Monday, 22 October 2012

Belgium - while we're scooter less.....

..........we take the bigger bikes on jaunts. Far better than not riding at all, which would be unthinkable. And winter is definitely coming, so we have to make the best of the Ok weather while we can. It's not too cold at the moment but it is wet and the leaves are coming down in their millions, making the ground slippery. We're hoping to have the Mongolian scooters sent back very soon.....but until then, bigger bikes it is.

And this weekend,  Ypres/ Ieper Belgium was top of the list of 'must go' places. A long weekend and a short hop across the Channel via the Tunnel, an even shorter hop through Northern France, and we were there -  Mike and Sue on a BMW 1200 and a Tiger 800 respectively, Nads on her 650 BMW, Gordon on his Transalp and me on my Hornet.

Surprisingly, nobody missed the RVP at the Tunnel on Friday morning, and we all got on the train we were supposed to get on. Yaay.

Even had time for a coffee and a pose. Weather wasn't too bad either.

Not so over the other side though, where it was drizzling. it didn't bother any of us unduly as we all had wet weather gear, but it does make everything look so dismal, and Northern France is not the most picturesque of places at the best of times.  But we took the rural roads rather than the autoroute, and eventually stopped for a late lunch just south of the Belgian border.

I say 'border' but of course this is Europe where there are no borders and sometimes its difficult to know exactly where you are. But this was France. I think.

One of the best bits about travelling by bike is that people chat to you and volunteer information. The owner lady at our lunch stop turned out to be a biker, had a Harley, and had travelled extensively on it through Europe with her husband and his mates.

 And she'd only got her bike licence at the age of 52 - but had done 84 000kms on her Harley since then. Definitely a very cool woman. Never did ask her name but it's a great lunch stop, and it's right on the junction of the D933 and D455.

We eventually arrived in Ypres later in the afternoon, after more wandering through villages. This was not a hurried trip.The hotel was ok - a Best Western job on the outskirts of town but within walking distance of it. And they let us park our bikes outs front for free....better  than the Novatel in town which wanted 11 Euros per night per bike. No thanks.

You have to love some of the town business signs though...

Ypres is one of those towns that copped it badly during WW1. It looks delightfully quaint and impressive, and it is.....but its totally rebuilt, having been smashed to smithereens by constant shelling, so trashed that only one tree and one bit of a building remained standing. But it was painstakingly repaired by locals who used salvaged original materials, and they did such a good job that you would never know. The only giveaway - and again you'd have to know as it really isn't obvious at all - it the occasional newer stone on a facade, inserted when an original was too damaged to reuse.

The building which dominates the town is the Cloth Hall and if you look at it, its a testament to the town's former wealth.

It is fabulously ornate and was one of the World's biggest commercial structures in its day - a medieval equivalent of the twin Towers, but not rising from a city but a little town in the middle of rural Belgium. And like many towns along the western coast of continental Europe and  eastern England, it was all down to the wool industry.

Ypres is probably most famous for its nightly service of Remembrance under the Menin Gate. Every night at 2000hrs, since about 1920, and whatever the weather and regardless of who is there,  local fire brigade buglers play the Last Post  as a tribute to fallen Allied personnel of WW1. I've seen it many times, but it is always moving. But this weekend there was` a problem with the electricity and it was very dark underneath the arch.

So many names, and no known graves, and the Menin Gate is only one of a number of huge WW1 memorials. In recent years, it has become quite a big thing, especially with British school groups and youth groups, particularly since the Government included it in the National Curriculum.

This stuff is part of what we are, and why the world is as it is and it's not for somebody whose only problem is getting to work on time, to tell people how to think.

What was interesting though was the following day at the German cemetery at Langemark, we were stopped by a Belgian journalist who was writing about national patterns of remembrance. He said there was apparently very little German interest, but lots from Brits, Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders. Maybe they just do it differently. Or maybe they don't. Who knows.

There is a huge difference between the German and Commonwealth cemeteries though. Whist the Commonwealth ones are pristine and airy and made of light stone, the German equivalent is very dark and a bit creepy. I suppose its just a question of style but there is definitely a marked difference.
Langemark - German

Tyne Cot - Allied

Also checked out the Flanders Fields Museum in the Cloth Hall. Again, impressive even if you're not that interested in WW1 because its about real people and the recent history of the World as we know it, rather than actual war stuff. Stories of real people caught up in something not of their making.

Most of these places are scattered over a fair sized rural area and the roads are not great - particularly on street bikes. Concrete roads, covered in mud, side winds, tractors, and standing water all add up to testing rides but then that's what as bikers we should be doing - riding our bikes and getting as much practice of adverse conditions as possible.

The market was on in the Square on Saturday, so we had a poke around that too. Markets are something that we've really lost in the UK, that higgledy piggledy mishmash of stuff and stalls.Now we just have supermarkets and samey old gear.But not here,where the weekly market is still a community focus as well as a social gathering.

The cafes are pretty good too and something that just had to be checked out, Waffles, pancakes and coffee on a rainy Saturday lunchtime. It had to be done.

And then a quick wander down the street to that other Belgian thing - the Choclatier, of which there are several in Ypres....

Stopped at Blankenburg on the way home. Its on the coast, on the Belgian/Dutch border. One of those seaside towns that have been there for years and you wonder why,given the cold weather and the grey sea. But at least you're safe from sharks. And pirates.

A quick nip through the Tunnel, and time for a quick rest for Nadine.

Then a good soaking on the way back, and we were home 80 minutes later, much to the relief of one son who had been locked out by the other. It was an accident. Apparently.