So with six full days in Ostend, and no car to get about in, we decided to spend 3 days local and go on coach trips for the other 3 days. The first of those trips was to Amsterdam and I am not going to say much about it for 2 reasons:
- Amsterdam is in the Netherlands, and this blog is about Belgium and
- Ostend to Amsterdam by coach is a three-hour trip, which couldn’t start until the coach had picked up from five different hotels! It was stupid of us to think that we could see much of Amsterdam when the coach didn’t arrive there until nearly midday, and we had to leave again by 5pm.
So after Amsterdam we spent another day in Ostend. Sat on the beach for a few hours, then had dinner in a nice restaurant near the fish-quay. It’s a short walk from the fish-quay to the main dock and after dinner we took a walk around that part of the city accidentally straying into the Red Light area. For someone raised in the UK, the open in-yer-face prostitution was quite a culture shock!
Day 4 and another coach trip, this time to Brussels. A smaller coach which only picked up from two hotels, and a much shorter drive – we were in Brussels by around 10am, and the coach took us around some of the main sights of the city. We saw the Park des Expositions and the Atomium (memorable), the Mannekin-Pis (disappointing) and the Grande Platz (stunning) before being let off the coach to spend a few hours however we wanted, so we spent the afternoon just wandering around and soaking up the atmosphere.
Day 5 was another lazy day around Ostend. No beach for us this time (I got sunburnt on Day 3 and I wasn’t going to make the same mistake again) but my wife’s parents went off to the beach while we did some more exploring. We had lunch in an ice-cream parlour, had dinner in a fine restaurant, and spent the early evening in a very dodgy piano bar. Belgium is an addiction, and we were definitely hooked.
Day 6 was our last day. We had a trip booked to Ypres for the afternoon and evening so we spent the morning doing the bulk of our packing. The driver pointed out some of the WW1 sites as we drove, but we didn’t stop until we got to Passchendaele and the cemetery at Tyne Cot. Row after row of neatly manicured Commonwealth War Grave headstones seem to stretch almost to the horizon – almost 12,000 of them – how can anyone not be moved by such a sight.
Ypres has the look of a medieval town, but it has an amazing secret. In early 1914 a very prescient member of the town council saw that war was coming and that his town would suffer, so he gathered up all the old plans and drawings that he could find and commissioned an artist to draw those buildings that he couldn’t find details of, and he sent all this “detail” to a friend who lived in America for safe-keeping. As you will know, by 1918 there was hardly a building left standing in Ypres – so when the rebuilding began, he got all the plans and drawings back from America and the town was re-built as far as was practical, as it had originally looked!
By 8pm, we took our place at the Menin Gate. At 7:55 the police stop the traffic and on the dot of 8 three buglers step into the road and play the Last Post. A minute’s silence follows, after which a CWGC representative reads the famous lines from Lawrence Binyon’s “Song to the Fallen”:
For they shall not grow old
As we that are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We WILL remember them.
I looked around and saw that me and my father-in-law were not the only ones struggling to suppress a tear.
So that was the end of our first trip to Belgium. The following day we went home: taxi to the ferry dock – ferry to Dover – train from Dover to London Victoria – Underground from Victoria to Paddington – train from Paddington to Cardiff and finally a taxi home. I think we were all exhausted, but the effect that Belgium had on us was profound. I couldn’t wait to go back, but as it happened it would be 5 years before we saw Ostend again.
To be continued….
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