Jennifer Choi tucks into stoofpotje and swing beats. Who needs Bruges?

“SO last year the Cathedral had more than a million visitors for the first time. Are you surprised to hear that?” Yes. I’m also surprised that a city so fun, so picturesque, and so storied has been under my radar for so long. Welcome to Ghent and all its surprises.

By night a subtle uplighting that takes the whole fairy-tale vignette of castles, churches and wealthy Italian merchant offices to another level.

I suppose it’s what happens with the echo chamber of social media, swamping our feed with ever more photos of fairy chimneys, tea plantations, and mirrored salt flats. ‘2019 Travel Trends’, ‘Best Destinations You’ve Never Heard Of’ – listicles ad nauseam that recycle the same 20 places over and over again. 

In the spirit of discovery, I will eschew mentioning frites (they’re really just chips), mussels (not in season) and beer (Manchester has a decent selection nowadays). 

190219 Zwaenepoel Butchery

What I will tell you is that when an angel pisses on your tongue, it tastes like the savoury macaron topped with miso mousse and burnt cauliflower they serve at Naturell

“Alsof er een engeltje over je tong piest” is a long, colourful Dutch way of saying delicious. It tastes like the refined stoofpotje of tender pork cooked in two different kinds of brown beer, and the goat-cheese sat atop a rainbow bed of chicory, beetroot and romanesco cauliflower.  It tastes like the Belgian head cheese with jellied bits they make at the Zwaenepoel butchery dipped into the sharp mustard made by Tierenteyn-Verlent.

190219 Swing Hot Club
Swinging by to enjoy the Hot Club Gent

What I will tell you about, is the Alice-in-Wonderland experience I had stealing into a deserted conservatorium, and peeping into door after door trying to find the source of the dramatic renditions of Schubert. 

The soundtrack of the city morphs as I sip a makeshift hot toddy at a packed out jam session of NOLA swing beats at Hot Club Gent. And again as I bop to Dutch hip hop at Le Bal Infernal, used bookshop by day, DJ sets and tables littered with cava flutes by night, and on the way out, a Chaplin screening complete with cinema seats to keep the smokers entertained.

190219 Kraanlei

What I will tell you about, is a city that takes its lighting very seriously. The whole city is treated like a collection of heirloom jewels that demand to be dressed and showed off. 

木漏れ日 is how the Japanese describe light filtering through a tree. The Belgians must have one for the way the light from the canal reflects onto rows of the elegant medieval facade on Graslei and Korenlei by day, and by night a subtle uplighting that takes the whole fairy-tale vignette of castles, churches and wealthy Italian merchant offices to another level.

190219 Groot Vleeshuis

This philosophy goes beyond cleverly placed spotlights. You see it when the lampposts in Sint-Veerleplein, connected to the maternity ward of the central hospital, flick on and off to signify the birth of a new Gentenaar. 

You see it in a window sticker on the automatic door to CRU food fall (think Belgian Booths) casting a stylised shadow at dusk. You see it when Pixie the Whippet patrols the “lifestyle” store Koperhuis, posing on each plush and pristine surface as she goes, making you think you’re in a Wes Anderson film. And all this in the depths of winter, too. Just imagine how much more gezellig Ghent gets come summer.

What I will tell you about are the thefts that put this city on the map. Ghent’s revival after the Austrian invasion came with the Industrial Revolution, and it has our hometown of Manchester to thank for it. Lieven Bauwens smuggled a spinning jenny intact from England and Ghent stole the spotlight from Bruges to become the heart of Belgian textile trade.  

190219 Het Lams God

Ghent’s other theft is a cold case involving Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, a 15th century painting depicting the Book of Revelation attributed to brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck.

One of its 12 panels disappeared in 1934 and after an armchair detective recently claimed to have cracked the code to locate its whereabouts treasure hunters were warned not to dig up the cobbled streets.

This is the latest in the bizarre back story of the work also known as the Ghent Altarpiece. This has involved:

  • church conspiracy
  • at least seven thefts by the likes of Napoleon and Hitler (particularly impressive given it

weighs as much as two elephants and is the size of a barn door)

• stashing in an Austrian salt mine

• defiance of a Nazi decree to blow it up

• dramatic (but elusive) utterances of the hiding spot on a deathbed

• the excavation of the deceased skull for a (failed) séance to find the missing panel 

190219 Het Lams
Restoration of the great altarpiece

The piece is still being restored in the Fine Art Gallery, and as the varnish comes off and the colours are retouched, original inscriptions are uncovered, beautiful details of stonework enhanced by silver leaf and glazing emerge, and overpainting points to crucial scenes of the painting having been altered. 

Go and see for yourself – you don’t need a shovel, just a curious mind to scratch the surface. That deathbed utterance was: "[it] rests in a place where neither I, nor anybody else, can take it away without arousing the attention of the public." 

And you can say the same about the wonders of Ghent, which despite continued descriptions as a hidden gem, indeed remains one. 

Fact file

Jennifer flew to Brussels with Brussels Airlines and stayed at the Ghent River Hotel, Waaistraat 5, 9000 Gent. It overlooks the River Leie and is perfectly located off the Friday Market (Vrijdagmarkt), round the corner from Kranlei, a beautiful canalside promenade. Breakfast at the rooftop too. Recommended.