A guest post by Stefaan Bailleur from the website Wandelverhaal.be (Walking Stories) who describes how to spend a day in the town of Mesen in West Flanders.
On the Discovering Belgium Facebook page I recently posted a photo of Durbuy with the remark that it’s Belgium’s smallest town. Tour guide Koenraad Dumoulin kindly corrected me, pointing out that “correctly speaking, Mesen near Ypres is the smallest town in Belgium, with barely 1000 inhabitants.” Stefaan Bailleur agreed with him and pointed to an article on Mesen on his blog. If you understand Dutch you can read Stefaan’s original article. He kindly translated it into English and gave me permission to use it and his photos here. Over to you Stefaan:
spend a day in Mesen
Have you ever heard of Mesen? No? What about its French name: Messines? That might sound more familiar, thanks to the well-known Battle of Messines during the First World War. For those of you who might be looking for a day out or a nice staycation in Belgium, I can warmly recommend Mesen. You will have to travel all the way to a remote but beautiful corner of the Westhoek. But once there, you will end up in the smallest town in Belgium. Mesen may only be pocket-handkerchief sized, but it has so much to offer. Its history goes back to the Middle Ages. The Great War had horrific episodes here. Crushed against the Heuvelland hills and a piece of Wallonia, you get lost in the beauty of mother nature. Here you can enjoy moments of happiness and listen to the silence.
remember the past
First port of call is the Tourist Info Point on the Markt. Immediately you will be reminded of the horrors of the First World War. Photo displays show how Mesen suffered from the violence of war for four years. The infamous Mine Battle, one of the bloodiest episodes of the Great War, took place here on the morning of June 7, 1917. At 3 a.m. as the first signs of daylight were appearing, a gigantic explosion rent the air, and Mesen, Wijtschate and Hill 60 were literally on fire. British forces had detonated 19 massive mines beneath German trenches, blasting tons of soil, steel, and bodies into the sky. The immense shock was reportedly felt in London. The area was transformed into a large crater landscape, which is still healing its wounds 100 years later. The largest and best known is the Spanbroekmolen crater, also known as the Pool of Peace.
consider the Christmas Truce
Near the Tourist Info Point a special life-size bronze statue will get your attention. Andrew Edwards’ artwork in which two soldiers reach out to each other with a football between them symbolizes Christmas Truce. At Christmas 1914, the British and German troops actually left their trenches here to celebrate Christmas Day together and exchange gifts. They played a game of football amongst themselves. For a moment the weapons of war were silent.
Walk the town
A 3.6 km walking route of the town of Mesen starts from the statue. Follow the rivets with the silhouette print of the Saint Nicholas Church and the Irish Peace Park through the gently sloping landscape.
Of course, you will dive again into the turbulent history of Messines during the war. You will pass the most striking sites of the Great War, such as Messines Ridge British Cemetery. Located on a ridge, it’s one of the many British cemeteries that dot the landscape. The Memorial Obelisk has the names of 840 New Zealand soldiers inscribed on it. Fallen heroes who lost their lives at Messines and have an unknown grave. The cemetery itself contains 986 Commonwealth soldiers and the graves of 954 unknown soldiers. But at the same time it is a special viewpoint of the battlefield of Messines.
visit the Irish Peace Park
Another special place to visit on your day in Mesen is the Irish Peace Park. A high, round tower commemorates the Irish soldiers who died during the First World War. At the same time, it’s a symbol of reconciliation between all residents of the Irish island.
During the Battle of Messines, the Catholic and Protestant Irish divisions (the 16th and 36th Ulster) fought side by side to capture the hill on which Messines was built. From here, a boardwalk leads to the New Zealand Battlefield Memorial Park. The obelisk, planned in a memorial park, was built on a German position. By the way, you will still find the remains of two partially buried bunkers. But also look around you, the view here is impressive.
Strike out on a hike
The hills of Heuvelland, which are a stone’s throw away, invite you for a walk on the hiking network. The Douve hiking path leads you into an oasis of tranquillity along old country lanes and paths through the Douve valley. You end up in an unexpected piece of rolling Westhoek. Briefly you will flirt with the language border as it’s part of Wallonia. Look carefully and you’ll notice bilingual street signs. In the Middle Ages, the Douve river was an important transport axis for the cloth industry. Anyone who transported their merchandise to Lille or Bruges via the watercourse had to pay a toll here to the Douve Abbey.
At the start of the walk, you will step past Bethleem Farm. It may look like an insignificant farm, but a significant event took place here. Between December 1914 and February 1915 a young German soldier was cared for here for some minor injuries. During his rehabilitation he made various watercolours, including one of the destroyed Saint Nicholas Church. A copy of the masterpiece can be viewed at the Tourist Info Point in Mesen. For the original you have to go to the Pushkin Museum. His name? Adolf Hitler.
The Via Sacra – Western Front Way also passes here. This long-distance walking route starts in Nieuwpoort and follows the entire western front line to Pfetterhouse on the French-Swiss border.
say hi to The fathead of Mesen
While walking, the fathead of Mesen can be seen from afar. It’s the nickname for St. Nicholas’ Church, on account of its domed tower. You really shouldn’t leave Mesen without visiting the church. It’s closely linked to Adela from Mesen, who in 1057 met local needs with the construction of a Benedictine abbey. It gave Mesen the necessary prosperity. When her husband, Boudewijn V (Count of Flanders) died during a crusade, she took up residence in the abbey. Her gravestone and a relic are stored in the crypt of the church. Today it’s still a place of pilgrimage. From 14 to 22 September every year, the “Grote Keer” is still held here in commemoration of Our Lady of Mesen and Blessed Adela. It’s a 6 km pilgrim’s walk.
Also take a look inside the church tower, where there is a peace carillon with 59 bells. The most important clock is the PAX, a gift from Pope John Paul II on his visit to Ypres in 1985. The church tower will soon be part of the Horizon 2025 project. The tower will act as a viewing point over the Battlefields and Heuvelland. You’ll need to climb 214 steps. But once at the top you can enjoy a phenomenal panoramic view of the city, its surroundings between West Flemish hills and the Northern French plains.
Stay with the saints
Maybe a day in Mesen isn’t long enough? Would you like to enjoy Mesen just a little bit longer? Then book an overnight stay at Le Cloître Saint Joseph. Located in an old nunnery, you can relax in the beautiful garden, perhaps while reading a book from the private library. On a culinary level, hostess Inge and her husband Sven will spoil you. In the B&B you will find many nods to the monastery past. Its four rooms refer to a saint, so you can choose to snuggle down with Saint-Nicolas, Sainte Adèle, Saint-Jacques or Saint-Joseph.
Thank you Stefaan for these excellent ideas on how to spend a day in Mesen.
Check out Stefaan’s blog for more ideas of places to walk in Belgium and elsewhere. There’s a Google Translate button on the right-hand column which will translate any article you’re interested in. To get more suggestions for a day out in Belgium, subscribe to Discovering Belgium by adding your email below:
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I wondered what an Irish ?? round tower was doing in your post! I’ve read about that WWI explosion, not surprised a crater still exists. Sounds like a fascinating place to visit, and nice to leave the morning after feeling saintly!
And a happy belated Thanksgiving to you and yours Robert.
Thank you, Denzil.
We visited that crater. It’s enormous and even when we stood on the edge looking down into it, we couldn’t comprehend the power of the explosion.
Yes, it must have been deafening for everyone miles around. And of course the explosion killed a lot of German soldiers. A number frequently heard is 10,000 but that apparently refers to casualties in the resulting battle. The explosion was more likely to have killed 500.