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GHENT, BELGIUM

12-01-2007

It's off the beaten track, but surprinsgly easy to get to and real treat when you get there. Let Dave Woodhall introduce you to Ghent.

Just before Christmas we went to Ghent for a few days. That's no great surprise; we go there as often as we can. It's a very nice, comparatively unspoilt city, in a vastly under-rated country.

Belgium must be the butt of as many jokes as Birmingham. A boring, flat place full of nonentities. And like our fair city, the reality is much different. There's plenty to see and do, they just don't like boasting about it.

It might not have stunning scenery or outstanding architecture, but Ghent has plenty of quarters where you can lose yourself for a day and imagine you're back in the medieval times when its port made the city one of the richest in Europe.

Belgian beer is, of course, legendary and even the smallest, most mundane bar will have a couple of dozen brews to try. The food's good and there's a really good atmosphere about the place.

Ghent's attitude to visitors is wonderfully ambivalent. They appreciate that we've gone there rather than the tourist traps of Bruges or Brussels, but they don't make a big fuss. The overwhelming attitude is akin to someone lending you their house for a week. “Here you are,” it seems to say. “We like it and we hope you do. Enjoy yourselves while we get on with our lives.”

It's also easy to get to, and for those who are either environmentally-friendly or scared of flying (guess which category I fit into), there doesn't have to be an airport involved.

The Eurostar to Brussels, then half an hour on the train and you're there. The food's good, the hotels are cheap and because it's not a big tourist destination you're not being ripped off nor embarrassed by the behaviour of your fellow Englishmen. And if that's not enough, what can be wrong with a country whose most famous products are chips, beer and chocolate?

In fact, Ghent's such a nice place that it's got me wondering why so many of us go to the obvious short-haul destinations for weekend breaks. Barcelona is massively popular, but the Basque city of Bilbao much friendlier, cheaper and possibly the most Anglophile city in Europe.

In fact, the whole of Spain's way too commercialised. Go to Lisbon or Porto instead. Dublin's been colonised by stag and hen parties - Belfast's a lot better and you don't have to change your money. As for Amsterdam, you may as well stay on Broad Street if scantily-clad women, canals and drugs are what you're looking for.

Don't be pushed into visiting cities simply because they're popular and you can get a cheap flight. Use your imagination; just like that lovely little restaurant you found up the side street away from the main tourist attraction, there's likely to be somewhere a lot better a few miles away.

It might not have English spoken everywhere and Carling on tap, but it'll be a lot more rewarding.

Know another undiscovered gem we should all be heading to? Feel free to write about it and send it to editor@thestirrer.comOr leave a comment on our messageboard.

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