In a great twist of bad luck becoming good, by being late to arrive in Ghent (due to mechanical breakdowns, and extended breaks in Val d’Isere), we are now arriving in Ghent in time for two things – Firstly, the opening day of the ten-day long Gentse Feesten; and secondly, we’re in town the same time as Gilles, our friend from London, who is from this region.
We did the usual, searched and found a free place to park for the evening, then caught a €3 bus into town. We could have walked the 2.5km, but wanted to save energy for the rest of the day.
The weather wasn’t particularly pleasant. There was a constant drizzle, spiced up with cold gusty winds. We did what we could, and just accepted we’d get wet – and have average looking photos.
I’d heard comparisons between Bruges and Ghent, describing Ghent (or Gent in Dutch) as being like a working version of Bruges. The buildings aren’t quite as pretty, but it’s a genuine city used by real people, rather than one tarted up for tourists to swoon over. I’m getting ahead of myself, but I would agree. It doesn’t have the concentration of perfect shopfronts, or immaculate squares, but it also feels like there is life here – especially this week with the festival taking place.
We sought shelter, and the obvious place was inside the gothic Saint Bavo’s Cathedral, as the tower stood proud, and was visible from gaps in the buildings from quite some distance. Plus it was free to enter, unlike the bell tower.
It was surprisingly large, I hadn’t expected such a large cathedral in Ghent. It was spartan, but it had a truly wonderful light inside, with a beautiful glow from the coloured glass windows.
The nearby bell tower stood tall, topped by a giant golden dragon being slaughtered by St. Michael. We passed on the opportunity to climb the tower. It was expensive, and the weather wasn’t particularly clear or pleasant.
Instead, we went to explore the town on foot. We passed by several stages that were busily being prepared for the celebrations tonight before getting to the waterfront of the River Leie. It was one of the prettiest views of the town, with beautiful shopfronts and glimpses of the church/bell towers in the distance behind. I ignored what I read that many of these were built to make Ghent look pretty for a world fair some hundred years ago.
For once, we had the luxury of time. Our friend wasn’t going to be arriving until after 7PM, giving us an entire day to aimlessly wander. It wasn’t completely aimless however. I read about Werregarenstraat, an alleyway filled with graffiti. I was expecting something like the alleyways in Melbourne, which are some of my favourite views of that town. What we found was a little smaller and more chaotic. It was indeed a alley filled with graffiti, however, it was a bit of a mess, lacking any real standout pieces. It was amazing seeing the layers and layers of paint, as one artist has painted over the previous.
There was no shortage of cute streets, selling cute things – perfect if you’re into that. We’re in a mobile home that is already sagging with the weight of our possessions, making it easy to stop Risa spending money.
I was starting to feel that being here during the festival was both good and bad timing. It wasn’t possible to really see the city and the sights with all the stages set up.
It was still quite early, but we passed by one stage that was filled with performers. We attempted to count. Our best guess was over 60 people, all with bright and eccentric costumes on. We decided that we’d return here to see them perform at 7PM.
To kill time until they started, we wandered north of the river, past countless bars, sushi restaurants and confectionary shops. Being in Belgium, we had to try more of the local beers. It’s honestly overwhelming trying to decide which to try, as they all look interesting. In the end, Risa chose a cherry one, another with pineapple, and I grabbed a strong dark one. There were only about another 300 to try… The two flavoured ones were nice, but I suspect they’d be very nice if cold.
When we left the stage next to Saint Jacobs, the band was performing the sound check, and it was mostly empty. We returned an hour later, and it was full! The band, Propere Fanfare, had just started playing, and it was chaotic up on stage! There were several dancers running and jumping around, while the band played some seriously high energy sounds. It mostly sounded like a brass marching/fanfare band, with a few solos from their saxophones, and clarinets, too. We stayed to watch for well over an hour, eventually being joined by our Belgian friends.
We decided to go check out some other stages as Propere Fanfare were wrapping up. There was so much going on now, unlike earlier this afternoon. Bars were filling up, and there were some terrible street artists drawing crowds.
We had no direction in mind when we left, but we ended up near the bell tower as a flamboyant mardi-gras parade came past. The dancers were fantastically dressed, with all manner of glitter, sequin and feather – and little else.
They started handing out glitter-clad face masks – which became quite a sought after item later in the evening. I’m still finding pieces of glitter, several weeks later.
A comic bar caught my eye, so we dropped in for a look (and a drink). Inside were all sorts of comic/video game paraphernalia, as well as themed drinks. Risa lost it when she saw that they sold Butter Beer. She enjoyed it – though, after tasting it myself, I’m not sure if it was worth the excitement.
One of the highlights though came from a piece of fantastic Spanish translation on a ‘Guardians of the Galaxy 2’ promotional piece – “no drinkos, no picture-os”.
We made our way to the waterfront area, as it’s spectacularly illuminated in the evenings. There was a great soul/funk trio singing their hearts out on the accompanying stage. We would have stayed longer, but we had to sort out our empty stomachs.
As I’d hoped, we went for some fries. It was great to have a local friend to help us find a place to eat – and to help with the order. We ended up with a family-size portion of chips, with beer stew – and about 1kg of mayonnaise. I shouldn’t have to tell you it was fantastic, and exactly what we’d wanted eat. I will though, it was fantastic. I even went back for a second, medium sized serving.
It was late, but we still had energy. There were so many more stages to visit. We stopped by a few more, each with a different style of music being played. But, we ended up next to a small pyro display, with the smouldering remains of burnt stumps, as well as a lady setting words on fire.
It was well after midnight, but there was still a feint glimmer of energy left in me – Risa was a little more energetic, though I’d stopped drinking some time earlier. The stages were closing up, except for one area. It was a crush, but we managed to find a small area to stand and breath. A DJ was playing a mix of foreign and local dance tracks, as well as a few exceptions to the genre.
By 3AM, it was all too much, and I managed to convince Risa it was time to go home. We ditched our friends, who were going to wait for the first train home at 6AM. We now had the supreme pleasure of 40-minute walk back to our car. My feet were in agony, and it was effort to drag my legs across every step. But, we made it. The skies were starting to lighten ever so faintly as we crawled to bed some time around 4AM. It was an amazing day, even if we had to pay for it with fatigue for the next few days.