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Europe 2019 Day 6

Morning Kids? So, Dave is feeling rather ambivalent today; did I get enough sleep or is my body just playing games with me? Hmmmmmmm. It was definitely not as good as the night before. I am clearly not as adept as my roomie at falling sleep, who seems to be out the moment his head hits the pillow. And then the cacophony starts. Ugh. Do you ever find yourself so frustrated that you’re torn between crying and physically wanting to harm someone? Those thoughts may have crossed my mind during the several conscious periods I had during the night. Shhhh, don’t tell anyone!

So, today’s agenda. Well, I’m just sitting here by my lonesome in the lobby waiting for breakfast. The bus departs at 830, leaving Amsterdam and the Netherlands behind for Belgium. Our travels today will take us to Ypres, the site of numerous epic battles during WWI. Obviously the most important are the Second Battle of Ypres, fought in April-May, 1915 and the Third Battle of Ypres, more precisely the Battle of Passchedaele, fought in November 1917 (or at least the Canadian part was). We will be commemorating those and other events at the St. Julien Memorial and the Menin Gate Memorial.

“🎶On the road again…” And hey guess what? It’s bright, sunny and +15C outside. Haha! Ya, okay; if you fell for that you’re a sucker. It’s once again rainy, damp, windy and cold (7C feels like -2). It’s supposed to be 10/11C in Ypres, but depending on what forecast you look at, the rain or showers are expected to last until early or late afternoon. Hopefully it’s sooner than later and we have a chance to enjoy Ypres out of the rain.

I haven’t mentioned yet that I love Ypres too. This will be my fourth visit to the historic city and I can’t get enough. The history, the people, the architecture…it’s all amazing and why I’m enamoured with it. Ypres dates back to the 1300s, and was a prominent city in Flanders, particularly with regard to banking and textiles. One of the most famous buildings in the city, the Cloth Hall, is a lasting symbol of that. Sadly, it (with the exception of its exterior walls) and many other structures were destroyed during the fighting in WWI. They were rebuilt, restoring the city to its former glory. The central square, the Grote Markt, the ramparts and the Menin Gate all form quite an impressive experience.

Okay, so we’re back on the road, 120km from Ypres. I managed to get in a good nap before we had a break at a truck stop just west of Antwerp. By law, European bus/truck drivers have to stop for 30 minutes every 2/2.5 hours. Therefore, the travel plazas are amazing; this one had a Texaco station, a Starbucks, Burger King and huge convenience store. After taking advantage of the facilities, we all stocked up on food and goodies for the last part of the trip. Now we’re eating, sharing and chatting, hoping that the weather improves for Ypres.

Rainy drive, March 2019.

Interesting European flavours, March 2019.

I must say, not to hark on it, because I never do, that this is the worst weather I’ve encountered on an EF trip. It could be that we were spoiled on previous trips, like the last one which was hot and dry. That being said, usually the rain lasts a day or two then clears out. However, this has been day after day; you can see it clearly on the system maps. The jet stream is cutting across Europe, and the weather above it is unsettled and below is awesome. I blame climate change, but then I usually do.

Alright, so I’m sitting here in the lobby of the Cloth Hall, the Flanders Fields Museum, waiting for everyone to finish their visit. Our first stop upon reaching the Ypres area was the St. Julien Memorial (Sint-Juliaan). The memorial, a statue, is known as the Brooding Soldier and marks the first Canadian action in WWI at the Second Battle of Ypres. Here, near St. Julien, the Canadians fought a desperate 3-day battle against the Germans to hold back a massive attack which included the first use of poison gas in war. It was rainy and very windy, but we managed a quick prayer and a group photo.

St. Julien Memorial. March 2019.

St. Julien Memorial. March 2019.

St. Julien Memorial. March 2019.

St. Julien Memorial. March 2019.

The museum is a very interesting place to visit, and the kids really enjoyed it. There is a lot information about WWI and many artifacts from the area. I’ve been there before, so I moved fairly quickly through it. I also had an ulterior motive; I wanted to walk the ramparts of the city to the southern, or Lillie Gate. The best was that the sun came out…halle fricken lujah! I was starting to feel a bit like a mushroom with all the rain. The best part was that the winds calmed, and it was actually quite nice out.

Ypres, March 2019.

Flanders Fields Museum, March 2019.

I’ve done the trek to the Ramparts Lillie Cemetery before, and it a beautiful walk along the treed rampart. It took just over 10 minutes to get there from museum, and the kids I had in tow, Liam M from our school, and Beth, Sarah, Nick and Brodie from St. Ignatius, were glad they came. The cemetery is small and quaint, maybe 50 graves, but very beautifully built in the ramparts just west of the Lillie Gate alongside the canal. The sun shining through the clouds added a warm and fitting touch to the scene.

Ramparts Lillie Cemetery, March 2019.

Ramparts Lillie Cemetery, March 2019.

Ramparts Lillie Cemetery, March 2019.

We had to be back at the Grote Markt for 5:00 as we were going into one of the local shops to purchase some great Belgian chocolates. The shop is called Leonidas, and I’m sure they give EF something for bringing all the tour groups through. I’ve been there each time I’ve visited Ypres, and the owner has the same pitch and mannerisms. He reminds me of the Shamwow guy!

Ypres, March 2019.

Ypres, March 2019.

Ypres, March 2019.

Ypres, March 2019.

Dinner was at a restaurant called “De Trompet.” Lasagna was on the menu, but the roast chicken the British group who were also there eating looked better to me. It was okay, but you can’t serve an Italian lasagna at a Belgian restaurant. That’s kinda like sacrilege. The ice cream dessert was on point though.

Our last thing for the day was the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate. I’ve described this in previous years, but for the sake of clarity, it’s worth repeating. The gate was completed in 1928 as a memorial to the tens of thousands of Commonwealth missing in the Ypres Salient. It is massive, but when they started engraving the names on the memorial, they realized there wasn’t going to be enough room. They managed to get nearly 55,000 names on the panels up to August 1917; the rest are commemorated at Tyne Cot. Anyway, since it opened, with the exception of WWII, they have a daily Last Post ceremony at 8:00.

I hustled ahead of the group to get the spot I wanted to record the event, but a couple beat me to it. I had to settle for standing beside them for nearly 45 minutes until it began. It always amazes me how touching it is for just a 10 minute ceremony, but it proves just a small thing like this goes a long way in helping people remember such a sad and tragic event in our history.

Menin Gate, March 2019.

Now we’re on the bus for a 60km drive to our hotel located in France, just north of Vimy Ridge and Arras. I don’t feel too bad, but I am tired. It’s been a long day, even though part of it was just sitting. We’re only here for a night, and tomorrow we’ll be leaving for Normandy, stopping first at Vimy Ridge, which is only 30 minutes away. From there we will head to Beaumont Hamel, and then another 4 drive to the next hotel in Caen.

Anyway, I going to get rolling as it is late and we have another early morning. Until then…

 
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Posted by on March 14, 2019 in History, Travel

 

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Vimy 2017 Day 4

Oy vey. It’s a sleepy morning today kids. I did not have a very good sleep last night. I’m not sure how much sleep I actually got, but it wasn’t much. I really feel like I’m running on fumes. In any case, I’m a big boy, so I’ll have to suck it up and get in my rear in gear. Today we’re leaving our hotel and heading first to Anne Frank House for a short visit. I’ll check in again once we’re back on the bus.

Amsterdam selfies, April 2017.

Amsterdam canal, April 2017.

Okay, so we’re back on the bus. A visit to the Anne Frank House is something one does not easily forget. It certainly puts a real human face on the price of conflict and in particular hatred. All of the kids are familiar with the story of Anne Frank and they were all very quiet as they left. No one should ever forget war, but particularly instances of genocide than have left an indelible mark on history. Fittingly, there’s a beautiful church next to Anne Frank House, the Westerkerk. It would have been nice to go inside and say a little prayer; the incongruity wasn’t lost on me. A Catholic, in a Dutch Reform Church praying for those lost in the Holocaust.

Westerkerk, April 2017.

So we’re on the road now, heading toward Belgium and the Tyne Cot Commonwealth Cemetery outside of Passchendaele. I guess it has been and will be an emotional day for the kids. First Anne Frank, and now their first cemetery. Tyne Cot is a very large cemetery, larger than most. Many of the Commonwealth cemeteries from WWI were created were the men were initially buried, so there are many small cemeteries scattered around a wide area. This is what makes Tyne Cot and it’s 11,000 burials so unique.

In addition to the graves, there are many names (over 33,000 in fact) recognized on the Tyne Cot Memorial. The Commonwealth Graves Commission, which oversees all of these cemeteries, originally intended the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres to hold the names of all the missing in the area. Unfortunately, when they began to add the names, they realized it would not be able to contain the vast number of names of the missing. They used an arbitrary cut-off date of August 15, 1917; everyone after that date would be remembered at a memorial at the Tyne Cot Cemetery.

After a stop for lunch, we are back on the road. I feel much better now that I have some food in my belly. You won’t believe where some of the kids ate at. We’re currently passing through the Belgian city of Antwerp. I really wish I could see more of Belgium; it looks like such a beautiful country. I love the countryside, with the rolling hills, farms and gorgeous scenery. It will take us another 1.5 hours to reach Tyne Cot, so I think I’ll just sit back and enjoy the view.

McDoanld’s, Belgian-Dutch border, April 2017.

Whew, back on the bus. What a busy last few hours of the day. The visit to Tyne Cot was solemn and everything we expected. I think it made a big impression on the kids, none whom I imagine have ever been to a military cemetery. After a brief prayer service, the students visited the graves of their assigned soldiers. I did not visit a specific grave, but rather followed some of the students as they walked around the cemetery.

Tyne Cot prayer service, April 2017.

Tyne Cot Cemetery, April 2017.

Grave of Private McMillan, 52nd Battalion, April 2017.

From there, we took a short 10 minute ride into Ypres. With all of the groups visiting the area (there are 250+ EF groups expected to be at Vimy alone), we had to park outside of the city centre and walk in through the Menin Gate. I’ve already mentioned that I love the city of Ypres as it such a beautiful place. Even though much of it was destroyed during WWI, and was rebuilt, it is still breathtaking. I think many of the kids actually gasped when they got to the main square, the Grote Market and saw the Cloth Hall.

Everyone had just over an hour to walk around and explore, which unfortunately is nowhere near enough to see the city. I grabbed some frites, the national food of Belgium, just to say that I did. Afterwards, I joined the hordes of Canadians who descended on the chocolate stores to pick up some genuine Belgian product. The Leonidas Store had a “Canadian” special, which I partook in like all the other sheep. Twenty Euro got me a bag full of chocolate and since I’m an adult, a neat bottle of beer (I’m not much of a drinker, but the bottle was certainly a collectable).

After we reconvened, albeit a bit late, we headed to the Menin Gate for the Last Post Ceremony. There were a lot of people, mainly due to all the tourist groups in the city. Since we needed to be on the other side of the gate, we hiked around to the eastern side. We didn’t have the best spot to see the ceremony, but we were all glad that we did. There was an honour guard from the Queen’s Own Rifles, which added a Canadian flare to this solemn event which takes place everyday at 2000. I’ll post some video once I get back home.

Cloth Hall, April 2017.

    Menin Gate, April 2017.

Alright, it’s now 2300 and we’re preparing for bed. It was a late check in after the Menin Gate Ceremony and dinner at the hotel in Lille, France. Tomorrow is the big day and a long day. We need to leave the hotel by 0745 and arrive by 0900. Today was very warm and tomorrow’s supposed to be hotter, upwards of 22C! I think all might melt..thankfully I have a hat to protect my shiny dome and I believe we have enough sunscreen to go around. On that note, I better turn it as I have to be up very early. There will be lots of news from the ceremony. Until then…

 
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Posted by on April 8, 2017 in History, Travel

 

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Europe 2014 Day 4

Hello Day four! I had a decent night’s sleep (I felt tired this morning, even though I got at least 7 hours…must have been all the walking) and had a good breakfast. I’m sitting here in the hotel lobby waiting for the kids to come down with all their gear and board the bus. We will be leaving for Bergen at 9:30. After two days of walking, it will be nice to sit for a bit on the bus.

So we’re on the bus on our way to the Bergen cemetery. It is very neat to be driving through the countryside and see a side of the country that you never would. Lots of flat land (the Low Countries, duh) and farms. The aroma of the air really tells you where you are.

Bergen-op-Zoom will be the first cemetery that we visit. It should be very interesting to see their reaction today; the excitement will be replaced with solemnity. I’m not sure what my reaction will be. I know in 2012 the first cemetery we visited was at Dieppe and I was quite emotional. Maybe my reaction will set the tone for the kids. We certainly will talk a little bit out the cemetery before we get there.

So far on the trip the weather has been very cooperative. Yesterday was very sunny and warm…at times too warm. Today the high is supposed to be around 15C, which might feel even warmer than in Amsterdam since we are away from the sea. I certainly feels very warm on the bus!

We are now on our to way to Ypres, which is about 3 hours away. The visit we had to the cemetery was quite emotional. After a brief prayer service at the Cross of Sacrifice, the students proceeded to the soldier’s graves they were assigned. I wish we had more time to spend there, but I think what we had was enough to make an impression. They were very quiet as they left and many (including myself) had tears in their eyes.

Grave of Lt. Mullins, March 2014.

Grave of Lt. Mullins, March 2014.

Grave of L. Cpl Hamilton, March 2014.

Grave of L. Cpl Hamilton, March 2014.

My assigned soldier was Lieutenant Frederick Mullins, who served with the Black Watch, the Royal Highland Regiment of Canada of Montreal. We was killed in action on September 29, 1944. From Saskatchewan, his headstone read “To save his men he faced death, unafraid. May we so face the empty days to come.”

It is always the headstones that get me. As we were leaving, I happened to catch another one that hit me hard. The soldier was a J. Hamilton, who was also from the Black Watch. He was killed on November 1, 1944 and was only 19 years old. His inscription read “In loving memory of our only son. He lives with us in memory and shall for evermore.” As a parent, I have tears in my eyes now.

It is now a quarter past nine and we’re back on the bus heading toward France and our next hotel. What another great day. Ypres was a fantastic place to visit!

It took us only about an hour and a half to drive from the cemetery to Ypres, and the temperature continued to climb as we did. The bus was showing the outside temp at 20C…20C! Holy cow! For a group coming from Thunder Bay, this is like going to the equator. A few weeks ago it was -45 with the wind and now I felt like zipping off my pant bottoms and going around in shorts!

When we arrived in Ypres the first place we went to was the Flanders Fields Museum, which is located in the historic Cloth Hall. The building dates back to the 1400’s, but was unfortunately heavily damaged in the war. It was rebuilt, and now houses this beautiful and informative museum.

After going through the museum, Jo-Anne and had time to wander around the town a bit, especially the Grote Markt (as did everyone else). It really gave us a chance to look around and explore the city. Jo-Anne got some chocolate and found some tea. Down the road was the Menin Gate Memorial, which contains the names of more than 56,000 Commonwealth soldiers who are missing. We were there in 2012, but there was no time to look at the memorial; I had no idea it was that large.

I had a mission while I was there, and I was able to accomplish it. In my teenage years I served in the Lake Superior Scottish Regiment, our local infantry reserve regiment. I have kept in touch with one of my commanders, Major David Ratz. On our last trip he had asked me to photograph the panel listing the soldiers from the 52nd Battalion, which which was the designation for the unit in WWI. I found the panel and took a whole bunch of photos, so I kept my promise.

We walked around a bit more, and bought more chocolate before we met up with the Felicity at 6:00. From there we went back to the memorial in preparation for the 8:00 ceremony. There was a bit of time before it started, so I walked along the Kasteelgracht (Castle Canal) with Felicity until we got to the Ramparts Cemetery. The blooming flowers along the way were great. It is a small cemetery, but very beautiful beside the canal. There are 10 Canadians interred there and I paid my respects.

The Last Post ceremony was very nice and it was great to be there again (it didn’t have the pomp of the 2012 one, but simple). Afterwards we headed back to the Grote Markt and the Den Anker restaurant for dinner. It was an awesome meal of salad, half rotisserie chicken and fries; I was full! The Revelo for desert was perfect 😉

Menin Gate, March 2014.

Menin Gate, March 2014.

So tomorrow were going to be going to the Wellington Quarry in the morning, followed by visits to the Thepval Memorial and Beaumont Hamel Memorial in the afternoon. Should be another awesome day of learning and exploring. On that note, I need to get rolling. Until then…

 
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Posted by on March 9, 2014 in History, Travel, Writing

 

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