Gent, Belgium is the only place I visited during this trip where I wished I could have stayed longer. Much longer!
Gent (also spelled Ghent) is a fantastic city: it has medieval architecture and cobblestone streets like Brugge; it’s a University town so there are students and a great vibe; there is an amazing art scene including SMAK (among many other museums and galleries I didn’t have time to visit); and it has a swinging nightlife with several jazz clubs, including the Hot Club de Gand where I spent my one precious evening in town.
But most important to me? Gent is a real city. It’s not a place geared specifically for tourists (like Brugge and Delft) … it does not feel like an artificial environment, no, it’s the coming together of ancient traditions and modern Belgian culture with the hum of workaday life.
Travel Tip, Lodging: The nicest hotel (and most moderately priced of all the places I stayed) during my trip was at The Sandton Grand Hotel Reylof. It’s a contemporary styled hotel with all the amenities: a chic bar, great concierge service, a wonderful breakfast (not included with the room), and a stellar staff who make you feel like nothing you could request is too much for them to accomodate.
What few hours I had to wander around Gent, I used oogling the magnificent architecture. I’m disappointed to have to report that due to the misty and overcast weather I did not take many photos outside. (Most of my shots were taken in SMAK. I’ll be putting up another post about art from the trip later.)
Travel Tip, Snack Food: Because it was so chilly, I went into a (mostly) organic snack shop called ExKi (just off the main town square) and had a bowl of cream of mushroom soup. It was divine. Food like that is served in New York City, yes, but only in a fine restaurant and not at snack shop prices (with free WiFi too.) This place has great options (for both vegetarians and non-veg) and I recommend it for lunch or a quick snack break.
Travel Tip, Jazz Festival: For anyone who loves jazz, you may also want to know about two festivals going on this summer. The North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam, Netherlands from July 12-14; AND the Gent Jazz Festival from July 12-20th (which will include stars like Diana Krall this year.)
After a late siesta (nap), I went out on the town to the Hot Club de Gand for a night of jazz and making new friends.
You won’t find the Hot Club de Gand if you look for it on the street because you have to know where it is to find it (thank you again, Sandton staff.) The club “entrance” is a one-person wide, dimly lit, cobblestone alleyway. There is a sign, but you’ll miss it if you don’t know what you’re looking for.
You snake your way down the alley, and on the right side is a corregated tin door (if this sounds like an adventure, it is!) When you open the door you are in the “garden courtyard” of the club. But once you go inside, it is jam packed, with no room to move!
The night I went, there was a revolving set of jazz musicians taking the stage (the musicians were all guys in their 20’s). When I came in, a drummer, guitarist, and base player were playing acoustic jazz; 20 minutes later the drummer switched out and a piano player came up; 20 minutes after that the base player and lead guitarist switched out, and so on.
I’ve never seen that kind of “open mic” set up, and it was a lot of fun watching all the musicians play together when you could tell their abilities to improvise were being tested in front of the crowd.
In the meantime, I made friends with a New Zealander named Kristen at the bar. She was staying at a youth hostel up the street, and she introduced me, in turn, to a group of people at a table… some from the hostel (Laura from Florida, an Indian guy who had relocated to Australia, a guy and gal from Canada, and two others were local.)
But certainly the nicest guy I met had to be Peter, a former Amsterdamer who moved to Belgium and lived in Gent. Peter and I sat next to each other, joking all night. When it got to be about 2am and I said I had to get back to my hotel, Peter offered to walk me back.
(What is it about gentlemanly Dutch guys who want to escort a tourist woman to her hotel? I don’t know, but it was the second time in the trip it happened, and I felt lucky to have the company. It should be noted that like Jon in Amsterdam at Alto Jazz Cafe, Peter was a perfect gentleman and deposited me at my doorstep safely.)
Gent is extremely charming at night, and that night it was especially so, lit by street lamps with mist in the air giving the whole town a golden glow.
I remember my precious hours in Gent fondly; I have to figure out a way to get back there soon.