Catarina is an architect, and we were classmates for only two years out of the five our course has. This is because I went to Italy in our third year and she went to Ghent, Belgium in the 4th, where she then decided to end the course, living there, therefore, during 2 of her 23 years of age. I challenged her to share her experiences in Belgium with us, as well as suggestions and tips for anyone who wants to visit Ghent and get to know the city a little better.

Why did you decide to leave Portugal and for how long have you been in Ghent?

Initially, I left Portugal for my Erasmus year in Ghent, while studying Architecture. I decided to go because I always wanted to have that experience of living abroad, and the Erasmus program was my first real opportunity to do so. Eventually, the experience was so great that after completing my Erasmus year I decided to continue my studies in Ghent and stayed for an extra year.

What expectations did you have about the Ghent and Belgium before going? Did those expectations match reality?

When I knew I was going to Belgium, I had the chance to pick between Brussels, the capital, and Ghent, a smaller city in Flanders. I knew very little about Ghent and ended up deciding to go there based on details for my studies but I never thought it could be a big shock, I had the feeling things would work more or less in the same way I was used to in Portugal. Meanwhile, before going, I did some research and talked to people that had already been in Belgium but I didn’t want to create a specific image of the country based only on those testimonies.

When I arrived the reality wasn’t very different from what we’re used to in Portugal and since I went to study I knew that eventually I would start meeting people and making friends and exploring the city a bit more, so the chock of moving to another country wasn’t that big and managed to avoided any disappointment.

How do you characterize belgians? 

Living and studying in Belgium isn’t very different from Portugal, there’s a lot of similarities and the belgians help a lot. Belgians are really nice and I think quite welcoming towards foreigners. There are a lot of universities in Ghent and a lot of foreign students, you always hear english in the streets and the belgians are quite chilled with foreigner. They can seem a bit colder from us, portuguese people, at first but they’re used to expats and tourists, they’re interested in engaging with them and were usually always very helpful  if you needed something!

What do you like and dislike the most about Ghent?

One of the things I loved the most about the city is that Ghent is very quiet, very safe and really accessible in all levels. It’s very easy to cross the city by bike in 15 minutes, take a train to Brugges, Antwerp or Brussels or get on a plane to any other european city, which for an Erasmus student is always good! Besides that, one of the things I love the most is that, after a school or work day, ans specially when the weather allows it, people will get together in the streets to relax a bit. I found a very quiet sense of living that was surprising comparing it to Portugal.

I can’t pinpoint one thing I really disliked about Ghent. Besides some practical details that we’re used to in Portugal, like supermarkets and stores being open until late in the day which doesn’t happen in Belgium that much, the city’s vibe always puts you in a good mood!

How was a normal day for you in Ghent?

My classes and the work I had for them were my normal day, however my schedule was very practical so it always allowed me to have some time for extra activities and explore the city a bit more. The end of the day and during the night, me and my friends would always find time to taste another belgian beer or find a new bar that we didn’t know about. During the weekend it was always very easy to get on a train and spend the day in another city, exploring the country a bit more.

Let’s try to do a three day travel itinerary of Ghent. Tell us, in your opinion, what are the “mandatory” things to see or do.

Ghent is a rather small city so with 3 days one can also get to know less central areas of the city. To start I would recommend a walk around the city, passing through Graslei area and the castle, following the churches towers and the canals and exploring a bit of the medieval architecture of the city that is also very belgian. Mandatory is also to pass through these same places during the night and to enter the St. Bavo’s Cathedral to see the Ghent Altarpiece or, how it might be known better as, the “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb“, painted in the 15th century by Hubert and Jan van Eyck that went through a lot of hands though out the centuries. One of its pieces is still missing to this day and it’s definitely worth the visit.

To know more about the history of the city, the STAM museum is the place to go

The boat trips on the canal, even though one of the most touristic activities one can do, are really interesting. You can learn about the city and go through its center from a different perspective. Other equally interesting museums to visit if you have time are the Design Museum, right in the center, usually always with a fun exhibition, the SMAK – the Municipailty Museum for Contemporary Art and right next to it the MSK – the Fine Arts Museum. Another particularly special museum is the Dr. Guislain Museum, the oldest psychiatry hospital in Belgium was transformed into a museum about mental illness and the history of psychiatry as well as a art collection.

For street arte fans, it’s also worth it to go through the city map, starting in Werrengarenstraat and going through Grindbakken, up in the north of the city and already close to the port of Ghent, an area of pits that was previously used to transfer sand and gravel between ships and lorries, and was cleaned and painted white to be used for events and exhibitions and where you can always find new pieces. Nevertheless you can always wonder through the city and find some random piece. During the summer, it’s mandatory to go to Blaarmeersen, the city lake with a mini beach and plenty of green space to relax, have a picnic or drink a beer.

Let’s talk about food! What gastronomic specialities do we have to try in Ghent? What restaurants do you suggest?

Food wise, Belgium is known for its fries, mussels, waffles and of course, the chocolate that one should and can taste all around the city. You can also find one of the best burger you will ever eat at Uncle Babe’s burger bar and also try the exquisite cocktails they have. Check out the famous Amadeus and, for lunch only, Parnassus is a restaurant in a former church that has a fixed menu every week but is totally worth it! There’s also the newly installed Holy Food market for quite some options, including a portuguese one, also installed in a previous church. Ghent is also a city with a lot of vegetarian options! Of course, one doesn’t go to Belgium without trying the beers and in Ghent you can also try the famous “Ghent Noses” or in dutch, the Cuberdon, a small cone-shaped sweet that can be found in quiosks in the city center.

Any tips on how to save money in the city? And what’s the biggest “tourist trap” about Ghent?

The biggest tip I can give to save money is to avoid the public transport and walk around the city or rent a bike to get to know Ghent. To go around the city in 2 or 3 days it’s not strictly necessary to get into the public transportation system but tenting a bike could be much cheaper and since the city is so bike-friendly it really is the best way to go around. Walking around is also a good alternative as the city is very flat. The closest thing to a “tourist trap” I could say must be to taste the beers in bars, not because the prices are too high but, if your goal is to taste a lot of different types of beer it won’t be an easy bill to pay. Of course, if you avoid the bars you won’t have the full experience of tasting every beer in its specific glass, one of the rules taken very seriously in the Unesco Intangible Heritage that is the Belgian beer culture.

Where in the city should we look for accommodation and why?

Ghent is not a big city so any of its central areas would be accessible to find accommodation, although the city center has another charm and it’s always nicer to be closer when you start to feel the effects of the beer! There’s a lot of hostels and hotels in the city, not necessarily cheap from what I know, but a lot of tourist that visit Ghent don’t necessarily star the night since the train access to the bigger cities is really easy and it’s definitely an option to consider if you wan to visit other belgian cities as well.

What are the best places fo a night out? 

Ghent is a city with a lot of students so it’s not hard to find a bar that is open. I would recommend, if the mood is to grab a drink and relax, the Hot Club Ghent, where there’s jazz concerts almost every day; the bar at Vooruit, an historical building that was transformed into an arts center with exhibitions, concerts and other cultural activities, and Trollekelder, where you can find a huge selection of beers and taste them in a calm environment. If you are looking for the party scene, a few of my favourite places are Millie Vanillie, in the city center, and close to St. Jacob’s church, where there’s a lot of different bars and clubs, try Cafe Video or Charlatan, one of the most famous bars in Ghent and the place where all nights end.

What’s your favourite place or activity in Ghent?

My favourite activity in Ghent is definitely the Gentse Festeen, the city festival! Every year, during 10 days in July there are concerts, theatre and a bunch of other activities in the streets, the big squares and even in the canal, though out the day and the night. The festival has been celebrated for 174 years and receiver, every year, between 1,2 and 1,7 million people, with more than 100000 people in Ghent every day. I’s considered one of the biggest city festivals of Europe, comparable to some extent to Oktoberfest or Fallas. It is truly an incredible event and environment, that I can’t compare to anything in Portugal, and I advise to anyone who’s thinking of visiting Belgium and Ghent.

You can’t leave Ghent whitout…

spending a late afternoon in Graslei with a beer (or more) and friends!

 

Catarina is now living in Berlin, so in a while we can ask her for another text about another city! And of course, any day we’ll see each other there 🙂 Thank you for the text!