When most people think of Belgium they probably think of Bruges, chocolate and Belgian beer. Their first thoughts might not wander to the town of Ypres, a location steeped in First World War history.
Just before Christmas, David and I set off on a Belgium road trip where our first stop was Ypres. We were there to discover sites in and around the town that was unforgettably caught in the whirlwind of World War 1.
Ypres might not seem like a location, or a history, that fits my blog’s theme/aesthetic. The First World War is often referred to as a ‘senseless’ war, but one we shouldn’t forget and Ypres certainly has a presence to that. This is why I’ve decided to tell you about our time there and what to do in Ypres.
What to do in Ypres
I won’t pretend I knew all the battle sites around Ypres, known as the ‘Salient’, before arriving. However, I did expect that I’d feel humbled from what we saw and learned.
Arriving in town this had already began. It was hard to believe we were looking at buildings that were completely rebuilt back to their medieval design (as they looked convincingly older!). I found the Ypres Cloth Hall to be the most striking piece of architecture in this area, which shockingly was too reduced to rubble.
Impressively it was reconstructed to its prewar condition, which gazing up at its sheer size you can believe why this took a few decades to complete and why its one of the best sights in town.
1. In Flanders Fields Museum
Ypres Cloths Hall now houses In Flanders Fields Museum. We could have spent hours in here, with its high and varied volume of interactive exhibitions and artefacts. Many of which are activated by a microchip embedded ‘poppy’ bracelet given on arrival, (that can also be kept as a souvenir).
We chipped in an extra 2 Euros to climb the 231 steps up to the belfry, which provides the best views of the town’s medieval architecture and layout. The exhibition exits through the Tourist Information Centre, where we lingered to find walking and cycling routes of the surrounding area. (Our plan was to cycle the ‘Peace Trail’ the next day. Alas, weather or time wasn’t on our side…)
2. Menin Gate
One of the most touching memorials is found at Menin Gate, inscribed within its walls are 54,896 soldiers names who were killed in the war, yet whose graves are unknown. If that hasn’t hit home enough, as a tribute from the people of Ypres, every night at 8pm the road that passes through the memorial is closed and buglers sound the ‘Last Post’.
A ceremony that has been carried out, uninterrupted, since 1928 (bar a few exceptions). Despite us visiting at the end of November when the town was quiet, we found it was bustling under the memorial’s arches before the ceremony began. Silence soon fell among the crowd though when the buglers were about to begin, with thoughts turning to the men who lost their lives.
Inescapably, you walk away with a weight of poignancy, especially knowing this ceremony vows to occur for eternity. As we sat in a nearby bar beforehand, a local man told us every November 11th sees the service not just fill the memorial, but crowds pour out onto the street covering the city.
3. Tyne Cot Cemetery
Lying just outside of the town in the quiet countryside is the largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in the world. Walking to the entrance of Tyne Cot Cemetery‘s Visitor Centre we began to hear names spoken from various speakers dotted along the pathway. Later we would discover these names, 34,887 of them, were those who were reported missing.
Whilst Tyne Cot can be a very mournful place, with white aligned gravestones forming row after row, the stillness of the surrounding landscape creates a peaceful resting place for the fallen.
4. Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917
A short drive from Tyne Cot is the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917. Passchendaele was a horrific battle towards the end of the First World War where half a million men were killed for just 8km gain of ground.
Housed in a beautiful chateau, the museum explores not just the battle at Passchendaele but the old weapons and uniforms of soldiers. Realistic dugouts and trenches can be experienced too.
5. Hill 60 / Caterpillar Crater
Much is to be learnt about the war through museum exhibitions and seeing how many lives were lost in the many graveyards scattered around the area and beyond. However, seeing battle sites that are still weathering the carnage of the past really instilled a lasting impression for me.
Hill 60 had been fiercely fought over in the war and although the trenches were filled, the land remains scarred. Close to this lies Caterpillar Crater, which for me was one of the area’s most sobering sights. Despite grass and nature growing over it, the huge hollow of land where the mine was detonated has to be seen to be believed.
6. Talbot House
Another short drive away from Ypres is the sleepy town of Poperinge, which became a place of refuge for soldiers. Away from the trenches and shelling, a townhouse was founded where troops could recuperate and feel a little more at home (and looked like it too!). There’s a cafe on the bottom floor, where you’re welcomed with a hot drink (no charge, but donations are suggested) and a makeshift altar that was created in the attic room.
Talbot House unexpectedly interested me the most and felt like a place stuck in time. Particularly when I read a few soldier’s letters that were sent home describing this as a place of peace. It has a huge emotional draw, yet tranquility too which is inescapable.
Watch where else we explored in Belgium:
Have you ever been to Belgium? Where did you discover and what did you like about it so much? Tell me about your experiences in the comments section below!