Sunday, August 25th
Maureen and I were at Exki’s for breakfast around 8:30 and the other two joined us a little later. The weather was hot and sunny as usual, predicted to rise to 30 degrees later. By 10:15, we were packed and waiting in the lobby for our taxi van. We had considered taking the train, but decided we’d prefer not to bump our suitcases down the road (it sounds like horses clipclopping when suitcases are dragged along cobblestones) to the station and wrangle them on and off the train.
At the airport, after a lot of paperwork, we picked up our Volvo van. Pam sat for a while in the driver’s seat to make sure she knew where all the necessary buttons and pedals were, then we tried to set the GPS. We couldn’t figure it out, so a Eurocar staff member looked and said it would connect with the satellite once we were out of the underground parking. We exited and discovered it still wouldn’t work, so we circled back and spoke to another staff member, who demonstrated how to set it in a different way than the previous fellow and confirmed that our problem had nothing to do with the satellite connection. The GPS problem consumed over an hour, but we finally set out on our way to Ghent.
The rules of the Belgium road are basically the same as ours, although sections of the freeway had a speed limit of one hundred twenty km/hr. The flat countryside we passed through was reminiscent of the Fraser Valley - corn grew and dairy cows grazed in the fields. If you added mountains on the horizon and subtracted the church steeples, Belgium farm country would be very similar to the Valley. In the pleasant tones of a British woman, the GPS directed our one hour journey to the Ibis Hotel in Ghent. Like its Brussels cousin, it is clean, modern and offers all the necessities, but because it is a Ibis Budget hotel, its rooms are more utilitarian.
Once we were ready, we set out for the Centrum or old town centre of Ghent. It was about a fifteen minute walk, but the heat made the walk more tiring. The hotel is in a slightly rundown area of mixed industrial, commercial and residential buildings. Fifteen minutes away, the town centre has an historical atmosphere created by winding brick-paved streets and centuries-old buildings. We ate at a sidewalk cafe across from St. Jacobskerk, erected in the 1100s and heavily renovated over the next centuries. Our waitress recommended Ghent beers to us, so amongst the four of us, we tried three different brands so as not to offend her Ghentish pride. She spoke good English and Dutch, bu not much French. She hoped in five years to visit Canada, once her boyfriend “puts a ring on my finger”. Most people here seem to switch between French, Dutch and English easily.
Ghent, like Bruges, is ringed with canals. We crossed bridges and walked along canals admiring the historical buildings lining the water. Tour boats plied the canals and we hope tomorrow to see Ghent from the water in one of them. When we came to 11th century Gravensteen Castle, Pam proposed that we go in because she didn’t want to take a walk back in the heat the next day to see it. The audio tour, voiced by a Belgian comedian, tells tales of torture and treachery with humour. The last count to occupy the castle sold it in the late 1700s and it housed a cotton mill until it fell into disrepair. Now it’s been restored, although its bare stone walls and rooms empty of furniture do not create a sense of how the people of the Middle Ages lived within its walls, it has displays of armour, weapons, instruments of torture and other items that suggest castle life was not easy. To complete the tour, we had to climb a spiralling tower staircase of four hundred fifty-two steps which took us to the top ramparts. We were hot and sweaty by the time the tour was done. Thank goodness there was an ice cream shop just across from the castle entrance.
We wandered back towards the hotel, taking a new path through streets and city squares. The roads are not very busy with traffic and it’s easy to get careless. People seem to wander the streets at will. One little group, talking in the middle of a street, saw a van coming towards them and remained exactly where they were until the van slowly nosed its way almost into them, at which point they casually moved aside, still not really looking at the van or driver.
We returned to the air-conditioned comfort of the hotel. After a restorative downtime, Pam and Maureen decided to go in search of food, but Marilynn and I settled for something from the refrigerated ready-made food in the lobby.
Pam’s story: We were headed back to a bakery we had spotted earlier that sold pizza. Cold pizza is good anytime. We noticed that they were also making a Turkish pizza which uses a thinner crust heated with spices on it and then lettuce and tomatoes were added and then rolled up. We shared this and topped it off with a Turkish pastry with feta cheese on the inside. Both were absolutely delicious. We added an extra 1000 steps to our fit bits, so the extra pastry was justified!