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Overview

Brugge (Bruges) may be the better known -- and possibly better looking -- of Belgium's medieval cities, but Ghent (Gent) is a viable alternative, as it is larger (twice the population), more authentic and less crowded, especially during the busy summer months. Its central location puts it almost equidistant from Brugge, Brussels and Antwerp.

In medieval times, Ghent was second only to Paris in power and population. The source of its wealth was the making of cloth, using imported English wool. Ghent was also once a major trading port, due to its ideal location at the intersection of two rivers (Schelde and Leie) and along a network of connecting canals. Today, the waterways are used mostly for pleasure barges and sightseeing launches -- the latter recommended as an alternative to walking -- and the city's heady past is reflected in the richness of its civic, commercial, religious and residential architecture.

Ghent is reached via the cruise ports of Antwerp or Zeebrugge. (River boat passengers arrive just outside the city center.) No need to be cooped up in a bus there -- the best methods of transportation are two feet, two wheels or a boat. In fact, most of Ghent's historic center is car-free, and its narrow lanes are inviting to explore. And, when you're not walking, feel free to stare at the city's eclectic architecture -- whether it be the three towers of Ghent (the belfry, St. Bavo's Cathedral and St. Nicholas' Church), the foreboding Gravensteen Castle, the schizophrenic Stadhuis or the elegant facades along the Graslei and Korenlei Rivers.
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Other British Isles & Western Europe Cruise Ports:
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Quick Facts
Best Souvenir
Language
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Where You're Docked
Hanging Around
Getting Around
Watch Out For
Don't Miss
Been There, Done That
Lunching
Staying in Touch
Shore Excursions
For More Information
 
Best Souvenir
Belgian chocolates are great buys, but it's better to eat them on the spot than to pack them in your suitcase. For take-home souvenirs, handmade Belgian linens are your best bet.
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Language
The official languages are Flemish and French, but many people speak some English. You should have no problems in locations that are geared toward tourists. In general, if you speak both English and French, use English when talking to Flemish speakers. Belgium experiences considerable tension between the Flemish (similar to Dutch) and Walloons (French), so you don't want to unknowingly offend someone.
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Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Belgium uses the euro, and ATM machines are available in several locations throughout Ghent. Money exchange facilities are found in the train station, and an ATM is located next door at the post office. Kiosks, small stores and some transportation providers may not accept credit cards, so you should keep a stash of euros with you. Check www.xe.com for current exchange rates.
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Where You're Docked
Large ships dock at Zeebrugge or Antwerp. At Zeebrugge, a large commercial port, most lines provide shuttle buses to Blankenberg railway station. Hourly trains run, via Brugge, to Ghent Sint-Pieters and on to Brussels. The fare to Ghent is about 14.60 euros, roundtrip, for the 45-minute ride. Seniors, except on summer weekends, pay only 4 euros, roundtrip, to any station in Belgium. The fare doubles on weekends but is still a bargain. The Belgian Coastal Tramway runs from Zeebrugge to Blankenberg and to the seaside resort of Ostend every 10 to 20 minutes, depending on the time of the year.

If you're docked at Antwerp, catch a train every half hour from Central Station to Ghent. The ride takes 50 minutes.

Ghent is also a stop on some river cruise itineraries, especially tulip season cruises. River boats dock less than a mile and a half (about two kilometers) from the city, and the transfer to the city center takes about 5 to 10 minutes. (Transportation is usually provided -- if not, a taxi is about 15 euros each way.)
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Hanging Around
There is nothing in the immediate vicinity of the Zeebrugge docks, except other cruise vessels and container ships. Don't expect to be able to walk from the ship to anywhere interesting. At Antwerp, the walk into the city is just a few minutes.
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Getting Around
From the fortress-style Ghent Sint-Pieters railway station, take trams 1, 10 or 11 into the city center. Note the hundreds of bicycles lined up in the forecourt -- they're intended for commuters, but anyone can use them, free of charge, as long as they're returned to the station. The half-hour walk (about two kilometers -- less than a mile and a half) into the center is also recommended, as the pleasant route follows a commercial shopping street (same as the tram route) and passes through the university quarter. By going one block left, you can also parallel one of the city's many canals, which are lined with barge-type houseboats. Once in the city center, everything is within easy strolling distance. The tourist bureau is located in the vaulted basement of the 14th century belfort (belfry) on Botermarkt. You will find maps and booklet of restaurants. Free toilet facilities are located adjacent.
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Watch Out For
Be careful of your belongings when in crowds of people; otherwise, there is virtually no street crime.
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Don't Miss
Walking Tour of the City: The best way to see Ghent's highlights is via a self-guided walking tour. You can pick up walking tour maps in the tourist office (see Getting Around). The walk can take from two to four hours, depending on which sights are visited and whether or not you pause for lunch.

A series of three linked squares makes up the city's civic and religious center, anchored by Scheldt Gothic St. Nicolas' Church, the 14th century belfort, the flamboyant Gothic-Renaissance staduis (city hall), the Civic Theater and St. Baaf's (St. Bavo's) Cathedral. Start your tour with a birds-eye view of the city. Take the elevator or stairs to the top of the belfry, which is a World Heritage Site. (Admission is 3 euros.) The tower rises above the Lakenhalle (cloth hall), representing the industry that created Ghent's wealth.

While entry into the opposite St. Baaf's Cathedral is free, you'll need to pay a 3-euro admission fee to see "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb," one of the world's earliest oil paintings, completed in 1432 by Flemish primitive artist Jan Van Eyck. The 20-paneled altarpiece represents the glorification of Christ's death. The free part of the cathedral exhibits other art treasures, such as a Rubens and lovely stained glass windows.

Follow the walking guide route past Sint-Jorishof -- reputed to be the oldest hotel in Europe -- to Romanesque and Gothic St. Jacob's Church, which dates from the 12th century, and on to Vrijdagmarkt (Friday Market). The large square is nicely rimmed by Flemish-style former guild halls, cafes and design shops; it was once the city's most important focal point because of its commercial connections. Statesman Jacob Van Artevelde's statue graces the center. His close links with the English king meant that Ghent and Flanders remained neutral and prosperous during the Hundred Years War. A produce and clothing market is located there on Fridays.

Exiting the square to the west, the street will take you past the boutiques of high-fashion Flemish designers and to the Zuivelbrug that crosses the Leie River to Patershol -- the city's preserved medieval quarter. The two impressive 17th century houses that lie straight ahead are embellished with depictions of the Six Works of Mercy and the Five Senses.

Patershol's lanes are utterly charming, so have a wander, study the restaurant menus, and take a look at the bed-and-breakfast inns. Kraanlei runs along the canalized river, past Alijn Hospice -- tiny attached cottages, set around a courtyard, that once served as a refuge for women. You can walk inside for a look without paying the entrance fee for the early 20th century lifestyle exhibits.

Down the street, the massive 12th century Gravensteen (Castle of the Counts) overwhelms everything around it. A giant spider web, an artifact from an art exhibition, adorns the facade. Appropriately, the inside is equally sinister, with examples of torture devices, a dungeon and guillotine. Nearby buildings, housing former fish and meat markets -- now exhibition halls for East Flanders produce -- face the canals.

Crossing the Lieve River, turn left on Jan Breydelstraat and pass a charming waterside park and the Design Museum with its displays of furnishings, from the Renaissance to Art Nouveau, for which Belgium is justly famous. Canal cruises leave from there (Korenlei and Graslei). In olden days (11th century), the basin was Ghent's principal commercial harbor.

Sint-Michielsbrug (a bridge) provides a splendid view of the city and the hulking, adjacent St. Michael's Church and Het Pand, a handsome former Dominican friary that now belongs to Ghent University.

Passing St. Nicolas' Church and Metselaarshuis (masons' guild house), you have come full circle.

Shopping: Head for the designer boutiques in Vrijdagmarkt. Het Oorcussen is the most notable of the shops, but head to Home Linen, Korenlei 3, for handmade Belgian linens. Pedestrian-only Veldtstraat, running south from Korenmarkt, is lined with the city's department stores -- C&A, FNAC and Inno.
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Been There, Done That
Shopping: Head for the designer boutiques in Vrijdagmarkt. Het Oorcussen is the most notable of the shops, but head to Home Linen, Korenlei 3, for handmade Belgian linens. Pedestrian-only Veldtstraat, running south from Korenmarkt, is lined with the city's department stores -- C&A, FNAC and Inno.
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Lunching
Best for Local Eats: Tete-a-Tete (Jan Breydelstraat 32) has a terrace room overlooking the canal. The restaurant serves Belgian cuisine with main dishes, ranging from 17 to 26 euros.

Best for a Light Meal: For something light, Brooderie (Jan Breydelstraat 8), opposite the Design Museum, offers two tiny tea rooms, serving freshly made soup with bread and vegetable pies for about 8 euros. Or, try Souplounge, located at Zuivelbrugstraat 6 (by the bridge), which is part of a chain of eateries that serve light meals and snacks at moderate prices.

Best for International Cuisine: La Malcontenta (Haringsteeg 7), in the Patersol area, serves cuisine from Spain and the Canary Islands, featuring main courses that range from 14 to 21 euros. Paellas are a specialty. If Spanish food isn't your thing, Patersol is filled with restaurants, so choices abound.
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Staying in Touch
Wireless access is available in cafes with a food or drink purchase. Otherwise, try Coffeelounge at Botermarkt 6, near the tourist office.
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Shore Excursions
If your ship docks in Zeebrugge or Antwerp, you'll typically find just one, standard excursion to Ghent. (Other tours from these ports go to Brugge, Brussels and Antwerp.) The city highlights tour combines 90 minutes of guided walking in the historic city center, free time and either a visit to a chocolate factory to watch raw chocolate bars being made or to see Belgian waffles being made. (Better yet, tastings accompany the tours.) The drive takes an hour from either Zeebrugge or Antwerp.
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For More Information
Ghent Tourist Office (www.visitgent.be): +32 0(9) 266 56 60
Cruise Critic Message Boards: British Isles/Western Europe (boards.cruisecritic.com)
The Independent Traveler Message Boards: Belgium (boards.independenttraveler.com)

--by Theodore W. Scull, currently based in Manhattan, has published eight books on cruise ships and trips, including100 Best Cruise Vacations; Outdoor Escapes New York City, Ocean Liner Odyssey 1858-1969 and most recently Ocean Liner Twilight 1968-1979.
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