This side of Portland, Maine and Brooklyn, New York, I’d be willing to bet you won’t find a place more hipster than Ghent. Back in 2009 the city instituted a once-weekly “veggie days” to reduce the consumption of meat, one of the single-largest producers of greenhouse gas emissions such as methane and carbon dioxide. The streets are littered with hip coffee shops, indie record stores, and enough open air vintage markets and second-hand stores to cover every single converted warehouse loft apartment in Williamsburg from floor to ceiling in retro cool flair.
It’s a city comfortable in its chameleon skin: cars, chimneys, and alleyways awash in kooky street art; the time-worn spires of Saint Bavo’s Cathedral and Saint Nicholas Church standing nobly, immune to the passage of time; the canals lined with quirky houseboats; modern homes with sleek lines of glass, steel, and concrete coexisting with crenelated facades of stone and brick.
The city center is framed on one side by the town hall; on the other end, the soaring western tower of Saint Bavo’s–covered in scaffolding during my visit, thus I have no pictures of my own to show–throws the Christmas market below into shadow as the day passes. Walking north, one encounters the outer edge of the old city, where the imposing buttresses of Gravensteen mark the departure from old to new.
My host in Ghent is a student named Mathias, and yesterday he took time out of working on a project for his architecture class to grab a coffee with me at Mokabon, a tidy little space tucked into a side street not too far from the city’s only Starbucks. Earlier in the day I had helped him move from one apartment to another–a favor I was doing as a helpful guest but which his dad paid me for (my first payday since I quit my job six months ago)–and the exertion had me sweating a bit. So I ordered an iced coffee on the menu, wondering why it was a little more expensive than the plain coffee option. It turned out that I unwittingly ordered the dessert version of coffee in Ghent. My coffee a-la-mode was a bit sweeter than I had expected, but it cooled me down, so it did the trick.
After our coffee break at Mokabon, Mathias took me on a brief tour around the city center, where we passed over a few canals, darted down a couple of side streets, and encountered several vintage markets along the way. Mathias had to get back to work, so he left me at one of these markets to peruse the local wares and flaneur my way back to the apartment. The market had just about every curiosity you might find in a place like Ghent: there were tables stacked with old books, vinyl records, and DVDs. Coat racks were jammed with furs, leather biker jackets, and dashing overcoats. Wicker chairs in passable condition were stacked next to antique wooden tables, benches, and one Tiffany style lamp straight out of the 1920s.
Later in the day, I met up with Jessica, a friend of a friend of a lovely lady I met in Antwerp, and we did some beer tastings at a local pub. If you can get your hands on the divinely crafted Orval trappist beer, buy as many of them as you can. Then again, with the plethora of incredible Belgian beers available worldwide, you have so many to choose from you can hardly go wrong.
Being slightly sloshed makes for a great way to take in world-class art, and we paid a visit to Saint Bavo’s cathedral to take in Jan van Eyck’s touted 15th century Lamb of God altarpiece. Several years ago in university, I remember a professor discussing it in a class on early Renaissance painting. To see it in person was a bit underwhelming, mostly because the chapel–which you have to pay 4 Euro to enter–was crammed with people. Also detracting from the experience was the laughably bad audio guide commentary. Usually I don’t bother with them, but since this was the only piece in the room and I had a foggy memory of the story behind the painting, I picked one up. My ears were greeted with cheesy Gothic choral music and soporific facts about the work that reveal nothing of the complexities of the altarpiece. For example, the guide mentioned that van Eyck “depicted 42 different plant species” in the main scene, or called the viewer to “note the exquisitely painted wooden dais.” Such details are quickly lost on the viewer and mean nothing in the greater scheme of the work. Absent was any mention of the relationship between Adam and Eve, depicted on opposite panels of the triptych, and their Original Sin, the basis for Christ’s redemption of mankind as told by the New Testament. Omitted was any notice of the direct axis upon which Christ, the dove of the Holy Spirit, and the Lamb are connected; the Eucharistic elements which bring salvation upon the physical and spiritual body of the viewer are not there by accident.
Perhaps I doth protest too much though; Ghent is an incredibly beautiful and vibrant city, and though their audio guides can use a little tweaking, there’s enough glorious hipster paraphernalia to absorb you.
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