AND SOME FREE–ASSOCIATION
By Kelly Sargent
IMPOSSIBLE AS it may seem, all three of the previous posts about Ghent came from one day of exploring that magical place on foot and by boat! I know!! And then we were off to the town of Sint-Martens-Latem and from there to Bruges.
You may be wondering how we've been getting around. We rented a car, and I can't say enough about what a total stud Paul was throughout the trip — negotiating narrow, congested streets jammed with bumper to bumper cars, a phalanx of bicyclists, innumerable scooters weaving in and out, and of course pedestrians; driving a manual transmission which he hasn't driven since we were in Ireland at least 10 years ago, while attempting to read signs in another language. He was wise to insist on a car with a built-in GPS, but even with that, what a challenge, and he was masterful.
Due to narrow streets, congested traffic and extremely scarce parking, bicycles are a major form of transportation — that and walking, and small cars are the rule. We didn't see one oversized pickup truck or SUV the whole time we were there. (If only they didn't dominate the driving landscape in this country!) I had to laugh: when we picked up our rental car, the agent said, "Oh, you got a nice one!" It was a Volkswagen Gulf which I learned is considered a BIG car in Belgium.
Our first stop was Sint-Martens-Latem, a town of about 8200 residents. Pieter, our proprietor at Living in Brussels Urban B and B, was originally from there. Coincidentally, it's the wealthiest municipality in Belgium. But neither of those things was what enticed me to want to see it. Before we left home, I'd read that it's one of Belgium's most charmingly bucolic, small towns.
Unfortunately, it was raining the morning we were there, so we only drove around a bit and took a couple of photos.
Then we were on to Bruges. It seems as though everyone has heard of Bruges . . . and raves about it. Everyone but us. We, on the other hand, we're too keen on it. Yes, it has picturesque canals and waterways — it's known as the Venice of Northern Europe — but Bruges is also chockablock with tourists and souvenir shops. Paul said it was like being in Disneyland.
Actually more like Epcot Center with it's faux 'international experiences': manufactured, idealized streetscapes supposedly depicting various countries such as Canada, France, Mexico, the UK, Norway, China, Italy . . . you get the picture . . . including the USA (I kid you not), with "audio-animatronics" liberally employed.
When we walked into one of Bruges' centuries-old buildings turned into a museum and were greeted with an audio-animatronic medieval 'person' welcoming us, Paul was done.
After we were back home, someone suggested that if we visited Bruges during a less-favorable-weather month, there would be fewer tourists, and we might like it better. Less pods of tourists would be nice, but there would still be eleventy-seven souvenir shops. Conducting a bit of research since we've been back, I've found several travel blogs that advise: "Skip Bruges; go to Ghent." I might not suggest missing Bruges altogether, but I definitely recommend following our example; we spent three nights in Ghent, absolutely loved it there, and only day-tripped to Bruges.
There was another reason we simply had to go. Left is a photo of a painting that hangs on the wall at the foot of our bed. We're both smitten with this painting; we gaze at it morning and night. Paul was convinced that it was painted in Bruges, and he really, really wanted to see if we could find the exact spot.
Well we didn't, but we came close.
By Kelly Sargent
PAUL AND I have fallen hard for Ghent. Here's a little background about this old, old, but very hip city:
Ghent (Gent in Flemish and Dutch; Gand in French) is a port city at the confluence of the Leie and Scheldt rivers. It’s the largest city in East Flanders and the third-largest in Belgium. Archaeological evidence reveals a human presence as far back as the Stone and Iron Ages. In the Middle Ages Ghent became one of the largest and richest cities of northern Europe. Today it’s a university town and cultural hub.
The entire heart of Ghent has been a car-free zone since 1997, the second-largest such area in Belgium, behind Brussels which has the second-largest in Europe. In 2009 in an effort to fight the climate crisis (the UN says meat production is responsible for nearly one fifth of greenhouse gasses), Ghent designated every Thursday as a suggested vegetarian day and to encourage residents to participate, the city provided recipes, a list of vegetarian restaurants and cooking demonstrations.
Take a walk with Paul and me.
Paul Bridson and Kelly Sargent
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