It has been a whirlwind couple of days. After two wonderful nights in Arras, France, it was time to move towards Belgium. Knowing we would be staying in an apart/hotel in Brussels, we thought we should check out Ypres first, hoping to find the inspirational site of John McRae’s famous poem. The drive to Ypres was fun, rainy and only included one wrong turn. Besides being called different things in different languages, towns are relatively easy to find, maps are good and the roadways are in fantastic condition. Road signs have different meanings here, and there are some that we still are unsure of. It’s fantastic to be able to motor at 130 kph though, and our Mercedes Vito wants to go even faster. The town of Ypres is incredibly beautiful. Town square is centered around a fantastic cathedral, and the In Flanders Field museum and city information center is right near by.
While none of us are able to tell the age of a stone building by looking at it, we were fooled into thinking Ypres St. Martins Cathedral was much older than it is. At one time it was old, but then was destroyed by the Germans in WWI. At the time, the Commonwealth countries weren’t too happy about that:
All that is left of the nave of the cathedral – Nothing but the bare walls is now left of Ypres Cathedral’s magnificent nave. The ruins remain as a disgraceful testimony to Germany’s petty policy of ‘frightfulness’ and vengeance.
Sydney Mail, 5 May 1915, p.17
Since then, it has been painstakingly reconstructed. The finished product is very well done. It doesn’t seem to matter what day of the week it is, there’s always a market. Cheese and bread are always for sale, for very reasonable prices. Our lunch consisted of small loaves of bread and 11 thick slices of Bruges cheese, tangy, and similar in taste to Gouda.
Ypres was another site of heavy warfare in WWI, and incredibly, 250,000 allied forces lost their lives in the area. Many of them were Canadians. After touring around the city center, we traveled a part of the War Memorial motor route, which included Canadian, British and German graves, a Canadian war memorial, the Essex farm, location of the penning of ‘In Flanders Fields’ poem, and the staggering Tyne Cot Cemetary: four Germans lay alongside over 11,000 known Brits, Canadians, NZers, Australians and nearly 30,000 unknown soldiers remains also lay buried. The numbers are hard to believe, and the cemetery is beautiful and well-visited.
It was then time to head towards Brussels. Chris was hesitant about driving in Brussels. The night before, he googled ‘Driving in Brussels’ to be met with the warnings: fast drivers, weird traffic rules, poorly marked roads, narrow streets. All were true. People go to fast, the streets are impossibly tight and street signs are tacked a foot off of the ground on buildings at every corner, whose tiny font can finally be read as you’re passing through the intersection. In spite of this, we had decent directions. Unfortunately, they took us to a street that was totally dug up and impassable. No re-routing signs were up and we got (sort of) lost. We found a gas station, a guy who new the city, and a 10 Euro map that eventually got us to our apartment. It’s too bad we only had a short night in Brussels, as the city seems quite nice.
In the morning we made our way to Antwerp. After parking in a ‘questionable’ spot, the eight of us trekked around the city center. And we thought the other cathedrals we had seen were impressive, Antwerp’s is huge and gorgeous. So amazing, in fact, that they think they can charge 5 Euros a person to enter and walk around. Not wanting to cheapen a potential religious experience, we looked from a distance and snapped some pics from the entry way. We then walked around some interesting fountains and facades, statues and architecture.
Then it was back in the car for the drive north into Holland. Holland is a comfortable country to drive in, and is nearly unbelievably flat. We settled tonight in near the town of Heerenveen in the north of Holland. We are staying in a wonderful little cottage owned by Sjoerd and Annette who have relatives in the Red Deer area. It is exciting to be in the area where so many of us on the trip can trace some or all of our roots back to. The next six days will be relaxing as we have a single place to come home to, insightful as we learn more about our roots, and exciting as we learn about this country and its people.
Glad to be here!