Six Things you must do at the Gentse Feesten (Ghent festival)
The world’s largest street theatre and music festival just concluded after a mad 10 days of chaos, art, music and acts. If you never heard of the ‘Gentse Feesten’ (Ghent festival), this is hot news! Because you might well be packing your bags and coming to Ghent next year. What is this festival all about? Well, it’s the 172nd edition, so there is definitely some history to it, Apparently, the people of Ghent worked very hard and wanted a festival to take their time off and relax in general. Today, the spirit is not lost and for the lovely people who the Gentians are, the festival is free for one and all (All the 1.3 million visitors) and the exceptionally clean toilets set up at every 100 meters of the city is absolutely free as well (The government spends about 450,000 euros just on the toilets, wow!). However, they get about 20 percent of their money back due to public urinal violations which calls for a huge penalty (How funny?).
1. Enjoy the Party scene
Gentse feesten has various festivals inside the main parent festival and offers a wide variety of music from World music at the Polé Polé to tech-house music at the Klankfest. After visiting the festival for more or less 8 days, I would suggest that it’s important to chill as the evening begins with some street music, Gentse feesten has some incredibly talented young musicians (Most in their teens) and some exciting dance troops, It helps to start the afternoon with a walk by the lake with a burger in your hands or just sit at one of the many gorgeous parks with some friends with some packed sandwiches and chips. As the evening starts it would be wise to move towards Groentenmarkt, as it is the centre of classy bars and the legendary Dreupelkot (Jenever bar with a kick of style), you might want to chill and taste a few Belgian beers (with nice music). Groentenmarkt features cover bands with pints available at arm’s length sold at a decent price which is a very good deal. A perfect alternative would be to go to Baudelopark, which is definitely the calmest and most relaxing place in the festival, They play folk music and conduct free dance lessons during most of the evenings.
Don’t feel shy, just go ahead and dance along. If the dance gets a bit too boring, you can always grab a burger
(Damn! I am writing a lot about burgers) or a Jenever from one of the cool vans and sit on the grass, This place oozes with a sense of calmness with the mirror tents around serving hot tea and snacks and the placement of the Salsa place away from the folk stage, let’s you enjoy both sides of Baudelo.
Polé Polé is right at the heart of the city by the Graslei and Korenlei (The area around the central river) and it’s usually the gorgeous picture you associate Gentse feesten with. Here, they play World music and it’s completely packed all evening till 2.30 in the morning (when the music stops). They play popular radio music at certain hours and at these hours it usually feels like the whole of Ghent has gone mental!
When it touches 2.30 am and if you are wondering what just happened. Ask the cops, what will happen next? they will say ‘Go to Vlasmarkt’ (Trust me, the night is just beginning) or you could just follow the Zombie crowd (They can bite!)
Now this is a tricky situation, Because if you are leaving for Vlasmarkt at 2.30 in the morning, it might be a bit difficult to get to the centre of all the good music (The crowd stays quite strong till 7 am). If you are not having a great day, it’s possible that you might get annoyed at the crowd and might want to reconsider going to another night club or maybe the Casa rosa or the Jazz music place at St Jacobs. But if you are at the Vlasmarkt quite early (Around midnight), you must get on the small disco, it is basically a small party bus (That bounces like crazy!) which features a DJ playing bouncy tracks (Super fun!).
Following the cancellation of the famous festival ‘10 days off’, this year the underground music scene is taken care by ‘Klank Fest’, which plays techno, tech-house, rock and disco music. I was there for one night, the music can be really good, but the downside is the cost of the tickets (probably the only part of the festival along with Boomtown, which is paid) and you may not leave the venue and come back in again (Which is not cool). Makes me think that the other festivals in the city offer more variety in that regard, with a not so empty wallet.
2. Experience the Food and drinks on the streets
Well, you are spoilt for Street food and drinks options at the Gentse feesten. I usually prefer to just walk by the center and find a nice Burger place. The ‘t Spit Burger, is one of the specialities of the festival and is quite delicious.
Of Course you can go to one of the Jenever bars and sip them as you enjoy the scenes. But, Do not try to chill with the pepper Jenever shot from the Dreupelkot, Because that does not work (Haha!). If you have some friends in town and you prefer something a bit more classy, you might want to try the Ellis gourmet burger or any of the mussels places by the terrace. By the Polé Polé stands, you also get affordable cocktails and it would be perfect to end the night (rather the morning) with an Irish coffee (Damn!). Again, no pepper Jenever guys!
3. Chill like a local
Chilling at the Gentse feesten is not much different from chilling in Ghent on a normal day. There are loads of beautiful parks to have a nice picnic early in the afternoon, but you might want to consider something closer to the centre like the Visserij Park, So that you can make that small walk to all the action.
My personal favourite place is the lake right across the Gravensteen Castle, and just chilling there with an Ice cream with the warm sun hitting your face.
The festival exclusive was the Moroccan tent at Baudelopark, you almost feel like you are entering an Middle eastern tent in the middle of an Oasis. It has such a good vibe there, I spent my last three days just chilling there almost until midnight. With the Moroccan tea, Shisha and Arabic music, you are almost disconnected with all the chaos that happens outside the tent. My personal tip would be to not use a map and just explore the city by foot and discover new ways to relax.
4. Experience the history
Finally, I got to try the canal cruise at Ghent, it was a wonderful experience (You get a free ice-cream as well, Yay!). There are many way to experience the history of Ghent and one relaxing way is to get on the cruise (Takes about an hour) and listen to the guy (with lot of humour) taking you around the city canals and explaining everything from the only wooden house in Ghent to the carnivorous turtle that lives by the canals. I am not sure if the Belfort is open for guided tours during this time, I would highly recommended that tour as well.
Gentse feesten is known for it’s people marching with hangman nooses around their necks (They take pride in rebelling against Charles the fifth), when he heavily taxed the city for waging wars (Let’s leave that for another post), you might want to witness this event as it holds a lot of emotions and sentiment for the local people.
Want to know about Ghent’s history and it’s Infamous Belfry?
5. Enjoy the weirdness
The festival does not always make sense, But it’s also the reason why this festival is very special. If i think of weirdness at the festival, I must say ‘’Bataclan’’, it’s a place for families to be, especially children, so we decided to get inside and see what it’s all about. We were told that we could get in for free if we kiss all the three welcomers (thrice on the cheek), wasn’t weird yet.
I could see a poster on the left saying ‘Madame pipi’ – the poster was the advertisement for the toilet services at Bataclan, you can judge the poster yourself, Haha! We entered at the time when we were all asked to dance to a song and what followed next was quite alarming. A man without a leg, has meat (Probably pork) replaced with his leg and is basically cutting slices of meat and giving it to the children, The whole thing was supposed to be weird and funny (It felt like I was missing something, haha!). There was a competition where the children had to catch a baton (which would be dropped randomly at any point) and there can be only one winner and there was one.
The children who lost the competition were put in a cage and fed food from outside like prisoners and there were few children, who were crying because they did not win (Ghent humour, maybe?). Then, we found out about this church which had a bar inside, we went inside to experience it, the people felt quite normal sipping their beers while some were just chilling (Weird or cool? I think it was pretty cool inside 😀 ).
There was also one awkward moment with my friends when we had to use a Unisex toilet, where the urinals for men and the toilets for women were not that far from each other (was a bit weird and funny). I think all this adds a dimension to the festival, which is quite unique (I am trying to sound politically correct, haha! ). Just Enjoy it!
6. Take a day or two off
If you want to do all the 10 days of Gentse feesten, please go ahead 😀 But, I really liked the couple of days off in between to both recover from the all night partying and also enjoy the atmosphere better. Because the festival lasts for 10 days, things can get a bit repetitive if you are not creative enough, But I think two days of not planning anything helps in this marathon of a festival.
Will you visit Gentse feesten next year? Let me know in the comments below 🙂
This is the video I made on Gentse feesten 2015.