Welcome back to Ask a Local, a series of posts in which I interview locals all over the world about what to see, where to go, what to eat, and how to fit in in their city or town.
Today I’m excited to introduce you to my friends Fred and Ann. Fred is an accomplished chef and a swing dancer. Ann is an artist and a dancer as well. Both are parents (each having two children). And both are good friends and inspirations to me.
Today, they’re going to tell you about one of my favorite places in the world: Ghent, Belgium.
First, tell us a little about you. How long have you lived in Ghent? What kinds of things do you like to do on your days off?
Fred: I lived almost all my life in Ghent. Till I was 14, I lived in Destelbergen, a green village 7km from the city centre. Then I moved to a boarding school. After school, I lived in Brussels for a year or two. Then I came back to Ghent. 10 years ago I moved back to Destelbergen, where I grew up, but still consider Ghent my hometown.
Ann: I’m one of the lucky ones who was born and raised in Ghent. That’s means, I’ve been experiencing this town for 43 years already. In my free time I do different things, depending on the moment and the events going on, and, in my mind, this is a big advantage in Ghent: there’s always somewhere something going on. Sometimes it’s hard to choose.
Some of the things I do? Hang around with the kids in a park, go climbing, go swimming, see a movie, or hang around with some friends in town, in a bar, or at a party.
Tell us a little about Ghent’s culture and history.
Fred: I can’t tell “a little” about Ghent. Come here and stay at least for a few days to enjoy the history, from the Middle Ages till now, taste the delicious food. We have a rich food-culture (I should mention that I cook for a living).
Ann: When it comes to history, I don’t know that much, though we have beautiful historical monuments and buildings. As far as I know, we were not a very brave community. We were particularly oppressed by Karel De Grote, who made the people of Ghent walk around in some kind of nightgown and a ‘strop’ around their neck because they protested about paying taxes. Every year during the Ghentse Feesten a lot of us still wear the strop in remembrance.
There are a lot of multicultural activities in Ghent. We have one special place: De Centrale. In this venue, there are many parties, concerts, films, foreign cooking classes, music-classes, etc.
If someone is visiting Ghent for the first time, what would you recommend they see or do?
Fred: Well, it depends on the amount of time you have to spend. If you stay a short time, I would send you on the real touristic path. Take small boats on the river Leie, visit the medieval Castle, and maybe visit a museum. If you stay a bit longer, you should try to visit a pub, have a long walk in town, do some shopping, and, if you come at the right time, enjoy a festival. (There are plenty, but one of the most spectacular, the Ghentse Feesten, happens in July; the whole town turns into a giant cultural party for 10 days 24/7.)
Ann: I would recommend that you find a way to get in contact with locals. Everyone has his own way of experiencing Ghent. They have different work, different family, different friends, different favorite places…different stories.
What neighborhoods or parts of town are the best to stay in? (And why?)
Fred: As the city centre is quite small and there is a lot of water, it is very nice to stay in a central B&B. But you should definitely try to visit more than one neighborhood.
Ann: The best place to stay is the center of Ghent because it’s very cozy and beautiful. In the daytime, there are a lot of shops and at night it has a very beautiful lighting.
If you’d rather stay outside the center…
Neighborhoods recommended for their historical value: Patershol, Prinsenhof, Begijnhof. Neighborhoods recommended for families with kids: Park van Rozenbroeken, Blaarmeersen (with parcours), Baudelo. Neighborhoods recommended in general: Portus Ganda, de Sikkel (hidden behind the Sint-Baafskathedraal),
Let’s talk about day trips…what nearby places should everyone make sure to visit?
Fred: If you stay more than once week…I like to take people for a ride outside town to see the fabulous castle of Laarne. Ghent is also very well located to enjoy mini-city-trips to Brussels, Bruges, and even Lille, which is actually located in France but has a rich Flemish history.
Ann: De Scheldevallei is a very nice area with beautiful nature for long walks or bike trips. It also has a number of art museums worth visiting.
Tell us about local dishes. What kind of food should people try here in Ghent?
Fred: We have the same food as the French. In fact, what is known as the “French Cuisine” is, in fact, Flemish. That said, you really have to eat fries with mayonnaise and stew gravy (in Flemish: een pakske friet met mayonnaise en stoofvleessaus). Other local specialties include: eels in green sauce (in Flemish: paling in ‘t groen), the creamy fish or chicken soup (waterzooi), or the beef or pork stew (stoverij), which is best with a beer.
Ann: Gestreken mastellen (sweet cinnamony pastries), cuberdons (a candy also known as the Ghent nose), frietjes (fries, usually served with mayonnaise), and Gentse waterzooi (a Belgian stew made with chicken or fish).
What about breakfast – do people go out to breakfast here? What do they normally eat? Any favorite breakfast places we should try?
Fred: Breakfast is an important meal, especially on the weekend. We love to brunch and many places will offer brunch Sundays at noon. We have bread and lots of local Danish pastries; we call them boterkoeken, which means butter rolls. They come in lots of different shapes, stuffings, and tastes.
What are your top three restaurants or bars?
Fred: My dining room, my garden, and the hot club de Gand.
Ann: Balisto (Ann – do you have an address for this?) for a hot chocolate, Ratz Bar (across from the Flemish Opera House), Faim Fatale (in the Zuidstationstraat – a superb and cozy restaurant), Tasty (amazing vegetarian fast food), Pantomiene (for a daily menu), and Komkommertijd (a vegetarian buffet restaurant).
Where’s the best place to get dessert?
Ann: Definitely Françoise,
Is there anything that tourists do that Belgians find rude? Any way we can better fit in with the culture?
Fred: We are very tolerant, but do not make too much noise.
Ann: Not as far I’m concerned. I just like it when people are having a good time and enjoying themselves.
What’s the best way to make local friends here?
Fred: Dance the Lindy Hop! Or just go to a pub, have a drink, and talk to people. Try to find a place where you can share your passion (like dance), inform yourself, and try to meet local people through Facebook, Couchsurfing, or something similar. Local people will bring you to the right places and maybe introduce you to other locals.
Ann: Go to one of the many local bars; inhabitants of Ghent are very social. In nine cases out of ten, they will start a conversation because they are interested in where you come from and what you are doing in their beloved city. [Editor’s note: This was 100% true of my own time in Ghent. Meeting people was easy!]
Where should I go to take the best photos of the town and/or region?
Fred: Go to the city centre and have a walk along the canals.
Ann: From the Sint Michiels bridge, you’ll have a wonderful view of the Graslei (main street) and the famous three towers of Ghent. But practically every corner in Ghent is worthy of a photo.
Finally, and importantly, what does a rooster say?
Fred: Kukulekuuu or Cocoricoooo depending of which linguistic background (French or Flemish).