Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Whine and Chocolate or The Great Ghent Christmas Disaster

My kids love history… sometimes.

It’s hard to predict when they will embrace something, or when they will start marking the minutes until we return to the car and start the journey home.

Yesterday was a freak show.

Ghent is this lovely little Flemish city. It is filled with charming 16th century architecture, three rivers, medieval bridges, gothic churches, and art masterpieces. It was even rated one of Lonely Planet's Top 10 Cities to see in 2011.

I tried to sell this little Belgian daytrip to my kids by offering a trip to a castle, a climb of a historic tower, Belgian chocolate, and later, as my arguments fell on disinterested ears, french fries.

I knew we were in trouble when we had not even left the parking garage before Jack started asking how long it would be until we could go back home.

In their defense, it was cold: damp and cold.  But surely we should be able to see a few things?

The castle Gravensteen is everything you’d want in a medieval structure. It was rough and ragged around the edges, “a Keep” Jack called it. It was built for defense, but later used as a prison.

Unlike the Tower of London, there were was no glossing over of the Gravensteen’s gory history here. They made it very clear that this place was used for torture and execution. They had a very informative display of torture devices, how long the torture could be endured, and which room was used for which application. When they started using life sized manikins to make their point, I had to get Audrey out of the room. They did have a cool guillotine complete with a burlap sack to catch the head. You don’t get an education like this every day. Any questions, kids?

The whole place made me glad that we live here and now when places like Gravensteen are museums and any form of capital punishment is debated, considered and reconsidered.

My kids, on the other hand, were wishing themselves dead.

The whining had been a background noise throughout the castle, but now we were back out on the street. The thought that we would just wander around the old city until we saw a few things was too much for Jack. He started to plan a mutiny. When Audrey started crying because her hands were cold, I thought it was time to pack it up and go home.

Thank God for Belgian chocolate. We ducked into a little shop called Van Hoorebeke on Sint Baafsplein. This Victorian chocolate shop had curved glass counters and shelves filled with fresh chocolates. The aroma from the kitchen below was absolutely divine. While Audrey warmed up, Jack and Jordan made selections from the counter. For five euros in chocolate, I had bought myself some time.

We ventured in to the Gothic church of St. Bavo, where I had heard the Flemish masterpiece “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” had recently been restored. Access to the side chapel with the “Adoration” was four euros per person. I approached Walt and made my pitch. “Walt, there is a very famous early Flemish masterpiece here. It’s four euros to see it.” I watched Walt’s eyes glass over as I spoke.

There is an advantage to 15 years of marriage. You tend to be able to read your partner. I changed my tact and offered, “We could pay that four euros, or I could show you pictures of it on-line when we get home.” Walt broke into a large grin and we moved on.

If you’ve seen the “Adoration” by the van Eyck brothers, let me know if it was worth the money. I’m dying to know.

So that was our afternoon. The kids outright refused a trip up the belfry of the Cloth Hall, a world heritage site. We spent a few minutes at the merry-go-round. Then it was time to pack the kids up and head home. Jack smiled for the first time that afternoon.

Later, I had an interesting conversation with the kids about what kind of travel they like to do. They agreed that all trips should involve an amusement park with roller coasters, oh, and lots of kitty cats.

I think Flemish and Dutch Medieval cities are done for while. Too bad considering that there are about 50 amazing cities just like that around here. Sigh…


  1. I totally get it! We are off to Prague for the New Year - we'll see how that goes. No amusement parks or fluffy kitties there either :)But probably lots of hot chocolate... XOL

  2. Oh my, what a day you had! I recognize the trauma ;) Travel is so educational for kids, they say, but sometimes you wonder! That gruesome castle might have been rather overwhelming, but I wonder if they wouldn't find it cool to brag about to their friends at home.

    I remember traveling through Thailand and Malaysia and all my kids wanted was toasted cheese sandwiches while my dh and I dined on the most scrumptious food.

    I haven't seen the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, but I did see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. I stood there and looked at this small painting and thought, "This is IT??"

    Of course kids want amusement parks and french fries and toasted cheese sandwiches. Still, keep exposing them to different cultural things and events. You never know what sticks and what they'll remember.

  3. @ HH, Good luck in Prague. Want to hear all about it!

    @ MFL, Cheese Toasties in the Far East? So sad, but I totally understand. Thanks for the words of wisdom. I'll keep pushing the culture and try to slide a roller coaster in there from time to time.

  4. :-), I concur. Know what you mean. Been there. At least, you made it there,...and back with chocolate in between. Chocolate does know how to fix things, doesn't he/she? Have a blessed 2011, a touch late I know but better than not.

  5. Here a Dutch guy from Prague :)
    Love your Blog. Nice writing and great tips..

    Leuk om te lezen.