When I first walked into Ieper (or Ypres, as it is labeled on French maps) it felt like walking into a ghost town. There was nobody around on any of the streets from the train station to the Grote Markt, the main square at the city centre. Once I got to the Grote Markt, there still were not that many people around. This was partially due to the fact that I am an unreasonable morning person and set off from Arras early enough that by the time I got to Ieper, even with a delay in my trains, most tourist-oriented businesses were just getting started for the day. But that was only partly the reason.
The other reason was that on the same day I arrived in Ieper, the city was preparing itself for an EU summit in which pretty much every European head of state would be in attendance. Security may be hefty when a single political VIP visits somewhere, but security when basically an entire continent’s worth of political VIPs roll into town and meet up in the same building is unbelievable.
In other words it was lucky that I arrived so early. Those businesses in the Grote Markt that opened about when I arrived all closed up by 1 PM, by order of the Belgian government and the police and security forces who all came to help prepare. Seen from the belfry tower above the square, those preparations looked like this (by about 11:30/noonish).
I hung around for a little while, but it was clear that the heads of state weren’t arriving anytime soon and I had rented a bike so that I could go do some exploring, so that’s what I did. I’ll be writing about the exploring I did in a post to follow very soon, but for now let’s focus on the summitry.
I rolled back into town (literally) coming up around 4:30 or 5ish, and was greatly impeded by the security guards and police blocking off literally every major road access towards the city. I wanted to take a picture to show what these roadblocks looked like but I was afraid the guards might take that the wrong way. So just imagine a road, a barrier, official-looking armed guards, and a stream of disgruntled traffic turning around to look for another way in.
I eventually got into the city by crossing the moat into the old town (I love old European cities for having this feature) on a bridge reserved for cyclists. There were no guards that I could see, but judging by the fact I spotted two guards eyeing me suspiciously from the entrance to a footpath in a public park when I stopped for a drink of water on my way into town, I feel like my passage did not go unnoticed.
Upon getting into town I found out that the EU heads of state were going to be getting a special “Last Post” showing under the Menin Gate. The Last Post ceremony happens every night under the Menin Gate at 8 pm, but they were getting one for themselves at around 6. I, like many others nearby, crowded at the security barrier and watched the entrance they were expected to emerge from so I could get a glimpse of them. It was an easy entrance to spot, what with the red carpet and the honour guard standing by it.
A string of evenly spaced police officers stared back at the crowds. Then one of the police officers informed us that those willing to go through a security checkpoint could get onto the street right by the Menin Gate and basically get within a meter or two of the EU leaders as they went past. So off to the security checkpoint I went. After witnessing about five other people snapping not-so-discreet pictures of it (read: selfies of themselves in the security checkpoint lineup), I felt confident enough that my own documentation would not be the subject of suspicious misinterpretation.
Compared to the crowds in the main square, the street by Menin Gate was deserted.
I even got relatively close to the Menin Gate itself! Throughout the whole ceremony, I was able to see most of what was happening as long as I stood on tiptoe. My calves got one hell of a workout from that particular experience. Is this what it’s like for women who wear high heels on the regular? If so, why does anybody wear high heels?
When the procession went past, I thought about how awkward it would be to be ogled by hundreds of people as you walk down a street, and how I would be terrible at it. This lot were pretty good at it though. For those of you interested in playing ‘spot the European head of state’ I taped the procession.
The ceremony itself was wonderful, even if I was peering at it through a crowd and I was looking at it from the back. Then when it ended, the procession went by again. This time, a couple of them were spending a bit of extra time to interact with the crowd. For example, this guy.
So basically, I went to Ieper and found it either sleeping or closed. Then I went on a bike ride and almost got locked out of the city. A whole lot of very important people walked past me and I did my best to peer in at their ceremony from the wrong side and generally enjoyed the music, the pomp and circumstance, and the overall happy and excited atmosphere in the crowd.
And then at the end I shook hands with both Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel.
Some people in Belgium on Thursday were excited because Belgium won against South Korea in the World Cup. But for this long-time student of political science, law, and European studies, nothing else more exciting happened that night.