Day 24: The End of the Road

This is my last post of the trip as tomorrow is our last full day and we’ll be just relaxing and I won’t be taking any photos.

We decided to take the day to explore Antwerp. We had a lovely breakfast and headed to the Church of Our Lady, a giant Catholic/Calvinist/Catholic Church in the middle of the old town that houses 4 paintings by Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens. The church also has one really big tower and one noticeably less grand one beside it, as the money had run out and they did what they could to just finish it up.

I found the Rubens works to be very dramatic, lots of movement, but not my favourite style of art. The Rubens pieces in the church actually inspires a story called A Dog of Flanders about a boy named Nello and his dog Patrasche who spend all the spare time they can revelling in the beauty of the paintings. The story is very sad and ends tragically, and attracted a Japanese diplomat who brought the story back to Japan in the early 1900s, and to this day is a popular story among Japanese youths. There is a tribute to Nello and Patrasche out front of the church.

After saying goodbye to Rubens, Nello and Patrasche, we headed to the square over, that houses one of the landmarks of Antwerp, the Brabo Fountain.

The story is, is that back in the day there was a cruel giant who lived in the area named Druon Antigoon. Antigoon would guard a bridge along the river Scheldt and collect taxes from those crossing or passing. If you couldn’t pay, Antigoon would rip off their hand and toss it in the river. Finally, a brave Roman soldier named Brabo killed the giant, cut off his hand and threw it in the river. According to legend, in Flemish it was called “hand werpen” (hand + to throw), which is how the city got its name of Antwerpen.

We hung out with Brabo, then decided to grab some lunch and a beer in the sunny square.

Following lunch we headed to the river side and took the old clacking wooden escalator to St. Anna’s Tunnel, a 900m under ground tunnel that takes you under the river. We considered walking the length of the tunnel, but the cyclists zipping past us made us nervous, so we went back to the surface.

We headed further north to the industrial/port area of the city, where stands a gleaming modern structure of brick and glass, the Museum Aan de Stroom, or MAS.

MAS is 10 floors of art exhibition, from the Flemish Masters to modern photography. The sun was pressing, so we tucked into the MAS cafe for a beer and some ice cream. The roof of MAS is a free panorama, and Pa and I wanted to check it out (Ma wanted to stay more grounded), so we took the 10 escalators to the very top and looked over the rooftops of Antwerp.

Back on solid ground, we walked back into the old town, to a restaurant where we had reservations for dinner with our cousin Dominique and this time with his wife Els, daughter Eva, son Cédric (my 3rd cousins), and Dominique’s parents (who would have been 1st cousins with my grandfather Joseph). We drank beer and dined on Flemish classics (stoofvlees, a beef and beer stew served with frites) and got to know each other better, share stories and DeCaigny history and characteristics. We ate dessert and drank coffee, took photos and sadly parted ways, my head buzzing with the connection I had made with a family member I just met this week.

Sunday afternoon we fly out of Schiphol, 11 months until our next European sojourn. Thanks for joining me this year.

Day 23: La rue est une musée pour tous

This is one of the longer trips we’ve taken, and as such, we’re starting to get tired. Not just physically tired, but tired of seeing things and going places. This morning we were slow to get up and hemmed and hawed about our plans to go to Brussels for the day. We finally decided that we should go, as we did want to at least the Grand-Place.

We walked from our apartment to the Antwerpen-Centraal train station and noticed a lot of diversity on our walk – Muslim women in hijabs, Hasidic Jewish men in rekelech, hip young people and elegant older people.

When we reached the train station we grabbed some breakfast and admired the beautiful station.

We bought our train tickets (the ticket for seniors is literally twice the size of an adult ticket. Like large print), cuddled a cute dog, then hopped on a train for the 50 minute trip south. My cousin Dominique had said that in Brussels they tend to speak French rather than Flemish, so I mentally prepared to re-dust off my already dusty French lexicon.

The Brussels-Central station drops you off pretty much in the middle of the old town, so we walked through the train station, by the art nouveau Belgian Comic Book Station to our first stop, Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert.

The Galeries is a long glass-covered arcade, lines with fancy jewellery shops and chocolatiers. We walked up and down, sampled some chocolates and picked out which watch costing tens of thousands of Euros we would choose.

We then headed to the Grand-Place. Full of tour groups and school groups, gilded with gold ornamentation and quite literally smelling of waffles, we walked around the square and decided which sunny patio we wanted to occupy for lunch.

We found a Rick Steves recommended restaurant, squeezed into the patio and enjoyed some beer, pizza, and Ma tried a Brussels waffle, which she said was markedly different from the sweeter Liège waffle.

We finished up our lunch and I wanted to see Mannekin Pis, the statue of the little boy peeing. On the way we noticed the Tintin Boutique. For those of you who don’t know, Tintin is the comic book character created by Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi, better known as Hergé. I picked up some Tintin postcards and a Tintin planner and we went back to the streets. All along the street was waffle shops, beer stores, chocolatiers, and souvenir hawkers.

We reached the Mannekin Pis, underwhelming as he was, dressed in a jaunty outfit.

Our final stop, which I almost forgot about, was the Delirium Café. We walked through the Grand Place, again through les Galeries, turned off and down what was more than a café, but a Delirium block.

Pa and I decided on the Beer Cave, which boats over 2004 different beers available. I had a Delirium Red on tap and hiked along to Free Bird, which started playing on the sound system.

Pa and I could have stayed down there forever, but Ma wasn’t quite as keen as we were, so we headed back into the real world and the sunshine, and back to Antwerp for dinner and bed.

Day 22: The Long and Winding Road

Today I took 1 photo on my camera and we didn’t really do much worth writing about. But here I am, nonetheless.

This morning we slept in a little, had breakfast said goodbye to Varlet Farm as well as Ypres, Poelkapelle, Zonnebeke, and Passchendaele as we loaded up the car and headed an hour north east to Ghent to drop the car off (so glad we were able to return it un-dented and undamaged). We grabbed a cab to the train station and took the hour train ride, again north east to our final destination, Antwerp. The Antwerpen-Centraal station is gorgeous (photos tomorrow) and we had lunch in a delightful café in the train station and looked for a cab on a street lined with diamond shops.

The cab ride to our apartment was unpleasant – when we gave the driver the address, he said it was 1km away and chastised is for wasting his time and losing his place in line. We offered to get out but he passive-aggressively groaned that we could stay and he would drive us. After notably much further than 1km, we arrived at our apartment with our delightful host Arthur waiting outside. We begrudgingly paid the driver and schlepped our shit up the 4 story walk up to a wonderful, bright and modern apartment. Arthur wrote us a wonderful list of sites and restaurants, and we tucked in for the night, snacking on baguette with salted butter, ice cream and beer.

Day 21: We Built This City

Today was a special day for me so forgive me while I self-indulge.

A few years ago Pa was contacted on Facebook by a man from Belgium named Dominique who had the same last name as us. He asked if we were possibly related, so Pa responded with the ancestry that we were aware of, and discovered that Pa’s great-grandfather Ivo was brothers with Dominique’s great grandfather (making Pa and Dominique second cousins). Dominique was working on the family history and trying to trace not only the DeCaigny diaspora, but the DeCaigny ancestry as far back as he could. We kept in touch with Dominique on Facebook and Instagram and this year when we decided to visit Belgium, we were excited that we could meet him in person. And that was today.

We met Dominique hiding from the rain under the Belfry of the tiny West Flanders town of Tielt. We hugged and started chatting right away. Dominique had made some pretty special plans for the day, but we wanted to start by getting better acquainted, so we headed towards a coffee shop that was sadly closed, but it was the original house in Tielt that our ancestor Romain bought in the 1600s. Apparently Romain was quite adept at buying and flipping houses. He also built the top of the Belfry (UNESCO World Heritage Site).

We tucked into an open cafe, drank coffee, got to know each other and exchange gifts (Dominique made us beautiful books detailing the family history along with photos and documents).

Our next stop was the City Hall of Tielt, where our last name was immortalized in stained glass. There was also a painting of an ancestor who had fought in a few wars and lost his left hand (visible in the painting).

Next, Dominique managed to secure viewing some documents with the city archivist Hannes. Hannes has pulled a few books and papers to show us and also had encyclopedic knowledge of the entire history of the town. Hannes showed us a land book from the 1600s written by an ancestor, Romain DeCaigny’s death announcement, and my great grandfather Jules’ birth registry (which also mentioned my great great grandfather Ivo). Jules moved to Canada with his wife Léontine in 1913 and settled in St. Boniface, Manitoba.

Hannes was clearly very passionate and loved his job as the archivist. For fun, he showed us one of the archives, then put on white gloves to show us the oldest document they have there, a testimony by an spinster, written on animal-skin parchment in the 1300s. The whole thing was like my very own episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?”.

We had a break for lunch where me, Pa and Dominique clinked beer glasses together for the first time. One of the many things that I learned from Dominique is that although the last name is French and probably came from France originally, the DeCaigny’s are Flemish (Dutch-speaking).

After lunch we hit the streets of Tielt, with Dominique giving us some WWI history in the city. During the War, Tielt was occupied by the Germans, who turned Tielt into their Flanders headquarters. Homeowners were kicked out to make way for soldiers and commanders, and it was in Tielt where the decision was made to use chlorine gas.

We then went to the local church, Saint Peter’s, where my great grandfather Jules married Léontine, and where many DeCaigny’s were baptized and/or buried.

The weather has cleared up and Dominique had one more surprise for us before we parted ways – he secured himself some of what was voted the best beer in the world 3 years in a row – Brouwerij De Sint-Sixtusabdij Van Westvleteren 12. We found a picnic table in a leafy park and sat down while Dominique poured the beer into the appropriate bar ware and told us the story of how you buy the notoriously difficult to acquire beer.

You can’t buy the beer just anywhere, you can only buy it from the brewery at the Monastery, and the monks only brew enough per month to support themselves and no more. If you’re interested in buying the beer, you go on the website, and they tell you what time you can call to order. They only have 1 phone line, so Dominique had 2 cell phones with him and would alternate calling over and over for an hour. When you get through you say how many cases you want and you give your license plate number and they tell you the time frame that you can come and pick it up. When you pick it up, they know your order from you license plate, you pay and load up your car.

I was a little concerned about drinking in the park, so this is how the conversation went with Dominique:

Me: are we allowed to drink in the park?

Dominique: allowed?

Me: won’t we get in trouble?

Dominique: in trouble from who?

Me: the police.

Dominique: what would the police do?

Me: in Canada you can’t drink in public. You could get a ticket.

Dominique: really? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

The beer was really delicious, smooth and rich, and definitely worth the kerfuffle that Dominique had to go through to get it. We finished our beers and made plans to see Dominique with the rest of his family on Friday in Antwerp, said our goodbyes, and headed back to Poelkapelle for one last sleep at the Farm.

Day 20: In Flanders Fields

Today was another war day, focusing on WWI and the involvement of Canadians in the Ypres-Salient.

Our first stop of the day was Tyne Cot Commonwealth Cemetery. Tyne Cot is the largest commonwealth cemetery in the world and is the final resting place for 11,965 Brits, Scots, Irishmen, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, Indians and more. Of the almost 12,000 graves, 8,369 are unnamed, and just bear the phrase “A Soldier of the Great War”. Along with the graves there is a wall that stretches the width of the cemetery and on it is written the 34,959 names of the men who are unaccounted for.

After braving the elements and finding a possible relative of Ma’s on the wall, we headed to the next site, the Canadian Passchendaele Memorial. At the front of the Memorial is an iron gate, and there is an identical one in Halifax, Nova Scotia that was the last steps soldiers would take in Canada before being shipped off to war.

The main part of the Memorial is a concrete slab on a mound, honouring those who fought and those who died in the second battle of Passchendaele.

The next stop was a monument that was the runner-up for the Vimy Ridge design, called the Brooding Soldier. This monument was erected at what was once known as Vancouver Corner, but is now Sint-Julien Memorial, and it is where when the Germans released the first gas attack, the Canadians held the line.

Finally, we drove the short 15 minutes into the downtown of Ypres. We parked the car in the market square, had a long leisurely lunch, and went to the In Flanders Fields Museum, a very thorough look at WWI in the the city’s cloth hall.

The museum was enormous, comprehensive and interactive. We didn’t realize quite how long we’d been there for, as pretty soon we heard on the loud speaker they would closing in 20 minutes. We finished what we could and headed out to take in old Ypres.

We walked down the main street to the Menin Gate. The Gate was built in 1927 to commemorate those British and Commonwealth soldiers who died in the Ypres-Salient in WWI and who had no known grave. They initially though the gate would be large enough to hold the number of the missing (54,896 inscribed on the Gate) but they ran out of room, which is why there is the memorial wall at Tyne Cot.

There is a ceremony that takes place at Menin Gate at 2000hrs every night which we wanted to see, but we had a few hours to kill, so we tucked into a pub, had a few beers and chatted with the locals before finding a spot at the Gate.

The Last Post has been performed at Menin Gate at 2000hrs every night since July 2 1928 (except during WWII when Ypres was occupied) and our ceremony featured the buglers, then 7 or 8 families laying memorial wreaths of poppies.

After about 15 minutes the ceremony was over, and we headed back to the car and drove back to the farm as the sun set on West Flanders.

Day 19: Back in Black

Today we were up, breakfasted and out the door at a decent time to head back into France (technically, Canadian soil) for a couple more things to see – Vimy Ridge and Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial.

The Vimy Ridge Memorial is an hour out of Poelkapelle, and as you drive through the nearby town of Givenchy-en-Gohelle, you can see the two white columns poking from behind the the trees on the hill.

We parked in the memorial’s lot and walked up to the limestone monument.

The monument itself was designed by Walter Seymour Allward and built out of white limestone from the Adriatic. There are 2 tall pillars sculpted with 20 human figures which personify things like “Peace” and “Justice”. The focal point is a woman draped in a cloak, looking mournfully down at a tomb. This is “Canada Bereft” or “Mother Canada”, mourning the generation lost.

Also inscribed around the whole monument are the names of 11,169 Canadian soldiers who fought in France and have no know grave. I found some last names of people I know (no one from our family, as we probably weren’t even Canadian citizens yet).

Although the Battle of Vimy wasn’t a huge battle, it carried some strategic significance (as we saw standing on the hill, you and see everything around you for miles), but it was very significant for Canadian identity and presence on the world stage. Vimy was the first time that all 4 divisions of the Canadian Corps worked and coordinated together and was completely planned by Canadians. They also successfully demonstrated new tactics and techniques that helped them win the hill. By the end of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, 3,598 Canadians did not make it out.

After paying our respects at the monument, we walked over to the interpretive centre and trenches and tunnels. You can still walk around the trenches, and there are Canadian student volunteers around who will answer any questions.

After finishing up in the trenches, we walked back to the car, ate our picnic lunch and headed to another French site that I wanted to see – Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial. The site is 45 minutes south west of Vimy, and along the poppy-lined country roads were many many war cemeteries, mostly British.

The reason I wanted to go to Beaumont-Hamel is because my sister had gone a few years ago and told me the story and I remember having a very visceral reaction – on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, along with other battalions the Royal Newfoundland Regiment went over the top of the trenches after heavy bombardment against the Germans, expecting very little return fire from what they thought would be a decimated German line. What they didn’t know was the the Germans had dug deep into the hill side and were almost totally unaffected by the bombardment, so when the Allies went over, it was an absolute massacre. Most Newfoundlander casualties occurred within the first 15 minutes of the fighting. Of the 780 Royal Newfoundlanders who went over, only 68 were there for roll call the next morning.

To honour the brave Regiment, a bronze caribou was erected on the battlefield, along with plants and flowers native to Newfoundland and a plaque commemorating the dead.

The caribou is the insignia for the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, and this one is pointing in the direction of where the chlorine gas came from.

We admired the Caribou for a while then decided it was a pretty heavy day and time to head back to Poelkapelle, saying goodbye to France for the last time.

Day 18: Truckin’

This morning we got up slowly, packed our bags, ate breakfast and said goodbye to Marc, Sébastien, A La Maison Blanche and Fécamp as we hit the road heading east towards West Flanders in Belgium. We will be heading back to France for a day this week, but the rest of our sleeps will be in Belgium.

The drive from Normandy to West Flanders and we were all feeling a little weary, so we decided to take our time, taking lunch at a bakery outside of Amiens and pulling into our B&B at 1600hrs.

Ma and Pa have stayed at this B&B before. Varlet Farm is an actual working farm (potatoes and celeriac) as well as bed and breakfast and de facto WWI museum. Its location in a town called Poelkapelle (right beside Passchendaele and 15 minutes outside of Ypres) meant that it was right in the thick of the fighting of WWI, and as such the family who run the farm find war relics, shell casings and unexploded ordinances in and around the grounds on the regular.

We were greeted by Barbara who offered us coffee, tea and apple cake as well as pamphlets and brochures of nearby sites to explore.

We checked into our room and I wanted to get a least few photos for the day, so I wandered the grounds and barn, where they display the war artifacts, along with informative posters explaining the process of what happens when they discover unexploded ordinances, as the police get around 3,500 calls per year about them.

At about 1730hrs we went into town (Poelkapelle) for some dinner and went to a recommended frites restaurant where we were back into the Belgian beer, double fried frites and GOOD mayonnaise (sorry, France). Once the restaurant had thoroughly filled up with screaming children, we headed back to the Farm for more beer and we all read until it was time to listen to the BC Lions game, then bed.