The poem “In Flanders Fields” used for Remembrance/Memorial Day was written by a Canadian soldier after the death of his friend/fellow soldier in Belgium during battle in Ypres. Today we got our rental car and explored the northern half of Belgium – known as Flanders – to visit some of the war memorials and museums scattered throughout the area.
If you have interest in World War I history, Belgium is the place to visit as most of the Western Front warfare occurred here (ie. the 700 km of trenches dug during the war that went from Belgium to Switzerland). So much so that farmers throughout the country continue to find remains of army equipment, weaponry, and even human remains as well as mines.
We went to Ypres first and visited the “In Flanders Fields” museum:
This museum took us through the WWI years and some of the most brutal events of war, such as the first ever use of chemical warfare (using poison gas in Ypres that killed all living life immediately on contact) and the years of devastating stagnant trench warfare (where enemies hid in trenches only 10 meters away from one another, living in filthy conditions with constant gunfire and fear of attack).
One of the most interesting and touching things we learned is that during this time of trench warfare, Christmas came and soldiers from both sides of the war stopped fighting for the day. They sang carols to each other from one trench to the other, and even threw over fruits and cigarettes. It was such a concept to understand – of respecting humanity one day and turning on your enemy the next.
Ypres itself was completely flattened by warfare and entirely rebuilt in the post- war years. The citizens chose to restore it to its old style and architecture, leaving the city looking untouched.
The Menin gate is also in Ypres, paying tribute to lost soldiers whose bodies were never found. It lists over 54 000 names of Commonwealth soldiers on its walls:
On a sillier note to lighten things up, the city of Ypres is known as “cat city”. There are cartoon-like cat statues throughout the city and they host a cat festival every year. Since cats back in the day were thought to bring bad luck, the festival was hosted to bring good luck to the city by throwing living cats off the bell tower every year. Nowadays they just throw down a velvet cat, and if you catch it then you are in for some good luck!
With everything being so close in Belgium, we ended up driving through the small town of Passendale which was one of the major WWI Canadian battlefields. We drove down the street named after Canada (Canadalaan) which ended at a memorial to the Canadian troops that helped win the battle at Passendale.
We finished our day in the north by driving up to the coast, to the “posh” coastal town of Ostend where miles of beaches can be found!
Beer of the Day: Flanders is also home to a trappist brewery that is said to have the best beer in the world: St. Sixtus in Westvleteren.
Westvleteren is one of the most difficult beers to get your hands on ($40 per bottle at home if you can find it). They have a hotline you can call to reserve beer, but the demand is extremely high. We were told at the brewery that they get 1000 callers each day and only 4 get through to order a crate. Though our calls failed, we stopped at the brewery and managed to get our hands on a few at and have a sample as well!
Fun fact: There are only 10 trappist breweries in the world and Belgium is home to 6. What is a trappist brew? It is one that is brewed on a monastery by the monks according to old tradition; they adhere to strict rules and only make enough beer to fund the day-to-day running of the monastery. Once they reach that level there is no more beer for sale.
The In Flanders Fields Museum is located in Ypres an is a great way to remember and learn about the war. It is a personalized museum in which you get a wristband that will activate and personalize exhibits to your demographic. The cost is 9€ for adults, 5€ for youth, and 4€ for children. There is also the option to climb the bell tower for a view of the surrounding areas (worth it).
Westvleteren Sint Sixus is very exclusive and the monks can only sell enough beer to fund the operations of the monastery, thus the beer is limited in supply. In order to buy a case of their beer you need to call in advance to arrange a pick up. See their website for more information. There are also many other breweries in this region. I would recommend you call in advance to see if you need an appointment as not all of them have an open tasting room.