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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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 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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Hot Damn

I decided to cut short my tour of the United Kingdom by taking a ferry from Newcastle to Amsterdam. I took a train from Glasgow to Edinburgh, and then on down towards Newcastle. I would like to come back to Newcastle, when I have more time, but for now I am just passing through.

Floating Hotel

The ferry to Amsterdam was pretty exciting (for a one who enjoys slow travel). It leaves in early evening and gets in to the Netherlands the following morning. When you buy your ticket, you automatically get a bunk in a cabin, so it’s like transport and accommodation all rolled into one. You wake up in a new destination and you have the bonus of feeling refreshed once you get there. That makes this a great option for budget travellers, although I did discover that it is even better value if you travel in pairs and can get someone to share the cost of your cabin.

Sex and Drugs

Most people immediately think of “liberal pastimes” when they think of Amsterdam, The city is well known for allowing the sale of certain drugs (mainly marijuana) and for legal sex tourism. In the same way that Liverpool makes a big deal out of the Beatles, Amsterdam makes a big deal out of legalised drugs and sex. Although the city’s tourist board has allegedly been told to play these things down, they are still pretty much right in your face. On certain streets you can’t help but glance an eyeful of scantily clad women, whichever direction you choose to look in.

I, of course, elected not to indulge, but it is impossible to write about Amsterdam without at least acknowledging this important aspect of the city.

Free things to do in Amsterdam

In my hostel I met a bunch of travellers who were interrailing around Benelux and trying to do things on the cheap too. We decided to team up and find some fun but free things to do in Amsterdam. They had heard about a space called the EYE Film museum, which is a celebration of audiovisual materials. You can get these little pods and watch films/videos in them for free. Although the videos that we saw were mainly in other languages, we were able to get hold of some English language stuff to listen to.

We also went to the Waterlooplein Flea Market to have a look at some of the quirky second hand things that stallholders were trying to sell. One of my new friends was persuaded to buy an old military-style trench coat which went all the way down to the floor. It seemed like a great idea at the time, but I’m sure that she will regret it once she realises that she will be stuck with a heavy coat for the rest of her time travelling! A few pieces caught my eye, but I decided that I better not fill up my bag with random trinkets if I want to keep going for much longer.

Horticultural Garden

We also took a trip to the Amsterdam horticultural garden, which was lovely. When my new friends suggested it, I was a bit sceptical because I thought it was a little early in the year for plant life to be active, but there was still plenty of stuff to see and do. It turns out that the Dutch are famed for their green fingers, so the botanical gardens look great all year round. They even have loads of activities for the children, if you happen to be travelling with younger ones.

Next Moves

The whole of Europe is pretty well connected by rail, so I have been considering getting an interrailing pass. The problem is that there are so many different options available that I can’t decide which the right option for me is. I’m going to speak to a travel agent tomorrow for some advice.

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My next move was to get the train up to Glasgow. I parted ways with my travel companions to make my way up to Scotland’s second city. A childhood friend lived and worked there, so I was getting free lodgings, meaning that I couldn’t really bring any extra folks along for the ride. They had other plans in the south of England anyway, so this wasn’t a major issue. We swapped Facebook details at the hostel, said our farewells and went our separate ways. I caught a discount bus and made it up to the city within a few hours.

First Impressions

Glasgow reminds me a lot of my first impressions of Liverpool: the city seems to be a mixture of stunning architecture (the university building is amazing) and gritty realism. It is the perfect place for people who don’t like perfect places. Like Liverpool, the city has received a lot of bad press over the last century, but much of it has been unfair. I had heard a few stories about Glasgow’s reputation, but many of the things which are propagated are true of every other city in the world. In fact, the areas of Glasgow which I visited were full of multicultural community spirit.

City of the Dead

On my first full day in the city my friend had to pull an early shift at their work, but they suggested to me that I got up early and went for a walk around the Necropolis. This area of the city (whose name literally translates as City of the Dead) is a classic Victorian style of cemetery which is “home” to some of Glasgow’s most famous deceased inhabitants. Many of the monuments were designed or carved by famous Scottish artists, so as well as being a beautiful and peaceful early morning stroll, it was a chance to some wonderful pieces of artistic merit.

If you are going to head there, I would recommend visiting at sun-up or sun-down, on a clear crisp day, as this was just amazing.

The Bonnie, Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond

There is no point in visiting Scotland if you do not intend to spend time in the outdoors. I have long been told that Scotland has some of the most beautiful countryside in the whole world, and what I saw over the past few days proved that it was definitely a contender. However, I hope to see many more contenders over the coming few months.

My friend drove us up to Loch Lomond and the Trossachs for a beautiful country walk. The scenery is just phenomenal. We even dipped our toes in the Loch for a few minutes, although I was very glad to be able to dry off in the nice warm car.

My friend is a local history buff and was able to fill me in on a lot of the local history and folk stories of the area. As an Irishman, I have always appreciated the power of folk tales and love unpicking the fact from the fiction. Thankfully the glens and lochs of Scotland have no end of fascinating stories to tell.

Kelvingrove Museum

As my trip seemed to be centred on nature, history and the outdoors, it seemed that going to the Kelvingrove Museum was a perfect end to my Glasgow trip. From the outside the building looks amazing, although rumour has it (definitely just a rumour!!) that the building was accidentally constructed backwards and the architect ended up throwing himself from the tower in despair.

Inside there are a few examples of Scottish art, wildlife and items of cultural significance. Whilst it is nowhere near the best museum in the world, it is well worth a quick visit if you have time, especially considering that this museum is free to visitors. The highlight of the day was seeing a rare taxidermised example of a wild haggis…

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