In Flanders Fields, the Poppies Blow
In the early days of World War I, with the German army advancing through Belgium toward France and England, just one city stood in their way: Ypres, an ancient city in West Flanders that was heavily fortified with ramparts during its reign as a medieval trading capital. Surrounding the city on three sides, the Germans bombarded it relentlessly until the beleaguered city finally fell to the invading army. But after Ypres was captured by the Germans, the Allied response was swift and strong. Troops from France, England, New Zealand, America, Australia, Canada, Senegal, and Algeria rallied to rout the Germans from the city’s walls. After many bloody battles, the Allied forces eventually succeeded, but at a horrific cost: About half a million men lost their lives to gain just a few miles of territory—in just one battle. It was the single deadliest military campaign of World War I.
Ypres (pronounced ee-pruh) is situated in the softly rolling hills of the West Flanders Heuvelland, or Hill Country. Because of its out-of-the-way location, visitors often combine a trip to the city with a visit to Bruges or other coastal destinations. Trains from Bruges depart hourly and are recommended over the local buses; look for the Dutch name of the city, Leper, on local signage.
Tour guides are able to bring to life many of the features of the area’s battlefields and of the city itself. Because Ypres was reduced to rubble following the bombardments of World War I, many of the buildings were entirely rebuilt after the war. Perhaps the most famous of these is the Cloth Hall (Lakenhalle), an opulent reminder of the city’s wealth when it was a center of the textile trade. Surrounding it are many of the town’s guild houses and mansions, which now hold cafes, hotels, and restaurants.
Ypres isn’t all faded glory, however; the city hosts a carefree carnival known as Kattestoet, or Festival of the Cats. The event, taking place every 3 years in May, celebrates the role that cats played in ridding the Cloth Hall of mice. When the cats themselves became a nuisance, hundreds were tossed from the hall’s belfry (today, stuffed feline toys substitute for the real thing). Bellewaerde Park (www.bellewaerde.be) is an area amusement park with terror-inducing rides like the Screaming Eagle, as well as a wildlife reserve.
Tours: Visit Ypres ( 32/57/20-43-42; www.visit-ypres.be). Over the Top Tours ( 32/57/42-43-20; www.overthetoptours.be).
When to Go: Year-round.
$ Old Tom, Grote Markt 8 ( 32/57/20-15-413; www.oldtom.be). $$ Regina, Koning Albert I 45 ( 32/57/21-88-88; www.hotelregina.com).