In northwestern Belgium’s Dutch-speaking Flemish (Flanders) region, sits the quiet city of Ghent. Once one of northern Europe’s largest cities at the end of the Middle Ages, Ghent is now a laid-back university town. Quirky cafes, artisan chocolate shops, and quaint ‘gingerbread houses’ line meandering canals, where coots, moorhens, ducks and seagulls form collaborative, floating communities in the still waters. Amongst the perfect rows of ornately-trimmed canal houses, stone belfries and spires of imposing gothic cathedrals soar above the tapered rooftops. There are few tourists to clog the narrow, cobblestone streets, allowing locals to scoot around unimpededly on weathered, single-speed bicycles. It’s all quite charming, quite inviting, and quite serene.
One of the things I particularly loved about Ghent was, surprisingly, its vegetarian scene. One of the world’s up-and-coming cities for vegans and vegetarians, Ghent was the first city to declare a weekly, city-wide ‘Veggie Day’ (every Thursday) back in 2009. The goal was to promote the improvement of both health and the environment, and implementation focused on schools and municipal employees. Additionally, Ghent’s restaurants are required by the local government to provide at least one vegetarian option on their menus, though many offer a host of delicious selections. And for those seeking to dine at strictly ‘meat-free’ establishments, Ghent certainly does not disappoint. I was stunned at the variety and quality of veg-only restaurants, and made a point to check out a couple of local favorites. At Le Botaniste, I had an amazing bowl (the Tibetan Mama) of brown rice, lentils, and various vegetables smothered in curry and peanut sauces, along with a ‘super-seed’ avocado. For lunch the following day, I enjoyed a delicious broccoli burger and a green smoothie (coconut milk, spinach, and mango) at Tasty World. Not one to typically order any sort of veggie burger, for fear of contamination from a meat-laden grill, Tasty World has no seared flesh to speak of, allowing for an enjoyable alternative to my usual go-to dishes. Moreover, they offer a crazy assortment of patties, including soy, risotto, spinach, vegetable, and broccoli.
Of course, no trip to Belgium would be complete without sampling the smorgasbord of more traditional local delights – namely Belgian waffles, chocolate, fries, and beer – and we seized the opportunity to sample a bit of each while in Ghent. Anxious to get his hands on one of the elaborate brunch favorites, we headed to Fritz to satisfy Stephan’s sudden waffle craving. Much to his delight, he was presented with a veritable waffle masterpiece, topped with 14 types of fruit (true story… we counted) and served with a side of fresh whipped cream. As one would imagine, he was duly impressed with the substantial offering. Feeling perhaps a tad overzealous after his waffle, Stephan insisted we then head up the street to Frituur Het Puntzakje, a highly-recommended hole-in-the-wall joint serving Belgian fries. As he deliberated about what size to order, the gentleman behind the counter held up a cardboard boat and motioned to the word ‘medium’ printed on the sign. Stephan shook his head negatively and pointed to the large. In his defense, the basket did appear on the small size, though our eyes widened immediately as the fry guy began dumping heaping handful after heaping handful of freshly-cut potatoes into the hot oil. I headed to a table upstairs to dig into the vegan bowl I’d just acquired at Le Botaniste, and only moments later Stephan arrived… with the Mount Everest of fried potato piles. Apparently his ‘Belgian treats’ challenge was officially on.
Just a few blocks away in the compact historic center, we popped into a curious little pub one afternoon that offered their house brew with an offbeat twist. At Dulle Griet, the ‘Max of the house’ is served in a towering, round-bottom, 1.2-liter glass that requires the support of a wooden ring-stand – evoking fond memories of lengthy distillation experiments back in organic chemistry lab. A decades-old tradition at the pub dictates that, as collateral for the coveted glass, you must hand over your right shoe, which is then hoisted up to the ceiling in a wire basket until your beer is consumed and the glass returned to the bartender. The resounding clang of a brass dinner bell announces the start of your intended effort to fellow patrons, and echoes again at the end of the challenge, proclaiming your proud success and the return of your much-needed footwear. Dulle Griet’s amusing little tradition and surprisingly tasty beer make it a worthwhile stop if ever you find yourself in Ghent.
Another favorite we’d definitely recommend is HD Ghent, a tiny chocolate shop that left a big impression on us. The proprietor, Hilde Devolder, is one of the most friendly and genuine people you’ll ever meet, and is eager to share her passion for chocolate making as well as her commitment to working with only sustainable, ethically-sourced chocolate. Dissatisfied with her previous career as a bookkeeper, Hilde one day decided to make a bold change and completely switch gears to pursue a profession in chocolate. Her reasoning was both simple and sensible – no one was ever happy to talk taxes and bottom lines, whereas chocolate would put a smile on anyone’s face. And Hilde’s confections will, for sure, make you smile. Her miniature pralines (chocolates with a creamy center) are made from high-quality, dark and milk chocolate, and are filled with both unusual as well as more traditional flavors, including coffee, raspberry, tequila-chili, rhubarb gin, lavender, sesame, and cardamom. The textures, flavor combinations, presentation… every one of those silky little cubes was amazing. Hilde uses only natural ingredients, and many options are also vegan-friendly; even the liquors she selects are from only small-batch distilleries. Importantly, all the chocolate she works with – in addition to all of the origin chocolate bars she sells – is sourced from farms who adhere to sustainable practices and ethical production (e.g. no child labor or exploitation). One of her suppliers even boasts completely carbon-free production. The chocolate is exported from the Caribbean to Amsterdam by sailboat, and then travels the remaining distance to Belgium via bicycle courier. Thanks, Hilde – we were beyond impressed with your both your ideals and your chocolates!
Finally, on our last afternoon in Ghent, we visited ’t Dreupelkot, a tiny tavern squeezed into a tight alleyway alongside the Leie River whose specialty is jenever – Dutch gin. The owner, Pol, has been distilling his own jenever for years, beginning in his basement before being forced to move to a dedicated warehouse, as his numerous creations quickly outgrew his limited space. We sampled a number of his flavorful infusions (as tradition dictates, by first sipping from the overflowing glass before lifting), including ginger, passion fruit, rhubarb, hops, and chili pepper. While we enjoyed them all, the spicy chili was insanely good. And for me, the rhubarb adaptation also held a special spot, if not for the subtle flavor, for the nostalgia. Growing up, my grandfather (Dar) had a small patch of rhubarb that popped up every summer alongside the worn, white shed in his backyard. On sunny days, we’d head out the back porch door together, each pluck one of the robust stalks from the soil, and laughingly chomp down on the sour stems as we squinted at the pungent flavor. There was no washing involved (“Jenny, you’ll eat a bushel of dirt before you die”), just picking and enjoying – as well as playfully waving the crimson stalks in front of my Nana, who’d unappetizingly scrunch her face at our wacky bonding antics. It’s one of my most favorite memories of Dar, and I pictured him standing beside me, smiling with proud approval as I sipped the local liquor.
Following a short stay in Amsterdam, we returned to Belgium for a few days before heading to the U.K. via the Channel Tunnel. With our high-speed train originating from the capital city of Brussels, we figured we’d briefly check out Belgium’s more well-known metro. I have to say, after visiting Ghent, Brussels was largely disappointing for us. Many neighborhoods we wandered through felt very worn and uninviting, and it all just seemed a little uninspired. Navigating around the web of characterless, traffic-laden thoroughfares and tourist-heavy squares was significantly less appealing than leisurely exploring Ghent’s tranquil avenues. Even the little waffle shops and patisseries seemed to have an air of kitschy tourist trap.
That said, we did make an effort to check out some of the city’s churches, parks, and squares. We wandered past some of the imposing administrative buildings, the High Court Building and Royal Palace of Brussels, as well as some of the historic churches – the Chapel Church, the National Cathedral, and the Church of Our Lady (Notre-Dame du Sabion). We also headed north to one of Brussels’ largest greenspaces, the Park of Laeken. While the expansive lawns provided a great space for families to picnic or play games together, we were again underwhelmed compared to other city commons we’ve visited. Even the park’s notable monument, dedicated to King Leopold I, was made unsightly by a surround of dilapidated chain-link fence and barbed wire. I mean, I appreciate the desire to prevent vandalism (I’m assuming that was the intention here), but I have to think there’s a more attractive alternative.
One feature of the city that was quite lovely, though, was the Grand-Place, a charming city square dating to the 14th century. With rowhouses elegantly embellished with gilded details, and the Brussels City Museum and historic Town Hall towering opposite one another, it was beautiful refuge from the hurried streets. Just a couple blocks away from the square stands one of Brussels’ most legendary statues, the Manneken Pis (‘little man peeing’). The bronze figurine of the cheeky boy urinating into the fountain was cast in the 17th century, while the original stone sculpture (now housed in the nearby City Museum) dates to the 14th century, when it was incorporated into the city’s water supply system.
Perhaps my favorite ‘element’ of the city (nerdy pun intended), however, was the Atomium – a 102-meter-tall iron crystal that was erected for the 1958 World’s Fair. The Atomium was designed to embody scientific progress, and was a symbol of technology’s promise after the shattering events of WWII (this was the first post-war exposition following a nearly 20-year hiatus). It’s imaginably as exhilarating as it sounds – it’s a giant ball-and-stick model of an iron crystal’s molecular structure – but for a wicked geek such as myself, the giant, shimmering molecule (designed 165 billion times to scale) was super cool.
And of course, there was no leaving Brussels without visiting at least one chocolate shop, so we made at quick stop at Passion Chocolat, a small shop offering an incredible assortment of handmade pralines. Our faces beamed with excitement as the affable woman behind the counter offered us an endless amount of complimentary samples as we made our selections, and we ended up choosing about a dozen different flavors. All encased in smooth dark chocolate, the succulent fillings included coffee, dark chocolate mousse, lemon, mint, raspberry, orange, fig, grapefruit, Grand Marnier, and passionfruit. They were all pretty delicious, but for me, the passionfruit confection was outrageously good (thank gosh I don’t have easy access to those babies), and was a fabulous way to close out our visit to Belgium.