TRAVEL PRELUDES: Ieper … Ypres … Wipers; the Great War and a passing of generations.


The three segments of this decade-old documentary — Geert Mak’s In Europa … “1915 Ieper” — last only 40 minutes, but it’s an invaluable introduction to the lasting impact of World War I. 

I’m trying not to read very much into this breathtakingly trite observation, but time has a way of passing.

Between 2000 and 2008, I traveled to Poperinge seven times, five of them with a bicycle as integral component of the itinerary. However, 2017 will mark only the second time back since 2008, and in the interim, much has changed in Pops and environs.

Well, duh — and yet it’s always amazing the way a human mind can remain stuck in self-enforced sepia, visualizing a milieu as it was, as though life itself wasn’t dynamic and ever shifting.

Westhoek means “west corner” in Dutch, and as a region, Westhoek includes the areas around Poperinge, Ieper, Watou and Diksmuide. More so than the Middle Ages or Napoleon — far more so than World War II — these locales were profoundly impacted by almost four years of constant combat during the Great War.

In the year 2000 on the Monday of our first-ever bicycling adventure using Poperinge as a base, we rode to Ieper (ee-per). That’s the Flemish version; it’s Ypres in French and ‘Wipers” to British soldiers during World War I. Barely a stone was left standing in Ieper at war’s end. The whole city was rebuilt from the cellars up, and to this very day, tons of unexploded ordinance surface yearly.

On that first day in 2000, as we headed east from Poperinge, the French hills known as Trois Monts almost always could be seen rising on the horizon to the south, and although they aren’t particularly big, the flatness of Flanders magnifies their significance and one can readily understand their strategic importance in wartime.

The hills are why the Germans attacked in this direction. The Allies answered, and the result was years of devastating trench warfare stalemate. Just to the north, the Allied flank was secured only by a desperate expedient: the dikes near Diksmuide were breached and thousands of acres of farmland flooded to create a wall of water.

Our cycling journey took us past numerous Great War monuments and cemeteries of the British Commonwealth forces, whose final resting places attested to the global scale of the First World War: Irish, Australian, Canadian and Indian soldiers, buried alongside lads from Manchester and Newcastle. The resting places of Belgian, French and German soldiers also were seen.

Monday’s midday sag brought us to the center of the city, and a tale I’ve never forgotten. When the second world conflagration swept through Belgium, one young Ieper native resolved to escape. He made it somehow to the then-colony of Belgian Congo, and later to South Africa, where he enlisted in the British armed forces and fought against his country’s German occupiers until 1945.

Afterward he returned to Ieper and founded a restaurant and pub, sold it, then opened another, called Ter Posterie for its location opposite the post office.

Ter Posterie was another classic Belgian cafe, with many dozens of bottled ales, a few more on draft, savory food and a comfortable outdoor terrace, where we sat and discussed our first half-day’s ride.

I never knew this man’s name, but nonetheless met him on three different occasions while enjoying the beer, food and hospitality at Ter Posterie. By 2000, active control of the business had long since passed to his daughter, although the old man still frequented the establishment.

Whenever he heard English being spoken, he’d amble over and spin his life story for the visitor in a narrative honed over thousands of ale-side retellings. Apparently we met him as he was descending into Alzheimer’s disease. During one visit on a quiet afternoon, perhaps in 2005, he could be heard howling somewhere to the rear, with harried family members rushing back and forth to care both for him and the cafe’s guests.

At some point prior to 2009, he died, and later Ter Posterie closed.

In circuitous fashion, we return to the inevitability of change. I’m writing these words in advance of our actual visit to Poperinge and Haarlem (Netherlands), which I suspect will be a tad more elegiac than those stays in previous years.

In Poperinge, the triennial hop fest rolls merrily on. Luc is retired from the tourist office, and it’s been almost ten years since Guy and Beatrice ran the Hotel Palace. It remains a viable business, just not the same for me as before.

In Watou, Chef Stefaan Couttenye’s wife Sabine died a few years ago. She ran the front of the house at ‘t Hommelhof, and I worked with her twice when making arrangements for feeding my motorcoach groups.

I’d visited Poperinge prior to my period of obsession with bicycling, and for this reason my friends joined me in biking there for the first time in 2000, but there’d have been no biking without the encouragement and tutelage of the late Kevin Richards, who’ll be very much on my mind as the parade unwinds in 2017. Glasses will be raised, repeatedly.

As you’re watching the video prefacing these thoughts, remember that 100 years ago, there seemed to be no future for Westhoek. The people there persevered, and they built it back.

For me, returning to Poperinge will be like visiting old friends, albeit missing a few of them. All I can do is promise to remember them, and keep moving forward.