Godfrey Hall is an award-winning UK based travel journalist and member of the British Guild of Travel Writers. He has been in search of elves in Iceland, traveled to the depths of central Australia and been off the beaten track in Bulgaria.

Whilst the D-Day landing sites and cemeteries of France are well known, there are many cemeteries remembering the fallen of the Great War to be found in Belgium around Westhoek, not far from the French border. While sometimes windswept and bleak in the winter months, summer, spring and autumn are the ideal times to visit Flanders and explore its links to World War One. The area is also very well known for its food and of course the many specialty beers. It is important to note that a Belgium town may have two names: one in Flemish and one in French. A fascinating region of Belgium, it includes the famous town of Ieper (Ypres), the largest Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in the world at Tyne Cot in Zonnebeke and the Passchendaele Memorial Museum. Around half a million people visit this cemetery annually and the numbers are rising.

Tyne Cot Cemetery (Godfrey Hall)

Tyne Cot Cemetery (Godfrey Hall)

Places to See

Many of the visitors in the area are either those seeking more information about people who have died during the First World War or those who wish to pay their respects. At one time a fortified German position, Tyne Cot was eventually used as a first aid post by the Australians. The cemetery now contains around 12,000 graves of which just 3,800 are known by name. The wall at the back of the cemetery contains another 35,000 names. A new visitor’s centre was opened here in 2007. A large

Recreated trenches at the Memorial Museum Passchendaele (Godfrey Hall)

Recreated Trenches at the Memorial Museum Passchendaele (Godfrey Hall)

number of soldiers and civilians died in this area in some of the bloodiest battles of the war. Not far from Tyne Cot is the Memorial Museum Passchendaele. Here you will be able to get a real feel for what life was like during those last few years of the Great War. You will get the chance to experience what it must have been like to go down into the dugouts and then into the trenches. This recently renovated museum provides a series of special experiences which show life during those horrific times.

The Battle of Passchendaele, which lasted more than three months, gained just a few kilometres for the British and involved 500,000 casualties. The area was eventually liberated in late September 1918 by a force of British and Belgian troops.

Beer has always been a major part of Belgian culture and if you have the time, take a trip to Sint Sixtus Abbey near the village of Westvleteren. Living here are 26 Trappist monks producing a world famous beer. A closed, silent order, one monk must be present during the production process. If you would like to try some then visit the Café ‘In de Vrede. There is also a small shop selling beer, but be warned — production is limited so you may arrive and find that they have sold out. You can phone beforehand to reserve a case of beer but the number is often engaged. There are three types of beer with the strongest a dark variety having an alcohol content of 10%. It is possible to stay as a guest at the abbey and if you are interested you should contact them at claustrum@sixtus.be.

A short distance away is the town of Ieper which suffered a great deal during the conflict but was restored and rebuilt.

One of the most important First World War landmarks in the town is the Menin Gate where each night the Last Post is sounded by representatives of the local fire brigade. The other is the impressive In Flanders Field Museum which is housed in Cloth Hall in the centre of Ieper.

Cloth Hall, Ieper (Godfrey Hall)

Cloth Hall, Ieper (Godfrey Hall)

Accommodation

The area has a variety of places to stay, from small guesthouses, hotels, self catering cottages and group accommodation. Many of the smaller establishments will be out in the countryside with wide sweeping views and lots of rustic charm. Some have access to the many cycle ways which are available in this region. Cycling is part of the Belgian way of life due to the flat nature of the countryside. There are several holiday cottages including Chalet Hazebos which can accommodate up to seven people. Located in a forest it includes a sauna and terrace. If you are interested in staying somewhere with animals then you could try De Peerdehoeve in Passendale. Larger hotels can be found in Ieper (Ypres) such as the Kasteelhof ‘T Hooghe located on the Ieper-Menin Road. It has an on-site restaurant, a bar and free parking. In Ieper the Hotel Regina is right in the centre, a short distance from the Menin Gate and the In Flanders Field Museum.

The Last Post at the Menin Gate, Ieper (Godfrey Hall)

The Last Post at the Menin Gate, Ieper (Godfrey Hall)

Food and Drink

Rabbit & Vegetables (Godfrey Hall)

Rabbit & Vegetables (Godfrey Hall)

One of my favourite pleasures in Belgium is a good meal. Prices are very reasonable due to the current exchange rate. There are a variety of dishes you might like to try which are local to the area. Roast rabbit with vegetables is a traditional dish, as is waterzooi, a stew made of chicken. Vol-au-vents stuffed with mushrooms, a white sauce and chicken are popular as are mussel and chips. The chips in Belgium are usually cooked two or three times which gives them a wonderful crisp and tasty flavour. Sausages are also a popular dish on the menu. Street food is everywhere and you will find stalls selling chips with mayonnaise all over the country. Another favourite are waffles eaten piping hot covered with sugar, honey or chocolate. Great for a cold and windy day are the stalls selling smouteebollen. They are similar to small freshly cooked doughnuts but are golf ball size. While very delicious, these should be eaten in moderation! Other main dishes include eel which is often cooked in a variety of sauces including spinach. For me eel is rather an acquired taste but if you stay with a Belgian family then be prepared!

There are a number of delicious desserts which you will often see in the windows of town bakeries. These include gingerbread flavoured buns, cakes and biscuits together with creamy concoctions and delicious flans.

Trappist Beer from the Sixtus Abbey, Westvleteren (Godfrey Hall)

Trappist Beer from the Sixtus Abbey, Westvleteren (Godfrey Hall)

One of the most popular drinks in Belgium is beer. There are a huge number of brewers providing a range of beers some of which have an alcohol content of up to 12%. You need to remember that they can be very potent and are usually drunk in the same way as wine. The most specialised beers come from a few Trappist monasteries scattered around the country. These monasteries produce a range of beers from the light coloured to the dark and fruity. If you decide to try some lambic beers then be warned as these often have a rather unique flavour and are not to everyone’s taste. Coffee is also anther popular beverage. This is usually served with a biscuit and if you are lucky a few chocolates. Keep in mind that if you ask for a mocha it will probably come in a very small cup. Belgians also like fruit teas although you should be able to find a breakfast variety in most good cafes. Wines tend to concentrate around the main French varieties.

I often feel that Belgian cooking is underestimated. The food is very tasty and there is always plenty of choice. For lunch try a Belgian croque-monsieur or some dark bread with cheese or pate. The Trappist monks often make cheese as well as beer.

A great place to try out traditional Belgian dishes is the Huys de Ruyffelaer restaurant in Ieper.

Nightlife

Ieper at Night (Godfrey Hall)

Ieper at Night (Godfrey Hall)

Being basically a rural part of the country, most evening entertainment takes place in the local bars and taverns. In some of the larger towns you might find a cinema showing films subtitled in English and there may be one or two clubs. In Ieper the Hopperie is great for its selection of Belgian beers whist Bar 32 is the place for sport. The Old Bill is a good local pub and can provide light meals during the day. The Kaffee Bazaar has a list of over 100 beers and is a cosy venue.

If you keep your eye on the notice boards and posters, you may come across concerts, local shows and maybe a few choral performances.

Belgian bars are often a good place to spend the evening trying some of the many different beers and getting to know the locals. Here you could try a 6.5% Witch’s brew or the great 5.5% Passchendaele beer.

Transportation

Poppy Seller and Menin Gate Bugler (Godfrey Hall)

Poppy Seller and Menin Gate Bugler (Godfrey Hall)

One of the best ways of getting to this area is by Eurostar from either London or Brussels to Lille and then taking an onward connection to Ieper. The high speed Eurostar has a regular service from St Pancras to Brussels. The region has an excellent motorway network and if the traffic is flowing it is an easy ride to Antwerp. There are plenty of flights into Brussels from the U.S. and there are rail connections to other parts of Belgium. For older travellers there is a special senior fare which allows you to travel for 6 euros return anywhere in the country. Just ask for a senior return at the desk and be prepared to show your passport.

A number of cruise ships visit several Belgian ports and it is an easy ride from Zeebrugge where many of them dock.

Cycling is very popular in Belgium and so you might like to consider a holiday by bike. There are cycleways everywhere and learning to ride a bicycle is just part of growing up for Belgian children. The tourist offices should be able to provide you with some comprehensive local maps and brochures if you decide to cycle instead of drive. Hire cars can of course be collected in Lille, Brussels and Antwerp or in the main town of Ypres.

Further details on this area can be found by visiting The Great War Centenary’s website.

Memorial Museum Passchendaele (Godfrey Hall)

Memorial Museum Passchendaele (Godfrey Hall)


Fly.com Expert Tips


How To Get There: As noted by the author, Ieper is accessible via train from Brussels. You can either take the Eurostar and hop on a connecting train to Ieper; or use the Belgium Rail, which has a service from Brussels Airport to Ieper with either one or two changes, taking approximately 2.5 hours and costing €48.40 (approximately US$53). If you’re traveling from the Brussels, you can take the train from Brussels Central Station/Bruxelles-Central for €35.40 (US$39)

Located about 9 miles northeast of the downtown Brussels, a local train journey will take about 30 minutes from Brussels Airport (BRU), and cost €17.20 (US$19) for a roundtrip ticket. More information about area transportation is available at here.

Brussels is served by over 50 airlines including American Airlines, British Airways and United Airlines.

Best Time To Visit: Oxford’s busy season is summer when the weather is warm and rain at a minimum, which brings the tourists. September is a great shoulder season to visit when the tourists have left and the students won’t return until October. January and February are the damp and ugly months, but crowds will be minimal if you’re willing to deal with the weather.

Sample Fares: Calendars display lowest roundtrip fares over the next 90 days to Brussels from:

* All fares are roundtrip including all taxes and are accurate at time of publication. For updated pricing, conduct a new search on Fly.com.


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Featured Image: Grote Markt Square in Ypres, Belgium (Shutterstock.com)

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