Party-on town;Summer School;Travel;Ghent
If ever a city could be said to be in the grip of a monster hangover, it was Ghent on the morning of Tuesday, July 28. Arriving at Ghent St Pieter's station at lunchtime, I found the capital of East Flanders barely awake.
It was the morning after 10 consecutive nights of communal partying. The annual Gentse Feeste - which brings together aspects of Glastonbury, eisteddfod, carnival, Munich's beer festival and Edinburgh in August - had ended about six hours before I stepped off the train.
Bad timing, on my part? No. Much as I like a good street party, there are a thousand other good reasons for visiting what has to be the most under-appreciated city within a 250-mile (or, thanks to Eurostar, three-and-a-half hour) radius of London. Not that any particular one of those reasons explained my presence, the morning after the feast, on this snatched, low-budget mini-break.
I was returning to the city after a 10-year gap to see if Ghent was anything like the ideal northern European city lodged in my memory. First impressions, munching toasted cheese in the station's cafeteria, were positive. The flavour of the coffee, the faded splendour of the art nouveau decor, the crumpled elegance of a couple of shagged-out revellers opposite, the agility of the waiter - these were all excellent portents.
The station is 30 minutes' stroll from the centre - and, the closer I got, the more the aftermath of the previous week's revelries crunched underfoot. To the right, the Citadelpark, its dripping foliage concealing Ghent's two biggest art galleries. Ahead were two towers, the first belonging to St Pieter's church, attached to an abbey which now houses a museum designed for schoolchildren.
The second, a defiantly modernist concrete structure, was the University of Ghent's book tower, built in the 1930s by the architect Henri van de Velde. I tried to imagine coming across this brutal but beautiful 200ft-high stack of literature in, say, Oxford. No, it's not on.
I needed a drink. A glass of Jupiler in the first bar I came across confirmed the rumour that Belgian beer is (probably) the best in the world. My affection for Ghent was deepening by the second.
Over the brow of a gentle hill, down to a swing-bridge spanning an absurdly picturesque canal, lined with trees and medieval houses, on to another bridge - and there were Ghent's three most celebrated medieval towers, lined up like flagships in a fleet review.
The urge to penetrate the heart of the city there and then was great, but I resisted. Just as I resisted, again and again, the temptation of instant oral gratification touted by the sellers of hot, honey-soaked, cinnamon-scented waffles. Walk on by.
And walk on I did, seeking in vain the point where the now thoroughly canalised rivers Scheldt and Leie meet, as if this would reveal to me any more than the obvious fact that the founders of Ghent understood geography.
Instead I discovered one of the city's more surprising treasures, the Museum voor Sierkunst, that is, decorative and applied arts. You enter an 18th-century mansion, and trek through room after beautiful room, each representing a phase in the development of patrician interior design through the 17th and 18th centuries. So far, so predictable.
But then, through glass doors, and into a second mansion, the guts of which have been scooped out, and replaced by a series of glass floors suspended from a steel frame.
Here, some of the finest examples of art nouveau, deco, Bauhaus, modernist and post-modern furniture, ceramics and jewellery are displayed, pride of place often but not always given to local heroes. Even those who yawn at the prospect of pretty pots and weird sofas should visit, simply to be dazzled by the ingenuity of the conversion.
What has all this to do with an ideal city? Everything, because a city which so evidently prizes its artisans and craftspeople is reminding its citizens that they should expect high standards, not just in design, but in transport, housing, education, public spaces, food and drink, as a right. This, after all, is a city with a fiercely independent tradition, a history of seeing off some of Europe's most grasping, tax-levying aristocrats, including the fattest Habsburg cat of the lot, the emperor Charles V.
At this point, I was getting dangerously close to proclaiming the virtues of libertarian-socialist Ghent out in the streets. By St Niklasskerk, in yet another great medieval square, I almost tripped over what appeared to be a corpse, surrounded by broken bottles. But the corpse belched. It was early evening, the cleaning-up operation was getting off to a very slow start.
In prospect was a good meal, the city by night, and perhaps a glimpse of Ghent's finest art treasure, the Jan van Eyck altarpiece, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, in St Bavo's cathedral. And all those other museums, the terrible castle of the counts?
If not, never mind, another time. It's almost too easy.
Weekend return fare to Ghent (or any other Belgian station) from London by Eurostar and Belgian Railways, pound;89, subject to change after September 26. Eurostar bookings:0870 6000 779.Cheap accommodation (pound;8 -20 per night) in youth hostels, student halls of residence (vacations only) and basic hotels, is plentiful. Contact the Belgian Tourist Office, 29 Princes Street, London W1R 7RG. Tel: 0891 88 77 99, fax: 0171 629 0454