Mechelen

We didn’t realise that as soon as we went through the lock just a few kms from Lier that we would be into a tidal section. Big mistake. At first it just looked as if the water level was a tad low; we spotted Lapwings & other wading birds along the muddy banks; most interesting!; but it soon became obvious that the tide was going out, as more of the muddy bank became visible. We sped along with the tide but had some difficulty when it came to turning off into the channel to join the Leuven Canal. The junction was not marked so we went past and then had difficulty turning around and fighting our way against the tide to get into the channel. Waiting for the sea lock to empty seemed to take a very long time but, luckily because of our shallow water draught we were able to get through the lock and into the canal. We were very pleased to moor up for a few nights on a quiet pontoon outside of the town.

Mechelen is another very pleasant old town with a lovely Grote Markt in the centre of the old town.

There is also a Béguinage area where there was a ‘flea market’ every Sunday & a brewery. Yep! those ladies of long ago even started a brewery to earn their keep. So we visited and tried the Carolus beers of the Het Anker Brewery – alledgedly the oldest brewery in Belgium!

We walked a lot around Mechelen, visited Sint Rombouts-Kathedraal (seat of the Catholic archbishop of Belgium)

and admired the architecture around the Grote Markt with the Stadhuis.

 

We were considering which museum we might visit s it was national open day for museums (free entry) when the square came alive with music. A group of musicians in ? medieval dress, with an assortment of brass instruments and steel drums made its way around the square playing and dancing together. One woman playing a trumpet had a baby on her back and a toddler hanging onto her skirt! Daddy seemed to be one of the drummers!

Then came a trio dressed in 80s style …..

A couple of bikers stopped in front of us – disabled lady on a recumbent bike, her daughter behind on usual bike with lots of gear and signs ‘Roses for Children’ ‘Wheels for Children’. Of course I had to find out more …… Dutch they are cycling down to Brussels to raise awareness of children’s rights – be it regarding abuse, refugee status, gender or poverty.

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Lier & Mechelen

We stayed one night at Schoten on our way to Lier on the Nete Kanaal.

We liked Lier, a fairly small mediaeval fortified town situated where the rivers Grote Nete and Kleine Nete meet. It was a walled town which grew in time so that the original wall was pushed outwards. The rivers run through the town and one afternoon we took the ‘eel catchers barque’ trip through the town, ducking under rather low bridges as we went! One of the other tourists tried valiantly to translate as much of the volunteer guide’s commentary as she could. Fishing & eel catching were once important industries in the town.

Apparently Lier-ites are often referred to as ‘sheep heads’ and there are flags throughout town depicting sheep heads!

Each town has a Grote Markt (main square) with cafés, restaurants and bars surrounding it. We enjoy a light lunch or a beer while we soak up the atmosphere in the square & people watch. Just occasionally (you understand), we may even be tempted by several belgian delicacies at once – beer, gaufres, ice cream!

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The square in Lier features the Zimmer tower with its Jubilee Clock. The tower was originally 14th century and was due to be demolished before it was rebuilt around 1930 to house the clock. The adjoining museum is all about time, how its measured etc and about Lodewijk Zimmer who was born and brought up in Lier. He designed and built the Jubilee clock to commemorate Belgium’s 100 years of independence.

Our sojourn in Lier also included visiting the Béguinage & 2 museums – one with a temporary Brughel exhibition. We went to see the lacemakers in action, a small group of ladies who meet weekly to continue the Lier lace making tradition and method. Seems to be a cross between embroidery & crochet, in that thread is hooked up through the net fabric to form the pattern on the top – very intricate & must be sore on the eyes!. This was apparently a trade for the Béguines in times of yore.

All most delightful and punctuated with beer!

And to top it all off I bought a bike! Many of you will know that I don’t ride a bike. Having been brought up in Wimbledon, being somewhat accident prone and having broken my arm when quite young, I have always been reluctant to say the least! I have tried a couple of times over the years but always said no! However, seeing the sheer range of bike styles available got us thinking that maybe there could be a way – a dutch style, sit up and beg type, with angled back handlebars…….

So we were looking and thinking while we sat with a beer in the Grote Markt and then we happened to pass by a bike shop, twice, and I bought a bike!

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I am learning to ride it by going for short rides along the tow paths near the boat – preferably at a quiet time of day ie not ‘rush hour’ & no strings of racing cyclists hurtling along in either direction. Time will tell if I gain sufficient confidence to actually go anywhere on it or if it remains a tow path activity. Adrian has decided he really quite likes riding it, more comfortable than his fold up bike, so I am sure it won’t be wasted!

We left Lier on Friday (8th sept) morning heading for Mechelen on the Kanaal Leuven Dijle with the intention of continuing down to Leuven.

 

 

 

Turnhout – city of playing cards

And what a delightful little town Turnhout turned out to be! Nice friendly port, with cheap beer at the club house; nice sized town with large central square with lots of bars and cafes and generally a welcoming atmosphere.

And some interesting things to see.

The Harbour Meester told us we MUST visit the playing card museum. Didn’t exactly inspire us but it really was good!

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Turnhout is a centre of graphic industries with its most well known product being playing cards with a production capacity of approx 600,000 decks per day. It is the most important exporter of playing cards in the world, maintaining a centuries old local tradition. Earliest known reference to cards is apparently a bill of sale from the duke of Brabant dated 14th May 1379!

The museum houses an impressive array of printing presses and describes the different methods used over the centuries and how the manufacture of playing cards was developed alongside the technical developments of the presses – from simple presses o the huge, noisy steam machines. Strongly reminded me of my college days when one of the crafts we had to learn printing, using little Adana presses and how these could be adapted to provide particular movements for patients! I even used printing in one of my early jobs in Milton Keynes. Memories!

Another aspect of cards shown was how old cards were recycled. Paper was expensive and so old cards were used in all sorts of ways – shopping lists, invitations, menus, letters / notes. There is a whole area of exhibits that one collector has displayed, describing what each exhibit shows and where and how he obtained it. One that particularly moved me simply said ‘ née premier avril, pas baptimée’ (born 1st april not baptised) a card tucked into  baby’s shawl when she was left outside a convent.

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We both agreed with the Harbout Meester that the playing card museum was indeed a ‘must’!

We also visited the Beguinage (which I shall talk about in a separate blog), St Peter’s Church, the market place, a car boot sale and the Castle of the Dukes of Brabant.

Unfortunately the latter is now used as the courthouse so it is not possible to go inside. And we finished off our visit to Turnhout with dinner at a local hostelry with Jo & tim from Maria of Zandam who were also moored there. It was really good to catch up with them before we each headed off in different directions on Monday morning. Will next see them in October in Bruges.

 

 

Onwards

We came back into Belgium above Maastrichtand & went up the Kanaal Herentals-Bocholt. The northern section of the Belgian waterways has been described to us as looking like ‘two bikini cups’. So this is the first ‘cup!

We found it pretty in places but still with quite a lot of heavy industry along the way. These waterways really are in constant commercial use. We stopped a couple of nights at Neerpelt where we found a really good Lidl supermarket – couldn’t overcome our Colruyt prejudices! It was very hot while we were there so the ice cream vendor on the quay was very welcome. And not just by us – saw a 70m commercial barge literally pull into the side so that the kids could run over to get ice creams for mum, dad & the kids!

By this time we were beginning to worry that we hadn’t yet bought a Belgian vignet (waterway licence) which we were supposed to do at the first lock in the northern part of Belgium. There are 2 parts of Belgium – Région Wallone (no vignet required) & Vlaams Gewest (vignet required). But we worked out that because we’d gone off into Holland to Maastricht, we hadn’t yet been through a lock on the northern system. A little research showed us that if we waited until 1st Sept we would only need to buy 1 x 80 euro vignet until the end of March!

So we took a little detour to use up a couple of days and went to visit Leopoldsburg up the little Kanaal Naar Beverlo. Nice detour, quite pretty, lily lined canal but Leopoldsburg was nothing to write home about! The biggest excitement was watching a couple of army guys in full gear ‘swimming’ up the canal, presumably some kind of training exercise.

We came back down this canal and moored up at the end, at Lommel. Quiet mooring in wooded area which was most pleasant. Got to watch the big commercials come up to the turning area in front of the lock to do ‘a u-ey’! Impressive how they can virtually spin in their own length using their thrusters and rudders.

It was a peaceful evening – I even had a go on Adrian’s folding bike to see if I could perhaps overcome my fear / reticence – jury’s still out as I hurt everywhere next day! A Dutch couple stopped to talk to us – their boat was moored a little way away and they were out on their folding electric bikes.

Next morning (1st Sept) we were up and into the lock to buy our vignet! Such a nice guy – obviously not something he had to do very often but we managed together – easier for me to type in our address etc than to try and spell it out! So we now have the necessary orange sticker on the stern of the boat! Legal at last!

And we were ready to tackle the other bikini cup ie the Kanaal Schoten-Turnhout-Dessel.

But first there was that pancake boat (Tim and Jo had told us about this gastronomic delight) to visit! Great excitement! Particularly as we saw the Dutch couple’s boat (‘XL 12’ – called that cos its a big boat they bought in 2012!)  beside it. We had coffee with Anneke & Gosse on XL 12 but no pancakes – the pancake boat was shut! Signs said it was closed on Fridays but it has since become clear that it really is shut. Shame – I was so looking forward to sampling their wares and Heidi was expecting a full report!

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So onwards to the town of Turnhout at the top of the canal.

 

 

 

Thoughts

Some thoughts as we cruise through the Belgian network……..

We are both really enjoying seeing Belgium from the waterways but find some real differences to France, which we have obviously come to know quite well.

It is really strange for us not to be able to understand people when they talk to us! We are now in the Flemish part of Belgium, neither of us speak Flemish and many people do not like to hear French being spoken. Certainly odd for us, we both really enjoy speaking French! Particularly difficult when using the VHF radio at locks or lifting bridges – I can call up but if the operator replies in Flemish we have no idea what’s going on! Luckily for us, most people speak pretty good English and are happy to try and help.

The waterways seem to be quite quiet. Maybe its because we are now into September but it is nice to aim for a particular place and find there is space for us! Not always so in France. And there don’t seem to be many English boats about. In fact a couple of people we have met have commented as much.

There are certainly big differences on the waterways because the countryside is pretty flat, so there are not many locks. We can go whole days without a single lock. Yesterday we went through 10 locks but many more lifting bridges! All the locks and bridges so far have been in good condition and efficiently operated. Sometimes we have been told to enter locks even if the light is still on red – not allowed to do that in France. Obviously we have to wait around sometimes for commercial traffic but on the whole its good.

We have become aficionados of Lidl and Aldi – stores seem much better than those around where we live. The French Carrefour chain has stores around here but not too big.

The beer (may have already mentioned it) is really good – and so many different varieties! Often take the waiter’s recommendation as its hard to chose from such a long list on the menu. Wine is easier – often the choice is ‘red, white or rosé’!

We are enjoying the bread (often quite dark & rustic), the occasional cake, gauffre, chocolate and ice cream.

And then there are the BIKES! Literally thousands of them! It really is a means of transport for one and all. We sat looking out this morning while we were having breakfast and watched people heading off to work, parents taking little ones to nursery, whole groups of kids off to school. And there are a plethora of types of bikes with all sorts of adaptations to carry kids, help the disabled etc. And, of course, the towns are set up for it with cycle ways everywhere and all road users ‘bike aware’.  Have to get used to moving out of the way when you hear a bike tinging its bell behind you!

 

Maastricht

We spent a couple of delightful days (25th- 27th Aug) in Masstricht! Lovely city and everyone we met was extremely friendly and helpful. Certainly another place we will return at some point.

We moored in the Pieters Yatchaven to the south of town. Lovely spot – there was even a bar and swimming pool beside the river. The weather was great so the first thing we did was to go and have a nice cold beer at the bar – to recover from the hard trek down river amongst all those big boys, you understand! We are really getting into ‘beer o’clock’ and enjoy trying new beers as recommended by the waiters.

Next day we decided to do some focused touristy stuff and headed off to visit the fort and the underground caves / tunnels nearby.

Maastricht has a history of invasion, particularly by the French, because it had a strategically placed bridge across the river Maas which invading armies needed to cross.  The town itself was fortified and protected by the enclosing walls which repelled most attackers. The fort was constructed after General Vauban (French) used the elevated site to fire at, and breach, the town’s walls. The fort is not that big and of a simple but effective design, it was only manned in time of siege.

Most of the city’s walls have been demolished to allow for the expansion of the town and the fort was decommissioned and was being demolished when it was taken over by the Dutch equivalent of our National Trust. Volunteers now act as guides – our English speaking guide was extremely good.

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Then down into the caves, which aren’t actually caves but underground tunnels left after underground quarrying of the sandstone. Really extensive network of tunnels – approx 200kms worth! Apparently the French once tried to destroy the fort above by going into the tunnels and setting off a big pile of gunpowder. This didn’t work because they weren’t actually in the right place (ie not under the fort) and the layer of hard rock above the tunnels did not collapse.

The tunnels have had various uses over the years. Archaeologists have found the remains of dinosaurs and the Germans used the tunnels to store Dutch masterpieces during the war, ready to take back to Germany later. Luckily they didn’t manage to destroy them when they surrendered, and the masterpieces were returned Holland at the end of the war.

We were left in total darkness for a minute while our guide went round the corner with the torch – very very dark and quiet (apart from the kids in the group!). We were told that one man – van Schaik – liked being down in the tunnels and spent a significant time mapping out the network of the tunnels. Many have now been filled in; some quarrying still goes on but only to provide he sandstone slabs necessary to repair the Churches above; and the site has been declared a World Heritage site.

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Van Schaik’s map of the tunnels

Once back up top we headed into town for a beer! This tourist stuff sure is thirst making!

Very pretty place with wide tree lined streets where cycle ways are the norm. Never seen so many bikes or so many different types and styles of bike. We surveyed these while we drank our beer and Adrian even rushed off to talk to one guy about his particular style of bike. We are trying to see if there is one that I might manage – after about 50 years!

We were told that there was a food and wine tasting festival going on in the centre so off we trotted. Lovely, busy atmosphere and certainly lots of tasting going on. We eventually managed to understand that we had to buy a card and load it with credits in order to taste anything at all. Being good tourists we persevered (well I kept the table while Adrian went off to he appropriate ‘bank’ tent). 20 euros didn’t buy much at all but we got to listen to the Maastricht male voice choir with a glass of wine and a taster dish.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Onto Liège

We left Beez and continued downstream stopping at Huy for the night. We had intended to stop on the riverside in the town but discovered there was a huge fairground all along the right bank so decided not to stop there after all. We went into another mooring, off the main river, in sight of the power station!

The huge commercials powering past sent their wash into the moorings, rocking the moored boats. Adrian was certain that someone had come on board during the night; got up and got himself armed with a stout stick, only to find it was a particularly strong wash!

So then onwards to Liège through a hugely industrial area with factories, quarries, grain silos all being serviced by large (& I do mean large!) barges – around 100m in length and over 11m wide, some doubled up so they are 200m long. And boy can they move! Really have to keep a lookout both fore and aft to make sure you can get well out of their way in plenty of time cos they can’t shift, or stop, quickly.

We had a bit of a wait at the only lock of the day and were then left standing when several pleasure boats dashed into the lock when the commercial barge we’d all been waiting for had gone in – it seems that speed is of the essence – mustn’t keep the lock keepers waiting – so our English ‘lock queuing etiquette’ was well out of order as we were yelled at & called in with gesticulations! The boater in front of us was particularly unpleasant, ‘oh you’re English! Mustn’t keep lock keeper waiting!’ etc etc – not that we gloated when he couldn’t get his rope off efficiently to leave! and, of course, we saw him several times thereafter.

But we liked Liège.  Nice sized town with quite a lot to see.  The mooring basin reminded me a bit of the Arsenal in Paris.  We just got into a space leaving behind us free for a passenger boat which comes in overnight. We were moored behind ‘Moondance’, a barge sporting a kiwi flag and the Women on Barges pennant. I joined the WOBs earlier this year but this was the first pennant I had seen on an unknown boat. So, when we came back from a wander around the town and dinner, I said hello to the occupants – Deborah & Howard – and we went on board for coffee. They told us that the Capitaine had been looking for us as another passenger boat also had to come in and we were in the way! Oooops! We were out, so that boat was rafted up a little further along. We had checked at the Capitainerie that we were moored ok, but it seems no one had mentioned the second passenger boat…..

Next day we went wandering some more and then went with Deborah and Howard to see the son et lumière display in the courtyard of the Bishops’ Palace in the evening. A very impressive display although it was nearly impossible to hear or understand the commentary, even though it was in french. The display included a modern dance group and a couple of illuminated stilt-walkers but none of us were sure that either added anything to the whole, but a novel twist no less.

We left Liège and Moondance on Thursday morning hoping to see both again sometime.

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Out of Liège brings you onto the beginning of the Albert Kanaal complete with statue of himself at the entrance. Even more large scale industry and large scale commercial barges. Adrian reckons it’s like being on the M25, on a bike, cos we are such small-fry in comparison! Eyes need to be everywhere as this big boys really move at a hell of  lick!

We decided to avoid a stretch of the Albert Kanaal by going into Holland, to Maastricht, and then going back into Belgium. Not a big deviation but involves going through the Ecluse Lanaye. HUGE isn’t in it! Drops about 15m, so we have done deeper, but we have never seen 4 different lock chambers – told to go to lock number 3 when we radioed in (!!!) – one of which must be over 400m long as we saw 4 big barges come out in single file! Amazing.