Flanders Fields and Beaches
The first leg of the visit was just a few hundred yards at Dover Docks, in the Coach, to board P&O’s refurbished Pride of Canterbury. On the boat we enjoyed upgrades to the Club Lounge: very comfortable with freedom from baby buggies and very good value at £12 which including free newspapers and Champagne .
Flanders, the Northern half of Belgium, offers a vast range of activities with excellent road links. Everything seems to be very well organised for every sort of group trip: to precise parking locations, timings and fees for coaches around town and at the attractions.
We had been invited to a Workshop, which was like an exclusive trade fair, with a total of 29 “exhibitors” from hotels, attractions and individual local Tourist offices. This took place in Napoleon’s Fort built 1811 but never attacked. Full details on: www.flanders.co.uk
Let’s look at a “taster” at what the area can offer.
Flanders is synonymous with the First World War if there is one place to use as a centre to visit battlefields and cemeteries it has to be Ypres. It’s staggering to contemplate, 60,000 deaths in one afternoon alone. Recalling the War is not just an annual event here, because every evening at 8 p.m. the traffic stops and the Last Post is sounded at the Menin Gate: a tradition established in 1928. The scale of the ceremony varies from just the buglers and a small gathering to full parades. The evening we were there, the programme with a full band included “Waltzing Matilda” and there was a party of Aussies in our hotel. One of the 150 cemeteries around Ypres has a mass grave of 43,000 Australians.
In the town centre there is also the magnificent Cloth Hall and Belfry completed in 1304, destroyed in the Great War and re-built in 1937.
Not far is the Passchendaele Memorial Museum (www.passchendaele.be) with a large collection of artefacts from the War from gas masks to every form of personal equipment and weapons. It includes a complete underground dugout tunnel system - not for the claustrophobic.
Some of the German cemeteries are very moving. They have a simplicity bordering on the bleak, compared to the many and lighter headstones of the British and allied graves. Particularly striking is the Vladslo German Cemetery near Diksmuide with the famous Käthe Kollwitz figures of the Grieving Parents. Quite poignant was a wreath at Vladslo from an English Primary school class.
We also saw the “The Yorkshire Trench” a fully restored dugout complex unearthed in 1997. Local farmers still dig up shells and other ordnance from the Great War.
The Second World war is not overlooked: the coastal defences at the Atlantic Wall are well maintained and many visitors to Dunkirk (just across the border in France) stay in de Panne which still has an annual parade to celebrate the six long days of evacuation in 1940 – for which there is no longer an official London celebation.
Along the coast – by tram
The Coastal Tram is an excellent service covering 69 stops with a Hop-on Hop-of for a fixed daily rate of €5 between Knokke and De Panne. Most of the individual resorts have their own tourist office and we were amply loaded up with Brochures. Each coastal town’s marketing is clearly defined. For example, Ostend is positioned as a thriving modern go-ahead business hub and is not interested in anything nostalgic, like old beach huts or Edwardian weekends. This is contrasted with the atmosphere of Blankenberge with its 1920′s posters and the new Belle Époque Centre. There’s a board in the Centre listing many writers who visited, including Marcel Proust and Oscar Wilde and the hotels and villas they used.
One unique activity nearby are the horse drawn shrimping nets at Koksijde-Oostduinkerke, see them on: www.koksijde.be
Shopping Paradise ?
Some of the Group Planners were interested to hear about the Lippenslaan in Knokke-Heist; a long street with an extensive range of luxury shops, boutiques and outstanding jewellers described by a recent party from San Diego as a “shopping paradise”. Knokke also has over 50 art galleries.
Belgium’s reputation for good food is more than justified. At Pacific Eiland Restaurant in Ypres we had an outstanding six course gastronomic dinner. Surrounded by water with four vast terraces it can provide set meals for groups from €10 tel: 003257 20 05 28.
€10 is pretty good as one can expect to pay €20 for Mosselen met frietjes (mussels and chips) in downtown Ostend. In Blankenberge’s de Oesterput Restaurant, a place alive with lobsters, oysters and mussels, we had a wonderful seafood stew tel: 003250 41 10 35. In central Ostend I recommend Bistro Bottarga, tel:003259 80 86 88. Finally, do forget to get stuck in to plenty of those famous Flanders waffles !
So, one can stay at the beach and drive in to see the Battlefields – or stay in somewhere like Ypres and have a side trip to the seaside. Even without a car: train, bus and tram connections are excellent and run on time.
In Ypres we stayed 500m.from the Menin Gate at Novotel tel: 003257 42 96 00
In Blankenberge at Hotel Alfa Inn tel: 003250 41 81 72