West Flanders is one of the five provinces of Flanders in Belgium and the country's westernmost. It encompasses Belgium's entire coastline and thus is a favourite travel destination for Belgians in the summer months. Its capital, Bruges, is also very popular with tourists due to its unique medieval charms. Otherwise, West Flanders is mainly known for its agriculture. There are many open fields between the small towns and villages and the general flatness of the region make it ideal to go on a cycle holiday.
Cities and Towns
West-Flanders has a lot of small cities and towns, those are connected with a good road network and mostly decent public transport. In the towns, you'll find hotels, pubs, restaurants and many shops. Most of the towns have an old centre, with medieval parts. Around the towns, the mainly flat and open countryside is an invitation to the cyclists and hikers.
- Knokke-Heist, a worldly coastal town, with many facilities. On the north side of the town, at the boundary with the Netherlands, you can also find a nature reserve "Het Zwin".
- De Haan, a nice coastal town, with an original style of buildings
- Bruges, capital of West-Flanders, the entire medieval centre is classified as UNESCO World Heritage.
- Damme, a tiny medieval, fortified tiny town, along the canal that connected Bruges back to the ocean (after the sanding of the coast). Ideal to visit on a bike, or with a ferry, from Bruges.
- Ostend, Queen of the coastal towns, developed by the Belgian royal family in the Belle Époque.
- Nieuwpoort, a medieval port on the Belgian coast, at the mouth of the river Yser. Now mainly used as a port for yachts and water sports. At the fishing mine (vismijn), you can also find fishing ships mooring, and buy fresh fish directly from the fishers. The old town still has a very nice medieval centre.
- Koksijde, together with Oostduinkerke, coastal towns with a very wide beach and many sand dunes. Oostduinkerke is also known for its horseback-fishers. During the low-tide, sturdy horses draw nets over the sandy shore to capture shrimps, sometimes the shrimps are cleaned and boiled on the beach itself, available for direct consumption.
- De Panne, de most western town in Belgium, next to Koksijde, it also has a wide beach and many sand dunes. Including a nature reserve "De Westhoek".
- Veurne, a medieval coastal town, just south-east of De Panne and Koksijde. Now further away from the sea due the the sanding of the coast.
- Diksmuide, a small town, in the middle of the Flemish polders. The town also played a vital role in WWI.
- Roeselare, an industrialised town. The town is mainly known for it's shopping facilities and the Rodenbach brewery.
- Poperinge, a small town with a medieval centre. It was also of big importance for WWI.
- Ypres, a military and fortified town by history, the medieval centre was bombed to the ground in WWI, and reconstructed in medieval style from photographs afterwards.
- Courtray, a rather big town at the river Leie. You can find a mix of medieval buildings and shopping facilities. Very close to the French city of Lille
Many villages have become the victim of the rise in population and the reconstruction after WWI. The reconstruction caused many ugly, small houses to be build along the existing roads. However, some villages still kept their original look.
- Lissewege, a picturesque village close to Bruges with many small white houses. Lissewege is to Bruges like Montmartre to Paris.
- Heuvelland, Dutch for "the land of hills", a collection of small villages, south of Ypres, in a forested and very hilly environment. Ideal for mountainbiking or hiking. The hills also played a vital tactical role in WWI. It's close to the French border, where you can find French-Flanders: a region that was historically part of Flanders, with the similar villages and towns, but now belongs to France.
The main language in West Flanders is Dutch using the West Flemish dialect. Most people are proficient in standard Dutch and many have a functional command of English and French.
West-Flanders is crossed by many motorways.
- The E40 comes from Calais, follows the West-Flemish coast for a while, then near Bruges, turns towards Ghent and Brussels.
- The E403 crosses West-Flanders north-to-south. At Bruges, it has a connection with the E40, it passes Roeselare and Courtray to arrive in Lille.
- The E17 connects Coutray with Ghent and Antwerp
- The A19 is a local motorway, connecting Coutray with the front region around Ypres.
By Public Transport
There are train lines operated by the NMBS from France (Lille) to Bruges via Courtray, and from Brussels and Ghent to Bruges, De Panne and Courtray. The front region around Ypres can only be reached via Courtray, the northern coastal region can only be reached via Bruges, the southern coastal region can only be reached via Diksmuide.
The French port of Calais is also very close to West-Flanders, with a good train and motorway connection to it.
Coast Tram (Dutch: De Kusttram) is the longest tram line in the world with 69 stops over 67 km long track. It connects all Belgian seaside towns from De Panne near French Duinkerke to Knokke near Dutch border. During peak summer months a tram goes every 10 min from 08:00 till 21:00.
Bruges is the capital of West-Flanders, and by far the most touristic town in West-Flanders. Its medieval city-centre is almost like a living museum, and certainly worth visiting.
West-Flanders is the coastal province of Belgium. The entire coast is a sand beach, ideal for walking. In the summer, dogs aren't allowed on the beach, in the winter, dogs are allowed (legally, dogs must always be on a leash, but if you know your dog, you know if it's needed or not). The coast itself is largely build-up with apartments, many consider this ugly, but if you go a bit further to the countryside, you can see the typical coastal houses.
- Het Zwin, Nature Reserve. Het Zwin is a nature reserve near the boundary with the Netherlands. It's the north-most place of the province, and many sea-birds and salt plant species can be found.
- De Westhoek, Nature Reserve. De Westhoek is a nature reserve near the boundary with France. It's the west-most place of Belgium. The nature reserve is a lot more "sandy" than Het Zwin, with hard-to-climb dunes. This is the only place in Belgium where your view isn't obstructed with trees, but where it's impossible to see any buildings. Get totally lost in the shifting sand.'
The front region
Along the front line of the first world war, there are many small towns and villages worth visiting. With many memorials and cemeteries in the countryside. Visiting the front line is best done by car, or with operated bus tours, since public transport is sparse in those regions with low population. Travelling by bicycle is also possible, when you want to combine sportivity and remembrance.
British cemeteries are scattered all over, but there are too many to list here (247 to be exact). Please consult the cwgc for complete information.
- King Albert monument, Nieuwpoort. A monument dedicated to the King Albert I, king of Belgium during the first world war. The monument is placed near a lock-complex called De Ganzepoot. By operating the locks of de Ganzepoot wrongly, the entire area from Nieuwpoort to Diksmuide could be submerged, which caused the German army to stop. There's also a museum below the monument, and you can walk on top of the monument to get a good view on the surrounding region. The base floor is free to visit. But you have to pay for the museum and the walk on the top.
- Lange Max cannon, Koekelare (The site can only be accessed via the Clevenstraat.). The Lange Max was a massive cannon used by the Germans. This cannon in Koekelare served to bomb the French town of Dunkerque.
- German military cemetery, Vladslo. This German military cemetery is one of the four remaining German cemeteries. Unlike the British cemeteries, all German victims were gathered into four big cemeteries. There are many more soldiers buried than the number of grave stones would give away. The cemetery in Vladslo also shows the artwork The grieving parents, by Käthe Kollwitz.
- Trench of Death (Dodengang). The Trench of Death (Dodengang in Dutch), is a reconstruction of the trenches found near the Yser. At this place, the enemy lines were just a few meters apart (as opposed to the more northern region, where there was a big floodplain). Many people died in these trenches, due to the many raids from both sides.
- Yser tower, Diksmuide. The Yser tower is the tallest peace memorial in Europe. The first Yser tower was build after WWI, to honour the Flemish soldiers who fell at the river Yser. The tower had a big meaning for those who wanted Flemish independance. After WWII, the first tower was dynamited, as a payback for the many Flemish who collaborated with the Germans. The remains of the first tower are still visible on top the the Pax gate (the entrance gate to the site). After WWII, the tower was rebuild, and now remembers both wars. The top of the tower contains the initials AVV-VVK, written in a cross. This stands for "All For Flanders, Flanders For Christ", symbolising the meaning of the tower for the Flemish. The four sides of the tower show the sentence "No more war" in the languages of the four fighting sides: Dutch, English, French and German. You can visit the tower, inside it, there's a museum about both world wars, and about the call for Flemish independence and the relation with the wars. At the top of the tower, you get a nice panoramic view over the very flat region.
- Belgian military cemetery, Houthulst. Belgian families were allowed to chose, whether they wanted their son to be buried on the battlefield, or at their home. Many people chose the grave near their home, resulting in the rather low amount of Belgian graves. This is the biggest remaining Belgian cemetery.
- German military cemetery, Langemark. This is the biggest of the four German cemeteries on Belgian soil, and even the biggest in total (counting the number of casualties). There's a huge mass-grave, that also contains a few British soldiers. Langemark is know for its student-myth, a myth telling a story of how the students came to battle while singing, not knowing what would happen. At the entrance, there's a nice map of the front region, cut in wood.
- Tyne Cot, British military cemetery, Passendale. Tyne Cot cemetery is the biggest British cemetery in Flanders. Next to the huge number of graves, there's also a massive wall at the back of the cemetery, containing names of many missing soldiers. The battle of Passchedaele is known for its big loss of human lives, for a minimal gain in worthless territory.
- Passchendaele Memorial Museum, Zonnebeke. The Passendaele Memorial Museum mostly shows you the life in the trenches, with the different clothes and weapons soldiers had. It gives you technical insight in the war.
- Menin Gate, Ypres. The Menin Gate is one of the gates of Ypres. The gate has been constructed as a big memorial to the missing. On the walls, there are over 50,000 of names of missing soldiers. Every evening, at 8 p.m., the Last Post is blown under the Menin Gate, as a final salute.
- In Flanders Fields Museum, Ypres. The In Flanders Fields museum in Ypres gives you a unique experience. It shows the horror of the war, the social dramas, and so much more. At the museum, you get the ability to follow the life of a certain soldier throughout the war (or until he dies), giving you deep insight in the daily troubles. A must-see for everyone, veterans and young boys.
- Hill 60, Preserved Battlefield, Ypres. The site around hill 60 is a unique piece of land, preserved as it was after WWI.
- Talbot House, Poperinge. Poperinge was a town on the British side of the front. It was used as a centre of transport, to bring men and weapons to the front. The Talbot House was a famous pub, chapel and hotel where British officers would go when they returned from the front. Currently, it's operated as a museum.
- French Mass Grave, Kemmel. Many of the French victims were brought back to their country, as a result, not many French graves remain. This cemetery is a mass-grave with many unknown French soldiers. It's situated on the hill of Kemmel, which was a strategically important hill due to the overview it gave over the area. Under the hill, there's still a military bunker that was operated until a few years ago.
- Spanbroekmolen Crater a.k.a. Pool of Peace. During the Battle of Messines, the British army undermined the German trenches with 24 mines. The Germans could defuse one mine, and 19 mines exploded on June 7th, 1917 (the remaining 4 mines did not explode, and are still loaded under the fields). This crater is 11th minefield of the 24, but the best known one. Nearby, there are also other craters visible.
- Island of Ireland Peace Park, Messines. The peace park, and tower, is a memorial to the soldiers of the Island of Ireland. Many who died near Messines.
Ostend and Menen are the only cities where you need to be careful in some parts of the city.
Belgium is small, the closest province is East Flanders with capital city Ghent. If you go south, you'll arrive in France, with Lille as closest big city. Bergues is also worth checking out as a typical French-Flemish town.