Our First Stop in Belgium Brought Us to Tears - Ypres
Our plan when we first got the motorhome was to spend a month or two in the UK getting it exactly how we wanted before heading across the English Channel to explore continental Europe. Tootling around the UK, while getting all the mods done like lithium battery, inverter, auto-levelers etc has been fun, but touring Britain has never been our goal. So after a brief trip to Spain for a family wedding (not in the motorhome), we spent a night or two in Folkestone to get ready for our ferry trip. We stocked up on some British tea bags and Branston Pickle to help us through the months ahead with no Sainsbury's for miles.
We had reservations on a midday ferry from Dover to Dunkirk, the perfect route to take us to Belgium and our first stop; the town of Ieper (More commonly referred to in English by its French name Ypres.) We arrived on a Sunday which unfortunately scuppered our plans to stop at a French hypermarket to stock up with wine and cheese, unlike the UK and US things still close on a Sunday here. It felt great to be back on the right side of the road and the motorhome seemed to like it too. At last Iain can see what's coming at a roundabout without having to rely on me craning my neck to tell him.
The trip to Ieper was less than an hour and we had a reservation at Camping Jeugstadion for the first couple of nights so we had no stress involved in finding a campsite with space. We came to Ieper after receiving several recommendations from family and friends. Honestly, I had never heard of the place until recently. Visitors to the town come largely to pay respects to the many soldiers who fought for the allies in the First World War. Much of the fighting was in this area and many war cemeteries, museums and memorials are here.
Iain and I, both being of left brain inclinations had educations focused on science and engineering. Neither of us paid too much attention in school to history, finding it boring and irrelevant. There are many things we don't know about history. In our older, wiser years, and through reading and watching many TV shows and movies, we have tried to make up for lost time. But the First World War was one thing we both knew very little about. Shameful really, given that it is a significant part of our birth country's history.
After arriving at Ieper, we explored the town a little and while it is quite touristy, it is also very charming and pretty. The town was basically destroyed during the First World War, but it was completely rebuilt. Many of the buildings are exact replicas of those destroyed; I find something wonderfully defiant about that.
We decided it was important to learn more about the war so visited the In Flanders Field Museum, which is located in the spectacular Cloth Hall in the center of the city. The building itself is an amazing feature, originally completed in 1304, it was destroyed in WWI. But it was meticulously reconstructed and is now magnificent again. The museum was excellent. As well as providing context for the war and why it began it also showed the human side, highlighting real-life people whose lives were forever changed or ended by the senseless destruction. We left feeling moved, educated and concerned about whether the world has forgotten the consequences of nationalist sentiment.
A must-visit in Ieper is The Menin Gate, a breathtaking memorial to many of those lost during the war. It contains over 54,000 names of British Commonwealth servicemen. The people commemorated here are just those whose bodies were never found; men who disappeared while fighting in this area. Imagine that - there are thousands of graves in this area, but the names here didn't even get a burial, instead they are remembered at the gate.
One of the most incredible things to witness in Ieper is The Last Post, a solemn and respectful ceremony that takes place at The Menin Gate every night at 8pm. The ceremony has been held every night without interruption since shortly after the memorial opened in 1928. During WWII when Ieper was occupied by German forces, the ceremony was still carried out in England. On the night the city was liberated, the ceremony resumed at the location where it is held every night to this day.
The first night we arrived in Ieper, we got to the ceremony only a few minutes before it started. It's popular so we really couldn't see the buglers, but we did hear them, as well as a beautiful brass band that were playing. The ceremony was muted, captivating and we found ourselves moved to tears; who wouldn't be. The scale of the loss is immense and the thought of an entire generation enduring it is incalculable.
Our first stop in Belgium was thought-provoking, educational and interesting. We did enjoy some great food and of course a Belgian beer. We don't really have firm plans for our time here in Belgium, we are just going to wing it and head up to The Netherlands. Time to see if traveling in the height of summer without reservations is a smart idea or not!