Tuesday 21 August 2018 Ypres – Bruges
- Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917
Continuing on our WWI exploration we returned to the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 in the historic castle of Zonnebeke which we previously visited in 2015. This is where half a million victims fell for just 8 km gain in ground and focuses on the physical aspects of World War I with special emphasis on the Battle of Passchendaele 1917, one of t bloodiest battles of the First World War. Throughout the museum there are displays of uniforms, battlefield archaeology and artillery and photos, lifelike dioramas and film to give a comprehensive overview of the First World War in the region from 1914 to 1918.
In the cellar of the castle is the replica dugout rooms which show the communication, dressing posts, headquarters and sleeping accommodation. It was quite dark and dismal, but very impressive. I would hate to think what it would have been like back then.
The third part covers the museum extension with an underground building on the Battle of Passchendaele and deals with the international dimension of the war by focusing on the contribution of the different nations during this battle. There is an excellent section on Australia’s contribution with displays of uniforms and kits, ammunition and artillery, a film told by an Australian soldier of his experience and an interactive screen explaining the Australian contribution with maps and stories about 5 Australian soldiers and their gravesites.
Outside is the Trench Experience, where a network of German and British trenches with original shelters was reconstructed during 2013, which you can walk through and gain a little idea of what it was like then and witness the improvements in the trenches as time went on.
As we had previously visited Tyne Cot in 2015 we drove to Bruges and parked in an Aires close to the centre of town.
After visiting the Tourist Information centre we walked into town along the canals, cobbled streets and through medieval buildings. It bought back a lot of memories from our previous visit. The beautiful squares surrounded by colourful houses, the cobbled alleys running alongside gorgeous canals, picturesque parks and the horse and carriages clip clopping along the cobbles. We had a drink at The Monks which has 25 Belgium craft beers and then we walked to the restaurant Gran Kaffee Passage and had Flemish Stew and other Belgium delights. It was a lovely night out.
Wednesday 22 August 2018 Bruges – Ghent
Today we drove to Ghent and parked in an Aires 4.5 km out from the city.
We caught a tram in to the city centre, walked along the canal with hanging flower baskets, which look spectacular, to the Visitor Information Centre.
From here, with map in hand we headed on our own walking tour through the historical centre of Ghent. The first thing we noticed were the number of bicycles which appear out of nowhere as you go to cross the street. On our self-guided walking tour we passed the Castle of the Counts which is a huge fortress with 24 towers dating back to Roman occupation;
the Belfry, a UNESCO World heritage Site which symbolises the city’s independence; the Graslei and Korenlei with its beautiful guild houses;
the magnificent Gravesteen, the 12th century castle; the imposing Gothic St Bravo’s Cathedral with its 89m tower; Saint Nicholas’ Church one of the oldest and most prominent landmarks in Ghent and the Korenmarkt a huge square with cafes and restaurants. Ghent is a city of pretty winding canal side pathways, immaculately preserved medieval buildings and a great transport system.
Thursday 23 August 2018 Ghent – Antwerp – Bertem
- Antwerp City
- Braine-I’Alleud – Champ De Bataille Waterloo
On our way to the Waterloo Battlefields we revisited Antwerp as from memory it was a very pretty place. After parking we walked to the Tourist Office for a map and information and she informed us about the low emissions zone which came into effect in early 2017. The entire city of Antwerp and surrounding area are now a Low Emission Zone to ensure that the air in the city becomes even cleaner. The most polluting cars are no longer welcome in the city, so if you enter and are not a Belgium or Dutch registered vehicle you must register your vehicle within 24 hours of entering the city to see if you qualify and depending on the age of your vehicle it is either free or a permit is required. As you enter the zone there are cameras which automatically check every vehicle and if the vehicle does no fulfil the conditions and not registered within 24 hours, a €150 fine is imposed. We were so lucky we visited the Tourist Information Centre and the young girl asked us because we did not see the signs and would eventually have been hit with a hefty fine.
There are about 5 museums currently undergoing restoration and are closed to the public, so we meandered through the cobbled stone streets with our map in hand and were once again reminded how amazing and intricate the Flemish Renaissance architecture is.
Next stop was Braine-I’Alleud to visit the Champ De Bataille Waterloo where Napoleon’s 1815 defeat, a seminal event in European history, occurred. This battle saw over 250,000 men from at least seven nations in action. More than 11,000 were left dead and 33,000 wounded. it was one of the largest and bloodiest pre-twentieth-century European battles.
In the underground museum and with audio guide in hand we listened, read and watched the battle unfold for 3 hours. The displays and information are extremely well presented but there is a lot of information to digest. The climax was when we donned 3D glasses and were immersed in the battlefield action with the cavalry charging from all directions. This was a really great experience and gave a hint of what it must have been like to be one of the soldiers on the battlefield.
The next part of the museum involved wearing a 4D head set and sitting on a stool which could spin and gave the impression of being once again in the battlefield but from Wellington’s perspective. We were involved in the battle as it unfolds in a 360-degree panorama. It was a really unusual feeling as you watched because you constantly spin your seat to keep up with the events.
After this we walked outside and climbed over 200 steps to the 40-metre-high Lion’s Mound, after which the Lion’s Hamlet (Hameau du Lion) is named. It is a large conical artificial hill constructed in 1820 and completed in 1826 to commemorate the location of the battlefield of Waterloo where the Prince of Orange was injured before becoming King of the Netherlands. The lion perches on the summit as a symbol of the monarch’s victories with one paw resting on a cannon ball and facing France. The views at the top enables you to see the whole battlefield and the panoramic display table indicates the positions defended during different stages of the battle, even though the battlefield has mostly returned to normal farming.
The last section of the museum is the panoramic painting of the battle, titled ‘Waterloo Panorama’. The painting of the battle is very colourful and detailed, and the information plaques help to distinguish the parts of the battlefield. A circular platform enables you to walk closely around the entire painting. An absolutely amazing piece of art work which seals your understanding of the battle.
We then drove to our camp for the night at Bertem where there is an area in a carpark designated for motorhomes.
Friday 24 August 2018 Bertem – Maastricht (Netherlands) – Cologne (Germany)
- Maastricht Underground – Fort Sint Pieter, the North Caves
From Bertem we returned to Maastricht in the Netherlands, to visit Fort Sint Pieter because it was closed when we visited in 2015. The fort is perched high above the Meuse river and is directly connected with the caves in St. Pietersberg hill via underground tunnels. To enter either the caves or the fort is by guided tour only, so we bought a combination ticket. Our first tour was to the fort which dates from around 1700 and is largely still intact, with parts recently restored, constructed to defend the strategically important city of Maastricht. The pentagonal fort is made up of several levels and is equipped with various large and small cannons and mortars. As we progressed through the fort our guide told us stories which he mixed with anecdotes and humour. The view from the top of the fort overlooking the town of Maastricht and the Meuse river and the hillsides where the attacks of the fort took place is stunning.
Our second tour was of the underground limestone caves below the Sint Pietersberg hill where we were led by a guide through man made galleries which once measured 230km in total and measure around 80km today due to the location of a cement factory. We walked with lights through a labyrinth which once comprised of more than 20,000 corridors and saw carvings from calcite, an area used by the French whilst hiding out from Napoleon with bedrooms and kiln and an astonishing drawing of a dragon. To experience what it was like in the cave area we turned off the lights and walked against the wall for around 100 metres, but in the dark it felt like 1km and quite unnerving.
We then headed to an Aires at Cologne for the night but there was no spot available due to a technology convention on this weekend, so we headed to another Aires just outside the city. There were about 20 motorhomes here.