Het Galgenhuis, Ghent

back to Belgium

Groentenmarkt 5, 9000 Gent, Belgium
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 8/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities & Events – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Galgenhuis, ‘The Gallows House’ is Ghent’s most central and historical pub, occupying a small but nevertheless fascinating and lurid position in the city’s heritage. Set on a corner by the Kleine Vismarkt bridge, and strapped onto the  striking Groot Vleeshuis, the uneconomically modest size never gives the impression of being a likely pub venue.

It’s name stems from a medieval pillory based on the rear of the roof, used in those days to shame criminals. A former fish stall, tripe house, then schandstraffen, Galgenhuis has seen its fair share of fishy doings, both before and following its conversion into a pub during the 1700s. There is some terrific writing about the history of the building to be found here and here.

All the same, it’s 2019, so what’s the place like now? Well, you enter via steps down off the street, past a small patio area. Upon entering you’re greeted with a one room bar with arched ceiling, barely larger than a shed. They believe it is one of, if not the smallest pubs in Ghent.

 

The bar room fits a row of bench seats on each side, and just enough space in the middle to congregate if they are full. There is also a very cosy little mezzanine area up steps behind the bar. The terrace area on the square is very probably bigger than the standing area in pub itself. You will enjoy a great view of the square, sure, but you’ll be getting that the moment you leave anyway – it isn’t really the same as being in a pub, is it?

Despite the limited space in the main room, Galgenhuis boasts ample space in the cellars by virtue of the tunnels built under the Groot Vleeshuis for fishermen and greengrocers back in t’ day. There were, by some accounts, historical problems with the moisture, restricting its usage, but these days they boast of a refurbishment and as you may notice, the cellar can now be rented out for parties and suchlike.

Galgenhuis counts in my book as a ‘brown café’ due to the traditional furnishings and genteel down-to-earth atmosphere in the main room; very much a Flemish pub, but the history of the venue means it has been bestowed with additional historical features that predate the style. Cast your eyes over the impressive painted tiled walls and beamed ceiling painted with some rather threatening gallows-appropriate slogans in gothic lettering. This in my view takes it to another level. Our level.

However, while I love all of that, unfortunately the whitewashed exterior and the splashing of an – in my view – rather bland logo across the wall of the building sticks out a mile in front of some grand stepped-gable houses by the water front. I’m afraid the signage is not really in keeping with the tradition or the interior making the place look far more bland than it actually is. That’s disappointing, as they previously had Gothic signage, but it’s a matter of personal opinion.

This isn’t a concern once you’re inside however, as it can’t be seen. Believe me, if you’re lucky enough to find a seat in here you’ll feel like remaining for the duration. Perhaps it’s the modest size that makes it feel like the centre of the action, being so close to the water nearby and the goings-on in the street, it really does feel like being inside a capsule, one that might even detach itself from the town and leave you up to your neck in the Leie.

Perhaps this is because the bar area is set a half-level down from the street, and so with plenty of windows facing at ground level, it gives the impression of a grotto. In actuality this was to assist bargemen unload their wares – today it is merely an attractive quirk.

If you strip back the numerous eccentricities that add to the charm of Galgenhuis, you will still find a fundamentally sound pub that does the simple stuff well. A cosy room, jovial atmosphere, and during the evening that classic golden glow that emerges from time spent in a well-decorated friendly pub room and careful application of beer.

Speaking of beer, there is a small but decent selection of Belgian ales on tap, from Tongerlo (an excellent though not always common option) down to Primus lager, while hardly Pilsner Urquell in lager stakes, nevertheless preferable to Jupiler and is an acceptable fallback option if the dubbels, tripels and quadrupels are getting on top of you. Prices are as you’d expect for a pub in the middle of an affluent city centre in Northern Europe (ie. belt up), but the manager reminds me that a glass of Primus costs €2.20, in itself a very reasonable price for the city centre.

The bar staff carry out their job with pride, clearly in the knowledge they are playing their small part in the continuation of Galgenhuis. I also felt they were among the more friendly Ghent servers, while considering the places I visited. By contrast, the forgivably wonderful Den Turk (follow the link for our full review) boasts about its ‘Ghent arrogance’: impressive in print, but reflected in fairly charmless service in person. Thankfully  basic pleasantries are still deemed fashionable here at Galgenhuis.

The central location means you can shoot off from here to half a dozen other bars and pubs within minutes, making it suitable for a pub crawl, but the high demand for seating puts the experience itself at a premium. If you are lucky enough to grab a table, why not bed in for a full afternoon session and get drinking?

Have you been to Galgenhuis? Agree or disagree with our take on it? We’d love to find out what you think – please drop us a line in the comments below or join the discussion in our Facebook group!

 

Café Den Turk, Ghent

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Botermarkt 3, 9000 Gent, Belgium
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 8/10
  • Style and Decor – 9/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 5/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

Any pub described as a ‘city institution’ carries its reputation before it. A heightened expectation level can and has resulted in occasional disappointment for me in the past, however a visit to Café Den Turk was not among such occasions, indeed, the place cemented its reputation, as I’ll explain below.

Café Den Turk is located in the very centre of Ghent, among an unparalleled, stunning display of Gothic and medieval buildings, which at points achieves a grandeur not even neighbouring Brugge can quite match. That alone has a tendency to draw you towards the place, which acts as a natural start or end to a sightseeing circuit of the city centre.

The longevity of Den Turk (reputedly the oldest continuous drinking hole in the city) appears to partly be down to officials from the town hall nipping across the road for lunchtime and post-work drinks. It really does feel like the kind of place where you come to shoot the shit about the latest political shenanigans or strike a clandestine deal over lunch and a beer – a proper pub.

Den Turk has striking signage and is located in a classic stepped-gable Flemish house, transmitting all sorts of positive signals before you’ve even walked through the door.

Although the interior of the bar area is typically Belgian, there is a more universally recognisable sense, that you get with those classic pubs that have so clearly and resolutely refused to change with the times. Furnishings and bar area are similar to a brown café, which are better known as being characteristic of Amsterdam, and Netherlands but are just as prevalent in Flanders too. However, the layout of Den Turk is more like a country English pub with ‘plotting’ rooms and corners, along with some pub-style corner seating, all proudly old fashioned with that doorstep sandwich thickness to the unvarnished tables that gives off a rustic feel.

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The choice on tap is a pointedly sensible working class array of typical AB InBev products, Leffe, Hoegaarden, Stella, yadda yadda at decent prices about you’d expect to pay in a well-to-do Belgian city centre, but check their menu! They stock a small but choice selection of bottles that will keep any Belgian beer fans well interested, not least a few Ghent beers that don’t crop up very often. Ghent Tripel is nice (but not a Ghent beer strictly – it is brewed to order elsewhere and relabelled) but Gentse Gruut is brewed only walking distance away, and their blonde ale makes for a sensible choice for a first drink in Ghent. Gruut style beer is brewed with spices in substitution for (or sometimes in addition to) hops, leading to a different flavour balance. The spices are also slightly botanical and bitter which balances well against the sweet, yeasty Belgian blonde you’ll be familiar with.

The pub regulars look dyed-in-the-wool and give off that vaguely reassurring feel of permanence; that while they remain in attendance everything in the world is ticking over nicely, or at least doesn’t matter a great deal for the time you are there. Better still, the place , like Ghent in general, is tourist-free. Expect a few stares to greet you on your entrance, as they clock an unfamiliar face, but the servers expect one or two new comers and are welcoming, if a bit upright. The city website itself tells of “typical Ghent arrogance” which may be overplaying it slightly, but then even their own website seems to take pride in the same reputation. Yes, the service gives off an air of fellows who are masters of their domain – they won’t be fawning over you or pretending to be your mate, but it isn’t really obnoxious.

One quirk is the red and white patchwork tablecloth spread on many of the tables which don’t seem to fit the brown café style or the jazz bar intentions (that it wears quite casually), being more akin to a Hungarian Etkezde or trattoria than what you or I may think of for a pub. That’s a slight distraction, however.

An afternoon drink in Den Turk is quiet, surprisingly so for such a central location but the place acts as an oasis of calm and normality, of a sort that normally lends a place a permanent appeal.  However, while an afternoon drink in here is far from unpleasant I most recommend visiting in the core of the evening where everything takes on an atmospheric and shady glow, and the murmur of conversation starts to bubble up.

In the evening there is an understated jazz and blues soundtrack which are naturally complimentary and the whole effect coalesces to become a brilliant pub.

Den Turk is deservedly an institution, and a visit to Ghent without popping down for at least one would be to deny you one of the city’s finest and most authentic offerings. It seems almost impossible if I worked in Ghent I would not join their venerable councillors for a drink in Den Turk every lunchtime.