Monday, June 11, 2007

Adventures in the land of Tintin

The trenches at Sanctuary Wood

Shell crater at Sanctuary Wood

More trenches

Mine crater at Spanbroekmolen

A relative on the Menin Gate?

At the Menin Gate

The Menin Gate

If you ask me, this makes Ypres very much NOT a cat city!

The Cloth Hall at Ypres

Yesterday I finally got to go out on tour again. Yes, one month (can you believe it?) into my job and I've only been out on tour for 3 days... This is not what I signed up for!

Anyway, I was super excited because we were going to BELGIUM! Yes, another country on my list of 'places I have been'. Belgium is only about half an hour's drive away from here, a little longer to get to Ypres, our destination for the morning. Passport control was non-existent - there were booths at the border but they were unmanned in both directions, and from what I've heard it's very rare to get pulled up at the border. So if anyone's wanting to go into France (or, for some strange reason,) Belgium illegally, try the land route. In fact, from France you can probably even smuggle yourself into Britain and live like a king cleaning toilets. Rock on!

It was weird, then, to realise that you are suddenly in another country - the signs are different, the traffic lights are another colour, and so on. This would be, in fact, my first international border crossed by car (or coach, as the case may be). Sweet, that makes trains, planes and automobiles all covered, and ferry thrown in for good measure. Northern Belgium is the Flemish-speaking part, so even though French is spoken in Belgium and it's so close to France, all the signs went into Flemish straight away, and at the museum we went to it the signs were primarily in Flemish and English, not Flemish and French. It's considered a bit of a faux pas to speak French to people up here, so English is your best bet if you're ever visiting the north of Belgium (except Brussels, where French is the primary language).

Our first stop in Ypres was the cloth hall - once the largest non-ecclesiastical gothic structure in Europe, now a building that looks like the largest non-ecclesiastical gothic structure in Europe, but actually dates from some time in the 1960s, since Ypres was thoroughly destroyed in WWI in particular, and rebuilding hadn't really gotten underway by the time another war came along. This houses the 'In Flanders Fields' exhibition, which basically details the WWI experience in the Ypres region. From what I saw, it was well done, but I didn't spend a huge amount of time inside, since I'm pretty sure I'm back next weekend and I had more important things to do...

Namely checking out the unofficial chateau chocolate shop. There is a chocolate shop in Ypres where we all take our groups, since they provide a free bag of chocolate with a sneaky 10€ tip every time you go in. This was nice, but my god, did I feel like a dirty hustler or what? Just reflect, if you're ever on a guided tour and they steer you towards a particular souvenir shop or what-have-you, chances are they're getting a discreet kick-back out of the whole affair. I felt distinctly guilty upon seeing pretty much every one of 44 kids spend at least 10€ a pop in the place, all in the space of about 15 minutes. They were obviously well used to the whole thing, and the kids were relieved of their money with great efficiency while I stood there having a crisis of conscience. Will I take my next Ypres group back to the chocolate shop? I suppose so... They all want Belgian chocolate, and they might as well get it at a place where I get something out of it (and the teachers likewise get free chocs) as anywhere else. Will I feel bad the next time too? Probably...

After the chocolate shop, it was to the Menin Gate, a memorial to the British missing who fought in the area in WWI. It's a huge (marble?) archway in what used to be the city walls of Ypres, covered in more than 55,000 names. When you reflect that these are just the MISSING in this small area, it really helps to emphasize the loss of life this region saw. (Incidentally, I idly counted the marked British cemeteries on the one page of my fairly large scale map of the Ypres Salient region - there were 14!) I even found a missing soldier sharing Gwan's name, which as you know, isn't super common.

After that, we left Ypres and went on a mission to find the Pool of Peace, aka Spanbroekmolen, the largest single-charge detonation crater from WWI, or something like that. It took about half an hour of going round and round tiny country lanes in the coach, trying to avoid weight-limited roads and once backing the coach up a street after we discovered it was too narrow to get past the cars parked on both sides, but we got there! I was quite pleased because the group leader said they'd tried to visit a couple of times before, but the coach driver had never been able to find it, go my navigational skills! On the way, we passed through Messines/Mesen, which wasn't on our route at all but we were a teensy bit lost. This is home to a New Zealand memorial, which I didn't see, but there were at least 3 NZ flags flying in the town, including just in someone's window, which I thought was pretty cool. Usually, as most Kiwis will know, if you see a flag that might be from NZ it winds up being the Australian one, so it was cool seeing a wee bit of NZ in Belgium... Anyhoo, the Pool of Peace just looks like a big, pretty, placid lake - you'd never know that it used to be a hill-top that was blown up by the Brits in order to give the Germans a bit of a fright or something. Was it worth all the effort finding it? Sure it was!

From there, it was on to Sanctuary Wood, a private museum which offers a selection of reasonably graphic WWI photos, WWI artefacts dug up on the side of the road at some point, which just lie around the museum out of glass cases for the most part, and 'authentic' WWI trenches. The group leader, a history teacher, had his doubts about how authentic they were - there was certainly fighting there and trenches dug, but he said, for example, that the corrugated iron now lining the trenches would have been added at a later date to shore them up, so it's hard to know what other changes may have been made. Presuming they are essentially reinforced originals, they were surprisingly narrow and shallow, it's hard to imagine daily life being lived out in these little holes in the ground. The site was also liberally pockmarked with shell holes, which in contrast to the trenches were bloody big! I suppose I always thought of shells as maybe enough to take out one guy, but from the size of the holes I think probably 3 people at a time could be comfortably blown up if they were standing close together.

Our last two stops of the day were cemeteries - the British (Commonwealth) cemetery at Tyne Cot, which is the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the world - rows and rows of neat little white headstones, with rose bushes growing around them, and the German cemetery at Langemark, which was more sombre, with plaques in the ground rather than tombstones. Also at Langemark was a mass grave where more than 25,000 bodies were buried - mostly German soldiers, but also about 1000 who couldn't be identified even by nationality... The teachers had the kids pick a row of tombstones and count up how many graves there were, and how many were named versus how many were unidentified, and this very informal survey suggested that about 50% of the graves were unknown soldiers, sometimes identified by nationality or by army unit, sometimes completely unknown. The Tyne Cot cemetery had some NZ graves, and a section of its wall plaques were dedicated to the NZ missing in the area (for some reason, although Australia, South Africa and India are represented on the Menin Gate memorial, NZ is not). And at Langemark I saw some real live New Zealanders - recognisable by the NZ flag and 'lost Jafas' sign on their car, so I had a wee chat with them which was nice.

After that it was back to the chateau and back to cleaning and so on for another week... Next weekend I have a joint tour with one of the other girls here, so that should be good fun, and it's back to Belgium on that one I think!

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting and moving, thanks Jo.


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