A 35 kilometer bike tour through Flanders Fields was appealing to me for 3 reasons: I am a history geek, I love a physical challenge, and I love traveling to obscure destinations. A ride around Flanders Fields offers all three, plus chocolate and pommes frites to reward my efforts. How could anything go wrong?
We decided to visit Ypres as a day trip from Brussels. The Belgian rail system is convenient and affordable, so we opted for a scenic train ride instead of renting a car. As soon as we stepped onto the train, we realized our plan to kick back and enjoy the scenery wasn’t going to happen. None of the guidebooks had warned us that Belgian trains haven’t been updated since the 1970′s, and as soon as we sat down we knew it was going to be a long and uncomfortable ride. Upholstered in hideous, sticky pleather (reminiscent of the wood paneling in a 1970′s station wagon), the seats felt like church pews that had been carved from steel rods. Worse still, they face the seat across from them, so we spent most of the time pretending not to notice the teenagers across from us, sharing ipod ear buds and singing out of tune.
After 3 long hours, we arrived in Ypres. We had booked rental bikes prior to our arrival, now all we had to do was find the Hotel Ambrosia (they offer bike rental for 12 euros a day), and we’d be on our way. The town of Ypres is hardly more than a village. The streets are lined with charming two story townhouses that look like they were built as a backdrop for a WWII film. Eager to stretch our legs, we took our time and wandered the streets, feeling that we had time traveled into pre-war Belgium.
The fiercest fighting of the First World War occurred in the Ypres Salient, a hilly area just north of Ypres. Trench warfare, machine guns, and poison gas all but decimated the town and the hilly areas that surround it. Wooded areas and farmland were turned into muddy swampland, and craters from artillery fire became large, deep puddles (now used as watering holes for grazing cattle). Nearly a million soldiers were killed in the Ypres Salient during a war of attrition that lasted for three and a half years.
Despite Winston Churchill’s wish to keep the town in ruins as a reminder of the travesty that occurred there, the locals rebuilt everything to look exactly as it did before the war. The main market square has an old world ambiance, with cobblestone streets and quaint shops lining the streets. The old cloth hall, now the In Flanders Fields Museum, marks the center of town.
After stopping for lunch (and a chocolate snack for the ride), we stopped into the museum gift store to purchase a trail map. It was the first of several mistakes we made that day. The map showed the bike trails as yellow squiggles, with no road names or landmarks to demonstrate exactly where they were, only a random assortment of numbers. The numbers mark battlefields and cemeteries, which match descriptions in an accompanying pamphlet. The map also offered convoluted directions, written in a strange first person narrative, We cycle from Bellewaerde Ridge to Meenseweg. From Meenseweg, you can take a left and cycle to ‘t Hoe to visit a well-tended war museum with a tavern and lovely British cemetery.
Thanks to our flawed map and my hesitant riding style (it was my first time on a bike in over 10 years), we took a few wrong turns and wasted nearly an hour trying to find our way out of Ypres. Finally, we began to see signs of the Western Front, now pocked with craters and gravestones.
Reminders of the war are around every corner in Ypres. Poppies were the first flower to grow in the fields after the devastation of the war, and now they are a symbol of the region, symbolizing hope and rebirth. We were in Belgium a week before Armistice Day, and there were fresh poppies scattered along all of the memorials, cemeteries, and trenches.
The first battlefield we encountered was the John McCrae site, named after the famous Canadian poet and medic. Belgium is so flat that any small increase in elevation was considered a major tactical advantage. The allies used the little hill as an artillery position, and later on in the war as a second line behind the front. It is a surreal experience to stand on the embankment, with the canal on one side and farmland on the other, and imagine what this area looked like during the war.
In spite of our map, we managed to find the Yorkshire Trenches hidden in the center of what is now an industrial park (amateur archaeologists found the park in 1992). The original Yorkshire Trench was dug in 1915, and concrete walkways mark all of the underground tunnels and shelters (most of which are accessible to tourists). Seeing the trenches in person brings the war back to life, and the devastation is almost palpable. It wasn’t long before we were ready to move on.
Most of the sites in the area are former battlefields and cemeteries, tucked away into what are now potato fields and dairy farms. Every monument told a unique tale of bravery and horror, and we kept stopping to stare at the scenery. It is nearly impossible to imagine such a bucolic setting as a backdrop for some of the deadliest and cruelest battles Europe has ever seen.
We rode around Ypres and the surrounding areas for nearly 4 hours and finally gave in as the sun started to set. We covered far less ground than we’d planned (only 15 of the planned 35 kilometers) mostly because we spent a lot of the time completely lost, but we also lingered much longer than we expected to at many of the sites. Almost as soon as we had decided to turn back to Ypres, we were already upon the town itself. This was another reminder of just how close all of these battles were to the tiny town. Just under a million men had died over this stretch of little more than a few kilometers. The emotional, and, let’s face it, physical toll (cobblestones are not kind) of the ride was surprising.
We stopped for a pint on the way back to the train station, enjoying the cozy atmosphere of a small town pub, and watched as the town faded into darkness. We sat there for a long time, feeling a long way from anywhere, and very close to history.