Publicado por: Ricardo Shimosakai | 05/08/2014

Accessible travel in Flanders Fields


Many attractions in Flanders provide access for those with mobility issues and other disabilitiesMany attractions in Flanders provide access for those with mobility issues and other disabilities

Visitors to Flanders may have concerns about accessibility due to disability. Here, John Oates gives an account for those with mobility issues, while Rob Crossan shares his experiences for those with visual impairment

The dugout was enveloped in an eerie gloom, with just a few flickering lights illuminating the wooden planks of the walls and ceiling. Nearby I could hear the sound of the water pumps which kept the subterranean shelter from being flooded – or would have done if this was something other than an atmospheric reconstruction beneath the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917.

“Actually the light would have been only about half as bright as you see here,” my guide Geert Delbecque told me.

As I pondered just how dark and damp a genuine First World War dugout would have been, Geert surprised me again by pointing out that – as long as you entered using the lift – the dugout was accessible to wheelchair users.

Getting accurate information can make or break a trip abroad and that becomes even more important if you have a disability that makes it difficult to access some sites.

So on my recent trip to Flanders Fields, I was interested to see how the region had prepared for the expected influx of visitors during the war’s centenary. Was it, as the title of one of the Visit Flanders tourist board brochures puts it, “Accessible to Everyone”?

Like many visitors I based myself in Ypres, which at first glance looked like a typical medieval city with a particularly impressive town square. But looks can be deceptive: Ypres was surrounded on three sides by the German army for much of the war and was completely devastated. Pretty much everything you can see today was built or rebuilt afterwards.

The Gothic-style Cloth Hall on the town square is now home to the In Flanders Fields museum, which was recently renovated and has level floors and lifts for wheelchair access. One of the most memorable exhibits, for me, is a touch screen where a Google Earth view of the modern city is overlaid with wartime aerial photographs of the scarred terrain.

Overall the museum provided an informative and accessible introduction to wartime history and the sites I would see over the next couple of days.

As you’d expect, there are a host of companies in Ypres offering car and minibus tours; one of these is Frontline Tours, whose owner Lionel Roosemont talked to me about arranging trips for clients with disabilities.

“It’s important to book ahead and talk to me about what you need,” he said, “so that I can advise you on access and make space in the van if you need it.”

He can arrange a private tour, which is particularly useful if you want to see a specific cemetery in which a relative is buried, but he also has standard itineraries covering many of the places I planned to visit.

I spent my first day at sites around the Ypres Salient including Tyne Cot, the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the world. Its 12,000 simple white gravestones are all identical to symbolise soldiers’ equality in death; the repetition vividly illustrates the scale of the loss of life in Flanders. Just as moving are the walls inscribed with the names of another 35,000 soldiers whose resting places are not known.

Inevitably some places I visited were more accessible than others. Take the famous Menin Gate in Ypres, an arch which bears the names of almost 55,000 missing Commonwealth soldiers. The steps on two sides of the gate would be impossible by wheelchair, which means that you couldn’t get close to some of the inscribed panels or the places where wreaths of poppies are left.

On the other hand, the main area beneath the arch is flat and that’s where the poignant Last Post is sounded at 8pm every day in honour of the fallen. The space gets very crowded with tourists, so it’s a good idea to arrive by around 7.15pm, but there’s space in the middle where people with disabilities can get a spot away from the throng.

Of course, there’s more to accessibility than routes for people with impaired mobility. At the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917, for example, the dugout may be suitable for wheelchairs but getting through such a dark environment might be a challenge for someone with poor eyesight. I asked the staff and they recommended that visitors with disabilities arrive early, since school groups start to fill the place up from around 10am to 4pm.

While there’s no substitute for making personal enquiries, throughout my trip I found that the “Accessible to Everyone” brochure was both detailed and accurate. Perhaps most importantly it doesn’t gloss over potential problems. At Tyne Cot, for example, it mentions an accessible entrance but also warns that “there is an adapted toilet, but it is difficult to reach because of the path’s pebble stones”.

It’s clear that, by providing accurate information – alongside training staff and working with sites to upgrade facilities – Visit Flanders is taking access seriously.

Rob Crossan, who writes and broadcasts on disability matters as well as travel, recently visited Flanders and relates his experiences:

The lone bugler raises his instrument at 8pm sharp every evening in Ypres. The salute at the Menin Gate to those who fell in the mud and dirt of the battlefields a century ago continues to have a desperately poignant efffect, despite the crowds that flock to the memorial. And as a severely visually impaired visitor to the region, it was perhaps the most powerful experience I had during a tour which is exceptionally accessible and effective to blind and visually impaired visitors.

Visit Flanders has a huge roster of walking guides, all of whom were excellently prepared for dealing with a visitor like myself who needed extra assistance with stairs, roads and with reading some of the hugely informed visual elements to museums such as the In Flanders Fields museum in the centre of Ypres.

This is one of the best examples in Europe of a museum which has embraced the interactive approach to commemorating history without the usual concomitant dumbing-down.

I particularly enjoyed the audio recordings (made by actors) of real diary entries written by soldiers, nurses and doctors, detailing the horror of life on the front line with a notable lack of sentiment or emotion.

Visiting the battlefields themselves was no less affecting. I spent my final morning in the region at the Memorial Museum in Passchendaele (actually in the nearby village of Zonnebeke) where, outside the venue, there is a re-creation of a trench.

With detailed descriptions by my guide I was able to feel my way around the contorting narrow alleyway, the wooden duckboards creaking beneath my feet.

It’s impossible not to be affected by the feeling of suffocation that immediately manifests the moment you step inside the warren of bunkers where thousands of men would spend months enduring the near-constant ear-splitting sound of exploding shells.

Grateful to be escorted out of the trench and back up on to the soft grass of 21st-century Zonnebeke, the contrast between the gentle breeze and birdsong of the Ypres of today and the horror of a century ago could not be more pronounced.

Visiting this region was an experience that cast a profound effect upon my every sense.

Further information

Download Flanders Fields – Accessible to Everyone at www.accessinfo.be. It includes listings of hotels and restaurants with accessible facilities.

Frontline Tours charges from €25 per person for a two-hour tour.

John Oates took the Eurostar from London to Lille, then a 45-minute taxi ride to Ypres. There are wheelchair spaces in carriages 9 and 10 of the train and the We’re Here To Help guide has useful information about topics such as travelling with guide or assistance dogs. For more information, visit eurostar.com/travel-information.

Source: Telegraph


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