I always tell people going to Belgium to get right on the train from Brussels and head for Ghent, a city I find as truly magical as others find Bruges, because Bruges intends that they be enchanted (and, to be fair, the fairy-tale architecture does lend itself to enchantment.).
But Ghent, as I wrote in an Atlantic travel piece, has that fairy-tale architecture, waffles and beer, and something more: a truly Bohemian free spirit, likely the result of its being a university city.
Now it's showing that spirit with its widely reported, and probably ridiculed, decision to encourage vegetarian eating once a week, with the city's elected leaders making the first sacrifice, er, leading gesture. The noble experiment, with the possibly too adorable name veggiedag, is to be Thursday, and today is Veggiedag One. I have no doubt the city's restaurants will be ready to help everyone wanting to follow suit:
The Tap & Tepel is just one of several restaurants that reflect both the history and the bohemian side of Ghent. Max, a posh tearoom decorated with Art Nouveau woodwork and glass from the kiosks the company long put up at Belgian fairs, serves the only waffles I've ever liked in Belgium--yeasty, slightly sour, and very light, unlike the usual Liège-style buttery ingots. At De Geschoeide Karmelied, a serene restaurant around a bamboo garden (planted by the previous owners, who had a Japanese restaurant), an ambitious twenty-five-year-old chef named Eli De Heem offers local "grandmother's" specialties, many of them beer-based stews.
Kitsch seems to be a deliberate decorative theme in Belgium--just one expression of the subversive humor that is a national trait. This is particularly overt at Pink Flamingo, a bar with a multi-tiered chandelier made entirely of Barbie dolls and walls covered with 1960s record-album sleeves and movie posters; unbelievably, it isn't a gay bar. The Koningshuis is perhaps as popular for its campy décor on the theme of the crowned heads of Europe, especially those of Belgium, as for its nice food (I had clear wild-mushroom soup full of sweet, thumbnail-sized cold-water shrimp).
The Dulle Griet tavern, on one of the city's largest squares, has all the beer-related paraphernalia any fanatic could want. More important, it serves all five of the authentic, dark and powerful Trappist beers (as opposed to the dozens of "abbey-style" imitators) that are still made in Belgium. Try Westmalle, from a beautiful working abbey ten miles away, on tap--a rare treat even in Belgium. In the back of the low-lit tavern is a brightly lit atrium with a second-floor tableau of an eighteenth-century dandy looking out a window while an elegantly dressed woman slumps in exhaustion over a sewing machine behind him. What does it mean? Ghenters seem to expect a bit of surrealism in their daily life, along with superb beer.
I'll be curious to see if other cities follow, or just make fun, of Ghent--but I know our Max will be watching! And is maybe organizing Washington now as I write.
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