Question: which Belgian city was named by Lonely Planet as “Europe’s best-kept secret”?
The answer is Ghent, the sometimes underrated Flemish city that was once the second biggest city in northern Europe.
While it attracts more than its fair share of international tourists, Ghent, unlike its Flemish neighbour Bruges, is not totally overrun with visitors.
This is what Lonely Planet, which is still seen as the “bible” for many travellers, said of the city: “Asking citizens of Ghent what they think of their city is a pointless exercise: you’ll find only unanimous love.
“And with good reason. Ghent is one of Europe’s greatest discoveries – small enough to feel cosy but big enough to stay vibrant. It has enough medieval frivolity to create a spectacle but retains a gritty industrial edge that keeps things ‘real’.
The city makes for a lovely visit anytime of the year and none more so than the summer when its quaint cobbled streets are full of visitors from all over the world.
When the sun is out it’s good to “mess about” on the river and landlocked Gent offers some particularly great opportunities to indulge yourself.
The Minerva boat company (www.minervaboten.be) has the biggest single collection (no less than 26 vessels) of hire boats in the whole of Belgium.
It has just taken collection of four brand new boats, some carrying up to 12 people each. For very affordable rates,you can rent a boat for an hour or longer. You don´t require a boating license or any experience so anyone over 18 years of age can have go on their easy-to-navigate boats. You’ll encounter no swing bridges and qualified staff provide all the necessary info and advice.
Having just celebrated its fifth anniversary, this family-run company, which is based very centrally in the city, is going from strength to strength. This year has proved particularly busy, with visitors from all four corners of the world, not least Americans who are starting to discover other parts of Belgium.
Meandering along the local waterways on one of their boats is a real delight, allowing one to take in some lovely scenery and the picturesque streets in and around the city. You can get on and off at selected places and, even for beginners, steering these vessels could not be easier.
Another fantastic attraction in Gent is S and R Rozebroeken (www.sr-rozebroeken.be), a subtropical swimming paradise with water rides, tyre slides, wave pool, outdoor children´s pools, plus several saunas and steam bath. Open 7/7, it is ideal for families.
This too recently marked its fifth anniversary and has also proved a great success story locally.
It boasts an Olympic-sized pool which is easily the biggest in the city and regularly plays host to major sporting events.
One relatively new feature are the “angel eyes” in the pools – special detectors which raise the alarm should anyone find themselves in difficulty in the water. It’s a particularly innovative safety device that offers extra reassurance for pool users.
The centre frequently hosts an average of no less than 2,000 visitors a day (often more) and is conveniently located not far off the main motorway to/from Brussels so is very easy to access from the capital.
The parent company runs similar aquatic centres in other parts of Belgium (mostly Flanders) and, like the Minerva boat rides, this is a “must-do” item on the agenda of anyone visiting Ghent.
After all that energy sapping exercise you may have worked up an appetite and one great place to sate your hunger is Restaurant Du Progres (www.duprogres.be) at the very heart of old Ghent.
Here you can sampling the wonderful delights concocted by its new Irish-born chef, Aiden Scully, and the new kitchen team, all charged with the task of upholding a proud culinary tradition going back many years.
Superbly run by Johan De Baets, the third generation of the family De Baets, it really is unbeatable for price and, of course, the quality of its homemade dishes.
Despite recent internal changes, it is still very much flying the flag for authentic Belgian cuisine like croquettes with shrimps and/or cheese, Belgian Blue (steak); steak tartare; Ghent chicken casserole and asparagus, cooked the Flemish way. Du Progres is best known for its mouth-watering steaks and the tournedos (served with salad, fries and homemade sauce) – all hard to resist.
There’s also that other perennial favourite, waterzooi (a local speciality) and, if meat is not your thing, a nice choice also for vegetarians, pasta and salads.
The welcoming Johan and his new-look kitchen team try to use locally sourced ingredients and produce.
From 15 January, it closes for a month for the construction of a brand new kitchen so catch it before then, if possible.
So, with its fabulous canalside architecture, wealth of quirky bars and some of Belgium’s most fascinating museums, this is a city you really won’t want to miss.