Flemish city in the spotlight for centenary of the Armistice

The centenary of the “end of all wars” is fast approaching and the Flemish town of Ypres will be at the centre of international commemorations.

Some 25,000 visitors from all over the world are expected to descend on Ypres on 11 November, the centenary of the end of WW1.

But the commemorations actually start two days sooner, on 9 November, with a dedication service at the town’s famous Menin Gate through which tens of thousands of soldiers passed on their way to the frontline, many never to return.

Later on Friday, a specially-commissioned art installation will open in Ypres' Astridpark.

As happens every day, the Last Post will then sound at the Menin Gate promptly at 8pm.

On Saturday, a “remembrance walk”, or WW1 walking tour, starts at 8am while on Sunday, Armistice Day, the centenary commemorations commence as early as 6am when a lone piper plays “Battle o’er” at Menin Gate, where a huge memorial lists the names of 54,896 soldiers reported missing during the Ypres Salient between the outbreak of war and 15 August 1917.

Interest in the various events, spread over three days, has been so great that most accommodation in the region was snapped up long ago.

The world’s attention will be focused on the town and wider West Westhoek region, a patchwork of polders and hills.

Any visit here should include a couple of must-see museums, including the In Flanders Fields Museum, located at the centre of the town.

Opened in 1998, it tells the story of life and death in Westhoek during 1914-18. The museum makes use of the latest advances in museum technology showing – as much as is possible that is – what life at the front was really like.

On arrival, every visitor is issued a personal “poppy” bracelet. A chip in the bracelet allows you to follow the personal stories of four individuals through the different sections of the museum. A series of aerial photos compare the present-day topography with the devastation of the war years (some 600,000 men were killed in the immediate area alone during WW1).

You can also climb the belfry tower for a unique view of the area.

Many of those visiting Ypres like to try and trace any relatives killed in the war and the museum’s research centre gives you the chance to do a family search.

The number of German deaths in WW1 is sometimes overlooked and a grave containing 21 German soldiers was recently excavated in Wijtschate. The men were  buried where they fell. An excavated coffin and the personal objects of six German soldiers will be on display in the museum from January.

Another excellent visitor attraction is the Ypres Museum in the town’s majestic Cloth Hall, which only opened in July.

Here you can relive ten centuries of Ypres (Ieper in Flemish) and how people in what was once one of the most prosperous cities in Europe used to live.

Children and young people sometimes shy away from museums but they too will also enjoy it her, not least thanks to a wristband with a cat’s paw which makes their visit particularly playful.

While much attention will be on the Ypres this week the town and surrounding area makes for a good visit at any time of the year and a convenient base for a short stay is Gasthof ‘T Zweerd, located in the shadow of the Cloth Hall, which itself has an interesting history and this year celebrates its own anniversary.

The hotel, which can accommodate up to 90 people, had (like Ypres after the end of the war) fallen into very serious decay until the current owner, Paul Hullak, took over in 1983. After significant investment, Paul and his wife Isabelle, both Flemish, have overseen a major redevelopment. There is now a breakfast room seating 40, a bar and terrace overlooking Ypres' ever-bustling town square (location for a popular Saturday market).

The hotel is also the venue for live music on the second  Friday of every month.

This year, the couple celebrate the 35th anniversary at the hotel.

If you’re travelling with kids, one other place you should try to visit is Bellewaerde, a popular theme and animal park. It’s full of kid-friendly attractions  and provides for some light relief amidst the sombre reminders of war. Beware that it's now closed until Easter for its annual "clean up."

As ever, in this area you’re never far from the war "theme" and, almost next door to the park is Hooge Crater Museum, on the site of one of the fiercest battlefields of Ypres, and opposite the Hooge Crater Cemetery, a unique WW1 museum housed in a converted church.

After WW1 walking tours, museum and theme park visits, a good place to satisfy your hunger is New Regina, located back in the centre of Ypres.

With great views, this is yet another establishment here that’s been given a new lease of life.

It too fell into very bad disrepair and, according to head chef Gregory Degraeve was burdened by a “bad name” until being taken over by Roger Verschaeve, a former Flemish professional cyclist.

After being given an extensive renovation, the restaurant (attached to a hotel of the same name) reopened earlier this year and has proved a big hit with locals and Ypres’ many overseas visitors who flock here throughout the year.

It serves a classic Belgo-French cuisine in relaxed surroundings and very affordable prices.

Gregory, 33, actually used to work here before as a sous chef and is amazed at the transformation overseen by Verschaeve, adding, “My grandfather was a big fan of his so it’s a special pleasure for me to now work for him.”

This week’s historic WW1 commemorations round off a four-year spell marking the war’s centenary but, of course, things do not stop in Ypres after this weekend’s events.

For the past few years, the Royal British Legion has planted thousands of red artificial poppies in a field next to the Menin Gate and the poppy field will stay in place to visit until the end of this year.

Another great reason to visit Ypres is the annual Christmas market from 24 November to 6 January.

The joy of Christmas takes over but this is a town where the huge sacrifices of the war dead will never be forgotten.

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Martin Banks

Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a highly qualified journalist with many years experience of working within the EU institutions. He is an occasional, and highly valued, contributor to EU today, writing on a wide variety of issues.

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