Baby was super accommodating to our schedule again and didn’t wake until after 9:30! We didn’t check out until 11:30 but it was perfect timing for munchkin to nap in the car. Our original plan was to spend the day in Ghent en route to Antwerp, but we skipped Ypres yesterday and that wasn’t something we were willing to do again. We drove 30-40 min the opposite direction but was it ever worth it.
For starters, Ypres is STUNNING. Out of all the ones we’ve seen so far, I’m not sure which one takes the cake between that and Ghent. It just didn’t even seem real walking through it. Ypres: a definite full 5 Beyonces.
But prior to that, we stopped en route not far outside the city at the Yorkshire dug out trenches. Basically, the province of Flanders was such a heavy war zone, you can practically dig 60-70cm anywhere and find remnants of the war. In 1992, there was a section along the canal that was getting industrialized, when they came across the trenches, a dug out, and everything from unexploded shells to 205 soldiers’ remains. The city bought this small portion of land and restored the trenches. I can’t even imagine the magnitude of digging these out for miles and miles, laying down the wooden planks, the stone walls, let alone arming it with artillery or digging out underground “offices”. Absolutely heart wrenching that just in this small part of land, 205 more men forever lost to their families were found almost a century later.
Baby was still half asleep in the car so we had taken turns checking it out before moving on to central Ypres.
We were definitely planning on checking out the Yper Museum but I don’t think either of us clued in to the shear the size of this place. From all those history classes a decade ago, I knew Ypres was a huge battle field, countless soldiers perished here, but the making of history this city carries when you step foot is unbelievable. When we reached the Menin Gate: the gate through which you enter the city (where hundreds of thousands of soldiers from Canada, France, Britain, South Africa, and Australia marched in and out of) and saw the memorial where almost 55,000 names of soldiers were engraved in memory of the soldiers whose bodies were never found.... it was a heavy moment. I’m actually just tearing up writing this a bit, to be honest. A great marble arch with so many names they actually ran out of room, but what I think was the thing that sent both Justin and I over, was an old photo someone hung by a name. Or a poppy stuck to a different one. Or a Canadian flag placed by someone else’s. I also noted how many times the same last name popped up within the same division and wondering if all 3 Dunns were related. Did a family lose all 3 of theirs sons? A husband and 2 sons? Cousins? There was a cemetery if you took a path up past the gate but Justin and I just couldn’t. We came all the way out here but we just didn’t expect how much that wall would hit us in the feels.
We grabbed some coffee and ice cream to take a moment to collect, wandered up and down the streets and as much as the museum would’ve been fascinating, we just didn’t have time since we had one more stop planned before heading north.
We drove a bit further South to get to Hill 60 and the Caterpillar Crater. Some have probably heard of it but if you have not, here’s the quick recap as this was a pretty significant moment in history:
Hill 60 is essentially 2 raised hills that were built up in the 1850s by cutting the land to make a flat track for a railway. The two sides of where the railway then ran were considered to be of strategic importance because they were so much higher than the rest of the surrounding landscape, and as such changed hands many times throughout the war. Along with trench warfare, lots of fighting during the first world war was also done underground in tunnels that the two sides would dig towards each other, and that’s where the Caterpillar comes in. Leading up to the Battle of Messines, the Allies (primarily Australians in this case) dug long, deep tunnels from their side of the trenches, over to the German front. Over the course of two years they filled the tunnels with huge amounts of explosives, then at 3:10 a.m. on 7 June 1917, they detonated all 990,000 pounds of it they had piled up, of which about 70,000 pounds were under the Caterpillar. Estimates are that these underground bombs killed 10,000 German soldiers before they knew that the battle had even started. The crater, still visible today, is absolutely massive, and is said to still hold hundreds of bodies to this day.
This is how close the 2 front lines were, note the German front line marking where the red arrow is (turned out over exposed, but promise it's there).
None of our photos did it justice, but let's play "Find May and Baby" for context.
Hill 60 is considered to be the most well-preserved battleground from the Great War, thanks to a British family buying the land and not developing it. Because of this, all the craters and mangled concrete are essentially as they were when the war ended. It also means that no matter where you step foot in the memorial, you are likely walking on top of buried bodies. Everywhere.
It was 4pm and we were still hoping to hit up Ghent since it was about an hour away. We started walking back to the car and Baby took to waving at every car that drove by and following them with her head over my shoulder to see if they waved back. It was so sad and so cute!!
After feeding Babes and getting her ready for a nap in the car, we were on route back to Ghent. It was over an hour drive and the entire ride was pretty sombre. We got into this whole discussion about history and how no matter how many Hollywood movies we watch or read books, it just doesn't sink in. How many of you can say they legit stop every once in a while and really think about what it meant for these soldiers to fight for our freedom? If they hadn't, and fascism had succeeded, where would we be? Even on Remembrance Day, when we take a minute of silence, how many actually stop and think about it versus just taking a moment out of their day for whatever. Really put yourself in their shoes, really set the picture, for the men, their wives and young children left behind. Small Canadian fisher towns who sent out all their men to fight and maybe had a handful come back - what did this now mean for their communities? From work to reproduction. Millions of people died - men fighting the cause, men conscripted to fight against their will, families who had to evacuate, families who couldn't make it out alive. What a different world, and we're so used to Hollywood exaggerating so much of this that it was always hard to believe that it really could've been that way. We discussed a lot of things, but I'll leave the history at that. We're nerds, what can I say.
We were hoping to hit up the Gravensteen castle knowing it closes at 6. We didn’t get in until about 5:20 and unfortunately the last entry was 5, so we enjoyed the castle from the outside. I think I read somewhere that people didn’t want to restore this castle, and in fact, take it down with its history of torture, but for now it stands.
Sad we missed it, but we’re planning to see a LOT of castles later this trip so no worries. We decide to spend our hour wandering more of the city, and damn, I just fell more and more in love. This has to be my top 3 favourite cities I’ve ever been to. I take the 5 Beyoncés I rated it earlier and add another 3 off the charts! Such a busy city by the vibe is just SO chill. We honestly couldn’t think of another place we’ve been to that equates to this.
We sat down by the canal and hung out for a little bit taking it all in. People were sprawled out everywhere throughout the edges by the water with picnics and bottles of wine just soaking in the sun and the city. No matter where you looked, it was out of a fairy tale. I hope Antwerp lives up to this since we’re spending the next 3 nights there.
We drove off to check in at our new place with Babes sleeping in the car right up until we pulled up around 7:30....and we can’t complain so far. We’re on the fourth floor in the dead centre of the square in old town.
The view from our window is superb and location could not be more central - for context, cars can’t even drive up to where we are since it’s all cobbled and narrow. With baby having had another hour’s sleep in the car, we were able to start our evening by hitting the streets up at 8. We walked around to get some bearing within the city, checked out the dock, and wandered back to find dinner. Between Chubz being super needy and teething (pretty sure #4 AND #5 will come out any day now, it looked so white, I had to touch it to make sure it hadn’t already popped through which it hadn’t), and me missing her when she’s in the stroller, I opted to carry her. She stole many hearts and got her cheeks pinched by many an old peoples. After being inconclusive about what we want to eat, we ended up at an Italian restaurant. This practically never happens as we almost never go out for Italian, but we both felt like pizza and carbonara so we gave in. We didn't get home until about 10 and after a quick bath, change, and feed, there was no rocking required as she was pretty conked and fell asleep instantly. Perfect timing!