I have a dirty little secret.
You might even share it. You see, I love Belgium. Butt of all those jokes about naming famous Belgians (there are quite a few, actually) and never as hip as the Netherlands, Belguim has so many charms to offer. How can you not love a country that purposefully failed to elect a leader for a year (last year in fact) and got by just fine. Perhaps we should try it.
Now of all the places in Belgium that have captured my heart, it’s sweet, friendly, beautiful, vibrant Ghent that tops the list. Think Bruges without so many tourists, a little less lace, almost as much chocolate and a little more attitude, and you’ve found Ghent. Nestling on a network of canals, and with a large river port tucked away somewhere you never quite find, Ghent keeps dragging me back time after time. I swore I would never be one of those people to keep returning somewhere, but she keeps calling, and I keep being seduced by her siren charms.
There are many, many things to do on the Ghent travel list, but here’s one that always lulls me into a Zen-like state: taking the river boat to St Martens-Latem. The Lys or Leie is known as the Golden River and is described as the most beautiful river in Flanders. It undulates its way through the most spectacular countryside, full of wildlife and bordered by the kind of houses that give me a bad case of house-envy.
There is plenty of people watching to enjoy too. Groups of women laughing over glasses of iced tea and beer. Whole families settling in on deck with a kaas plat or two, complete with celery salt and the famous Ghent mustard, then a steaming plate of stoverij to enjoy. It seems as though this is some regular ritual for the Gentse people, and I think it may have become one of mine.
St Martens is known as the Artists’ village, full of sculpture and galleries. You can see a lot of the sculpture in the riverside gardens en route. An hour there is never quite enough, especially if you have lingered at the boat to watch the ritual feeding of the ducks. As soon as the boat docks and the gangway is lowered, a choir of quacking begins…solo voices blending as the river swells with the black and white stripers, moorhens, an occasional goose, more species of duck than I have ever seen before. Then a window opens in the galley, and the leftover bread emerges to feed the hungry flock. I tried counting, but gave up at 47 participants in the feeding frenzy.
The journey back is equally Zen-like. The gentle undulations of the river. The vast numbers of pleasure craft of all types and sizes. A heron, insolently viewing us while flexing his wings, perched on a rotting post. Messing about on the river: so quintessentially Belgian.