Belgium is surprisingly close to Calais. While this geographical revelation is probably not worthy of the term “discovery” it does make it a convenient getaway destination.
Google Ghent, however, and it points you to various backwaters in Kentucky, West Virginia, New York. So for clarity, Gent, Belgium is where whe whent. The spelling is a little vexing, but at least we’re in the correct continent.
Bundled incongruously into a 2010 Mini Clubman the (nowadays fully grown) 4 Beers road-tripped it from Wiltshire via le tunnel sous la Manche. [Aside: a fully grown man approached me in the car-carriage: does the tunnel go under the sea and how long does it take? I slow blinked involuntarily. He asked in such a thick Irish brogue I a) boggled and b) started to look for the hidden camera. “In 35 minutes when we see daylight again mate, we’re in France” satisfied his enquiry. Our conversation was mercifully over, although I do wonder where he is now…] A scant ninety minutes after emerging Frogside we are sat outside our Airbnb in Gent. More accurately the dowdy industrial end of town: Gentbrugge. (Average age 42.9) A loft which was part of a refrigerator factory sometime in the twentieth century.
Oh-Ma-Flippin-Gee: we have become hipsters.
Resplendent in our savagely trimmed beards, chunky knitwear and beanies, sipping toe- or was it hand? – roasted single origin Arabica from cups without handles we assess our new digs. Firstly, the ladies are not happy about the beards for some reason. Once this minor stubbling block is quashed we can’t help noticing that this is one of the those Airbnbs that is actually someone’s gaff. Kudos Missus B: back o’the net.
If you’ve not Airbnb’d, where the flip-flop have you been? Dude it’s all but the third decade of the century with the interweb and everything… Airbnb is a marketplace/means of letting out your pad/renting a place to stay. When it was BBC2-sepia-back-in-the-day-twenty-ten this meant funky fun, but has become a global rash of buy-to-let landlord profiteering which has royally peed off the hoteliers of – amongst others – Barcelona and Paris: controversies abound. Here in sleepy, post-industrial Gentbrugge? We have struck art-house and nobody cares.
If you are worried that we are sleeping in someone else’s bed with no hygiene tested bed linen certification process, do not apply. It does not pass the Holiday Inn white cotton glove audit. Because there isn’t one. There is lots of nice feedback online and honest communication from hostess Hilde. It looks like a charming old loft owned by someone who is into design because that’s exactly what it is. Think of it like renting a characterful vintage car rather than an anonymous Avis jelly mold. You might well rent a slice of local reality…
Or stick to your same-everywhere hermetically sealed package travel.
We are packed super-light because of the vehicle restrictions. A trip to Carrefour sees us stagger “home” laden with sugary treats, booze and more festive sugary treats. With cheese. Did I mention the cheese? Much cheese. Even some pâté. Later on, at the pub – the pub! First evah’ Beer family holiday all at the bar – we are served beer – duh, Belgium – with… cheese. Cubes of unctuous yellow with a pot of celery salt and a sharp mustard for a dippin’. Life will n’er be the same again.
The chentre of Gent? (Sorry, last one there.) The medieval town is a thing of splendid beauty. Less touristed than Brussels, less obvious than Brugge and betwixt the two. We get gently pickled in the Christmas market: lady folk ice-skate whilst menfolk menfully watch armed with industrial strength local beer. [But wait, isn’t Junior Beer sixteen? Yes. Google “drinking age in Belgium”. (I’ll wait.)] We tourist around Gravensteen (Gent castle) with it’s splendidly Horrible Histories audio guide all dramatically lit up in the dark. Thirsty work: we end up in the heaving dungeon bar – actual in the castle vaulted stone chamber – for spectacularly atmospheric yet pungent beer/gluhwein. This gives one an appetite, so it’s a round of fries plastered in mayonnaise for dinner before a swaying tram home.
(NB: This is not the super-foods and Bikram yoga tour of the low countries in case you were wondering.)
We spend a day in Brussels: Grand Place, Mannekin Pis, train back-and-forth from our local station. (Here’s an idea that’d never work in the UK: end of year cheap train tickets. €18 down to €10 return as it’s Crimble. It’d never work because they don’t dig up the tracks here around the holidays. It got us on the rails here and hurrah for that.) We feel all connected, cultural, European. Not an un-elected bureaucrat in sight…
Christmas day is all cheese, sugary treats, wine, board games in a Belgian loft
And before you know it Christmas in Gent is done.