Interrail day twenty-four – Brussels to Ghent and back

21 May

I set the alarm wrong and woke up very late, so that I had to scramble to make it to breakfast. It’s a good job I’m only going to Ghent today, and not London!

Trains to Ghent are very frequent so I wasn’t even aiming for a specific one. I took the metro to Brussels Midi/Zuid, mostly just to see how it works. It was straightforward enough, although the exit for the main train station wasn’t well marked. It may be an option for tomorrow, depending on how frequently it runs on Sundays.

I passed another mural on the way to the metro.

The train to Ghent also seemed to have slept in, turning up half an hour late. It was a direct train to Sint Pieters. The castle I’m planning to see, the Gravensteen, is closer to the other station, Dampoort, but I thought it might be nice to wander through the town first and find somewhere to eat, as it will be lunchtime by the time I get there.

Gent Sint Pieters

I wasn’t sure what to expect in Ghent, but once I got out of the station it was really quite pleasant, if a bit bigger and less chocolate box than Bruges. It didn’t appear rough, though.

I wandered for a bit, finding a nice park with some odd cave-like tunnels, and then asked directions to the centre. Ghent seemed very normal, with the odd Dutch-looking house or old building, until I got to Sint Michielsbrug, the viewing point for the old part of Ghent, which was packed with people taking photos.

A view from the bridge
A view of the bridge. It’s not very old, although the location of the bridge obviously is.
Michael killing a dragon

By now I was on the Leie (or Lys) that goes right up to the Gravensteen, so there wasn’t much chance of getting lost after that. I stopped at a place overlooking the canal that did toasties. The toasties were €16, which is insane, but par for the course here. It did come with the best chips I’ve had in very long time, though.

Really good chips!

The centre was very touristy, which I wasn’t expecting. I suppose just because I don’t think of Ghent as a tourist destination, it doesn’t mean other people don’t. And that would explain the prices.

I had no problem finding the enormous medieval castle, unsurprisingly. There has been some sort of fortification on this site since Roman times but it was Philip of Alsace who built this beast. The castle has a DIY audio guide, where you type in the number of the room or area. The pro of this is that it was included in the ticket price; the con was that it was awful! Some fictitious bloke called Walter tells you the odd fact about the castle but mostly makes jokes about yoghurt and medieval toilets. And it played irritating music before each entry. I was sorely tempted to throw Walter into the moat!

There was no written information except in the weapons room, and that was in Dutch. However, that was still better than Walter, so I turned him off in that room.

The castle itself, while imposing, doesn’t have all that many rooms because it’s mostly courtyard – as castles were. But it does have some impressive fireplaces (high tech for those days) and all the stonework and trees make for good photographs.

I had a refreshing affogato afterwards (I love affogato, as you may have noticed) at a cafe with rows and rows of amazing chocolates right next to the till. That is unfair and there should be some kind of law against it, but I managed to control myself and only have one praline.

There was still time for a boat trip. Our pilot was very bored and made no secret of the fact that he did not want to do the narration in French for only one person, although he still did. He also made slightly off-colour jokes and used words that, while pre-watershed, really shouldn’t be used in front of children. That seems to be a feature of some parts of Belgium (I’m excluding sweet little Bruges): there’s something vaguely insalubrious and just a little bit seedy about the vibe. My inner Puritan recoils.

Our bored pilot

But the pilot did offer interesting information, including about the Gravensteen – things I had not learnt from the useless Walter. For example, the castle looks like a crusader castle from the Middle East because Philip of Alsace built it after returning from crusade. (He later died on another crusade.) And in ?1949 Ghent students occupied it for three days to protest the rising price of beer. There was only one arrest and, to this day, they have one day of free beer per year.

As the pilot talked about the history of Ghent, deeply submerged memories started to drift to the surface. At some point, I had been aware of Ghent not as a human trafficking hub but as a major textile exporter that Scotland (and England) traded with in the Middle Ages – a large, prosperous and important city with highly specialised wares. So I suppose it was worth coming here just to remember the other side of Ghent that I had known, once upon a time.

I found the other station, making a large detour round the roadworks, and soon I was on my way back to Brussels. I decided to get off at Centraal rather than Midi/Zuid, as it was closer to my hotel. This was a mistake. With the aftermath of Brussels’ Pride march clogging up the streets, it was much more complicated than I had anticipated getting to my hotel. Some streets were entirely blocked with people queuing (I don’t know what for), others were mostly blocked by semi-drunk people dancing. At least all the detours led me past another mural:

I had dinner in the hotel because I couldn’t face going out again, and made sure my bill was settled as I will have an early start tomorrow (unless Eurostar cancels again). This blog post has been particularly uncooperative, with any amount of predictive text idiocy, freezing and deleting what I’ve written, so I’ll leave it here before my phone ends up in the moat with Walter. Good night!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: