London and Belgium

Friday 12 June

A late relaxing start to the day. The Charlotte St hotel where we are staying has a great breakfast in its well decorated restaurant. It was a good chance to catch up on a few things before heading off to the Tower. As with most people from out of London we found the tube (train) system very efficient.

Arriving at the Tower of London we joined a tour with one of the 35 Beefeaters. This ex-army Warrant Officer was quite a hard case and very good at telling the many stories about the tower.  Pointing out Tower Hill where most of the executions took place he explained how after the head had been chopped off it was stuck on a pike, carted through the streets and placed by the river to deter wannabe bad buggers. The headless bodies were buried in the chapel. One guy did get to keep his head as it was recovered and sewn back on. Someone had realised after the event that they didn’t have a painting of him.

The tour continued through the grounds finishing in the chapel. The tower was built by William the Conqueror in 1078 as his residence. It was mainly used as a prison from the 1100s on. After the tour we watched the changing of the guards then went for a look through the tower. I was last here in 1984 when, from memory, there were racks and racks of various weapons and armour throughout the tower. Now it is more of a museum with lots of arty type displays and exhibits. I think I preferred the old set up. Obviously the tourist dollar rules.

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Next was the crown jewels. A long queue lead us through passageways with displays and sometimes movies on the walls. Eventually passing through a couple of very substantial safe doors weighing 2 tons each we entered a chamber of  wealth. The collection is amazing – from huge gold plates to emerald studded swords and crowns. A conveyor takes you past the main stuff. No photos allowed. A stroll around the walls of the outer fort walls constructed later concluded our tour. I highly recommend a tower visit for those that haven’t been.

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Later that evening we were sitting outside the hotel enjoying a drink when along came Dave – a well-to-do chap from Manchester, in town visiting his actor son. Dave was somewhat upset that this son had come to see him wearing cheap, non-branded sunglasses. So upset in fact that he had given him his Raybans!!

Saturday 12 June

 Today was another travel day. Another delicious breakfast at our Charlotte St Hotel and we were off to catch the Eurostar to Belgium. Despite the requirement to check in 45 minutes early it was a quick and painless process and we were soon underway – the countryside, first of the UK, then the chunnel, France and finally Belgium whipping by at a mere 320 kmph. We arrived in Brussels just after 2pm, only 2 hours after leaving London.

Our first taste of the Belgian psyche came when we went to pick up our rental car to be told the office closed at 2pm. When I explained that I had been clear about our time of arrival and the fact I was coming on the train when I booked, the woman seemed nonplussed – “Lots of people say they are coming on the train when they are not”! Nonetheless she begrudgingly checked us in, eventually warming up and even gracing us with a smile before we left.

We were planning to go and see Kirstie in a cycle race at about 4:30pm and thought we’d have just enough time to drive to Bruges, check into the hotel and drop our bags off and still make it to the race. Things were not to be quite so simple – there were roadworks in the street next to the hotel and we could not access. Bruges has lots of very narrow, and often one-way, streets and we ended up spending at least 45 minutes driving around trying to find the hotel, including at one stage finding ourselves in a dead-end street having to reverse out past a large Mercedes van and a number of parked bicycles with loads of pedestrians and cyclists giving us dirty looks. We eventually arrived at the hotel and were told in no uncertain terms – “we emailed you to let you know about the roadworks and how to get to the hotel” – oops, my bad!

By this stage we were clearly late for Kirstie’s race so dropped the bags and headed back out to drive to Besele-Waas, unfortunately encountering severe delays due to roadworks. We arrived at about 5:30pm just in time to see Kirstie race past at the front of the third peloton before her whole group got dropped from the race. No matter, Roger enjoyed a couple of Belgian beers while we waited for Kirstie to cool down and have a shower and then we all headed back to Bruges for the night.

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Bruges is a beautiful city with a long history and some gorgeous buildings dating back to the 13th century. We had a typically Belgian dinner at the square and enjoyed catching up on all Kirstie’s news.

Sunday 14 June

We wandered down to the rather picturesque square in Bruges. Some artist has stuck a big mirror sculpture in the middle which stuffs it up a little. Youngest daughter Kirstie and her friend Tamara who had driven over from Holland were there to meet us. Kirstie, now a NZ Track Cyclist, is riding for a local road cycling team for a few weeks during the off season. The breakfast at one of the many cafes in the square was huge. Tamara had brought a book along she had had done with all the photos of her and her boyfriend Tom’s recent trip to NZ in it. We dropped Kirstie off at her place in Aalst as she had to train and study for an exam for her Masters in Sports Psychology.

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We drove to Ypres to visit the Flanders Museum – In Flanders Fields. It took us a bit of looking around to find it. We had not realised it was in a large ancient church-type building. I hadn’t realised that the whole town here had been wiped out during World War I. What looked like a large Gothic church turned out to be the museum – originally built in around 1300, completely destroyed during the war then rebuilt completely after the war as an act of defiance to the Germans. We climbed the 230 odd steps to the tower where there is a breathtaking view over the city and surrounding farm land. This gives one a true appreciation of the extent of devastation this whole area suffered. The town has been rebuilt in the same style of houses and buildings that existed before the war maintaining the quaintness of this Belgian area.

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 The museum gave us some appreciation of the hardships suffered by not only the soldiers but also the civilians during the three odd years the battles stagnated over this land. There are many screens here where a character comes forward and tells their story then fades into the darkness as another appears. Most of these stories are from letters written by solders nurses and doctors from both sides. Weapons and uniforms from both sides are on display.

From there we drove to the Passchendaele Memorial Museum. This is situated on the historic and stunning grounds of the chateau of Zonnebeke. Adjacent to the museum is a small fishing lake. Entering what looked like a small building we were treated to a maze of passageways and exhibits. Gaining an appreciation for the different armies and regiments that fought here and the courage and bravery of men. There is an excellent representation of weapons from the smallest pistols and knives to large artillery guns and shells. All sorts of other kit and tools are also well laid out. Sections for each country display badges, uniforms, and campaign and gallantry medals awarded during the campaign.

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Heading down some steep steps we find ourselves in a representation of the underground bunkers where officers and men, at times, lived to stay protected from the constant shelling. Basic operating theatres, cooks, blacksmiths bunk rooms commander’s quarters and much more is all represented here. Eventually this led us out into the trenches – a great representation of how each army built their trenches. As we moved through some hundred meters of different styles of trenches and materials used we got a small appreciation of how men fought, died or survived.

Missing is the mud, rats, cold, constant shelling, sniper fire, going over the top, watching mates fall injured and dead alongside you, and much suffering the stupid decisions made by senior British officers and generals. We can only respect the sacrifice that so many people made and still do so we can maintain our freedom. Lest We Forget.

Close by is Tyne Cot Cemetery. This was the German front line for some time. It was captured by the Australians in October 1917 and used as an aid station. 340 soldiers who died of their wounds were initially buried there. Between 1919 and 1921 it was extended to a full cemetery. Of the nearly 12,000 buried there only 3,800 are known by name. We wandered the rows of grave stones, all well maintained with flowers growing in front of them. We spotted many head stones with the fern on them representing NZ soldiers. Most had no names. There are over 500 New Zealanders buried here. On the back wall there are some 35,000 names of solders who perished and their bodies have never been identified.  New Zealand personnel of which there are hundreds have their own alcove.

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 When I think about the devastation that prevailed on these people fighting for king and country, initially largely with inexperienced officers and newly trained men, I cringe every time politicians reduce our defence spending. Lest we forget.

Having run out of day we headed back to Bruges in time to catch the last horse carriage ride from the square around this old and beautiful city. Many buildings date back to the 1200s. Gentle curves in streets would indicate it was originally built from the river front. Some 12km of canals were added, 4 of which are still in use as a tourist attraction. The horse clip clopped over the cobble stones at a fast trot. People waved and took photos. I endeavoured to do a royal wave back. We stopped while the horse was rested and refuelled. The lady driver gave us a very scripted talk about various buildings but was reluctant to be drawn into conversation. Of note the council building was built in the 1300s and could be easily mistaken for a church with its gothic look.

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Monday 15 June

It seems I have lucked out and landed all the travel days for this blog. Makes for quick, easy writing. We had a straight-forward drive to the airport in Brussels this morning which meant plenty of time at the airport before our flight to Istanbul. A good chance to catch up on blogs, photo-editing etc.

The flight to Istanbul passed without event and we picked up our rental car. We encountered a bit of a delay while we got the GPS sorted so it could be read in English and then heavy traffic on the way into the city. In the end, it took us longer to get from the plane to the hotel (about 44kms) than it did to fly to Istanbul from Brussels – over 3 hours in fact. So it was with relief that we got checked in and wandered to a nearby café for a quick bite to eat. Our hotel is located right in the heart of old Istanbul near the Grand Bazaar and other major attractions. Should make for a good day of sight-seeing tomorrow.

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