Ghent seems to live in the shadow of Bruges. It shouldn’t. This small Flemish city is fascinating in its own right, and well worth a visit. We stayed two nights and while we hit most of the highlights, I left feeling like I wanted to spend more time there. Don’t get me wrong; I love Bruges and I’ve visited there many times. But Flanders has other treasures to share.
We got off to a less than ideal start with Ghent. We were driving and thought we were well prepared. The parking garage near our hotel had been programmed into our GPS. So everything looked good, right up until we drove into the historic center. I’ve driven in Europe for years and I’m pretty familiar with the signs, but as I slowed to a crawl to negotiate a very narrow street, I saw a new sign that appeared to say “bicycles only in this direction,” in spite of the urgings of my GPS to continue forward.
Then I noticed that all the cars parked on the curbs—on both sides of the street—were pointed toward me. It was obvious I was on a one-way street, going the wrong way. I was able to turn around pretty quickly and try another route. I soon found that route blocked by street construction; and the next; and the one after that. We eventually found our way to an open square that we realized was pedestrian only. I could actually see the front of our parking garage a couple of hundred meters away. Unfortunately, this was a real-life illustration of the old phrase “You can’t get there from here.” Or there, or there, or there… We could almost hear the laughter from some mad city planner sitting at his drafting table creating this labyrinth of barricades.
I got the car turned around and was trying to come up with a plan when a pedestrian waved at me to indicate the direction I needed to go in order to reach a road I could actually drive on legally. I rolled down my window and he told me we were in a pedestrian zone. I told him where I was trying to go, pointing in vain at the nearby garage entrance that seemed like the impossible dream. He started to explain how to get there. Then he realized that route was also blocked. He tried again and hit the same wall. Finally, he asked, “May I get in your car?” Of course, I grasped at this lifeline and held on like grim death. Following his directions, we threaded our way completely out of the city, circled around, and re-entered from the opposite direction. We drove straight to our garage with no further incident. Our guide let us snap his photo and promised to speak to the Mayor about the traffic situation.
So why the long-winded account of the disaster that opened our stay? To make the point that a really stressful situation that had the potential to ruin our trip was turned by a kind local in a few short minutes into a wonderful experience that really set the tone for a great visit.
Fortunately, Ghent is an extremely foot-friendly city. Once our car was securely stowed, we didn’t need it again throughout our stay. I’ll save the highlights for future posts, but suffice to say that we enjoyed a couple of days of fine architecture, fine food, fine museums, and fine beer. And it was all dramatically underlined by the consistently friendly welcome we received from the people of this wonderful city.