Photo: Peter Huys
THE GENTSE FEESTEN — a 10-day food, art, music, and drink fest in Flanders that draws young tourists from all over the world — happened to fall smack in the middle of my recent visit to Belgium. I’d never been and was definitely interested in checking out all I’d heard about the festival’s free music, free art, free dance lessons…free street urinals.
Here’s what I wished someone had told me before I went.
You might get pissed on.
Right before the festival, Ghent saw a sudden influx of plastic urinals and no-peeing signs on its streets.
Apparently, when toilets are scarce and / or not free, guys and girls whip it out / pop a squat all over the city center. The nice folks who run the festival have tried to discourage this by providing the large public urinals throughout the event area and posting threatening signs all over the place.
Unfortunately, drunk people are seldom deterred by signs — or conveniently located urinals — and I still barely managed to avoid being doused by a drunk, flailing man who was laughing uncontrollably while trying to pee into a sewer drain.
The street is not only a toilet, but also, apparently, one giant bed.
Music, dancing, eating, and drinking all continue into the early hours (pro tip: if you’re actually interested in sleeping, book a place outside the city center), and then all the drunk people just collapse into heaps on the street.
If you’re up early, you can see the street cleaners trying to wend their way through the unconscious bodies.
Covered patios won’t save you from the rain.
Belgium’s a rainy place, so you’re likely to run into at least a few showers during the festival.
The good news: There are plenty of cafes, restaurants, covered patios, and sheltered venues to duck into if things get too wet. The bad news: A well-intentioned waiter trying to shake the rainwater off the patio tarp might just dump it on your head (and a snarky American writer will think it’s funny and write about your misfortune).
If you flirt with the guys running the Moroccan restaurant tent, they will offer you free hot tea (and promptly spill it on themselves).
Just in case you were wondering if flirting works the same everywhere — it does and it is awesome.
The last day of the festival is known as “the day of empty wallets.”
The festival itself might be free, but do come prepared to spend some money. What’s a vacation without a few beers (and, if you’re me, fries, waffles, mussels, champagne, and chocolates)?
Plan a trip
- The Gentse Feesten is held for 10 days each year starting on the Saturday before July 21. You don’t need tickets and you can find lists of all the artists and acts on their website a month or two before the event.
- If you don’t want to sleep on the street, you should book your hotel / hostel / couch in advance, as everything from apartments to couchsurfing hosts fills up quickly.
- Drop by Swing Cite for a free dance lesson, always carry cash for the fabulous flea markets, and feel free to eat your body weight in waffles and French fries (if only to make me feel better about the fact that I did).