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Travel review: A tale of two Flanders

By Roger St. Pierre

No wonder the ancient Dukedom of Flanders and the adjoining territories of Artois and Picardy are known to historians as ‘The Cockpit  of Europe’.

Straddling the borders between present day France and Belgium it’s a region that shaped two world wars and much more. The launching ports for the 1066 Norman invasion, Henry V’s killing field of Agincourt, the Duke of Marlborough’s battleground of Malplaquet, the horrors of the Great War trenches, the beaches of the Dunkirk evacuation – memories of these and other monumental moments in the turbulent history of the region resonate down the years.

When the Channel Tunnel first opened for business, back in May 1994, many commentators were of the opinion that this new gateway to the Continent would put the existing car ferries on the Dover-Calais crossing out of business.

The opposite happened: the arrival on the scene of Eurostar and Le Shuttle simply stimulated the market and newer, bigger, faster, more comfortable and more frequent ferries were soon launched onto the route, with P&0’s fleet slashing crossing times to just an hour and a half, compared to a mere 30 minutes aboard the Le Shuttle car/rail service. From Ireland, there’s the option of direct flights from Dublin to Brussels/Charleroi, in Belgium, or Beauvais, just North of Paris, and then in each case a relatively short hire car drive to the heart of Flanders.

Commemorating the Great War

It’s highly unlikely that the post-Brexit fall-out will bring further boosts to the region. One victim of the new political environment surrounding the UK’s exit from the European Union will almost certainly be the EU financed project that has seen the Belgian province of West Flanders, the French department of Nord-Pas de Calais and the English county of Kent successfully marketed for several years past as a single region.

For now, though, they are cashing in on the extensive programme of commemorative events marking the centenary of the 1914-1918 Great War.

The infamous booze cruises and day trips of yore are all but consigned to the past but the vacuum left has been filled by the burgeoning of battlefield tourism.

As many a memorial serves to testify, Irish regiments played a pivotal role in the conflicts played out in this beautiful but blood-stained landscape and interest in all this history now extends far beyond just the immediate families of the fallen.

Tribute to the fallen

Our visit started in the sublimely picturesque walled town of Ypres, in Belgian West Flanders

We entered town through the monumental Menin Gate, whose portals are inscribed with the names of some 54,896 of the more than 90,000 British and Empire soldiers – including thousands of Irishmen –who gave their lives in this region but whose remains were never recovered or identified.

At 8 pm every evening a truly moving ceremony takes place here, with smartly uniformed buglers, veteran members of the local fire brigade, playing the mournful tones of ‘The Last Post’.

There’s a reverential period of silence and a laying of wreaths in a commemoration that has been held every evening of every day each year since 1928 – with the exception of the dark period of the World War Two Nazi occupation, when it was moved temporarily to England.

Most visitors make a bee-line for the ornate city hall and 13th Century Cloth Hall, located on the town’s vast shop, café and restaurant-lined Grotemarkt main square. Located within the hall is the remarkably evocative In Flanders Fields hands-on Great War museum.

Dramatic displays

Bringing the whole experience to life, on entry you will be given a poppy bearing the identities of four  characters – it could be a British or German soldier, a Belgian housewife, a nurse or a child who might have perished or who survived and whose individual experience will be followed as you make your way through the dramatic displays.

Other Yypres museums well worth a visit include the Municipal Museum, the Knowledge Centre, the Belle Almshouse, the Education Museum, the Tobacco Museum, the Hooge Crater Museum and the Front Line Hooge Open Air Museum, which includes a bunker and traces of trenches.

In nearby Messines, the Irish Peace Park and Irish tower commemorate the Irish troops of all denominations who died during the First World War. In the battle that kicked off here on July 7, 1917, when the 16th Irish and 36th Ulster Divisions stood shoulder to shoulder to gain a dominant ridge.

As you’d expect in such a busy tourist town, there’s a wide selection of eating places in Ypres. Set in the Grote Markt, the atmospheric In’t Klein Stadhuis brasserie gave us a convenient chance to sample a wide selection of local beers and culinary specialities, including the ubiquitous mussels and chips and an unctuous waterzooi stew – which comes in chicken and fish versions.

Military theme

Ypres has a surfeit of cosy boutique hotels and B & B’s. The Best Western, Novotel and Ibis chains are also represented. Our night’s lodging was in the Great War themed Hotel O Ieper, just down a quiet side street off the market place. Military artefacts and khaki, brown and green toned walls, curtains, bed linen and accessories set the military mood.

But this town is not just about sadness and melancholy. Life, as they say, does go on; scars heal and Ypres has been magnificently re-built from the ground up – matching Mediaeval grandeur with all the  amenities of modern life, from glitzy little boutiques to pulsating night spots and the thrills and laughter of the nearby Parc Bellewaerde fun park.

Then there are the mile upon mile of gloriously wide, fine, firm sands, running from the French border up to the broad Schelde estuary and the Dutch frontier.

Queen of the many lively seaside resorts dotted along this stretch of North Sea coast is undoubtedly Ostend, which is connected with Dover by car ferry services – a route established in 1846 and now operated by DFDS.

Jam-packed with hotels

With a population of 70,000 that more than doubles in season, Ostend is thoroughly modern and jam-packed with multi-storey hotels – nearly 100 of them – and holiday home apartment blocks. Our choice was the light and airy Hotel Europe, just 100 metres from the casino and beach.

Rising like gigantic glowing rubies above the beach, the Rock Strangers are the spectacular metal monsters that have become icons for an Ostend reborn.

The town’s most famous resident was the world-famous symbolist artist James, Baron Ensor (1860-1949) and his home is well worth a visit while there is a virtual reality digital walk, ‘The Scent Of Ostend’, hosted by the spirit of the great man himself.

Self-exiled soul music superstar Marvin Gaye lived in Ostend from 1981 – recording the classic ‘Sexual Healing’ while there – and the city now offers a fascinating ‘Midnight Love’ guided walking tour for a great value 5€. Alternatively you can ride through town in a horse-drawn carriage. There’s a lot to see and do, including a visit to the magnificent Mercator, moored in front of the city hall at the busy marina; the ornate 70-metre high neo-Gothic Sint-Petrus-en-Pauluskerk church and a coterie of fashionable upmarket stores and boutiques.

Returning our trip to a military theme, we visited the formidable Fort Napoleon, completed by the French emperor in 1811 to deter a feared invasion from across the Channel.

Ostend Beach Dance FestIval takes place between July 8-9, with the emphasis on the best of house and techno music, while August 27-29 sees the annual Ostend Beer Festival, showcasing more than 30 locally produced brands.

Belgium has the highest density of Michelin-star holding restaurants in the world – and there’s wonderful food at every level of the market. At Ostend’s excellent Bistro Mathilda we sampled such local specialities as freshly caught dabs, North Sea grey shrimps, Flemish beef stew and a tender 35 days dry-aged Rubbia Gallega escalope steak.

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