A Goliard in Ghent

“Goliard – any of the wandering students and clerics in medieval England, France, and Germany, remembered for their satirical verses and poems in praise of drinking and debauchery.”

Okay, so whilst I enjoy the idea of being a wandering student poet, I generally do my best to avoid drunken debauchery… although it has this terrible habit of seeking me out… what can I say? Life’s not always so clean and easy. And I do love dancing on tables…

copyright Eva Vanhee 2014

Ghent, Belgium, is an extraordinarily beautiful city. Medieval architecture abounding, gently flowing canals gliding under the narrow streets, Gothic windows, antique doors, charming castles and palaces and churches making the whole place feel like a fairy-tale playground. I am in love with Ghent. Truly. It’s just the kind of place for an aesthete…

I was staying in Brussels for a while, with an old friend of mine, Eva, who I lived with in Florence during my Italian ministry. She was my first friend when I arrived in the city. I still call her up when I’m in a logistical pickle now.
We caught the train to Ghent for the day, and were blessed with the only day of sunshine on my recent Belgium trip! The train cost us around 12 euros return from Brussels. Well worth it to see this Medieval Paradise gleaming in the low Autumn sun.

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Nine months, Eva, I spent in that jewel city Florence, and yet our most memorable moments were spent drinking endless cups of tea till the early hours discussing travel plans and living dreams!! And wasn’t it worth it?? Eva’s spontaneous move to Spain was a product of those talks at Numero Uno, Via del Pratellino. Trips to Venice and one-way tickets to India have been my results (yes, Eva, I’ve booked it!!) and I will never forget the time Eva and Nadine (another housemate) had to carry me home after my first Italian gig (there was plenty of drunken debauchery then)…

And this time, once again over plenty of tea drinking, I spent most of the trip trying to convince Eva to quite her boring  job…

When I received a message from her a few weeks later saying “I quit my job today!!!! I just had to tell you! Thank you dear dear James – for everything!” I realised that the power of those tea nights is still working…

Never underestimate the power of tea.

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Now, just as we arrived in Ghent a faint echo of music could be heard from afar. And there were people, many people, walking in the same direction, toward the music. And so… we followed the music too…
As we arrived at this square we found the source of all the magnetic energy – it was the funeral of famous and much-loved Belgian singer Luc De Vos.
We arrived in time to hear the last of his songs played, and the black car drive off through the crowds, to the artist’s final resting place…

The crowds were immense! Many people were crying and the energy of so many people pouring through the streets was just magnetic indeed!

After walking down the main street amidst the throngs of mourning Belgians, Eva and I dived into a little bar.
I love Belgian bars. Close, dark – people everywhere reading papers, drinking beer, slurping from little bowls of soup. In fact, I think Eva and I had about three bowls of soup at three different bars that day alone… and plenty of beers, of course.

waiting for my second beer...
waiting for my second beer…

I found that I had to use my (not very good) French a lot more in Brussels than in Ghent. In fact, Eva kept telling me off for trying to speak French in Ghent. Ghent is very much Belgian, as in Flemish Belgian. People prefer it if you speak English there – I was very well received and found the Belgians very affable. But, as always, it’s nicest to be shown round by a local (Eva is Flemish Belgian, from the area originally).

I’ve seen Brussels, Bruges, Antwerp, even Ypres, but Ghent was by far my favourite. Unlike Bruges there isn’t a chocolate shop on EVERY DAMN CORNER selling over-priced Belgian chocolates. In fact, I ate hardly a mouthful of chocolate whilst in Belgium. I was much more interested in the beer…

Like Englishmen and tea, Belgian beer is not to be underestimated! The stuff is delicious… and bloody powerful.

I’ve heard Ghent called the ‘Venice of Belgium’ on a few occasions. I can understand why – everything from the medieval palaces, to the waterfront buildings, to the water itself captures the imagination, seduces the senses, envelopes the mind in otherworldly tranquility –

There are plenty of Invisible Cities to be discovered…

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Belgian cities have plenty of fountains too (another favourite of mine). But this time I managed to keep my clothes on and my body dry… well, nearly…

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Every hour we dived into another little bar, tavern, pub – whatever you want to call it. Ghent has plenty of little places, both in the historic centre (naturally my favourite part) and in the suburbs. Plenty of little, historic bars, nice people, and all relatively cheap too.

On cold days like these a bowl of soup and a Belgian beer is enough to warm anyone’s soul (and get you a bit cock-eyed).

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My advise for travellers to any city is to go unprepared – by all means book hotels and check-out a bit about the local culture online – but when it comes to maps, tour-guides, museums – forget it. Just walk, wander, muse around a city – let it take you away – expect nothing and received everything – allow a place to take you on a journey, show you things you never thought you’d see.

So many times I’ve heard people say about a place “it wasn’t what I expected.”

WHY IS THAT A BAD THING??

People are obsessed with control, they even want a foreign place to fit in with their ideals.

Ideas are not rigid. They can be changed. When I get to a new place and realise it is nothing like I expected it to be I get the most excited feeling! How wonderful to be taken on a new and completely different journey. Let your minds go, people! The world is so diverse, you will never have the same experience twice. That is the beauty of travel!

When you get to a place like Ghent, forget what you think you should see, forget how the place “looked in the guidebooks”, and enjoy it for what it is.

True travellers do not conform – because travel will not conform.

“Learn to go with the flow” – that isn’t just some hippy saying. It’s a reality. LET GO and stop trying to put everything in a box.

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 I loved getting lost in Ghent. It’s a place you really can just wander… allow your thoughts and worries to be washed away by its architectural and natural delights. Breathe and just be… and even dance a bit if you like.

You never know what you might encounter.

J x.

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