One hundred years after the start of the First World War, Flanders Fields has prepared for the expected influx of visitors during the centenary by being – as one of the Visit Flanders tourist board brochures puts it – “Accessible to Everyone”. So write John Oates and Rob Crossan in The Telegraph (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sponsored/travel/great-war-flanders/10980195/accessible-travel-flanders-fields.html).
In Ypres, 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. Overall the museum provides an informative and accessible introduction to wartime history and sites. There are a number of companies in Ypres offering car and minibus tours. It is important to book ahead and talk to the companies about any access needs.
Inevitably some places are 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.
While there’s no substitute for making personal enquiries, the authors found the “Accessible to Everyone” brochure 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”.
The tour 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 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.
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 are particularly good. Visiting the battlefields themselves is no less affecting. The Memorial Museum in Passchendaele (actually in the nearby village of Zonnebeke) has a re-creation of a trench. With detailed descriptions by a guide, people with visual disability can feel their way around the contorting narrow alleyway. 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.
It’s clear that, by providing accurate information – alongside training staff and working with sites to upgrade facilities – Visit Flanders is taking access seriously. Indeed, Visit Flanders recently won the ‘Amadeus and World Travel Market (WTM) Travel Experience Award’ for its provision in Accessible Tourism. Download Flanders Fields – Accessible to Everyone at www.accessinfo.be. It includes listings of hotels and restaurants with accessible facilities.
Sources: John Oates, Rob Crossan, The Telegraph; Visit Flanders; Access Tourism NZ. Follow on Twitter: @VisitFlanders @valiesje @john_oates @crossantravels