Australian Bar in Flanders: 21/9-26/9

Fintele – Ieper – Diksmuide

To the War Town

We awoke to a lovely misty morning at our peaceful mooring. The girls were exploring the surrounds and found some sheep grazing next to the towpath. The lock-keeper showed up for his morning shift, and was chatting to Laura and Silvia, asking them if they had taken holidays from school! They will surely appreciate this when they are older but felt a little confronted by his friendly conversation.

With fading of the mist as the day warmed up we started off towards Ypres (the French/English version of the town’s proper Flemish name of Ieper). Down the Iser and then a hard turn to starboard up towards Ypres. The canalised river alternated with narrow and wide portions, trees and fields lining it and houseboats and the well known floating bar/restaurant/meeting place of De Boot – a bit quiet in the morning reputedly very popular in the afternoon and evening.

This stretch has a couple of easy to handle small locks and we enjoyed showing Laura and Silvia how we were now able to smoothly handle the passage up through them.

We had called ahead to let the havenmeester know we hoped to be able to stay overnight, and as we cruised down the blind end of the canal, he came out and called over to us that we were to turn and back into the space he pointed out, beside another barge that we recognised immediately as having belonged to fellow Aussies, but which had quite recently been sold – with the new owners yet to arrive. Anyhow, the 180-degree turn was no problem but the mooring was going to be tricky. It involved reversing 50 m into a gap between a finger pontoon and that was only fractionally (less than a metre) wider than Catharina Elisabeth.

Ian reversed slowly, using the bow thrusters as necessary to adjust her position and keep a straight line to the narrow gap. Almost as slowly as possible, tapping on the reverse gear and drifting back we glided gently into the mooring space, never touching either the pontoon or Rouge Corsair. A nod of appreciation from the havenmaster and a nod back – as if to say, nice but routine.

Ian’s barge handling had come a long way since the first day when we careened around the port at Middenmeer, narrowly missing several boats and with the previous owners with their hands over their eyes, unable to watch the unfolding disaster. You can teach an old dog apparently!

Ypres

During the WWI the German advance was halted on the extreme south-west of Flanders. Veurne was behind Allied line, Diksmuide was just inside German lines, and Ypres just inside Allied lines. Over nearly four years of bombardment by both sides, Ypres and Diksmuide were virtually destroyed. All you see today has been rebuilt. We were impressed that in Ypres, the reconstruction has attempted to faithfully recreate the town, pre-WWI.

It is just a modest walk or short cycle to the town centre, where we had a very large, very cheap burger meal in market square before a wander around. The belfry in Ypres is, like that in Ghent, associated with a Cloth Hall, reflecting the historical importance of textiles in Flanders. The belfry was reduced to a stump in WWI but it, and the cloth hall, were rebuilt to their pre-war form although only finished in 1967.

We also toured the reconstructed Ypres cathedral which had also been reconstructed beautifully. Amongst the varied religious artefacts, there were also several poignant memorials to the war.

Ypres is most famous for the war memorial at the Menin Gate. Originally a part of the ancient wall around the town, Winston Churchill, in 1919, asked that it be the focal point for a memorial to the fallen, who had no graves. Some 185,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers perished in and around Ypres – only 85,000 of whom have graves. The construction of the memorial allowed for the names of some 65,000 of these, the rest at another nearby memorial. It is truly sobering to walk around with every part of the very large edifice covered in names of the young men who died and were never identified and buried.

The highlight of the memorial is the remembrance ceremony that takes place each night and features the playing of ‘The Last Post’ every evening at 8 pm. The buglers play the refrain, followed by a minute’s silence, followed by ‘Reverie’. This ceremony was first held on 1 July 1928 and has been held continuously since 11 November 1929, even during WWII when it was held in the UK.

The gate area was packed with tourists, but we could see reasonably well. The only spoiler was some Spanish-speaking youngsters who couldn’t shut up for the minute’s silence.

The ANZAC Cafe

Just outside Ypres there is a very special cafe “ANZAC Rest” which features a fascinating WWI story – more just below. We took off the four bikes and set out for the short ride to Zonnebeke in warm sunny weather.

On our way, we passed a striking monument to the soldiers of the Scottish regiment, the Black Watch.

It commemorates the fearsome toll and heroic efforts to successfully hold the German advance early in the war. A little over 1000 men and 31 officers landed to fight the German advance in August 1914. After two months fighting and two battles at Ypres, despite being reinforced, there were only 9 officers and 228 men remaining.

During the third battle of Ypres on October 11, 1914, the regiment played a key role in holding and then finally stopping the German push southwards – establishing a line that held for the rest of the war. At the end of the day, only 2 officers and 109 men remained. Less than ten percent of those that embarked. Such terrible suffering.

We continued on down pleasant roads with farmland and woods beside us to arrive at the cafe. For the youngsters, there was an enormous slide to dissipate a bit of energy.

Leather pants rather slowed the actual sliding experience however – fashion triumphs over fun.

For the oldsters, there was the cafe. Inside, the walls are adorned with a vast variety of old photos, newspaper articles, information sheets and souvenirs left by Australian and New Zealand visitors.

The owner of the cafe, Johan Vandenwalle, is a keen amateur archaeologist, specialising in the WWI period. There are two main displays in the cafe, a small underground experience of what it was like to be in tunnels and on the top floor, and extensive collection of artefacts recovered from the battlefields. There is also a video presentation, good food and beer.

Johan's Cafe

Undoubtedly, the highlight is talking to Johan. Very knowledgeable and friendly he will talk and talk. About how he was called to the road works where some remains were found; how he lifted the sheet off one of the bodies and saw the eyes of the soldier look up at him; how they eventually identified the remains as John Hunter’s and the story behind his death; his meetings with Australian officials (some good, some not so good); how he arranged for the gravestones of the five Aussies he found to be just ever so slightly separated from the sixth when their graves were prepared – despite strict rules that headstones be evenly placed; and we watched a video on his mobile of a surreal experience he had in the graveyard when a glowing sprite danced over John Hunter’s grave.

A wonderful fellow to chat with and the passion he has for the Great War and Aussies, in particular, is splendid. All in all, a wonderful visit and highly recommended.

We then cycled off to the nearby cemetery at Polygon Wood, which memorialises Australian and New Zealand soldiers who fell in various battles in the area, particularly in 1917.

The five soldiers recovered by Johan and one more. John Hunter's has the Belgian flag.

Amongst them of course, were the graves of John Hunter and the other four Aussies that Johan had recovered.

Then, it was off back to Catharina and dinner on board.

Off to Winter

Next day it was back to Diksmuide for our last cruise of the season. Laura took the helm for quite a long stretch heading towards the town, only surrendering when a bunch of canoes appeared spread across the river.

While we prepared Catharina for winter, Laura and Silvia explored the town and visited the Yser Tower. Late in the day we tried to visit the trenches at Dodengang, otherwise known as “The Trenches of Death” but arrived just a few minutes too late. The chap at the desk said we could see most of the trenches by walking along the river, which we did. Actually walking inside the trenches would probably have been more atmospheric.

The girls departed the next day for Spain and other parts while we continued with packing and winterising.

We are attempting to protect the woodwork with plastic sheet held to Catharina by strong magnets.

One of Ian’s other tasks was to locate a doctor to remove the staples from his scalp wound which merely involved a short wait, the staple remover tool wielded by the doctor and off – no fuss, bother or cost.

Meanwhile, a number of the cruising community had arrived in Diksmuide, including Sojourn, the reason Ian had split his head open, through no fault of Sojourn – it was entirely due to Ian’s excitement. It was really nice to be able to finally meet these two Australians, as we had been cruising in each other’s wake for a couple of weeks now. We knew some friends of ours were in town (Diksmuide is their home port), and we arranged to have a drink later in the afternoon. By the time we rocked up to the pub there were four couples, and a jolly time was had by all. Jude and Roger offered to drive us to the train station the following morning for the beginning of our long journey home. This was greatly appreciated, as two 30 kg suitcases and sundry hand luggage can be dragged over cobblestones for a couple of kilometres, but it was awfully nice to not have to this time.

Season in Belgium

This season far exceeded our expectations. The cruising and sights were superb and we learnt an awful lot – but also felt that our skills were getting to the level where we could be confident of sorting out most situations in which we found ourselves.

We discovered the pleasure of cruising rivers, something we had not really had the opportunity to do in previous years. It was delightful and we think preferable to canals by just a little bit – more variation mostly. However, canals like the Espierre can be fantastic.

We were also fortunate that the plans we made were almost completely fulfilled, superimposing our planned route with our actual travels shows almost no difference. It won’t always be the case but it shows how a reliable boat, a well-run waterway system and good weather allows a predictable cruise.

Here’s our final route map, 1078 km, enjoyed every one of them.

Next year, we will bid farewell to this lovely country and head to France.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *