This is part II of a report on our trip to Flanders in September 2018.
Part I, Three Days in Kortrik, can be reached via the link.
The third part can be found in Ghent, but not Brussels.
Monday, September 3, 2018 (Waregem)
The next morning, we had our breakfast, gathered our luggage, and rolled off to the railway station. It was a short trip, as Waregem is only two stops down the line from Kortrijk. Our first task was to find the Hotel Ambassade. The route wasn’t difficult to follow: down a main road and just one left turn down a side street.
Once we reached the vicinity of the hotel, things began to look strange. The hotel wasn’t actually on the street. A sign directed us down an access road past a line of what appeared to be rented single-car garages. The hotel is a couple hundred yards from the street. It is an older (not “historical,” just old-looking) multistory building with a deck built out from the first floor (as they number floors in Europe). It has a lighted sign showing its name. Across the access road there is an anonymous one-story light industrial building of the sort you might find anywhere in the world. I had a “What have we gotten ourselves into?” feeling as we arrived at the front door with our roller bags and our backpacks.
The door was locked. We pressed the call button, and it made a sound like a phone ringing. A voice said, “Ja?” I said our name and that we wanted to check in. He said, “Now?” (It was well before check-in time.) I said that we would at least like to drop off our luggage and then return later. He said, “Okay, I’ll be right there.” Considering that he seemed to be talking to us on a phone, I wondered whether he was in the building and how long we would have to wait. As it turned out, it was a matter of minutes before the door opened.
We were greeted by a short, stocky man. He was wearing a buttoned short-sleeve casual shirt that reached below his waist. Below that he wore knee-length shorts and flip-flops. He would be the only person we saw working at the hotel. One got the impression that he might not be a human but some fey creature—perhaps a manifestation of the hotel itself. He manned the desk, carried the luggage, stocked the breakfast buffet, and served the bar. He did mention “the cleaners” at one point, but we never saw them.
Once we were inside, he was friendly and helpful. He said that we could leave our luggage in front of the desk, as no one would disturb it. He gave us maps of the town. We pulled our cameras out of our backpacks and set out to have a look at my grandfather’s town.
We retraced our steps to the street and turned left, heading southeast—away from the route we had come. At the next intersection we headed south, in the general direction of the town center. It looked like an upscale area with large, new houses. We came to an entrance into Baron Casier Park. It’s an area of mixed meadows and woodland. The streams and ponds showed the effect of the summer’s drought, with low water levels and bright green algae covering the surface. We came out of the park by way of the main gate, past the Baron Casier Mansion. It is now used as a meeting space, café, and venue for temporary art exhibits. At this point we were heading southeast again, still trying to find the center of the town and the Tourist Information office. (We later worked out that if we had returned to the Stationstraat, the street from the railway station, we would have reached the center directly. Of course, then we would have missed the posh part of town and the park.) We had to do a bit of poking around and backtracking, but we finally arrived at the centrum.
Monday, September 3 (continued)
Waregem has a market place on the north side of Saints Amandus & Blaise Church, but it is much smaller that Kortrijk’s. It is lined with bars, each with its outdoor seating area. The church itself is large but plain on the outside. While it was originally built in the 1500s, most of what you can see dates from later remodeling in the 18th and 19th Centuries. It appears to be very much the working parish church. Bulletin boards prominently display notices of recent baptisms and marriages. I scanned the names for Vandenbrouckes, but I didn’t spot any. While I can’t be sure that this was my grandfather’s church, its central location suggests that it was (and is) probably used for special town-wide events.
The area south of the church is a shopping district. There is a small war memorial at the center of a traffic circle. The other side of that is an open-plan shopping mall (the Stadwinkel). Shop-lined streets radiate around this.
Our usual strategy in exploring a new town is to locate the tourist information office where we can pick up the best maps as well as brochures and information that we might not already have. However, we just couldn’t find it. There were signs point to it, but they just petered out, leaving us gaping in all directions. We finally decided to give it a miss and walk to the American military cemetery.
It was a long walk. Our route took us past Waregem’s main claim to fame, its horse grounds, where horse shows and races take place. However, it was the off-season, and no events were taking place (we had planned the visit to avoid those crowds). The area around the horse complex showed signs of new construction and existing luxury apartment buildings, testifying to the boost that the horse shows give the town.
An unfortunate consequence of the off season was that the Hippowar Museum was also closed. We had wanted to visit this museum, which is about the role that horses played in World War I. This closure didn’t surprise us, as we had learned about it after our travel plans were set.
The walking route to the military cemetery is not pedestrian-friendly. The area is suburban or even “exurb.” Some parts have sidewalks, some walkable shoulders, and in others one must walk on the road itself. Fortunately, the traffic wasn’t heavy. The route wasn’t complicated, but it took some anxious map reading to make sure we were turning at the right spots (You don’t want to get lost on the fringes of a town when you don’t speak the language). It was a relief when the cemetery entrance came in sight.
The Flanders Fields American Military Cemetery is the only World War I American cemetery in Belgium. With “only” 388 graves, it is also the smallest of all the American military cemeteries. There are two reasons for this. The first is that American forces did not operate in Belgium very much, with most deployed in France. In the Fall of 1918, two American infantry divisions (the 37th and 91st) and one artillery brigade (the 53rd) were attached to the French Second Army for what would be the final offensive of the war in Flanders. The second reason is that, unlike British and Commonwealth practice, American authorities gave families the option of repatriating their loved ones’ remains instead of burial in Europe. Most families chose this option.
The visitors’ center at the cemetery is small, but it gives a good background of the activities of the American forces in the context of the wider war. It also highlights the stories of some of the servicemen buried there: The ones awarded medals, the two friends who were killed on the same day and buried side-by-side, the doctor who had volunteered to serve with British forces, and the naval airmen shot down over Belgium.
Monday, September 3 (continued)
When we went out into the cemetery itself, we weren’t looking for any particular names. Even though this is a small cemetery by military standards, it was still sobering to meditate on the rows of stones, each representing a man who could have lived out a full life and contributed to his society. Given the circumstances of the American involvement in Flanders, most of the dates on the graves were heart-breakingly close to the end of the war. Even sadder, we saw a good half-dozen dated November 11, 1918—the very last day. There were very few other people at the cemetery. As we were getting ready to leave, a small group of what appeared to be Chinese arrived. I wondered how they came to be there and what their reactions would be to the graves of foreigners in a war where their country figured so little.
We retraced our long walk back to the center of town and then back to our hotel. The man was at the front desk, and we completed the process of checking in. The interior of the hotel is decorated in a fussy old-fashioned style, with wallpaper and lots of little pictures. It wasn’t bad-looking at all. There was a tiny elevator with a wooden door like a closet. We took the stairs up one floor to our room. Although the corridors smelled like tobacco smoke, the room did not. It was fine: not at all run-down, with the enough room to move around and store our stuff. The plumbing fixtures all worked. The bathroom was stocked with bottles that could have come from a supermarket or pharmacy, unlike the little bespoke bottles one usually encounters in hotels. I decided to use my own soap and shampoo. One odd feature was that the bathroom door was translucent glass. One couldn’t see through it. However, it meant that if someone got up during the night the light would shine on the other person trying to sleep. The location of the hotel being what it was, the window looked out onto more industrial buildings and parking lots.
After unpacking, we decided to go back and look for the TI again. We left our keys on the desk as instructed, because it was the only set they had. Once again, the location of the TI eluded us. We sat down at a café in the shopping mall, the Taverne ‘T Peerdeke, and had a beer. After wandering around a bit more we stopped in a bookstore because Fran wanted a new sudoku book. It was interesting to see Dutch editions of current American bestsellers on the shelves. The travel section featured familiar guidebooks, including some for destinations in the USA. I wondered what they said about Washington, DC. The Dutch sudoku books have a numeric difficulty rating system. The puzzles themselves are language-neutral, of course. Fran picked up a book in the middle range, and we completed the purchase without difficulty.
We returned to the hotel to consider our dinner options. After retrieving the key, we had trouble unlocking the door. I had to go back to the desk to get help. We squeezed into the elevator for the trip back up. We learned that the electronic key was only for the door into the hotel. There was an electronic reader on the door, but it didn’t do anything. There was also a trick about how you had to turn the metal key to get the door to unlock.
The guidebooks were not promising concerning dining possibilities. Most of the restaurants were closed on Mondays or not open in the evening. After pursuing a couple of dead-end leads, we wound up back at Tavern ‘T Peerdeke. This time we had some trouble communicating with the waitress. I had a croque monsieur, which is a grilled ham and cheese sandwich that you can find in most Belgian cafes, and salad. It started to rain a bit, but we rearranged our seating shelter under the umbrellas over the tables.
We then returned to the hotel to settle in and discuss what to do the next day. We decided to take a day trip to Ieper (Ypres), which was not far by train.
Walking miles: 12.6.
Tuesday, September 4 2018 (Waregem and Ieper)
The next morning, we experienced the hotel breakfast for the first time. The breakfast room was pleasant and well decorated. The same guy was bustling about keeping the buffet filled. The selection was a typical spread: breads, cheese, cold meats, fruits, and spreads. I was pleased to see that this last included Biscoff spread, which happens to be the most wonderful substance invented by mankind. I had some slices of rye bread with Biscoff and Nutella, sliced chorizo, and cheese. The clientele around us were in town for business. Some wore suits. Some tables were populated by young men in matching polo shirts. One group was conversing in Italian.
We left the hotel and walked down to the station. It was raining on and off, but we were prepared for that (typical Belgian weather). When we bought the tickets, we were told to sit in one of the first three cars, as the train broke into two parts at Kortrijk, with the rear half going elsewhere. The trip was short, despite the pause in Kortrijk.
We had been in Ieper once before, in 2015. That was part of a battlefield tour originating in Bruges. We were tied to the group’s schedule then, and thus we didn’t spend as much time as we wanted. This was the first time that we entered the town from the railway station. We stepped out finding a light fog. There was a nice little park, Le Touguet, with floral plantings across the street from the station. We paused there to take some photos.
The winding streets leading to the center of town look like they are lined with centuries-old buildings. However, this is an illusion. Ypres was reduced to rubble during the First World War. It was rebuilt according to original designs using German reparations. Thus, the streets we were walking through were less than a century old. Many of the contained upscale stores, as you might expect in a town that gets so many visitors. The center of town is dominated by the “medieval” Cloth Hall. It contains two museums: the Yper City Museum and the Flanders Fields Museum. We went into the city museum first and bought combo tickets for both. They gave us little wristbands that could be used in the museum to trigger appropriate passages from the audio guides.
We have visited many city museums. This is one of the better ones. It told a unified story, with a nice blending of artifacts and high tech elements. The audioguide spoke in the voice of people from the periods being described. While the scope of the story was from prehistory to the present, the focus was on the medieval and early modern periods, when the town and more control over itself. It was a reminder that Ieper was and is more than the site of a battle.
After leaving the city museum, we decided to break for lunch. The Cloth Hall is adjacent to Ieper’s large market square. In the pattern familiar throughout Europe this is lined with cafes, each with its outdoor section of umbrella-shaded tables. After browsing the menus, we chose one. Because the weather was still unfavorable, we opted to dine indoors—for the first time this trip. I decided to order the salami and cheese board with my beer. The waitress explained that this item was really intended for snacks, but I persisted. When it arrived, I saw what she was trying to tell me. It was a large portion—piled high with Edam cheese and Genoa salami. It must have been meant for a group to share over a few beers. Both the salami and cheese were very good, and I surprised myself by finishing it. I chose a local beer, Kayser Karl, named after Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who looms large in Flemish history.
Tuesday, September 4 (continued)
The Flanders Fields Museum mostly follows the popular, “accidental conflagration” view. It has a section on the sources of international friction before the war, including colonialism, ethnic nationalism, territorial disputes, and the naval arms race. It also depicts the romantic militarism with which the public viewed their soldiers and sailors. In its coverage of the war itself, the museum emphasizes the clash of new technology, such as machineguns and long-range artillery, with old ones, such as horse transport and leg infantry. The exhibits include displays of the equipment carried by soldiers of each of the major combatants. Naturally, there are detailed chronological depictions of the battles around the Ypres Salient.
During our visit there was a special exhibit on battlefield archaeology. Using new imaging techniques, such as lidar, scientists mapped the trenches of a century past. There were electronic displays showing current maps with overlays of the battle lines. The exhibit also showed artifacts recovered from the ground: soldiers’ kit, personal effect, tools, and munitions. A complete horse skeleton, still embedded in its matrix, showed that animals as well as men disappeared into the mud of Flanders.
The museum has a café, which we didn’t use, and an extensive gift shop. There are books, toys, videos, CDs, clothing, and all the memorabilia you would expect. I came away with some monographs about the Belgian Army, a polo shirt, a CD of American war music, and magnet. Fran bought a scarf.
The train back to Waregem was crowded with school children, apparently on their way home. When we squeezed into a seat, we found a celebrity tabloid magazine. There on the cover was our name. There was an article about the daughter of Frank Vandenbroucke, a Belgian bicycle racer who had succumbed to drug addiction. The headline was something like “I still wear his t-shirts when running.” After we returned home, I learned that Frank was a descendant of one of my grandfather’s brothers and thus was a distant cousin of mine.
When we returned to Waregem we found that, again, or preferred dining time of around 5:00 was awkward for finding a restaurant. Most eating places fell into one of these categories:
• Already closed for the day.
• Not open until after 6:30.
• Closed on Tuesday.
• On holiday, now that the “horse season” is over.
After wandering as far as the railway station and the center of town without success, we came upon Basilico, an Italian restaurant that was mentioned in our guidebooks. It was just barely opening when we walked in. The food was wonderful. I had veal scaloppini. We even had ice cream for dessert.
We missed a turn on our way back to the hotel and wound up walking almost all the way back to the station before we got our bearings. It wasn’t a bad kind of “lost:” We got to see parts of the town we wouldn’t have seen otherwise. We weren’t worried about finding our way back eventually, and so it turned out.
Walking miles: 5.2.
Wednesday, September 5, 2018 (Waregem & Oudenaarde)
The next morning, I decided to try the packaged Belgian waffles instead of bread for breakfast. I put them in the toaster but left the setting too high. They got a little burnt. However, nothing tastes too bad if put Nutella or Biscoff spread on it.
Our plan was to visit a small cemetery not from the station, on the off chance that we would spot some graves that might be relatives. Then we were going to take the train to Oudenaarde to see its ornate city hall and visit the city museum. The plans did hold up to reality. We couldn’t find the cemetery. There was construction going on in the area, with whole streets blocked, even to foot traffic. The area was occupied by newly-built single family attached housing (what we might call townhouses in the USA) that were arranged around streets that didn’t go all the way through. From our map, it seemed as if some of the housing was right where the cemetery should be.
We finally gave up and headed for the railway station. The trip to Oudenaarde didn’t take long. The current station isn’t much to look at, but the old one is a gingerbread wonder, from the days when trains were the only way to cover distances quickly. That building is now being used as a meeting and events space. On our way towards the center of town we encountered some new construction in progress. As in Kortrijk, we saw the frames holding up the old facades to preserve them until the new building could be grafted on behind them.
As we neared the city center, the first thing we encountered was a group of war memorials. A green area contained a large granite plinth dedicated to the American troops who liberated Oudenaarde in 1918. These were the same units as the troops we saw buried in Waregem: the 37th and 91st Infantry Divisions and the 53rd Artillery Brigade. Another memorial was to the British troops who performed the same service in 1944: the 5th Royal Tank Regiment, 7th Armoured Division. There was a milestone from the Voie Sacree, the supply road into Verdun that was under constant artillery fire during that months-long World War I battle. An obelisk was raised to the memory of Belgian soldiers and civilians killed in the First World War. The most unusual memorial is a reclining female figure gazing towards Mexico in sorrow. In the 1860s, when the United States was in the midst of the Civil War, the Austrian Habsburgs and the French under Napoleon III attempted to establish one of their own as Emperor Maximillian I of Mexico. Maximillian’s empress was the daughter of Leopold I of Belgium. This memorial remembers the Belgian volunteers who died trying to prop up this short-lived regime.
For a change, the tourist information office was easy to find. We picked up a map and some fliers about local attractions. We were disappointed to learn that MOU, the tapestry museum we wanted to see, was closed while a new exhibition was being mounted. Leaving the TI, we got a look at the town’s famous stadhuis, in all its flamboyant Gothic splendor. It has spires, statures, arms, and plaques everywhere. However, a fun fair was being set up in the courtyard in front of the building. The area was filled with trailers, booths, and disassembled rides. There was no place with an unobstructed view where we could take pictures. We did the best we could and moved on.
Not far from the stadhuis is St. Walburg-Kerk, a hulking gray stone structure. The guidebooks say that it suffered considerable damage from Protestant iconoclasts during the Reformation but that it now features tapestries and Baroque side altars. We’ll never know, as it was locked when we tried to visit.
So, there we were. The museum was closed. The church was closed. We couldn’t get a good look at the stadhuis. Aside from a few odds and ends, this day trip was a washout. We decided to go back to Waregem and try to find the larger town cemetery.
Wednesday, September 5 (Waregem, continued)
We retraced our steps to the railway station and rode back, arriving in Waregem about midday. The station is on the northwest side of town, while the cemetery is on the southwest. We found a café, Foodbar Steve'n, near the station (one of the establishments that had already been closed the previous evening). It was doing a good business in takeout food from construction workers and school children. However, they also had table service, and we sat down to order from there. I had a chorizo panini with 1/3 liter of beer. It was a cozy place with lots of community buzz going on around us.
It was a long walk to the cemetery, made a little longer by detours around construction near the station. When we were almost at our destination, we noticed a Mazda dealership with our name on it. The cemetery is pretty large. It didn’t seem old by European standards, but there are graves going back to the 19th Century. As we entered there was a computer kiosk with a touch screen, and I tried to search for “Vandenbroucke” graves. I was encouraged to see that there was a hotkey for “VANDEN…,” showing how common that prefix is. Unfortunately, I kept getting stuck at a certain point in the search. The fact that I couldn’t read the instructions in Dutch was certainly a factor.
Fran and I separated and walked the rows of graves, looking for Vandenbrouckes. The gravestones were of a uniform size and shape. Some had photographs attached. The graves of married women gave their maiden names, which was a help. We found about ten graves, although we didn’t have time to walk the entire grounds. Later comparison with our (meager) family records identified a few as descendants of my great-grandfather, through one of my grandfather’s brothers.
We walked back to our hotel, reorganized, and then went out again. We looked for a farmer’s market that was supposed to be taking place, but we couldn’t find it. We stopped in Taverne ‘T Peerdeke, again, as we could be sure it was open. I had macaroni and cheese with ham, plus beer. On the way back, we looked for an ice cream store that we had passed several times, but now it eluded us. We then returned to the hotel and packed up for the trip to Ghent.
Walking miles: 12.1.
Thanks for the detailed and interesting report.
On the Chinese and "...in a war where their country figured so little." That depends on how one interprets the history relative to the over-all events. China declared war on Germany six months after the US did, even though there was no outstanding issue between Germany and China, and was a participant in the Paris Peace Conference, until it walked out before the Germans were presented with the Treaty of Versailles, as did Italy. There is a Chinese WW1 cemetery in northern France.
Interesting that you went to Odenaarde, the last of the Duke of Marlborough's 4 great victories in 4 years against the French, the first being Blenheim, and the battle which led to his dismissal by Parliament.
On my trip in this past May, I saw in Holland the Dutch translation of the British historian Christopher Clark's biography on the Wilhelm II.
I had seen already this biography on the Kaiser appear in German translation in Berlin as well as Clark's work on the origins of WW1, "The Sleepwalkers" also in German translation.
What a surprise to hear you are actually close family of cyclist Frank Vandenbroucke. He is one of Belgiums bicycling icons, if you name VDB everybody at least in Flanders know who you talk about besides another VDB, Vanden Boeynants who was a politician. Indeed his ediction to drugs made sadly an early end to his life. There is even made a movie about him “Engel” or “Angel” in English but his parents are understandably not so happy with this kind of attention to their suns life. I think there is only a Flemish version of the movie. There is another Frank Vandenbroucke, a well-known Belgian politician, googling you will certainly find his name, but he is nowadays active as a professor to one of the universities in Belgium. Who knows he is family too.
The In Flanders Field Museum in Ypres has a names database, but you have to be accurate with giving the data, otherwise you get no results at all. That is what I experienced with looking for family of mine. https://database.namenlijst.be/publicsearch/#/search/language=en
Thank you for the tip. I will give that web site a try. Maybe I'll find someone to meet up with on our next trip.
After reading this enlightening report, I had better get to the Flanders Field Museum, am definitely interested in the literature sold in the book shop pertaining to the war.