New week, new day, new challenge. The first challenge of the day was getting on the 8:37 train, which only 16 of the group accomplished. A few hiccups and a trip to France later, we all made it eventually. As Shakespeare would say, “Alls well that (sort of) ends well.”
We made it! A nice, two hour journey to the southern border of Belgium. However, due to the geography of the country, Ypres is still part of Flanders. Wallonia is in the southwest part of the country. More on geography: Lille, France (which I visited yesterday!), is four kilometers closer from Antwerp than Ypres.
Anyway, in Ypres we were greeted by the sweet embrace of a rainstorm. But by the time we arrived at the Grote Markt the skies parted to allow sunshine.
First things first – luncheon. While we toured a bit of the city in an effort to find food, we say an interesting ceremony being played out that was commemorating World War I. During our tour, we later learned that this was due to the fact that July 24, 2017 was the 90th anniversary of the erection of the war memorial Menin Gate for the missing fallen soldiers of WWI.
We eventually made our way to a cafe in which I had a classic Flandrien sandwich with some good Gouda cheese (not alliteration).
Afterwards, we decide to take a stab at the numerous chocolate shops we had passed on our expedition for food. First stop, Leonidas. Now, when you come to Ypres and they say “deal for Americans,” there is really no other option but to buy 25 euros worth of chocolate. Though I must say that it is quite a good deal in comparison to similar-quality chocolate in the states. And, not to dwell on this, but I did acquire quite the selection of truffles, pralines, ganache, fudge, sea shells.
Next stop: cha. This was actually perfect. We stumbled into a nice “koffie + thee” shop in which we each got a pot of tea which came with a few chocolate samples and a free refill (gasp). It was nice to relax in the city.
In Flanders Fields Museum
The afternoon took quite the turn as we entered the In Flanders Museum regarding World War I.
During the first world war, Ypres held the strategic position in blocking the German path across Belgium to France from the north. Four major battles ravaged the city of Ypres and left it in ruins after the war. However, the city was rebuilt to its former medieval glory after the war (on money from German reparations). Thus, all the old medieval buildings are essentially “fake” medieval. The “In Flanders Fields Museum is now located in the Cloth Hall – cloth being one of the most important industries of Ypres during the Middle Ages.
This museum was one of the best I think we have visited in Belgium. I like how it mentioned the inconsequentiality of the war through some of the personal testimonies. There was this question after the war of “What was the point?” So many men died an unnecessary death, lying in the trenches. The series of alliances failed as two major alliances broke out into war over a small scuffle in Serbia. While obviously there were deeper underlying tensions leading to the war, the fact remains that the war was without much accomplishment.
The war was initially an excitement for many citizens of Europe. National identity and allegiance to alliances made encouraged many men to initially go enlist in the war. And, most thought that the war would be over by Christmas – something that failed to occur. The museum had a section devoted on this sadness. During the first Christmas, soldiers apparently felt more sentiment to their fellow soldiers on the other side than the comfortable residents back home.
There is a great progression from this excitement to join the cause. The “noble idea” of the soldier in a glorious war still intact at the beginning of the war — an image that would be lost in the wars aftermath and is still today. The senseless killing of millions of soldiers simply from being there, the killing of civilians, the destruction of cities all contributed to the modern image of war.
Tour of Ypres
Next we embarked on a scenic / historical tour of the city of Ypres beginning from the Grote Markt. We meandered our way to the Rijselpoort city gate. It is the only gate of the ten Ypres city gates that has been preserved. However, Ypres has one of the best preserved town walls in all of Belgium. Though the wall is from 16th century, not exactly part of the Middle Ages. The sheer amount of brick served the city well though it could not protect the town from the bombs that hailed in 1914. As we saw in the museum, the city was completely decimated – the town hall, the church, the houses, and medieval buildings all reduced to rubble. Despite the tragic losses, the resilient residents chose to return to the city and rebuild it exactly as it was before, preserving the medieval history of the town that we continue to see today. Thus, it can be said then that everything we see is “fake old.”
Beyond the gate lies a hill holding the Ramparts (Lille Gate) Cemetery, holding soldiers of British nationality. Our tour guide explained that Britain chose not to re-patriot its fallen soldiers. Some interesting notes – first it is a beautiful place to be buried among the flowers and overlooking the water surrounding the city of Ypres. Secondly, every headstone is the same, marking a new tradition in which all lives from the war are considered equal – while the headstones may have unique inscriptions on them, they are all the same shape – colonel, captain, foot soldier it didn’t matter. This new egalitarianism is also reflected in the memorial that we saw later in which each soldier is given a name on the monument if no body was found.
From the city gate we walked along the wall to an underground bunker in which ice was stored throughout the year. Deep inside the cellar, ice could be packed and insulated with straw, preserving it for months on end.
Menin Gate Memorial
We continued to the Menin Gate War Memorial of the Missing soldiers of World War I. They are dedicated tot he British and Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in the Ypres battles but whose graves have never been uncovered. Each soldier gets his name inscribed on the memorial. However, it is a living memorial meaning that if a body is found, it will be placed in the Cemetery we saw and the memorial updated.
We also entered the St. George’s Church in Ypres that the British built after the war to commemorate the over 500,000 British troops who died in the three battles off Ypres.
The end of our tour gave us just enough time to grab some more chocolates and another sandwich to go. Also, I had a whole wheat croissant for the first time. I didn’t even know those existed. I must say it was quite good though nothing beats the price of 2.80€ for 5 croissants deal we encountered in our first bakery in Lille.
Turns out that as we arrived to the station our train was in fact delayed due to a “medical emergency,” an apparent code term for suicide on the tracks.
While we accepted the free time as a chance to consume chocolate, thinking back to the event makes me quite sad. Looking into this, Belgium has quite a high rate of suicide – the top 23rd highest rate. In comparison, the Netherlands is at the 98th position.
To end on a slightly less depressing note, we all made it back to Antwerp and the sky looked magnificent.