Sunday in Belgium started out much as Saturday had, with a lovely breakfast outside at the B&B, chatting happily away with each other and with Ilse and Wim. It was a warm day, sunny but not as hot – it only got up to 29C – which made it a good day to walk around.
When Fran and Veerle came to collect us we piled into the car and headed off toward Bruges, where we did a fair amount of walking around. See how that works, kids? That’s called foreshadowing.
There was a time when Bruges (Brugge in Dutch) was one of the world’s most important port cities. During the medieval period it was a center of the Flemish cloth trade and ships from as far as Genoa would put in for trade. This all came to a gradual end as the channel connecting the city to the sea silted up, and the city eventually fell into the shadow of Antwerp. It was largely spared the destruction of the 20th-century world wars, though, and it retains much of its original fabric.
We drove into town and had a good look around as we headed for the old part of the city. When we emerged from the parking garage we found ourselves in the middle of what felt like the biggest flea market on earth, one that stretched for hundreds of miles in either direction and which featured a vast and inexhaustible array of entertaining things to look at and purchase. Naturally we had to stop there for a while and explore.
There were just. So. Many. Things. But we were limited by the fact that everything purchased would have to be hauled across the several large bodies of water under the watchful eyes of the Airline Baggage Weight Measuring People, so the big things were carefully examined before being put back down. Tabitha and Lauren ended up buying pins, though – old ones that they’re probably not going to find examples of here in the New World, which was sort of the point I guess. They were pretty snazzy pins.
From there we set out to wander the streets of Bruges.
It's a gorgeous city to wander around in.
It is also an expensive city, though, since it is in many ways geared toward tourists such as ourselves. At one point we stopped at a little stand and got a glass of lemonade that cost five euros. In fairness, though, it was really good lemonade.
In that same little market plaza there was also this stand.
Yes, I know that the French actually translates as “The Daily Bread,” but that’s not how I read it. To me as an English speaker it looks like it says, “The Pain of Everyday Life,” which somehow seems quietly accepting of the ills of the world in a Stoic sort of way. It appealed to me on a very basic level.
We passed by a magnificent church – Sint-Salvatorskathedraal – which we admired from the outside, and eventually we made our way to the main market plaza in the old city, which was lovely and had a very large belfry at one end so you knew you were in Flanders. We didn’t go inside the actual tower, but we did wander into the interior courtyard which was both vast and filled with bleacher seating for an upcoming event of some kind.
While we figured out what to do next we stopped into a convenience store for drinks – a running theme throughout our time in Europe, really – and then wandered across the street to the souvenir shop.
I have reached the point where I don’t really need much in the way of souvenirs from places, having acquired enough Stuff in my life, but everywhere I travel I like to pick up a keychain with something clearly identifiable about that place on it. We use them as Christmas ornaments. Someday we will have a Christmas tree decorated with nothing but reminders of places we’ve been, people we’ve visited, and things we’ve seen. It’s not a radical goal, but I like it. I got my keychain.
By this time we were hungry for lunch and, remembering a string of nice little places that we’d walked past to get to the market plaza, we headed back the way we’d come until we found a restaurant that we liked. It was an Italian restaurant, and here we ran into our first real difficulty regarding tree nuts, namely that the waiter spoke only Italian (which meant our carefully prepared cards in Dutch, French, Spanish, and Latvian were pretty useless and the few words I remembered from my grandparents and from the year I spent not really learning the language in college did nothing to help either) and even when we managed to get the point across to him he didn’t really seem to understand it very well. Eventually, after much back and forth and at least one exasperated comment from a fellow diner across the courtyard (who couldn’t believe the waiter didn’t understand after all that), we worked out that it was safe to eat there and we ordered.
The food turned out to be both tasty and non-lethal. Veerle also said that for being in the heart of the tourist region of Bruges it was actually not that expensive, so win all around.
One of the things you really must do in Bruges is go for a canal boat tour, so that was our next stop.
First we had to get there, of course, which meant another walk through the town. Tabitha’s quest was to find chocolate somewhere – anywhere – in Europe that did not have nuts in it. Belgium is full of chocolate shops. Apparently the idea of making chocolate without nuts has not made it to mainstream Europe yet, however – she would have to wait until we got to Cornwall to find such chocolate – but it was worth looking since it took us into a lot of really great-smelling shops.
Eventually we found a little overlook by the canal so we knew we were on the right path.
It’s actually easy to find the canal when you get right down to it, since it’s pretty much everywhere you look and the medieval part of the city isn’t that big. It would be hard not to find the canal, in fact. That’s one of the nice things about the place.
We bought our tickets and went down to the dock.
The boat tours make a loop up and down the canal, heading up to a certain point before turning around and going back down the way they came past where you got on to another point where they turn around again and head back to your dock. They’re low-slung craft with seats along both sides and the middle, and they cruise along at a pace slow enough for the guides to get their stories out without rushing. Our guide kept up a constant stream of stories in Dutch, French, and a curiously working-class-accented British English, and it was interesting to hear the chuckles spread around the boat as the jokes came across in the languages people understood.
It’s really a great ride, if a bit splashy, and you can wave at the other boats as they go by. They wave at you, after all.
Those bridges are really, really low.
Afterward we found the chicken, because of course we did.
At this point it became clear that there were divergent interests, and we split up. Lauren and Fran returned to the flea market, where we met them later. Tabitha, Veerle, and I went to the Groeningemuseum, which was a relatively small art museum featuring Flemish art from the medieval period through to the present, some of which is very well known to those who know art.
I think Tabitha got more out of it than I did, really, as she is an artist and spent a lot of time looking at the various works and analyzing their techniques and so on. Me, I just kept looking at the medieval paintings and wondering why the Baby Jesus always looked like a middle-aged New York City cab driver who’d just been stiffed for a fare.
Yes, I know. Art is kind of lost on me. You don’t have to tell me again. But it was interesting, so I considered it an hour or so well spent.
Eventually we met up with the flea marketeers and wandered around the market again as the vendors closed up.
The great irony of all of this, it turns out, is that less than 48 hours later some very good friends of ours from Our Little Town here in Wisconsin were in Bruges. No, we weren’t going to try to catch up with them in Belgium. We can see them here in Wisconsin. At some point soon, though, we will gather together to talk about our trips, and won’t that be a time?
Having had our day in Bruges we went back to the car and headed toward Ieper.
In the United States, Ieper (pronounced EE-per) is usually referred to by its French name: Ypres. There are a lot of towns in that corner of the world that have both Dutch and French names, a legacy of centuries of shifting borders and the fortunes of battles that few remember anymore, but if you know anything about twentieth-century history the name Ypres has a resonance to it that few other places do.
World War I was a brutal and bloody conflict, and the Battle of Ypres – which lasted, more or less, for the entire run of the war – was one of the worst examples of that. Historians often divide the battle into five smaller battles, and depending on what estimate you take there were something like a million casualties in total at Ypres. Probably more. We don’t know. For most of the war these casualties went for nothing. The Battle of Passchendaele – sometimes simply the Third Battle of Ypres – cost between 400,000 and 800,000 casualties for a net change in the front lines measured in meters. These are the Flanders fields referred to in the famous poem, after all.
If you want to understand the horror and futility of trench warfare and what it means to fight an industrial war of attrition, you can do no better than to study Ypres. There were infantry charges, poison gas attacks, sapping assaults where huge tunnels were dug beneath enemy lines, filled with explosives, and then detonated, and vast artillery barrages, mostly to no lasting or marked change in things until the very end of the war. When I teach WWI in my Western Civ class, one of the statistics that I like to throw at my students is the fact that during the course of the war the two sides fired roughly a thousand artillery shells for every square meter of ground in Ypres. Think about that – hold your hands that far apart, first sideways and then up and down, and imagine 1000 artillery shells exploding in that space. Now imagine living there.
This is what the city looked like when the war ended.
Ypres is a place that quiets you down and makes you think.
This is a good thing.
It’s been rebuilt now, of course. You can walk around the town and see people going about their lives, and there’s a message there if you listen for it.
Our first stop was actually an art installation outside of town, not far from Hill 60, one of the key pieces of land in the battle. It’s an interesting piece – a giant clay egg out of which tumble thousands of more or less spherical clay things – each one from a mold, representing a soldier of the Great War. They crowd-sourced the small clay things, and Veerle actually made a few of them. There’s also a small covered area with dog tags representing the soldiers who died there.
On the path back to the parking lot they have these iron plates in the ground. The one in the foreground of this photo is where the German front lines were in December 1914, not long after the war started. If you click on the picture to make it bigger, you can see down the path someone standing on the right side wearing a light shirt and dark shorts. That’s where the British front lines were at the same time. It takes less than two minutes to walk that distance today.
Perhaps the most striking monument to all of this is the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in central Ypres. Built by the British and finished in 1927, it is a monument dedicated to the British and Commonwealth soldiers who died at Ypres without graves. It’s a massive thing – until you get right up on it you really don’t understand how big it is – and it is entirely covered in names, each one a soldier, each one without a grave.
What’s really amazing about the monument is that it is not just a static pile of stone. Every evening since 1928 there is a ceremony that takes place. At 8pm buglers close down the road that runs underneath the Gate and sound “Last Post.” We didn’t stay for it – there were seven or eight tour buses parked behind the Gate and we needed to go home for dinner – but there it is.
Of course, you can’t have just that – Ypres is a living place too, and where there is life there is enjoyment. That is how it should be.
Lauren spent a some time there working on her quest for Instagram-worthy photos. Tabitha had chocolate, Lauren had Instagram. Or Snapchat. One or the other. Hey – I’m old and technologically antiquated. I cannot be expected to keep all that straight. But it was fun to watch the girls work on her project.
We drove back to Wevelgem and had a lovely light supper of cheese, sausage and crackers – what we often refer to as “Swedish Breakfast” when we have it for dinner in Wisconsin – and sat around the table once again, sharing the day’s events and discussing the differences in driving between the US and Belgium. There are many, it turns out.
It was a relatively early night, though, for the next day would arrive a lot more quickly than the last.