Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Ypres - a City of Peace

Our Easter trip was a bit of an odd combination of the serious and the silly.  We started with visits to some war memorials and ended with two days of drinking Champagne.  After taking the EuroTunnel to France we drove on to stay overnight in the Belgium town of Ieper, also know by the French name Ypres.  We were only there for a short time.  But, I definitely want to return and explore the fascinating history of the area in more detail.  

Ypres is a charming Belgian town with cobblestone streets and medieval spires surrounding a welcoming central square.  At first glance, you would never know that this picturesque town was completely decimated during World War I.   For four years between 1914 and 1918, this city was on the front line, surrounded by Germans on three sides and defended by French and British forces. 

This region was the scene for some of the bloodiest battles in history.  Ypres sustained four years of concentrated warfare and constant bombardment.  This is also the place where chemical warfare was used for the very first time.  Another name for Mustard Gas is Yperite because this is where is was first used in 1917.   Ypres and the surrounding area is dotted with museums, memorials, cemeteries and battlefields.  

But, that isn't the end of the story.  After this city was left a pile of rubble, the people returned and brick by brick restored their city to its former glory.  Some said it should just be left as it was, a dark memorial to a devastating war.  But, the inhabitants didn't have time to debate the issue.  They wanted their home back. 

The Cloth Hall in the photo above was originally built in the 13th century.  In the medieval period, it was one of the most important international centers of the cloth trade in Europe.  It was rebuilt as close to its original design as possible.  It is now home to the In Flanders Fields Museum.

This museum tells the story of the Great War using the faces and voices of real people.  It's a state-of-the-art interactive museum.  Admission is 8 euros and the poppy bracelet is one additional euro.  You use the poppy bracelet to access personal stories throughout the the museum that are selected based on your age. 

Walking through the museum is a very moving experience.  They've done an impressive job of pulling together museum pieces, photographs, paraphernalia, weapons, uniforms, music, literature, poetry, maps and video to tell an incredible story from many different angles. 

As you leave, you pass under red and white banners that list every single war across the globe.  The museum shares the human experience of war with the mission of preventing it from happening over and over. 

I was also very proud to find a special exhibit dedicated to the role that America and Herbert Hoover played in feeding and providing for the people of war torn Belgium through the Commission for Relief in Belgium.  The CRB fed thousands Belgians through their volunteer work. 

On the site of an old medieval gate, there now stands the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing which opened in 1927.  More than half a million Allied soldiers died in this area during World War I.  This gate is in memory of those whose bodies were never found.  The gate is covered in panel after panel containing the names of 54,896 British and Commonwealth soldiers that died in the Ypres Salient between the start of the war and August of 1917.  The massive structure is covered on every side in names and it still isn't big enough to hold them all.  An additional 34,000 who perished after that date are recorded elsewhere. 

Every evening at 8pm since the monument opened, buglers from the local fire brigade and the Last Post Committee play the "Last Post" in a traditional final salute to the fallen

The stories of Ypres from not even 100 years ago draw you in once you start exploring them.  So many voices from the past can be heard if you listen closely.  The Ypres that you visit today is a beautiful European town.  But, they haven't forgotten the stories of their past and are determined to share them so that we never forget.  Ypres is now known as a "City of Peace."

Our next stop... Luxembourg.  


  1. Move over, Rick Steves! Selena, your posts and gorgeous photos make me feel like I am walking through these historic places with you. Thank you so much for all the time and effort that goes into perfecting your accounts of your travels and the day to day experiences of living abroad. I fret if I can't get to a computer to catch up with your expat adventures!

  2. Kate, I cried when I read this yesterday. It's really so sweet for you to say. I was really needing the encouragement this week, so thank you so much! xoxo

  3. What a fantastic post! We didn't get to see enough when we visited the region (we learned the hard way that much of France is closed on Sundays) but I will definitely go back to Dunkirk and Ypres after reading this.

  4. I guess I just made it sound like Ypres is in France - I didn't mean to! It is just that our war time tour kind of turned into something else because everything was closed. We landed up turning around and going to Lille instead that day.

  5. I've never been to Ypres but your post and photos really make me want to visit. My daughter went last year for a school trip and really enjoyed it. Really interesting reading here and a great review of the place!

  6. Your pictures are amazing! I hadn't heard of Ypres (yikes), but I will certainly add it to my list of cities I need to visit (just like every place you blog about and take pictures of haha!)

  7. Ypres really was a pleasant surprise. I'm so enchanted with all of the places you are visiting! I read about how you are feeling with the move pending. I'm sure it will be bittersweet. Transition is always so tough. Have a great time with your mom & sister!!! xoxo

  8. I never heard of Ypres but it seems such a nice place. And the idea of the poppy bracelet is just awesome! (just out of curiosity do you have to give them back?)
    The LadyBug


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