So, is Ghent really better than Antwerp and Bruges?

After frequent visits to the lovely canal-lined university town of Ghent in Belgium, I wrote and photographed a ‘best of’ piece for Travel + Leisure that was published in October.  The article — you can see it here — received some nice comments from readers after it came out and I thought it might just fade away, but then it was reprinted by CNN and suddenly there was a small local controversy about the claim made at the start of the piece that Ghent offers the best of Antwerp and Bruges, its better-known Flemish sisters.  Belgian newspapers (see here and here, both in Flemish) and blogs picked up the story  — all imbuing it with the misplaced authority of CNN — and, naturally, local partisans wrote in either defending the honor of Antwerp and Bruges or claiming vindication for Ghent (or, sometimes, merely denouncing CNN as a stooge of the Bush administration and shill for the Iraq war).  Besides the fact that it’s a fairly common travel article trope to use two famous reference points to describe a relatively unknown destination, I would have thought the claim itself was uncontroversial: Bruges is spectacularly beautiful but unlike Ghent has little life outside of tourism; Antwerp is bigger and more fashionable but without the picturesque charm.  In fact, Ghent is one of those small, old university towns in Europe — like Salamanca, Parma, Coimbra, or Aix-en-Provence — that offer a remarkably high quality of life and, owing to the proportionately large student population, more vibrancy than its small size would suggest.  Maybe that is why Lonely Planet recently chose Ghent as one of its top ten cities for 2011, a verdict that appears to have settled the issue for the bloggers once and for all.

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