It was October 2015 and I found myself back in Brussels, a city I’d already visited in December 2013. There’s honestly nothing wrong with returning to a place again, despite what other travelers might tell you but of course there are some downsides to going back somewhere (there are upsides too).
One of those downsides is you’ve often seen a lot of the main points of interests in a city which was very much the case for me with Brussels. So I figured why not use one of my four days in Brussels to take a daytrip somewhere. I considered a number of options in Belgium, France, Germany and even Luxembourg before finally deciding upon a Belgian city called Gent – for some reason the English spell it as Ghent so you might see it written this way too. The only logic I can offer for this is that it rhymes with bent so is perhaps written that way to distinguish the difference from the English pronunciation of gent.
Anyway Gent, a city I didn’t really know much about to be honest. It was a last minute decision to go there too so I hadn’t had an opportunity to do any research, I was just going to have to wing it and hope for the best.
Needless to say with that approach it didn’t take long for my first problem to arise.
After a short train journey from Brussels I was arriving in to Gent’s main train station which is unfortunately a little outside of the main part of the city. Which way should I be going from here? I had no idea and for some reason Belgians have an aversion to signposting things sufficiently.
Brussels isn’t as bad and fortunately in Bruges we’d got by using the tried and tested method of “follow everybody else” but that wasn’t going to work here – there were no tourists for me to follow! I didn’t foresee following random locals ending very well so I just had to pick a direction and hope I’d see some signs along the way.
I’ve been to Gent and now Liege (another Belgian city) and it’s a common problem in both. There’s a distinct lack of signs everywhere and then if there are some they often conflict. Perhaps they’re intended for different people such as pedestrians / drivers but it’s pretty frustrating following a sign that reads “right to the city centre” and 100 yards later coming across a sign advising you to go left.
This isn’t Alice in Wonderland guys, I need some clear directions please! Sadly Gent had no “Yellow Brick Road” so I got terribly lost. On the plus side I’ve probably seen more of Gent than your average tourist!
Eventually I got myself on track but I’d wasted a good hour of my morning already and had worked up a bit of an appetite.
Before thinking about lunch I stumbled upon Gent’s Sint-Jacobskerk (St Jacobs Church) – I generally like visiting religious buildings anyway but the dark grey skies hovering above were additional motivation to pop in and have a look around.
It was a pretty church and I’d timed my visit pretty well, it was mostly empty with the exception of a small school choir getting some practice in so I watched for a little while before leaving them to it. I was off on the hunt for some lunch!
I found a long stretch of restaurants along each side of what was a pedestrianised street, I just had to find one with something to tempt me from the menu. Like many European cities, Gent weren’t going to be deterred by the miserable weather and most restaurants still had outside seating. With parasols providing cover from any potential rain and outside heaters and blankets providing warmth there were still plenty sat outdoors opposed to the warmth inside.
I followed suit and took up a prime seat for people-watching at one of the restaurants – a favourite pastime when traveling.
It’s easy to see why our European friends prefer this type of dining, I’m not sure even with parasols and heaters whether it’d work quite as successfully in England but I always enjoy it on my travels. It was a good lunch, I think I grabbed a steak accompanied with a delicious Belgian beer before getting back to exploring.
The lack of tourists make Gent a nice city to walk around. I don’t know how long that will stay the case, I don’t think it’ll boom in the same way that Bruges’ tourism has but it’s certainly a city on the up and somewhere that frequents my Instagram feed with a little more regularity now opposed to three years ago. Interestingly Gent is the location of my most popular ever Instagram post which is some indication as to its beauty and charm.
The weather brightened up a little bit after lunch so I spent the next few hours just wandering its streets and admiring its architecture. I didn’t really do anything noteworthy in Gent but it made for an enjoyable daytrip, you could perhaps squeeze a weekend out of it but a day is a good amount of time to see much of the city.
I knew I had to think about heading back to Brussels soon so rounded off the afternoon with a stroll alongside the river which offered perhaps some of Gent’s most stunning views. From the riverside cafes and bars to the boats floating on by, I was a little envious of those that got to stay and enjoy the pretty setting. However I’d had a fun few hours in Gent and called it a day, slowly making my way back to the train station.
Very slowly actually, I got lost again. It was a further chance to see more of the city, albeit unintentional again. I wound up somewhere near Gent’s university and rowing lake – not quite where I’d wanted to be and I was suddenly racing the clock to find my way whilst there was still some natural light. It was one thing being lost by day but I didn’t really want to find myself lost in a foreign city after dark.
It had been an adventure but soon enough I was back on track and pleased to see Gent’s main train station once again. I hopped on a train and quickly made plans for the evening. My friend Natalie had arrived in to Brussels ahead of Thursday night’s football so we were both looking forward to catching up over some Belgian beers.
We quickly found an Irish bar which was a little lively. A few other Spurs fans were also in town and keen to make the most of the karaoke at the far end of the bar. They proceeded to butcher a few songs, including a Britney Spears classic but fortunately the Belgian beer went down well to make it a little more bearable!
All in all it had been a pretty memorable daytrip! It’s a city I’d recommend, particularly if you’re in Brussels or Bruges and want to visit somewhere a little less crowded.
Up next? Amsterdam!