Mike Strachan’s e-mail journal — Entry #19, from Belgium
Received 11 May 2008 Travels for May 9/08 — Kortrijk/Ieper, Belgium:
Learning the ins and outs of travel in Europe is such fun! Before leaving the hotel to catch the train to Ieper (Ypres), I am surprised to find that my passport and international drivers license are not in my day bag. A search of my suitcase is not successful, and the lost items are not at the hotel desk. Fortunately I have brought photocopies of important documents and the phone numbers of Canadian embassies.
Off I go to the Federale Politie/Police fédérale station to report the loss, and I'm given a copy of their loss report. Then back I go to the hotel to phone the embassy in Brussels, but on a hunch I look in the book pocket of my suitcase, and the documents are there, between the pages of a book. So then it's back to the Politie to return the report, and then to the station to buy my ticket for Ieper. To my delight it's €4 for a return ticket, not for each way.
We stop at towns with distinctly Flemish names — Wavelgem, Menen, Wervik, and Comines Comen. On my French Michelin maps the town names are all given in French with the Flemish names in brackets. In Flanders all town names are in Flemish only. Wallonia in the southeast part of Belgium is where French is the main language, with Brussels on the border between the two. The Flemish word for train station is just station, so I am shifting to using station rather than gare. At Ieper Station the agent gave me a town map and highlighted the walking route to the tourist info centre in the old market square. It's in the Cloth Hall, a massive building that serves as the town hall and various tourist and arts offices. I ask if there are tours to the places on my list, and there's one leaving in 10 minutes at 1 PM, so I buy a €35 ticket and off we go.
Jacques, the guide, is fluent in English and very knowledgeable. The other passengers are from England, Ireland, and Switzerland. Jacques accompanies his stops and talks with maps and photos. This whole area was a trench and artillery battle zone for most of WW1 and the towns and countryside were destroyed. Jacques says nothing around here is older than about 1921. When my father came this way with the First Hussars (1H) in September of 1944, more damage had been done.
On our tour we stop at the Essex Farm memorial and cemetery, alongside of which is a memorial to the 49th West Highland Division and John McCrea's bunker and grave; he of course wrote “In Flanders Fields”, commemorated by Canada Post with a stamp issued in 1968.
Next to the German cemetery at Langemark, very sombre with 44,000 graves in the form of deep crypts. Then on to St. Julien and the Canadian memorial (left) to the soldiers who withstood a gas attack.
Next to the New Zealand memorial at s' Graventafel, which was on the route to attack Passchendaele.
Then to Tyne Cot Cemetery — a Commonwealth one, with 12,000 graves and a memorial to 34,959 missing Commonwealth and New Zealand soldiers. It is very large, covering ground that can't even be seen clearly through my camera lens. [Editor’s note: According to Wikipedia, the name “Tyne Cot” is said to come from the Northumberland Fusiliers seeing a resemblance between the German concrete pill boxes, which still stand in the middle of the cemetery, and typical Tyneside workers' cottages — Tyne Cots.]
Tyne Cots Cemetery contains the grave of the Canadian soldier Private Robinson, who won the Victoria Cross for great heroism. Then on to Hill 62 (named for its elevation — 62 meters) which is also Sanctuary Wood. Lots of trenches and a museum filled with military kitsch poorly displayed.
On our way back to Ieper, Jacques shows us Hellfire Corner at the city limits. It was the most shelled place around Ieper.
Jacques drops us off at 6 PM, one hour later than planned, after a very good tour. He has taken us to every place on my list. A stroll around gets me photos of the cloth hall, St. Martin's Church, and St. George’s Memorial Church established by British expats. St. George’s is filled with regimental regalia and plaques, including one to the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (now serving in Afghanistan).
Then a nice dinner of Flemish stew at a café on the square before I walk over to the Menin Gate, a huge WW1 memorial at which a Last Post ceremony is performed at 8 PM nightly. I've seen everything on my list for Ieper, and it's a dusk train ride back to Kortrijk.
I am now using the third and last of my Michelin maps which is for the Benelux countries (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxemburg).
Tomorrow — e-mails, then Gent (also spelled “Ghent”).