Ypres was pretty much destroyed during World War 1. The history, before, during and after the war is truly fascinating and definitely worth researching before you go.
Outside of the town we found the Hooge Crater Museum. The museum was interactive and explained what happened in Ypres and the surrounding areas during World War 1. The exhibit information described how the Hooge crater was formed by a charge of explosives that the British detonated in a tunnel a few miles away in order to close in on the German forces.
Here’s the cool part. After leaving the museum, my husband saw a small sign a few hundred yards up the road. We decided to check it out. We walked up to a large property that looked like a B&B. There was a small sign “Hooge Crater.” We were thinking, “What? Is this the actual crater?” Sure enough there is a fenced in area on this property that housed the crater, which is now filled with murky water and algae. We paid our €2 a piece to get through the gate and saw not only the crater, but trenches, old tools, bomb shells, old building foundations and even a bunker ruin made from stone and mud. We walked down through parts of the trenches to experience what is must have been like 100 years ago during wartime. It was amazing how well preserved the property was and how all of the tools, bomb shells, wood and metal were still intact.
I have never seen anything like this, and being we didn’t even get into the town of Ypres yet, I knew this was just the beginning.
After settling in to our B&B, we explored the town of Ypres. It’s a beautiful little town and has lots of history and traditions that still go on today. The shops were closed by the time we got to town, but all the restaurants and bars were all open and hopping. We walked by the Cloth Hall, which was almost completely destroyed during the war. It was one of the largest commercial buildings of the Middle Ages and served as a marketplace as well as a warehouse for Ypres’s cloth industry. It has since been re-constructed and is now a very extensive and interactive museum, which is a must see. It was quite impressive and really gives you a sense of what it was like in Ypres during World War 1. Give yourself a few hours to go through the entire museum and (if you are able) pay the extra fee to climb to the top and walk around. The view of the town from that height is amazing. It will definitely give you a work out. During our research, we learned that since 1928, the townspeople (and tourists) gather at the Menin Gate every evening at 8pm to attend a ceremony called The Last Post to honor and remember the British counterparts who fought during World War 1. It lasts about 15-20 minutes and it is truly a moving event. Then of course everyone winds up at the pub!
Speaking of pubs, there’s an amazing beer bar called Hopperie – Tom’s Belgian Beer Bar. They have a great selection of Belgian beers and pub snacks like meat and cheese assortments. Definitely a must!
A walk through the Menin Gate and along the river is a beautiful way to end the evening.
The next day we visited Hill 60, where the British detonated the explosives that caused the Hooge Crater, along with the other craters on the hill. There’s a nice walking path that takes you around the hill, where you can see the various craters that were caused by the explosion. The best way to see a bit more is to get off the path and walk around. We saw a lot of makeshift memorials and bunker ruins.
Next stop of was Bayernwald Trenches in Heuvelland – Wijtschate. These are well preserved trenches, with a touch of preservation to protect the historic structures. Here’s the thing with this place, you need to buy tickets at a different location at the tourism office in Kemmel. We didn’t do this, so had to take time out of our schedule to get the tickets then drive back. Kemmel is a beautiful little town, and the tourism office has a very nice museum, so the trip was not wasted. The tourism office is at Sint-Laurentiusplein 1, 8950 HEUVELLAND – Kemmel, which is about 5 miles away. Once back at the trenches, you need to scan the barcode ticket to get into the gate. I got stuck, but we made it through.
A few other spots we found included the St. Julien monument to honor the Canadian soldiers who fought in the war. It’s in the middle of nowhere, but worth a stop. The next spot is not easily found on any World War 1 site or travel tip site. The location was considered No Man’s Land between the French and German lines. This is where the Germans released a poisonous gas to travel toward the French positions. This changed the face of the war. It’s down a small country road, with farm land and a few houses on either side. It’s definitely worth the stop. More information about it can be found in the book “For King & Empire, The Canadians at Ypres” by Norm Christie. Since you won’t find the location anywhere except in the above mentioned book, here’s how to get there from St. Julien’s monument. After reaching St. Julien’s, continue towards Poelcappelle. Once in the village, go through the roundabout (stork statue in the middle as a landmark) and get on N313 towards Ypres. After 600 meters turn right on a small road marked EECKHOUTMOLENSTRAAT, towards Langemark (you’ll see a church spire in the distance). Drive past the farm buildings and stop 800 meters ahead. You’ll see a small speaker box that you can play. It talks a little about the gas attack and also about how it is used in chemical warfare today. Pull over as far as you can off the side of the road because it’s narrow. People are quite pleasant in these parts, so they’ll probably wave at you.
The next day we headed out of town to explore our next destination. We stopped by the Pool of Peace in Heuvelland. It was another crater that formed during an explosion during the war. It’s a park that is set off the road a bit. It’s challenging finding a place to park, but make sure you are completely off the road. We toured Messines Church (St. Nicholas Church) in Messines, which had a crypt. Tour the small church then walk down into the crypt. It was cool and creepy at the same time since it was so quiet there. This was also partially destroyed during the war. From there we found the Ireland Peace Park, which was another monument to honor the Irish soldiers during World War 1. Get out and walk around. It’s a serene park and quite beautiful.