In August of 2009, I travelled to Koln (or Cologne) in Germany in company with my friend of many years Gail Hobdell (aka “Stormy”) We had met in the Gulf fishing port of Karumba in 1970 and we went to visit another Karumba friend Helene Weinlechner who had returned to live in Koln in 1977. This is the story of our visit to Brugge, and the tour we did of the World War 1 battle fields in the area and over to Ypes – now called Iper. I though you might enjoy to read about it, as I have referred to events then in my story of my day there in 2017. Also, I note that at the time the Aussie Dollar was worth around 50 cents in the Euro’s but now in 2017 it is more like 74 cents. I will add photo's also when the signal is better.
On Tuesday of this week we were up early (4.15am) because we had to leave here by 7.30 am to get the local train (which they call the tram) to the main station and then the train to Brussels, and it seems it takes that long to get us all through our baths and breakfast and medications and packing for 2 nights away. Also Gail gets anxious we will be late, so in the end we were over an hour early for the train. This gave Helen time to buy some licorice and biscuits for the train trip. Near Brussels Helene pointed out the building left from the 1958 world expo that they built to resemble the structure of an atom. It was in the distance but clearly seen and I hope my photo comes out. We changed at Brussels to the local train that does not have allocated seating. It was packed, and we all started off standing up. There was a lady there with her dog on the seat beside her, and she did not put it down to give anyone a seat. I HAD to get a photo. You can barely make out the dog though as there are too many standing between it and me. Got a better one later when some had got off. After about half an hour, the man sitting beside where Helene was standing got out, so she got his seat. Then Gail kept losing her balance and falling against this man sitting down and eventually he got up and insisted she have his seat. The funny thing was though, that this was right opposite the dog. Gail had been saying (in a not too quiet voice) how it would NEVER be allowed on the train in Australia, let alone on a seat, and certainly not if people were standing. So, now she was sitting opposite it. I could see her reflection in the glass, and she was glowering at it. Soon, it was looking askance at her. I said to Helene 'it is probably wondering why all these hate vibes are coming from the seat opposite.' It looked to be a nice little dog and it was not its fault, and as Helene said, the lady may have bought a seat for it, but Stormy didn't care - as far as she was concerned it had no right to be where it was. We had to laugh. I got to stand all the way. Thank goodness it takes slightly less than an hour.
At the station at Brugge I had one of my most interesting experiences at the toilets. I tell you, I could write a book about them alone. There was this long queue, but the men were called in ahead of the women, as there was no hold up with them as they were all just using the urinal. When I eventually got close enough I saw what the hold up was. The very officious attendant cleaned the seat and checked the toilet after EVERY woman had used it, before anyone else was allowed in. You also had to pay her first .40 euro (roughly 80 aussie cents) - but still cheapest we have had - usually it is .50 ($1)and at the Hauptbahnof in Köln it was 1euro - or $2. You also had to go back to her to be allocated one sheet of paper towel to wipe your hands. After the performance when one lady asked for a second sheet (she got instructions on how to dry your hands properly so you do not need more than one sheet) no one else dared while I was there. There were only 3 toilets. When I still had two ahead of me in the queue we heard a big fart and lots of squirting sounds. Well, when I still had one ahead of me, the attendant had to clean this toilet. I felt SOOOOO sorry for the woman who had caused it. There was much mumbling and scrubbing and bleach and disinfectant and carry on like you would not believe, and in the meantime the other two became vacant, but when the lady ahead of me went to use one of them the withering glance and shouted 'Nein' and lots more I did not understand, was enough to have her scurry back to the queue. We had to all wait till she had cleaned all 3 before she could take her place once more to collect the money. Not to mention that by this time I was standing with my legs crossed, as were many others. I can laugh about it now but was not game to at the time for fear I would have had an accident - or even worse - be banished to the back of the queue...... When I came out Gail said 'what took you so long?' I tried to explain, but when we were leaving to come home last night I made them go and experience it for themselves, although there was a different lady on this time, who was not quite so officious, and she had someone with her that I think was being 'trained' to be an attendant. I asked nicely and they allowed me to take their photo.
On arrival we then went to the information place and she found us a room for 3 at Hotel de Goezeput, which she said was a short walk away, and gave us a map. We were blown away by the number of bicycles outside the train station. Thousands of them in row upon row of bike racks. Helene and I estimate it was about a kilometre walk, but on very narrow roads with little or no footpaths and very rough cobble stones it felt like we had been on a 5 mile forced march by the time we got there. I had taken my new bright pink backpack, Helene had her case on wheels (which was too heavy to carry but did not roll easily on the rough surface) and Gail had the backpack she takes everywhere, plus the same bag of Helenes that I had taken to Sweden. We were strung out like browns cows with Gail leading the way as usual, with no idea which way she was going, and me having to shout at her to 'wait for us' or 'go right here' or 'now it is left' as I had the map. (This is the way we go most times. Gail has no sense of direction but strides off ahead, leaving Helene and I to make sure she does not get out of shouting range or go the wrong way.)
We immediately organised a trip for the next day to the Flanders Fields battlegrounds. I could write a short play on that alone, but at this rate I will never finish, so that is going to have to be one of the stories I save for sharing over a nice bottle of red when I get home. (In case you are wondering, the others have gone out and I am home alone, so in seventh heaven being able to just write.) We had a brief rest to recover from the 5mile forced march then walked two blocks up to the main street where we had a wonderful lunch on these crusty rolls. Back for another short rest, then I dragged them down to the Markt (Market place) where we took the City Tour in a little mini bus that dives in and around these narrow alley ways to show you the main sites of the town, and some of its history. The main area has limited car access, and large trucks and buses are not allowed in at all. There are huge carparks on the edge of the city and people have to leave their cars there. Mostly they then cycle to wherever they work or need to go. I managed to get a photo of the compact way they can fold some of the modern cycles up now - so it is like a small suitcase size. Anyway, after the tour, we went to one of the sidewalk places and had a drink, and surveyed the comings and goings. The others had some fancy red drinks they saw the lady at the next table having. I had a beer, a 'Tripel Karmeliet' which supposedly was awarded the prize this year as 'the best beer in the world'. It is a 3 grain beer that has final fermentation in the bottle, according to the label. It is made in a brewery that dates from 1679 and is 8.4% alcohol. it was very nice but at about $9.50 of our money for a 330ml bottle it would want to be. (If you are interested check it out on www.bestbelgianspecialbeer.be) There were these horse carriages that I was dying to have a ride in, but the others weren't interested so in the end I missed out. I took a photo though, especially of the bags that catch their droppings.
We then went looking for somewhere to have a meal. Helene was determined we should try their 'pomme frites' as the original 'french fries' or chips came from Belgium. We had seen them on a menu back at the other end of town, when we had gone to check out where the bus would be collecting us next morning, so walked back there, but at night they have a different menu and did not include the ‘pomme frites’. So we walked up and down 2 or 3 times trying to decide what we were going to eat. (Another play coming soon of how people sort out what and where they are going to eat when on holidays!!!!) Eventually we decided to have Chinese and went to the Chinese restaurant in the side street. Well what a meal it was. HUGE helpings the like of which I have never seen before. And beautiful too. We all ate far too much and the leftovers would have fed 2 hungry teenagers I reckon. We then headed for an early night. Gail discovered the TV here is broadcast in English with Belgium subtitles, so she was happy. Probably explains why most locals speak such good English.
The next morning we had arranged for an 'early breakfast' at 8.15 (usually breakfast is 8.30 to 10.30am) so we could get our bus at 9 am about 10 min walk away. I went out earlier and found a patisserie just opening at 7am and got some fruit juice so Gail could take her psyllium husks half hour before she eats. There was hardly anyone around at all at that hour. Anyway we got to the bus stop in plenty of time.
The tour we went on is called Quasimodo Tours. It is a husband and wife team Philippe and Sharon Uyttenhove-Evans. She is an Aussie and he is born and raised in Flanders. Both have relations that were involved in the First World War here, and they are very passionate about it all. Philippe was our guide for the day. All the commentary is done in English. He speaks it very fluently. Never have I heard a better explanation of how the first World War came about - and many others said the same thing. It was a very emotional day, and I could probably write for another 2 days on what we saw and what happened that day. I will just touch on a few.
*The restored British trench found amongst what is now an industrial area, where you can walk along in the old trench itself, and although the ground water has filled in the dugout sections, they have mapped where they are and marked them out on the ground, so you can see for yourself how it was done. Six men had to sleep in each tiny little space - makes you wonder how they could breathe.
*Then there are the live shells found by the farmers and put beside the road for collection by the bomb disposal people (over 200 tons a year is still being found) and we were able to see some awaiting collection. I believe it encourages people to stay on the road, and not veer off to the side!!!! Several people die every year from them.
*The preserved battleground at Hill 60 with the old bunkers and shell holes etc, is amazing. Lots of trees there now, so bit hard to imagine when it had none at all.
*The field dressing station at Essex Farm really blew us all away. It is so small. You can't move between sections, you have to come out and go to the next door and re-enter. It was while he was here that John McCrae wrote his poem 'In Flanders Fields' which resulted in the poppy becoming the symbol of remembrance. At the end of the day when Philippe stood beside this dressing station and read the poem aloud it was truly moving. The cemetery here had names on most graves, unlike most other cemeteries where most headstones say 'Here lies a soldier of the great war. Known unto God.' Sometimes it might say an Australian soldier or a Member of such and such brigade, because they were able to be identified by their uniform, but few have names because their 'dog tags' were of paper and disintegrated easily in the wet conditions. At least here they were brought in for treatment, and as such it was recorded, so when they died most could be buried with a name.
*The Menin Gate at Ypes (now called Iper) which has the names of 56,000 allied soldiers who have no known graves. This does not include any New Zealanders, whose names are recorded in other places. Some of the names are high on the wall, so we were relieved that when we found the name of Gail’s Great Uncle (Robert Dillon) it was right beside the steps and at a height she could easily reach and point to. I got that on video and took several photo's as well. This was the highlight of the day for all of us, but especially for Gail. She was getting more and more emotional as the day went on, and I was starting to worry, but after we found his name, and could photograph it, she looked so much better. Later Helene took her into the cathedral at Ypes and she lit a candle for him. As this church has been rebuilt on the same spot to the same plan as the one that would have been there when he first arrived, this seemed very fitting. I also found the names of a couple of Griffiths boys just near her great uncles, and a couple more were buried at one of the other cemeteries. (Didn't see any Trimbles or Robins at any of them, not that we had much time to really look.) To this day, every night at 8pm the Police stop the traffic on both sides of the gate and 2 Firemen come out and play the last post on bugles. The town have made an undertaking to do this as a tribute to these men who died defending their town (which was never taken by the Germans) and 90 years later there is no talk of it not continuing it. Unfortunately we were not able to be there for that, but it is on our list for next time.
* We also went to Langmarck cemetery, this is a German cemetery, and he included it as an extra because Helene was on the bus with us, and some people made some comments about that early in the day. However I noticed that everyone got off the bus to look at this one as well. (I think by then they were feeling intense sympathy for anyone who had gone through the hell of this 4 year campaign irrespective of where they were from.) They have a special section there that records the names of the 3,000 young German student soldiers who after a couple of weeks basic training came up against experienced well trained British soldiers and were slaughtered in an afternoon. There are 10,142 buried under headstones, a mass grave of 24,834 men and another of 9,500. Many of the headstones have simply 'Three (or 4 or 5) unknown German soldiers' - as translated by Helene of course. It also has the names of several thousand soldiers who died and have no known burial place. She also found the name of what she thinks was either her grandfathers brother or cousin. She has told one sister already and they will research it now to find out exactly. She was not expecting to find it, so it affected her emotionally too.
*There was also the Tyne Cot cemetery, and 'hellfire corner', the Memorial to the Aussie 5th Division at Hill 60, and the Canadian Memorial to the 18000 Canadians who found a way to survive the gas because one of them was a chemist and realised it was chlorine and told them all to wet some cloth and hold it over their faces. As water and spare cloth was scarce some peed on their socks to survive. 2000 didn't though.
*Lunch was at the Hooge Crater Museum right opposite Hooge Crater cemetery. (This is where I found a couple of Griffiths recorded.) It is only a small privately owned Museum, but so well done. I could have spent a half day there easily, instead we had an hour to eat lunch as well. Lunch was a huge sandwich with your choice of ham, cheese or pate. It and the museum entry were included in the cost of the tour, but you had to buy your own drinks.
They offer that they will help you search out relatives grave-site with advance notice. He helped Gail locate her great uncles name, a Kiwi couple find his great grandfathers and for a Welch couple he made a small detour on the way back so he could help them find a grave in the Irish cemetery. All in all it was the most wonderful day. I think you could spend days at many of the places we visited, but we took in so much and he explained so much you really felt for the soldiers of both sides. They also had a book which was written by a history teacher who took their tour several years ago with some of his students, and it has great photo's and some interesting accounts from some survivors, which you can buy for 5euro. Needless to say we all bought one - in fact Gail bought 3. In case any of you are interested they have a web site at www.quasimodo.be and if you know anyone coming over don't hesitate to recommend this tour to them.
Needles to say we did not take much rocking that night, we were worn out. Before we went back to the hotel though we grabbed dinner at a place that had not been open the night before. The food was wonderful, and Helene and I got our pomme frites - and they were truly wonderful and you can understand why they spread so far and became so popular. The waitress here was unbelievably efficient. Over another bottle of red I can tell you all about that in detail too.
The only problem with the day was that after we got back in the bus after finding her Great Uncle Robs name on the Menin Gate, Gail said 'I can die happy now. I had to come to find that before I died.' I told her that if she dies before this trip is over I will kill her.... Can you imagine the paperwork!!!!!!
Next day we slept in, and had a late breakfast. I went on to their computer to check and answer my emails. This was an even more interesting experience.... Their keyboard is completely different to both German and Sweden, with the position of A and Q reversed and M where the ; is at home, but to make it really interesting the key for the v was missing altogether so you had to rub the spot with your finger and eventually it came up. You have no idea how many words have v in them until this happens.....
We checked out of the hotel, but were able to leave our cases there. We first went for a cruise on the canal. Got lots of photo's. I was interested to see how many of the house foundations are crumbling on the water line. There used to be 41 kms of canals around Brugge but now there are only 12. Only licensed tour boat operators can use most of them these days. Next we went to the old St Jan Hospital, which operated from sometime in 15th century until the 1960's. It is now mostly a museum for works of art. Had another interesting experience at the toilet there - but not nearly so good as at the station!!! Maybe we are paying for the entertainment at these places and not the cleaning? Had not thought of that before but it makes sense.
This area has been known for its lacework for centuries. Across the road there was shop that specialised in lace items. I went in and took lots of photo's to bring back for my QCWA ladies. Even bought a small item in bobbin lace. They say many of the bigger items are no longer hand made, but the bobbin lace and one other (forgotten which one she said - too much info in too short a time for this brain) are all still hand made. Got a postcard there too.
By this time we were all sick of struggling our way on the cobblestones and our next stop was about 14 blocks away so it did not take much to convince Helene and Gail we should take a taxi, but how to find one. I asked the friendly lady in the lace shop and she offered to call one, and it was there very quickly. He turned out to be a real gem He took us to the Volkskunde Museum, and told us about a couple of other things to see nearby. I arranged for him to come back and collect us in 2 hours. The Volkskunde was the best 2 euro I have spent in years. Even if you add the 2euro each we paid for the taxi, it was still wonderful value. It is 8 almhouses from the 17th century with a small modern extension, has a series of different decors from the past. There was a classroom, cobblers workshop, hatters workshop, coopers (barrel makers) workshop Flemish living room, confectioners bakery (Yes another chocolate making thing, and they had another room beside it with just all the different moulds - seems I can't get away from chocolate!) a pharmacy, an inn, a tailors workshop, traditional textiles, and authentic bedroom interior, an entire room about pipes and tobacco, plus lots of signs, and their was even a photo of one of them in situe. It was all so well done and spotlessly clean, all of it. The inn operates as the coffee shop these days, but was closed because of a party of disabled people due through shortly after we were there. There were also parties of school kids lining up to go through as we left.
I then went into the Lace Museum shop just down the road. Here everything is hand made and exquisite and VERY expensive. I got her card though because it is well worth a visit even if it is a bit 'off the beaten track' and I want to tell the CWA girls about it. Helene and Gail sat on the stool outside and got into the biscuits Helene had bought at the Köln station. We spent some time looking at the other things around there. I noticed a roll of honour for the 14-18 war, just like we have at home, for the local parish there. Our taxi came back early, but we were ready, so then I got him to drop us at the Market place and arranged for him to collect us at 3.45pm. We went and had a meal. I had spaghetti bolognaise and the others each had a pizza. They were all very nice. Then we got the taxi to call past the hotel to collect our bags and then drop us at the station. We gave him a good tip. Our train left at 4.58 pm and we were back in Köln by 8.15pm. We had a seat all the way this time.
On the train from Brussels, I am pretty sure it was David Suzuki who was in the same row as me, on the other window. I took out my Sudoko and Helen kept 'helping me' so I gave it to her and got out my cards. We had a table so I started to play patience. Gail wanted to learn as she had forgotten how to play it. Well, in the end 3 of the other 4 people in our row were involved too. There were lots of laughs over that. We were home by 9.45 and in bed by 10pm with no rocking needed.