[All Photos: Kim Easton Smith]
I want to move to Ghent. Or Belgium in general would be fine, thanks.
Belgium has most things nailed – truffles, moules frites, great beer, friendly people and a laid back atmosphere. And, waffles.
Ghent has this all within its stunning olde worlde walls with gingerbread architecture, sit up and beg bicycles clattering past, higgledy piggeldy old pubs, sweet shops and cafes, all in the shadow of an imposing castle, cathedral and bell tower that make you feel as if you’ve gone back in time.
I originally headed to Ghent for one reason – waffles. Obviously Belgium is famous for the sweet treat but though the capital Brussels offers plenty of waffle options, they feel a trifle touristy, so after whizzing in directly from London by Eurostar we boarded a connecting train for the short trip to smaller, student town Ghent to discover some off the beaten path waffles.
Before we hit the batter, we orientated ourselves with the city.
Wandering along the canals, we did our best to avoid being knocked over by an oncoming tram, distracted by the looming Disney-esque castle, and rapidly falling in love with the place
Max’s Waffles Part One
Once we’d got our bearings we headed to Etablissement Max – famous Ghent-over for its waffles and the only place to eat them according to our local guide Nathalie. Apparently it INVENTED the Beligan waffle.
But disaster struck. It was 10am (we were gagging for waffles for breakfast) and Max’s wasn’t open for our particular gastronomic requirement. I got a bit cross (blame it on the h-anger) but before I threw all my toys out the pram we were reassured we could come back for waffles from 2.30pm.
In the meantime it forced us to go and find other waffle options. We had a few recommendations to get down our gullets so it was a good job we were feeling hungry.
We went to the second on our recommendation list – Brasserie Agrea opposite the Opera House.
This had an excellent view of the frieze on the Opera House right across the square, a fun fair set up for Christmas (we visited just as the markets were about to open) and the scaffolding-masked tower of St Bavo’s Cathedral. If you get a window seat, it’s the perfect place to people watch.
And the waffles were pretty good. Considering at this stage I had nothing to compare them too I was fairly impressed. Not bowled over but happy enough. Light and fluffy and with a nice non-sticky glaze that felt recently-made rather than packaged, they could have had more of the chocolate sauce (I went for a classic banana-chocolate combo) but were perfectly tasty.
The place also did very good pancakes and decent coffee. But really it’s more about the location. Definitely worth a stop if you need time to take in some of the Ghent architecture.
Walking off our waffle-and-pancake-full bellies we stumbled into a chocolatier. (It made sense at the time.)
On the counter is an array of tiny pralines (Devolder’s forte) and lots of different squares of chocolate, each with a title card – from lavender-infused nibbles to pure 100% chocolates. They’re scrumptious.
We gave the 100 per cent chocolate a go too, but there’s a reason it’s usually mixed with other products, believe us! Even the tiniest piece felt as though it was sucking all the moisture out of our mouths. Not too yum.
After loading up on (a little less than 100 per cent) pralines and truffles we decided on a bit of culture before heading to Max’s, as the time for the famous waffles was tantilisingly close.
We managed to squeeze in a decent amount of culture into our few days in Ghent, but by far and away the best was the visit up the bell tower – mostly for the fascinating video explaining how church bells are made.
Stay with us here.
As well as learning how incredibly difficult and intricate it is, and how they get each bell to make the right sound so they can be played by expert bell-ringers, you can look around lots of different bells and take a tour up to the top, which affords you stunning views of Ghent. You can also look at a very complicated machine that makes the bells ring and will boggle your mind.
After climbing all the way up the narrow staircase of the bell tower, we were more than ready for more of the sweet stuff. And by that I obviously mean waffles.
Max’s Part Two
We headed to Max’s where we nabbed a window-seat table to stare out over the square and cathedral, and in a jiffy two enormous plates of waffles landed in front of us.
Max’s obviously trades off its name and when we say our waffles arrived in a jiffy we mean, like, three minutes. They beat the coffee. Which does sort of take a bit of the magic out.
(But the coffees came with a miniature waffle butter biscuit, which amused me by being a small version of a big thing.)
But the actual waffles are massive. We went for two different topping combinations – one a simple chocolate and the other a far-from-simple EVERYTHING option of ‘The Max’:
They’re very good. Very delicious, with a lovely crunch and fluffy inside. The toppings are generous to say the least and the ambience of the restaurant is proper old-school European teahouse. Of course at 15EUR a pop for a WAFFLE, they’re also bloody expensive. Worth it once, though, without a doubt.
AW (After Waffle)
We had to give the waffles a break after Max’s so we wandered around getting our bearings. A graffiti alley – Keizersviaduct - is fun to walk through and take silly pictures and the central square Vrijdagmarkt has some awesome buildings including a former socialist house of the people. We had missed the market (it’s on on Friday and Saturdays) but there was still plenty to see and some stalls still up at mid afternoon.
Following that we had to head to St Bavo’s Cathedral to see the famous Adoration of the Mystic Lamb picture.
You have to pay to go in and view it but it’s a sort of must-do in Ghent and you can hear all about the still-missing panel mystery.
Another cultural tip is to make the short trek out to STAM, the Ghent City Museum. Modern, sprawling and fascinating it can be walked to or there are nearby trams. Ask at the tourist office for which one to get.
The Final Waffle
In the morning I was keen to fit in one more waffle. We remembered an ice cream shop that had advertised them on the corner next to the Starbucks. The road off to the left is a cute alleyway that houses several unusual shops including an upcycled furniture shop that’s just a window display – you have to order products from the website – and another selling crafty trinkets, jewellery and kitch homewares.
But back to the waffles. These were our first ‘fast food’ types that you buy to take away. They were a slightly different shape and coated with a sugary glaze. I opted for a simple raspberry ice cream topping.
It was a crazy sugar high for first thing in the morning but despite being a cheaper, lower-quality style waffle it was pretty damn tasty and if you need a quick waffle and/or sugar fix, definitely recommended.
We headed home, buzzing with sugar, and trying to work out if we could move to Ghent. Though perhaps not such a great idea for our waistlines.
Before you go: Do a bit of pre-planning at VisitFlanders to find out more about the area and what not to miss.
Eating: We enjoyed fish at George’s – Booking advised
Drinking: Beer: Head to Bierhuis on the waterfront. For generous gin measures and late drinking De Onvrije Schipper on the bear the Marriott is great fun. (It has a gin menu where you can choose your gin, your tonic and your fruit/vegetable. Gins are pricey (at least 9Eur) but VERY generous. There are also various board games to play. We attempted Trivial Pursuit in Dutch. It was more fun than it sounds.
Culture: Get the Ghent Card which gives you access to most of the city’s attractions and use of public transport.
Sleep: Extremely comfy beds are to be found at the centrally located Marriott.
Getting there/away: Eurostar offers a speedy service (as little as two hours) to Brussels with up to nine daily services from London St Pancras International with return fares from £69. Tickets to any Belgium station start from £79. Tickets are available from eurostar.com or 03448 224 777. The train (that departs from the same station as Eurostar arrives at) takes about half an hour to get to Ghent. From there a cab into town is about 8EUR