, more importantly, you get to see views or angles that you simply cannot do on foot or bicycle. It is worth the trip just for this element alone. The young guys running the boats look a little like fairground ruffians but, believe me, you will marvel at the way they can switch from one language to another in an instant. Our guide was speaking fluently in four languages and this requires a great amount of skill and dexterity. We also picked up some useful beer intelligence from our guide so we tipped him for his knowledge. Besides, despite the fact that he is probably bored with undertaking the same circuit day after day, he was quite charming throughout the trip. So, despite the fact that you run the risk of sitting next to somebody who knows jackshit about Europe never mind Belgium, I would recommend the voyage.
This photograph is a good example of the views you can enjoy on the boat trip. You would need a deep pair of waders to appreciate this view. The boat has just floated underneath Sint-Michielsbrug and emerged with Predikherenlei on the eastern side of the Leie. This quay features many historic houses with later façades or gables dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. However, the building on the left, on the corner of Jan van Stopenberghestraat is a more recent construction built in retro-style. The building on the opposite corner is a re-fronting of two old properties, an excellent design in brick and stone by Maurice Fétu. The external wall has gained some graffiti art, the work of artist Bart Smeets, who produced this shortly after the release of the George Clooney film "The Monuments Men," which featured Gent's famous altarpiece The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.
This view is a little further along Predikherenlei and shows some of the old properties fronting the quay. The two stepped gable houses, Nos. 8 & 9, in the foreground date from the 16th century. No.9 on the right has two weathered cartouches. Indeed, the oculus at the top of the gable has also suffered from erosion over the centuries. No.8 is on the corner of Nodenaysteeg where on the other side of the narrow street there is a house thought to date from 1716. This is a Style Louis XIV façade featuring a more intricate gable and a small wrought-iron balcony. The boat follows a route around the Leie by the Groot Vleeshuis, up to the area around Zuivelbrugstraat, back around the Gravensteen and up to Het Rabot.
We stepped off the boat and then did something completely outrageous. We ate some chips! Despite visiting various parts of Belgium over the last twenty years, we had not actually partaken in what is regarded as a totally Belgian thing. Oh, a few years ago I did visit the Friet Museum in Brugge - yes, they really do have a chip museum! However, we have not previously purchased anything from one of the famous frietkots dotted around Flanders. We generally beat ourselves up, fret rather than friet over the calories and weighing more on our bicycles. Today, however, we simply said "Sod it, let's tuck into some chips!" You could get into a right old argument if you start to discuss the origin of friets. The French and Belgium both claim they invented them in the late 18th century. The English meanwhile lagged way behind when Mrs. 'Granny' Duce started flogging fatter chips in 1854.
We wandered up to Sint-Michielsbrug and looked back along the river. The most photographed quay is that of Graslei with its famous medieval Guildhalls. I will focus on this in another blog. For now here is an image of Korenlei on the opposite side of the river. As its names suggests, this was part of the medieval port where corn and wheat was traded. Gent was central to the grain trade in Flanders. Both Graslei and Korenlei formed the medieval port of Gent and prospered from 11th to the 18th century. Following this period there was a decline in trade and the medieval buildings fell into decay or were pulled down. It was the World Exhibition of 1913 that created the impetus to restore and rebuild the old port. In some cases the architects had to consult drawings and paintings of earlier years in order to fashion a faithful restoration. As a result, many of the buildings are not as old as they appear. Immediately on the left here is a house dated 1731, a later addition towards the bridge and a possible survivor of the period. The adjacent building, seen here with the plaster painted in light blue, is a later building. Originally erected in a neo-classical style, this evolved into a School of Higher Studies. Recent renovation has seen a new roof design that has created further interior space.
We were now on a mission to head towards Steendam so we followed a route to incorporate the famed three towers of Gent. You can see in this photograph the scale of the new Stadshal and why it has been a controversial addition to the central landscape of the city. We nipped inside Sint-Niklaaskerk, a church on which work started in the early 13th century to replace an older place of worship. Constructed with blue-grey stone from Tournai, the style of the building is known as Scheldt Gothic. We both like the atmosphere and character of this church and prefer it to that of Sint-Baafskathedraal which is rather forbidding. It is worth wandering inside Sint-Niklaaskerk just to see the organ made by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. It had been packed away for half-a-century whilst the church was renovated and has only recently been restored. How wonderful it was to hear it being played during our visit.
There are many websites that will provide you with a wealth of information on Sint-Baafskathedraal so there is little need for me to convince you to visit a church filled with art treasures, one of which is regarded as one of the most important works of the early Northern Renaissance. The story of the theft of part of this work is remarkable.
Oh dear, here I am again with another tipple tray. Well, all this sight-seeing is thirsty work! At the time of our visit there was only one operational brewery left in Gent so visiting is a no-brainer. The beers here are unusual as they do not use hops. Yes, you read that correctly ... here at Gentse Gruut Stadsbrouwerij they use spices and herbs. Well, this just has to be sampled. All three of them! The Gent City Brewery was founded in 2009 by brewery engineer Annick De Splenter, a descendant of the family who once operated the old Riva brewery in Dentergem, sort of midway between Gent and Kortrijk. Now located in the Rembert Dodoensdreef, this is the third location for the brewery which has its own bar. As you can see you get to sit amid the brewing plant so it is great theatre.
Both of Annick's parents were involved in brewing so it was perhaps inevitable that her career path has followed this route. However, she is forging her own path with a contemporary concept and brewing recipes that hark back to ancient times. By replacing hops with herbs, she claims that she is producing beer that increases your energy and libido whilst boosting morale. It has not been straightforward. Her research into alternatives to hops led her to a course in biochemistry and, following a series of collaborations with a number of universities, she was able to produce a portfolio of five different recipes : Ghent Gruut Wit, Ghent Gruut Blond, Ghent Gruut Amber, Ghent Gruut Bruin and Ghent Gruut Inferno.
Apparently, during the research process more than 30 different herbs were used in experimental brews before a combination of three were found to be suitable for consistent brewing and, of course, taste. One of the herbs allegedly delivers the same bitter units as hops. After trying all three beers I'm not sure that I'm convinced on this latter claim. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the flavours and found the beers to be quite enjoyable. Gruut Blond, a light, unfiltered beer has a gentle bitter aftertaste and probably the one we favoured between us. However, personally I preferred the Amber Ale as the spices, combined with a selection of four malts, provided that extra tangy flavour. It did not taste like a 6.6% ale and was quite moreish. If I am honest I wasn't too keen on the brown ale. The one I really wanted to try out was the 9.0% Inferno but this was not available during our visit. Overall, this is an interesting and unique beer experience offering an insight into what Europeans drank in medieval times so a visit is recommended.
We made our way back into the city centre. Our short visit to Gent was drawing to a close - we had one evening left and some time during the following morning for one major museum. So, we had a little admin to do before going back to our guest house to refresh. Chocolates. Yes, when we visit Belgium we are expected to take back some chocolates as gifts. Gent is unlike Brugge where we have a favourite family-run chocolatier to call upon. But we did have a shortlist of Gent chocolate shops that are recommended online. Although Leonidas Kestekides was not Belgian by birth, the company he founded has grown into empire within the country and has spread to other nations. Despite the sheer size of the operation, the chocolates are supposedly of a very high standard. One of five shops operated in Gent, there is a branch of this business at Emile Braunplein 13. I can report that our relatives loved the chocolates we purchased here. Meanwhile, following a hot tip from Mia Ackaert [more about her in a moment], we went a little artisanal and ventured along to the corner of Burgstraat and Peperstraat to spend some serious money at the shop of Marijn Coertjens and his partner Christa, a couple with a zealous passion for all things chocolate. After living and working in Hong Kong for five years, they decided to start their own business here in Gent and opened the doors in early 2017. They are assiduous in their approach to ingredients, recipes, presentation and thematic branding. In no time at all they have elevated the status of craft chocolate in Gent.
Now I mentioned Mia Ackaert in that last praline-laced paragraph. She and her partner Hendrik Mesuere know a thing or two about chocolate. Their passion for Cacao is how they first hooked up. Following in the footsteps of his father, Hendrik has been creating chocolate delights for most of his life. Together, this couple opened a chocolate-making workshop at Atelier Plus in the medieval cellars of their bed-and-breakfast on Hoogpoort. And it was at Chambreplus that we first encounted the indefatigable Mia Ackaert. Under her stewardship, this was simply the best place to stay in Gent. Everything about the place was perfect and the breakfast was a work of art in itself. They relinquished this business but, in addition to teaching catering at schools, they undertook a range of projects and pop-ups. Mia seems to be a fireball of energy and now in 2018 they have launched a new luxury accommodation offer within their new address in Onderstraat where they will also continue with their chocolate-making workshops. So, there are clearly no plans for an early retirement! We called in whilst the finishing touches were being applied to the fabulous-looking interior. Look out for this place when thinking about staying in Gent for Mia is a fantastic host who will enrich your experience in this great city!
Just before we clambered onto our tram, we went to take a look at the corner of Veldstraat and Hoornstraat. We were just curious to see what had replaced one of Gent's legendary institutions. It was on this corner that there was once a total monument of a café called Bloch. We count ourselves fortunate to have visited Gent on two occasions when this café was still operating. Indulge me whilst I tell you part of the story of this cherished establishment - the reason being that there is some good news to round off the account.
Named after the Bloch family who founded the business, the patisserie was founded in 1898 by Benjamin Bloch. During the First World War, he was forced to leave the country because of his Jewish faith. The matriarch of the family did however remain to keep the shop going as best as she could. However, in the Second World War she too was deported whilst a collaborator took over the business. She never returned to Gent. After the war the bakery and shop was reclaimed by her son Jacques. In 1958 he was succeeded by his son François who operated the traditional bakery for 50 years. He was still running the business when we patronised the café. It was hard to nab a seat in the busy but relaxing restaurant with an interior featuring elements of art deco.
Bloch was noted for its magnificent boterkoeken and its range of Alsatian specialities, the recipes of which had been handed down through generations of the family. Scanning the cakes and pastries was a calorific treat in itself and everything tasted fresh and wholesome. Alas, the commercial world of business has little sympathy for tradition and the corner site fell victim to property developers who demanded a higher return on the prime site. The family sold up and the builders moved in during 2008. The people of Gent felt the loss akin to a family bereavement.
The skeleton of the façade was retained but the whole corner site behind the plastered brickwork was demolished and rebuilt. And what do we have on the ground floor once occupied by Bloch? Another branch of the fashion outlet Zara who were already trading a few doors away in Veldstraat when the bakery and patisserie was still operating.
However, there is some light at the end of this sad episode. The Bloch name has been given a new lease of life through two entrepreneurs, Filip De Spiegeleire and Werner Nies. They have opened a new artisanal bakery in Destelbergen where former employees of Bloch are now recreating the old specialities. Stefan Elias, who had been a master baker at Bloch for some years, is maintaining authenticity of the traditional recipes. He also holds occasional workshops at the bakery. There is a new Bloch at Gent's Café Theatre, along with a pop-up van that appears around the city. They have also opened a Boulangerie Alsacienne at Antwerp's railway station.
During the evening we made a point of visiting Barrazza, a café in Hoefslagstraatje, a narrow lane running down to the Leie. Indeed, the 17th century building is linked with trade from the River Leie. Facing Barrazza, on the opposite side of Hoefslagstraatje, is an 18th century mansion house that once served as an exchange office. Hoefslagstraatje references horseshoes which may have been produced or traded in this location. Barrazza has a small terrace which must be extremely popular in the summer months. As it was freezing during our visit, we dived inside for the warmth of the interior. The café's website boldly states that this is the gay straight friendly café in Ghent which, although ambiguous, suggests that anybody with an open mind is welcome. Only trading for around ten years, it is a cosy tavern that feels like it has been going for decades.
With around 125 beers on the menu, Barrazza specialises in unusual or craft beers and some unique or limited batch brews from around Belgium and beyond, particularly the Netherlands. In a devilish mood, I found myself drawn to the 6.66% of Dark Sister, a black IPA produced by the Brussel Beer Project. This relatively recent brewery collaborative have dubbed this beer the "evil twin" of their Delta IPA. Apparently, the lovely dark number started off as a joke. They were looking to make a Christmas beer but without the usual classic herbs and killer high alcohol content. A variety of roasted and toasted malts are used in the bitter brew which has proved ghoulishly popular. A mighty beer indeed. Founded in 2013, with a slogan of "Leave the Abbey, join the playground," the Brussel Beer Project are probably set to stir up the mash tun of the Belgian brewing world via their funky approach. With an idealogy of creative brewing, they boast that they want to "forget about the copy-pasting of the past .... we're proud to be born in 2013 and not 1492" I have enjoyed all of the BBP beers that I have managed to find and buy. Through crowd-funding they have managed to grow quickly and now have bars in Paris and Tokyo. I guess they are the Belgian equivalent of Brewdog.
And so it was time for our last couple of beers in Gent. Being as Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant is just around the corner from Barrazza we thought we'd nip back for more of that awesome Klokke Roeland. First, however, we ordered a couple of old chestnuts in the form of Sint-Bernardus Prior 8 and Het Anker Gouden Carolus. We enjoy trying out new beers but it is important to keep in touch with some favourites.
Brewed at Watou since 1945 when the Sint-Sixtus monastery granted a licence to replicate their ales, the beers of Sint-Barnadus are as good as the ales of Westvleteren. We have a phrase at home that "Bernie Acht never lets you down." And every single bottle of Prior 8 has proved to be utterly reliable. It is brewed in the classic "Dubbel" style and has a ruby to purple colour. And it is so-o-o-o smooth. And yet it has that lovely ping at the end, a perfect balance of sweet, bitter and maltiness that sends your taste buds into overdrive. Based simply on the sheer good times down the years, I think I would have to include Sint-Barnardus Prior 8 as one of my Desert Island Beers.
Notwithstanding my comments about the pouring of beer in this bar, we both have a soft spot for Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant. It is by no means a classic café but we have had many good times in here so it's a bit of a comfy old slipper of a pub. The building, thought to date from 1726, was once a brothel. However, the name of the business, a play on words, refers to its original role as a supply point for clean water in Gent. This was important back in the day when disease and plague were rife. However, another solution was to forget drinking cold water and stick to what has been boiled with malt and hops! In the early 20th century you could visit a barber within these premises. As a bar, the building was previously known as the Poortershof. The premises gained its current name in 1986.
Friday February 16th 2018
For our last morning in Gent we finished where arguably we should have started. If you really want to know about Gent then you need to spend a few hours in STAM, the Stadsmuseum of the city. For a better understanding of the buildings and streets of Gent this is perhaps the first port-of-call for visitors. In my case, it reinforced all that I had learned in the book I read before and during the train journey to Gent. For a superb introduction to the country I can recommend "Flanders : A Cultural History" by Andre De Vries. I should have read this tome a few years ago but at least I have addressed the situation now. Our visit to STAM was something of a flying visit - and it still took us three hours to get around what is a totally engaging story of a fascinating city. Don't panic, you do not have to wade through a million information boards because the audio guide is terrific.
Opened in 2010, STAM is housed in part of the Abdij van de Bijloke with a modern interface designed by Gent's city architect Koen Van Nieuwenhuyse. With Cisterian nuns caring for the sick and poor, the site was originally the Bijlokehospitaal founded in 1228. The Abbey dates from the early 14th century. The site was acquired in 1928 by the city authorities and was used as the Oudheidkundig Museum van de Bijloke. This forms the basis of the Stadsmuseum's collection which, between 2005 and 2010 was completely updated in order to present a modern and accessible anthology of the city. In my book, it totally works.
Soon after starting your adventure you get fitted out with overshoes to walk the city in minutes. Well, you can linger further on the 300 m² aerial photograph beneath your feet. This can be used in conjunction with the multimedia mapping stations so you can see how Gent has evolved over the centuries. It is a fantastic resource. The imaginative presentation of objects, documents and displays continues throughout the museum in a comprehensible manner in which the story of Gent is both manageable and understandable. Traditionalists may scoff but this is how a 21st century museum brings history to life.
I am not going to detail the museum's collection here but I must mention how amazed we were with the sheer volume of historical documents, artefacts and paintings that feature in the collection. The city administrators had the foresight to save such material for future generations. Also to my surprise was the number of people we saw - or rather the lack of people we saw. We only encountered half a dozen visitors throughout. Curious. However, it meant that we didn't have to elbow our way to see things. Accordingly, with so few people around you would think that finding a seat in the café would be a doddle. You must be kidding, the place was rammed. I think this speaks volumes about the food on offer. We clocked the quiches on the plates of other diners and they looked great. Oh yes, we'll have them. Damn it, the person in front of us had the last one. Thanks to our visit to The Belfort, I now have kannenschijters as a new swear word. Still, there were other veggie options on the menu and we enjoyed our lunch and the vista within the room is great. Also, check out the menu that features up to 20 beers, including some from the aforementioned Brussel Beer Project, two examples of the innovative Gentse Gruut Stadsbrouwerij, and you can also try out the Gentse Strop too! Now, this is what you call a museum cafe! The service was rather poor but this was compensated by the quality of the food and drinks offer.
And so it was time to collect our luggage and head to Gent-Sint-Pieters to board our train and wave goodbye to Gent, a case of vaarwel, tot de volgende keer.
We took the train to Brussel [Brussels] where we stopped off for a late afternoon and evening meander. The cultural difference between the old city of Flanders and the modern capital of Belgium is immediately palpable. It is like visiting two different countries. We had to quickly adjust but soon developed a taste for the place. We have spent some time here in the past and it is perhaps our favourite city for architecture. But then we are suckers for art nouveau and art deco.
We dumped our luggage in our hotel close to the Gare Du Midi and headed in the direction of Marollen [Marolles]. With limited time we were not going to drift further than this area, along with part of Zavel [Sablon] and Stalingrad. I should mention that you have to be alert when walking around Brussel during the evening and my advice is not to venture into an isolated or dark street if there is just one or two of you. I am a confident traveller and fairly streetwise but in Brussel I keep my eyes peeled and look over my shoulder frequently to check if we are being tagged. If you are walking around with a map you are advertising that you are a tourist and potential target. And please don't walk around with an expensive camera hanging from your neck. You will be safe if you plan your route and stick to main streets where there are lots of people.
From the Gare Du Midi we walked up Rue d'Angleterre to the edge of the Parc de la Porte de Hal. Across the busy ring-road and you will encounter Au Volle Pot. Looking a little shabby on the outside, this cafe is at Boulevard du Midi 141, on the corner with Rue Blaes. This bar is one with a good degree of authenticity in that it hasn't been overrun with geeky beer hunters and it is mainly locals who are the patrons. The owner must have a passion for beer as the café has a selection of over 200, many of which are displayed on some DIY superstore-type shelving that are sagging under the weight. If not busy, he will guide you through some of the beers. Keenly prices, there are many old chestnuts but there are also some beers that are of the lesser-spotted variety. From the railway station, Au Volle Pot can act as a gateway to a positive Brussel beer experience.
We continued along Rue Blaes, a thoroughfare laid out around 1853, the period in which Vossenplein or Place du Jeu de Balle was created. As the French name suggests, this open space was originally designed for the sport of La Balle Pelote, a team game quite similar to Kaatsen played in the Netherlands. This vibrant square is home to a daily flea market, perhaps one of the most famous in Europe as it attracts hundreds of sellers and thousands of customers on a daily basis. So, if you are seeking a historic bargain or a general pile of old tat this is the venue to head for. An equal amount of junk, along with some hideously expensive antiques can be found in the many interesting shops in the Marollen [Marolles] district. You don't even have to buy anything as many of the larger emporiums are mini museums and they are great for window shopping.
A popular café facing the square was the Skieven Architek, a name referencing Joseph Poelaert, the man dubbed the "crooked architect" due to the displacement of hundreds of local residents in order to construct the Law Courts, the largest single building constructed during the 19th century. The café was housed within the old fire station on the corner of Rue de la Rasière. However, our favourite café next to the Vossenplein or Place du Jeu de Balle has always been La Broncante, located on the corner of Rue des Renards. This name commemorates the Renard factory, a large locomotive works that once stood on the site of the Place du Jeu de Balle - hence the Dutch Vossenplein.
With large adverts for Jupiler on the frontage, La Brocante may look ordinary on the outside but venture through the entrance and it has a lovely old battered interior with plenty of dust on the fittings and an array of breweriana on the walls. We can remember coming in here before the smoking ban and you needed a fish slice to carve your way through the smoke. The beer choice is excellent - I came close to being wrecked one day when zipping around the menu of interesting ales. The staff are ultra-friendly and the tasty food is very reasonably priced. The Belgian omelettes are a legend here. But it is the wonderful atmosphere of La Brocante that makes it a great place to visit. Not many beer geeks have discovered this little jewel so the patrons are largely locals - or people seeking refreshment after trawling through the flea market's bric-a-brac. With a name that celebrates the famous flea market, La Brocante is a must-visit café of Brussel.
In addition to the antiques shops of Marollen [Marolles], there is a wide range of independent boutiques, galleries and interesting retailers selling everything from chocolates to vintage clothing. But now it was time to eat. Thinking back, it was the aforementioned Mia Ackaert who recommended a superb Italian restaurant to us many years ago. We were staying at her bed and breakfast and took a train from Gent for a day-trip to Brussel. We asked her if she knew of a place that we would enjoy and she did a rough sketch of this area and an approximate location for the Easy Tempo restaurant on Rue Haute, another thoroughfare lined with fascinating shops. From one Hoogstraat to another! We enjoyed Easy Tempo that much we have been back several times. This is nothing compared to one reviewer on Trip Advisor who has enjoyed over thirty visits.
It had been a few years since our last visit to Easy Tempo so we couldn't help wonder if the place was still going or if it had changed for the worse. Thankfully, I can report that it is still fabulous. I have seen some reviews for Easy Tempo on popular websites and people don't even mention the tiling! They must have been wearing sunglasses throughout because the art nouveau tiles, which provide clues to the shop's previous role, are simply magnificent. The theatre displayed in the tiling is replicated in today's restaurant because the Italian chefs cook your meal from fresh behind the servery. They are a sight to behold. Coping with both the restaurant and takeaway orders, they do not seem to get in a flap. They produce divine plates of authentic Italian food.
One should probably drink wine at Easy Tempo so the beer choice is limited. However, the 8.5% Duvel is a good blond to accompany pasta dishes. The beer is delicately hoppy, its bitterness enhanced by the use of different aromatic Slovenian and Czech hop varieties. The original yeast strain for Duvel was sourced in the 1920s from a Scottish brewery by Victor Moortgat. Before being re-branded as Duvel in 1923, the beer was called Victory Ale. It was a dark beer up until 1970 when the malt recipe was changed to produce a golden beer. A little stronger, there is a triple hop version that uses citra hops.
Following our meal at Easy Tempo I walked out into the street and was run over and killed by a lorry. But worry not dear reader, I died and went to heaven. Well, that's how it seemed after walking into Chez Alex a short distance further along Rue Haute or Hoogpoort. Wow! What an interior, possibly an original 1920s refurbishment of a former bakery called Aux Trois Couques. The beautiful art deco glass forming part of the front window dates from 1926 when the boulangerie was transformed into a bistro. That enterprise ultimately failed but in 1935 the café was taken over by René Tondeur and it remained in his family for the rest of the 20th century.
René Tondeur, a former bricklayer who was a popular singer in cafés around the city, retained the Chez Alex name and his longevity as host meant that the locals of Marolles identified him as Alex! He remained behind the servery until 1973 when he was succeeded by his son Jean. He gave up a career with the police force to maintain the family tradition at Rue Haute. Like his father, Jean Tondeur was an entertainer and was a noted whistler. During this period Chez Alex was a true locals café, the patrons remaining fiercely loyal. Beer, wine and games with music was the cafés staple and, in many respects Chez Alex is a throwback to these times.
In the Spring of 2000 Jean Tondeur hung up his apron for the last time to enjoy his retirement. I suspect that he would still recognise his old café. Perhaps a little smarter than his memory would recall but essentially it is a faithful period interior that was pure joy to my eyes. Wood panelling with inlaid mirrors, tiled and wooden floors, simple wooden tables, telephone booth, a classic jukebox and an old piano, the latter still in use during music sessions at Chez Alex. The café was serving only drinks during our visit but it is noted for serving excellent victuals, particulary classic Belgian seafood. The café has an ambience that is rarely experienced, an atmosphere in which you can bathe for hours in sheer bliss.
The beer choice is excellent at Chez Alex. The are plenty of classics and popular beers and a few more unusual ales. I ordered a glass of Hopera, a golden blond beer produced by Brasserie Lupulus, a relatively modern brewing facility established at Bovigny in the Ardennes near the border with Luxembourg. As an alternative I could have simply asked to have a sack full of hops tipped over my head. Wow! I love the hoppy hit of this beer. There is some fruit and spice to counteract but the hoppy bitterness pervades throughout. This character is achieved by the use of contemporary hop varieties such as Simcoe and Herkules. Hopera is both unfiltered and unpasteurised so, as you can see in my photograph, it is a hazy number in the glass. This is a later addition to the portfolio of a brewery that started life in 2004 as Trois Forquets. It is not a ramshackle amateur operation - large investment was made in the brewery by two brothers-in-law, Pierre Gobron and Chris Bauweraerts, who had already forged the success story of Achouffe. This craft beer enterprise may germinate into another triumphant brewing story.
We rounded off our evening, and indeed our holiday beer travels, with a quick one in Café Bebo at Avenue de Stalingrad 2, a friendly tavern looking out across Place Roupe. This place has an extensive menu of beers, up to 100 at the time of our visit. This is a great place to sit outside in the summer but on a cold February night we sought shelter in the warmth. Still a nice café experience though. If you are a food buff you can combine some craft beer here with the neighbouring Comme Chez Soi, a Michelin-starred restaurant where Lionel Rigolet is the chef.
Well, we crammed as much as we could into our short trip to Belgium - I hope there are some useful tips here for those thinking of visiting in the future.
I thought it might be an idea to post a few old images of Gent. Because we love the city I have collected some historic views of the place for interest. This 1960s aerial view of the Gravensteen is fairly much the same today though, thankfully, there are less cars in the 21st century, particularly in Sint-Veerleplein.
This view looking along from Sint-Michielshelling is interesting because, although there has been some controversy over the construction of the new Stadshal, the view of the Belfort and Sint-Niklaaskerk has not always been unrestricted. Some argued that the space around these major buildings had grown organically but, as you can see here, subsequent removal of buildings indicates that this has been a planned development for many years. It was Mayor Baron Emiel Braun who instigated the removal of buildings of Korte Ridderstraat in 1899 and eight years later the demolition of the buildings seen here next to Sint-Niklaaskerk. Note also the older spire on The Belfort. Added to the building in 1851, this was removed between 1911-3 and replaced with a stone spire true to the designs of that used in the 14th century.
Another view of Sint-Niklaaskerk, in a photograph dating from the 1890s, which shows the shops and housing that were once built next the outer walls. Incredible to think that this was ever thought to be a good idea, though development space in the old city must have been really restricted. The properties were erected during the mid-17th century.
In this view of Graslei construction work around Sint-Michielsbrug was still ongoing during the early years of the 20th century. Note that the clock had yet to be added to the tower of the post office, a building designed by Louis Cloquet in collaboration with Stéphane Mortier, and erected between 1898 and 1910. A key influence of the post office was the façade of the Guild House of the Free Boatmen here on Graslei.
The boom years may have gone but in this photograph it is still possible to sense how the quays at Graslei and Korenlei looked when they were used by boats to transport grain. This was part of the medieval port of Gent where corn and wheat was traded. Gent was central to the grain trade in Flanders. Both Graslei and Korenlei prospered until the 18th century. Following this period there was a decline in trade and the medieval buildings fell into decay or were pulled down. The restoration of the buildings are already in place here as part of the long planning for the World Exhibition of 1913.
The properties that were built up against Sint-Niklaaskerk not in this photograph so it is post-1913. Sint-Michielsbrug, the new crossing of the Leie, was constructed between 1905 and 1909. The corner building, part of the monumental post office complex, was used by different staff departments such as sorting office and delivery room.
In capturing this image, the photographer would have been stood in Lindenlei, a road with some 18th century development but largely occupied by 19th century buildings and a technical school dating from the middle of the century. Lindenlei affords an excellent view of the Justitiepaleis [Palace of Justice], close to the junction of the Ketelvaart and Leie. The Italian Renaissance-style building was designed by Louis Roelandt and erected between 1836 and 1846.
The street layout in this image is pretty much the same today. In the 19th century this open space was known as La Place Saint Laurent but today is called Lieven Bauwensplein after the statue of the former industrial spy credited with initiating the industrial revolution in Flanders. The Museum of Industry, Work and Textiles houses the Mule Jenny illicitly imported from England in 1798 by Lieven Bauwens. Although the Saint Laurent reference may have been extinguished, the Laurent name still prevails in François Laurentplein, a thoroughfare leading off Lieven Bauwensplein. François Laurent, a Belgian historian and jurisconsult, was professor of civil law in the university of Ghent during the 19th century. The building to the right of this photograph is that of Geeraard de Duivelsteen, the fortress-like 13th century residence of Gheeraert of Ghent, a supposedly immoral man dubbed The Devil.
Moving on from the last image, this photograph was taken around the corner in Reep and shows Geeraard de Duivelsteen, or The Castle of Gerald the Devil. Once serving the role of a defensive building for the city's port, the fortress-like building was built in the 13th century and named after the knight Geeraard Vilain, the man who allegedly plotted to kill his own son. The building has served various roles over the centuries, most notably as the city archives.
This photograph shows Sint-Antoniuskaai in the early years of the 20th century when the quay featured a lot more historic buildings, though some of them look rather ramshackle. This working-class neighbourhood existed next to the Lieve Canal, a waterway constructed for Gent's prosperous textile trade. The canal was used to bring in wool from England and to export finished goods to the rest of the world. Construction started in 1251 to connect Gent with Damme on the Zwin.
This photograph shows Het Rabot in an era before road-widening and high rise social housing. At the time of this photograph, Het Rabot was surrounded by traditional workers' houses, mills, factories and warehouses. The only remaining city gate of Gent and dubbed the Three Little Towers, Het Rabot had, by the time of this image, ceased to serve as a toll gate.
This photograph shows Sint-Veerleplein prior to the erection in 1913 of a pillar, crowned with a lion, that acted as a centrepiece for the square. Known as Sire van Maldegem, derived from Sire Gheleyn van Maldeghem, the pillar was placed in Sint-Veerleplein prior to the World Exhibition of 1913. The small stone entrance gate seen to the left may help date the photograph accurately. The baroque gate is thought to have previously formed part of the entrance to an orphanage on Bisdomplein. The 17th century gateway was moved here to form access to the rear of properties on Kraanlei.
The monumental entrance to the old vismarkt now forms the gateway to the modern tourist information centre. The main entrance to the fish market was moved to Rekelingestraat following a fire in 1872 which saw the expansion of the market buildings. However, the old entrance was restored as it formed an important part of Sint-Veerleplein. Created in the late 17th century, it is an ostentatious display of nautical decoration topped with a statue of Neptune, god of the seas.
An excellent view of the Vrijdagmarkt in the early years of the 20th century. The historic square went through a period of being ruining by cars but, with the re-planting of trees and enforced pedestrianisation, it is returning to its former grandeur. The spire in the background is that of Sint-Jacobskerk.
The statue of Jacob van Artevelde in Vrijdagmarkt used to look more attractive with its iron railings and corner lanterns. I assume, but do not know for sure, that these were a victim of metal reclamation during the war years.
Known as Het Toreken, this former guildhall of the Huidevetters [Tanners] still stands on the corner of Vrijdagmarkt and Kammerstraat. It stood empty for a number of years but has been restored. The corner house with turret dates from the mid-15th century and, consequently, is the oldest property on the Vrijdagmarkt. The corner turret, which once featured a mermaid as a weather vane, was added around a hundred years later.