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Summer in Belgium: The best places to mark 100 years of World War One
For the past four years, Belgium has been marking the 100th anniversary of World War One with ceremonies, exhibitions, plays and concerts. The commemorations come to an end on 11 November, when the Last Post will be played at the Menin Gate in Ypres exactly 100 years after the war came to an end.
The town of Ypres plays a special role because of its tragic history. Totally destroyed in the war, this beautiful medieval town was slowly rebuilt over several decades. Its magnificent Gothic cloth hall is now occupied by the haunting In Flanders Fields Museum, where the visitor is plunged into the horror of war using a combination of weaponry, film, music and poetry.
As you wander the neat cobbled streets of Ypres, you will come across scattered reminders of the war, such as the crowd-filled Menin Gate built to record the names of missing soldiers, the beautiful Ramparts cemetery on the edge of the city moat and a brewery that brews a beer called Wipers Times after a newspaper printed in the trenches. But it’s the landscape around Ypres that preserves the most moving spots. As you explore the narrow country roads by bike or car, you come across more than 100 war cemeteries, including Sanctuary Wood and the melancholy German cemetery at Langemark.
You will begin to notice other traces of war in the shell-pocked landscape of this region, known as the Westhoek, from the war memorials to the concrete bunkers that have been taken over by local farmers. Many of the war sites have been modernised to mark the anniversary. As you approach the striking glass pavilion at the vast Tyne Cot cemetery you will hear a woman’s voice slowly recite the names of the dead. Equally impressive, the visitor centre at Lijssenthoek cemetery records the story of the soldiers brought to a huge hospital that stood nearby.
With the increase in tourists visiting the region, some stylish new boutique hotels and B&Bs have opened. You can stay in Ypres in Fields of Gold, a converted schoolhouse, or book a room in De Klaproos, a guesthouse out in the former Passchendaele battlefield next to Tyne Cot. And it’s not too difficult to find good places to eat in the region, which is known for Passendale cheese, potjevlesch (meat preserved in jelly) as well as several excellent craft breweries.
This article first appeared in The Bulletin Summer 2018. Pick up a copy in newsagents today or subscribe here...