Ypres

With the 100th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme being remembered today, it is somewhat coincidental but fitting I feel that I’m also writing about my recent experiences of Ypres, in Belgium.

Inner feelings

When I was out at the café in Brussels with my fellow hostel goers, talk turned to the places that we had visited in Europe and where we intended to move on to next. One of the girls said that she had recently been to Auschwitz, but she wasn’t sure how she felt about the fact that it was being classified as a “tourist destination”.

The group had a long discussion about our own feeling about visiting places where a large scale loss of life had occurred in relatively recent history. Some felt that it was important to let people visit these places so that the next generation could learn from the mistakes of the last one, whereas a few others in the group felt that when a place became a “destination” on a revolving door tour, it lost all its poignancy and became just another box to tick. We all agreed that “selfies” and a picnic lunch on the lawn were totally inappropriate, but we were then forced to consider how far back does that privilege extend? I mean, there are plenty of battlefields in Ireland which are also gorgeous picnic spots!

Respecting our History

All things considered, I joined a few of the others on a trip down to Ypres to visit some of the trenches, battlefields and a World War I Cemetery. I’m glad I went, because I really feel as though it helped me to understand a lot more about World War I, and to understand the enormity of the events. I feel as though a lot of younger people have actually been dulled to the events of World War I because they are so far removed, mainly because of time and location.

Other people of my age have told me that they have almost developed a kind of “memorial fatigue” due to the sheer number of Centenary events that have taken place over the past few years. For me, the practical aspect of this trip was far more important than any book learning has ever been.

Some trenches around Ypres have been reconstructed so that visitors are able to walk through them. Whilst it is impossible to fully understand the horrors that soldiers must have experienced when they were faced with vermin, mud, live munitions, unsanitary conditions and the constant worry that they were about to be sent over the top, these trenches helped me to understand just how claustrophobic many of these soldiers must have felt. When taken with many of the famous war poems about the trenches near Ypres, it feels far easier to understand the personal aspects of the war, rather than just seeing the conflict as statistics.

I am told that there is also a German trench and a German war cemetery near to Ypres, but I did not get chance to visit. History is often written by the victor, and it can be easy to forget that the old “enemy” were people too. Most of the German soldiers must have been as scared and frightened as the Irish, British and French soldiers were, and they were required to follow the same mindless orders from people on high. It is nice that there are some facilities to remember them in this area.

Outside of the battlefields, Ypres was a pleasant enough place to visit. Almost all of the historic sites were destroyed during the War, so there is much less to see than there are in some other towns and cities in Western Europe. If you enjoy a good walk, the Ramparts walk is a very interesting trip. Despite the destruction that the rest of the town experienced during the war, the ramparts are some of the best preserved examples in the whole country. Taking this walk will give you the opportunity to see that Ypres is much more than just a World War I site.

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Waffles and Beer

After my healthy WWOOF experience, I could not think of a better place to go than Brussels. Leaving aside the current situation with Brexit and the EU project, Brussels is famed for its chocolates, its waffles and its beer, rather than its sprouts, the capital city of Belgium is only about half a day’s bus ride from the farming community where I had been enjoying my workcation. So I hopped on an early morning bus and was there in time for lunch.

I had already imposed a budget on myself which stated that I would indulge on food in each destination, and then try to enjoy the rest of the city for free or cheap, but I just did not know where to start when I arrived in Brussels. I asked for advice at my hostel about where to get the best waffles and the receptionist joked with me to say “Just pick one, you won’t be disappointed”. I’m going to stick with her tact of not championing a particular waffle houses, kiosk or street vendor, because the three sets of waffles I ate (in two days!!) were all truly scrumptious. I would hate to promote one place whilst knowing that all of them are just as tasty as the next.

On my first night in Brussels I went out for Belgian beers with a few of the people I had met at the hostel. I’m not a huge beer drinker, but my comrades assured me that the beer was beyond compare. We sat in a small square in a café opposite a popular waffle house with an open air waffle window. It wasn’t raining so we sat outdoors under little blankets that the café owner brought to us. One of the girls introduced us to a game she had invented called “waffle toppers”, which was based purely on people watching. All you had to do was guess which topping (or lack of topping!!) they would choose to have on their waffles. It sounds silly but it was a really fun way to pass a couple of hours.

The next morning we all want down to the Brussels Museum in the Town Hall. The entrance fee is only 4 Euros if you have a student card (or free if you visit on the first Sunday of the month) and I would say that it is well worth a visit if you find the time. Although there are some fantastic displays about the history and the culture of the city, the thing that I found most interesting was the display of costumes for the Manneken Pis.

The Manneken Pis (“Peeing Boy”) is a famous statue of a naked boy urinating into a fountain which has stood near to the Grand Place for nearly 400 years. A few times a week the statue is dressed in a costume by the city, and it is customary for visiting dignitaries to bring an item of their traditional dress for the statue to wear. All of the best costumes are displayed in the museum. It’s quirky but fun.

Brussels is a great city to walk around in the late Spring. There are lots of unique things to do, including spotting the aforementioned “Peeing Boy” statue. If you are particularly eagle-eyed, you can also spot a “Peeing Girl” and a “Peeing Dog”, which are slightly less famous.

The city is full of out outdoor spaces where people are relaxing and making friends. As the “capital of Europe” (read home of the EU) it is also a very international city, meaning that you should be able to find a lot of home comforts here. I am told that the population has become a little more reserved in the past year, given that the city has been involved in a number of large-scale terrorist incidents, however I did not notice this at all. Most of the people I interacted with were just happy that tourists were still visiting the city.

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WWOOF WWOOF

It has been a while since my last blog post, because I have been so busy recently and largely away from the internet. My trip to the Horticulture Garden actually inspired me to get involved with growing things in the Netherlands. I spent a month WWOOFing in the Dutch countryside!

WWOOF

WWOOF stands for Worldwide Opportunities for Organic Farms. It is an organisation which allows volunteers to be matched up with organic farms around the world. In exchange for a few hours farm work per day, volunteers are given food and board by the farmer. Because it is a volunteer opportunity, volunteers will not normally need a work visa, although it is worth checking with the local authorities so that you do not find yourself in any trouble. Most EU citizens should be able to do volunteer work in another EU country without any issues. Check out the WOOF website here for further info.

I found out about WWOOF from a South American guy who I met outside the travel agency in Amsterdam. He was looking for a cheap bus on towards his next destination and we got chatting whilst waiting in line to speak to the advisors. He told me that he had been traveling for nearly 2 years but he had only spent the equivalent of a few thousand Euros. He had always dreamt of seeing the world, but the opportunity was not one which was possible for many people in his position. One day, he met some travellers near to his home who told him that they were working on a WWOOF farm close to his home. They introduced him to the concept of WWOOFING and working holidays, and he realised that this could be what he was looking for. Thanks to WWOOF he had only really spent money on his transport and a few luxury items that you need to keep you going. A few times he had topped up his funds by getting a work visa and taking paid employment opportunities instead.

By the time I got to the front of the agency queue, I had already decided that I would look into WWOOF instead of making a rash decision about where to head to next. I still got some advice from the travel agent, but decided to hold off on booking anything until I had investigated WWOOF some more.

You do have to sign up with the regional or national branch of WWOOF which does have a small annual cost associated with it, but this cost was only about the same as the cost of one night in a hostel in Amsterdam so I didn’t mind too much. Once you sign up, you can contact Farms to see if they would be able to host you.

I went to a farm in north of the country for a few weeks and had an amazing time. The farm I went to put volunteers up in a cosy but basic bunk house, and fed us some amazing Dutch specialities (all organic of course!). WWOOFers at this particular farm would make an arrangement to either do the morning shift, the afternoon shift or the evening shift, and they would have the rest of the day free to do what they wanted.

The farm where I was staying actually had a couple of spare bikes which they were able to lend to volunteers. It was so nice to be able to just cycle around to countryside or even pedal as far as the sea! Holland in Spring is so beautiful, and I feel as though this stay gave me chance to explore areas which I would never normally go to.

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