Once a nation in its own right, Flanders today straddles two countries – France and its northern neighbour, Belgium.
A short drive from Calais in French Flanders will bring you to the picturesque walled town of Ypres, in Belgian Flanders.
A memorable way to enter the town is through the monumental Menin Gate. Its portals are inscribed with the names of some 54,896 of the more than 90,000 British and Empire soldiers who gave their lives in this region but whose remains were never recovered or identified.
At 8 pm every evening a truly moving ceremony takes place here, with smartly uniformed buglers, veteran members of the local fire brigade, playing the mournful tones of ‘The Last Post’. There’s a period of silence and a laying of wreaths. It’s a commemoration that has been held every evening of every day each year since 1928 – with the exception of the dark period of the World War Two Nazi occupation, when it was moved temporarily to England.
Flanders Field Museum
Most visitors make a bee-line for the ornate city hall and 13th Century Cloth Hall, located on the town’s vast shop, café and restaurant-lined Grote Markt main square. Located within the hall is the remarkably evocative In Flanders Fields hands-on Great War museum.
Bringing the whole experience to life, on entry you will be given a poppy bearing the identities of four characters – it could be a British French or German soldier, a Belgian housewife, a nurse or a child who might have perished or who survived and whose individual experience will be followed as you make your way through the dramatic displays.
Other Ypres museums well worth a visit include the Municipal Museum, the Knowledge Centre, the Belle Almshouse, the Education Museum, the Tobacco Museum, the Hooge Crater Museum and the Front Line Hooge Open Air Museum, which includes a bunker and traces of trenches.
Eating out in Ypres
As you’d expect in such a busy tourist town, there’s a wide selection of eating places in Ypres. Set in the Grote Markt, the atmospheric In’t Klein Stadhuis brasserie is a great place to sample a wide selection of local beers and culinary specialities, including the ubiquitous mussels and chips and an unctuous waterzooi stew – which comes in chicken and fish versions.
Ypres has a surfeit of cosy boutique hotels and B & B’s. The Best Western, Novotel and Ibis chains are also represented. Those who love history will enjoy the Great War themed Hotel O Ieper, just down a quiet side street off the market place. Military artefacts and khaki, brown and green toned walls, curtains, bed linen and accessories set the military mood.
But this town is not just about sadness and melancholy. Life, as they say, does go on; scars heal and Ypres has been magnificently re-built from the ground up. Matching Mediaeval grandeur with all the amenities of modern life, there are glitzy little boutiques to pulsating night spots and the thrills and laughter of the nearby Parc Bellewaerde fun park.
You’ll find mile upon mile of gloriously wide, fine, firm sands, running from the French border up to the broad Schelde estuary and the Dutch frontier. Queen of the many lively seaside resorts dotted along this stretch of North Sea coast is undoubtedly Ostend, which is connected with Dover by car ferry services – a route established in 1846 and now operated by DFDS.
With a population of 70,000 that more than doubles in season, Ostend is thoroughly modern and jam-packed with multi-storey hotels – nearly 100 of them – and holiday home apartment blocks including the light and airy Hotel Europe, just 100 metres from the casino and beach.
Rising like gigantic glowing rubies above the beach, the Rock Strangers are the spectacular metal monsters that have become icons for an Ostend reborn.
The town’s most famous resident was the world-famous symbolist artist James, Baron Ensor (1860-1949) and his home is well worth a visit. You can also enjoy a virtual reality digital walk, ‘The Scent Of Ostend’, hosted by the spirit of the great man himself. Self-exiled soul music superstar Marvin Gaye lived in Ostend from 1981 – recording the classic ‘Sexual Healing’ while there. The city offers a fascinating ‘Midnight Love’ guided walking tour for a great value 5€. Alternatively you can ride through town in a horse-drawn carriage. There’s lots to see and do, including the magnificent Mercator, moored in front of the city hall at the busy marina; the ornate 70-metre high neo-Gothic Sint-Petrus-en-Pauluskerk church and a coterie of fashionable upmarket stores and boutiques.
Returning to a military theme, you can visit the formidable Fort Napoleon, completed by the French emperor in 1811 to deter a feared invasion from across the Channel.
Belgium has the highest density of Michelin-star holding restaurants in the world – and there’s wonderful food at every level of the market. At Ostend’s excellent Bistro Mathilda sample local specialities such as freshly caught dabs, North Sea grey shrimps, Flemish beef stew and a tender 35 days dry-aged Rubbia Gallega escalope steak.
The history and traditions of France and Belgian Flanders are inextricably intertwined but there’s enough of a contrast – in cuisine, language and culture to add a frisson of excitement to even a brief cross-border visit.
Read about the French side of Flanders
Go to www.greatwarcentenary.be for further information about the WWI Centennial celebrations
Tourism Office information: www.visitflanders.com
Despite his French name, veteran globetrotting writer Roger St. Pierre is proudly British. He is, though, passionately Francophile and has been to every one of France’s 94 metropolitan departments.