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Belgium Day 2: Ypres

BELGIUM | Sunday, 15 November 2009 | Views [2623]

Ypres was kind of a mistake. Well the whole day was full of mistakes. I decided to squeeze a day trip to Ypres into our schedule at the last minute, and it seemed to me that out of the 14 days we had, Day 2 was the only one that could be spared for this day trip. Originally, Day 2 was supposed to be spent exploring Antwerp's top fashion houses -- this was the only walking tour for Antwerp in my Lonely Planet guide. And it was the only thing in the schedule I wasn't 100% excited about, so that's why I thought it would be better to sacrifice one day in Antwerp for a day trip to Ypres instead, where we would learn more about World War I.(Ypres was a major battlefield during the war and was totally destroyed by bombs. It's now a popular tourist destination especially among the British -- most of the names on the cemetery headstones are English.)

And this despite the fact that I knew Antwerp was very far away from Ypres. In fact, out of all the Belgian cities we were going to visit, Antwerp was the farthest away from Ypres. Visitors usually go to Ypres from Bruges, never from Antwerp. But I didn't want to sacrifice a day in Bruges to go to Ypres. Ah I could go on all day defending myself over this decision but I know in the end it was a damn stupid one.

So anyway, I knew from my research that it would take us about two hours to get to Ypres from Antwerp. But the day before, I'd mentioned to Magda (the owner of our B&B) that we were going to Ypres and she'd said, "Oh yes it takes about an hour to go there." So I thought, hey that's not so far after all. So on the morning of Day 2, we thought we even had time to squeeze in a visit to Antwerp's Royal Art Museum before taking the train to Ypres. We had to reach Ypres by about 12:30 p.m. -- I'd made a booking with a battlefield tour group that would set off at 1 p.m.

It was a damn cold morning. I remember feeling shocked the moment I stepped out of the door. It was like, "Who left the fucking freezer on all night?!" (The next morning, we told Jeff that we were freezing and he said, "No this is not so cold.")

Lianyi held the map and acted as the guide. The museum was close enough to walk to so we had a nice stroll through the neighbourhood. It was a peaceful Sunday morning. And I really do love the apartment buildings in Antwerp. Along the way, we stopped at a convenience store run by a Belgian Turk to buy tissues - my nose was running like the Nile of course - and he asked us where we were from. We told him Singapore and he asked, "You came to Belgium for a holiday? You must be crazy."

So we walked and walked and eventually we came to this huge, grand building that was ultra modern and imposing. But it was still closed. The museum would only open at 9 am and we had about 10 minutes to spare. Lianyi went off in search of a toilet at one of the nearby shops while I stayed behind. When he came back, he was still unrelieved -- all the shops were closed. And the museum was still closed too, although it was already five minutes past 10. We started peering into the doors, and seeing nobody, we went looking for some human contact. We saw someone enter a door to what looked like an office, so we followed behind and kind of stood outside the door like idiots until a disembodied voice said something to us in Flemish.

The voice was coming from a speaker on the wall outside the door, and we saw that there was a video camera pointed straight at us too. Big Brother eventually realised we couldn't understand him, so he switched to English and said, "This place is not for you!"

"Is... this the royal museum?"

"No this is the courthouse!"

Yeah, my trusty tour guide had led us to the court of justice instead of the royal art museum. By then, we didn't have enough time anymore to make our way to the museum because we had a train to catch, so we just made our way to the train station. But at the stationplein (such a convenient word, that) we found the Diamond Museum, so we decided to take a peek (to make full use of our Antwerp City Pass, remember). It was quite interesting, but we only had a cursory look before rushing off to take the train. And oh my god, what madness it was just trying to get on the right train!

Antwerp's train station is huge. And destinations aren't tied to the platforms, meaning for example -- if you've missed your train to Brussels that just departed from Platform 1, you might have to now go to Platform 9 to take the next one. And this was just our second day in Belgium so we hadn't yet mastered the art of reading the train schedules.

So, you know, in cases like these, you would trust the guy at the ticket counter to give you the information you need to get to your destination safely and on time, right? Well the guy told us to go to Platform 14 to go to Berchem and make a transfer there. But when we got to Platform 14, we realised the train wasn't going to Berchem after all. Yet we weren't sure that our reading of the train schedule was correct, and if we should just trust the guy after all. And we only had 2 minutes to make up our mind before the train moved off...

In the end, we decided not to take it. By this point we were getting really annoyed with each other so I decided to let Lianyi take charge of getting us to the right train, while I sat down and waited. Then this Dutch-Ghanaian man came along and asked me for directions! Is it that easy to look like a local in Belgium? I said, "Sorry man, I'm lost myself", and we made friends. He was with his wife and kids and I guess in the same position we were.

Eventually, Lianyi figured out where the next train to Berchem was leaving from and when - Platform 2, in four minutes!! Dude, we ran like we'd never run before (but not like how we ran later that day when we had to catch the train home, but that'll come up later). So we caught the train, we got to Berchem, and from there we had to take a train to Kortrijk, where we had to change trains again. And then, so much for North Eastern efficiency, the train to Ypres was delayed by an hour!

Long story short, we totally missed our battlefield tour, which was the ONLY reason we were going to Ypres, but the company waived the cancellation fee since it wasn't our fault the train was delayed.

Well to be honest, even if the train hadn't been delayed, we would still have been late because there was no way we could've gotten to Ypres in an hour. The journey definitely takes 2 hours on a good day.

But Ypres was a charmer. Our moods were lifted once we got to the main square and saw just how damn pretty it was. Everything was pink and brown and people were having waffles and ice cream everywhere -- yeah, we were freezing our nuts off but the Belgians were having ice cream. You can't quite believe that this town was bombed to shreds. It just looks so... innocent. Why would anyone want to drop a bomb on a place like this? It's all fancy chocolate shops and little bistros.

We didn't really have much time to spend there since we didn't want to miss any one of the three connecting trains back to Antwerp so we just visited one museum, another standout in my opinion - In Flanders Field museum. ("In Flanders Field" is that poem by John McCrae which you probably read in school. I vaguely remember learning it.) It was a pretty moving experience, especially the snippets of first person accounts they had scattered around the museum.

I was especially touched at the stories of the World War I Christmas Truce. I didn't know this but it happened all over the Eastern and Western fronts (I'd always thought it occured only at one spot). My favourite story was one where this British soldier recounted how he had swapped hats with a German soldier during the truce, but the next day the German soldier shouted over his trenches something like, "To the officer I gave my hat to -- I have big inspection tonight. You lend it to me, I give it back to you tomorrow." So the British soldier gave it back, and true enough, the day after, the German returned the hat to the British soldier, filled with candy to boot.

After the museum, we just walked about aimlessly through the town for a bit, stopping for waffles and the occasional peek into a candy shop here and there. But it turned out our aimless stroll had taken us to the Menin Gate, a huge war memorial, beside which was a big park with more memorials and some medieval forts and ending with a war cemetery. So, with map in hand, Lianyi planned a route we could take through the park and back to the train station. And I'd just like to say here that I would totally visit parks more often if the weather wasn't so hot in Singapore. It's so much more pleasant to walk through a park when you're not dripping and stinking!

We did sweat though. The walk back to the train station turned out to be longer and a little more complicated than we'd expected, so by the time we could spot the station, our train was very close to arriving and we had to run again. It felt like being on The Amazing Race!

I said, "You know with some people when you travel with them it's all about eating and relaxing and taking a break from the stress of everyday life. When you travel with Yasmine and Lianyi, it's more stressful than work and you can forget about lunch!"

This is what we looked like when we reached the train station:

Tags: antwerp, belgium, in flanders field, trains, world war i, ypres

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