A slow tour of green Ghent: Graffiti art walks, canoe clean ups and zero-waste restaurants

Belgium's Flemish port city is a long-time eco pioneer and the perfect place for a European city jaunt

Ghent promotes environmentally friendly activities and a bicycle is a great way to get around. Photo: Unsplash
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My journey from the bustling Belgian capital of Brussels across to the ancient Flemish city of Ghent traverses bucolic countryside marked by traditional windmills and ecological wind turbines, and taking just 30 minutes by train. It's a low-carbon footprint beginning to discover one of Europe's most sustainable destinations and a much more relaxed manner of travel than driving out of traffic-congested Brussels.

Arriving at the grandiose neo-Gothic Saint-Peter station, I jump on an electric tram that takes only 10 minutes to trundle into the city's medieval centre, which has been car-free since 1997.

That is just the tip of Ghent’s green iceberg as the destination is a long-time eco-pioneer for citizens and travellers looking for an environmentally responsible experience. Within easy reach for walkers and cyclists, the city's cafes and restaurants are big on zero-waste philosophies and many create delicious dishes with organic locavore ingredients, such as championing locally grown celeriac instead of imported avocado. Vegetarian and vegan eateries are everywhere, and the city created “Thursday Veggie Day” which, according to the World Wildlife Fund, has become popular around the world, including in Helsinki, San Francisco, Cape Town and Sao Paulo.

Many hotels in the city follow the Green Key and Green Globe manifestos of energy-saving to reduce their ecological footprint, and that of their guests. And while Ghent’s high street is home to many of the common global fashion brands like H&M, Zara and Benetton, there are also some brilliant independent boutiques where local designers create their own fashions and accessories, often from upcycled vintage materials.

Unlike its better-known neighbour Bruges, which suffers from an invasion of day-trippers similar to Amsterdam and Venice, Ghent is more discrete and less crowded but still has magnificent Gothic castles and cathedrals, artwork from the early Renaissance and impressive museum collections.

A slow tour of the city is the ideal way to get under its skin. I begin by exploring languid canals lined by ornate medieval guild houses and palaces, dating back to when the textile trade made Ghent one of the richest and most powerful entrepots in Europe. I take the easy option of jumping on a guided electric boat trip, but can’t help noticing the eager canoeists who stop every so often to fish rubbish out of the water. Rented by DoKano as part of the city's Clear Water Project, it's a project aimed at increasing eco-awareness among the city's students and visiting tourists.

Back on land, there are some obligatory must-sees for any visitor heading to Ghent starting with Saint-Bavo’s Cathedral with the Van Eycks' Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, followed by a trip to the top of the Unesco World Heritage belfry for spectacular city views. Outside the belfry I rent a bike and cycle across town to the venerable Museum of Fine Arts, for a quiet afternoon viewing works by Old Masters Breugel, Bosch and Rubens.

But what makes Ghent such a quirky, under-the-radar destination are not these classic sights but its more offbeat attractions where the city actively promotes alternative culture. Taking a longer bike road through the old medieval town into the historic docklands, I explore the 19th century industrial heritage of rusting cranes, abandoned warehouses and factories, brought back to life today as craft breweries, theatres, parks and sustainable social housing.

Hidden away in a wild, overgrown garden, the bohemian Bar Bricolage, a riot of recycled retro furniture, hosts everything from brunch and barbecues to live concerts, flea markets and exhibitions. Right on the water’s edge, a discrete red-brick building, once an old welding factory, houses the innovative 019 project, an experimental centre for a local artists that combines architecture, graphic design and visual art.

Street art is on display everywhere you walk, so it is no surprise to learn that Ghent proudly declares itself a graffiti-friendly city. There are more than 500 murals dotted around, which can be tracked down on an official self-guided street art tour, but I head straight for an unofficial open-air gallery right in the heart of the centre that runs along the walls of Werregarenstraat, known to all as Graffiti Alley. It has been opened to street artists since 1995, and the creations continually reinvented by essentially local Ghentois spray-can artists. Every few years the walls are painted white, giving a new generation of graffitists a blank canvas.

Ghent has always been one of the top foodie destinations in Belgium, carving a name for itself with casual eateries rather than upmarket restaurants. There is even a municipal Food Council for sustainable food that promotes the reuse and redistribution of restaurant leftovers. Before lunch I drop by the organic Lousberg Market, an old textile factory taken over by a co-operative of local farmers, artisan bakers, butcher and cheese makers alongside a casual canteen serving daily home-cooked dishes, soups and cakes using solely market produce.

There's vast choice for non-meat eaters in Ghent, including at the recently opened Soul Kitchen, where young chef Misha Berger’s vegan menu proudly lists the name of each farmer alongside his vegetables, proposing original recipes like yellow beet tartare with horseradish and sweet and sour carrot.

For dinner, I cannot resist reserving a table at Publiek, run by talented chef Olly Ceulenaere who tells me that “people need to know where they are, so we only use seasonal, local products like sustainably fished seafood from the North Sea. You won’t find things like imported pineapples or lemon grass on our menu and I am also against using luxury products like truffles and caviar – for me the luxury products we use are onions and garlic, of an incredibly high quality." And the proof is in the pudding, as they say, presenting itself when you taste the simple but entirely delicious dishes he is creating: cabbage topped with smoked eel and shavings of parsnip root, or marinated herrings smothered with baby radishes, fava beans and smoked seaweed.

He even makes a tart, sour sauce out of vegetable peelings to avoid waste. Publiek now has the recognition of a Michelin star, but Ceulenaere insists that nothing will change. “We will not alter our philosophy and I will not let our prices rise. Basically we arrive in the morning and start with an empty fridge. The produce arrives, we are in the kitchen all day and by closing time the fridge is empty again. What better way for a chef to cook?”

Updated: June 06, 2024, 10:00 AM