Steven

5 things agents should know about Antigua and Barbuda

5 things agents should know about Antigua and Barbuda

This week, Antigua and Barbuda Tourism is hosting 12 Canadian travel agents, and one media outlet, (PAX), to showcase some of Antigua’s hidden gems. It’s been a busy week of touring the island and its many attractions and hotels. Here’s what we’ve discovered about the Caribbean island so far:

Roadside eating is local eating

As our driver Jace Gore of Auto Elite Rentals and Transportation shuttled us from the airport to the Verandah Resort and Spa, we passed a couple of roadside barbecues, and even waited while a woman carried takeout from her home to pass to a driver blocking the road. This is apparently a very common Friday and Saturday occurrence in Antigua, and to properly experience it, we stopped at Roxanne Barnes’ “Seafood Saturdays” in Saint John’s, the country’s capital.

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Barbecue bliss at the Sunday Sunset Party at Shirley Heights Lookout

The main dishes ranged from steamed fish to chicken and pasta, served in styrofoam containers. While the mains were fresh and delicious, it’s the bread pudding soaked in a vanilla rum sauce that David Humphrey of Sears Travel raved about.

That said, my favourite BBQ experience was up in the hills at the Shirley Heights Lookout during their music-filled Sunday Sunset Party. Even on an overcast day, the view was spectacular. According to Gail Lea of Vasco Travel, the chicken was delicious, and I can vouch for the ribs.

How to sound like a local

If you want to compliment the chef, and get a laugh at the same time, say the meal was “bang good.” If you eat something sour, and are prepared to be slightly risqué, you can say it will “cut your nature,” which means it will “impact your reproductive ability” (wink, wink). But if you’re sweet for someone, you can’t beat saying, “me lub you bad,” which means I love you a lot.

Antigua is drought ready

The island at times struggles with its fresh water supply, and it’s common to see large rain tanks at the sides of homes. To help meet its needs, the Verandah Hotel and Resort takes water conservation seriously, reusing what it can, and has invested in its own reverse osmosis plant to convert ocean water into drinking water.

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Antigua takes water conservation seriously

Other environmentally friendly features at the resort include solar hot water tanks and growing some of their own veggies. One agent said he had clients stay here in April and “they loved it.” The resort boasts three beaches, mini putt, and is currently building a new class of villa with two bedrooms and its own plunge pool, expected to be completed by October. Most importantly, the resort has enough beach chairs for everyone.

Antigua and Barbuda are closer than you might think

For those flying out of Toronto, it was just a four hour direct flight on WestJet — less time than it takes to fly to Vancouver. At the moment, the U.S. and the U.K. are much bigger markets than Canada, but the tourism bureau hopes that FAM trips like this one will help them expand their Canadian client base.

The Outhouse is the place to be

The Pineapple Beach Club resort is closing down Aug. 25 and reopening on Oct. 1 as they transition into an adults-only property. That includes upgrades to the bathrooms, rooms with single beds for non-couples travelling together, and more accessibility to ocean view suites for those with mobility challenges.

But to maintain its reputation as a laid-back, all-inclusive resort on the island, they are keeping their infamous “Outhouse.” It’s a quirky open air area that serves BBQ lunches at picnic tables surrounded by wooden signs written on by past guests, then nailed to pretty much anything and everything. The vibe is shabby chic, with a breezy, over the ocean view.

Five things PAX learned about Durban, South Africa

Five things PAX learned about Durban, South Africa

Last week, PAX travelled in and around the coastal city of Durban, South Africa. From segway rides along the Golden Mile beachfront promenade to riding up 106 metres on a SkyCar that stops at the peak of the boldly designed Moses Mabhida Stadium, we got both panoramic views and up close and personal with what Durban has to offer. We were shown around by Julnic Tours and as PAX discovered, this beach town is about way more than just surf and sand.

Here are five things we learned about the thriving city:

1) Zulu guides know their history

“I am a proud Zulu,” our guide to Durban, South Africa explained to us. “Zulu means heaven.” He laughingly claimed that made him an angel. His name is Thamsaqa Ndlovu, and he was born and raised in Durban. He spoke passionately about its history, including the Zulu who were forced out of Cape Town and settled into the government built housing projects in the area. He also drove us to a “Zulu village,” which was recreated amidst the Valley of a 1000 Hills, where we were treated to a courting ritual. One suitor waxed poetic about the object of his affection’s beauty, and she called him ugly in return.

On location at a recreated Zulu village

2) Visitors are in the know

According to South African Tourism, Durban had more than 5.4 million visitors in 2015; about 463,000 of them were international and 0.2 per cent from Canada. The average age was 25 to 45, with most of them being luxury travellers staying in five star hotels. But according to several people in the industry, a lot of travel professionals don’t even mention Durban as an option unless clients specifically ask about it.

Many visitors to Durban stay in luxury hotels, such as the Oyster Box (pictured above)

3) Durban is the “real” South Africa

Durban is where Nelson Mandela cast his first vote and where Ghandi arrived in 1893. It was his experience with prejudice in South Africa that contributed to him developing the peace movement of Satyagraha. Ndlovu prides himself on showing tourists the “real” South Africa. In our case it’s a visit to the city’s medicine market, called the Muthi market. Ndlovu said that for some locals this was like going to the pharmacy. With stalls made of brick walls and corrugated steel roofs, the market had a shanty town feel. Hanging to either side were dried out snake skins, wildebeest, and an eviscerated monkey. Shoppers Drug Mart this wasn’t.

Durban's medicine market

4) Curry is king

The city is home to South Africa’s largest Indian population because between 1860 and 1911 more than 150,000 people from India came to Durban as indentured labourers. We went to the Oriental restaurant for “bunny chow,” a hollowed out quarter loaf of bread filled with currie (either meat or beans). It used to be eaten by poor labourers as a hardy yet affordable fare.

Indulging on a piece of “bunny chow"

5) Luxury can be found in hotels…and on trains

For a truly luxurious experience, head to the Oyster Box, a beachfront colonial-style hotel that has hosted Charlize Theron, Sean Penn, and one Kardashian. Its standouts include a striking red and white exterior palette, a functioning beach lighthouse, a beautiful hammam, and signs warning of monkeys. Our other sumptuous experience was dinner on the 1920s style Rovos Rail, self-described as “the most luxurious train in the world.” There are seven routes, including one from Pretoria to Durban. With its wood paneling and posh sleeping cars (the royal suites have claw foot bathtubs) the replica cars felt like we were in an Agatha Christie novel.

Travelling by train on the luxurious Rovos Rail

PAX Discovers the Best Secrets of Spain

PAX discovers the best secrets of Spain

From left: Tony Celio, manager, special sales, Air Canada; Cynthia Farrill, manager, sales development, Air Canada; Laura Pena Alberdi, embassy of Spain Tourism section; Ana Chacon, World Heritage Cities of Spain; Javier Fernandez, Canadian representative, Paradores

The Tourist Office of Spain, the Spain World Heritage Cities Network, Paradores of Spain (a family of hotels which has transformed a number of historical sites into world class hotels), as well as Air Canada teamed up last night (June 23) at the Storys Building in Toronto’s Entertainment District to showcase “the best hidden secrets of Spain.”

More than 70 tour operators and tour agents munched on tapas, such as tuna tartar in a nori cone and dates wrapped in prosciutto, before organizers highlighted what Canadians love most about Spain and how travellers can get more of what they want.

According to Laura Pena Alberdi of the Spanish Embassy’s Tourism Section, “seven out of ten Canadians chose Spain [as a destination] because of cultural elements.”

It’s not surprising considering Spain is home to 44 World Heritage Sites (most of them cultural) and 15 World Heritage Cities.

Following behind Spain’s cultural offerings, Canadians also enjoy the country’s cities, natural beauty, and its gastronomical delights (PAX got to enjoy some of the latter during a dinner of aged rib eye, baby potatoes, and honey mushroom).

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Savouring the flavour of Spain last night at Toronto’s Storys Building

To help agents deliver what Canadian travellers are looking for from their Spanish adventures, Ana Chacon of World Heritage Cities of Spain put a spotlight on several destinations.

While many people think of Ibiza as a beach and party town, Chacon drew attention to its “exceptional fortress over the Mediterranean” – Cuenca.

A city set in the mountains of east-central Spain, Cuenca is “a great place to learn Spanish” and has a mix of medieval, Roman, and gothic architecture.

Santiago de Compostela, the capital of northwest Spain’s Galicia region, is home to one of the most important pilgrimages of medieval times, which people still follow today. It’s “as much spiritual as physical,” Chacon said.

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More than 70 tour operators and tour agents attended last night’s event

While all this impressed the crowd, the loudest applause went to Javier Fernandez, the Canadian representative for the hotelier Paradores, which has won numerous awards from Conde Nast and TripAdvisor.

There are 95 Paradores properties in Spain and one in Portugal, ranging from three stars to five star “glam luxury.” Fifty-three percent of them are in converted historical buildings, such as castles, monasteries, and palaces. Notably, two people sitting at my table said they’ve stayed at a Paradores hotel, and said “they loved it.”

Fernandez said, “They give a feeling of travelling through time,” they are “a sensory adventure,” and that when they “repair a building that’s 1,000 years old, we want it to last another 1,000 years.”

To make a stay even more special, there are 44 unique rooms in their various properties “where kings and queens have slept,” Fernandez said.

With direct routes from Toronto and Montreal via Air Canada, Spain is a convenient destination for many Canadian travellers.

According to Tony Celio of Air Canada, daily seasonal flights from Toronto to Madrid will operate until approximately the end of September, with a reduced schedule continuing into early January.

Seasonal service from Toronto to Barcelona will also be available until early January, and from Montreal until the end of October.

Talking Cuba, Cirque at Tianguis 2016

(written for paxnews.com)

As I entered the Guadalajara Convention Center for the 2016 Tianguis Turistico Mexican travel trade show, I was greeted by someone costumed as the iconic character from Monopoly, with a huge plastic head, white moustache, black top hat and dressed in a tuxedo.

He stood atop a giant Mexican edition Monopoly board, promoting the launch of the product, which takes place next week. It’s a perfect fit for Tianguis as the properties on this particular Monopoly board included famous Mexican beaches and the railroads are the Tequila Express.

A game about building hotels in Mexico is the perfect representation of what turned out to be standout motifs of this year’s convention: playfulness, and boosting Mexico’s tourism dollar—or peso.

PAX was in Guadalajara, Mexico, last week from April 25-28 to explore the sights and sounds of the annual expo that has everything to do with Mexican tourism all under one roof.

The feeling of playfulness was immediately evident on the Tianguis convention floor. I gawked at huge, robot dinosaurs promoting the northern province of Coahuila, which is rich in dinosaur bones, and when I rounded the corner of a faux Mayan temple I was greeted by colourful costumed performers for the Grand Oasis Cancun.

There were two giant dragons prancing about on stilts, a caveman, acrobats and a guy dressed as the fourth Amigo shouting gregariously.

In speaking with Edith Sanchezllanes, manager for the Oasis Hotels and Resorts South American market, I learned they pride themselves on taking their entertainment to a higher level. During March break they welcomed and catered to students, and at their kid-oriented Grand Oasis Palm in Cancun they had a Pirate ship, with twice-weekly pirate battles.

They’re not the only ones upping the ante. A few booths over I found out that the five-star, kid-friendly Nickelodeon Hotel in Punta Cana (owned by Karisma Hotels) features suites that open right onto a pool, and the lower floor balconies are pools themselves.

They’ve also broken ground on a Nickelodeon Hotel in the Riviera Maya. For those looking for an adults-only experience, Karisma is excited to showcase their new over-the water bungalows opening in September at the El Dorado Maroma, also in the Riviera Maya. Tahiti beware.

Rodrigo Esponda C., regional director for North America at the Mexico Tourism Board, said he’s seeing this kind of creativity from a lot of brands.

“There’s a high demand for new products and all-inclusives are getting more sophisticated,” he explained during a sit-down with Canadian journalists.

When PAX asked how warming relations between the U.S. and Cuba might negatively impact Mexico’s tourism industry he immediately saw it as “positive news.”

Rodrigo Esponda C., regional director for North America, Mexico Tourism Board“In Canada, Cuba has been a competitor for many years and it’s an opportunity for us to improve our product,” Esponda C. said, noting that Sunwing and WestJet are expanding their flights to Mexico.

He also said changes in Cuban relations is a chance to create vacation packages that include both Cuba and Mexico, since they are so close to each other.

“You can go to Cuba then go to the Yucatan,” Esponda C. said.

But perhaps the most exciting joint project that was highlighted at Tianguis this year was the sneak peak of what the first and thus far only Cirque du Soleil theme park will look like.

“There is something between French Canadians and Mexicans. We’re people of passion,” Cirque CEO Daniel Lamarre said.

Ground has already broken in Nuevo Vallarta, and the theme park is supposed to open in 2018. Lamarre said it’s being situated so that it will benefit tourism to all the resorts in the area and become a magnet to bring five million visitors per year.

Enrique de La Madrid Cordero, Secretary of Tourism, Mexico; Cirque du Soleil CEO Daniel Lamarre

With that in mind Lamarre said he now feels like an “ambassador” to Mexico and that he has “to promote Mexico to the rest of the world.”

That starts in Canada with the opening of the new Cirque show Luzia, inspired by Mexico’s history, cultural diversity, and natural beauty. That opens in Montreal, followed by Toronto, and will stay in North America for 18 months.

“The culture of Mexico is so rich and so unique,” said Lamarre. “All the creators I know wanted to work on it.”

Now he’s confident that the show’s “waking dream” of Mexico will inspire people to come see the real thing.

Brussels, Antwerp and Beyond!

As seen in Xtra! and Daily Xtra!

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By believing in his dreams, man turns them into reality.” — Hergé, author/illustrator  of The Adventures of Tintin. 

 

BRUSSELS
Whether you’re shooting up a 115-metre shaft at the quasi-futuristic Atomium, following in the footsteps of perennial comic book twink Tintin, or feasting on the steel-encrusted Art Nouveau architecture of Victor Horta, Brussels is a city that embraces the confluence of art and science, form and function, and the sense that the imagination is the portal into reality.

 

This can be seen in both practice and policy. Belgium is the second country in the world to legalize gay marriage, celebrating its 10th anniversary in June 2013; Brussels and the country’s smaller cities have bustling gay scenes, and while many North American gay clubs struggle to stay afloat, the La Demence party will celebrate its 24th anniversary in October 2013, every month drawing thousands of revellers from Amsterdam, Paris, Germany and, of course, Belgium, to this European capital.

 

These modern-day successes are built on a rich legacy. Long before tweaked-out party boys bounced around to La Demence’s circuit beats, the city (and the country’s strong defence of freedom of speech) gave refuge to such political refugees as Karl Marx and Victor Hugo (it was in Brussels that Hugo wrote parts of and published Les Misérables).

 

“It’s like the American dream. In France, people are always complaining,” explains Frédéric Boutry, of Visit Brussels, who is himself French-born and -raised. “But here in Brussels, there is still a sense of that dream . . . a feeling of a time where anything is possible.”

 

Atomium
Perhaps the grandest display of this optimism is the city’s toweringAtomium, looming large over parts of the skyline. While the Grand Place (which Hugo called home for more than six months) made it to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites of exceptional value because of its artistic, architectural and historical significance, the Atomium is a shiny, aluminum, sci-fi wet dream come to life. Composed of nine spheres connected by shafts and held up by girders, it’s the atomic shape of an iron crystal blown up 165 billion times. It was built for the 1958 World’s Fair in the spirit of a peaceful atomic age, representing an “optimistic vision of the future of a modern, new, super-technological world for a better life for mankind.” It was supposed to be torn down at the end of the exposition, but people liked it so much it’s become a favourite of locals and tourists alike. At the top of the building is a restaurant with a 360-degree view of the city.

 

Working the strip
As if the Atomium weren’t enough to make Brussels geek heaven, it’s also the comic-book capital of the world. There are comic-book shops seemingly around every turn, and it’s hard not to put a queer spin on Belgium’s comic-strip exports, from preppy boy Tintin to ginger hero Spirou, in his red bell-boy outfit (thank goodness for his Fight Club spirit or that ensemble would’ve gotten him bashed long ago), to the Smurfs’ fraternal (and perpetually shirtless) mushroom village, with drag queen Smurfette thrown in to host wet long-john contests. With comic murals and giant statues dotting the city (grab a map from the tourist bureau for a self-guided tour), the city is an Instagram gangbang waiting to happen. A highlight is the Comic Strip Center, both for the content and the beautifully restored Horta building housing the collection of artwork and life-sized statues, and, if you’re a Tintin fan, the Hergé Museum is a short train ride from Brussels.

 

Streetcar named delicious
Fine dining and city transit don’t often go hand in hand, unless you count catching the bus and eating a Big Mac, but the city of Brussels has transformed one of its trams into a gourmet delight.The Tram Experience was a hit of Brusselicious, and now it’s back with Michelin-starred chefs from across the city. The jerkiness of the tram takes a bit of getting used to — but this eases off by the first course, and the conversation at my table often made us forget to look at the sites as we passed by — but it is a fun novelty experience. A veggie menu is available.

 

Tinkle town
“Chocolate and piss — the symbols of Brussels,” Boutry says with a laugh. He’s joking (sort of), but one of the city’s most iconic statues is a playful reflection of the people’s irreverent spirit. The centuries-old Manneken Pis (literally “little man pee”) draws huge crowds of tourists to the corner of Rue de l’Étuve and Rue du Chêne (a couple minutes’ walk from the Grand Place). There are also two lesser-known peeing statues: one of a little girl, Jeanneke Pis, erected in 1987 at the dead end of Impasse de la Fidelité, and my favourite, the peeing dog Zinneke Pis. The adorable mutt was erected in the late 1990s and was quite alone when I went to get a picture of him, so if you want to avoid crowds, he’s your mongrel (Rue des Chartreaux and Rue de Vieux-Marche).

 

Art nouveau bike tour
With all its utopian dreamery, Brussels is, surprisingly, not as bike-friendly as cities like Antwerp, Copenhagen or Amsterdam, but cycling remains a great way to get to the many examples of Art Nouveau architecture spread throughout the city centre, designed by the likes of architect Victor Horta. Tours and bike rentals are offered by Pro Velo. If you opt for a tour, ask the guide to set aside time to go through the Horta Museum to see the inside of one of these remarkable buildings, which in this case was also the architect’s private residence.

 

La Demence
Started 24 years ago, this monthly club night has everything: trans girls in lingerie, strippers on the hour, a dark room with a dedicated bar and DJ just outside, pickpockets, a bearded man in a bridesmaid’s dress, muscle queens, a guy with light-up bunny ears, Borat look-alikes, and sufamos. What’s a sufamo? Sun-faded homos in leather harnesses with dilated pupils. Seriously, this place was born of an SNL Stefon monologue and should be in New York, yet the complete mashup of characters makes it quintessentially Brussels. Who was there? Everybody. All three floors of grungy Fuse nightclub were packed, drawing about 2,000 electro music fans from Amsterdam, Paris, Cologne and beyond even on a night that overlapped with Barcelona’s mega 10-day circuit event. On a busier weekend, I’m told, it’s almost impossible to move. Twice a year, at Easter and their anniversary (end of October/beginning of November), it draws more than 4,000 people for their weekend-long extravaganzas.

 

Maps
If you want to save on guidebooks, or just want supplemental material, the city’s tourism bureau has produced some great maps for self-guided tours (there’s a half-euro charge per map), or you can download the free app, which promises to be 100-percent offline (so you won’t incur roaming charges). Check out their website for the full details. My favourite maps include one for lesbian and gay visitors, a contemporary art map and the guide for all things Tintin.

 

 

 

For the most up-to-date travel information on gay Brussels, see our City GuideListings GuideEvents Guide and Activities Guide.

 

• • • • •

 

ANTWERP
Antwerp is not about modesty,” promises official city guide Rick Philips, and with good reason. Although the Belgian city has only half a million inhabitants, it boasts 174 nationalities, earns billions of dollars per year in the diamond trade, has one of the busiest ports in Europe, and is the “gay capital of Flanders.”

 

“Why should we be humble?” Philips says with a laugh.

 

He says Antwerp’s gay street cred is intertwined with the city’s cosmopolitan spirit, which took root in the 1960s and includes a major fashion scene. “We are the most important shopping centre in the Benelux” (ie, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) “and one of the most important in Europe.”

 

When Forever 21 came to the continent, it “first opened in London and Antwerp” Philips says, a sign of “how important we are in the fashion and shopping scene.” Antwerp has a huge pedestrian-friendly shopping strip that stretches for block after block and is home to usual suspects H&M and Disney (housed in a fairy-tale building with fanciful steelwork) alongside small boutiques (fashionistas will enjoy Your Antwerp, at Kloosterstraat 90, andDavid Mayer Naman, at Nationalestraat 64), while foodies will drool over the chocolatier in a former palace of Napoleon, the “most beautiful chocolate shop in the world.” In a city that’s been bombed as many times as Antwerp (by the Dutch, the Swedes, the Spanish and during the First and Second World Wars) the juxtaposition between old and new doesn’t seem out of place, where reconstruction has positioned Rococo buildings next to Art Deco.

 

This shopping haven is centred on The Meir, which also pays homage to local heroes of art with a series of statues along the strip. This includes Antwerp’s most famous painter, Rubens (check outThe Rubens House), but there’s also Antoon van Dyck, who “may have had a special relationship with the king or another noble at court,” Philips says with a wink, “and special relationships with archbishops in Italy.” Van Dyck’s paintings were “different” from other Baroque painters, paying “a lot of attention to detail for fashion, diamonds, pearls and other accessories.”

 

And while van Dyck’s proclivities remain a matter of conjecture, the city spawned its own version of Oscar Wilde in the form of French-speaking author Georges Eekhoud (1854–1927). His tale of l’amour entre hommes in his novel Escal-Vigor resulted in a lawsuit in 1900 for lines like “Guidon and Henry shared their breath in a supreme kiss.” Eekhoud was ultimately acquitted, and the book received several positive reviews.

 

Getting there
There are no direct flights to Antwerp from Canada, but Jet Airways flies nonstop from Toronto to Brussels. You can take the train from the capital to Antwerp, but I found the bus directly fromthe airport more convenient. Either way, you will be dropped off at the Antwerp central train station, which was ranked by Newsweekas the fourth nicest in the world. According to Philips, it was built “to show off” and is well worth walking through.

 

Getting around
Antwerp has a vast public transit system, and a 10-ride ticket sells for 9 euros, but I loved getting around on the city’s public Velo bike system for 4 euros per day. You can register on the website, or better yet, some hotels offer convenient swipe cards at their front desks. Taxis are quite affordable but generally have to be ordered rather than hailed. An Antwerp taxi app can be downloaded fromm.taxi4me.net/antwerp.

 

Off the beaten path
Although Antwerp celebrates its Cathedral of Our Lady for its gothic splendour, on a sunny day I’d suggest hopping in a cab or biking to the Middelheim museum’s outdoor sculpture park for melting sailboats and giant decapitated sausages with unhappy faces. If it’s raining, umbrellas can be borrowed free at the gift shop.

 

Where to eat
Expect to chow down on plenty of pomme frites (French fries) throughout Belgium, and mussels are a favourite (even if they’re mostly imported from Holland). For a fine version of both, along with fish and steak dishes, check out Grand Café Horta (Hopland 2), located in a modern ode to Art Nouveau, with sweeping floor-to-ceiling windows and refurbished steel girders high overhead. Order the cherry beer for the gayest brew ever,

 

For the most up-to-date travel information on gay Antwerp, see our City GuideListings GuideEvents Guide and Activities Guide.

 

For more on Antwerp, visit visitantwerpen.be 

 

• • • • •

 

BRUGES
This tiny town is a train ride away from both Antwerp and Brussels and is overrun by tourists — for good reason. Its cobbled streets and winding canals are full of medieval charm. Seriously, a Disney princess could’ve barfed it up. Look for the gay map — though it consists of gay-friendly pubs, hotels and shops rather than a hopping nightlife — put out by the city’s queer youth organization. It’s a testament to the country’s queer-friendly nature that a town of this size has an LGBT youth group. What’s really interesting from a queer-history perspective is the Beguinage of the Vineyard. It was once a haven for single and widowed women who had chosen a religious life, whether because so many men were off in the Crusades or these women were simply emancipated. They were very self-sufficient, with their own brewery, school and chapel. They paid a member of the clergy for mass, but he was not allowed to live on site. Sons were allowed until they reached the age of 14 and daughters until they were 18, at which point daughters could make the decision to join or leave. I’m not saying this made it a hotbed of lesbian activity. I’m not saying that. The public baths (once located on Stoofstraat), on the other hand, were mixed sex, my guide tells me. “You can imagine what happened.” Back in the day, Amélie, “with her very hot stove,” advertised 10 hot baths and 17 beds. Now you’ll find souvenir shops and chocolatiers.

 

Where to eat
If you’re looking to evade the tourist traps, I highly recommend the restaurant Patrick Devos (Zilverstraat 41). There’s an innocuous sign, and you have to walk down a hallway to find the restaurant itself, but it’s well worth finding. There’s a crisp back garden where you can take your appetizer with an apéritif, then for your main come inside to enjoy the rich wood details and stained-glass Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles of the early 1900s.

 

Where to stay
For those wanting to extend their stay beyond a day and looking for a quaint guest house steps from the city centre, check out the Hotel Maraboe (Hoefijzerlaan 9).

 

• • • • •

 

GHENT
Ghent is a larger, more cosmopolitan version of Bruges, with canals and plenty of medieval and gothic architecture of its own, from its trio of towers (belonging respectively to the city’s belfry, church and cathedral) to the Korenmarkt (check out visitgent.be). My favourite story from my tour of the city involves the city’s Castle of the Counts, briefly home to a count of Flanders. I’m told it saw only one battle, in 1949, when a group of university students stormed the castle, carrying with them rotting vegetables, which they pelted at police. They were protesting the cost of beer rising from 2 francs to 3 francs. Apparently, the takeover was easy, with only one handicapped security guard to overcome, though the castle was soon liberated, with the help of firefighting ladders to get over the walls.

 

Where to pick up
For cruising, the folks at the Casa Rosa queer community centre suggest checking out Citadel Park. And they willingly share the most frequently asked question from tourists: “Is there a gay sauna?” Answer: “Yes, [spades4our.be] close to central station. It’s the only one in the region, so it gets pretty busy.” Despite the city’s small size (about 250,000 people), there’s an active gay nightlife, in part because of a huge post-secondary student population, an additional 68,000 people. Casa Rosa puts out a gay map for the city and hosts its own parties/events in its ground-floor space — their lesbian night during the city’s 10-day Gentse festival is the most profitable. Ghent ladies apparently like to drink.

 

The Pink Tour
Casa Rosa also does a pink walking tour (be sure to book ahead of time ), some of which is morbid, like the bit about the burning of witches in the Friday Market and the stone carver who was put on trial for ordering the boys who worked for him to touch his privates. His artistic work can be seen on the memorial of Bishop Triest in the city’s cathedral.

 

A bit of bite
On a more savoury note, if you’re looking for a gustatory treat, forget chocolate. For something unique check out Tierenteyn-Verlent, a mustard shop that’s been in operation since 1790 where you can watch them ladle the spicy mustard into a bottle from a keg right in front of you.

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