Travel Stories

BELGIUM: A Floral Celebration, Spring in Gent

A few days of magic in Belgium, and I’m back home wondering how to share all the best bits with you. It was an easy trip to take – I got into London early so I could feed the pigeons (half a sandwich and an accidental chocolate button), then, Eurostar from St Pancras to Brussels, and a train on to Gent. In no time at all.

Whenever I go on a press trip I wonder if there will be gifts in the hotel room when I get there. Not because I am greedy (maybe) but because one time I returned to my room to find a whole wheel of cheese on my bed, and unsurprisingly that stuck in my mind. At the NH Hotel I wasn’t disappointed. Alongside the lovely welcome note; some chocolates, a can of beer and a garden trowel.

Across the city of Gent, shops and businesses had connected themselves with the famous Floralien festival through flower displays and product creations. Restaurants with a floral menu and the best that spring can offer. Chocolatiers such as Chocolaterie Vandenbouhede with their lavender and violet delights, perfume house Miglot (Belgiums first) with their bespoke citrusy fresh scent, and even brewing company DOK with their yuzu beer, Yuzual Suspects.

So, in some sort of orderly fashion, here are my highlights (so, that’s everything then!) and a lot of photos of things you might like to see yourself.

Lepel Blad for dinner. I expected a floral themed meal, but my imagination was obviously limited. Allium flowers, nettles, clover, pea shoots, nasturtium leaves, chervil, fennel, asparagus. Crisp, watery, citrusy leaves called Ice Herb, and Japanese Knotweed, which tasted just like rhubarb, picked by the chef and their dog that day. And then, an amazing dessert of sorrel and apple sorbet, with strawberries, flowers, cucumber, sugary mint, and nasturtium leaves.

St Bavo’s Cathedral for a augmented reality tour in the vaults. A new experience for me, and I really enjoyed watching people in VR goggles stepping round things that weren’t there. The cathedral itself is stunning. People were rushing around preparing for the Floralien Festival, lilies and camelias scattered around the great space, waiting to flower.

And then, there was the Mystic Lamb. I’ve been waiting to see this world famous painting for a few years. The Ghent Alterpiece, or the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, as it’s also known, was created by the Van Eyck brothers in the 1400s and is an incredible 14 panel masterpiece of painterly excellence and storytelling skill, depicting a paradisical medieval garden full of symbolism. Recently restored, it now lives in a six-metre-tall bullet proof glass display case in one of the cathedrals chapels. I stood in the crowd to get a glimpse, quietly chanting ‘lamb of god, lamb of god’ under my breath, I strained my eyes to see him, his funny little face, his channel of blood pouring fast into the chalice. He wouldn’t have lasted long.

Through an unassuming archway, and into the palace of Hotel d’Hane Steenhuyse. High ceilings, parquet floors, wallpaper and perfect paint colours, soft light, and a window blind like ruffled ice cream. Perfection, only enhanced by the beautiful floral displays that led us from room to room.

As part of a programme of historic houses in Gent you’ll find the house open from 2-6pm on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Don’t miss it, it’s utterly magnificent, and I think I’d find it quite manageable if they’d just let me live there.

Lunch at the Groot Vleeshuis. Currently in a temporary location while the historic ‘big meathouse’ undergoes renovations, I’ve enjoyed their food before – great cheeses and meats, everything from the local region. We ate chicken and chicory with a RoomeR cream sauce, simple and delicious. RoomeR is an amazing elderflower aperitif that comes in a nice bottle too, I should have bought some while I was there, but I was distracted by a ‘Tiramisu’ that was made not with coffee, but a vanilla liquor cream. Thank you!

For 10 days, every four years (wait for it!) the Gent Expo Centre fills up with 10,000m² of plants for Floralien Gent, a huge flower show and celebration of all things floral which began in 1809 with just 45 plants. To the side of this big old exhibition centre, the velodrome, filled with trees, like a small forest in a bowl. ‘My paradise, my worldy garden’ was the 2022 theme, in response to the famous Ghent Alterpiece, and at the end of the hall, there he was, recreated in mossy glory with sturdy birch legs, and a halo of bamboo canes, his column of blood curved into a chalice, the Mystic Lamb.

A quick stop at Gent University Museum (GUM), a brand new museum for Gent, but with a historic collection of over 400,000 scientific and anthropological artefacts, a very worthwhile destination. Alongside the permanent collection, perfectly displayed in a combination of modern lighting and traditional casings, and accumulated over 200 years, you’ll find thought provoking changing exhibitions. 

The current exhibition (which runs until January 2023), Phallus: Norm & Form, might not be what you expect to find, but it’s a fascinating juxtaposition of the work of international researchers, artworks from the likes of Grayson Perry and Man Ray, and museum objects, including some unusual Victorian fairground wax works. I saw a bats winky!

Right next door is the Gent Botanical Garden. Founded 1797 and in it’s current location since 1902, there are large outdoor gardens, an arboretum, and 4000 m² of greenhouses where you might be lucky enough to find the Amorphophallus Titanium in bloom! Every year they wait for it, will it look like a tree (but actually it’s just one big leaf that looks like a tree) or will it be the largest flower in the world and stink of rotting meat?

Dinner at Alix. A lovely restaurant which also happens to have a party garden and B&B. As the sun moved lower in the sky, its warm glow reflected on the building across the road, bouncing through the big window and spreading golden light across the table.

My notes say ‘carrot ribbons on a biscuit’ and that’s absolutely not enough of a description for such a layered and dynamic starter. I apologise. But then there were the best chickpeas I’ve ever eaten, with asparagus and shoots. Followed by a magnificent dessert, a kind of rice pudding meringue rice cake with rhubarb and rose. Again, I apologise for the description, and the lack of illustrative photograph, but it was good, very good, and I am an dedicated eater.

Floralien happens every 4 years, but the gardens, great houses and good food are there every year, every day, in Gent.

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I was a guest of, and travelled with, Visit Flanders. As always, my opinions are my own (and my top tip for travelling with a trowel in you suitcase is to make it easy for the customs officials to access by not wrapping it in your dirty laundry).