On Sunday, our first full day in Belgium, we got a pretty late start due to a late evening the night before with friends. After grabbing some waffles to go (who would want anything else for breakfast in Belgium?), we walked to the train station and hopped on the train to Ghent. When I’d booked our Eurostar tickets to Brussels, I’d snagged a deal allowing us to travel anywhere in Belgium from Brussels as long as we left within 24 hours of our arrival time in Brussels for the same price as a regular ticket, so our short, 30-minute journey to Ghent was free!
We arrived around 1pm and started walking towards the city center. Ghent is a little unusual in comparison to other European cities we’ve visited in that the train station isn’t right in the middle of the city. It took us about 30 minutes to walk to the center, but it was easy to find, especially since we had happened to arrive on one of the city’s two busiest weekends of the year.
We had unknowingly arrived on the last weekend of the Gentse Feesten (Ghent Festival) when over two million people come to Ghent for ten days of music and theater stage shows. The crowds around the canals were just massive! It took us twenty minutes just to get down one small stretch of road. Not to mention, it was also Sunday so the popular Sunday market was in full swing as well.
Suffice it to say, this was not the side of Ghent I was expecting to see. The picturesque roads the city is known for were completely taken over by temporary food establishments and side shows. The canals were still beautiful, of course, but only bits and pieces of the gorgeous architecture lining them were visible behind the many tents, banners, and stages.
After my initial disappointment in not getting to see the quieter, prettier side of Ghent I’d been looking forward to photographing, we decided to do the only thing we could do – embrace the situation and join the masses in the festival! We caught pieces of a couple of shows, obviously not in our language, but it’s music – who needs words? And I discovered that puppet shows are even creepier in French than they are in English. But after awhile I just wanted to get away from the crowds and so we went the only direction everyone else wasn’t – we went up.
The Ghent Belfry is one of the three medieval towers that make up the landscape of Ghent’s city center. The other two are Saint Bavo Cathedral (under construction when we visited) and St. Nicholas’ Church (pictured in the first photo on this post). The Belfry of Ghent, at 300 feet tall, is the tallest belfry in Belgium and designated as a UNESCO world heritage site along with over fifty other belfries in Belgium and France.
We once again found ourselves climbing over 200 steps, but for those who’re not up to the challenge, there is a lift that will take you part of the way up. (I took the lift down. I’m so ashamed – I’m normally such a trooper when it comes to stairs.) Along the way there are a couple of places to stop and admire the bells that make up the carillon. I believe there are over fifty of them of varying sizes. Maybe this isn’t strange to anyone else, but I noticed the bells in the belfry were given names. Normal people names, like they’re members of some sort of choir. Did you hear ol’ Robert this morning? He was totally off pitch again!
Anyway, I’m getting off topic. The whole point of climbing all those stairs was so we could check out the city from up high, and get away from all those crowds, of course. The belfry is set back away from the canals where a lot of the festival was taking place, so from up here, it almost looked like a normal day in Ghent. Plus, I guess all the regular tourists (like us) had done their research (unlike us) and knew not to come to Ghent to sight-see during the Gentse Festival because there was almost no one in the tower with us. Kind of a good thing since the passageways surrounding the top of the belfry are rather narrow. We got to enjoy a little peace and quiet up there, and savor the nice weather right before one heck of a storm hit.
After we descended the Ghent Belfry, we contemplated sticking around for more music and dinner, but the afternoon had grown progressively more overcast. Within a span of only three hours, the skies had gone from blue to white to a very ominous grey. I took a few more pictures in the not-as-crowded portions of the canals and then we noticed those grey clouds were beginning to turn black. We decided it was time for us to head back to Brussels, but we didn’t make it very far on our trek back to the train station before it started raining. We ducked into the entrance of a closed salon just before the bottom fell out and sheets of rain started coming down – and then it began hailing! We sat under our little overhang watching people try to run through the storm for a whole hour before it eased up enough for us to use our umbrella and run to the station. Oddly enough, this was probably my favorite part of our day in Ghent. I love a good storm, especially if I have a covered front row seat for it!
I suppose arriving in a new city at an inopportune time is what I deserve for not researching ahead of time, but given the circumstances, we still had a really great day. And eventually, when I make it back to Belgium again, I’ll be sure to give Ghent another go, because even somewhat tacky festival gear wasn’t able to disguise what a beauty this town is. I’m already itching to get back and try again!
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