Sunday, June 3, 2012

War and Peace

Wednesday in Bruges. We decided to climb Belfort, the very tall and reasonably famous belltower dominating the Markt. But before that we slept in AGAIN and this time didn’t even leave the hotel until the day was well under way. We went to have lunch, with the intention of going to the place we had the Belgian waffles at, but it was closed. Alas! A spanner in the works. We wandered around for quite a bit not being able to decide what to eat before just settling on Quick, a European fast food chain. It was okay I guess.

So, Belfort – 366 windy, narrow, old steps to the top. Again, due to the wonderful fact that we are under 26 we got in for cheap. The current belltower was built in the 1700s, I believe, however there was a tower there for a few hundred years before that – the old one was struck down in the most dramatic fashion by a bolt of lightning that caused it to collapse. Apparently back in the day bells were used to send signals to the people of the town, like ‘time to go to work!’ and ‘Quittin tiiime!’ and ‘Yay good news!’ and ‘oh no, something bad has happened’. Despite the huge number of stairs it wasn’t so bad – there are a few levels at which to stop and look around, like the Treasury in which the town charters were kept behind gates with numerous locks, and each key for each lock was given to a different person so they all had to be present to open them. The higher you go in the tower the narrower the stairs, but once at the top there is quite a nice view over Bruges, and a lot of bells of different sizes that seem to ring constantly for different reasons. Nowadays the only messages sent by Bell are ‘it’s a quarter past the hour,’ ‘it’s half past the hour,’ ‘it’s nearly a quarter to the hour,’ ‘now it’s a quarter to the hour’ etc. So we heard a couple of different chimes whilst on our way up and at the top of the tower. We heard the hour struck on our way down – it was pretty loud. I’m glad we weren’t at the top for that one.

Up up up to Belfort!

The treasury room at the bottom-ish of the tower with its fancy locking gates. It has a cool floor.

Spiral stairs! 

Belfort's courtyard from a bit up the tower.

Looking up in Belfort

More stairs. 

Some of the chimes are played like a giant music box.

Cogs and stuff.

A fairly big bell, but not the biggest by a long way.

Made it to the top!

The view over Bruges.

Another big bell and a few smaller bells you can see.

Back down on lovely, solid ground again (mind you, despite the height of the tower I was not too scared at all! I guess it’s all enclosed so you don’t know how far from the ground you’re heading until you’re up there, and then you’re down before you know it!), we headed off to see if the elusive doggy-at-the-window was there – and it was!! Finally we saw it sleeping on its cushion, and it was very cute and I am glad it really exists.

Yaaaay, the famous doggy in the window by the canal!!

We wandered to the Hospitaalmuseum next, which is a hospital museum (go figure!) in the chapel of the old Sint Janshospitaal, an old hospital run by nuns that dates back to the 12th Century. It was pretty interesting actually. They had some old medical instruments, old store cabinets, some medical books from the 15th and 16th Centuries, very old accounts documents dating as far back as the 1300s, and sedan chairs used to transport the patients to the hospital. There were also some medically themed paintings, including one of Sint Janshospitaal in the 18th Century, in which you can see the beds, patients, nuns, doctors and even one of the sedan chairs. Very interesting! But possibly my favourite part was a restored 17th Century pharmacy which was very cool!

Wandering to Hospitaalmuseum

Down beside Sint Janshospitaal

The apothecary/pharmacy. Can you find Mads?

Courtyard and well - I think it used to belong to nuns or monks, one of the two.

Outside of the Hospitaalmuseum

We headed back to the hotel as we needed to check on our reservation for a Flanders Fields tour, which was lucky as we had to call them to confirm our places. We also had a relax and then went to see Moonrise Kingdom at a little cinema where each theatre is colour coordinated!! We were in the Red room, so we got a little red ticket and all the walls and chairs were red. The world just feels right when it’s colour coordinated. The film was very, very good too – super dooper cute and exceptionally quirky. It receives a Highly Recommend rating from yours truly, who is, of course, a very well respected film critic. For dinner we had Ben and Jerry’s. We are such healthy people. But it was delicious.

Pretty! Restaurants at Markt at night.

On Thursday we had the only freezing day of our Bruges trip (which we were thoroughly unprepared for), and we went on an excellent bus tour to Flanders Fields, to visit some WWI sites there. The tour was run by Quasimodo, yet another Highly Recommend rating for them! Our guide Phillipe had so much knowledge, so as well as being very moving and very beautiful, the day was very educational as well! Hooray for learning things. There were about 30 people on our bright blue bus, a very good number I think.

Basically the tour was focused on the Ypres Salient, travelling mostly along the Passchendaele Ridge. Apparently a salient is a military term for the dangerous situation when a part of your army pushes through the enemy’s front line to create a sort of bow shape, giving the enemy the opportunity to attack from three sides. See, learning! This is where a lot of fierce fighting took place throughout the four years of the war, as the Allies tried to keep Germany from crossing the border between Belgium and France, and many, many men were killed in the war of attrition.

A monument to the Canadians who held their line in the first German gas attacks.

Our first stop was Langemark, a German cemetery where over 44,000 soldiers are buried. It’s quite sad, really, because it seems so uncared for and forgotten. Even though they were the enemy in Belgium, they were young men with families the same as every other soldier, living and dying in awful conditions. There are granite stones on the ground marking the graves, each grave holding three or four soldiers, and there is a large, dead garden marking a mass grave which reportedly holds the bodies of around 22000 men. These are numbers you can’t even fathom, and the thing about Flanders is that there are these huge war cemeteries EVERYWHERE. We went to Tyne Cot Cemetery later in the day, which is the final resting place for over 12,000 British and Commonwealth troops (including Aussie diggers), and the names of a further 35,000 missing (whose bodies were never found or identified) on a wall around the cemetery. Driving up to it there is just a sea of white headstones – it is a very peaceful place, with beautiful lawns and flowers growing on the graves. There is a new visitor’s centre there, which has an eerie voice reading out the names of the dead, and a few personal effects of soldiers who are buried at Tyne Cot. One particularly moving relic is a letter written to a soldier from his wife, dated the day he actually died. As if this wasn’t tragic enough, the letter speaks of a friend of theirs, Walter, who returned from the front on leave a changed man: not wanting to see or talk to anyone.

Langemark German Cemetery

Names inside a monument at Langemark

The approach to Tyne Cot Cemetery. 

A German bunker left at Tyne Cot

Australian headstones at Tyne Cot

There are so many names of the missing.

Letter to George Smith from his wife, dated the same day he died.

We went to a couple of battlefields, including Polygon Wood where there is a large monument to the Aussies who fought, and Hill 60, a fiercely fought-over hill on the Passchendaele Ridge that was blown to pieces by mines in tunnels dug deep under the German lines. We also saw how WWI is still impacting the farmers working on Flanders Fields, with a few unexploded shells that have been found, lying by the side of the road waiting collection by the bomb squad (apparently farmers in the area have the bomb squad on speed dial). Occasionally they blow up and people still get wounded by them. When it rains you can apparently find a lot of shrapnel in the ground: it’s crazy how much there is left over, so many years later! And it’s plain to see how much when you go to the Hooge Crater war museum, which is where we have lunch. A private museum, it is full to the brim of relics from the war: uniforms, weapons, helmets, binoculars, bugles, shells, bottles, gas masks; everything even down to cigarettes and matches and absolutely everything you could think of! It’s actually a really good museum.

Shells by the side of the road

Souvenirs - shrapnel fished out of the ground. Apparently these came from shells filled with them, very nasty. We got to keep one each.

The Australian monument at Polygon Wood.

Polygon Wood. Such a pretty place.

Creepy gas masks at the Hooge Crater museum

Aussie slouch hat, Hooge Crater Museum

German helmets

Shells. This is half of the second of two cases absolutely chock-a-block full of them


Out the front, Hooge Crater Museum. 

Hill 60. Or at least what's left of it. The battlefield has been preserved as a war grave.

The leftovers of a mine at Hill 60

In the crater at Hill 60

A British bunker left over at Hill 60. There were a few bunkers, this one changed hands at least twice I believe.

We went into a restored trench in the middle of an industrial estate – the past and present existing side by side! There is a dugout there that has been excavated, but you can’t go in unless you bring your scuba gear as it is completely flooded. Apparently a few years ago they found the remains of over 200 soldiers when they were building the warehouse next door. It’s just insane the number of dead lying all over the place, from just four years! I had a real wow moment at the Menin Gate in the city of Ypres (or Ieper to the Belgians. I kept seeing road signs and read them as ‘Leper’, wondering why anyone would want to live in a town called ‘Leper’) – it is an absolutely massive monument with the names of all the missing inscribed on it. Just those whose bodies were never found. And there are names ALL OVER IT. Every single bit of wall is covered in names. Suddenly you realise just how many men died in just this one part of the war and all for absolutely nothing. It’s completely tragic and completely stupid.

Into the trenches

The opening to the dugout.

Here you can see the zig zag pattern of the reconstructed trench. The gravel marks out where the dugout is underground. There are a few rooms and corridors down there.

The huge Menin Gate

Every night in Ypres they play the last post for every soldier who's body has never been found or identified. They're still going, and won't be stopping anytime soon. 

Names on the walls of the Menin Gate. 

The rebuilt city of Ypres.

A monument at John McCrae's dressing station.

Inside the dressing station bunker where John McCrae worked.

Inside the dressing station bunker.

The dressing station bunker from outside. 

More graves.

This soldier died at the age of 15.

Our last stop was at a dressing station bunker, where John McCrae worked and wrote the famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields.’ For the whole trip Mads has been dreaming of lying in a field of daisies. So we found some daisies in a field, and I thought it would be a good idea to fulfil Mads’s dream and lie in them. However, about two steps into the field and Mads’s legs started stinging from some kind of plant. Luckily we got out before we had flopped down, it could have been very unfortunate indeed!!


Back to Bruges, I feel fast asleep on the bus. We walked through the now rain to Pizza Hut for dinner and chocolate mousse for dessert (on the house, awesomo!!). Then back to the hotel to pack and prepare to say goodbye to Bruges.

Friday. The weirdest days are those when you awake in one country, and go to bed in another. We walked from the hotel to the train station, dragging our heavy wheelie suitcases behind us (a fair effort, actually). We got there just in time to catch the train to Brussels Midi before changing to get to Brussels National Airport. A bit worried about the weight of my suitcase, I was amazed and relieved to find it only weighs 21kgs!! That’s way underweight, excellente! We had two flights to Rome, going via Barcelona (I know, it’s completely out of the way but it was a cheap flight!). A very funny ‘lost in translation’ moment at Barcelona airport: at Maccas we had all the food on our tray except for my burger. The guy serving us put my burger on another tray and goes ‘I bring to your table.’ Okay, well that’s exceptionally good service for a Maccas, I mean, we could probably find our own table and fit the burger on our tray easily, but whatevs! We’re in Spain!’ So we followed the dude with our tray, around and around in circles, past heaps of empty tables, him sort of turning around to look at us every now and then, a few other workers and some customers looking at us sort of funny. Eventually I got a bit tired of the game, so said ‘we’ll just sit here’ and pointed to an empty table. Again he said ‘I bring to your table’. The penny dropped – the burger was for someone else he was looking for, he was going to bring my burger to us at our table because there’d be a wait on it. We were like a bunch of ducklings. OMG, talk about a couple of losers following this poor dude around the restaurant, we were a bit embarrassed and sat in fits of laughter the whole rest of the time we were there!

Barcelona from the airport

A very memorable maccas visit

We landed in the Eternal City at around 9pm. The flights were fine, a bit of turbulence out of Brussels that had me gripping the arms of my chair, but I did okay! And now we are in Rome! It’s been a dream of mine for a long time to come to Rome! To Italy! I can hardly believe it! We got a very expensive taxi to our hotel after dodging a few very enthusiastic fellows trying to sell us taxi rides. The driver lifted up Mads's suitcase exclaiming 'Mamma Mia!!' He he, I love it that Italians really say Mamma Mia. I think I'm going to like it here! The hotel is quite nice, but full to the brim of tour groups! More on our adventures in Rome later...

Sunset flying in to Rome.

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