Belgium: Bruges, Ghent, Brussels, Antwerp

Friday 1 May to Tuesday 5 May 2015

travellingross rating = 7/10

Leaving the Western Front WW1 battlefields, we headed north to the outer suburbs of Ghent as a platform to explore some highlights of Belgium – beer, chocolate, architecture, paintings, the blood of Christ. We stayed in a nice house on a big block with an automatic lawn mower. A cross between a bed & breakfast and a motel with daily housekeeping, strange automatic lights, pathetic heating, a Spanish family living in another closed off section of the house, and a front door that we were told had “a mind of its own, so do not go outside without your key”. Odd like only the Western Europeans can do. But a comfortable and welcoming base where we did a series of day trips. Highlights:

Bruges

  • The traffic to get even near the main historic centre was ri-dic-u-lous. I was convinced that a concert was on or the Pope was visiting or something epic. But no, this is just a typical Saturday in Bruges. Mad busy.
  • A canal city with many corners and hidden sections. There are two large squares with historic buildings surrounding them. I have seen the movie “In Bruges” so was re-living that.
  • Basilica of the Holy Blood. Yes, they claim to have a vile filled with dried blood that was washed from the body of Jesus Christ when he was taken down from the cross. This relic is displayed a couple times per day and I thought it would be held up to be admired in front of the crowd. But you file passed it and place your hands over it in prayer while the crowd watches you do this. We were about 10th in line. I wasn’t ready for that! Can’t say this was a spiritual/religious experience as I was too occupied studying it for legitimacy while also trying to act in prayer as a couple hundred eyes watched me.

Ghent

  • Unfortunately a wet cloudy day, but a scenic canal town. Nicer than Bruges, but very similar.
  • Hot chocolate that comes in a tea pot. With a chocolate on the side. Sickening is an underestimate, but gave me a sugar high for a good couple of hours. When travelling with Allyson, you need this energy haha.
  • Adoration of the MysticLamb is in the cathedral. Never heard of it, but apparently a globally recognised masterpiece consisting of 12 hinged panels painted in the 1430’s. It is under restoration, but from the glimpse we saw, I can appreciate the incredible detail and value.

Brussels

  • On the way to Brussels we stopped at Waterloo to see where Napoleon was defeated by the Duke of Wellington in his final battle on 18 June 1815. A huge mound of grass covered dirt with a lion on top is the landmark they chose to honour this with. Interesting. Under a huge reconstruction/reno for the 200th anniversary. I like visiting places like this to learn history as I would never pick up a book or Google it to learn more about this battle.
  • Brussels was my fav of the Belgian cities we visited. Maybe cause there was not a canal in sight. I liked the town square facades, the lack of tourist crowds, the chocolate shops, the delirium beer.

Antwerp

  • A short stop for lunch on the way to Amsterdam. A flag filled town square, and a cathedral with Rubens painting. I don’t like Rubens I have realised. He painted people with too many muscles, which takes away any ability for me to be convinced by his realism. Keep trying mate, you’ll get it right one day.

The Somme: WW1 Battlefields

Monday 27 April to Thursday 30 April 2015

travellingross rating = 10/10

I have been to Gallipoli. To the D-Day landing beaches of Normandy. To many war memorials in Australia. Visiting the Somme western front World War 1 battlefields has been on my list for a while and to visit soon after the ANZAC Day centenary was special. This region is town after beautiful town of stories filled with pain, destruction, loss and recovery.

We left Reims and headed towards the city of Amiens stopping at Peronne to tour the museum. This was the first town of many that we saw Australian flags flying and other Aussie symbols – there is a strong sense of gratitude and after spending time here I learned more about how the Australian soldiers were crucial in many battles to push back the German front. Our first memorial was Le Hamel which was a bit challenging to find especially considering it is relatively new, but included very interesting displays. After one night in Amiens, we continued north stopping at Villers-Bretonneux and then crossed into Belgium staying in a very modern 4 storey townhouse (stairs, so many stairs) in Ypres, which would be our platform for the next 3 nights exploring the battlefields and memorials. Highlights were:

  • Adelaide cemetery to see the grave site where the remains of the Australian Unknown Soldier were exhumed and taken to the national memorial in Canberra.
  • Villers-Bretonneux: including the school & museum funded by Victorian school children and the main Australian memorial in the Somme. The latter is out in the fields on a slight hill that was the centre of a key battle to save the town and push back the enemy. Hard to fathom how many died here, and the concept of trench warfare over such a long front. Reading the tombstones and small crosses placed by school children recently was very sad.
  • The British memorial – the largest outside of the UK. Walking closer to it, you realise the white panels are filled with lists upon lists of names. Only a few gravestones. Most of the dead were not recovered to be buried but lay beneath your feet or in the farmers paddocks. Everything looks so peaceful and beautiful today.
  • Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres. Seemingly endless rooms with artefacts, re-enactments and shocking stories of the chemical gases used, including photos of victims or survivors with terrible injuries. Makes you realise it is not just about those who died, but the ones who survived who probably wished they didn’t.
  • Menin Gate Last Post. This is done every night at 8pm. As we power walked to get there, I had a bet with Mum that we wouldn’t be late and I couldn’t imagine more than 15 people would be there. I was wrong. It was packed.
  • Memorial Museum Passchendaele – seemingly small place but many levels and re-creation of what the trenches would have been like.
  • Talbot House, Poperinge – a place where select soldiers could escape the frontline for a short stay. The House is well preserved with interesting photos and you can imagine the haven this would have been.