GHENT, March 13 — Fancy a trip back in time, specifically the Middle Ages? There are many medieval towns in Europe but few have the charm of Ghent and Bruges, two historical cities in Belgium. Both are located in the tradition-rich region of Flanders and both are marked by canals that weave around their old buildings.
During the Middle Ages, Ghent was considered one of the most powerful cities in northern Europe, second only to Paris, while Bruges’s claim to fame comes from its port; so important was it to commerce that Bruges was sometimes referred to as the Venice of the North.
Begin with Ghent, which is closer to the Belgian capital of Brussels than Bruges: about half an hour by rail. Once you reach Ghent, head straight to the city’s centre, where the Saint Michael’s Bridge looms proudly. From the bridge, you may enjoy a remarkable 360-degree view of the city.
On one side of the bridge are the famous “three towers” — the towers of Saint Nicholas Church, the Belfry and the Saint Bavo’s Cathedral. (Definitely less gloomy than the two towers from Tolkien’s imagination.) Admire the unbelievably well-preserved medieval architecture along the old Graslei harbour, one of the most scenic sights in Ghent’s old city centre.
The city centre itself is entirely car-free, the largest zone of its kind in Belgium, so you may enjoy strolls along cobblestone streets and explore tiny alleyways. If you don’t feel like walking, join one of the guided boat tours that begin at the bridge; these will take you around the canals so that you cover more ground without wearing out your soles.
Whether you proceed by foot or on water, don’t miss the forbidding sight of the Castle of the Counts, or Gravensteen. Built in 1180 by Count Philip of Alsace, the castle was supposedly modelled after castles that the count encountered during the second crusade. Today the castle is home to a museum that showcases all the horrifying devices used in the past on victims who were subjected to gruesome torture.
More palatable are the restaurants that line the banks of the canals and seem to almost sink into the waters. There’s nothing quite like dining on one of those tiny balcony terraces — you’d feel as though you are floating mere inches above the canal waters.
One benefit of taking a boat ride though is that you’ll be brought beneath a large willow tree whose branches and leaves fall over the canal. The locals call this the Kissing Tree and legend has it whosoever shares a kiss under the tree will have everlasting love. Quite romantic, don’t you think?
Something less amorous is the Zuiveringsengel (or “The Angel of Purification”) by Brussels-born sculptor Tom Frantzen. At first glance, it’s another statue of an angel; certainly plenty of those in Europe.
A closer look reveals the angel raising his horn into the air and pointing at passers-by in accusation; the angel is also wearing a gas mask. Surreal? Consider this a sample of Frantzen’s Belgian humour or zwanze, characterised by absurdity in his street sculptures.
Browse at the stalls at the flea market in the Bij Sint-Jacobs square if you’re there on a weekend morning. You can find anything from antiques and old books to eclectic bric-a-brac here.
For authentic local fare, the Great Butchers’ Hall offers all manner of East Flemish cuisine, in particular, meat (naturally). The 15th-century building has an open wooden truss roof typical of a time when meat markets were indoors. Look up, and you will see some of Ghent’s renowned dry cured and aged Ganda Hams hanging from the rafters.
Less than an hour’s train ride away from Ghent is the medieval town of Bruges. The name itself is derived from the Old Dutch for bridge — brugge — which is not surprising given the number of bridges over various canals that wind around the town to form an egg-shaped barrier.
As with Ghent, the heart of Bruges is its town centre. Here, this means the Market Square (Grote Markt) where the statue of Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck, two Belgian heroes lionised for their love for Flemish identity, stands. It’s also the most popular meeting place and starting point for your explorations.
From the square you can see the 12th-century belfry and the Provincial Court. The former is an 83-metre-high, postcard-worthy tower. Climb the 366 steps to its top and enjoy unparalleled views of the city. You may also hear the belfry’s 48 bells ringing in unison.
The Provincial Court (Provinciaal Hof), originally the Waterhall, has quite a colourful history. The Waterhall was demolished in 1787 and replaced by a classicist building. This later burned down in 1878 before finally being rebuilt in 1887, styled in its current Gothic Revival style.
Another notable medieval building is the Church of Our Lady, one of the world’s highest brick towers; its brick spire goes up to 122.3 metres, quite a dazzling height for its time. Also keep an eye out for the “birdman” statue; this sculpture captures the image of Papageno from Die Zauberflöte (“The Magic Flute”), a the German fairy-tale opera by Mozart.
For a change of pace, visit the Friet Museum at Vlamingstraat. This is possibly the world’s only frites (French fries or friet in Dutch) museum. Discover how the humble potato from South America travelled to Europe and was transformed into the frites or chips we know today. It’s a fun museum but perhaps more fun is digging into some frites in the basement canteen. Enjoy them with an astonishing assortment of sauces — from the classic Belgian mayonnaise and andalouse sauce to more exotic flavours such as wasabi and satay.
End your visit with a ride on a horse drawn cart around the town; it’s arguably as romantic as a boat ride on the canals but you’d be in far less danger of getting wet. Look at where you’re stepping though, for the horses do leave steaming pats of equine poo wherever they go.
You can easily do both cities in a single day if you start early but why rush? Take your time to allow the rich Flemish culture to soak in, from the old-school, gingerbread house-like ambience of Bruges to the historical yet youthful energy of Ghent, home to university to more than 60,000 students. You can easily spend days in the streets of both cities and never want to leave.