In Flanders Fields: Travel in Belgium

Ypres offers a festival on Market Square every year.
Ypres offers a festival on Market Square every year.

The small Belgian city of Ypres, located in the heart of Flanders Fields, looks like a pop-up storybook from the Middle Ages. There’s a cobblestone square with a monumental public edifice known as Cloth Hall, a historic cathedral on the corner, and narrow lanes lined with gabled storefronts running up and down the hills.

The town square does have some modern cafés, where the fabled ales and chocolates of Belgium are on the menu, but the commanding appearance is that of a very old Europe indeed, preserved in a transparent time capsule.

Ypres is a time capsule, but it is not always transparent. For one thing, the whole city, its Market Square, most of its old gables and even its great Cloth Hall are not a medieval construction, but a modern one. All the old pieces of Ypres were rebuilt from the ashes of the First World War after the town was utterly leveled. Old Ypres, although surrounded by hundreds of World War I cemeteries, simply refused to be erased.

Once every three years, on the second Sunday of May, Ypres undergoes another remarkable transformation. Its streets, Market Square and colossal hall become the setting for an international cat parade, the largest spectacle of its kind in the world. There have now been 40 of these triennial events. On the weekend that Ypres gives itself over to cats, the shops and bistros are festooned with plush stuffed felines, black and white, and the confectionaries whip up marzipan in feline images.

But why cats in Ypres? It all goes back to Cloth Hall. When the original Cloth Hall, whose mirror image is the new Cloth Hall, was built here in 1304, Ypres had become a major player in the European textile trade, and the city needed a place to store the cloth. Above all, it needed cats to guard the very fabric of its existence from the rats that infiltrated Cloth Hall each winter.

Once the bolts went out the door in the spring, however, the suddenly idle cats multiplied, as cats will, and downsizing became the order of the day. From the 12th century until the 19th century, many a poor cat was simply flung from the Cloth Hall tower to the pitiless square below.

That ritual has been revived, albeit in a softer form. At the conclusion of the Ypres Cat Parade, toy cats are tossed from the tower, and reveling crowds do their best to catch these falling likenesses.

Before the parade and cat toss, the chief attraction of Ypres lies inside Cloth Hall, which today houses the In Flanders Fields Museum. Opened in 1998, this gallery is more an experience than a museum. Visitors set out on an interactive journey through the “war to end all wars,” the Great War of 1914-1918.

Bar-coded entrance tickets enable each visitor to track the fate of a single person (a soldier, a nurse, a child or a local) as it actually unfolded in the war years in Ypres. Along the way are displays of artifacts that survived the war – from medals to gas masks – but the most dramatic displays are audio-visual zones.

The first evokes a field hospital of the time. The second is a No-Man’s Land in the throes of full combat. The final exhibit is a posting of the more than 100 major armed conflicts that have transpired since 1918.

Most museum-goers come out with a new appreciation of where Ypres once stood in history, serving as the gateway to the battlefields in a part of Flanders known as the Salient. This crescent-shaped frontline of World War I is where 500,000 soldiers died in the space of four years. Many of the fallen, mostly soldiers of the British Empire, entered the fray from Ypres.

Now, every evening at exactly 8 o’clock, the fallen are remembered in a tribute performed at the city gate in the ancient ramparts, only a few blocks from Cloth Hall. Volunteer buglers play taps, sounding “The Last Post at the Menin Gate.”

Rain or shine, the buglers have shown up every evening to play tribute since July 1, 1929, except when German troops occupied Ypres during World War II. Menin Gate is decorated with 54,896 plaques, each inscribed with the name of a Commonwealth soldier who fell in action in the Salient.

The figures were staggering, but Menin Gate brings them into intimate focus. On the evening before the cat parade, the somber mood cast by the buglers is tempered by the appearance of cat floats and costumed performers who direct the crowds back to the festivities and fireworks.

The cat parade, as frivolous and diverting as it is, ties many of these strands of history together. The procession marches through the streets of Ypres and for passes review at a temporary grandstand on Market Square near Cloth Hall.

The whole affair requires several hours, and the parade is divided into seven parts, although it is by no means perfectly regulated, and like any delightful small-town parade, it turns out to be a charming mishmash of sorts, with local businesses and politicians waving from slow-moving convertibles and marching bands from regional school districts in formation, although they may have little to do with cats or medieval weavers.

For the most part, however, the large floats, stilted giants and costumed dancers do create a rough tableau of both the cat and the city through time. Floats range from those depicting Flemish folktales of kings and cats to the appearance of an immense, rotund Garfield, some 60 feet (18 m) in girth and 15 feet (4.5 m) tall.

Equally impressive cat figures come directly from Flanders, and they have made enough appearances over the decades to become household names here. There’s Cieper, Musti and Minneke, and all are giants, all are outfitted in elaborate costumes.

At the conclusion of this wide-ranging parade, which even attempts to assay something of Ypres’ tragic history, Market Square becomes a medieval court of law in which witches are tried, found guilty and cast into a large bonfire that has been ignited on the square. When the smoke clears, the town jester proceeds into Cloth Hall with a sack and ascends to a balcony in the belfry.

The crowd, in a surprisingly competitive mood, swarms in the space below, pushing and elbowing for position.

After the last plush cat is drawn from the sack and hurled from the tower, everyone disperses to the cafes and inns.

Cloth Hall, far longer than a football field and more than 200 feet (61 m) high, is the center of gravity in this time capsule of a town.

It seems forlorn and empty at twilight, but it alone reflects in its very appearance not only the golden age of ancient Ypres and the terrible war years that obliterated it, but the decades since when it returned to the modern world in medieval garb, all its jolly cats in the bag.

If You Go:

Ypres (Ieper), a city of 35,000 in southern Belgium, can be reached in a few hours from Paris (150 miles or 240 km) or Brussels (75 miles or 120 km) by car or train. Ypres can also be reached from London via the “chunnel.”

Rail Europe (800-438-7245, www.raileurope.com) offers a variety of schedules, ticket deals and train passes. Cars can be booked ahead from most major American car rental agencies. U.S. and Canadian citizens need a valid passport to enter Belgium, but no visa is required for stays of less than 90 days.

Convenient accommodations directly across the Market Square from Cloth Hall are available at the 3-star Hotel Regina (011-32-57-21-88-88; www.hotelregina.be), where a double room is €75 (US$ 90), including continental breakfast. Excellent French cuisine is reasonably priced at De Ecurie, Ar. Merghelynckstraat 1A, a few blocks off Market Square (011-32-57-21-73-78).

The In Flanders Fields Museum in Cloth Hall (011-32-57-22-85-84; www.inflandersfields.be) is open daily 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. April-September and Tuesday-Sunday 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. October-March, with admissions of €7.50 (US$ 9) for adults, €3.50 (US$ 4) for children 7-15, and free for children under 7.

The Visitors Center can provide walking and cycling maps, car routes for Flanders Fields cemeteries and war monuments and English-speaking local guides (€20 or about US$ 24/hour). For more information on Belgium, contact the Belgian Tourist Office in New York City (212-758-8130, www.visitbelgium.com).

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