Our first visit to Ypres - a whistlestop visit for a meal and the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate - took place during the All Quiet on the Western Front tour in October 2008, and it was clear to us straight away that this was a special place.
Due to its location at the heart of the British efforts during WWI, Ypres WWI, Ypres – known locally as Ieper – is absolutely steeped in history from that period, and is surrounded on three sides by reminders of the battles that took place in and around the Salient during the four years that this small city was, effectively, under siege.
The cemeteries and battlefield sites around Ypres are numerous, but the city itself has three unmissables which can be included in a day trip:
The newly renovated museum, situated in the old Cloth Hall (rebuilt in the ‘30s after being shelled to oblivion in ’14-’18) is a superb combination of traditional artefacts-exhibiting museum and modern touchscreen, multimedia presentations which tell the story of the war from a number of different perspectives.
On entry you’re given a wristband which activates different aspects of the exhibitions to bring to life the wartime experiences of various participants, including soldiers, local civilians, nurses etc. Well worth a visit, and you can easily spend a full morning in this atmospheric old place.
Now it’s time for a visit to the one of the handful of excellent cafes/bars in and around the Grote Markt.
We’ve been lucky enough to visit a couple of times in dry weather, at which time there’s no better way to spend an hour sitting outside on the terraces and sampling the local speciality – a huge bowl of fresh mussels in white wine sauce with Belgian fries. Best for this are the two eateries nearest the museum – In T’Klein Stadhuis and Den Anker, but there are a number of other venues further up the square when these two inevitably fill up during busy periods.
Best option if you’re just in need of a beer is The Old Bill pub just a couple of minutes’ walk down Sint-Jacobsstraat.
Our afternoon dose of history would then include a look at the Menin Gate – you need to visit during daytime to get close enough to read the names on the Memorial to the Missing – a staggering 54,389 in total. Following this, a walk round the ramparts is a must, taking you from the Menin Gate to the now peaceful and atmospheric Ramparts Ceremony overlooking the Lille Gate.
In the evening, there is only one place to be in Ypres – the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate. Now massively popular, this has taken place at 8pm every day since 1928. The number of tourists visiting for the Great War centenary now means you’ll be lucky to get within earshot of the ceremony itself, and as with most public events these days the likelihood is you’ll only be able to see a sea of camera phones being held up front of you… but persevere, it really is worth it (unless you get surrounded by a particularly noisy and disrespectful school party, but that’s another story). And if you are stuck at the back, and you’re a bit on the short side like me, and can’t see what’s going on… you can always take a look at some of the hundreds of clips on YouTube recorded by the very camera phones which blocked your view when you were actually at the event. Oh, the irony.
So, that’s Ypres. After the Last Post, if you’re lucky enough to be staying in Ypres for the night, then the restaurants and bars are the place to be…. but here’s a tip – it helps to have more than 5 Euros in your wallet… More on that at a later date...