The small town of Ypres (Ieper) sits in a corner of Belgium often painted in the most sombre of tones. It is, after all, the town right at the centre of the whirlwind that the Great War visited upon Flanders. And literally wiped off the map by four years of shelling and trench warfare.
From 1914-1918, Ypres saw the unleashing of the horrors chemical warfare, and the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of British, German, French and Belgian soldiers, in the relentless battles of the Ypres 'Salient'.
So if you come to visit Ypres, you inevitably come with a due respect for the weight of history that has pressed so hard on this unfortunate Flemish city.
And in fact, many visitors' journeys owe themselves to precisely that ill-fortune: innumerable family trees, whether traced from Britain, Canada or New Zealand, track back across the flat fields surrounding this town, and the Ypres-Yser canal that links it to the sea.
The cemeteries, monuments and war museums in and around Ypres are the major draw for a new wave of genealogical pilgrims, seeking insight into the experiences of ancestors whose own tragically short journeys ended here. But the town of Ypres (or Ieper as the mainly Flemish speaking inhabitants call it) doesn't live only under the dark shadow of the Great War.
This border-town in the Westhoek (the western-most part of Flanders) managed to pack in an impressively rich and varied history, before the destructive conflicts of the 20th-century came a-calling. Remarkably, much of the brick-and-stone of that history has been reassembled.
With Ypres' many architectural gems – such as the mammoth medieval Cloth Hall, and the towering spires of Saint Martin's Cathedral – bought back to their former glory through painstaking and very patient post-war reconstruction.
That long and glorious history (as well as time-honoured Belgian patience) is also reflected, of course, in the area's beers. From one of the oldest breweries in Belgium (Het Sas in Boezinge), to one of the finest beers in the world (the Westvleteren XII, of the famous Trappist Abbey of Saint Sixtus), Ypres has the heavyweights to pull in beer pilgrims too.
And who's to say that contemplation of serious matters – concerning war and peace, life and death – isn't best achieved after weighty consideration of the depths to be found in a glass half-full – or preferably fully-full – of one of Belgium's many beers.
Ypres' tale starts quietly enough, back in the time of the Germanic tribes the Romans called the Belgae. They settled here at a crossing over a stream – the Iepere, flowing down from the Kemmelberg hills south and east of here – lined by stands of elms (or iep as the local Germanic tribes called them).
From iep to Iepere to Ieper to Ypres (and eventually to 'Wipers', thanks to humour of the British soldiers unable to pronounce the town's name during the First World War). That quiet start didn't last, though.
The river, which becomes the Yser (or Ijzer) just north of town, soon served as a bustling conduit for the wool and cloth traffic that bought such wealth to Flanders in the Middle Ages.
In fact, by the 13th century, Ypres was at the centre of the woollen cloth trade, as the third biggest city in Flanders, storing vast amounts of cloth at one of the biggest warehouses of the Middle Ages – the 400-foot wide, 130-foot high Cloth Hall (or 'Lakenhal' in Dutch).
Thanks to its direct connection to the Channel, Ypres' trade stretched all around Europe, and as far east as Novgorod in Russia. The skill of Ypres cloth-weaver's was even referenced in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. However, the river that bought such wealth and fame to Ypres also made it a magnet for conflict.
The Yser river served as a line of defence (and attack) in the many wars between France and the various powers controlling Flanders down the ages.
Fate, it seems, conspired to make Ypres a prize to be squabbled over, and it became one of the most heavily fortified cities in Flanders. The English came here first in the 14th century, besieging the town in 1383, until the French drove them away.
Then the Burgundians arrived, and built up its walls, under Duke Philip the Bold. They were quickly followed by the Spanish in 1583, who laid siege to the town for a year, after it declared itself a protestant republic. More walls were piled up, and more moats dug, but they failed to stop France's 'Sun King', Louis XIV, in 1638, when he assaulted Ypres as part of his campaign against the Spanish Netherlands.
The French held it for 20 years, during which time Vauban, the skilled French military engineer, constructed the star-shaped ramparts beyond the walls, many of which can still be seen today.
The Austrian Habsburgs inherited Ypres in 1713, but somewhat foolishly they took down much of the fortifications, to save money. The French promptly re-took the city in 1794, after the uprising against the Austrians by the people of Flanders, in 1790.
It was only when Napoleon fell in 1815, and it became part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, that Ypres could enjoy a break in its long line of sieges.
The Dutch did busy themselves about the business of fortifying the town further, however, in the 1820's.
But those efforts were not severely tested during the 19th century. And they proved to be of little help in saving the town, when the destructive fury of 20th century warfare rolled into this corner of Belgium.
The Five Battles of Ypres
No less than five mammoth battles were played out around Ypres during the 1914-1918 World War. They left the town a flattened ruin with barely any walls left standing, and with the countryside a morass of mud, craters and blasted tree-stumps.
The reason the town took such a hammering lay partly down to it being the gateway to the Channel ports. The capture of these, by the Germans, could have won the war for them.
But Ypres also suffered because it was only here that the Belgians and British managed to cling to a sliver of Belgian land, and in fact had pushed back out onto the right side of the River Yser.
That made it a obvious launch-pad for attacks by them to take back German-held Belgium.
The Germans had, in fact, already walked through Ypres' streets before any of these battles began, in early October 1914. Then the War was still one of movement, with British, Belgian, French and German armies manoeuvrings across the plains of northern France and Belgium. The 9,000 German soldiers apparently demanded some food, paid for it with German money, and promptly left Ypres.
Over the next 4 years they would fight to within mile of Ypres, but would never again get a chance peruse its stores (only to shell them into rubble).
The First Battle of Ypres, in November 1914, saw the small British army fighting to keep the Germans at bay; successfully, but with tremendous losses on the British side.
The Second Battle, in April 1915, saw the horrors of chemical warfare visited on the trenches, and villages, around the town. The Germans released chlorine gas onto the opposing Canadians and French Algerians and Senegalese, causing many awful deaths, and terrible panic among the troops. Only heroic actions by the surviving troops stopped the Germans from marching into town.
The Third Battle was an offensive by the British, Canadians and New Zealanders for the infamous Passchendaele ridge lying above the town. That relentless – and many accuse senseless – assault, in the summer and autumn of 1917, saw half a million casualties on all sides.
The Fourth Battle turned out to be a last desperate attempt by the Germans to crush the Ypres Salient, and race to the Channel, in the spring of 1918.
They pushed close to the remains of the town centre, reaching less than a mile to its east, but were halted by heavy losses and British and French counter-attacks.
By late 1918 the Americans were arriving on the side of the Allies, freeing up the reinforcements needed to break out of the Ypres Salient. In September 1918, ten British divisions, twelve Belgian divisions and six French Divisions led by the Belgian King Albert I surged forwards.
The exhausted German line crumbled and retreated; ultimately, as a result, Germany was forced to sue for peace.
The Great War was over, but Ypres was left only as a name on the map. The fact that there is a town here now to visit is down to the patient efforts of its citizens after the war. Paid for by reparations from Germany, the medieval magnificences of the Cloth Hall and St. Martin's Cathedral were slowly pieced back together, only completed in the 1960's.
The Cloth Hall now houses the 'In Flanders Fields' Museum, and is classed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Getting There & Getting About
There are no nearby airports (regional or international) that connect Ypres directly. So if you insist on flying, you'll have to fly in through Brussels National Airport some 80 miles east, or Charleroi airport, also known as Brussels South, which is 95 miles east and very south of indeed, and then find a way back west to Ypres, by train, bus or car.
So for many, a ferry across to the Channel ports makes sense, especially if you want to bring a car, as does the Eurotunnel.
Train travel is entirely plausible, if a little less straight-forward. You could get the Eurostar to Lille, in France, and then come across via Courtrai to Ypres. Or you can come from the other side, either from Brussels or Ghent, changing at Kortrijk.
One thing to bear in mind is that Ypres lies in Flanders, where Flemish (Dutch) is spoken. So many of the names familiar from the (French-based) maps of the First World War are very different from the road-signs (the obvious one being Ypres, which is actually signposted as Ieper).
Once in Ypres, if you don't have a car, you can make use of the local bus services, which are frequent fast and cheap, and link up to the many scattered battlefield sites. Cycling is also a good option, as the terrain is pretty flat.
Ypres is a fairly small town, and so isn't overloaded with luxury hotels. There are about a dozen hotels in total, just one of them four-star, with the rest three and two-star hotels. Most are clean, reasonably priced and well located for the town centre – but some are a little anonymous.
This is entirely forgivable, as parts of Ypres outside the impressive 'Grote Markt' area lack the character and style of other Belgian cities, having been rebuilt in post-war 'modern' styles.
There are, however, numerous B&B's and farmhouses catering to visitors in the countryside around town, some run specifically for battlefield tourists.
Nearby Poperinge offers a good example of hostel-style accommodation at the 21-bedroomed Talbot House. None of the rooms are shared, but all facilities (including cooking and washing up) are, in a communal kitchen.
Campers are well looked after in the wide open space around Ypres. There are several camp-sites in the area, some very well equipped. For example, one camp site in Kemmel village, has a swimming pool, shop and bar. And there's a large site close to town, which is only five minute walk from the war memorial of the Menin Gate.
For The Love Of Beer
The Westhoek area of Flanders – with Ypres lying slap-bang in its midst – really is hop-central for the country of Belgium. The hop farms around the nearby town of Poperinge, 8 miles to the west, supply 80% of the hops produced in the whole country. In fact the Poperinge locals call it 'the hoppe stad' – hop capital in Dutch.
So this is a part of Belgium where you can almost literally taste the beer in the air (in the late summer months at least). Unsurprisingly, the area around Ypres boasts some of the country's highlights for the beer tourist, too.
Top of the list for most is the Abbey of Sint Sixtus at Westvleteren, a few miles north of Poperinge. Reclusive, difficult to get hold of and rated as one of the best beers in the world, the Westvleteren XII is according to many beer lovers everything a Trappist beer should be. If you haven't pre-ordered though, you won't be able to buy the Twelve (or its counterparts the Westvleteren Eight or Blond) direct from the Abbey.
The monks strictly control the sale of their famous beers. Instead you'll have to sup on the Twelve's complex, creamy goodness at the Abbey visitors centre across the road, 'In de Vrede'.
Ypres has much else going for it, on the beer-front, than its proximity to one of the six genuine Trappists. Just around the corner, in Boezinge, is the the Sas Brewery, which claims to be one of the oldest breweries in Belgium.
They believe there has been a brewery in the locale since the days of the Spanish Netherlands, when a sluice (sas in Dutch) was built here on the River Iepere.
Now in the eighth generation of father-to-son brewers, the brewery offers a diverse range of beers (mainly pils, but also ales and a stout) and includes an ale in honour of famed local, Jan Yperman. A surgeon in Ypres in the late Middle Ages, he was credited with pushing forward surgery towards the modern era.
In fact a local hospital is named after him. The Dr Yperman beer from the Het Sas Brouwerij is a hoppy top-fermented and bottle-conditioned ale, with a subtly paced combination of local hops.
It also features a cheeky cat on the label, referencing the delightful Ypres habit of tossing cats from church spires.
Another brewery of distinction, run by same family, is the Brouwerij van Eecke, in Watou, close to the French border. It was founded in the 19th century, a time of revolution in Belgium, prompting the brewery's slogan of "Revolt all you want, but we still need beer here."
As well as a fine quartet of 'abbey' top-fermented ales, labelled Kapittels (including a blond, single, dubbel and tripel), they have received awards for their Watou Wit (a witbier, or wheat beer), praised for its light refreshing citrus spiciness.
Food & Gastronomy
Ypres is well-used to catering for a wide variety of tourists, who come here for all manner of reasons (and for many of whom, high cuisine probably isn't the main reason for their visit). The central part of town has many tea rooms and cafés serving the Belgian basics - simple (but often superb) dishes such as steak frites, 'boterham met plattekaas' (bread and fresh cheese) and 'boerenworst' or (farmers sausage).
There are plenty of delicious options for those of us with a sweet tooth too. There are also a small number of restaurants serving good quality authentic Flemish food in Ypres itself
Of course, as a part of the country that's literally swimming in hops and beer, it's no surprise to find that the cuisine of this western slice of Flanders often involves generous quantities of beer (sympathetically selected, of course).
Shopping & Markets
With a central town square as large and well-furnished as Ypres' Grote Markt, it's no surprise that much trading revolves around this plaza, overlooked by the looming splendour of the Cloth Hall. Every day is market day here, with a small section of the square reserved for purveyors of local cheeses, breads, cooked meats, flowers, and fruit – as well as clothing and various household wares.
The Grote Markt also hosts markets every Easter – for a wide selection of flowers and plants – and Christmas – when nearly 40 'chalets' take over the square, selling Christmas gifts, decorations and foodstuffs.
The Christmas market also features an ice rink, which annually pulls in thousands of skaters for a spot of seasonal slip-n-slide.
The square also has some authentic Belgian shopping gems, in the narrow streets of the reconstructed centre (especially if Belgian chocolate, waffles or fine linen is your thing). In the wider Ypres town itself you'll find a reasonable mix of local shops, and souvenir stores, together with the usual national and international brand names.
The main shopping avenues are along the Menenstraat, Rijselstraat and Boterstraat streets. And if you're after memorabilia from the Great War, the Ypres Visitor Centre has an wide range of postcards, books, maps and mementos, related to the First World War.
Sightseeing & Culture
The place to start your sight-seeing in Ypres itself has to be the Grote Markt. This fabulously reconstructed medieval square has lost none of its splendour in the process, and is walled in by some intriguing buildings. For example, the 17th-century 'Three Taverns', abutting one another (In Den Anker, Het Klein Stadhuis and In de Trompet).
Or the dormer-windowed roof of 16th century 'Kasselrij' (the home of the Sheriff of Ypres in Medieval times), and now home to Ypres' courts.
But of course, the building most visitors are drawn to is the Cloth Hall (or Lakenhal), which dominates the north-west side of the square.
This staggering edifice to the power of Ypres twelth-century cloth merchants manages to combine awe-inspiring girth to a magnificent façade.
It consists of a long rectangle of buildings around a central quadrangle, with a huge belfry tower housing 49 bells.
Now a combined town-hall, tourist office and an award-winning museum (called 'In Flanders Fields', and dedicated to the Great War), its vast spaces were once used as warehouses, and market places, for the cloth that was the lifeblood of Ypres. The Gothic Saint Martin's Cathedral, originally built around the same time, stands to the rear of the Cloth Hall, and is well worth a visit in itself.
This building is now officially a church, though it was once a cathedral, and is one of the tallest buildings in Belgium (its spire reaches 335 feet into the sky).
It houses the tomb of a famous Catholic philosopher, Jansenius, the bishop of Ypres who gave a religious movement its name (Jansenism).
More to the point for the Flemish, it also has the tomb of the 13th-century hero of Flemish liberation, Robert of Bethune, who is called the 'Lion of Flanders' for his defiance of the French king. But if you come to Ypres to experience the grim realities of the Great War, perhaps the best place to start would be the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing. This monument was built after the War, and is inscribed with the names of all the British and Commonwealth soldiers whose bodies were never found.
They passed this through this exit from Ypres, on their way to front – many never to return. No visitor to Ypres can come without spending one evening here, to listen to the haunting bugle tribute to those dead soldiers, played out at 8pm every day.
The countryside around Ypres is thick with memorials, cemeteries and reconstructions of the battlefield – too many to mention here.
But one of the more interesting is the war museum at Hooge Crater, just a couple of miles out of town, on the road to Menin, and to the deadly terrors of the front-line trenches.
The museum is on the site of an infamous mine attacks by the British, where tunnels full of explosive were detonated right under the fortified positions of the Germans. The explosion of 1700 kilos of dynamite on the 19th of July, 1915, left hundreds of Germans dead, and a mammoth crater that is still visible to this day.
Festivals & Events
Ypres isn't all about medieval splendour, and monuments to the tragedy of war. No, it's also about throwing cats off the roof of the town's towers. Yes indeed, the persecution of felines has been elevated to the status of a festival in Ypres, and is called the 'Kattenstoet'.
Though, thankfully, these days the real-live hissing cats have been replaced by stuffed versions of the same. Apparently the festival, which is held once every three years, in May, started back in the Middle Ages.
Then there was a perceived need to cast out the devils and spirits, that were thought to cause illness and bad-fortune for the townspeople.
Cats, as familiars and consorts for the devil, were fair game, and the people of Ypres took to throwing them from the belfry tower of the Cloth Hall.
The town also hosts some more down-to-earth, but still exciting, activities. Every year since 1965, the Belgium Ypres Westhoek Rally kicks off from here. And the world community of canoe polo players (yes, that was a new one on us too) comes to town, to make use of the town's extensive moats for the European championships.
But of course, one of the most important, and most poignant, gatherings at the Menin Gate every day for the Last Post at 8pm. This commemorative ceremony started on November 11th 1929, and July 9th 2015 will be the 30,000th.
A November 11th memorial day spent in Ypres is unlike any other, and brings to mind Siegfried Sassoon's chilling words, from his poem On Passing the Menin Gate:
“Who will remember, passing through this Gate, The unheroic Dead who fed the guns?”