Today we awake in picturesque Ghent, once Western Europe’s second largest city after Paris. Historians believe that Ghent owes its name to the Celtic word “ganda”, which means confluence – appropriate for a place that started as a settlement at the confluence of the Rivers Scheldt and Lys. By the Middle Ages, Ghent had become the second biggest city in Europe after Paris, with up to 65,000 people living within its city walls. Today, Ghent remains a perfectly preserved medieval gem with an unspoilt picturesque waterfront, the imposing Gravenstein fortress towering above the river, a 13’h century skyline punctured by the soaring Belfry and Van Eyck’s masterpiece “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’ which decorates the cathedral.
Although Ghent’s two rivers regularly flooded the local land, its early inhabitants turned this to their advantage by herding sheep on its richly grassed water meadows and using the wool to make cloth. During the Middle Ages, Ghent was the leading city for cloth, later helping to forge strong trading relationships with Scotland and England. In the 18th and 19th centuries the textile industry flourished here again, after Liven Bauwens smuggled the plans for the first mechanical weaving machine out of England. Charles V. a native of Ghent, and Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain in the 16′ century, punished the city after the 1539 Revolt of Ghent. After forcing the city’s nobles to walk in front of him barefoot with a noose around their necks, the people of Ghent gained a new nickname – “Stroppendragers” or noose bearers. Later centuries brought devastation and many changes of national allegiance to Ghent. The Eighty Years’ War ended its role as a centre of international importance, and the city was captured by French forces in 1745 before being returned to Austria following the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. The Treaty of Ghent formally ended the war of 1812 between Britain and the United States, and Ghent became a part of the Netherlands for fifteen years after the Battle of Waterloo. Despite the ravages of history, much of the city’s medieval architecture remains wonderfully well preserved and restored. The 13th century Saint Bavo Cathedral and Saint Nicolas church are particularly notable, along with the imposing architecture of the old Graslei harbour and the city’s many other intact old churches and beguinages.
After lunch on board we join a tour to Ypres, a name synonymous with the horrors of the Great War. Almost totally destroyed during a series of battles, Ypres is now a place of peace, reverence and reflection. Ypres is located in the Flemish province of West Flanders. Though leper is the Dutch and only official name, the city’s French name, Ypres, is most commonly used in English due to its role in World War I when only French was in official use in Belgian documents. Ypres is an ancient town, known to have been raided by the Romans in the first century BC. It is first mentioned by name in 1066 and is probably named after the river leperlee on the banks of which it was founded, Ypres occupied a strategic position during World War I because it stood in the path of Germany’s planned sweep across the rest of Belgium and into France from the north (the Schlieffen Plan). The neutrality of Belgium was guaranteed by Britain; Germany’s invasion of Belgium brought the British Empire into the war. The German army surrounded the city on three sides, bombarding it throughout much of the war. To counterattack, British, French, and allied forces made costly advances from the Ypres Salient into the German lines on the surrounding hills. English-speaking soldiers in that war often referred to leper/Ypres by the deliberate mispronunciation Wipers. British soldiers even published a wartime newspaper called the Wipers Times. The same style of deliberate mispronunciation was applied to other Flemish place names in the Ypres area for the benefit of British troops, such as Whyteshaete becoming White Sheet and Ploegsteert becoming Plug Street. After the war the town was rebuilt using money paid by Germany in reparations, with the main square, including the Cloth Hall and town hall, being rebuilt as close to the original designs as possible. The Cloth Hall today is home to In Flanders Fields Museum, dedicated to Ypres’s role in the First World War.
We started off with a visit to the Menin Gate, the deeply moving memorial to the missing where the ‘Last Post’ is played every evening.
We visit the In Flanders Fields Museum that tells the haunting story of the conflict, providing a thought-provoking insight into the extraordinary lives of the soldiers and civilians; it’s located in the Cloth Hall in the heart of Ypres’ beautifully restored town centre.
After this we visit Tyne Cot, the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the world.