This summer we were finally able to take our first overseas break since before the COVID crisis. It was great to be able to get away and get exploring a different country again. This was something that we missed and wondered if international travel would ever be the same again. We had booked some accommodation and travel 2 years ago and finally were able to use the vouchers to get away.
That said, we very quickly realised that we had chosen to travel at the same time as the English school holidays – so the queues around the Eurotunnel entrance in Folkestone were fairly awful. Added to that, our ferry from Belfast was 3 hours late leaving – so it put a bit of pressure on our trip down England through the night. As a result of this and the traffic south of England (including the closure of the M20 to create a whopping great lorry park – in the middle of the motorway), we could not even get close to the Eurotunnel terminal for our booked train time. Instead, we followed a series of yellow diversion signs that directed us all around the countryside until we ended up in a very long stream of traffic that gradually edged its way incredibly slowly towards the trains. We finally made it to the train station areas and got into the queue to board the train about 5 hours later than planned.
Unfortunately, this meant that we were not going to have the same amount of time available to explore some of the sites that I was hoping to visit.
I’d been to Belgium once before – many years ago when we took a bus holiday to Austria and stopped in the middle of the night at a Belgian motorway services. I was not really sure what to expect and as we are all interested in all things war – we thought we might spend some time taking a look at some of the World War I sites in the area. Due to our late arrival, we could not really stop along the way and made our way to the hotel in the centre of Ypres. We were staying in the Novotel in the centre of Ypres. It was really ideally located with good access to parking in the area nearby. The rooms were fantastic – really big and recently modernised. However, we just about had enough time to dump our bags and then walk the 5 minutes around the back of the hotel to watch daily last post ceremony that is carried out at 8pm at the Menin gate each night.
This ceremony has been taking place each night since the end of the first world war as the people of the town of Ypres sought to remember the dead from the First and later the Second world wars.
Ypres was bigger than I expected. The massive Cloth Hall in the centre of the city dominates the area with a large square where a plethora of restaurants provide great options for dinner – though you have to be quick if you want to a nice ice cream or waffle after dinner as everything seems to close up around 8pm. We managed to get a nice meal in the square and found a really good ice cream shop to finish off the evening!
Things we visited in the area:
- Tyne Cot Cemetery – this is the largest CWGC (Commonwealth War Grave Commission Cemetery) in the world. It was built on a rise in the lowland area which had been a German fortified position. Over 12,000 soldiers are buried here including many from Australia and New Zealand.
2. Memorial museum – Passchendale – This was a really good museum that provided a great collection and explanation of what had happened in the area during the time of the First World War and the different battles that had taken place around Ypres. The collection was kept in Zonnebeke castle and includes a reconstruction of an underground bunker as used in the war and some trenches. You can find out more about the museum here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QpHCN0zKNY4&t=3s
3. Essex Farm Cemetery – the site of this CWGC cemetery which is part of the John McCrae Memorial Site. There are over 1,200 buried in the cemetery including 104 which remain unidentified. These are always the graves that give the most pause as you consider the vast number of bodies in WW1 that could not be identified. The cemetery itself is right beside an old concrete dressing station that was used by the Canadian Field Artillery in the Second Battle of Ypres. The famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ was reported to have been written by Lt Col Dr John McCrae in May 1915.
4. Command Bunker Zandvoorde – this rather impressive concrete and steel bunker was built by the Germans in 1912 and survived both wars. It contrasts greatly with the much less complicated wooden structures that were used by the British during the war.
5. Polygon Wood/Buttes New British Cemetery – The profusion of different areas of small cemeteries that help commemorate battles that took place over 100 years ago is humbling in this area. We sort of stumbled across these 2 cemeteries as we were looking for the museum.
The only down side was that a few of the things that we wanted to see were closed – which was a bit disappointing. In particular,
- Hill 62/ Sanctuary Wood – we did manage to see the small CWGC cemetery in the area but the actual museum (which includes some authentic trenches) was closed for a couple of weeks.
2. Plugstreet 14-18 Experience – again, we drove past this place twice – the first time I thought it might have closed up early at 4.30 for the day – but the second time we were passed we realised it was actually closed – which was disappointing.
3. St Eloi craters – tried hard to find these but could not find where we were meant to go – and reckoned that they were behind a locked gate – missed this!
It was our first time staying in Belgium and we really liked the hotel, the food, found the people to be really friendly and helpful and enjoyed our time in Ypres. We will be back to see more of the country and hopefully the next time our time will not be cut short in the same way.