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Medieval Manhattan

A twenty minute train journey from Bruges and we’re in Ghent. ‘The historical heart of Flanders’, ‘Medieval Manhattan’ or ‘Europe’s best kept secret’ – just some of the nicknames Ghent’s locals have given it over the years. The difference in atmosphere from Bruges is instantly apparent. Modern architecture and street art are the order of the day and we’re surrounded by young crowds as we make our way to our hotel, the Pillows Grand Boutique hotel Reylof in the heart of the city centre. We love the look and feel of this grand mansion with its elegant decor.

Ghent is a university city; students fill trendy bars and squares with their lively presence. As we walk to dinner – a cosy restaurant with astonishing views of the city castle – we enjoy soaking up Ghent’s atmosphere by night. Crossing the river Lys over the St. Michaels bridge, where locals and tourists gather during the day to relax, we start to wonder if we are still in Ghent, or have in fact stumbled onto the set of a Harry Potter film. The view is breath-taking and wherever you look you’re greeted with a spectacular history lesson, notably the three iconic Bell towers, illuminated against a starry backdrop. Surely the most romantic view in Ghent!

This year Ghent honors their Great Flemish Master van Eyck with a dedicated ‘van Eyck year’ and a whole host of events and festivities. Van Eyck painted the world-famous Altarpiece ‘The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’ with his brothers in 1420 (!). It took the brothers 12 years to complete the Masterpiece and design the foldable wings structure of all the panels. Happily, the van Eyck year has been extended until the summer of 2021 due to the current health crisis. On a roll, we decide to dedicate the rest of the afternoon to more of Ghent’s art and culture.

After lunch in the ‘Kunstenkwartier’ (arts & culture quarter) district we gaze at the ‘fourth’ tower of Ghent. A concrete, modernist masterpiece, The Book Tower is a symbol of the city’s university status… and home to over 3 million books. Our guide takes us to the Museum of Fine Arts, famed for its diverse and extensive art collection spanning the early Middle ages to modern time. What’s extra special about this museum is that you can see the art restoration team working on panels of the Altarpiece by van Eyck in a specially designed sound-and bulletproof chamber. Do not disturb please!

Ghent’s also building a well-deserved reputation for its eco-friendly offerings, from plant-based food to conscious fashion, you really are spoilt for choice. We loved Café de Walrus for its authentic Belgian brownbar vibe but with a contemporary plant-based twist. If only we had more time to explore … I personally was struck by Ghent’s fusion of old world meets new, with immaculately preserved medieval sites blending effortlessly with the city’s modern  feel. And at an easy 2,5 hours travel from Amsterdam, I will most certainly (as Arnie once threatened) be back!

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