Café society at Vrijdagmarkt
DESTINATION Ghent, Belgium
DISTANCE FROM CHICAGO 4,100 miles
OUR GUIDES Don Feinberg and Wendy Littlefield, beer importers
WHAT THEY LOVE TO DO IN GHENT Ride bikes and shop
Don Feinberg and Wendy Littlefield, beer importers who moved to Chicago several years ago, tell everyone—friends, colleagues, strangers—to travel to Belgium, the tiny Franco-Flemish nation stuffed between France and Germany. The couple first visited in 1979; today they spend three months a year there, renting a home in Ghent. Smack in the middle of the Flemish part of the country, Ghent is a canal-filled university town that is widely popular among Belgian natives for its annual festival of music, food, and, of course, beer.
Biking past Gravensteen Castle
Originally from New York, Feinberg and Littlefield were so taken with the city of Brussels (after a brief stint working there as advertisers in the 1980s) that they started their importing company, Vanberg & DeWulf, as an excuse to go back and visit friends. They followed their daughter when she headed to Chicago for college and then gradually turned their sporadic overseas trips into annual stays. They chose Ghent as their home base for its central location and charm. “Ghent is like a cross between Oxford and Berkeley,” Littlefield says, citing its historic atmosphere (a 12th-century castle sits in the middle of town) and liberal sensibility (the city was the first in Belgium to institute vegetarian school lunches). Plus, the country’s breweries, as nearby as Brussels and as far away as the French border, are within reach of the couple’s rented home.
Upon arrival, they stock up on local favorites for simple weekday meals: produce from the farmers’ markets, raisin bread from the bakery Himschoot (Groentenmarkt 1), freshly made mustard from Tierenteyn-Verlent (Groentenmarkt 3; tierenteyn-verlent.be), and fish from De Vis (Voldersstraat 48; devis.be). “As soon as the herring season has started, Don will get one every day,” Littlefield explains of her husband’s love for the Belgian specialty. “He says he knows what it feels like to be a polar bear.”
Leisurely weekends often start at a favorite coffee shop, Le Bar Depot (Beverhoutplein 14). This hip spot is set on a square that offers Littlefield’s “idea of heaven”—a weekend flea market full of vintage clothing and housewares. After a typical European breakfast of coffee, a soft-boiled egg, and a croissant, the two often wander around the square, looking for trinkets to take back to their Lake View home. Afterward, they might hop on bikes for a ride along the city’s canals. “Everyone bikes here, even old people,” says Littlefield, who spends many days making the two-hour bike trek (or easy 30-minute train ride) from Ghent to Bruges, Belgium’s better-known and more touristy city of canals. Although the train stations rent bikes, Littlefield and Feinberg reserve better-quality ones from a nearby shop, Biker (Steendam 16; bikerfietsen.net); they suggest picking up a city bike map at any tourist office.
When in the mood for some culture, they head to S.M.A.K. (Citadelpark; smak.be), the city’s impressive modern art gallery. For a complete 180, they enjoy wandering through the Museum of Industrial Archaeology and Textiles (Minnemeers 9; miat.gent.be). Housed in the warehouse of an old cotton mill, this space showcases the world of fabrics. Other days they might stroll through Ghent’s cobblestone streets, snapping photographs of the interesting combination of historic architecture melded with modern design and the public walls covered with eye-catching artlike graffiti.
Beer beckons by the time afternoon rolls around. Always on the lookout for new flavors, the two stop in as many bars and shops as possible, including their favorite, De Brouwzaele (17 Ter Platen), which Feinberg describes as the epitome of “Belgian dedication to taking the afternoon off.” Other haunts include Trefpunt (Bij Sint-Jacobs 18; trefpunt.be) and Waterhuis aan de Bierkant (Groentenmarkt 9; waterhuisaandebierkant.be), which they love for its atmosphere and its location next to a jenever (Dutch gin) café. De Hopduvel (Coupure Links 625; dehopduvel.be) is a massive store filled with more than 1,000 varieties of beer. For the brewery experience, they say skip Ghent’s Gruut brewpub in favor of the famed Delirium Tremens (Overpoortstraat 104; delirium.be) on the outskirts of town.
Every trip includes a visit to the nearby suburb of Overmere for eel. “It’s a Belgian national dish they’re not promoting,” says Littlefield. “The Brussels sprout, the endive, and the eel are less appreciated than the chocolate, the waffle, and the beer.” Littlefield doesn’t care for the delicacy, traditionally served with a creamy herb sauce, but it’s a favorite of both Feinberg and Roger Mussche, a local friend and brewing scientist with whom Feinberg is collaborating on new beers. After a meal like this, you’ll truly have experienced Ghent as a local.
Photography: (street) Krzysztof Dydynski/Lonely Planet Images; (biking) Jonathan Smith/Lonely Planet Images
A stop for beer
Start your visit with a boat ride along Ghent’s famous canals for the views and the history. For an eerie photo op, tour the Gravensteen (Sint-Veerleplein 11; reisjes.aangevinkt.be), a 12th-century castle filled with medieval torture devices. Afterward, walk the very chic Patershol area, whose cobblestone streets date back to the 15th century. For shopping, take advantage of the city’s many markets (birds, flowers, and books, to name a few). Littlefield also loves Ghent’s stores, including antiques shop Heyvaert Monique (Onderbergen 66) and The Fallen Angels (Jan Breydelstraat 29-31; the-fallen-angels.com), filled with vintage ephemera.
WHERE TO STAY For extended trips, Feinberg and Littlefield highly recommend renting a home or an apartment through De Griffioen (Koningstraat 1; griffioengent.be). Other accommodations include Greetje Tuts (Kwaadham 91), a small bed-and-breakfast that offers plenty of charm; the Ghent Marriott (Korenlei 10; marriott.com) for a more refined locale; or Monasterium PoortAckere (Oude Houtlei 56; monasterium.be), a comfortable hotel in a former monastery on Ghent’s old canal route.
WHERE TO EAT Secure caffeine at Huize Colette (Belfortstraat 6), a coffee shop and bookstore. Make sure to taste local dishes, including lesser-known stoverij (a beef stew) and waterzooi (a creamy fish dish), at restaurants like Eetkaffee Multatuli (Huidevetterskaai 40; eetkaffee-multatuli.be), which also offers vegetarian options; Aba-Jour (Oud-burg 20; abajour-gent.com) is an Art Deco brasserie with a view of the river. Feinberg and Littlefield swear Ghent has Belgium’s best waffles—at Max (Goudenleeuwplein 3). But be warned: This place strictly separates mealtime and waffle time; eat a late lunch, then stick around for waffles afterward. For an eel dinner, head to Elvira (Donklaan 255) in suburban Overmere.
Photograph: (Bierhuis) Wendy Littlefield