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When brainstorming the perfect Belgium itinerary, witnessing the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate in Ypres was right at the top of my bucket list.
In the fairly sleepy city of Ypres, Belgium, stands the imposing archways of the Menin Gate. Here, countless British and Commonwealth soldiers passed through to fight on the Ypres Salient – many of them never to return. After the end of the war, the Imperial War Graves Commission built this giant archway in remembrance of those whose remains had never been found. Each name engraved on the walls is the name of a British, Commonwealth or Allied soldier who went missing in action during WW1. A staggering 54,395 names are on the arch – and that wasn’t even enough! A further 34,984 names of those missing from the UK are inscribed on the nearby Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing.
A trip to Ypres and the nearby war cemeteries is almost a rite of passage for many British schoolchildren. Unfortunately, I had missed out during my school days and wanted to make up for lost time. For this reason, The Last Post Ceremony, which takes place under the arches of the Menin Gate, was a non-negotiable for my trip to Belgium. It almost felt like a duty, to be able to look up at the names and appreciate just how devastating this war was. To appreciate how lucky I am.
And, besides, I freaking love history. Being able to visit a town of such historical significance had me thrilled.
My boyfriend Rob and I had spent a whirlwind few days in Belgium before we arrived in Ypres; exploring the fairytale city of Bruges, sampling every type of Belgian beer in Ghent, and sightseeing Brussels in torrential rain. Ypres had a lot to live up to. After spending an amazing day exploring the town, we headed to the Menin Gate, illuminated against the night sky, to attend the Last Post Ceremony.
What Is The Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate?
The Last Post is a traditional song which nowadays represents a ‘final salute’ to the fallen in the First World War.In the Ceremony, bulgers from the Last Post Association perform the Last Post at the Menin Gate nightly at 8pm sharp. The Last Post Ceremony has taken place every single night since 1928! The song is followed by laying of wreaths by visitors, and sometimes speeches or songs from visiting groups. The Last Post’s origin was as a bugle call played to signify the end of the day’s labour in the British Army. However, the call is now recognisable the world over to signify remembrance.
How Do I Get There?
Ypres is a small city in the Flanders region of Belgium, and can be reached pretty easily by train from most larger cities, normally with a change in Kortrijk. The total journey takes around 2 hours from Brussels, 70 minutes from Ghent and 1 hour 45 minutes from Bruges (with a change in Ghent rather than Kortrijk). We travelled exclusively by train on our trip to Belgium, and found the rail service efficient and budget-friendly. It’s also possible to rent a car, which would really help in terms of visiting the war memorials surrounding Ypres.
Once in Ypres, there are signposts are all over the city pointing you in the direction of the Menin Gate. Even if you can’t see any signposts, the Menin Gate is visible from most parts of the city. Ypres is incredibly walkable, and most accommodation is no more than a 10 minute walk to the Menin Gate.
Where to Stay
It’s possible to visit Ypres as a day trip from another city in Belgium (or northern France – Lille is only 90 minutes away by car). However in only visiting for a day you’ll miss out on loads of the things that make Ypres so special. We stayed for two full days – that way we could see the Last Post Ceremony without rushing for the last train. On the first day, we explored the town, the In Flanders Fields Museum and attended the Last Post Ceremony. On the second day, we visited many of the war memorials in the surrounding area. Two days was the perfect amount of time to take in Ypres.
There are a few budget-friendly accommodation options in Ypres. However, being a small city, there are only a limited number of places to stay. If you’re visiting in low or shoulder season, prices will be astonishingly cheap. If you’re visiting in summer, book as far in advance as possible.
We stayed at the Novotel Ieper Centrum, which was perfectly located and great value. We paid £58 (€66) for one night, so divided between us it worked out to only £29 (€33) each! As we were visiting in low season we even got a free upgrade without asking!
What’s it like to visit the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate?
Visiting the Last Post in winter made it all the more spellbinding, as people bundled in heavy coats and scarves waited in the darkness for the ceremony to start. There’s something haunting about the Last Post, and I felt shivers down my spine as the hundred or so visitors stood in total silence, mesmerised by the buglers. A visiting choir sang as wreaths were laid. It felt special to know that over 100 years after the end of the war, all this effort was still put in every single day.
Sure, visiting the Menin Gate in and of itself is great, but in my experience, the Last Post Ceremony really is worth staying in Ypres for.
Top Tips For Visiting
First things first, visiting the Last Post Ceremony is totally free – all you need to do is turn up. The majority of the ceremony takes place on one side, so choosing where to stand is everything.
Walking away from the town, head through the gate and then turn around, so you are facing the town again. The standing areas consist of four roped-off sections – two on your left, and two on your right. Join the section on your left, the furthest away from the town. This will place you in the perfect position to see the ceremony, which takes place on the opposite side. I managed to end up in the best section by pure coincidence, but I sure was glad!
We visited in early March, far from peak tourist season, but we still arrived at the Menin Gate at 7:30pm. This was to make sure we got a good spot, but to be honest, wasn’t really necessary. Unless you’re visiting on a special day (Remembrance Day or anniversaries) winter visitors can arrive there by 7:45.
In summer, expect a totally different story, as July and August are peak tourist season for Ypres. I, personally, would aim to arrive for 7:15 in the summer months. If you’re visiting in shoulder season (spring or autumn), 7:30 is a good time to arrive.
I’m super glad I attended the Last Post Ceremony, and it totally lived up to my expectations.
Have you visited the Last Post Ceremony?