Ghent: The Art, The Mustard

At Last! 
Sometimes you feel cool and sometimes you feel like a dummy.

That’s just the way it goes, I guess. 

When planning my few days in Brussels I got it in my head that a trip to Belgium wouldn’t be complete without seeing the famous Ghent altarpiece.  The altarpiece, painted around 1430 by Jan van Eyck has 12 panels depicting biblical and other religions scenes.  Noted for its then groundbreaking application of realism, it was once described as encompassing "the whole art of painting".  This impressive piece endured the destruction of the iconoclast era and lost panels due to theft during WWI and WWII – spending some time in a salt mine during the latter.  After a massive restoration effort the altarpiece is now displayed in St. Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium – theoretically a 45 minute train ride from Brussels.

Despite a rocky start of lost luggage and no guide book, I found my way to the train station and hopped on a train that certainly seemed to be headed toward Ghent.  About 45 minutes in and what felt like an equal number of stops I asked the train attendant how soon we’d be arriving in Ghent.  He gave me a sympathetic look from under his navy cap

“Oh no. You should have taken the other train.  This train goes to Ghent, but it is the slow train and stops at every town.  It will take 2.5 hours.”

This is when you feel like a dummy.  And you feel even more like a dummy when you finally arrive in Ghent without plans or a map or wifi and expect to just ask around in French only to realize that in Ghent they speak mostly Dutch, not French. 

In the train station an automated map showed me the general direction of the church and I decided to walk instead of navigating what seemed like a complicated tram system.

Ghent is medieval and beautiful, but felt a bit glum after the perpetual sunshine of Oman.  I was stopped at an intersection, feeling sorry for my lost self and my incredible-see-great-art-adventure come wander-about-without-a-clue when a swarm of bike riders charged down the hill toward me and tore through the intersection. There must have been 30 of them all wearing scarves and blazers. It was like a great whooshing, swooping  flock of crows - if crows chatted on cell phones and carried back packs.  Ghent appeared to be a town ruled by two wheels. Bike riders overran sidewalks and filled entire roads from curb to curb.  They held their heads high and wore skirts fearlessly.      

When I caught a closer look at these tweeded bike riders I discovered they looked a lot like me: freckles, sandy red hair and pale skin.  Which makes sense as my people are, in part, from Northern Europe.  My People!  I thought, lengthening my stride.  This sense of community, albeit completely imagined, breathed life into my legs and lifted my spirits.  I ate pickled beets and dried pork for lunch on a sunny park bench and watched dozens more bike riders sail past. 

When I finally stood in front of the altarpiece it was everything I hoped it would be.  I snuck an audio guide off the table when no one was looking and worked my way through each panel.  Even the teenage group of field trippers added to the ambience somehow. If you want a bit more than that you can read about it here and here and here and here. 

Nose Of Ghent
Later in the day I made friends with the lovely and Flemishly tall Una and asked her about the famous mustard shop I vaguely remembered reading about but didn’t know how to find.  The lovely and flemishly tall Una led me through town, past the cart selling “Noses of Ghent”  - a purple jelly candy shaped like, well, a nose – and to what can only be described as an artisanal mustard shop.  I picked a beautiful stone jar and the …mustarder(?)…mustardier(?)...mustardess(?) dipped a giant wooden ladel into a wooden barrel of mustard.  A barrel large enough for an adult sized game of hide and seek.   

...barrel of mustard
“It has to be wood” she tells me

“Don’t scoop your mustard with metal and never leave the spoon. It will split the 

You’ve been warned people.   

Una showed me how to ride the tram back and identify the “fast” train to Brussels.  I arrived in Brussels later than I had hoped and saw less than I would have liked in Ghent, but a spoonful of that eye watering mustard this morning reminded me that the trip was definitely worth it. 

Best spicy mustard I've ever had