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I come to Belgium the way I come to most places: with an open heart and only a faint outline of a plan. I expect nothing from this country because it isn’t cyclocross season. Does Belgium even exist outside of cyclocross season? Of course it does, but I get tunnel vision in the fall. What can possibly happen in the spring?
Words & images: Heidi Swift
The classics, of course. I’m here for work related to the Ronde van Vlaanderen. According to Twitter, half the cycling writers in the entire world are also here, but in the end I run into only a few of them. On a chilly Saturday morning, I ride the 134-km version of the Ronde sportive, pedaling with my friend Rita Jett through the masses of weekend warriors out for a go at the cobbles. On the first longish descent, we learn to feel the roadway in our kidneys and shin bones. I come off the hoods for a moment during an especially jarring section and then catch my bars again quickly before disaster strikes.
Oh! Here is my cyclocross! The trick is to come off the saddle a little bit and hover just above. Then you lay down the power and go as fast as you can possibly muster. Velocity has a smoothing effect that is both magical and terrifying. Padded gloves might be nice too, I suppose, but I don’t have any so I ride with bare palms and red fingernails.
The course is filled with men. Men in worn-out club kits, men in shiny new in-line ensembles from Rapha or Castelli, men in see-through black chamois that have apparently been in their family for three generations. Young men and old men and big men and little, tiny men.
We see only a handful of women pedaling and when we hit the climbs I can hear little girls on the side getting excited and screaming to their mothers, “Vrou! Vrou!” Yes, look, little lady! I can ride these cobbles faster than the men who are going backward around me! Rita is up ahead having her own victories and we always regroup at the top. She climbs like a scared monkey, that one.
It feels cliché to eat waffles in Belgium but we do it anyway because they are free at the rest stops and absolutely filled with sugar. Jett collects extras and stuffs them into her jersey pockets, which are so full that waffles are poking out the top. “Saving treats for later?” It’s a gray-haired man riding behind us.
“How many are in there anyway, Jett?” I ask. “Not sure. Enough to get us to the finish!”
At the end we will empty her pockets in the van and find eight waffles. Eight.
At kilometer 110 our wrists are sore and our legs are tiring a bit so we try to shorten the ride by finishing faster. The final road is long and straight, pointing directly into a headwind. Rita’s pulls are big and meaty and when I look back I notice we have a train of 15 dudes sitting in, drafting off a little whisper of a girl who can’t weigh much more than a buck fifteen. There’s a reason we call her Jett.
When we’re finally done we keep riding a few kilometers to a gas station where we buy sandwiches, hot coffee and pizza while we wait to be picked up. Euro-trash techno is pumping from the speakers above the gas pumps so we dance in our helmets and spandex to keep warm. That many cobbles in one day can make your brain a little funny.
Follow Cobbles with Magic
After completing professional obligations related to the Ronde van Vlaanderen, I ask to be dropped off in Gent.
Two years ago over dinner Tyler Farrar had sold me on it; it was his favorite place in Europe, or so he said. He’d made it home, so I figured there must be something to it. There is.
I take my first walk on the Graslei at 10:30 p.m. on a Sunday. The town is quiet with centuries-old buildings and castles lit from below. Every so often, a cloud of laughter finds its way out of a pub window. Old stone bridges span the water and everything—and I mean absolutely everything—is made of stone. It’s as if someone took the “Cobble-izer” brush in Photoshop and clicked the entire town.
The main square in the city center is flanked by towering churches and warm, hunched-over bars and restaurants. Cyclists fly by in every direction, navigating tram tracks and cobbles without a second thought. It’s an ancient town that absolutely exudes culture from every angle, but it’s also a university town with a young heart that keeps the vibe fresh and forward. The food is mind-blowing and, if you’re into art and history, you can’t go wrong.
Gent is small enough to circumnavigate in just an hour or so, but saturated with enough culture and interest to keep you busy for days. It’s accessible and simultaneously a little bit mysterious. Touristy in the main square on a sunny day, but nowhere near as obnoxious as Bruges.
What really sets Gent apart isn’t the stuff that you can read about in guidebooks and travel blogs, it’s something else: it’s an intangible calm, a subtle sensation of romance, the understated but undeniable friendliness of the locals. If the Belgians have a reputation for being “boring and uptight” (I quote a local), I didn’t notice it. What I found was a place with a well-defined sense of itself, an undeniably young influence surrounded by a historic visual space that borders on mythical. It’s a comfortable marriage of old and new, a place characterized by balance, symmetry, beauty, precision and preservation.
It’s a place that I’ll come back to. A place that, like Farrar, I can imagine myself living.
78 Hours in Gent:
Taste, Sip, Listen
Spare Rib Coffee
Yes, I’m telling you to eat at a place called “Spare Rib Coffee” when you go to Belgium. A local took me here for dinner, scoffing at my previous “fancy” dining selections (see Pakhuis and Belga Queen) and telling me that if I really wanted a taste of how the Belgians eat, I would have to man up and bring an appetite. Spare ribs served, you guessed it, by the rack and the first round to hit our table were nearly 18 inches long. They arrived with a giant baked potato and selection of mayonnaise and mustard-based dipping sauces. Here’s the catch: the place is all-you-can-eat. Get ready to gnaw on ribs caveman style (actually, the Belgians were quite dainty with their gnawing) and throw the bones into a bowl at the middle of the table. When you finally manage to finish your first rack of ribs (you sissy) the server will be around with a platter so you can pick out another. We ate four between us and, if you’re counting that’s about six-feet worth of deliciously tender flesh when laid end to end. spareribcaffee.com/gent
This place is almost too hip for it’s own good, but the location is hard to beat (it overlooks the historical Graslei canals and bridges) and the ultra-modern interior manages to be almost space-age while still blending with the ancient building in which it’s housed: a former grain storehouse known locally as the “Spijker.” Bring your manners—this is a proper restaurant with the kind of precise European table service that makes a meal truly special. Dishes are produced with food grown in Belgian soil wherever possible and the extensive wine list has an impressive collection of selections that originate from Belgian winegrowers. If you’re in the mood for something more casual, the bar downstairs is an ideal place to taste a few beers and take in the romantic atmosphere of the Graslei. belgaqueen.be
Tucked down a cozy alleyway just off the main square in city center, this large restaurant is housed in a refurbished 19th-century warehouse (Pakhuis means warehouse in Dutch.) The airy dining room towers with painted cast-iron pillars, green pipes and tubing, ceiling fans and magical ambient light. It’s worth a visit to the bar just to take in the atmosphere of the building itself and, if you decide to stay for a meal, the seafood platters are stunning. Local gray shrimp called crangon, fresh periwinkles, whelks (large sea snail), oysters and langoustine are piled high. Polishing off a seafood platter requires a little bit of skill: coax the periwinkles out of their shells with the tiny pins provided. As for technique for de-shelling gray shrimp and the larger langoustine? You’re on your own. I made friends with the locals at the table next to me and enlisted their instruction. pakhuis.be
Frituur de Papegaai
I was sent to de Papegaai to taste what was heralded as “the best frites in Gent.” You’ll turn off the well-traveled paths to get here, but breaking out of city center into the quiet neighborhood streets is well worth the detour. Inside the colorful building that houses this fast-food spot, a massive vat of frozen frites awaits you. For the love of god, order the small—it’s roughly the size of an American football. Once ordered, a red-faced man with round cheeks deep-fried my batch and then wrapped them carefully in paper so they would stay warm when I took them away. Fair warning: another local told me that the best frites in Gent are actually just down the street from de Papegaai. He would not reveal the name. I didn’t have time to go back and hunt, but you definitely should.
This unique Japanese-inspired chocolatier takes traditional Belgian chocolate to the next-level. Nicolas Vanaise, a master of flavor experimentation, mixes classic chocolate technique with unexpected ingredients like marsala, Japanese green tea, matcha, porcini mushroom, pepper, cardamom, rose and absinthe. The shop also sells a wide variety of Japanese teas and teapots.
You’re in Belgium. Get ready for beer. Beer in bottles, beer on draught, beer at night, beer in bottle shops, beer stacked floor to ceiling, beer in the morning, beer for lunch, beer for brunch, beer for happy hour. Beer, beer, beer. Finding the good stuff is as easy as pointing at something (really, you won’t go wrong) but if you want something special, just ask the bartender to recommend something. Gruut is the town’s only remaining functioning brewery, so be sure to taste that one. After that? Be brave, go crazy, but be careful: this stuff (almost all of it) is strong and the locals are used to it. Bring your drinking pants and pace yourself.
Since finding good beer is as easy as stumbling into any pub in city center, I set my focus to finding a few special places outside the central fray.
Jan Van Gent
You’ll find this bar on a street corner in the same neighborhood street as de Papegaai. I met a local shopkeeper (her grandfather, Maurice De Waele, won the Tour de France in 1929—go figure!) for drinks after work here on a Thursday night. The place was packed with adorable 20- and 30-somethings doing what they do best: sipping strong beers and laughing. The atmosphere is bustling but welcoming and the back terrace has heated benches and blankets. Strike up a conversation with whoever is sitting next to you: the vibe is social and friendly and it’s always packed with locals.
This tiny space on Donkersteeg, just a few blocks off city center, is part bar, part cabaret. The host and bartender, Raphael, was raised by an award-winning magician mother and started practicing magic at the age of 10. You’ll drink some of the world’s best beer here, of course, and even the most grumpy of magic skeptics (ahem, me) will be delighted with Raphael’s impressive tricks, delivered in either Dutch or English. The crowd is a quirky mix of locals—I happened to slip in with a recently acquired Belgian friend (discovered at the previous pub, bar-hopping with new buddies is recommended!) This spot is truly special: come in, have a quiet drink and wait for the show. It will happen when you least expect it, so be patient.
This well-hidden bar is tucked into a 14th-century basement in Patershol, the oldest part of Gent. If you manage to find it, enjoy the ‘70s-inspired décor and slight James Bond feel of the place while you taste a beer or—if you’re feeling frisky—a blended cocktail like a daiquiri (Really, they pride themselves on these and tout the flavor of their Belgian strawberries.) This is a dimly lit loungey space that feels mellow and conversational in earlier evening hours but transforms into a haven for house music and live DJ sessions later in the night. Bring your dancing shoes if you plan to stay late; it’s almost impossible not to get sucked in. whitecat.be
Hotsy Totsy Club
It was impossible for me to resist visiting a placed called “Hotsy Totsy” and I was not disappointed. The walls of this jazz café are covered with art and photography and the vibe is mellow. Jazz is big in Belgium and Hotsy Totsy is just the right size to enjoy music comfortably.
From Issue 12. Buy it here.