Nele Bille, Area Coordinator for Western Europe Area – Central (WEA-C) for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, describes her job and her favourite locations in Belgium.
In the series of posts I am publishing in the lead-up to Armistice Day, I am delighted to welcome Nele Bille.
Nele works for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) as Area Coordinator for the Western Europe Area – Central (WEA-C), based in Ypres. I asked her to explain what this role entails, and then to describe her favourite locations in Belgium.
“As an Area Coordinator for the CWGC I provide executive support to the Area Management Team. I also deal with internal communications for our Belgian, Dutch, German and Austrian staff. Being a linguist I work closely together with all our different departments, in particular when it comes to communication, translation and coordination of events/projects.
“In my free time I am the proud chairperson of our lovely CWGC Social & Welfare Committee, organising social events and benefits for our staff based in the area. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 crisis we have only been able to organise one event so far this year. I really miss these events and the face-to-face social contacts.
“Interacting with colleagues and friends within our area and beyond is something I really love. Getting in touch with different people truly broadens my horizon. That is probably one of the reasons why I am very active on social media too: seeing what my CWGC colleagues all over the world are up to, sharing the great work they are doing, and engaging with others in a more virtual way… I love it!
“Born in Poperinge and having lived in the beautiful city of Ypres all my life, I am a real “child of the Westhoek”. And that will become very clear if you read further… I really love this region and would like to share my passion for it with you all. You will notice that my interest in WWI history, as well as my passion for stunning landscapes, and my love for great food will be the common thread in My Belgium.”
Favourite City: Ypres
“Having risen from its ashes like a phoenix time and time again, to become the stunning and vibrant city it is today, is really admirable. There is no other place I would rather raise my children than in Ypres… says the proud Ieperling.”
The cosiest house (and garden!): Talbot House
“Talbot House was a “home for home” for many British soldiers during the First World War. It’s a must see for anyone who is interested in the Great War – you can visit the “Old House” as well as the recently opened permanent exhibition. Even if you’re not interested in history, I highly recommend going along to enjoy the coziness of the house with a warm cup of tea or a delicious breakfast in the authentic dining room. or a picnic in the idyllic garden. Its baseline “every man’s club” is still applicable today. The kind manager Simon Louagie and his lovely team welcome everyone with open arms – but in current times from a safe distance of course!
“Recently, a crowdfund was set-up to help Talbot House through this tough COVID-19 period. It was boosted by one of my former CWGC colleagues: 98-year-old WWII veteran George Sutherland. He organised a sponsored walk from CWGC Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery (where he has worked all his life) to Talbot House. Check out his crowd fund if you are interested!”
favourite museum: In Flanders Fields Museum
“The In Flanders Fields Museum brings the history of the First World War in the Westhoek and far beyond, alive. I really love the way the museum is built up and the personal stories you get to know. But I also have a very special personal bond with it. Being a fluent German speaker and an Ypres City and IFF Museum guide, I was asked to guide German Chancellor Angela Merkel around the museum, as part of the EU summit in June 2014. A truly unforgettable experience!”
Favourite restaurant: ‘t Hellegat
“No matter what time of year, the owners of ‘t Hellegat – Kristof and Anja – always welcome you with a big smile to their outstanding restaurant in Westouter. If you go there in the summer, you can sit on their lovely terrace, with – on the front side – a super view over the Heuvelland. I prefer going there in the winter though, sitting inside the extremely cozy furnished restaurant.
“The homemade macaroni has always been my favourite dish. However, since they’ve added chateaubriand with lovely fries to their menu, it is now very hard to make a decision! Apart from ‘t Hellegat there are many other great restaurants in the Heuvelland, such as De Rare Vos in Loker and De Bralle in Dranouter. Ypres also has some great places to dine. My favourites are Utopia and the Ariane.”
Most poignant cemetery in the Ypres Salient: CWGC Ramparts Cemetery, Lille Gate
“If you visit the Westhoek you cannot ignore the many sad witnesses of the First World War. As a CWGC staff member and tourist guide I’ve visited many cemeteries and they all have their own poignant story. One of the most poignant is Ramparts Cemetery, Lille Gate. The now so peaceful and quiet area of the Ypres Ramparts is in sharp contrast to the horror that took place over 100 years ago. I particularly love the view on the cemetery from across the moat and how the cemetery somehow becomes one with nature. So sad, and yet so beautiful.”
“Of course there are many other CWGC cemeteries in the area, all maintained with the same love and commitment by my colleagues, and they surely all deserve a visit. When coming to the Westhoek don’t forget to visit some other cemeteries too, such as the French cemetery Saint-Charles de Potyze, the Belgian Military Cemetery in Houthulst, and one of the German cemeteries (I prefer the one in Vladslo with the statues of Käthe Kollwitz). The above pictures were taken by my CWGC colleague and amateur photographer Dirk Debleu. To discover more about Dirk and his passion for cemetery photography, check out this beautiful digital exhibition or follow him on Facebook.”
Bar with the best view: Bar Bernard
“Bar Bernard is a rooftop bar in Watou. It has a stunning 360° view and is the home of the St Bernardus beers. You can visit the brewery that is located in the same building. I just love sitting outside on the terrace and enjoying the view of the never-ending fields. If you have an appetite, you can stay there for lunch or dinner. Some of the dishes are even made with their famous beers!”
Favourite Festival: Dranouter Festival
“To me, Dranouter Festival is the most atmospheric, joyful and welcoming festival for young and old.
“I was first introduced to Folkfestival Dranouter – as it was called back then – as a child by my parents and I absolutely loved it. When I was a teenager, I went with my fellow “Sporrewoan” playground monitors to the festival, where we stayed from Thursday to Monday, camping on the meadow. I have so many lovely memories of this period. And now, being a mum, I still go there with my own children. It is a very family-friendly festival, where everyone is welcome.”
Most exciting family activity: Télésiège Cordoba
“Connecting the Rodeberg (‘red mountain’) with the Zwarteberg (‘black mountain’) the Télésiège Cordoba chairlift gives you a magnificent view over the Heuvelland. On a clear day you can even see the Belgian coast or look into the North of France. And for wine-lovers, if you look down, you’ll see the vineyards of Entre-Deux-Monts which can be visited too.”
Favourite Sports Event: Ypres Rally
“I’m no fanatic motorsport lover, but I do like the entire atmosphere around the annual Ypres Rally. Taking place in June, it is always nice to be out and about with friends in the sunny fields, watching the cars passing by and driving from one stage to another. What I also love is the ambiance in the centre of Ypres, where you can see the cars and pilots in the service park and where the podium is located. It is always pleasantly busy. This year, for obvious reasons the rally could not take place in June. However, in November the Ypres Rally will hopefully take place and will – for the first time in history – be a part of the FIA World Rally Championship.”
Thank you Nele Bille for an excellent and passionate introduction to some of the sights and sounds of the Westhoek! You and the Commonwealth Graves War Commission are doing an excellent job in conserving the cemeteries and memorials of the men and women of the Commonwealth forces who died in the First and Second World Wars.
You can follow Nele on Twitter. To sign up for upcoming posts on the First World War in Belgium (and on other topics), add your email below:
Lovely post Denzil, great to hear about the CGWC people, who are mostly invisible when I’ve been to the cemeteries, they do sterling work.
Yes, they did a huge amount of great work immediately after the war ended.
We were so impressed by the Commonwealth War Graves when we visited Belgium. They are beautifully kept.
Yes they have team of great gardeners.
Thank you Nele very interesting. I thought you may be interested to know my great uncle, my grandmother’s brother, is buried in Vlamertinge. We found his grave. William Cooke died 21.12.1916.
My father spent time here at the end of WWII.
Amazing to think I ended up marrying a Belgian, my parents also emigrated here in2004 as I’m an only child. Both have passed away and are buried in my village 10ks from Mechelen. Ruth
That’s fascinating Ruth. It’s lovely that you found his grave and have been able to visit it. And what a surprise that you ended up marrying a Belgian! Thanks for dropping me and commenting on my blog.
Really interesting Denzil, thanks for sharing some of Nele’s favourite things about the area.