Bruges & Ypres, Belgium
Today the mercury climbed to a top of a whopping 4ºC. I don't think I’ve ever been so cold in my life. The chilly temperature was joined by foggy, overcast conditions, making the whole day fairly miserable.
From Ghent we drove to Bruges, however I wasn’t keen to leave the warmth of the van when we arrived. Danny had no qualms with the cold and headed straight for the market, buying another roast quail for lunch. I stayed put for a couple of hours before finally relenting and briskly walking to the tourist office. With map in hand I took a quick look around town, visiting one church (mainly to warm up a little) and an old religious community. The latter consisted of a series of white houses surrounding a tree-laden courtyard, which looked like a pleasant enough place to live (if a little drab). The rest of the city seemed to be filled with small, medieval houses that formerly served as old craftsmen quarters. A large number have been converted into chocolate shops - I must have passed roughly 50 during the day.
I met Danny back to the car around lunchtime, thawed out somewhat, then hit the streets again. We passed two beautiful centre squares (one containing an ice rink), a series of canals, and yet more chocolate shops. Once we were at the point of feeling numb, we stopped in a pub and didn’t move for the rest of the afternoon. Naturally, this gave Danny a chance to try the local Bruges beers. The first was a very dark, very alcoholic beer, and he followed this up with a Burgundy beer. He had no idea how it got the Burgundy name; he didn't really care either, because it was Belgian beer and apparently all Belgian beer is flawless.
Another highlight for Danny was the Beer Wall. Along a quiet street was a closed-in cabinet displaying over a thousand Belgian beers, each with their corresponding glass. Danny spent a great deal of time wandering up and down, checking out the innumerable varieties, and was a little disappointed to find that he hadn't tried all that many.
At night, in a campsite near Bruges, Danny cooked up a three-course dinner: deep fried veggies with mayo, vindaloo curry and cinnamon oatmeal cookies. He gets beer, I get restaurant-quality meals cooked by a private chef.
Danny had tried all the Trappist beers in Belgium except one, because they only sell their beer from the brewery and not to commercial traders. Of course this meant that we had to make the detour out to the brewery so Danny could get his hands on it. When we arrived we discovered we had to wait an hour until it opened, and a long queue of cars had already started forming out the front. Once it was time, Danny rushed in and bought a pack of the three different beers they produce, happy as a kid in a candy store. We were then allowed to drive on to Ypres.
Ypres was a relatively small town, with not much to see outside the centre square, the huge Cathedral and the Menin Gate. This Gate is a memorial to Commonwealth soldiers who lost their lives in the area in WWI but whose bodies were never recovered. A profusion of poppies, leftover from the recent Remembrance Day service, covered the site, and over 50,000 soldiers' names were inscribed on the wall (it was quite a large gate). Many stores in town sold memorabilia and books regarding the battle, and several travel companies were offering tours of the surrounding battlefields. I think the significance of this place during wartime was the only reason anyone ever visited Ypres.
Outside of Ypres was Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world. Roughly 12,000 white gravestones were laid out in neat rows, the majority of which contained unidentified bodies. Additionally, there were almost 35,000 names inscribed on a wall around the rear of the site. It differed to Gallipoli in that it was one big cemetery rather than several smaller ones, plus the tombstones at Gallipoli often included personal inscriptions from the families. The visitor's centre played a poor quality silent movie showing soldiers in action during the campaign, which brought to light just how senseless war is (more so than the graveyard).
Back in Ypres, we ate dinner before returning to the Menin Gate for the Last Post, a memorial service conducted every single night of the year for the fallen soldiers. Hundreds of people were in attendance, including many school groups, so it was difficult to see anything. From whwat I could glimpse, the ceremony consisted of four buglers playing the iconic tune, plus a handful of people laying wreaths at the Gate. It was comparable to an ANZAC Day or Remembrance Day service, except that this was a daily observance. It was a sombre end to our time in Belgium, as well as our travels in mainland Europe. Tomorrow, we are heading back across the Channel, where there are perks like native English speakers and driving on the left-hand side of the road. Despite these conveniences, we felt like our trip was coming to an end far too quickly.