We’re better organised today. Bikes out, Google maps on, we find a bike path along the river that takes us all the way into Ypres. Interestingly, Ypres is its French name: the town’s official name is Leper.
Ypres’s roots go back to Roman times. Much of the ancient town was destroyed in a fire in the 1200s, and it was subsequently rebuilt in the 14th and 15th centuries. During this time, Ypres was known for its linen – it’s mentioned in the Canterbury Tales for it.
Surrounding the town are enormous ramparts which were built from the 1300s to the 1700s. As a defence mechanism, they’re impressive still.
Sadly, being in a strategic location, most of the historical buildings were lost during WWI when the town was bombed extensively during three key battles. Ypres was also the first place where chemical warfare was used – the mustard gas that caused so much devastation. It was rebuilt post war, from German reparation funds, as close as possible to the original.
The entrance to Ypres is marked by the enormous Menin Gate, a memorial dedicated to all the Commonwealth service men who lost their lives but could not be found for burial.
There are tens of thousands of names here, on every vertical surface – it’s incredibly moving and has me in tears within moments. It takes no stretch of the imagination to understand the cost of war, standing under the enormity of this sacrifice.
Inside the gate, Ypres is lovely. Mixed in with rebuilt history are buildings from the 1920s, in the Flemish style.
We take in the sights: the magnificent Cloth Hall that dominates the centre square which is an exact replica of the middle ages original. It’s now been deemed a World Heritage site:
the entrance to the ancient fish market
and the beautiful Saint Martin’s Cathedral.
Ypres is quite built up – in between the central carparks and nearby buildings, it’s a challenge to fit the buildings into a clear shot.
We’re in the land of wonderful bread and smallgoods too – it would be remiss of us not to partake.
And so, bike laden and Ypres seen, we head home to hit the road towards France. Our way is paved by one war cemetery after the other. This was the heartland of fighting.
The cost of war is horrific.