Without denying the attractions of Europe’s capitals and fabled art cities, increasingly I plan trips to quieter places that haven’t been overwhelmed by tourism. Even in a small country like Belgium, it is still possible to escape the crowds that flood cities like Brussels and Bruges.
From 1000 to around 1550, Ghent was one of the largest and richest cities in Europe, its prosperity generated by the wool trade.
This explains why its architecture is so spectacular. The city cherishes the buildings of its golden age, which include a moated castle, a Gothic cathedral, a 298-foot belfry and three beguinages (residences for religious women who lived in a community without taking vows or retiring from the world).
When I got off the train at Ghent’s splendid Gent-Sint-Pieters station, after a 30-minute ride from Brussels, the only passengers who joined me on the platform were an older woman and her grandson. All the other passengers, including two large Chinese tour groups, remained aboard, bound for Bruges. When I admired the murals of the station’s main waiting room, the woman proudly explained that the station had been built for the 1913 Exposition universelle et internationale. “And that was the last time our lovely city was really crowded, which suits us just fine,” she said with a chuckle.
In addition to the attractions of its medieval architecture, Ghent has recently developed a small constellation of exceptional restaurants. (In 2018, Michelin awarded Restaurant Vrijmoed its second star, while Chambre Séparée and Oak both gained their first.) Ghent is also a fine city for shoppers, with numerous one-of-a-kind boutiques selling handmade chocolates, linen, porcelain, antiques and clothing by local designers.