Looking for a weekend getaway? I would certainly recommend a visit to Ghent in Belgium. You might want to leave a day or two early though, as the Belgian city turns vegetarian every Thursday. Move over Moules Frites, Croquettes, Boudin etc… 50% of the city’s population goes meat-free for the day to celebrate Donderdag Veggiedag (aka Thursday Veggie Day or Meat Free Thursday).
Launched in 2007, Thursday Veggie Day is an initiative from Belgium’s biggest vegetarian organisation the EVA (Ethical Vegetarian Alternative) as a way to encourage the public to eat no meat nor fish at least one day a week for the benefit of our heath and the health of the planet.
Just one meat-free day a week makes a massive difference and it has been calculated that “if all 243,000 inhabitants of Ghent participate in Thursday Veggie Day, it has the same effect on carbon emissions as when 19,000 cars are taken off the road.”
Thursday Veggie Day is also celebrated in the municipal schools and day-care-centres in Ghent as all children between 18 months and 12 years are served a warm vegetarian lunch every Thursday. There is even a lunch box guide and a Thursday Veggie Day Cookbook full of inspiring ideas.
Alas, we missed Thursday Veggie Day on our visit to Ghent. Still we had a wonderful time, strolling through the beautiful historical centre adorned with medieval architecture. Ghent is a busy and dynamic city and port with a rich history, stretching from the year 630 when it was first established to the modern student town it has become today.
Walking around the city you can easily move from one landmark to the next. Alternatively, you can enjoy the sights from the comfort of a boat cruise. The city centre is car free and best explored by foot or bicycle: a far cry from busy London streets.
Aside from architecture, churches and waterways, you will find a wide range of art to enjoy. From religious paintings to the modern and colourful Graffiti Street, there is something for everyone. A must-see is the Ghent Altarpiece (also known ‘The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’) located in St Bavo’s Cathedral. The 15th-century painting depicts scenes from the Bible on 18 wooden panels.
The river Leie adds to the overall charm with picture perfect waterfronts and scenic cruises around the city. While not as quaint as Bruges, Ghent is still very picturesque and not as crowded. The waterfront between Graslei and Korenlei is the ideal place to relax as the quays are lined with plenty of bars and outdoor seating to watch the world go by. It is even prettier at night as the lights of the surrounding buildings reflect in the water.
Balancing urban environment and nature is not always easy. Ghent is proud of its eco-tourism and has the largest low-traffic pedestrian zone in Europe. Secondhand shops, flea markets and organic markets are dotted around the city and complement perfectly Ghent’s Thursday Veggie Day initiative. We came across this urban orchard below which was a completely unexpected sight.
Meandering through the historical centre we found Panda, a shop selling organic products with a restaurant at the back. Established for quite a while, Panda came with decent reviews. The menu is not strictly vegetarian but offers a reasonable selection of vegetarian dishes.
We chose two different vegetarian platter selections which unfortunately lacked both in presentation and taste. The food was fine but far from being a gourmet experience. Still the location is hard to beat with a dining terrace on the side of the canal. It was an expensive yet healthy meal with a view, though we probably would not go back!
With the largest number of vegetarian restaurants per capita, Ghent has become The Veggie Capital of Europe. There are plenty of options to go meat-free and the city tourist office publishes a handy map of all vegetarian, vegan and organic places around town while Happy Cow has reviews on over 55 vegan / vegetarian friendly restaurants.
Away from busy Brussels and Bruges, Ghent was truly a delightful stop during our summer travels. Filled with atmosphere and charm, it is small enough for a week-end getaway. A hidden Belgian jewel worth discovering.