Monday 3 September 2018

Belgium travel diary: day 3

Monday morning came around, and I didn’t wake up as early as I’d planned to but I thought hey, I’m on holiday, it’s fine. So I got up and got myself ready, then headed out along the canal to Lidl which was around a five minute walk away from the hotel. As my two lovely pals, Holly and Mike, were meeting me in Belgium that night and had just got engaged, I’d brought some plastic champagne flutes and loads of balloons with me to celebrate upon their arrival and I needed to get some Prosecco. I also got some myself a couple of croissants, dropped the Prosecco off at the hotel and ordered an Uber to take me to Brussels Central Station: today, I was day-tripping to Ghent.

I hadn’t booked my train online, so that I wasn’t restricted in terms of the time I had to go, and I quickly found a ticket machine at the station – it had an English language option so it was genuinely really easy to use, and I paid around 16euros for a return ticket to Ghent. The journey took just over half an hour, and I was there by midday. Belgium has those cool double decker trains that come with air con and run on time, which was a novelty, and I found the journey to be really straightforward. That is, until I got off the train in Ghent and had to work out what to do next; I left the main entrance of the station and there were some tram stops there, but nowhere to buy tickets. I had a quick look on Google to see which tram to get, and found the stop but soon realised I probably wouldn’t be able to buy my ticket on the tram itself. So I headed back into the station and towards the ticket/info desks, where a really helpful guy in a blue polo shirt explained that if I left the station via the side entrance and walked across the bus station, I would get to a grey shipping container where I could buy tram tickets. So I did this, and paid around 6euros for a return ticket into the city centre. You can get on the tram just in front of the ticket container, so it did turn out to be fairly easy.

It wasn’t a long journey to the centre and before I knew it, I was getting off at Gravensteen – the castle of the count. I felt a bit proud, when I saw the castle, knowing I’d got myself form one foreign city to another foreign city all on my own. I’d never done that before and while I don’t know if I’m in any rush to do it again, at least I know I could. The sky was dark and gloomy, which was really the perfect setting for a castle that dates back to the 12th century. I wasn’t sure at first if you could actually go in, but it turns out you can and I paid €6 for the hour I spent there, wandering around the various levels and checking out the views/weapons/rooms. As castles go, this one was pretty cool and I enjoyed walking around it – like I mentioned, the weather definitely added to the dark and almost-Gothic nature of the castle. My next stop was food, because by this point I was pretty hungry, and I couldn’t find anywhere open that wasn’t more of a posh restaurant than a cafĂ© so I opted for Belgian fries for the second day running. I mixed it up a bit this time, though, and had Andalouse sauce which was amazing. I ate them sat in Korenmarkt, the main square, on a bench opposite what I think is a church only I can't remember if it had a name and I can't figure it out from looking online. Oops.

I decided I would have a peek inside the maybe-a-church after finishing my chips, and I was pleasantly surprised to find a bit of an art exhibition going on with a variety of different art on show, all of which was really interesting and unexpected. Following this I had a bit of a wander around the streets and up and down the canals, but a lot of places were closed which seems to be a theme on Mondays; I was a bit disappointed that I couldn’t just spontaneously pop into random museums but I had my book with me, so I bought a Lotus biscuit ice cream and found a little green space at the base of St Nicholas' church, setting myself up on the grass to read and take in this dark and quiet city.

After a while I could feel spots of rain and, not wanting to get soaked, wandered across to the Belfry where I paid €6 again to go up to the top for a panoramic view of Ghent. The first floor you go up to has this gilded copper dragon which used to be on top of the tower in the 1300s, and the in-between floors have bells and clocks as well as plenty of information about them and about the history of the Belfry itself which is, by the way, the tallest in Belgium. At the very top it’s a really narrow one-way system around the building on a balcony, and I know I haven’t explained that very well but you’ll just have to forgive me and do your best to imagine what I mean. I think on a sunny day the views would be spectacular – it was dark and cloudy and a bit drizzly but Ghent still looked beautiful from above, gothic with pops of colour and greenery, and it made for some really lovely photos. I’d say it’s definitely worth going up, and there is a lift!

My next stop was the nearby St Bavo's Cathedral because it’s home to the famous painting 'The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb' which you have to pay around €1.50 to see; it’s a lot bigger than I’d expected it to be, and it’s a stunning piece of art if that’s the sort of art you’re into. The panels that encase it get closed for 1 hour a day, too, although I’d missed that – but they’re decorated themselves so you do have the option to see the painted doors in full view if you want to. The cathedral itself was fairly small, I think, as cathedrals go; it had beautiful stained glass windows and all those other things you’d expect from a cathedral, but no real wow factor. I pottered around it regardless, and as I came around the curve at the back of the building I was shocked to see a huge whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling. It just looked so out of place, but it’s part of an exhibition called Whale Spotting and as anachronistic as it may be to have a whale skeleton dangling above you in a cathedral, it was pretty cool to get to see it. This particular whale was brought to the shores of Ghent after he died at sea, sent to Ghent University and nicknamed Leo - his skeleton is at the cathedral because there's a whale in the bible, and in the middle ages it was seen as a bad omen for a whale to wash up, so it's all a bit linked. Apparently.

By this point I was ridiculously hot and sweaty, so I grabbed a drink and sat down in the square again while I planned out my next steps – I decided, as loads of places were closed and the weather was naff, that I would head back into Brussels and chill out before Holly and Mike arrived; despite only being in Ghent for a few hours, I’d managed to tick off the main things. While I didn’t love the city, it does have a sort of old fashioned horror movie charm to it and I’m glad I spent a few hours there. Like I mentioned earlier, I was really proud of myself for getting myself from one foreign city to another and I had just as good luck on the way home, with the tram back to the train station arriving as I stepped around the corner (I did launch myself off it when I spotted a Tiger, despite knowing there would be nothing different in there to the one in Brussels) and then the train arriving just as I stepped onto the platform. Remarkable.

When I got back to the hotel I settled down with my book, some music and some classic hamburger Lays (if you know you know) while I waited for my pals to get to our hotel. I did spend about 15 minutes carefully arranging the balloons into a visually appealing position, only for them to fly everywhere when I opened the door to go down and greet them. But the thought was there, right? We had a quick catch up/debrief and then headed for the bar where I drank way too much 8% cherry Louffe and lost a lot of card games – and then realised none of us had really had tea. So after a lot of confusion and Googling we managed to order a takeaway which……. didn’t turn up. so we retired to be around 4am, hungry and irritable but also full of beer and holiday happiness, ready for the next day.

Sorry this post is so long, well done if you made it to the end lol...

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