A lot can be said about Ypres (or Ieper in Dutch), an old city in the province of West Flanders.
Its known history begins as early as the first century BC, when Ypres was raided by the Romans. About 1,200 years later, in the 12th century AD, the city had grown into the third most prosperous city in the County of Flanders, after Bruges and Ghent. The main industry was the manufacturing and trading of cloth. Textile from Ypres was in high demand at that time and could be found almost everywhere in the then known world, even as far as Novgorod in Russia. The cloth exchange was created and the enormous cloth hall, belfry and cathedral were built. The city remained extremely wealthy until the beginning of the 14th century, when an epidemic killed a large part of the population. Wars and battles followed and Ypres quickly lost its (economic) power.
It wasn’t until early in the 20th century that Ypres played a part in the world’s history again. During World War One the city and surrounding fields were in the middle of the western front line between the Germans and the Allied armies. Total destruction was the result. A poem written by the Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae made Flanders Fields and Ypres world famous.
Nowadays the city has been beautifully rebuilt and, obviously, major highlights of a visit include war cemeteries, memorials and battlefields.
In this post we’re not going to stay in Ypres the entire time, but we’ll also take a look around in the surrounding area…
The immense cloth hall, standing on the town square, was built in the 13th century. The facade is no less than 125 meters (410 feet) long, which made it one of the largest commercial buildings of the Middle Ages. In the middle of the building a 70-meter-high belfry, containing a 49-bell carillon, arises. It was used as a covered market hall where textile was traded.
The present-day structure is an exact copy of the original building, which was completely destroyed during World War I. UNESCO declared the whole complex a World Heritage Site in 1999.
It now houses the brilliant In Flanders Fields museum, a great – of not the best – place to start your explorations of the area.
The Menin Gate
The massive Menin Gate is the most important war monument in Ypres and was built by the Brits after the Great War. It was finished in 1927. The roof and walls of this impressive memorial bear the names of more than 54,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who went missing in the Ypres Salient until August 16 1917. It only commemorates the soldiers for whom there isn’t a known grave.
Interestingly, the Menin Gate is located on the route out of town to the east, the direction in which soldiers had to go when they went to battle, likely never to return.
As a tribute to the fallen soldiers, the Ypres fire department still plays the Last Post each and every evening at precisely 8 o’clock.
Literally dozens of World War I cemeteries can be found in the area surrounding Ypres, both German and Allied. The most famous and important one is the Tyne Cot Commonwealth cemetery in Passendale. A striking feature here is the Cross of Sacrifice that was put on top of a German bunker that was taken by the Allies in 1917. A great number of people died during that battle. The wall at the back of the cemetery contains the names of 33,000+ soldiers and officers who went missing in battle after August 16 1917. (The names of people missing before that date are found on the Menin Gate.)
The largest number of dead is found at the Langemark German war cemetery, which is an actual mass grave where 44,000 people are buried.
Another German cemetery of great importance is the one in Vladslo. The German cemeteries are incredibly humbling and somber places; there are no flowers. Each square stone on the ground contains the names of twenty soldiers, their ranks and their dates of death. The color of the stones is grey or black, because the treaty of Versailles didn’t allow the losers of the war to use white stone.
For more information about war cemeteries I highly recommend reading this post that I wrote about Flanders Fields a while ago.
This is a memorial tower along the Yser River and also a symbol of Flemish emancipation. Standing 84 meters (275 feet) tall, it’s the highest peace monument in Europe.
‘Nooit meer Oorlog’ (Never again War) is written on the tower in the four languages of the armies in the region during the First World War, being Dutch, French, English and German. An elevator can take you to the top of the building, which offers great views of the town of Diksmuide, the former battlefields and the Yser River. The stairs down will take you through a museum about war, peace and Flemish emancipation.
Trench of Death
The scary-sounding Trench of Death is located near the city of Diksmuide and next to the Yser River. This was an important part of the Belgian section of the western front and is a symbol of the fierce resistance by the Belgian army.
It used to be the most feared place at the front line among Belgian soldiers. Here, the Belgian and German armies were barely a few dozen meters apart. At the end of the trench you can still see the remains of a German bunker, just a stone’s throw away. The entrance to the trenches is free and I highly recommend a visit.
Another spot worth paying a visit to is Hill 62. It was one of the very few hills around Ypres occupied by allied forces. Numerous fierce battles were fought here. At the top of the hill are a Canadian monument and a little café. In the woods behind the café you can visit some remains of trenches and tunnels.
The list of interesting places to visit is endless. The particular highlights in this post are the ones that I have visited myself. For a lot more information on Flanders Fields, Ypres and history I strongly encourage you to visit the Tourism Ypres website.
This year is the 100-year anniversary of the outbreak of WW1, which involves several events in and around Ypres. If you’re thinking about going to Belgium for a holiday, this year would be the perfect time. Lonely Planet put Belgium in its top 10 of countries to visit in 2014.
I’ve created a nice two-day itinerary, allowing you to explore the many fascinating sights and sites in the region of Ypres. See my post ‘How to Explore Flanders Fields in Two Days‘.
This article is also available as a smartphone app, allowing you to use it as a reference when visiting Ypres. You can get the app right here!