By Emma Truswell
Belgium is all about indulgence, whether it is in food, history, beer or architecture, France’s northern neighbour is worthy of exploring.
Ypres, now know as Ieper, in Flanders Fields Country, or Westhoek, is the perfect destination for history buffs, due to the town’s powerful associations with World War I. Over 150 military cemeteries are scattered throughout the Ypres Salient, serving as solemn reminders of the terrible sacrifice of war. Canadians are sure to want to stop by Essex Farm Cemetery, where John McCrae penned the famous poem “In Flanders Fields.” Still standing are the concrete shelters of the Advanced Dressing Station where McCrae worked as a Canadian Army Doctor in May of 1915, which are open for tourists to explore.
The town of Ieper itself is an impressive replica of the medieval city that was almost entirely destroyed during the war. Restored Gothic style buildings line the streets, the Belfry of the magnificent Cloth Hall towering over the town square. It is this expansive site that houses the In Flanders Fields Museum. The newly renovated museum has state- of- the- art technology, including visitors’ bracelets that contain their personal information such as age, name, gender, and hometown. Bracelets are read at four booths that cater information to suit each tourist’s interests, pulling from over 750 different stories to personalize the war for each individual.
Come nightfall, stop at the Menin Gate for the Last Post Ceremony. Since the 11th of November, 1929, the Last Post has been sounded at the gate every night at 8 p.m., with the exception of the four years of German occupation from 1940 to 1944. Crowds line the street on either side, bowing their heads in respectful silence as buglers from the local volunteer Fire Brigade play Last Post and Reveille under the memorial arch. The walls are inscribed with nearly 55,000 names of those who died or went missing in the Ypres Salient between the outbreak of war and August 1917.
The romantic city of Bruges was next, with winding canals, intimate cafés and cobblestone streets. This picturesque town and UNESCO world heritage site is the ideal getaway for couples. Whether you explore the city on foot, by bike, or seated in a horse-drawn carriage, no Bruges adventure is complete without a tour through the city’s scenic canals. Enjoy waterside gardens and architecture from as far back as the thirteenth century.
Next stop was Ghent, which is often overlooked by tourists in favour of the more traditional Belgian destinations. It may be a medieval town, but this city has a fresh, youthful energy. Picking up on the city’s funky vibe is the recently opened Sandton Grand Hotel Reylof. With a convenient location only minutes away from the city’s prime tourist destinations, this luxurious four-star hotel has made its home in a splendid eighteenth century mansion.
Ghent is home to over 620 monuments and historical sites, which are brandished nightly with gorgeous illuminations that beg for a late-night stroll through the city streets. Scenery can also be enjoyed while drifting through Ghent’s winding canals on a boat ride complete with champagne and appetizers.
Hit the shop Van Hoorebeke for some of the best chocolate or grab some mustard from Tierenteyn-Verlent, a charming little shop that has been making mustard since 1790.
No trip to Belgium is complete without a visit to Brussels. Awe-inducing beauty is around every corner. Take a stroll through Brussels Park after admiring the magnificent Royal Palace, or trek up Mont des Arts toward the city’s cluster of museums and attractions. For a completely low-stress option, purchase the Brussels city card for as little as 24 Euro, which provides discount vouchers for local shops and restaurants, unlimited travel on public transportation, and admission into most attractions.
Visitors to Brussels can stock up on traditional Belgian cookies at Dandoy, one of the oldest cookie shops in the city. Check out Laurent Gerbaud’s shop and factory, Gerbaud, and enjoy delectable chocolate creations. He works with only the highest quality chocolate and avoids sugar in favour of natural sweets, such as figs.
No Belgian adventure is complete without paying tribute to its beer. Delirium Tremens Café, just off the famous dining strip Rue des Bouchers, has a selection of over 2000 different beers and its very own beer bible. This establishment made it to the Guinness Book of World Records in 2004 for the most commercially-available beers, with a total count of 2004. Rightfully so, Belgians are very proud of their beer. A must-try is Kriek, cherry beer – a uniquely Belgian product. This fruity beer uses open-air fermentation with natural bacteria only found in the fields surrounding Brussels.
From romantic retreats to out-of-this-world food options to an experience of some of the most powerful reminders of war, Belgium has something for everyone. So when you plan your next European vacation, be sure to Think Belgium.