Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Gent Festival, Belgium

Yesterday morning I woke up at 4.30 in Elliot's flat in Lewisham, too hot to sleep. An hour and a half later I left for Victoria Coach Station, and three hours after that I was onboard my coach, and in total I had traveled one postcode, from SE13 to SE14. That observation was about as interesting as the journey got. I wish I could tell you something exciting or amusing happened, like our boat sank (well, perhaps I don't wish that), but I slept most of the way, so I can't.

The coach arrived in Gent mid-afternoon, and I texted Joinee Jootje (Jo) to tell her I had landed. Soon she arrived with her pink bike and multiple bags (she'd been staying at her boyfriend's while other friends were staying), and after a bit of a round trip to her flat, I dumped my stuff in her brother's university room, where I'm staying.

One shower and change of smelly t-shirt later, we were walking into town, which is absolutely gorgeous, even if the walk in involves going through a building site. Nearly every building is amazing. As we arrived in the centre, a square with a church opened out in front of us. I pointed out a particularly grand-looking building with a clock tower, in front of which stands one of the festival stages.

"Is that the town hall?" I asked.

"No," replied Jo. "That's a shopping centre."

We wandered round for a bit so I could get my bearings, and found a plant shop that sells ice creams But not just any ice creams. These were flower-flavoured. I had one scoop of orange blossom, and one of lily. Jo had a bulgarian rose and a violet. And they were really really nice.

When we got a bit tired (by 5pm it had hit 34°C) we stopped at one of the festival bars on the street for a drink. Jo's friend Laura is working there over the festival (they both spent a year in Ireland when at university, and Laura's picked up the accent quite well). Jo was having a cherry beer and, being one who prides himself on trying new things, I copied her.

If you're wondering what it tastes like, I suggest going down to your local newsagents and purchasing a can of Cherry Coke. I told the girls I was glad to have tried it, but wouldn't be having one again.

When we'd done there, Jo took me to a wok restaurant, where you fill a bowl with chopped raw vegetables, and then tell the cook what meat and sauce you want with it. Filling, fresh and good value at €6.

After the meal, Jo went home and I reckoned on staying out another couple of hours. I wondered round the various stages around town, being a bit indecisive, and then a street performance show seemed to be starting where some banked seats are set up. It turned out to be some chap from London whom I'm sure I've seen in Covent Garden before.

He wasn't very good at exciting the crowd, until he revealed the main attraction was not, as he had claimed, juggling a chainsaw. It was in fact the build up to that, where he picked out the biggest man in the audience (some chap called Luke), stripped down to a red thong and climbed up Luke's face, just so he could mount his unicycle. Emotional stuff.

At the end of the show I bought myself another beer by randomly picking from a list at a bar, forgetting that "kriek" means "cherry", and inflicting the cherry beer upon myself once again.

A short walk into the main square led me to the stage by the shopping centre, where a local cover band were playing, and spent the rest of the evening giggling to myself as they played camp tributes to cheesy classics. I imagine the lead singer was modeling himself on a cross between Ricky Martin and Enrico Inglesias, but if you picture the vocal style of Phil Collins with the sexual prowess of Tony Ferrino you're probably much closer to the mark. Last night I witnessed a phenomenal display of half-unbuttoned shirts, pelvic thrusts and crotch grabs.

This morning I was wandering around from about 8.30 and discovered that nothing much opens here until about 10, by which time it was already 30°C. I finally grabbed some breakfast at that point and went round the castle, which, because I know you're thinking it, has 143 steps to the top. There wasn't a fantastic provision of information there, but there were some nice mistranslations and a great torture exhibition.

The riverboat trip (I plumped for the chaps who give you a free beer) was very enjoyable. The guide was having fun pointing out ducks as well as all the old buildings, and I learnt some interesting facts that I've mostly forgotten. One I do remember for some inexplicable reason, I'm sure, is that there were once 360 different breweries in Gent.

Again it struck me that there were all these amazing buildings with very run-of-the-mill uses. He pointed out the local meat market that apparently has an impressive timber roof, and the shopping centre in the square was a post office before that. He also cracked a number of very bad jokes, and pointed out some people he knew who were swimming in the river, trying to retrieve their boat engine which fell off yesterday.

I was ready for a beer when we'd finished in the boat (it had already hit 35°C) and I went in the bar where the free beer had apparently come from - they pointed out at the end of the trip, it serves 160 different types of beer. It's right next to where the boats are moored and has a very old looking brick and wood interior. The tables are old Singer sewing machine tables, and from the low beams hang some paper pink elephants, which I later realised were the logo for a type of beer called Delirium.

I ordered a glass of Manneken Pis, because it amused me. Sure enough, when it came, it was served in a glass upon which was a picture of a small boy urinating. Refreshing stuff.

After my beer I went to the museum about life in Gent that had been pointed out by the guide in the boat. I asked in the museum whether they had signs in English and they said yes, which was sort of true. They had a number of very wordy leaflets which I picked up as I went round, but they generally had nothing to do with the rooms they were placed in.

The best thing about the museum about life in Gent, though, was the apparent importance to life in Gent of some informative French cartoons depicting Chinese people (or, "La Race Jaune"). I have no idea why they felt it necessary to fill two rooms with the things, but I'm grateful they did.

In a moment I'm off to Jo's for dinner, and tonight I think I'll go for the World Music stage, called PolePole, which in Swahili means "slowly, slowly". Seems appropriate.

Tomorrow I think I'll go to Brussels or Bruges. I think probably Brussels, just so I can buy a sprout.