Ghent is the perfect place for those who want to tarry, writes Nicholas Jones

Ghent's castle is the stuff of Lego daydreams and paper mache school projects — so perfectly-castley it belongs in a cartoon or picture book.

Steep stone walls descend straight into water, there are slits to fire arrows from, and a dungeon below (now a museum of torture).

We are cruising slowly by on a canal tour; a winding electric tram crosses a bicycle-lined bridge as we pass underneath.

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The Belgian town of Ghent was once bigger than London, its wealth coming from the corn and wool trades, which helped pay for the castle, Gravensteen, built in 1180 by the crusader Philip of Alsace.

Ghent's castle, Belgium. Photo / Nicholas Jones
Ghent's castle, Belgium. Photo / Nicholas Jones

As imposing as it looks through my Antipodean eyes, Godfried our captain and guide, says it's all for show. "You don't build a castle for defence in the middle of town," he says dryly, adding that the only force to storm and occupy the castle were university students angry about a 1949 beer price increase.

Ghent is a university town and one of the most liberal cities in Belgium (a rainbow flag flies from the castle), known for its nightlife and culture.

The sun emerges as we board the cruise in the middle of town, and as we motor slowly along we pass students sitting cross-legged at the canal side, drinking beer and passing around the odd suspicious cigarette.

Next to them the cafe and bar tables are full — a slightly older crowd, just as happy to be starting Friday early. Above are the facades of the city's medieval guildhouses, the brick and stone shining in the late afternoon sun, reflected in the canal.

Leaning back on cushioned seats, sharing a bottle of Cava, we agree this is the way to see Ghent. Further along, willow trees cascade over the sides of the canal, and diners sit on tiny balconies over the water.

We feel like a boat-sized fly on the wall as we slowly glide past one couple, the woman with her arms crossed, looking away from her partner. Fifteen minutes later on our way back they are laughing and talking - the night has been retrieved.

We pass a church where Calvinists threw monks' books out of the windows and into the canal below.

A man in a velvet jacket and bow tie leans out of another building, theatrically conducting to the classical music blasting from his flat.

We, and other people who have stopped to look on, applaud when the song ends.

A wander through Ghent's cobblestone streets and alleyways brings its own rewards.

Ghent has been nicknamed the "Middle Ages Manhattan" because of the height of its bell towers and steeples, which provide an almost 360-degree vista from one spot in the old town.

It's sometimes easy to imagine you are still in a medieval city, but street art is common and many of the buildings open up to reveal ultra-modern interiors and foyers.

Buildings catch the evening sun by Ghent's canal Ghent, Belgium. Photo / Nicholas Jones
Buildings catch the evening sun by Ghent's canal Ghent, Belgium. Photo / Nicholas Jones

The guide for our walk, a retired engineer, gives great explanations of the era and history of buildings, but keeps losing members of the group who lag behind to look longingly in the windows of fashion boutiques, vintage wallpaper stores, and art galleries.

Every few steps there's a warmly-lit restaurant or bar calling passers-by inside, or waiters ready to bring a coffee or freshly-poured beer out to the tables outside.

Ghent's not about check-list tourism. It's the sort of place made for people who like to while away the hours reading a book in a favourite spot or two. I've got my eye on a bar looking across to the fantastic castle . . .

IF YOU GO
Getting there: Etihad Airways flies non-stop from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth to Abu Dhabi and on to Brussels. It has code-sharing arrangements with Air New Zealand and Virgin Australia to connect with Etihad flights from Australia. The drive from Brussels to Ghent is only about 45 minutes.

Staying there: Parts of the Grand Sandton Reylof date from 1724, and the centre piece is a spiral staircase by reception. Feels every inch a luxury boutique European hotel.

Further information: See visit.gent.be/en and visitflanders.com.