Can you tour the war sites in Ypres Salient by bike?
Absolutely, so long as you do some advanced planning. Planning on the fly is not that hard but with thoughtful advanced prep your time will be better spent. There are designated bike routes (I call them "fietsroutes") thought the Salient, though they are generally designed to ride from Point A to Point B, and not to hit the sights. Many (not all) roads have bike lanes, but there are a few roads you can't ride on. Some sights have bike parking. The land is generally flat, and the hills that are there are inconsequential (unless you were a soldier in 1914-1918). Distances between sights is fairly short. A 40-50 km ride will accomplish a lot.
The only thing to worry about is the wind, which generally blows west to east. Since the land is flat without many trees, there's nothing to stop it.
How do the Fietsroutes work?
Little green signs direct you to numbered intersections. For instance, the Ypres Train Station is intersection 30, the Menin Gate is 33. The numbers are NOT related to sights to see, but to places where path intersections occur. The maps show distances between the numbers, so you know exactly how far you are riding. In the field, you simply follow the directional arrows to the next number. It really is hard to get lost.
Where can I get a bike?
You can only rent bikes from two places in town, the Hotel Ambrosia or the Campground. The railway station did rent bikes, but they are not doing so as I write this in May 2011. The Ambrosia bikes are 6 speed, in very nice shape, easy to ride, readily adjusted and cost just €10 per day. A credit card number is left for a deposit. Wreck the bike and it's €350. You can call ahead and make reservations for a bike.
The campground is a little out of the way, halfway between the Menin Gate and the Lille Gate outside the moat, making it less desirable a rental spot for people staying in town.
What do I need to plan my trip?
- Knowing what you want to see. You can't see everything. There's 187 cemeteries alone. If you want to see the sites primarily devoted to the Canadians, or to the Austrailians, or a specific regiment or battle, plus add the famous sites or a museum or two, you can. But to see everything in the Salient would take months. To help you narrow it down, you need:
- The book "Major & Mrs Holt's Battlefield Guide - Ypres Salient and Passchendaele". I looked briefly at their Pocket guide and can't really recommend it as it omits too many important sites. From the full detailed guide, you can easily pick out the highlights you want to see. You will probably want to see more than you can (as we did). All I can suggest is either stay longer or prioritize.
- The best overall bike map for the area is the Westhoek Zuid Fietsnetwerk map published by Tourism Westhoek. This €6 plastic map (ideal for all weather use, and tough to wreck) covers the area around Ypres and basically all of the Salient. While it shows very few historic sites, at 1:50,000 it's detailed enough to get around on, and also to plan your own routes. It shows all the off-road and designated bikeways. It does NOT show the roads with bike lanes. I suggest getting one before you leave home, but you can buy them in the VVV office/In Flanders Fields Museum gift shop on the Grote Markt in central Ypres. The Ambrosia even has some for sale.
- The best map to identify the location of the sights is "Major and Mrs Holts Battle Map of the Ypres Salient". This map shows all of the sights and has a detailed road map, but none of the bike routes. These days, the map comes with the Battlefield Guide. The nice part about this map is that it shows every country road (but not the off-road bike routes, nor the roads inside the towns).
The Battle Map is not plastic and barely weathers a day spent flapping in the wind before tearing at the folds, so don't carry it unless you have to. The Battle Map without the Battlefield Guide gives you no understanding of the sights, it merely lists them all. But you can't find the sights in the Battlefield Guide without the Battle Map, as the directions given follow a driving route that bikes generally can't follow. So you need all three.
At this time, I'm not aware of guides who offer guided bike tours. There are lots who will drive you around in their van. The funny part is the sites are sometimes so close together that the bikes beat the vans going from place to place.
I don't have a lot of time. What's close to town?
Essex Farm, where John McCrae wrote "In Flanders Fields", is a 40 min walk/15 min ride from town. The fietsroute would be 30-33-34-35-24 (stopping before you get to 24).
A very short loop south of town on the Fietsroutes will take you to Hill 62 and the Hooge Crater where you can see museums, monuments, important cemeteries, trenches, craters and shell holes, and would take a half a day at most. The fietsroute would be 30-36-48-47-44-42-55-56-32-33.
In fact, if you just rode out of town under the Menin Gate on the bike path on Menin Road, in about 15 minutes you will come to the Hooge Crater/Hill 62/Sanctuary Wood area. Just be aware this road (which has an on-road bike lane) is very busy.
What's it like to visit there?
Moving. See my post here.
Enjoy your trip. Ypres is a pretty little town, and the Belgian countryside is a great place to visit. Note that it is farm country, and sometimes smells like it.