Going Back to Ghent: Notes From A Lover’s Diary

I’m heading back to Ghent this Fall but I feel as if I haven’t really been away.  Over a year and a half ago, I fell in love with the city I’d known almost nothing about, and fell hard. Here’s why.

First there are the people. As my favorite author Henry James would have put it, “the note” of the city is friendliness. I got that vibe everywhere, whether in sandwich or coffee shops, stores, restaurants, and even from strangers who helped me when I got slightly lost. Some of them walked a short distance with me to make sure I was headed in the right direction.

I seek comfort and quiet when I travel and the Carlton Hotel Gent was the epitome of those things. Family owned, boutique-style, it was smoothly run, ultra-quiet, close to the train station, served delicious breakfasts, and the owners were perfect guides to the city and its restaurants. The hip Café Parti was nearby and if I could’ve eaten every lunch and dinner there, I would have. It served Belgian specialties that I’d sampled before in Brussels and Bruges, but they were exceptional, especially the stoofvlees, a beef stew made with dark beer, and the onglet, hanger steak better than any I’d had in the U.S.

I liked the modern lines of the hotel and the Café Parti because Ghent has so much history in its architecture, from the Renaissance buildings along the canals, to the Romanesque St. Bavo Cathedral and the medieval Gravensteen fortress at the city center. Dipping in and out of these different periods was intensely enjoyable. And so was sampling my favorite Belgian chocolate, Neuhaus, and a Ghent specialty, neuzekes, candies filled with raspberry syrup that look like little pointed hats and are partly made with gum Arabic. They may sound odd but they’re sensational.

Bikes are king in Ghent and it apparently has the largest bike-friendly zone in Europe. Ghent was the first city to designate a street as a “cycle street”—meaning that cars have to stay behind bikes. They’re everywhere, weaving through traffic and around the trams which snake along the sinuous streets which seem unlike any other street plan I’m familiar with from my previous years of visiting Western Europe. There was something very calming about riding a tram or just watching one.

For a city that’s the third largest port in Belgium and has 250,000 residents, Ghent never felt overwhelming. It welcomed and fascinated me, and unlike the more famous Bruges half an hour away which has twice as many tourists, it didn’t feel like a museum despite the amazing architecture from so many different periods.  No wonder it’s called Europe’s “hidden gem.”

Lev Raphael is the author of the memoir/travelogue My Germany and 24 other books in many genres. He speaks French, German, and some Dutch. You can study creative writing with him online at writewithoutborders.com.

When Doves Don’t Cry: Travel Notes From France

My first time in France, the doves outside my tower bedroom window sounded happy and fat. Their pillow-soft, subtle conversations woke me every day for a week when I stayed in a 19th century Renaissance-style chateau hotel. Twin towers with pointed roofs graced the terrace side, and it looked like something in one of the posters that had hung in my fourth grade classroom.  That’s where I first started learning French and started dreaming of going to France.

My tower was shaded by trees where the doves clustered and cooed. I couldn’t see them, but their presence was as rich as the desserts and sauces downstairs in the elegant restaurant.  The waiters and owner treated me well because I ordered and talked about meals in French that surprised the staff and the owner. My French wasn’t perfect, but it was good, and I was American. Those were two things that didn’t go together in French minds. I wasn’t guessing: People told me that directly.

The compliments were as comforting as lying in bed every morning in my round bedroom whose ceiling was easily 15 feet high, and then lounging in the suite’s main room. The walls were covered in faded green silk which somehow seemed to match whatever it was I thought the doves had to say to me. Their sound was as soothing as gentle fingers massaging a forehead creased with a migraine. I’d think about breakfast, read a Guide Michelin in French, consult a road map and plan which chateaux we would drive to in the Loire Valley that day.  Blois?  Amboise?  Azay-le-Rideau? Usse? Angers? Chenonceau? Saumur? Villandry?  So many tempting, gorgeous choices….

I knew that after each day of touring, the evening would bring another elegant, lavish meal with my spouse–and the next morning would start with the quiet contemplation of murmuring doves.

Oh, and another leisurely cup of coffee after breakfast downstairs on the terrace before driving off. And sunshine. French sunshine.

It had taken me years to come to France, and here I was, actually discovering myself in French, discovering that all those years of books and classes had actually taken root, that I could think in this language, feel in it, react in it. I had never traveled to Europe before. I was entering a new life, seeing myself in a new light.  And learning the language of doves.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from mystery to memoir and travelogue.  You can find them on Amazon.