Ghent is not the first place you think of for a cutting-edge, virtual reality experience. This beautiful city by the banks of the rivers Lys and Scheldt is far more famous for its elegant medieval buildings that rise above the flat Flanders countryside like a Flemish Oxford.
But its gargantuan St Bavo’s Cathedral offers just that: a futuristic tour through the history of the city’s most famous artwork, The Adoration Of The Mystic Lamb.
The whole thing feels positively Star Trek. Wearing headgear, you wander through the old cloisters and learn about the story of the famous altarpiece. Via the headset, whole townscapes unfold before your eyes, bishops pop up in scarlet robes, as do the artists behind the paintings. It’s hugely impressive – and a good metaphor for the town itself, which mixes the historic and the contemporary with a pleasing dose of quirkiness.
Ghent is the second stop on our three-city tour, sandwiched by Brussels and Bruges. Journeys between each city take no more than an hour, so it’s easy to pack in all three in less than a week, and our return Eurostar’s ‘Any Belgian Station’ ticket – which takes us from the UK to Brussels, on to another city and back – covers two of our three journeys within the country already.
It’s raining when we arrive in Brussels, a damp, blurry evening – but we dive into Aux Armes de Bruxelles, a buzzy brasserie serving an unctuous seafood gratin packed with mussels and chunks of fish. A mix of tourists and locals happily put away carafes of local wine (made more memorable by the at-table flambe of a crepe Suzette almost setting the curtains on fire).
Annabelle Thorpe goes on a multi-city tour of Belgium, stopping off in Brussels, Ghent and Bruges. Above is Ghent’s centre
Annabelle checks into The Juliana Hotel Brussels (above), where room-only doubles are priced from £220
With only half a day in Brussels, we tick off the big hitters, starting with the ornate guildhalls and palaces that line the Grand Place, one of the most impressive medieval squares in Europe.
It’s busy with tourists and tour guides waving umbrellas like harassed shepherds. But the crowds don’t detract from the intricate beauty of the buildings, with flags fluttering in the breeze.
We head on to the Royal Museum of Fine Arts to marvel at the paintings by Brueghel, seething with life and fury, and the calm stillness of works by Gauguin and Magritte. You could spend a week here and not see all of its extraordinary art collection, but by lunchtime the train is calling and we head to Brussels-Midi for our train to Ghent.
Splendour: On her visit to Ghent, Annabelle visits the ‘gargantuan’ St Bavo’s Cathedral
Annabelle says that the Grand Place (above) in Brussels is ‘one of the most impressive medieval squares in Europe’
Once there, we wander down to the historic centre, where the river Lys is flanked by houses dating from the 13th Century, when Ghent was one of the most prosperous cities in northern Europe.
Famed for its luxury cloth, the merchants’ wealth has left a rich legacy of medieval architecture that gives the town the feel of an open air museum.
The next day, after our unexpected venture into virtual reality, we hop on one of the boats that navigate Ghent’s lattice of canals. As we drift along the quiet backwaters, I marvel again at how somewhere so beautiful remains so blissfully peaceful. Perhaps it’s because the majority of tourists speed past Ghent, heading to Bruges, arguably Europe’s most famous medieval town.
Annabelle learns that Bruges (above) was almost entirely rebuilt in the late 19th Century after falling into a state of disrepair
After the short train ride there we join a walking tour where we learn that Bruges was almost entirely rebuilt in the late 19th Century after falling into a state of disrepair. The decision was taken to re-create the buildings as they would have looked during medieval times, making the city one of the world’s first tourist destinations.
We drink cold beers in a cafe on the central Markt. We wander about the little lanes, enjoying the romance of the setting. We dip into the city’s fascinating history in the Gruuthuse Museum.
Yet as the train spins back to Brussels, we agree that Ghent was the highlight. There’s a quirkiness to the city, with its bohemian backstreet quarters, dimly-lit bars and unexpected virtual reality tours.
An ideal mix of history, culture and sinfully-good food, much like Belgium itself.
Annabelle Thorpe was a guest of Eurostar, whose ‘Any Belgium Station’ tickets cost from £49 one-way (eurostar.com). Room-only doubles at The Juliana Hotel Brussels (juliana-brussels.com), from £220, at The Yalo Urban Boutique Hotel in Ghent (yalohotel.com) from £132 and at the Hotel Dukes’ Arches in Bruges (dukesarches.com) from £140. Find more information at visitflanders.com.