Alan takes a 3 day short break to Belgium visiting Bruges and Ypres
Chocolate, Lace and Beer. If those three things whet your appetite then Belgium should be on your ‘must do’ list. Belgium is also steeped in history, especially WW1 and the many battlefields within its borders. Situated in the northwest of the country is the charming city of Bruges the capital and largest city in the province of West Flanders which has been my home for the last 3 days. A city that has something for everyone, architecture, history, good restaurants, lots to see and friendly people.
A 50 minute flight to Brussels International Airport with EasyJet and then a taxi ride to Bruges or for those that don’t enjoy flying and airports the Eurostar from London St. Pancras International will whisk you to Brussels and then a local train to Bruges. Belgium boasts an excellent road network with fast motorways connecting the major cities. Anyone thinking about driving to Bruges it’s 45 miles from the port of Dunkirk. Whichever method you decide on the end result will be worthwhile.
Martins Brugge Hotel my base, is located in the old part of the city and close to the venues you will want to see during your stay. My room on the 2nd floor with large comfortable bed, flat screen television and free wi-fi is more than adequate for my 2 night stay. Restaurant is on the ground floor as is ‘Martins Bar’, a great place to meet and socialise.
Dinner that evening is at Burg 9. Situated by Burg Square, a few minutes’ walk from the hotel this stylish restaurant turns out to be a good recommendation. The 40 Euro ‘Monday Menu’ giving 3 courses, 2 glasses of wine, water, coffee and decorative sweets seems an obvious choice. My main course of Shrimps, Mussels with a Broccoli top was delicious and the Ice Cream desert with chocolate sauce a great way to finish. Washed down with a very acceptable white wine it proved a good way to end the first day. After an early start it was time to try out that large comfortable looking bed which did not disappoint. In a flash it was 7.30am and the alarm on my mobile was announcing the start of another day.
Breakfast in the hotel dining room was surprisingly good. Quite often hotels on the Continent cater only for local tastes but Martins Brugge certainly catered for those that enjoy a heartier affair. A selection of cereals, fruit juices, cheeses, meats, eggs fried or scrambled, bacon, sausages, tomato, beans, and toast were all there together with an unlimited supply of tea or coffee. I could certainly get used to this.
Today was the 11th November and with WW1 very much to the fore we visit the WW1 photographic exhibition situated on the 1st floor of the Belfry Tower. Vivid photographs depicting various scenes from WW1, some original, some re-enacted. Whilst there the Triumph Bell in the tower begins to ring its deep mesmerizing sound that adds to the occasion. Many church bells were taken by the Germans during the war, smelted down and the metals used for weapons and ammunition. The ground floor houses the historical part of the exhibition.
Time for Lunch at the Rock-Fort and Barsalon in Langestraat, a modern bistro style restaurant that is busy with diners. My main course of Pheasant, beautifully presented on a bed of miniature vegetables, a work of art and almost too good to disturb. The Ice Cream desert with chocolate and chopped nuts is a delight. At 35 Euro including wine this represents excellent value for money. There is also a ‘Chefs menu’ for 49 Euro. 2 restaurants, 2 excellent meals.
It was now time to explore Bruges. First stop has to be taking a trip on one of the many canal boats offering an excellent way to view the city without expending any energy. The tour of 30 minutes takes in many of the famous buildings and monuments including the Hospital of St. John and the Alms Houses. Passing water side cafes, hotels, street stalls, beautiful canal swans and ducking as you pass under low bridges. The commentary language can be given in several languages and in our case it was mostly in English given by our guide/driver who exhibited a great sense of humour. After the boat it is a walking tour of the city centre. Shops with their window displays of handmade chocolates. Dark, milk and white chocolate made into all manner of objects and figures. With Christmas fast approaching chocolate Father Christmas’s, Elves and Reindeer are in abundance. Most shops sell chocolates by weight so you select your own mix and amount. One shop is dipping Strawberries in chocolate and the length of the queue to purchase them says it all. Belgium Beer is known the world over and there is no shortage of shops selling it, the beer list is vast. It is said the 180 breweries in Belgium produce nearly 20 different types of beer. The Beer Wall in Wollestraat displays many beers and its bar makes an ideal stop to rest the legs. Beware though, some of the beers can be as high as 9% and can cause the legs to stop working!! If you want a souvenir that is a little different try Belgium Lace. Bruges has been famous for its lace as long as anyone can remember and is known throughout the world for its beauty and quality. Everything from a small bookmark or handkerchief up to a large table cloth or even a dress.
The buildings can only be described as magnificent. Bruges is a city with two main squares and first stop is the “Markt of Brugge”, (Market Square) an area housing the Provincial Court, Salvador Dhal exhibition, the Belfort (Belfry of Bruges) and several large restaurants. The Belfort stands 83 metres high, housing the Triumph Bell, made in 1680 and weighing 12.295 lbs (5.48 tons) accompanied by a carillon of 47 silver toned bells that play different tunes. Climbing the 366 steps to the top gives panoramic views across the city. In the center of the market stands the statue of Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck who had a passion for the Flemish identity. The statue has stood there since 1887.
A short walk away brings you to Burg Square where the town hall is situated. The square features several styles of architecture. The beautiful town hall built in the gothic style is in my opinion one of the most beautiful looking buildings in Bruges. Situated next door is the renaissance styled Old Civic Registry whilst in the corner is the entrance to the Basilius church and the Chapel of the Holy Blood.
There is so much to see in this beautiful city that 2 days is not nearly enough.
Dinner that night is at the Restaurant Kok au Vin in Ezelstraat and for me in all honesty the highlight of my dining experiences. The restaurant is set away from the main lights of the tourist area but by the numbers dining it is a well-known hidden gem. My starter of Oysters Cuvee Puttaert on a bed of ice were delightful, followed by a main of Pork Cheeks confit with ‘Forgotten’ vegetables, chanterelles and a gravy of roasted cabbage this was cooking at its best. Why ‘Forgotten’ vegetables I ask. The chef tells me they use vegetables that are not often seen today. They were delicious so perhaps they should be resurrected. The Tangerine dessert was a complete surprise with ice cream, chopped nuts and frozen diced carrot. A strange mixture but a wonderful blend of tastes. Again the wines served with the various courses were excellent. 3 restaurants, 3 excellent meals. It was now back to that comfortable bed for my last night in Bruges.
The following morning after breakfast and check out there is a taxi waiting to transport us to our coach for our last tour of the visit, The Battlefields of Flanders. This tour is provided by Quasimodo Tours. We are to visit the battlefields of WW1, Commonwealth and German cemeteries, bunkers and craters, restored trenches, Ypres town and the Menin Gate. Our driver and guide, Philip turns out to be extremely knowledgeable on the subject and his English is perfect. Boarding the bright blue Quasimodo coach we head out of Bruges and south west towards Ypres a name synonymous with WW1.
First stop is the German Langemarch Military Cemetery. On entering your eyes are drawn to the statue of ‘The Mourning Soldiers’, 4 large brass statues standing in silent tribute looking out across the cemetery. Groups of 3 granite crosses are placed at various points within the grounds and unlike other cemeteries the grave stones are grey granite squares laid flat on the ground but with the same precision as those of upright stones. Flowers and Poppy Wreaths adorn the main memorial and the ‘Mourning Soldiers’. The remains of thousands of German soldiers were brought to this cemetery from all over the region and it is now the resting place of over 44,000 WW1 casualties, 3,000 of which are those of young student volunteers.
Our next stop, only a short distance away is the St. Julian Memorial at Vancouver Corner. The memorial depicts the ‘Brooding Soldier’, a soldier stood over 36 feet high with bowed head and hands resting on his reversed rifle. This memorial can be seen for many miles. Dedicated to the Canadian soldiers who endured the first gas attack by the Germans. The inscription on the memorial reads: This column marks the battlefield where 18,000 Canadians on the British left withstood the first German gas attacks the 22nd-24th of April 1915. 2,000 fell and lie buried nearby.
From here we travel to the Tyne Cot Cemetery, built on an incline just over 5 miles from Ypres it is the largest cemetery looked after by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in the world. Nearly 12,000 commonwealth soldiers are buried here. Over 8,000 of them unidentified with their gravestone inscriptions reading “A Soldier of the Great War, Known unto God”. No matter from which angle you look at the headstones the lines are perfect as if standing to attention. Made from Portland Stone they look pristine in the sunlight. One memorial is to over 11,000 Sherwood Foresters who gave their lives between 1914-1918 on the Western Front whilst the ‘Memorial Wall’ is a commemoration to 34,887 soldiers who died but have no known grave. Built into the wall is a separate memorial to the officers and men, nearly 1,200 of them from New Zealand who were killed at the 3rd battle of Ypres but have no known grave. A contingent of Surry Police Officers in uniform pay their respects to police officers who fell in WW1. As you walk along line after line of headstones you begin to realise the enormity of it all and it’s difficult not to shed a tear. The car park is congested with coaches bearing British registrations bringing school children to where history was made. When you come away you find yourself asking the question ‘Who starts these wars that lead to such huge losses of young lives’.
Back to our coach and people are noticeably in a more somber mood. Tyne Cot has affected everyone. We drive to nearby Polygon Wood, a battle site where the memorial and cemetery are dedicated the Australian 5th Army Division. Again row upon row of Portland stone headstones with the familiar inscription ‘Known Unto God’.
The morning has passed quickly and the lunch stop is at Hooge Crater. Here is a private museum where the owners have put on display show cases that depict scenes, uniforms and other regalia from WW1. The restaurant has a bar and also sells souvenirs of the area. On the opposite side of the road is Hooge Crater Cemetery with 5,923 Commonwealth servicemen from WW1 buried or commemorated there. Over 3,500 of the burials are unidentified.
Lunch finished it is off to Hill 60. Here the men of the 1st Australian Tunneling Company tunneled under the German lines and placed explosives which when detonated caused a mini earthquake. This was made into a recent film ‘Beneath Hill 60’. The memorial plaque has several bullet holes in it but these are from WW2. At the top of the hill is the memorial to the Queen Victoria Rifles.
My next and final stop is the Menin Gate in Ypres. Its full name is The Menin Gate to the Missing and is dedicated to all British and Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in the battles of Ypres and whose graves are unknown. The interior is ‘The Hall of Memory’ and contains the names of 54,896 soldiers whose bodies have never been found. Probably one of the most famous places in the world and from where every evening at 8pm 365 days a year the Last Post is played by, not members of the armed forces, but by members of the local volunteer fire service as they have done since 1928.
It is now time to leave the tour, head for the airport and reflect on the last 3 days.
This has been a visit of two distinct parts Bruges and then the battlefields. Bruges is without doubt a beautiful city. Easy to travel to with good quality hotels. There is much to see with its historic buildings, monuments and canals along with restaurants offering value for money that are a delight to dine in. You could easily spent a week sightseeing in this city. Bruges because if its location makes it an ideal base for touring the battlefields and cemeteries of WW1. Visiting the battlefields, memorials and museums you realise the enormous loss of life given for our freedom. Personally I want to go back as there is so much that I didn’t have time to see but want to. Thank you Bruges for 3 really memorable days.
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Alan Fairfax -
is a travel writer for
YOUR HOLIDAY TV
Alan also writes for the
Ashford Advertiser Media Group with regional papers across Kent with regular holiday & travel sections in all editions
Alan is also an Advisor for SilverTravelAdvisor.com
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