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A view of Ghent, Belgium, with 1898 The Post hotel on the left and St. Nicholas’ Church at center
Photo by Hideaway Report editor

Ghent: An Undiscovered Gem

By Hideaway Report Editor

April 16, 2018

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Without denying the attractions of Europe’s capitals and fabled art cities, increasingly I plan trips to quieter places that haven’t been overwhelmed by tourism. Even in a small country like Belgium, it is still possible to escape the crowds that flood cities like Brussels and Bruges.

From 1000 to around 1550, Ghent was one of the largest and richest cities in Europe, its prosperity generated by the wool trade.

This explains why its architecture is so spectacular. The city cherishes the buildings of its golden age, which include a moated castle, a Gothic cathedral, a 298-foot belfry and three beguinages (residences for religious women who lived in a community without taking vows or retiring from the world).

When I got off the train at Ghent’s splendid Gent-Sint-Pieters station, after a 30-minute ride from Brussels, the only passengers who joined me on the platform were an older woman and her grandson. All the other passengers, including two large Chinese tour groups, remained aboard, bound for Bruges. When I admired the murals of the station’s main waiting room, the woman proudly explained that the station had been built for the 1913 Exposition universelle et internationale. “And that was the last time our lovely city was really crowded, which suits us just fine,” she said with a chuckle.

In addition to the attractions of its medieval architecture, Ghent has recently developed a small constellation of exceptional restaurants. (In 2018, Michelin awarded Restaurant Vrijmoed its second star, while Chambre Séparée and Oak both gained their first.) Ghent is also a fine city for shoppers, with numerous one-of-a-kind boutiques selling handmade chocolates, linen, porcelain, antiques and clothing by local designers.

1898 The Post

Without denying the attractions of Europe’s capitals and fabled art cities, increasingly I plan trips to quieter places that haven’t been overwhelmed by tourism. Even in a small country like Belgium, it is still possible to escape the crowds that flood cities like Brussels and Bruges.

From 1000 to around 1550, Ghent was one of the largest and richest cities in Europe, its prosperity generated by the wool trade.

This explains why its architecture is so spectacular. The city cherishes the buildings of its golden age, which include a moated castle, a Gothic cathedral, a 298-foot belfry and three beguinages (residences for religious women who lived in a community without taking vows or retiring from the world).

When I got off the train at Ghent’s splendid Gent-Sint-Pieters station, after a 30-minute ride from Brussels, the only passengers who joined me on the platform were an older woman and her grandson. All the other passengers, including two large Chinese tour groups, remained aboard, bound for Bruges. When I admired the murals of the station’s main waiting room, the woman proudly explained that the station had been built for the 1913 Exposition universelle et internationale. “And that was the last time our lovely city was really crowded, which suits us just fine,” she said with a chuckle.

In addition to the attractions of its medieval architecture, Ghent has recently developed a small constellation of exceptional restaurants. (In 2018, Michelin awarded Restaurant Vrijmoed its second star, while Chambre Séparée and Oak both gained their first.) Ghent is also a fine city for shoppers, with numerous one-of-a-kind boutiques selling handmade chocolates, linen, porcelain, antiques and clothing by local designers.

1898 The Post

The exterior of 1898 The Post Alex Teuscher

My visit had been prompted by the debut of the new 1898 The Post hotel. The 37-room property is housed within part of the old main post office, a neo-Gothic stone structure, with two stone towers flanking a central gable set in a steep slate roof, which was completed in 1910. The post office closed in 2001, and the building remained unused for several years until the city decided it should be preserved and repurposed. French hotelier Arnaud Zannier, who also owns Le Chalet Zannier in Megève, France, and Phum Baitang in Cambodia, created the new hotel over the course of a two-year renovation. It opened in August.

Figuring out the precise location of the hotel can be tricky, since the front door is actually at the rear of the building. But once you’ve crossed a cobbled courtyard and taken the elevator to the first-floor reception, you find yourself in a chic but cozy setting, with vintage lighting and a warm and stylish décor that was the work of Belgian decorator Geraldine Dohogne.

Check-in was rather brisk: The young woman at the front desk offered no words of welcome and merely asked what time we were planning to have breakfast the next day. When I told her that I had no idea, she sighed: “The restaurant gets very busy on the weekend.” “Oh,” I said. “But shouldn’t there always be room for people who are actually staying at the hotel?” “En principe,” she replied.

The Letter room at 1898 The Post Alex Teuscher

The names of the various room types don’t explain very much, but I recommend that you book a category called The Carriage. These are spacious and attractively furnished duplex rooms that come with a sitting area downstairs and a bedroom and a well-appointed white-marble bath upstairs. These handsome accommodations have oak parquet floors, excellent lighting, good views over the city and large, very comfortable beds.

Alternatively, opt for a suite. Arguably the best one is The Loft, which has an ample living area with a library, plus views over both the main square and the canal behind the hotel. As well as being spacious, light and quiet, it has a bath on the same level as the bedroom. The Tower Suite is billed as being exceptionally romantic, but the bath and bedroom are inconveniently located on different levels and are connected by a winding staircase.

The hotel’s restaurant, The Kitchen, serves a good buffet breakfast, as well as light lunches and afternoon tea. However, it is not open for dinner. In addition, there is a charming bar named The Cobbler, which has a serious cocktail menu featuring several excellent locally distilled gins.

- Hotel at a Glance -

1898 The Post    92Andrew Harper Bird

Like

The handsome décor of the hotel, which matches the neo-Gothic architecture perfectly; the ideal central location.

Dislike

The staff can sometimes be chilly.

Good to Know

You don’t need a car in Ghent; in fact, the city center is car-free, and there is no parking at the hotel.


Rates: The Carriage with Terrace, $350
Address: Graslei 16
Telephone: (32) 9-391-5379

View 1898 The Post Hotel Listing

B & B Hôtel Verhaegen

The restaurant at B & B Hôtel Verhaegen Jan D. Wilde

After two nights at 1898 The Post, we moved to the five-room B & B Hôtel Verhaegen, a relaxed but elegant bed-and-breakfast set within a magnificently restored 18th-century mansion. Arriving on a rainy gray day, we were immediately offered a cup of hot tea. This we enjoyed in the Grand Salon, a gorgeous room with herringbone oak parquet floors, powder-blue walls, a collection of antique Delft pottery and 250-year-old rococo murals by the Flemish painter Pierre-Norbert van Reysschoot. A fire crackled in the hearth, and it would have been easy to linger there indefinitely, enjoying the views over the immaculately maintained parterre garden.

The box garden in the courtyard of B & B Hôtel Verhaegen B & B Hôtel Verhaegen

Our delightful quarters came with a small private reading room and a balcony. The reading room was fitted with a candle-burning Directoire-style crystal chandelier, wall sconces, a marble fireplace and a cozy couch and chair. The huge bath provided double vanities in a limestone counter, a soaking tub and a separate rainfall shower.

Having unpacked, we set off for an afternoon of sightseeing. After visiting MIAT (Museum about Industry, Labour and Textile) and S.M.A.K., the city’s contemporary-art museum, which contains works by artists like Joseph Beuys and Luc Tuymans, we headed to St. Bavo’s Cathedral to see the newly restored medieval masterpiece “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” by Hubert and Jan van Eyck.

Although a self-described “hotel,” this is essentially a sophisticated guesthouse, which makes it a fine choice for those who enjoy small, distinctive properties and who do not require an elaborate range of services or amenities. It is a romantic and hospitable little place that encapsulates the charm of Ghent, with all its history and refinement. In contrast, 1898 The Post is the city’s best traditional hotel.

- Hotel at a Glance -

B & B Hôtel Verhaegen    90Andrew Harper Bird

Like

The exquisite décor of this meticulously restored 18th-century mansion; the charming courtyard garden.

Dislike

Breakfast is good but rather pricey.

Good to Know

Private guides to explore the city can be arranged by the hotel.


Rates: Deluxe Room, $260; Junior Suite, $320
Address: Oude Houtlei 110
Telephone: (32) 9-265-0760

View B & B Hôtel Verhaegen Listing


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By Hideaway Report Editor Hideaway Report editors travel the world anonymously to give you the unvarnished truth about luxury hotels. Hotels have no idea who they are, so they are treated exactly as you might be.
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