As ‘baby boomers’ many of us Silver Travellers are fortunate not to have experienced war. But it is important for all generations to remember the sacrifices that were made and none more so than in the First World War.
The next four years will see an increase in visitors to Flanders Fields, a relatively small area of Northern Belgium, where the hideous trench warfare and loss of life should never be forgotten. The journey is emotional, but compelling, as history is brought to life in some very good exhibitions to commemorate the 100th anniversary. If you travel by car then pick up a copy of Ypres Salient Tour issued by Leper & Westhoek Tourism priced €6, so you can make the most of your time.
Today the surrounding countryside is a patchwork of farms with well-tended fields, animals grazing and spring blossom on the trees. As you gaze over the quiet and peaceful landscape it is difficult to imagine the man made destruction that occurred all those years ago
The small town of Ypres, or Leper as it is locally known, is easily accessible from Calais, a good base for exploring the area and is much prettier than I imagined. The town was completely flattened by 1918 with hardly any buildings left standing. Unbelievably it has been rebuilt in exactly the same medieval style and as you walk around it really is hard to comprehend this fact. Only by looking at old photos and plans of the rebuilding can you believe that a phoenix really did rise from the ashes.
The town can easily be explored on foot by following the Heritage Trail marked by bronze rivets along the pavements. Other trail maps can be obtained from the Tourist Information Centre situated in the Cloth Hall.
In the centre of town is the newly renovated ‘In Flanders Fields Museum’ and this is well worth a visit at the start of your trip, in order to get some perspective and understanding into events and time lines. The exhibition is a mix of interactive displays, video, sound and personal stories and the use of computer graphics will keep even the youngest visitor attention. Log in with your email address and a personal story from WW1 will be sent to you to read later.
The famous Menin Gate is a memorial built on the main route from Ypres to the battlefields. The walls are inscribed with over 35,000 names of soldiers whose bodies were never found. Every evening at 8.00 pm there is a short emotionally charged ceremony with the Last Post played by local volunteers. It is always very crowded so my tip is to arrive early.
The nearby Passchendaele Memorial Museum centres on the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917 with photos, artefacts and films. Both the British and German trenches and dugouts have been recreated so visitors can appreciate the actual size of these horrific living quarters. The museum is housed in what was a rebuilt private home and surrounded by landscaped gardens giving a tranquil space for quiet reflection.
The area around Ypres is surrounded by cemeteries, some large and some small but all immaculately cared for. Tyne Cot is the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the area and as you wander along the endless lines of gravestones you notice two out of three are Unknown Soldiers. The visitor centre at Tyne Cot is very emotional with family letters and personal accounts that bring the whole sorry story to life. Smaller, less known cemeteries such as Bedford House, famous battlefields such as Hill 60 and Hooge Crater are also worth stopping at as you drive around the area.
Returning to Ypres you will find a selection of comfortable hotels and some good restaurants. I stayed at the modern Novotel in the centre of town and found it good value and very comfortable.
I travelled by Eurotunnel, which was quick and easy, and they have some special fares for short breaks.
Two days will give you a good overview but I want to return and discover more that this amazing area has to offer, and I think you will too.
For a full calendar of up and coming events over the next four years visit www.visitflanders.co.uk