Great Escapes

European Travel Blog


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Cycling in Belgium

One of the best ways to explore Belgium is on two wheels. The flat landscapes, superb canal pathways and close proximity of major attractions ensure that cycling during your holidays in Belgium is an ideal way of discovering the country. This is exactly what I did during my latest trip to Belgium where I biked between the beautiful cities of Ypres, Ghent and Bruges.

Cycling in Ypres

The first city of my five-day cycling tour of Belgium was Ypres, a beautiful old city built around a grand central marketplace adorned with splendid buildings. Ypres is perhaps best known as the location for intense fighting during WWI, with countless tourists visiting the city every year to embark on battlefield tours.

Ypres 2

Cycling along the canal into the city saw me pass a number of war cemeteries and memorials, including the Essex Farm Cemetery where I encountered a memorial to John McCrae, the writer of the iconic In Flanders Field poem. The most poignant landmark for reflection is the beautiful Menin Gate. Every day at 8pm a service is held beneath the gate in memory of the fallen WWI soldiers whose graves remain unknown. The Last Post Ceremony, as it is called, was played out for the 30,000th time in July 2015.

Beyond the scars of war, the city was a thrilling place to cycle. As I bobbed around on the cobbles I absorbed the beauty of the magnificent Cloth Hall, stopping for refreshment in the form of a Belgian beer in the marketplace. The following day I began my cycle to Ghent.

Ieper: De lakenhallen Foto Tijl Capoen

Image credit: Tiji Capoen

Cycling in Ghent

To the northeast of Ypres is the marvellous medieval city of Ghent. Admittedly the ride from Ypres to Ghent takes a long time, with the distance between the two cities around 90 km, but I encountered some great stops along the way. Kortrijk and Waregem presented pleasant locations for me to take a break every couple of hours, and these could easily be incorporated into a three-day ride to Ghent. The ride didn’t feel long, hugging a great network of canal cycle paths, ensuring that avoiding traffic was never a factor of the ride.

Royalty Free

The city of Ghent itself was equally appealing. I stayed just outside of the city’s Begijnhof, and it was wonderful cycling around these practically-deserted streets and admiring the medieval architecture. I followed the network of canals next, discovering some fantastic views throughout the city, one of the best coming in the form of the Gravensteen castle.

It is the city centre that forms the jewel in Ghent’s crown however. Home to an unrivalled range of landmarks and attractions, including the striking Saint Nicholas’ Church and the towering Belfry from where you can enjoy unprecedented views of the city.

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Image credit: Emi Cristea

Cycling in Bruges

The ride from Ghent to Bruges is one of the simplest in the country, following a straight river pathway west along flat countryside for around 45km. The only hitch is the wind, with notorious headwinds slowing the progress of those cycling from east to west. The prize at the end of the ride makes it worth it though, with incredible Bruges awaiting you with its wonderfully-preserved old town.

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Image credit: Jan Darthet

The core of Bruges’ old town has little traffic, making cycling one of the best ways to explore the highlights of the city. I started in the Grote Markt, grabbing a beer in a bar set on the outside ring which allowed me to sit and admire the stunning Belfry as it chimed away in the sunshine. The neighbouring square is called Burg Square, home to the grand City Hall and the Basilica of the Holy Blood, and was another highlight of my visit. The Church of Our Lady and its grounds were one of the final places I cycled to (with a tourist agenda), before spending the rest of the day sampling some more of the city’s highlights.

These mainly consisted of chocolate, beer and waffles, serving as my fuel for the next day’s cycle into the Netherlands. There are a range of great chocolate shops and beer cafes, but I opted for Dumon Chocolatier and ‘t Brugs Beertje respectively. I also took a tour of the city’s brewery, De Halve Maan, and sipped a few of their beers in the brewery bar. It’s safe to say I was wheeling my bicycle back to my accommodation that evening.

Bruges 1

Image credit: Jiang_liu

Even if you’re not keen on cycling, you can visit all of these wonderful destinations with Great Escapes, as well as several other alluring destinations across Europe.

If you’d like to read more about my European cycling adventure, you can find further details and stories on my blog.

Bruges Christmas


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Walk into a Winter wonderland and the magic of Belgium’s Christmas markets

Christmas and New Year is a great time to visit Belgium with so many of its most famous cities hosting fabulous markets and celebrations that will warm the heart of even the sternest of Scrooges. The smell of mulled wine, hot chocolate and roasting chestnuts pervades the air, while the distant sound of carols and the sight of thousands of twinkling fairylights, all add to the festive atmosphere.

Antwerp

7th December 2013 – 31st December: Antwerp’s magical Christmas market is held at de Groenplaats, Handschoenmarkt, Grote Markt and Suikerrui. Whether you are looking for Christmas decorations, seasonal produce or simply wish to enjoy the markets charm with a glass or two of mulled wine, you’ll find a vibrant festive atmosphere here.

Belgium Christmas markets, Antwerp

Antwerp

Saturday 7th of December: Opening Celebration.

Saturday 7th of December to Sunday 5th of January 2014: Christmas market and ice skating rink at Steenplein. There will also be a big Ferris wheel at the Cruise Terminal.

Sunday 15th of December, 22nd of December and 29th of December: Shops will be opened on Sunday for Christmas shopping.

New Year’s Eve, Tuesday 31st of December: New Year’s Eve Fireworks at the Schelde.

Bruges

22nd November 2013 – 2nd January 2014: The Christmas market takes place on the Markt Square around the traditional open-air ice rink, with a smaller market located on Simon Stevinplein. Colourful lights illuminate festival stalls crammed with Christmas goodies, where shoppers can browse tables laden with elegantly packaged chocolates and locally made produce. Open: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday from 10:30 – 22:00 and on Friday and Saturday from 10:30 – 23:00.

Bruges Christmas

Bruges

22nd of November 2013 until the 5th January 2014: Snow & Ice Sculpture Festival at Stationplein. Open 10:00 – 19:00 daily (including Christmas Day & New Years Day)

Bruges ice sculptures

Bruges Snow and Ice Sculpture Festival

Brussels

29th November 2013 to 5th January 2014: ‘Winter Wonderland’, Brussels’s extensive traditional Christmas market, takes place on the Place Sainte Catherine and the Bourse with around 150 exhibitors from all over Europe offering traditional arts and crafts, jewellery, and Belgian chocolates for sale alongside an artificial ice-rink and numerous street artists. In addition to this there’s a multi-coloured Sound and Light show at the Grand Place.

Belgium Christmas markets, Brussels

Brussels

Ghent

6th to 30th December 2014: Ghent welcomes the festive season with a charming Christmas market in Sint-Baafsplein, Klein Turkije and Korenmarkt. Visitors can wander among the 50 wooden huts in search of decorations, candles, cards and gifts, serenaded by a choir. You can also enjoy live jazz, folk and rock performances, as well as Christmas carols.

22 November 2013 to 05 January 2014: A second Christmas market in St Pietersplein with a giant Ferris wheel, a fun fair, food and drink stalls plus an ice-rink.

New Year’s Eve, Tuesday 31st December at midnight: New Year’s Eve Fireworks at Graslei.

Belgium Christmas market, Ghent

Ghent

Leuven

13th to 22nd December: Leuven organises a very accessible and well organised Christmas market, known as the Leuvense Kerstmarkt, set with a fairytale backdrop of the Monseigneur Ladeuzeplein and the Herbert Hooverplein squares, where visitors can stock up on decorations, gifts and other festive items as well as enjoying the tasting stalls.

Leuven at Christmas

Leuven

Ostend

29th November 2013 to 5th January 2014: A covered Christmas market in Wapenplein square with delicious snacks and warming drinks, fabulous decorations and an ice-rink.

Belgium christmas markets, Ostend

Ostend

Ypres

30th November 2013 to 2nd January 2014: The Christmas market in Ypres is growing in reputation and takes place on the Grote Markt in the centre of town each afternoon and all day on Saturday. The Swiss style chalets, together with the popular ice rink, as well as live entertainment, will certainly put you in a festive mood. Open: Tue-Wed-Thu from 17:00 to 19:30, Fri: 15:00 to 22:00, Sat 10:00 to 22:00, Sun from 15:00 to 19:30, closed Mondays

Ypres Christmas market

Ypres

Please note that the above information is correct to the best of our knowledge but details are subject to change and should be checked with the individual organisations concerned before visiting.

ypres battlefields


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Ypres and the battlefields of the Salient

Matt, from our Marketing Department, shares his account of his visit to Ypres’ battlefields and cemeteries.

Ypres, in all its cumbersome syntactic finery, is a name burned into the collective psyche of the British people; and, except for maybe the Somme, no other word so quickly conjures up the full horrors of the First World War. The city and the surrounding countryside were so utterly destroyed during the war years that it was barely possible to believe that it was ever a place of human habitation; yet now, beautifully restored and fully cognisant of its past, Ypres is a place of warmth and allure, at once a living monument, and a thriving city gently going about its business.

ypres battlefields

Cloth Hall, Ypres

I came to Ypres with my dad and father-in-law, partly as an interested bystander and partly as a chaperone for two old fellas. I knew of the name, and I’d done a fair bit of reading to fill in the gaps in my knowledge, but nothing truly prepared me for the impact of the trip. We arrived in Ypres just after lunch, on a day of high blue skies, and spent that afternoon slowly idling our way around the city. We peered in awed silence at the names on the Menin Gate (all 54,389 of them, all missing and with no known grave) and visited the Flanders Museum, housed in the beautifully restored Cloth Hall at the heart of the city. We walked atop the old city walls and found a small graveyard, a harbinger of things to come. That evening we and a hundred others listened to the Last Post at the Menin Gate, a ceremony for the dead that has been completed every evening for nearly 100 years. Later that night we roared at one another in smoke-filled bars, borne aloft on the atmosphere; silence was the last things on our minds.

The Last Post

The Last Post

Menin Gate

Menin Gate, Ypres

The following day we entered Passchendaele, another name synonymous with mud and slaughter. The town was quiet, sleepy even. It had a bakers, and shoe shop with a sale on. We bought bread and olives and headed out to Tyne Cot, just up the road at Zonnebeke. It’s the largest Commonwealth military cemetery in the world and is the resting place of 11,594 soldiers, and home to another memorial to the missing, inscribed with the names of more than 34,000 British and New Zealand soldiers. The entrance to the visitors centre, and inside the centre itself, has an array of speakers, through which solemn voices read a litany of names – names of those who fell in battles immediately around the cemetery area. This most simple of litanies – a name, an age, a rank – has such power, that one is rendered dumb, speechless. Then there are the graves themselves, beautifully kept in long lines, stark and bone-white under the glare of the sun. We wandered among them, again noting names and ages. At one particular grave, a Welsh family had draped the stone in a flag; they read aloud from a series of letters and sang a song of remembrance.

On the third day we drove west to Loos in France, site of one of the first British assaults on the Western Front in 1915. My dad had a book listing the locations of all 917 Commonwealth war graves in France and his uncle, whose body has yet to be discovered, was listed on a plaque in a cemetery just outside the town. The day was fiercely hot and we carried a frantic air with us as we found two, then three cemeteries – none of which was the right one. Then it came: the Loos Memorial Cemetery, by the side of a nondescript main road. We performed the well-rehearsed glance at names, the by-now vague shudder of recognition at a surname, a place name. We were looking for plaque 91, and after everything there it was, in plain view, in the shade of a walnut tree. Plaque 91.

Standing there, light-headed and swaying slightly in the heat, a simple collection of letters, a known name, and all the abstraction of the last few days was suddenly given focus. I felt the air change shape as the old man breathed deeply, I felt him buckle and turn, bearing away the dark weight of things. I wonder if things of this immensity give us a glimpse of something secret within ourselves. Something usually inviolable. Catching a sight of this space within someone else has the feel of the sacred.

In some strange way, this completed things. We left, newly quiescent, and drove across France back into the welcome flatness of Belgium. That night we roared louder than ever.

Photography courtesy of the Ypres Tourist Board