Mike Strachan’s e-mail journal — Entry #18, from Belgium
Received 10 May 2008 Travel for May 8/08 — Boulogne, France to Courtrai/Kortrijk, Belgium:
Getting to the gare in Boulogne by 10:15 AM was close — I got there just in time for the wreath-laying ceremony. Very short but very solemn. Members of various armed forces were there, including a Foreign Legionnaire, and members of some related groups such as the Resistance.
Today is a holiday — the 63rd anniversary of VE Day. My train goes to Lille Gare Europe where I change trains and stations, to the Gare Lille Flandres. I have 26 minutes to transfer, and I remember the agent telling me that the two stations are a five-minute walk apart. Once again we pull out on time and I have to admire the SNCF management for the train schedules and operations.
The trip to Lille Europe takes exactly one hour, and it's a TGV train with a first-class car. The train stops at Calais-Frethun, and a freight train lumbers noisily in the opposite direction. We exit the station here "backwards;" then, approaching Lille, we cross a long railroad bridge and enter a long tunnel — and we are in Lille! Another passenger and I follow the signs to exit the Gare Europe to the Gare Flandres, and we try two exit doors but both are locked. We hurry back to the main section and she asks an SNCF employee for directions — out we go and it's about 400 meters to the other station.
With just enough time to buy a sandwich I hurry to Track 12 and board the train with eight minutes to spare. The Gare Flandres has 16 tracks, and with the Gare Europe alongside must be one of the biggest train complexes in Europe. We pull out at 12h08 for the 30-minute trip to Courtrai. This train is not an express, although it does have a first class car. We stop at Croix-Wasquehal, Roubaix, Tourcoing, then pass a huge rail yard, and we enter Belgium with no visible sign of a border.
The first stop in Belgium is Mouscron, with another large railyard. The electronic banner over the doorway of the train car is now making announcements in French and Flemish. The next stop is Courtrai/Kortrijk, where a cab driver directs me to the hotel, and it's easy to find, but my room won't be ready until 2 PM, so back to the gare to rent a car. I'm about to discover that things are different in Belgium.
Most signs are in Flemish, and many people speak French and English too. There are no car rental agencies at the station, but there is a tourist travel agency. I learn there that there are no car rental agencies in town! Also I can take a train to Ieper, Gent, or Bruxelles (Flemish spelling) after 9 AM for €4 each way, making a car rental equal to about 15 return train trips.
Afterwards I wander the old market square where three nice young women are eating thier lunch seated on temporary bleachers. I ask them what the bleachers are for and learn that they are for the celebrations on Sunday and Monday of Ascension Day. They are also helpful in giving me other tips, such as the location of a cyber cafe. So back to the hotel and I change my reservation for 2 days to 5 days. This way I can use the train to travel to the places on my list, see the celebrations here, give my foot a rest, and save a lot by not renting a car. At 2 PM I go for a stroll, have an ice cream cone (mango and chocolate), and find the library where there is free internet service but only for one hour.
Earlier a man in the hotel lobby gave me directions to internet cafés in the Moroccan district, and they are easy to find, and it's just €1.50 /hr., so I dash off a few e-mails.
A tourist brochure mentions a memorial [at nearby Beaumont Hamel] to the Newfoundland Regiment. The desk clerk helps with directions and it's a long walk. The memorial features what at first glance appears to be a moose standing on a rock, which looks identical to the image on the Newfoundland "Trail of the Caribou" stamps.*
On the way back I get a couple of interesting photos; one of a name plate showing Dirk Bogard's original Belgian family name (Van den Bogarden), and one of barges on a canal, and two of St. Martens church.
It's well past dark when I get back to the hotel, so shower, laundry, reading, and bedtime.
Tomorrow — Ypres/Ieper [Editor’s note: Ieper is the Flemish name for Ypres, which apparently is no longer called Ypres, at least officially.]
* Editor’s Note — The animal in the statue that Mike saw, and which appears on the “Trail of the Caribou” stamps, is neither moose nor caribou, but a composite creature. Of the twelve stamps in the set, four commemorated the work of the Royal Naval Reserve, while the remaining eight commemorated specific engagements in which the Royal Newfoundland Regiment was involved, one of which was the at Beaumont Hamel in the Battle of the Somme. In just 30 minutes, on the morning of 1 July 1916, the Newfoundland Regiment went over the top in the battle of the Somme. Just 30 minutes later the battle was over, the Regiment had been wiped out and with it a generation of young Newfoundland men. That night only 68 members answered the roll call; 710 had been killed, wounded or were missing.