Wending over 126 miles of French and Belgian countryside, the river Lys and its environs offer plenty of interest for those exploring it on a barge cruise. Beginning in Northern France, the Lys flows over the border into Belgium and comes to an end near city of Ghent, where it meets the Scheldt river.
This region inspired many Flemish artists with its beauty during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but is most well-known as the site of several major battles of the First World War. Paths for cycling and walking along line the side of the river, giving the chance for a more active exploration of the area if you wish to disembark from the cruise for a time.
Art and Armies
The Lys was used as a commercial waterway during the Middle Ages and suffered from heavy pollution due to the area’s high population density and the presence of the flax industry. Deindustrialisation helped to rehabilitate the river and this – along with the natural beauty of the Lys valley – attracted many local painters such as Emile Claus, Constant Permeke and Albert Servaes in the latter decades of the nineteenth century and beyond. From the comfort of the barge, cruise by with your eyes open for the landscapes which exerted their pull on many artists.
Within a few months of the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 the pattern of attritional trench warfare had been established, turning Flanders into the muddy quagmire that now dominates many people’s understanding of the conflict. In the spring of 1918 the Lys valley became a major battleground during the German Spring Offensive, an attempt by the Germans to deal a demoralising defeat to the Allies before American troops were fully deployed against them. Dogged resistance by Portuguese, British and Australian troops slowed the German advance and although gains were made, the arrival of French reinforcements towards the end of April saw General Ludendorff call off the offensive. The failure of the Spring Offensive and the arrival of American forces hastened the German defeat.
There are plenty of opportunities for exploring the Lys Valley’s fascinating and tragic history throughout a barge cruise along the river. In Ypres, the In Flanders Fields Museum offers a worthy commemoration of the First World War, providing an authoritative and sensitive guide to the major historical events without neglecting the importance of individual experience and the involvement of people from around the world in this truly global conflict. The museum also focuses on the impact of the war on Ypres and West Flanders.
The French city of Lille is just under 25 miles south of Ypres, making it perfect for a day trip when you have some free time during a barge cruise. Make sure to visit the Musée de l'Hospice Comtesse, a medieval hospice which has been preserved and decorated with religious paintings and wood carvings, as well as the Palais des Beaux-Arts. Its collection includes works by Rubens, Delacroix and Goya.
Paul Newman is the Marketing and E-Systems Executive for European Waterways, the UK's most respected provider of all-inclusive, luxury barge cruise itineraries. Part of a team of experienced barging aficionados, Paul is first in line to endorse the perks of a slow-paced barge cruise to anyone looking for a unique holiday experience.