Ghent: Belgium’s Secret City

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Ghent, Belgium:  a journey to medieval architecture and food wonderland

Vivien Veil gives an enriching cultural guide to the capital of the East Flanders province – where chocolates and beer rule.

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By: Vivien Veil

After touring the beautiful historical city of Bruges, a local woman advised me to please visit Ghent.  She declared that “Ghent is not to be missed” and that “you will absolutely love the city.”  With those words replaying in my ears, I immediately booked a train ticket to Ghent.

Just as I walk into Gent-Dampoort Railway Station, I observe the many locked up bikes ready to rent.  Belgians embrace cycling – their love affair with everything bicycles means cycle racing is a very popular sport in Belgium.  It’s no wonder Belgian Eddy Merckx is still regarded as the “greatest pro-cyclist” of all time.  Cycling is in their blood!

Not long after strolling the charming streets of Ghent – brimming with impeccable medieval buildings, picturesque canals, and excellent public transport service – I soon realise why locals choose walking and cycling over driving.

St Nicholas Church

St Nicholas Church

Thank God I brought a comfortable pair of walking shoes!  I can’t imagine touring this fantastic city with heels.  Armed with a Ghent travel guide, I’m ready to discover the culinary and cultural delights of Belgium’s best kept secret – GHENT.
Belgium’s first industrial city boasts some of the most gorgeous buildings in the world – with Sint-Baafskathedraal (St Bavos Cathedral), the Stadhuis (Town Hall), and the Gothic Sint-Niklaaskerk (St Nicholas’ Church) surrounding the Ghent-Terneuzen Canal.

Ghent is the new Bruges

Yet for all its historic grandeur, elegant theatres, world-class museums, chic boutiques and metropolitan buzz, Ghent is also a cozy city full of village atmosphere.  This is the perfect city for wandering.  Oh, and of course shopping – thanks to Europe’s largest pedestrianised zone (Mageleinstraat and Koestraat).  Just make sure to bring plenty of money!

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Well what do you know! A Starbucks!

I kickoff my trek in Korenmarkt, a huge outdoor terrace filled with great places to grab a quick lunch or coffee.  This place is a local favourite, especially when the sun makes its appearance.  If you’re looking for some American eateries, look no further.  Here you’ll find a Starbucks and a McDonald’s.  I have yet to find a city that doesn’t contain a McDonald’s.

I stop at the elegant brasserie Establissement Max at the end of the alley.  Locals tell me this is the place to dine on Belgian waffles.  The super crowded restaurant with impeccably dressed waiters serving waffles and ice cream is definitely a place to visit – even if it’s just for the atmosphere.  The food presentation alone makes it a worthwhile destination.

Feast at Max

Feast at Max

Approaching Emile Braunplein, I see three of the top 10 sights of Ghent:  Sint-Baafskathedraal (St Bavo’s Cathedral), the Belfort, and Sint-Niklaaskerk (St Nicholas Church).  The  91-metre-high Belfort is the city’s most eye-catching landmark and an important symbol of Ghent’s independence from the Netherlands.  These three medieval landmarks take part on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

After exploring ancient Ghent, I head over to the shopping area deemed the biggest pedestrian-friendly area of Europe.  Mageleinstraat and Koestraat sparks my interest as it’s quieter and full of charming delicatessens, stylish fashion, and traditional chocolate shops.  I then stroll along the Graslei, one of the most striking places in Ghent’s old city centre.  There I see a historic 13th-century building, which houses the high-end restaurant Belga Queen.  If you fancy dining on high quality Belgian dishes, Belgian beers, and Belgian wines – reserve a table at Belga Queen. Everything here is locally sourced and the atmosphere is top-notch.

Beautiful Ghent

Beautiful Ghent

Ghent is absolutely Belgium’s best kept secret.  The blend of Gothic architecture, food, friendly locals, and scenery make it one of my most favourite holiday destinations.  If you’re not into chips, waffles and other unhealthy treats – don’t write off Belgium just yet.  Ghent is one of the most vegetarian and vegan friendly places in Europe.  In fact, they even advertise meat-free Thursdays called Donderdag Veggiedag.

One thing is for certain – Belgium isn’t a cheap country.  So, if you’re planning a holiday to Ghent, prepare to pay up.

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Top Places to Eat and Drink

  1. Belga Queen – The historic 13th-century building, elegant decor and the caliber of the locally sourced food, create a classy feel at this ultramodern eatery.  €€€€ (Graslei 10; #09 280 01 00; www.belgaqueen.be)
  2. Brasserie Pakhuis – A walk to the suburbs is quickly paid back by eating at this gorgeous colonial-style home overlooking the River Leie.  Exquisite French-Italian cuisine.  Their seafood dishes are fantastic.  €€€  (Schuurkenstraat 4; #09 223 55 55; www.pakhuis.be)
  3. Exki – The name means “fresh food”.  This is a nice place to eat healthy vegetarian and non-vegetarian soups, salads, quiche, sandwiches, and fresh juices.  They even serve vegan options.  The great location makes it a perfect spot to scope out the gorgeous view of the city centre. €€  (Sint-Michielshelling 2; #329 269 0500; www.exki.be)
  4. t’Vosken – A typical brasserie specialising in Belgian cuisine, such as stews, spare ribs, and rabbit in a dramatic black and white setting.  €€  (St-Baafsplein 19; #32 9225 7361; www.tvosken.be)
  5. Brooderie – The smell of freshly baked bread and coffee drifts around this rustic-inspired restaurant serving sandwiches, homemade cakes, and light vegetarian fare. Best of all, they serve mainly organic products.  €  (Jan Breydelstraat 8; #329 225 0623; www.brooderie.be)
  6. Groot Vleeshuis – This affordable eatery is part restaurant/part delicatessen. It’s housed in a medieval butchers’ hall.  The relaxed atmosphere makes it a great place to chill out in casual attire.  Try their waterzzoi, a delicious fish or chicken Flemish stew.  €  (Groentenmarkt 7; #09 223 2324; www.grootvleeshuis.be)
  7. Frituur Jozef – A traditional chip stand serving chips (fries) and sauces.  Established in 1898, his family continues serving up delicious unhealthy fries to the city’s university students, locals, and tourists.  €  (Vrijdagmarkt)

An Unforgettable Experience in Hong Kong

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By: SHANNON MURPHY

Living on Okinawa, you become quickly aware of the fact you are on an island that is only 70 miles long and 7 miles wide.  Sometimes you feel the urge to get off, just for the sake of avoiding island fever.  So, we booked a trip to Hong Kong for Thanksgiving week with the kids.  It was a quick, direct flight from Okinawa (only a little over 2 hours to arrive.)  Hong Kong is one of those places that offer something for everyone.  There is amazing shopping, local markets, dining and cultural experiences, harbor cruises, breathtaking scenery from high peaks, horse racing, and much more.  We had the pleasure of spending four days in Hong Kong with our children during Thanksgiving week and left wishing we had another day or two to explore.  With so many options to see in Hong Kong, it was difficult to narrow down our sightseeing choices – especially with kids in tow, you can’t go, go, go until you are no longer able to move your legs!

Hong Kong's Victoria Harbor - ride the Star Ferry across

Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor – ride the Star Ferry across for a great view of the city, architecture, and watch the evening light show over the water.  Photograph:  Shannon Murphy

While we were checking in at our hotel, we noticed a pamphlet for Lantau Island and the Big Buddha.  It looked interesting, and it is definitely one of those sites we probably would never have a chance to see again.  The pamphlet had pictures of the Ngong Ping cable car ride high above the waters of Tung Chung Bay, photos of the amazing Buddha statue, the beautiful temple of the Po Lin Monastery, and wonderful scenic views from Lantau Island.  So, we decided to forego Hong Kong’s Disneyland and instead go see the Big Buddha.  Telling you it was a good choice is a BIG understatement.  Big Buddha would be smiling upon us after all.

We were staying on Kowloon Island, approximately a 30 minute metro ride from the Tung Chung Station where we would then transfer onto the Ngong Ping cable car.  The cable car ride was 25 minutes, high above the waters of Tung Chung.  If you are scared of heights, don’t worry because there is a 40-minute ferry ride option.  The views from the cable car were amazing, so I would recommend it over the ferry ride if you can stomach the height.  Once we arrived, we had to walk through a village built especially to entice tourists to spend money.  It even had a Starbucks and a Subway… what?!  A quick stop for a chai tea latte to warm up and we were back on our path to see the Buddha.

The cable

The cable car ride from Tung Chung Station to Lantau Island.  It was a chilly, rainy day, but that didn’t stop us from going on our journey.  Photograph:  Shannon Murphy

The Buddha is only 20 years old, built in 1993.  It took 12 years to complete the statue.  The project cost $60 million Hong Kong dollars.  Its official name is Tian Tan Buddha, but more commonly referred to as Big Buddha.  It is 34 meters tall, weighs 250 tons, and faces north to look over the Chinese people.  You do not have to practice Buddhism to appreciate this popular sight.  It costs nothing to climb to the top.  You can be face to face with the statue in 268 steps (quite a workout!), but it was an amazing experience to stand below it and be in awe of its grandeur and massive size.  His right hand is raised to deliver a blessing to all.  Once at the top, you will find amazing scenery of Hong Kong’s many islands, mountains and sea.

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View of the Big Buddha from the tourist village.  Photograph:  Shannon Murphy

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Up close with the Big Buddha, from the top of the steps.  Photograph:  Shannon Murphy

The Po Lin Monastery sits below the statue, across a plaza.  The monastery was originally built in 1924 as a small temple, but additional buildings have been added over the years.  While we were there, we could hear the Buddhist monks chanting melodies.  You could walk up the steps and see them in the hall on bent knees.  No pictures were allowed.  There are amazing gardens surrounding the monastery, and you can smell incense burning, as a sign of offering.  It also is believed that burning incense purifies the atmosphere and reminds us to purify our minds.

My 6-year-old still talks about our Hong Kong trip often.  He remembers how many steps it took to get to the top (he counted!) Experiences like these make me so proud.  Knowing I’m instilling an awareness of different cultures, languages, and sights in my two children.  Even if you are not able to leave your city and go explore another culture, go check out some books at a library.  Yes, physically walk in there and touch real books, flip pages together, and talk about what you see.  If you have a chance to see Hong Kong, don’t miss the Big Buddha.  He’ll be there waiting for you with his gentle smile and sign of peace.

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Po Lin Monastery.  Photograph:  Shannon Murphy

Other Interesting Hong Kong Facts

  • According to the World Bank, the 2011 population of Hong Kong was 7,071,600.

  • Hong Kong is made up of 235 islands, with a land mass of 1,104 km2 (426 sq mi.) It has an amazing transportation infrastructure to assist its residents and tourists to get from island to island.

  • Hong Kong was under British colonial rule for more than 150 years.  This ended in 1997 when China resumed the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong.  Hong Kong is called a Special Administration Region of China.
  • Although Hong Kong is ruled by China, it is a separate customs territory and economic entity, making it possible to enter into its own international agreements regarding commercial and economic matters.
  • Hong Kong is the birthplace of many famous people, however, many Westerners would be most familiar with Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.  They even have an Avenue of Stars, modeled after Hollywood’s Walk of Fame in California.  You can find the stars for both Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan on the Avenue, as well as 100 other stars.

Okinawa’s Protector of Evil Spirits

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By SHANNON MURPHY

When you are in an overseas country, you are guaranteed to see many interesting places and things.  One frequently seen in Okinawa is shisa.  Shisa are a traditional Okinawan decoration that resembles a cross between a dog and a lion.

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Don’t worry about good spirits leaving your home. I’ll make sure they stay put!

These statues are usually found in pairs.  One usually has a closed mouth, while the other has an open mouth.  My oldest son and I play a game when we are out driving to see who can first spot a shisa.  They can usually be found on the rooftops of homes, entrances to public places, shops, or flanking the gates of homes.  Many Okinawans believe shisa ward off evil spirits.  It is traditionally believed that the shisa with the open mouth wards off the evil spirits, and the one with the closed mouth keep good spirits inside the home.  They can be found in all sizes and colors.

History Behind Shisa

Shisa were first brought to Okinawa from China in the 14th century.  There are many legends told of shisa.  One legend is of a boy who was given a shisa as a gift from an Okinawan nobleman.  One day a dragon came to attack the boy’s village, and the shisa came to life and saved the village.  Another legend tells of shisa that were given to the Ryukyuan king.  There was a sea dragon that terrorized Naha Bay, so the king had his shisa confront the sea dragon.  The shisa came to life and roared like a lion, causing a great rock to fall from the sky and land on top of the dragon.  The dragon died, and the rock and dragon were covered with plants and trees.  The spot where the dragon perished is now believed to be present day Ganna-mui Island.

If you are ever lucky enough to visit Okinawa, be sure to look for shisa.  You can rest assured they will protect you from any evil sea dragons lurking about the island.

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