by Dave Allan-Petale
Ypres in Belgium is Europe’s newest medieval town. That may sound like an oxymoron, but it’s true. The town was razed to the ground by the violence of World War I and then rebuilt, brick by painstaking brick, until its historic glory was restored.
The Menin Gate war memorial is one of Ypres’ highlights, as is the haunting Flanders Fields Museum in the historic Cloth Hall, which was almost totally destroyed by shelling before being rebuilt.
Ypres itself is focused around the Market Square which has scores of restaurants and bars looking out over the cobblestones. The Cloth Hall and Menin Gate war memorial are lit at night and an evening stroll through the city’s streets is a great way to admire the architecture (after a few Belgian beers of course!).
We stayed in a B&B called Demi Lune which is run by a local family. One of the owners, Peter, told me how his great grandfather and grandfather were involved in the reconstruction of the town after the war, and pictures of them are proudly displayed on the hotel’s perfectly restored walls.
Demi Lune is a short walk from the action on the Market Square and very good value for money. We paid 81 Euros for one night in a twin room (including cooked breakfast). There is free wi-fi and lots of information available on local attractions including cycling tours of the World War I battlefields.
The bathrooms are an interesting feature. They are ensuite style, but sit inside the bedroom shielded by low walls, sort of like an open plan office with partitions. I’ve never seen this style of room before and Peter explained it was the best way to preserve the character of the historic house. Fair enough considering what it took to rebuild the place!
On our way out from Ypres we went to two historic places. The first was at the site of an old church in the town of Passendale, which saw vicious fighting in 1917. Beneath the church is a dugout, a type of bunker sunk deep into the soil to protect it from shelling. What a nightmare it must have been to live down there.
We then drove to Hill 62, a place thousands of Canadians soldiers died defending. There is a restored trench system you can walk inside to get a true sense of what it must have been like on the Western Front. The Sanctuary Wood Museum is run by a man who has found a ridiculous amount of detritus from the war and put it on display. World War I may be nearly 100 years ago but in Flanders Fields it’s still very much a daily part of life. It’s a fascinating place I will definitely be returning to.