Picturesque Brugge and sobering Flanders

Trip Start Oct 17, 2011
Trip End May 22, 2012

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Flag of Belgium  , West Flanders,
Monday, April 30, 2012

April 30-May 5: It's amazing: you can cross the English Channel underwater in just a half-hour. The Eurostar train departed Ashford International station at about 7:30 a.m., and after short stops in Calais and Lille, France, arrived in Brussels, Belgium, an hour-and-a-half later. Way better than flying!

I hopped on an inter-city train and arrived before noon in Brugge, more commonly known as Bruges. I learned that Bruges is the city’s name in French, and this is most certainly not the French-speaking part of Belgium; rather, it’s Flemish, so the locals prefer Brugge.

I arranged a small-bus tour of Flanders for the following day. The guide, Philippe, was full of knowledge about his native region and the impact World War I had (and continues to have) on it. We visited several battlefields, cemeteries, memorials, a dugout and trench system, pill-boxes or bunkers, a museum and the city of Ieper (Ypres in French). I learned so much about the war, much more than I did from high-school history classes – or maybe it’s because I’m more interested now and paid attention. The area of the province of Flanders that we toured was known in the war as the Ypres Salient, meaning the bulge in the Western Front line between the Allies and the Germans around the city of Ieper, which was of utmost importance to both sides. Germany wanted to capture it and move on to take the coastal towns in order to prevent more Allied forces from crossing the Channel to get to the front. Many significant battles were fought in this area, around Passchendaele, Damme, Ieper and Messines, and thousands and thousands of lives were lost on both sides.
The Brooding Soldier monument to Canadian soldiers sits near a junction that was called Vancouver Corner. Many bodies were never identified, but they are not forgotten. The Menin Gate Memorial is the largest of six memorials, with 55,000 names of missing soldiers. Still today, a Last Post ceremony is held here every evening. Belgians remain grateful to the Allied countries.

Farmers today are still – a hundred years later – finding ammunition and other war detritus in their fields, and even bodies are still occasionally uncovered. Demarcation stones still mark the spots of furthest German advance. They read: "Here the enemy was stopped."

Ieper was virtually obliterated during the war, due to constant bombardment; after the war, the decision was made to rebuild in the same style, so the buildings appear a few hundred years older than they are. Funding for the reconstruction came from Germany.

At a dressing station where Canadian doctor John McCrae worked, there is a plaque about him. Philippe ended the tour by reading out John McCrae’s poem, In Flanders Fields. McCrae died in his early 40s, in 1918, of a lung infection. He had discarded his poem, but a friend found it. Poppies grow wild here, but they’re late blooming this year. Wish I could have seen them.

On a lighter note, I went on the other tour offered by Philippe and his Australian wife Sharon, called Triple Treat. Besides seeing more of the Flanders countryside and learning about its history and economy, we sampled three Belgian “delicacies” – waffles, chocolate and beer.

Spoken Flemish is a dialect of Dutch. Written and schoolroom Flemish is standard Dutch. Flemish is the language of Flanders in northern Belgium; French and Flemish are official languages of Brussels; and French is the language of Wallonia in southern Belgium. I didn’t know that!

All this, and I haven’t even mentioned yet the picturesque and popular city of Brugge itself. I loved it – the stepped fašade architecture, canals, cobblestone streets, narrow alleys, neat and trim houses, a wonderful place for strolling. I also met two nice Flemish women at a vegetarian/organic restaurant. I wouldn’t have minded staying longer here, but my trip is winding down. On to Brussels.

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