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Published: September 13th 2016
Like trying to choose at a giant international ice cream parlor, where all the flavors are exciting and inviting, we sit down each month to decide where our next destination might be. We can only choose one flavor per month, so we have to be smart about our choice. Pick something that you don’t like and you may be stuck for a whole month with a half-eaten, melted, soggy-cone mess that no amount of effort will repair to the level of expectations you had before you took your first bite.
We sit around a table; our favorite web sites loaded on the computer and try to use logic to pick what destination might interest us in the upcoming month. Like looking through the jewel case display of global deliciousness available at your favorite gelateria, we peruse the multitude of colors, ingredients, tastes and flavors that the names on the screen imply. Of course we have some old favorites, the luscious richness of the Frozen Custard that is Paris, the Pistachio luxuriance of Rome or the sweetness of the Tres Leches that is Mexico. While we love these and can’t wait to sample them again, our travel taste generally
wanders to something we haven’t tried for a while. Perhaps we are briefly tempted by the Mango Madness that we knew in Bangkok or the exotic Ginger Spice that is Delhi, but after a few months of semi-difficult travel through the Balkans we found ourselves looking at all the brightly colored swirls and multi-hued rainbows in front of us and kind of unanimously decided to try something that sounded a little less daring. Not necessarily less exciting, but just a destination that seemed like a good safe choice. No Raspberry Swirl or Tutti Frutti this trip to the parlor.
Before Nanci returned to the United States for a few weeks to visit her father, we had thought of Amsterdam as a good location to continue our travels. It proved to be a little expensive this time of year, as most of Europe is on vacation during August. Bruges was a close second choice, but we found it difficult to find lodging for a full month. Nearby to Bruges, we saw Ghent, Belgium which had several affordable apartments that were available. We knew nothing of Ghent, even how to pronounce its name correctly (it’s Gent with a hard
G). To be honest we didn’t know much about Belgium other than what we had seen on a few stopovers in Brussels on our way to somewhere else. A country famous for strong beer, waffles and rich chocolate can’t be too hard to understand. Just what we were looking for.
Looking at a map, we immediately saw that Ghent is almost a hub in the center of the more well-known Belgian cities of Antwerp, Brussels and Bruges. A quick and inexpensive train ride brings you to any of these cities in less than an hour. When we looked at pictures of the Old Town area of Ghent, we saw grand medieval buildings with a unique architectural style and castles bordering tiny canals lined with umbrella covered restaurants. Transportation in the city is provided by easy to ride trams and all the conveniences of modern Europe were available. It seemed like the perfect place to settle in for a calm month.
We chose a house away from the busy tourist center, but close to the train station. For the first time in our travels, we stayed in the tiny upstairs apartment of a larger townhouse
occupied by a friendly local family. I arrived for the first 2 weeks without Nanci. Daily trips exploring the gorgeous downtown filled the days and early evenings. The tram system was easy to understand. While very few signs were in English, everyone seemed to speak multiple languages, with French, German, Flemish and English all very common. I found it very easy to communicate everywhere and people, while not overly friendly, were always very pleasant and polite.
I got a sense of Belgium being a place that borrows the best of all of its closest neighbors, Germany, Netherlands and France. The markets are full of beautiful produce very reminiscent of France. Cheeses, meats and vegetables are overflowing in any market you find. An abundance of gourmet markets with upscale products are located in many places in town. After a bit of shortage of luxuries in a few of the most recent countries we have visited, we made up by splurging on lots of delicious items we have longed for.
From Germany comes efficiency. Trams, buses and trains are plentiful and on time. No need to make a reservation on a train. Surely something will be
going your way after just the shortest of waits. Signs are plentiful and roads and traffic patterns seem well planned. The streets are clean and well paved. Belgium also sports a strong tradition of beer brewing; probably from Germany (although Belgians say it is the other way around). We sampled a few and found them delicious and VERY strong. Several of the beers voted “Best in the World” have come from Belgium recently.
From the Netherlands comes a healthy, progressive mindedness that is apparent right away. Everyone recycles. Bicycles are everywhere. All of Ghent, and most of Belgium is very flat and bicycles are a popular way of travelling. Citizens from the very young to the very old all ride every day. Sidewalks are frequently split between bicycles and walkers. It is noticeable that automobile traffic is greatly reduced. Most often we found ourselves more worried about being run over by a bicycle than a car as we crossed roads.
After a week or so of touring Ghent, we decided to move outward to other cities, starting with Bruges. A 30 minute train ride across the gorgeous countryside brought us to this cutest of
all medieval towns in Europe. Bruges is absolutely gorgeous. Canals run through the town and cause some to call it the Venice of the West. The streets are cobbled and nearly free of automobile traffic. Beautiful spires from town halls and cathedrals make directions through the town easy to find. It’s not possible to be lost here for long despite the narrow, winding streets. If there is one thing bad about Bruges, it is the fact that you will not be alone as you stroll through the gorgeous squares and alleys. Bruges’ beauty is well documented and it is packed with visitors.
After a few more days of visiting other parts of Ghent, we were off to the town of Ypres. A small town that was completely destroyed during World War I, Ypres was one of three main battlefields on the so called Western Front. Ferocious trench warfare was responsible for almost a half million dead in a series of battles over 4 years. The fighting was so horrific that most of the casualties are enshrined only by memorials to the unknown. The town was completely rebuilt after the war, from original plans, and looks today as
if it is a perfectly preserved small town. The In Flanders Field Museum tells the story of the battles that took place. It tells the story from an individual soldier’s point of view and gives a sense of the horror that must have been most participants’ experience.
We also spent a pleasant day touring Antwerp. While Bruges and Ghent made there riches as “port” cities that became wealthy through trade, Antwerp actually has an outlet to the sea. The city has a well-kept Old Town area and a huge array of shopping streets that carry everything from the latest fashions to a good portion of the world’s diamond trade. We felt Antwerp deserved more than one day of our time and it may be a place we would like to return to one day.
Ghent proved to be much more than we thought it would be. Wonderful architecture, good food, excellent museums and beautiful art including the famous ‘Ghent Altarpiece” in the St. Baaf’s Cathedral. The people were friendly, progressive and forward thinking. They seem to have taken the best of everything and brought it home to blend into their own unique community.
When we went to the counter and thought we were ordering a plain vanilla cone, we were pleasantly surprised that it turned out to be a double scoop of rich, flavorful, premium confection of pure delight that proved to be much more than we expected when we originally placed our simple order.
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