Every day a service to honour the thousands who made the ultimate sacrifice in the First World War takes place in Ypres, a Belgian town with a big heart and a lot more besides
It's just before 8pm and the crowds lining both sides of the street stand with heads bowed. Buglers, dressed in the uniform of the local fire brigade, stand stiffly to attention, the raindrops dripping from the peaks of their caps. Somewhere in the nearby town a clock chimes to signal the top of the hour and the buglers march forward, stop abruptly and slam their highly polished boots into the ground before playing the Last Post. As the final notes drift heavenward they mix with the audible prayers of many of those, of all nationalities, gathered below the magnificent Menin Gate Memorial at Ypres.
However, this isn’t an annual service of remembrance. Every evening since 1928, at precisely 8pm, the traffic is stopped and officers from the local fire brigade play the Last Post in honour of the forces of the British Empire who fought there. The only time since 1928 that the ceremony hasn’t taken place was during the Second World War when the occupying German forces prohibited it. However, on September 6, 1944, the very day of liberation, despite some heavy fighting still taking place around the town, the service resumed and has continued 365 days a year since.
The Menin Gate Memorial was built as a tribute to the soldiers of the British Commonwealth, other than those from New Zealand and Newfoundland, who fell at Ypres and the surrounding Belgium countryside, during the First World War. Those named on the vast memorial died before August 16, 1914 and have no known grave. Those that died after that date, along with those from New Zealand and Newfoundland, have their own dedicated memorial elsewhere.
Occasionally, even today, remains are discovered, identified and reburied in marked graves at one of the many war cemeteries around the region. Then, the name of the soldier is quietly removed from the Menin Memorial. However, the seemingly endless list of names pays silent testament to the thousands of soldiers who died during what was a bloody, if needless, war. The streets leading to and from the Menin Gate Memorial are filled with shops selling First World War books, mementos and even items of uniform.
The town is also famous for its magnificent Cloth Hall which was originally built as far back as the 13th century. Sadly, the intense fighting of two wars all but destroyed the original building which was, by all accounts, one of the largest of its type in the Middle Ages. However, it has been faithfully restored including its belfry which houses 49 bells.
At the rear of the Cloth Hall stands Saint Martin’s Church which was also originally built in the early 13th century. It, too, has been faithfully restored in all its Gothic glory after suffering massive damage during the wars.
Getting to Ypres is pretty easy. From British shores it’s no more than a two hour leisurely drive from the Channel Tunnel. The town has a lovely square in front of the Cloth Hall where families gather at the many pavement cafés and bistros on summer evenings.
Where to stay
We stayed at the Novotel Leper Centrum (Ypres is also known as Leper in, I think, Flemish). The hotel is a modern 122-room 3-star hotel close to the town centre. The Menin Gate is less than a five minute walk away. Car parking was difficult and, in fact, I parked on a side street a few blocks away. The hotel, at St Jacobsstreet 15 is all you would expect of a bright, modern hotel with a good restaurant.
Other hotels worth considering include The Albion Hotel, also on St Jacobsstreet, which a number of people I spoke to, who visit regularly, claimed to be the best in town. Hotel Regina, Grote Markt 45, Ypres, near the Cloth Hall looked to be a nice hotel too. I enjoyed a drink at the bar and, although I didn’t see the rooms, guests I spoke to seemed overall generally pleased with the hotel.
Eating and drinking
Restaurant De Waterpoort, at Brugseweg 43, just a short walk from the Cloth Hall, was a delight, if a little expensive with mains ranging from 18 to 30 euro. Add on wine, starters and sweets and it gets a little expensive perhaps but the food really is first class. There are lots of seafood dishes on the extensive menu coupled with some traditional Flemish dishes with a twist or two, including rabbit with plums and meatballs in a rich chicory flavoured sauce. The ambience is pleasant and this is a classy restaurant I certainly hope to visit again in the future.
Ter Posterie, Rijselsestraat 57 is a cheaper option offering traditional basic Flemish fare at very reasonable prices (six to 18 euro for salads and snacks). They also serve wonderful mussels when in season and offer a range of nice steaks.
If you are a beer drinker you simply can’t go wrong in Ypres which boasts a huge range of beers on tap at the many bars and cafés around the town centre. The locals seemed to prefer Poperings Hommelbier, which is a bit on the strong side by all accounts. The Belgians apparently produce more than 500 different varieties of beer in a wide variety of breweries from huge international concerns to tiny microbreweries.
Chocolate is another national obsession, with Belgian chocolate considered to be the very best there is. Chocolate is, in fact, one of Belgium’s main exports particularly to the US and Japan. Visitors to Ypres can certainly gorge themselves on the vast range of top quality chocolate that is still handmade at the many small chocolate shops in the town.
All in all Ypres offers a great venue for a weekend break or as a base for those wishing to tour the many battlefields and war cemeteries around the region. It’s certainly a town that has never forgotten its debt to the thousands who perished in the fight for freedom.