A Brief Encounter with Ypres
With Wimbledon underway and England already on the plane home from Rio, so our attention turns to the next great summer sporting spectacle – the Tour de France. There’s already been much hype about the imminent Grand Départ from Yorkshire, taking in the cities of Leeds, Harrogate, York and Sheffield, before snaking its way down to Cambridge and then into London, prior to crossing the channel and hitting French soil. Yet did you know it only stays in France for one day before heading across the border to the Belgian town of Ypres?
Ypres (or Ieper in Flemish) was founded on the cloth trade in the Middle Ages, but it is most commonly known for its role in the First World War. Occupied by the German army for just one night, on 14 October 1914, Ypres fell under the control of Allied Forces when some five million British and Commonwealth soldiers passed through here on their way to the fierce battles of the Salient. As a mark of remembrance for the centenary of the Great War, the peloton sets off from this attractive Flemish town on Wednesday, 9th July with an informal departure from the Grote Markt before officially getting underway at 2pm from the French military ceremony, Saint-Charles de Potyze.
Reduced to rubble as a result of the constant bombardment, Ypres has since been fully restored, from the picturesque chocolate box houses to the majestic Cloth Hall in the centre of the Grote Markt. Today the Cloth Hall plays host to the In Flanders Fields Museum, where visitors can experience many different accounts of the war through original films of wartime Ypres, extracts from the songs sung by the boys in the fields, stories and an impressive collection of private letters and telegrams donated by families who lost loved ones in the fields of Flanders. (Please note the museum will be closed on Wednesday, 9th July).
Originally a medieval gateway to the town, the Menin Gate was also rebuilt and is perhaps the most famous Commonwealth memorial in Flanders. Indeed since its grand unveiling in 1927, the Last Post has been played in front of this memorial every night, bar a short intermission during World War II, a touching and poignant reminder of the lives once lost. If you’ve got the time, Ypres is also an excellent location for exploring other Great War sites of Western Flanders such as the Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world, and the town of Poperinge where soldiers came to rest behind the front line, particularly Talbot House, known as Toc H after the army signal code used in the war.
Incredibly easy to get to as a self-drive short break from Calais, Ypres is also readily accessible via the train as well, taking just one hour, 40 minutes direct from Brussels Midi and just over an hour from Ghent (with a brief change in Kortrijk). Perfect as a day trip from the Belgian capital, or even as a part of a multi-centre Belgian break.