Ypres & Ghent

Ypres Travel Blog

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Saturday 19th September

On our final day of sightseeing we thought we would really let rip and fire through as much as we could. We rose early and took the 7.40 train from Brussels to Ypres a 1hr 40 min journey towards the French border. Ypres holds a special place in British history as the site of a major battle in WW1 where thousands of soldiers died in only a few hours of fighting. The journey seemed longer than it was and we managed to befriend a funny (maybe too much so!) African man who’s job title sounded suspiciously like drug dealer. He insisted on talking very loudly on his phone and making idle conversation with us throughout the trip, most of which I struggled to understand. Eventually we arrived and decided we needed a good dose of caffeine to fire us up for the day. We found the chain deli Panos which was cheap and cheerful; two coffees later we were ready! We headed straight to the town centre which was dominated by a huge Lakenhalle (Cloth Hall) which also doubled up as the hugely impressive In Flanders museum. This is Ieper’s best known building, work on which began in 1200 and the huge ‘campanile’ clock in the belfry makes a magic sound as it strikes the hours and quarter–hours. The destruction of the Lakenhalle began on 18 November 1914 when the First Battle of Ypres was raging outside the town and the Germans shelled the buildings.

We had a walk around the square the Grote Markt and the markets that were ongoing then headed for the Menin Gate a huge arch which paid tribute to the mostly British but varying Commonwealth soldiers. The names of 54,896 troops who died in the surrounding battles are commemorated and every evening at 8pm a bugler pays the last post to honour their memory. This has carried on uninterrupted since July 2 1928. Places like this make me intensely proud of my national and family heritage and I fully intend to return in the future to further investigate the history of the region. We took in the names and history (sadly no Renilsons could be found). We proceeded on to the In Flanders Fields museum and paid our 1 euro entry. We were provided with a character to follow and learned their fate in various in self-narration of their fate. Unsurprisingly the characters all perished. The museum demonstrates the horrors of the war from both perspectives, and offers many personal stories of the soldiers. We both found the content fascinating and my obsession with war/military history was not dimmed. The whole history of this town reverted to the war it seemed.

We decided we should explore the city boundaries and headed to the Lille Ghent. In the early days of the town's history, when it was a small settlement on the Ieper River, there were two entrances, one in the north and one in the south of the settlement. The Lille Gate is the original southern gateway. This entrance to the city was originally called the Mesenpoort, that is, the doorway to Mesen (Messines). The round towers are the oldest surviving part of the stone ramparts, dating from 1385 and the Burgundian period of the city's history. The bridge over the gateway was added during later modifications to the city's fortifications. The Lille Gate is also a water gateway. The river Ieperlee (previously known by its French name of Yprelee) springs from a lock under the western round tower and flows under the city from south to north through a vaulted waterway. Next to the gate along the river was the ramparts cemetery one of the many war cemeteries. Ramparts Cemetery was begun in November 1914 with French soldiers being laid to rest here. From February 1915 to April 1918 Ramparts Cemetery was used by Commonwealth Forces. Most of the 1915 casualties buried here were killed in February, March and April and then in July and August of that year. The casualties from 1917 include a number of Australian and New Zealand soldiers. Reading the names of theses headstones puts a human side to the scale of the losses. We walked along the river back into town passing the Dominican tower a surviving and well preserved medieval fort tower.

We arrived back at the Grote markt and the markets were closing so we grabbed some discount burgers and hotdogs to fill a gaping hole. We were thinking of moving on to Ghent so headed back towards the station. We took a minor detour to the Commonwealth military cemetery another memorial for those troops who ensured our freedom. Five minutes on we were at the station; we found the train to Ghent which required a change at Kortrijk. This was definitely the scenic route passing through typical flat farmland of the region. We arrived an hour later and took Tram 4 which promised us a more local citizen like view of the city. It took us through the immigrant and working class areas before pulling up right in front of the castle Gravensteen, the castle of the counts. We first took a stroll through the streets and it proved similar to Bruges with water throughout the city with lots of tourist laden boat trips on the move. We figured out directions and decided we needed a ice-lolly to cool us down. We entered the castle (again a minimal fee). Strangely a spin class was being set up in what have been the main hall of the castle. The Gravensteen is the Dutch name for the 'castle of the count'. The counts of Flanders had castles built in the principal cities of the county. Because they had to maintain law and order, they continuously had to move from one city to the other. Therefore, they disposed of a castle in most cities where they wanted to stay for a few months. The castle of Ghent is the only one which survived the centuries more or less intact.

The Gravensteen, like we know it today, has been constructed by Fillips of Alsasse who was count of Flanders between 1157 and 1191. It contains a history of the town and a torture museum. They sure had some imaginative torture methods in those days. We strolled on through the town and appreciating it beauty explored its narrow streets and amazing historic architecture. We found a busy bar right on the water took in some more beautfiul Belgian beer. We headed around the town and found a trio of historic buildings. First up was St Nicholas church, then the Belfort with the usual watchtower and finally the St Baafs cathedral. The night was getting on and we were getting hungry so we followed our student map to the cheap food area and found a tasty Thai joint where you loaded your bowl with ingredient and they cooked it up. A delicious meal was had and we where on our way. One last stroll through the city we found the Graffiti alley, which turned out to be not so impressive. Our last mission before heading home was to find the orchid tree (they put your photo on facebook if you are snapped kissing it!!). It was way too dark at this point so wandered on back to the station and bombed it back to Brussels. We grabbed one last huge waffle each and spent our last few euros of the trip. An early bus was on the cards so we were safely tucked in by 10.30pm and the trip was officially over.
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Ypres
photo by: joseph98