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July 30, 2015, Belgium

Sweet endings in Belgium

Tan Yew Kiat explored the cities of Ghent and Bruges to discover their mediaeval best

Tan Yew Kiat

“THERE is an elevator!” my delighted wife exclaimed.

Having pounded the steps up many towers in Europe before, we were surprised (and relieved) that this Unesco-listed, 91m tall Belfry built in the 14th century has been updated with a touch of modernity —but of course, we are in Ghent, Belgium!

Move away from busy Brussels, the power base of grim-faced bureaucrats of the European Union, and the charms of the country subtly reveal themselves to win you over.

Gilded dragon and carillon bells

The elevator whisked us up most of the way and through several levels of interesting exhibits.

The remarkable gilded dragon that used to grace the apex of the tower looked massive up close.

We wondered how the builders secured the heavy dragon to the top in those days.

There were also displays on bells previously used in the Belfry and how they were made. Some of these bells have names and the most famous is “Roland”, whose hourly chimes regulated lives in more medieaval times.

Another level up and the intricate mechanism behind the Belfry was on display. We saw pulleys, levers and a giant musical drum worked in sync to produce a melodious tunes with the carillon bells.

We walked up the final few steps to the exposed platform and a stupendous view of Ghent greeted us.

Ghent is compact, we could see the beautiful pedestrian-only town centre, the St Nicholas’ Church and Gravensteen, where we were headed next.

Jan van Ecyk’s masterpiece

Gravensteen is a 12th century stone castle built to defend Ghent, then the most affluent city in Europe north of the Alps. The castle once served as the seat of the Count of Flanders and was a cotton mill less than 200 years ago.

Today, it houses an eclectic mix of armour suits, ancient weapons and a collection of torture devices used against dissidents and prisoners.

At Saint Bavo Cathedral, we saw the Ghent altarpiece — Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by renowned artist Jan van Ecyk. Completed in 1432, it was one of the earliest and most important major works using oil paint as a medium.

Almost destroyed during outbreaks of iconoclasm, looted by Germans in WWII, and with one of 12 panels stolen and never recovered, the restored masterpiece is truly resplendent.

It was well worth the time admiring all 12 panels using the audio guide.

If Ghent is picturesque by day, it is even more spectacular at night. Taking a stroll along the water was the perfect way to admire the beautiful flood-lit facades of the guild houses along the graslei reflected in the still waters.

Chocoholics’ haven

The following day, we headed for Bruges, a short 30-minute train ride away. We arrived early for the farmers’ market in the central square.

Sample cheap berries, local delights and a smorgasbord of cheese at the farmers’ market, which, by late morning, gave way to the clatter of horse carriages that bring tourists around on guided tours, reminiscent of a time when Bruges was a prosperous trading hub in the 1300s.

Capitalising on the fine weather, we hopped onto the canal cruise. Cruising the dreamy canals of Bruges is a must-do activity. The 45-trip took us through scenic historic areas
otherwise inaccessible by foot, and gave us a glimpse of life in Bruges as it is today.

We could not leave Belgium without some of its renowned chocolates.

Shopping for chocolates in Bruges is an experience in itself.

We ended our time in Bruges on a sweet note by spending a couple of hours trying the hand-crafted pralines and truffles at different chocolatiers. We had a hard time picking our favorites before the chocolates were carefully packed in exquisite boxes for the journey home.


Getting there

There are no direct flights from Singapore to Belgium. KLM  flies daily to Brussels with a stopover at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam. Total flight time is approximately 14 hours, excluding a two hour transit. From Brussels airport, Ghent is an hour away by train.

Traveller’s tips

- Brief showers lasting 15 to 30 minutes are common in Belgium. It will not derail your itinerary. Carrt an umbrella or find a nice cafe to enjoy a mug of hot chocolate or a cold beer when it rains.

- Chocolates are sold by the piece in most of the shops. Buy a few pieces of pralines and chocolate truffles from each shop to try before committing to buy the boxes of chocolates that you would surely be enticed to bring home as gifts.

- Both Bruges and Ghent experience an avalanche of day-trippers on weekends in summer from neighbouring countries. Weekdays are less crowded and room rates are relatively cheaper.

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