Fire-Breathing Dragons in Ghent, Belgium

“We have a dragon that will breathe fire tonight at 10:30,” said the hotel receptionist.

Of course you do.

I’d been teasing Mike that he was beginning to be a bit like Forrest Gump, always finding himself in the middle of unexpected and exciting things.

First, it was the Rolling Stones in Edinburgh, Scotland. Then we arrived just in time for the annual São Jorge festival in the Azores. The Tour de France rode by us at lunch one day, followed by the surprise sorority toga party at our hotel in Brussels. Then we wandered into the middle of the Belgian football team’s celebratory homecoming parade hot off their third-place 2018 World Cup finish.

Now we were in Ghent, Belgium, during the annual Ten Days Off Festival, and there would indeed be a fire-breathing dragon atop the belfry in the center of the Old Town.

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I love the story behind the Ten Days Off Festival, which is officially called Gentse Feesten. Flanders Today recounts it thusly: “In the summer of 1843, Ghent authorities put their foot down. At the behest of the captains of industry, city fathers quashed festive gatherings on Sundays. It seems that many neighbourhoods held a big feast every Sunday – sometimes the only day the working class had off. But in the summer months they became so ubiquitous and so, well, drunken that absenteeism in the factories on Monday mornings was extraordinarily high.

“Knowing this decision would not exactly go down well with the proletariat, the city threw a big party, promising they would do so every summer. They supplied the food and beer, and the community promised to be good the rest of the year. The city was true to its word, and, 175 years later, the Gentse Feesten is still Ghent’s biggest party of the year.”

We had accidentally arrived for the dodrabicentennial of this citywide celebration, as well as the first time the belfry dragon would breathe fire in a century. Of course.

Walking from our hotel to the center of Ghent, we passed very few people. It seemed as though everyone was at the festival, and when we arrived in the old town, everyone did indeed seem to be there.

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The setup is very clever and makes great use of the town’s ancient buildings and waterways to house stages featuring everything from jazz and punk to classical and soul. There were also plenty of pop-up restaurants, food trucks, and bars to satisfy all tastes.

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We ate barbecued rib sandwiches and enjoyed jazz on the river before walking through a craft fair on our way to a polka performance.

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As we meandered back toward our hotel, we came across a very modern stacked structure that turned out to be the Ghent public library. We walked all the way around the building, enjoying the playful sculpture situated outside the front door.

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We window shopped and laughed at teenagers flirting with one another on their way home from the festival.

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After a restful night’s sleep, we drove to the Trappist Abbey of St. Sixtus in Vleteren, Belgium, where the monks have been brewing beer since 1838. In recent years, it’s been named the world’s best beer, and we wanted to taste it for ourselves.

The brothers don’t export their beer. In fact, they barely brew enough to keep up with the demand that arrives at their doorstep. When beer lovers around the world are clamoring for your product, why wouldn’t you brew more? The abbey’s Father Abbott put it simply: “We are not brewers. We are monks. We brew beer to be able to afford being monks.”

Three beers are available: the Westvleteren Blonde (5.8% ABV), the Westvleteren 8 (8% ABV), and the much-lauded Westvleteren 12 (10.2% ABV), known as “Westy 12.”

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We tried them all, and Mike and I gave Ben a hard time about enjoying such good stuff so early in his beer-drinking career. When your third legal beer is from a Belgian Trappist monastery, not to mention arguably the best beer in the world, there’s literally nowhere to go from there but downhill.

And from Vleteren, there was nowhere for us to go but back to France. We were headed to Normandy for a visit to Omaha Beach, site of the Allied landing on D-Day during World War II.

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