Once upon a time the Medieval city state of Ghent in the heart of Flemish Belgium was amongst the richest and most politically influential places in Northern Europe. Good fortune smiled on its residents; the water meadows surrounding the city were perfect for grazing sheep which provided beautiful, healthy wool. In fact, Ghent was known far and wide for the quality of its cloth. Trade with England and Scotland blossomed and the wealth of the city further intensified. For the contemporary traveller Ghent is a very appealing destination, it is steeped in rich history with magnificent architecture at every turn. More importantly, it is less tourist saturated than nearby Bruges of ‘In Bruges’ Hollywood fame.
A short walk around the historical centre of Ghent is an opportunity to wind back time to the city’s heyday and immerse yourself in a truly magical atmosphere. Several cathedrals are separated by a short stroll and ornately decorated buildings emanating magisterial beauty crowd the banks of the river which meanders through the city centre. The ‘Gravensteen’, meaning ‘Castle of the Counts’ is a must-see. This impressive building was constructed at the order of local legend Philip of Alsace in 1180, a man renowned for both his diplomacy and blood thirstiness in equal measure. It was said that the flesh was flayed from the bones of a man who dared to cuckold the Count. That hapless chap was then suspended upside down in the river Lys, which forms the moat of the castle. It is said his ghost can be seen scaling the Gravensteen on particularly cruel winter nights, perhaps returning to the scene of the crime to shamefacedly recover his breeches.
The point is, Ghent has got it all going on in cultural terms and as luck would have it, it’s also easily accessible – the Eurostar goes directly from London St Pancras to Brussels and then there’s just a half an hour train from within the same station on to Ghent. For travelers looking to avoid the inevitable flight delays and a baggage allowance that is so modest that even packing your toothbrush pushes the weight limit then the Eurostar is ideal. Premier Class has the added benefit of supper served en route – so forget that sad looking sandwich at Stansted which looks like it was vacuum packed at the turn of the century. The key question is, as ever, where to lay your weary head when you’re not ambling idly along the paved banks of the Lys, Belgian beer in one hand, an enormous waffle in the other, with the sound of the cathedral bells creating a transcendent reverberation off the cobbles of Ghent. The five star Pillows Grand Hotel Reylof was formerly the opulent town house of Baron Olivier Reylof – and the Baron famously did not believe in half measures. Exquisite gold gilding, scores of white marble and imposing ionic columns are at every turn in this 157 room extravaganza of a hotel. It also boasts its own trendy café, gym, library, remarkable spa set inside the old coach house (design features include original vast oak beams overhead), and the tremendous ‘LOF’ restaurant.
One of the extraordinary things about Pillows Grand Hotel Reylof is the way in which the interiors simultaneously honour the heritage and origin of the hotel whilst never feeling fusty or outdated. Modern design sits harmoniously alongside the history in happy symbiosis. This is mostly due to strategically placed, slick lighting features and bold modern art.
The bedrooms have a calming, neutral colour palette. Snow white bed linen sits in contrast to black stained pinewood headboards with smart, burnished gold in-built reading lamps. The bathrooms are extremely spacious, with black granite topped sinks and walk in showers equipped with generous sized drencher shower heads. The overall atmosphere is soothing, somewhere you can retreat to and not be assaulted by garish colours – but rather lulled into a much needed contemplative holiday zen.
The hotel’s spa is every bit as soothing. Guests step outside to cross the immaculate courtyard garden and enter the building which was formerly the coach house. Gentle music echoes in the lofty ceilings of the various treatment rooms. On the ground floor is a lounge and plunge pool both of which are bathed in natural light and look out over the leafy courtyard, whilst on the floors above are the thoughtfully decorated treatment rooms, sauna and infrared cabin. Guests can choose from a range of spa treatments including bespoke facial treatments, the full body massage and reflexology sessions.
LOF restaurant is the hotel’s pride and joy and pays gastronomic homage to the Count’s own Flemish roots. The risk with any hotel restaurant is that it can feel rather sterile, with dozens of optimistically laid tables which remain empty and gathering dust but for the one in the corner where the hotel’s own resident Miss Havisham is slumped, whilst trying to find some zeal in the bottom of her fourth glass of Petrus. The experience is emphatically different in the chic dining room of LOF, where, at every one of the caramel coloured velvet chairs sits a jubilant diner, enthralled by the culinary offerings from this remarkable restaurant. The room audibly throbs with licentious enthusiasm as visiting diners and hotel guests alike are plied with dishes such as veal sweetbreads with oxheart cabbage and hazelnut dressing, or perhaps the finely sliced beef tailpiece with anchovy cream and lovage oil. Wine pairing with the full tasting menu is de rigueur and the methodology behind each marriage is explained succinctly by the beaming sommelier. It’s a restaurant which puts the satisfaction of its diners at the very top of its priorities and everything about LOF evidences and compliments this notion.
The sense of being immersed in heritage is inescapable whilst in Ghent, but nowhere creates a better balance of this extraordinary history with all the comforts of slick modernity than Pillows Grand Hotel Reylof. The setting is perfect for a weekend getaway with endless attractions to lure you away from the unconquerable Pillows breakfast spread, and if it all gets a bit too much, then the afternoon can be whiled away in the sauna or putting your feet up by the fire in one of the immaculate lounges.
Bookings may be made directly at www.pillowshotels.com/ghent/nl/
Hoogstraat 36, 9000 Gent, Belgium
Eurostar bookings may be made directly at www.eurostar.com/uk-en