A strangely oppressive heatwave had settled over Belgium during our first days there. The mood of our second visit to Antwerp was dimmed by a 90-minute ride on an airless bus, where temperatures easily exceeded 40° C thanks to tightly shut windows and a lack of air conditioning. Dan and I were weighing our travel options for the day (explore Heist-op-den-Berg – the small village we were staying in – by foot and risk being slightly bored, or chance it on the bus again and have the available entertainments of the big city) when our host offered to drive us to Ghent for the afternoon. Of course, we quickly accepted.
As a former tour guide, our host was happy to show us the major attractions of the city: the medieval Gravensteen Castle was stunning, as were the Mammelokker and Belfry – UNESCO World Heritage Sites that were certainly worthy of the distinction. Having a meeting to attend, however, he deposited us on the banks of the main canal, where we would continue our exploration of the city alone.
The skies were already threatening a thunderstorm by the time we’d reached the canal. Despite this, (and perhaps inspired by the dozens of other twenty-somethings perched by the water, beer in hand) we decided to take a break, and canal-side was where it was going to be. No sooner had we found a free spot when the skies opened up, with fat drops of rain soaking us in seconds. We ducked into the nearest alleyway we could find – one painted with the likeness of a stern, balding man, with a cigarette dangling from his lips and the round eyeglasses of John Lennon.
As we neared the end of the alley, we realized the traces of music we’d heard were coming from a live band – and this passage didn’t lead to another street but rather to a dark and extremely crowded bar, the Hot Club de Gand, in fact. Attempts to make our way to the stage failed, so we settled for a listen on their small but cozy terrace.
When the storm had dwindled to a fine mist, Dan and I set out in search of another bar – while we loved the steamy jazz atmosphere of Hot Club, we needed to sit, to rest. The rain had brought on an early dusk, and the sun’s last rays glowed hazily on the water. Turning the corner around the Korenlei, we watched as a single waiter wiped rain from the tables of a large café. We stepped inside the Het Spijker, and were immediately comforted by its deep chairs and woodsy interior.
As we waited for our drinks, pieces of the day came back to me in dreamy snapshots: Dan taking my photo at the canal, our dash through the rain holding hands, the smiles of strangers as we hid under awnings. It occurred to me that cities, of course, are a reflection of a culture and a nation – what drives a people and what they’ve chosen to build and to preserve. But it happens, too, that our memories of a city can be a reflection of ourselves at that moment – and it seemed that both Ghent and I were feeling awfully romantic the evening the heatwave broke.
Our guest blogger Jessica, originally from New York City, is currently spending a year traveling across Europe, photographing and blogging about her adventures. Read more about Jessica here