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Things to do in ypres including the incredible Last Post ceremony

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Without question, this is one of the most moving and poignant towns to visit in Europe. Steeped in history, tradition, and the scene of some of the most horrific events on the Western Front, it’s a town that is not to be missed.

Ypres – or Ieper – is best known for its role in World War I.  Situated on the western side of Belgium, close to the French border, the town became a battleground for fighting between the Germans and the Allied forces.

This area was strategically important to the Germans, allowing them to take full control of Belgium and advance further into France. The Allied forces were not prepared to allow this to happen, and so fighting continued for years in this area, also referred to as the Western Front.

Many national armies fought in and around Ypres; however, it has a strong link to the Commonwealth forces, which fought here continuously from 1914 to 1918. The Commonwealth forces also sustained the greatest injuries and fatalities, with over 185,000 soldiers impacted in some way.

The fighting of World War I also took its toll on the city of Ypres, with most of it destroyed. Today, the town has been rebuilt, having kept as much of the heritage as possible intact.

This city has an incredible nighttime vibe, largely generated by the Last Post ceremony, which is held every night at 8 pm sharp at the Menin Gate. This was one of our “must-do” events while we were here.

Ypres or Ieper?

When we are in Belgium, the Dutch word Ieper is used. To the French however, it’s Ypres, and to the British, it’s colloquially called “Wipers.” History suggests that the British armed forces struggled to come to terms with the pronunciation of the French spelling and summarily made up their own.

The magnificent Cloth Hall

In the centre of town, the magnificent structure of the Cloth Hall is an incredible sight.  Initially built in the 13th century for a burgeoning cloth industry, it was completely destroyed in World War. It remains an important part of local history even though it is now a replica of the former structure.

Today, the Cloth Hall houses the local tourism office and the Flanders Field Museum. Like so many of the museums in this area, there’s a plethora of wartime history, stories and displays. The Belgians do well with their interactive displays, similar to what we saw at the Bastogne War Museum. They make your visit and associated learning quite engaging.

Wartime stories and tears

Visit anywhere in Ypres and you’ll find yourself involved in a story, or two….or three. You just can’t avoid it. In the cafes, the museums, the memorials, and definitely the pub, many people come to this town for a specific reason. While some, like us, will come for the history, the occasion, the significance of the town and to learn, there are many who have real, strong, family connections to the war and this area.

The stories are compelling, warm, laced with pride from their family, and usually always tear-inducing.

Our best story came from two Scottish brothers who had travelled to Ypres to visit their grandfather’s grave on the 100th anniversary of his death in World War I. It was the first time they had done so, and they were highly emotional. With tears streaming down their faces, they told us of their lifelong wish to do this together and how visiting the grave was the most incredible thing they had ever done.

The Menin Gate and the Last Post

The Last Post ceremony is the main reason visitors come here —aside from general connections to the town and the western front. It is one of the most amazing experiences, and quite rightfully, it’s subdued, sombre, and respectful.

As Australians, we have grown up with the Last Post being played each year on ANZAC Day, and at all military occasions. In Ypres, it is undertaken on a daily basis, and has done so since 1928. Each night, at precisely 8 pm, the Last Post ceremony is conducted at the striking Menin Gate.  It is truly a special event, believed to be the only daily ceremony in the world.

The Last Post Menin Gate
The Last Post Menin Gate

The Menin Gate is a perpetual memorial to just under 55,000 Commonwealth soldiers, without a known grave, who fell before 15 August 1917 on the Western Front.  The gate sits adjacent to the remains of the city ramparts and over one of the main roads that lead out of town; a road that lead the soldiers of the Allied forces straight to the front line.

The Menin Gate at night Ieper Belgium
The Menin Gate at night

The names of these soldiers are inside the walls and stairwells of the Menin Gate. As noted above, only those fallen soldiers prior to 15 August 1917 are named here. This is because it was realised after it was built that nearly 35,000 names of soldiers wouldn’t fit. These names are now inscribed on the memorial wall at Tyne Cot Cemetery, another incredible war cemetery nearby. The Menin Gate does not carry the names of the New Zealand and Newfoundland soldiers.

At the time of its construction, the Menin Gate was controversial, and opinions varied.  Today, with time passed, it is an important part of Ypres and world history.

Large numbers of unknown soldiers continue to be found in the Belgian fields.  If found, they are finally given a proper burial.

why a visit to ypres is a must
One of the many plaques carrying the names of the unknown soldiers

How to get the best spot at the Last Post ceremony

We’d read that the best location for getting the best view was to stand in the middle of the road immediately after it was closed off each evening to stop the traffic going through the bridge.  If you can’t get there any earlier, this is probably a good spot.

But, our advice to anyone wanting to attend and get an awesome spot is to get there around 7.00 pm, just as the crowds start moving in under the gate.  Go underneath and into the middle, to the point where the ropes are. This is the best spot. If you can get into the actual corner, this will position you for the best view.   If you can’t, then at least try to get alongside the ropes.

Our tip: We know that it’s horrible to be handing around waiting but if you underestimate how many people will attend then you will miss the best opportunity for a great spot. Those who fought in the wars we remember here did plenty of waiting, so an hour or so of you time isn’t much.

The speaker’s lectern is set up in the middle in front of the stairs, and the buglers responsible for playing the Last Post stand under the eastern end of the gate.  The soldiers march through the middle too.

why a visit to ypres is a must
Floor plan of the Menin Gate Last Post Ceremony.  The crosses indicate the best places to stand.

On any given night, there are hundreds of people here, which would multiply considerably in the summertime when tourists are at their peak, and for special events.

Menin Gate Ieper Belgium
The underside of the Menin Gate. The beautiful ceiling and the walls are lined with the names of the unknown soldiers

At exactly 8 pm, the buglers take up their position under the outermost end of the gate.

Menin Gate Ieper
Army waiting to march

To a background of complete silence, a speech is made by an official in the centre and a soldier delivers The Ode.

Soldier reciting The Ode at the Menin Gate
Soldier reciting The Ode

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”
[The Ode by Laurence Binyon, as published in the Winnowing Fan:Poems of the Great War, 1914]

Then, to make this ceremony so much more than just a habit, each night, a different group of people take part in it. Here, they lay wreaths for family members long lost to the war. Others lay wreaths honouring regiments that may have a link to a current-day military club. Whatever the origin, it’s another sombre reminder of what has been lost to so many.

View who will be participating each night here.

Groups waiting to lay a wreath for their soldier at the Menin Gate
Groups waiting to lay a wreath for their soldier

As it all ends around 8.30, the main street resembles the Running of the Bulls….with hundreds of people, having had their movements and voices restricted for half an hour, released into the night.  It’s bedlam.  Everyone’s talking about what they just saw and their trips to the cemeteries that surround this town.

Everyone flocks into the bars and restaurants, who have waited patiently since 8pm and are now ready to welcome their customers long into the night.

 

Book your flight: Flights are an important part of travel and we’re always looking for the best deals. If you can travel mid-week and be flexible, you’ll often find great deals on flights. We also use Skyscanner and Expedia for flight bookings. Dollar Flight Club is a great resource for getting special advance offers and even error fares directly to your inbox.

Book your accommodation: We all love to stay in different places, from the comfort of a self-contained apartment or house to a resort or luxury hotel. Sometimes we need something quick, easy and comfortable for an overnight stay. 

We use all of the following online booking portals depending on where we want to stay and the type of accommodation we are looking for.

  • VRBO and Stayz (in Australia) – great for holiday rentals of more than seven days and often have discounts for longer periods.
  • Booking.com and Expedia – two of our favourites due to their cancellation and refund policies.
  • Trip Advisor – perfect for getting reviews, checking availability and pricing comparisons all in one place.

Book your rental car or motorhome: We always use Discover Rental Cars anywhere in the world for car hire. Anywhere Campers is our preferred motorhome hiring company in Europe, especially if you want to be able to pickup and drop off at different locations (even countries) in Europe. If you’d like to buy your own motorhome in France, we use and recommend France Motorhome Sales. Use our code FMS1022 or tell John we sent you!

Book a tour:  We travel independently, but when we do book we book them with reputable companies who have a great cancellation and refund policy. If you are looking for advance tickets to an attraction, group or private tours, we use and recommend Get Your Guide and Viator. Both have a great range of tours and flexible cancellation policies. If you are looking to do a food tour in Europe, we also recommend Eating Europe Tours.

Be covered: We always travel with travel insurance. We did it before the pandemic and it’s even more important for us to do so now. We use Cover-More in Australia. SafetyWing has great rates for travellers who are away from home for extended periods. 

Be ready: Make sure you pack a few essentials: universal adaptorpower bank and noise-cancelling headphones

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