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Travel & Holidays in later life


Boats await for an English-language sightseeing cruiseFor a short break to visit the top Belgian sightseeing cities - Brussels, Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp - consider Ghent as your base.

It's dead central between the other three, all easily reached by rail or road in 45 minutes or less.

You can take the Eurostar to Brussels or for a very moderate additional charge take a ticket to any Belgian station; several trains an hour go to Ghent - St Pieters station. Tickets to Belgium used to be the same price for any Belgian station but the moderate addition for destinations beyond Brussels still represents good value for money.

A tram takes you in 15 minutes to the medieval heart of the city. Get off at Korenmarkt (meaning Corn Market), and all the highlights are easily reached on foot.

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Close to Korenmarkt is the Information Bureau in the Crypt of the Town Hall on Botermarkt. The office hands out city maps and brochures, with several circuits for walking tours. 

Ghent website
is an excellent production.

You can also make hotel or b&b reservations online, with exact locations, descriptions, prices and room availability. 

More information: Tourism Flanders-Brussels, Flanders House, 1a Cavendish Square, London W1G 0LD. Tel:  0207 307 7738 Brochure line: 0800-9545245. 

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Rather like Bruges, Ghent enjoyed great prosperity in medieval times as a political and trading centre. Located at the confluence of the River Schelde and the Leie, a network of canals was lined with warehouses and tall merchant houses. 

More than 150 grain storage warehouses packed the commercial centre. Many of those Romanesque buildings with their semi-circular arches still remain, including one from the 12th century. 

Ghent was also deeply involved in the cloth trade, using best quality English wool. The weavers were always an independent-minded group, rioting frequently against taxes and other irritants. 

Several guild houses, representing trades like the Boatmen or the Grain Measurers are sited by the waterside - along the Graslei or opposite on the Korenlei. 

Crossing from one side to another over St. Michael's Bridge gives you Ghent's best viewpoint of the riverside and a famed row of towers St Nicolas Church, the Belfry and St Bavon's Cathedral. At night, this entire scene takes on a floodlit magic. 

Along at the next bridge, give your feet a rest by taking a river and canal cruise, with English commentary. Waffle production

Several market places and covered markets are grouped in this area. Groentenmarkt is an open-air fruit and veg market, open every weekday morning. 

Some shops around the square are very specialised. One sells nothing but dozens of varieties of mustard. Another just makes hot waffles, with or without whipped cream.

On the river side of the square is the original covered meat market, the Grootvleeshuis. This very large building was constructed first in wood and then rebuilt in grey stone in the early 1400's. It continued as a meat market until the 18th century, and was then used for other purposes.

Don't forget the local mustard!Today it's the Promotion Centre for East Flemish Regional Products. The great beams are festooned with suspended hams. In the cafe and restaurant you can sample ham in various styles, with "all plates garnished with mustard Ferdinand-Tierenteyn". 

Prices are very reasonable. 

Or try the fresh soup made of East Flemish vegetables. It's a good place for a light lunch or to sample various Jenever gins or egg nogg. 

Past the meat market, go left over the Vleeshuis Bridge. A square called Sint-Veerle Plein opens up, dominated by the grim 12th-century Castle of the Counts, the Gravensteen. In the 16th century, the square was used for religious executions.

An original 9th-century fortress was built here of wood, mainly in defence against the Vikings.

Then Philip of Alsace, a crusading Count of Flanders, returned from the Holy Land, having been greatly impressed by the massive style of the Crusader castles. He followed that model to rebuild the mighty fortress in 1180. 

Later, the castle was used for general administration, and as a mint. It then became a court of justice, which explains the building's dungeons, execution courtyard and a fine collection of instruments of torture. 

Gravensteen today is a museum and a venue for concerts and public meetings. A detailed exploration of spiral staircases, ramparts, turrets, the Knights Hall, crypt and dungeons can occupy a couple of hours. 

In courtyard of the Folk MueumBut I really preferred the Museum of Folklore, just a few blocks from the Castle, along a canal called Kraanlei. The Folklore Museum is based on former almshouses dating from 1363. 

The rooms show crafts and trades from the beginning of the 20th century: candlemaking, wood-turning, tin and pewter working and baking. There are house interiors with furniture, an old time barber shop, a chemist and collections of dolls, musical instruments and old gramophones. Charming!

Another major sightseeing highlight is St Bavo's Cathedral. It has a very plain exterior, but inside it's one of Belgium's most richly decorated churches.

The greatest of the art treasures is the 'Mystic Lamb', an altarpiece painted by Hubert and Jan van Eyck between 1420 and 1432. The work is rated as the supreme achievement of 15th-century Flemish art.

Rubens is also there, with his 'Entry of St Bavo into the Monastery', painted in 1623.

Facing the cathedral is the belfry tower. A lift goes to the watch-tower level, offering a splendid panorama over the rooftops of ancient Ghent. Night-time along the quayside - well lit, but be careful after an evening of Trappist beer

Sightseeing is thirsty work, but Ghent is well supplied with taverns and restaurants. 

Have you ever wondered why monks tend to sing? Order a Trappist beer, and you will soon find out. A typical beerhouse will sell all six Trappist beers. Alcohol by Volume (ABV) ranges from the light stuff at 6.5 percent up to over 10 percent. 

Before you start a Trappist tavern-crawl, write down the name of your hotel and the room number. If not, you might wake up somewhere quite unknown.

Read what else to see in Belgium

BELGIUM - Flanders in a nutshell

ANTWERP for Rubens and rocks

BRUGES - fast track to the Middle Ages

BRUSSELS - visiting a Grande Place 

FLANDERS - Visit Ypres for Flanders Fields

"Books to read - click on cover pictures" or click on the links below

Good Beer Guide to Belgium  by Tim Webb - Very well informed CAMRA guide, with details of the 170 breweries and 1100 beers in regular production, and lists the best hand-picked bars in Ghent and the other major tourist cities.

Brussels, Bruges, Antwerp and Ghent (Eyewitness Top 10 Travel Guides) - Covers all four of the great art cities of Flanders, listing out the Top Ten sights, museums, restaurants, chocolate shops etc in each city.

Flemish Cities Explored: Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, Mechelen, Leuven and Ostend (Pallas for Pleasure)  by Anthony Blunt - Excellent choice for anyone who wants to stay longer in Belgium, and explore the highlights in detail on foot.

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