Alex Coxon gets in the festive mood at one of Europe’s loveliest Christmas markets
We hadn’t intended to come to Ghent. It was a snap decision, made on the second night of our short break in Lille. Devotees of the Christmas market tradition, something that had, between us, inspired trips to Cologne, Dresden, Strasbourg and Prague, we’d been disappointed by Lille’s offering. So later, back at our hotel, we’d jumped online, keen to find an alternative festive fix.
Brussels, Bruges? These had been the obvious choices, both a train ride over the French border. The former has the largest Christmas market in Belgium, while the latter, a chocolate box setting loved by the Brits. But then our gaze fell on Ghent: Europe’s best-kept secret, according to the Flemish tourist board patter, with a sizeable Christmas market to boot.
It turns out they were right. Within the walls of Belgium’s second most populous city beats a small town heart that, at this time of year, is steeped in Christmas spirit. The market is refreshingly devoid of tourists, running the length of the main square, Korenmarkt, before spilling on to Klein Turkije, past St Nicholas’ church, up Botermarkt, and to the farthest reaches of Sint-Baafsplein, Ghent’s equivalent of Trafalgar Square.
Not that it’s empty — far from it. The streets teem with locals, plus students that call the city home for at least three years of their lives. Ghent is one of Belgium’s most popular university towns.
But we aren’t here to mingle. We aren’t even here to take in the glorious backdrop — all medieval castles, gothic spires and crow-stepped gable houses, the lights from which twinkle both on land, and reflected in the waterways that course through the city. We’re here to sample the Christmas market — and what a market it is.
Among the 130-odd stalls there’s the usual festive fare: the mulled wine, the Belgian waffles, the spiced speculoos biscuits, and the piping hot, doughnut-like smoutebollen, dusted with icing sugar and, in reality, so much more appetising than their literal translation of ‘lard balls’.
But it’s the other features that catch our attention; the arts and crafts that we simply haven’t seen in Christmas markets elsewhere in Belgium, Germany or France. You expect brightly coloured Christmas baubles, wooden nativity scenes and music boxes. But here, you get all those and more.
Chatting to one stallholder, a ceramicist from the south of France, we get a glimpse into what makes Ghent so special. “There’s something different about this market,” she explains, as she wraps the delicate porcelain bowls we’ve just purchased from her. “People here aren’t just interested in seasonal crafts. They want to buy gifts for Christmas and beyond.”
Heading from her stand to the sweet stall next door, we can see what she means. Even here, among the candy canes and the reindeer-shaped gingerbread, there are less familiar sights. We eye a bag of Gentse neuzen, a peculiar, nose-shaped local delicacy filled with a gooey, fruit-flavoured jelly. This could be an exciting gift, we concede — for Christmas and beyond. Or it could be a tasty snack for right here, right now, something to enjoy in the thoroughfares of the Ghent Christmas market.