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Monday, 30 July 2012

Astene-Abbaye d’Aulne

We can offer a round trip for the beginning of September, going through the beautiful and impressive ships elevators and the Inclined Plane of Ronquières.
We can offer a special deal and if you care to find out more just follow this link

Although summer has formally been there since my previous blog we, like most of us, haven’t noticed it until recently.
This blog’s entry is characterised by the huge amounts of water that have come down.
It has resulted in extremely high water levels and fast currents, faster than usual.
Upon leaving Astene we did not go down the Leie River to Ghent. More’s the pity as I had been looking forward to that but I had to take a rain check, we went down the Afleidingskanaal instead.
The Leie is a narrow, twisting river, hard to manoeuvre and even more so when going downstream where you cannot control your speed completely.
And besides, the water levels in the Leie can rise very quickly, a few meters within 24 hours which makes it a broader river, but hard to know where there are shallow parts.
Not the right choice for us this time.

Once we reached the Scheldt River we found the current to be very fast there as well, going downstream with low-tide. There was more water than usual, but the river is very wide so there was no real problem. Just watch out and stay alert.

bank on the Scheldt at low tide
When we went upstream on our way up we went with high-tide, now the water was going down. This alters the picture completely, wide mud banks with lots of birds searching for worms instead of a wide river where the banks are shallow.

When I think about the effects of high or low tides I can figure it out, and yet it’s different when it is clearly visible.

At Dendermonde we left the Scheldt and entered the Dender river.

 statue of the horse Bayard carrying the four children, on the tower in Dendermonde
Here also there were higher water levels and faster currents than usual but – going upstream – it bothered us less, though sometimes navigating was not that easy. We passed a tjalk about our size – going downstream – who really was scraping the banks.
Michel likes this, he is doing it well and he likes a bit of a challenge.
We intent to go down the Dender on our way back, provided it doesn’t rain as heavily.

At Geraardsbergen we were even advised to wait for a few hours before leaving because of the heavy current.
When water levels at the canals and rivers that join the Dender are getting too high they open the sluices and let the water into the Dender which then suddenly rises heavily.
No real problem, there was plenty to look at in Geraardsbergen.
Like in every town and village in Belgium there was a track laid out for cycling in the weekend.
We had already noticed that the Belgians cycle in herds, very fast, not really taking heed of their fellow road-users and quite fanatically.
Lots of, not cycling, Belgians complain about it, too.

a (small) herd
But in Geraardsbergen it was special, because there is the Wall, even ignoramuses like us are familiar with the Wall, that was taken out of the yearly Flanders Cycle Tour as of this year!
We have seen the cyclists coming down, slithering and sliding through the mud and then going up on the cobblestones.
Next day we came back for another look and we could walk there and now we understand why these stones are called “kuitenbijters” (calve-snappers).

slithering down and than a sharp turn left to mount over the cobblestones
After Geraardsbergen cruising became easier because there the Dender is canalised and after Ath it is a proper canal.

In Lessines we visited the Hôpital Notre Dame à la Rose. This museum provides an overview of eight centuries of health care. Beautiful building, a nice and informative exhibition and an astonishing herbal garden, over 120 kinds of medical plants and a special cellar for storing ice.

the former hospital and herbal garden
Well worth a visit when in the area.
What would have been out of the question in Holland was Panache being allowed inside and doing the tour (not showing any interest, but even so). He only wasn’t allowed to walk in rooms where there were 17th century wooden floors (parquet). So our guide carried a little stool for Michel to sit on with Panache on his lap, now that’s service to you!

The whole of the track from Dendermonde to Blaton was very green, rural, nice little towns and villages, especially the part from Ath.

stair of some locks in the canal Blaton-Ath, in the back the bridge in the E42 (a different universe from the one we’re moving in)

We moored for the night at the huge, completely unused, lock of Pommeroeul where we had spent a whole week last year.
 After that we took the Grand Ascenseur (a really grand elevator) at Strépy, going up, just as impressive as going down last year see here for the blog on Pommeroeul and the elevators from last year

and here for our SPECIAL OFFER  for cruising the elevators in September).

view from the Grand Ascenseur Strépy, between the rows of trees the de Ancienne Branche
 The Brussels Charleroi Canal turned out to be a beautiful stretch, a pleasant surprise for both of us as – we don’t know why – we both were under the impression that is was gray and industrial, on the contrary!

 the friendly  Brussels Charleroi Canal
Just before Charleroi it was a bit more industrial, but the real surprise was just after turning on the Sambre river.
It is bordered by a big collection of old, partially tumbling down partly still functioning, industrial glory from the past.
It is absolutely clear that once they were prospering factories, but there is not a lot of activity any more.
It is a very special stretch to cruise, so ugly that it’s beautiful in its own right and surprising to find it still there (unheard of in Holland).
the almost deserted and very run down industrial part on the Sambre banks
We now have moved a bit up the Sambre, lovely and green and in a few days we’ll cross the border to France a fortnight sniffing at “la Douce France” before heading North again and going to Holland, taking many detours.

PS: we postponed the decision on solar panels till we’re back in the Netherlands, so more about that in the first blog next year

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Veurne – Astene Historical Flanders

After having spent a lovely week in Amsterdam, participating in some family festivities I returned on board, carrying a Morse cable, a lid for the toilet-bowl and some other necessary attributes.

first a mess but than hot water
Michel had taken advantage of my absence and installed a water heater for the kitchen. I luckily did not have to be party to this mess!
Our water heating system works of the central heating, so in order to have hot water at the ready it has to be on! And the central heating – running on gasoil - provides hot water within minutes after switching it on, so that’s all right for a shower. In the kitchen, however, it’s not very practical, so the small electric heater works wonders.
We hope to compensate the extra power it takes shortly by installing solar panels on the roof of the pilothouse.
This sounds like a simple statement, but solar panels appear to be a jungle, it’s hard to compare the different makes, hidden agenda’s all over the place, so which ones are most suitable?
Judging from questions, remarks, sighs and frowns we pick up from other – potential – users we’re not the only ones that suffer. To be continued …

very sharp parking
Departing from Veurne we cruised to the IJzer river by way of the very narrow Lo-Canal.
Our ships weighs some 70 tonnes, pushing all that water ahead of us, water that comes back at you between the ship and the banks. The closer the banks are to you the stronger the back-wash that you create yourself!
Michel was glad for a moments rest for lunch, mooring on a pontoon which was the only spot wide enough for another ship to pass which had not been possible till then.
Alas, there was a big ship moored up already so we had to get up real close to manage.

leaking walls
Maintenance to locks and waterways often leaves a lot to be desired, not only in Belgium but in France as well, especially the non-commercial routes,
Oft times you’ll find doors where the water comes in the wrong way or they don’t fit properly. This lock – near Ieper – filled itself by leaking through the walls right on our deck. Must be very annoying for smaller craft.

one of the smaller cemetery's
In the whole of this area the battles of the 1st World War are still visible in their consequences.
Just like in the Somme region there are many cemeteries – one thousand for the military and two thousand for civilians – with many anonymous graves. Some 750.000 soldiers from the British Commonwealth alone died here.
All these cemeteries are looked after very well by a British society.
Although the vast fields, decked with crosses, are quite impressive the many smaller ones make their own imprint.

the maquette of the Menenarch
Ever since 1928 daily at 20:00 hours in Ieper the Last Post is played to the  memory of the dead.
The site is the Menen-arch built as a British monument of war, inscribed on the walls the names of the 54.896 missing soldiers.
Everywhere you’ll find wraths made of poppies (plastic, to be obtained at the local tourist office) and sometimes there is a flower inserted next to a specific name.

Every night there is a big crowd, relatives or people somehow linked to these soldiers.
They lay down a wrath or speak a few words. It is a bit of a tourist trap, camera’s clicking away and school classes (of mainly English kids) being noisy, waiting till they can get away. And yet it is very impressive when you realise – virtually impossible –what has taken place.

Everywhere in the area where we cruised – Veurne-Ieper-Nieuwpoort – there are inscriptions on the older buildings informing you that they have been rebuilt after having been demolished during the war, almost no buildings were left upright.When you realise that almost all of the houses, churches etc. were rebuilt in their original style – sometimes even fake medieval – it’s hard to believe all this was done less than a hundred years ago.
little holes in the bricks
They used the clay from the nearby battlefields, the remains of grenades and bullets still in it.
It is visible in all the little holes in the bricks where the metal was molten in the cairn.

the Ceasartree in Lo
In the little town of Lo you’ll find this gate, the only one left of the original four, dating back to 1269. Restored often, 1990 being the last occasion.
Next to the gate there is a big taxus-tree, the so-called Ceasar tree.
Story has it that Ceasar, travelling to Brittany, tied up his horse to this very tree.
It is at least remarkable that – in an area where not a shed was left standing – this tree survived all the battles…..
And everywhere you cruise, like here in Diksmuide, Flanders history stares you in the face.

Back in Wulpen we moored up on the pontoon in front of Het Dorstige Hart (“the Thirsty Heart”) the local.
We met some nice people there and enjoyed the food a few times.
Michel used the time to install the Morse cable that I took from Holland.
installation of the morsecable
Some time ago, when we were waiting at the Royers lock in Antwerp, in the midst of all the big boys, Michel urgently called me and said to unlock the inner steering post.
We have two steering posts, with the very nice wheel inside, and on the aft deck, using push-buttons and a joy-stick, mounted on a box that you plug in next to the throttle.
Weather permitting, or in dire straits requiring a good view, Michel steers from the deck. There is a switch next to the wheel inside that blocks either the one or the other.
Because of the situation Michel was outside, only to find out that the throttle was out of order.
So, at the very moment that the big ship next to us called us on the VHF to move out of the way Michel had to get inside as the throttle-cable had snapped. HURRAY for having two steering posts.

Replacing the cable looked a simple affair because there was a tube in which all the cables were situated. It turned into a small nightmare as the tube had side-exits where the cable got stuck.
In the end the cable was laid in a new position, through the back of a cupboard and all works as it used to, even smoother.
From Wulpen we took the car – still in Veurne after our trip to Paris – for an outing to St. Omer, that houses an out of order ships elevator. A nice looking building but not as nice as the old elevators at La Louvière in the Canal du Centre where we will be cruising again in a few weeks time, elevators that are serviceable. We are looking forward to being able to make the full tour, as last year the last one (of four elevators) was not working (look it up at this blog).

Leaving Wulpen we went to Nieuwpoort which we could not do before the end of the day because of the tidal-locks.

map of the bassin in Nieuwpoort
You go from the canal through the lock into a big pond; as that is directly connected to open sea you can only go there when there is sufficient water for the entering ship, in our case at least 1.2 meters.
Entering the pond –  the open entrance to sea aside – there are three waterways, the Plassendale Canal, the Canal to Dunquerque and the IJzer river. 
2 of the 3 locks in Nieuwpoort
So, unless you go to sea, you will have to enter another lock to be on your way. We went through the pond several times and every time I think it’s special.
Then on we went to Astene, staying for the night in Beernem. It was a nice spot, so in the end we stayed for the weekend.

Last year we were in Astene for the “party-at –the-lock” (see this blog) celebrating the 10th anniversary of the pub next to the lock. We had a very nice time, it being very crowded.

the little bridge, it's a monument
Unfortunately automation strikes here as well. The beautiful old bridge is hand operated, but just today some people from the Canals & Waterways came along in order to figure out how to operate the bridge from some faraway command post, alas!

the great created grebe on her eggs
the coot and her little ones
 All is quiet and peaceful now, next to the ship a great crested grebe brooding on three eggs and a nest with a two tiny coots and on the opposite bank a few nests with ducklings.
Most of the noise is generated by the parents keeping intruders away from their nest, flapping their wings and yapping away, but soon peace returns.

Because we had to pick up our car from Veurne, we used the occasion to visit the village of Mater (near Oudenaarde, between Kortrijk and Ghent). Last year already someone had pointed it out to me, but we didn’t make it then.
I have no idea why it is called Mater, but it is one of those lovely villages, nice houses and lots of green.
it is really very crooked
And that aside, there is a big brewery, called Roman, situated in beautiful old buildings around this tall chimney that is actually as crooked as it looks.
They are brewing lots of beesr, including the Mater “witbier”.
Michel has lost of pun's each time he opens a bottle
Is it really a coincidence that, when in Holland I hardly ever drank beer – and still don’t – I discovered beer in Belgium as a nice drink?
I am trying the local brew where-ever we go and there is no end to it.