Belgium isn’t very big. So after looking at a map and determining that Ghent is right in the middle of Brussels and Bruges, our two definite destinations, we thought “what the hell! there’s a fancy altarpiece in Ghent that’s calling our names!” So on our second day in Belgium, we started the morning in Brussels trying to stay warm in the persistant drizzle and wind. Retracing our steps a bit we went back to the lovely Sablon church in the hopes of gaining access:
which had been closed the evening before with a giant “no visiting!” sign out front. To our dismay, the giant, damning sign was still up, and the doors were locked, but as we were turning away, our disappointment was noticed by the caretaker who let us in anyway. Feeling extremely lucky, we meandered through the interior of the Gothic church, which was empty save for the friendly caretaker who was setting up the chairs for mass:
At this point, I have been in my fair share of churches: from great behemoths like St. Peter’s here or Notre Dame in Paris, to itty bitty chapels; and in churches in all types of styles from plain Early Christian, glittering Byzantine, sturdy Romanesque, soaring Gothic, orderly Renaissance, and overdone Baroque. I have always thought that Gothic churches in their emphasis on verticality and light seemed especially fitting for their spiritual function. And while the grandeur of the giants like Notre Dame and St. Peter’s is overwhelming, there’s something especially appealing about more intimate spaces. And in that sense the Sablon was perfect. It was the Three Bears of churches, just right.
After appreciating Brussels for a bit more we took advantage of Belgium’s petiteness and boarded the 25 minute train to Ghent. When we arrived, we were instantly charmed. Ghent has what is quite possibly the cutest train station of all time and after taking the tram into the center it is impossible not to be overcome by the adorableness of it all:
The succession of bell towers and spires that fill the center square blew us away. It also certainly didn’t hurt that the sun briefly came out for the only time during our whole Belgian sojourn. But Ghent became increasingly charming around every corner. My dear companion even stopped taking photos because he said that the cuteness was never-ending! And despite Ghent’s loveliness, there seemed to be hardly any tourists. So aside from a thousand-million teenagers, we were practically alone in our appreciation of views like this:
Everywhere we looked we actually marveled at how adorable it all was. And there’s even a castle!:
There was also decent lunch (I had waterzooi, a particular chicken soup of Flanders, which was lovely) and a Christmas Market (which was fine– I am realizing now that I’m not that into Christmas markets, though maybe I should reserve judgement on that for the time being. I understand that the markets in Germany and Austria are really the best and everywhere else is just a pale imitation. Fingers crossed I’ll get to check out some of those next year). And of course there’s the Ghent Altarpiece, aka the Adoration of the Lamb, aka awesomesauce. Unfortunately I couldn’t take any photos. They weren’t allowed and though I typically ignore such rules, in this instance it wouldn’t have even been possible to sneak a few. The altarpiece is encased in glass in a specially separated room with an attendant standing right by. And despite the inability to get up close and peruse the details with my nose all up to the paint it was strikingly impressive. Jan van Eyck does not suck.
I close with a last photographic testament to Ghent’s charming-ness before I assault you next week with the onslaught of cuteness that is Bruges. Be forewarned: Bruges’ adorableness is not for the faint-of-heart.
Happy Weekend and Happy (almost) capodanno!