A winter day in Ghent

This item appears on page 16 of the November 2011 issue.

While many may not view Brussels in December as an ideal getaway, my husband and I have long loved visiting Europe close to the Christmas holidays. In 2010 we centered ourselves at the Floris Arlequin Grand Place Hotel (€146-€179) in the I’llôt Sacré, Dec. 8-14, and took advantage of the holiday schedule to spend a weekend day in Ghent (Gent).

It was a quick 10-minute walk to the Gare Centraal, where we purchased round-trip train tickets to Ghent for a mere €8 ($11) each (weekend rate), departing from Gate 2. In just under half an hour we arrived at the Ghent-Sint-Pieters station, which adjoins the bus and tram terminals as well.

We wanted to visit the historic center of this phenomenal city. Unfortunately, none of the tram or bus operators could tell us how to get to St. Baafskathedraal (Saint Bavo Cathedral), and we spent our first half hour going to and fro, finally opting to walk. We now know that one of the best options is to take tram No. 1, “Flanders Expo,” which departs from the Stadhuis (Town Hall) on the return.

In Ghent, a lovely Christmas market greeted us on Sint-Baaf­splein, the square linking St. Baafskathedraal and the Belfort. With more art than mass-produced tourist fare, it was far less commercial than those in the major cities like Brussels. And this square, surrounded by beautiful 14th- and 15th-century buildings, is only minutes from some great shopping.

St. Baafskathedraal houses the famous Jan van Eyck work “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” an exquisitely painted 12-panel screen completed in 1432 and remarkable for its state of preservation and striking colors. Check viewing times, as it was in an enclosed side chapel that cost, during our visit, €3 for admission. You can freely view the rest of this majestic Gothic cathedral without paying a fee.

Just across the square is the Belfort, the landmark belfry that soars nearly 300 feet, topped by a copper dragon. The displays inside do not have English captions, but you can get a guide sheet in English for €5.

Your fee includes the lift, which takes you to a narrow viewing parapet about 200 feet above ground for incredible views of the city. On the viewing “platform” it’s a tight squeeze and impossible to pass anyone, so be prepared for a slow walk about or for backing up to let others through.

Make certain to view the huge, 54-bell carillon. It’s rare to see one this large so close up and is fascinating in action.

Something we almost missed — the lower level of the Belfort includes the old Cloth Hall, where you’ll find one of the friendliest tourist information offices around. Pick up city maps there. They also will help you plan walking routes to interesting sights.

Just a few steps away from the Belfort is Sint-Niklaaskerk (St. Nicholas’ Church), built for the merchant class around the 14th century. Although a little austere, the soaring pillars and Baroque altar screen are worth the visit.

You can take a curvy walk through the Graslei and Korenlei areas that line the Leie River to gaze upon the picturesque façades of the guildhalls and homes. And the views from the St. Michielsbrug (bridge) are both soothing and amazing, even in wintertime.

If you’re interested in a snack, stop in the Groot Vleeshuis (Great Meat Hall), a restored 14th-century covered market that still promotes eastern Flemish foods and meats and boasts a café as well as a delicatessen for takeout. Closed only on Monday, it would be a great place to assemble a picnic lunch.

So that we’d have energy for the last sight on our day’s schedule, Het Gravensteen (Castle of the Counts), we stopped for lunch at Al Castello (Gelmunt 2, Ghent 9000; phone 09 233 3001), located across from the castle’s entrance. It’s listed as a French/Italian restaurant, but we found the Italian portion of the menu to be more extensive.

There are only two window tables, but the ambiance was warm and cheerful and we found ourselves among courting couples, families and other travelers. We had the three-cheese baked penne and stuffed ravioli served with warm bread — about €9 each and quite delicious. The portions were generous and the service was friendly but not intrusive.

On Sint-Veerleplein and open year-round, Het Gravensteen (phone 09 225 9306), is an imposing stone castle with parts dating back to the 12th century. The admission price (€8) includes an English-language audio tour that is a little too cute in tone at times but certainly keeps you on path through multiple rooms, stairways and levels.

From the depths of the dungeon through the arms museum and torture room to the turrets with stunning views, you can easily take two hours to complete the tour.

My husband and I toured Bruges on a prior trip. While we may prefer it for longer stays, Ghent is a lovely city well worth a day trip. It offers enough churches, castles, historic buildings, lovely vistas and shopping for even the most particular traveler.

Omaha, NE