What to say about Ghent? There’s no doubt it’s a lovely place, but maybe I was expecting too much after reading so many glowing reviews and blog posts extolling its virtues. It’s not as if I didn’t enjoy myself, I did. It’s just that Ghent is mobbed by tourists. Big unwieldy packs of day-tripping tour groups rampage through its medieval centre.
As I type, I’m speeding across northern Belgium towards the Netherlands. There is a spectacular sunset illuminating the late evening sky with oranges and pinks, all of which makes me feel warmer towards this part of Belgium. Still, I’m shocked by the commercialism of Ghent. I should probably never go to Bruges.
For the record, tourists are not “surprisingly thin on the ground”, and Ghent is most definitely not “Bruges without the tourists”. Whatever the Lonely Planet guide might say. I knew there’d be tourists. It’s August. In Europe. But it’s as if the town has prostrated itself to the idol of mass tourism.
The town seems overwhelmed. I certainly was. Tourism brings in a lot of money, but still Ghent feels a bit shabby. It’s rare to see so much litter, dog crap and general uncleanliness in a town in the Netherlands. Move out of the centre, and the town feels dilapidated. Roads and pavements are in bad shape. There are far too many drunks.
A defining moment came when I walked into the cathedral. A spectacular building in its own right, it’s most famous for housing Van Eyke’s The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. This enormous altar piece comprises several panels depicting biblical scenes and two wondrous pictures of Adam and Eve. It’s Van Eyke’s great masterpiece, something of extraordinary artistic value.
Probably best then to keep it in a really small room because hardly anyone will want to take a look. Why not charge people who do €4 to squeeze uncomfortably into the really small room, jostling with approximately 42 other people (I counted) to glimpse the painting. Most of your fellow sufferers will be listening (at top volume) to audio tapes which, collectively, makes a sound that can only be described as ‘tortured cat’.
Who wants to be sardined into a room listing to the disembodied tinny soundtrack of dozens of audio tracks? Seriously, save yourself the pointlessness of trying to see a masterpiece and take a look online. Alternatively, should the ecclesiastic authorities be reading this, limit the number of people allowed to visit at any given time and, when the room is already full, don’t allow another tour group inside.
I don’t want to go on because there is much that is wonderful about Ghent, but I confess to some disappointment. It’s probably a town best enjoyed in the autumn or spring, when there’s more chance of bad weather but less chance of becoming infuriated by the crassness of it all.
I arrived at Ghent’s lovely Sint Pieters Station late on a Sunday morning after a slow start from Antwerp. The sky was overcast, the weather humid and airless. The walls of my not inexpensive hotel seemed infested with mosquitoes – there’s a problem with mosquitoes in this part of Europe right now. I added insecticide to my mental list of items to buy.
Outside my hotel was a canal. I followed it towards the centre and was suddenly at the city’s famous St. Michael’s Bridge, which offers fabulous views over the picturesque Graslei, the town’s medieval port. The Graslei is lined by beautiful ancient buildings, and is also home to numerous restaurants with tables overlooking the water. This is the heart of the ancient city, and the perfect place to to start exploring…