Thursday, 29 September 2016

Into Belgium - Leers Nord to Bruges

Although sad to leave the lovely mooring at Leers Nord we were looking forward to cruising into a new country and new culture in Belgium. So on Thursday 8th September we cast off and made our way along the short (8.35 km) but beautiful Canal de l'Espierre, through 2 locks and 3 lift bridges all operated by our very friendly lockie Gregory.

Belgian courtesy flag now flying

We very quickly reached the junction onto one of the busiest Belgian canals, the Haut-Escaut. I was on look out on the bow and spotted a large commercial fast approaching so we had to hold back and let him pass before turning left. Only 5 kilometres and one big lock, shared with the commercial, before we took another left turn onto the Kortrijk-Bossuit Canal. 

Although pleasantly rural there was still some commercial activity on this canal, at least as far as the outskirts of Kortrijk where there are 3 locks too small to take large barges. They are manually operated by a lock keeper but only at 3 set times in the day. We had to wait an hour and a half for the next slot at 4pm and they were so slow to empty it took us almost another hour and a half to get through them. We finally moored up in Kortrijk at 5pm having set off at 8.45 in the morning. We had booked a 3 night stay here so had plenty of time to explore. It was a lovely town on the banks of the river Leie, classy shops and restaurants, lots of history and the gorgeous September weather topped it all off.

The medieval Broel towers, remnants of the city's original walls

A simple healthy lunch under the spires of St Martin's Church

Sundowners on the newly developed Kortrijk waterfront 

An unusual statue on the opposite bank ( now remember this as more to come later!)

We left Kortrijk on Sunday morning 11th September to cruise the 26 kms to the town of Deinze. Sundays are a good day to travel as fewer commercials are moving and as this was one of the busiest waterways we thought it was a good plan. However we still met 6 of them and shared the 2 big locks with Jana, whose wash was so great when he started up his engine that we had to stay tied up until he had left the lock completely.

It took us 4 hours to get to Deinze, a very nice free mooring with everything on your doorstep, a large Carrefour supermarket, plenty of  places to eat and drink, pretty church. 

Half an hour after mooring up early Sunday afternoon the church carillon started playing numerous well known tunes. How lovely we thought, it sounded a bit like a music box, but the novelty started to wear off a bit when they were still going at 6pm and were playing the theme tune to the movie The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.  
We spent a lovely evening in the company of David and Trisha, drinks on their lovely barge and then supper in Bruno's Bistro on the waterfront. 

Three days later, still enjoying Mediterranean style weather, we set off on "the crooked mile" or what was actually a crooked 15 miles. The winding, romantic old river Leie is one of the prettiest stretches of waterway, lined with stunning waterfront homes, most of which had two things in common, a motorboat moored at the bottom of the garden and a robot lawnmower. No wonder all the lawns looked so perfect.

Some of the most expensive real estate in Belgium is on the banks of the old Leie

There were more interesting sculptures along the way too...

So there's the other half of the lady in Kortrijk!

Who doesn't love a French bulldog?

After oohing and aahing our way along the old Leie it was time to pay full attention again as we approached the junction with the Ringvaart, a ring canal for mainly large commercial vessels around Gent. Fortunately the 'road' was clear so we crossed over and rejoined the Leie on the other side travelling the 4km into the centre of Gent and our pre-arranged mooring in Ketelvest. This was the only mooring available as a festival was taking place that weekend and many boats had already booked moorings. So we found ourselves moored at the back of the Opera House in a side canal with frequent trip boats passing, but a great location only a five minute walk into the heart of the old town.

We absolutely loved Gent. According to Lonely Planet it is Europe's best kept secret. It has won numerous tourist awards for its historic city centre but has a lively atmosphere due in part to its large student population. Of its 250,000 inhabitants, 70,000 are students. It is a popular winter mooring for boaters and we can see why, you would certainly never get bored.

The old medieval harbour Korenlei, the hub of the grain trade in the Middle Ages, now only trip boats moor up here.

The Castle of the Counts where some pretty gruesome things took place...

A bit too realistic 

A favourite bar and my favourite cherry beer

On Saturday evening we joined the throng of people out enjoying the opening of the cultural season, musical performances all over town culminating in a big firework display at the harbour. By chance we had met up with old friends from Saint Jean de Losne, Henry and Steph, also here on their boat for the weekend. We met up for a drink later in the evening and somehow ended up joining a group of English Morris men who had been performing all over Belgium. We were given maracas and 'forced' to participate in a performance. What mayhem ensued, and Henry even knew all the words to the old sea shanty. Bravo! 

We reluctantly passed on more drinks on their boat at 12.30am as we were setting off early next morning on the last leg of this season's boating, into Bruges. 

We slipped out of Gent before most people were up and about on Sunday morning. Apart from a couple of water skiers, who created more wash than a huge commercial, we had a pleasant journey into the outskirts of Bruges. There are a series of lift bridges around Bruges through which boats travel in convoy to avoid too much disruption to the city's traffic. We had a delay at the first bridge, Moerbrug, as 6 boats were coming the other way in convoy. The skipper of a commercial who was moored up for the day invited us to raft on him whilst we waited. We got through the next 3 bridges in the company of the same two cruisers. After ringing Andy the English harbour master to ask him to open the pedestrian lift bridge we turned into the mooring at Coupure, a five minute walk from the historic centre of Bruges. There is something very special about cruising right into the centre of a lovely, historic European city in your own floating home.

Medieval Bruges is exceedingly pretty and romantic, with its cobbled streets and little canals meandering around gabled houses and gothic churches. It will  be our winter base until the cruising season starts again next spring. Although we don't normally live aboard in the winter (although there are quite a few boaties here that do) we may well be popping back a few times between our other travels. We are told that it is lovely in the winter, especially in November/ December with the lights and Christmas market, the smell of gluhwein and warm waffles on the air. 

Bruges's touristy but iconic horse-drawn carriages in the Markt

The equally touristy but must-do trip boats on one of the most photographed corners of Bruges

Minnewater Lake, the Lake of Love, in the evening sunshine

Bruges's proximity to the UK, less than an hour to Dunkirk and the ferries and not much farther to Calais, means family visits are easy. We have just spent a lovely few days with Sophie, Mark and Harriet. It has been an added bonus that the weather has held out for so long this year.

So our fourth season of boating on the European waterways comes to an end. Since May we have travelled 1001 kilometres from central France to the north of Belgium, gone through 251 locks, 28 swing/ lift bridges and 4 tunnels. We have had another great journey, meeting old and new friends and tackling new challenges. We have been very impressed with Belgium so far and look forward to exploring it more next year on our way back into France, or maybe Holland. Who knows? We have all winter to think about it and make plans, although as all boaters know plans are often set in jelly! 

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Farewell La Somme

It's been a month since I wrote the last blog and what a busy month it has been. Whilst still moored at Saint Valery on the coast I popped back to the UK on the Eurostar train from Lille for a girlie weekend with my daughter and little granddaughter, spent visiting my mum for her birthday.

On my return we set off on the return trip upstream. Stopping at Abbeville for the night we met up again by chance with Megan and Steve on Wavedancer who were due to make their return trip across the channel a couple of days later. It just happened to be Megan's 60th birthday so we had a fun evening of bubbles and beer on the back of our boat, joined by Wendy and Robin on Pippin. It was worth the sore heads the next morning!

Next evening we moored at Pont Remy opposite a crumbling chateau, nicknamed Chateau Pianiste from the many pianos and organs that were in there. It once hosted many well known royal guests including Mary Queen of Scots. A lovely view from our windows, still elegant in its faded glory, it was very atmospheric as the sun set behind it.

Next morning we set off in beautiful sunshine to Picquigny. This stretch of the river is very picturesque but also very winding and has a strong current in places. The Captain had a look of deep concentration on his face, alert to every twist and turn in the river, negotiating the eddying currents.

Beautiful wild flowers alongside a lock

A peaceful lunch stop alongside a nature reserve

After a weekend in Picquigny we cruised to Corbie where we left the boat for 10 days to return to the UK for a planned housesit in Hampshire. I got to spend my birthday with family and also to share my daughter's birthday 5 days later. Happy times. Chris and I also had some days out, highlights being Winchester, one of our favourite places, and the Mary Rose exhibition in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. The Mary Rose is well worth a visit. One of Henry VIIIs warships, it sunk off Portsmouth harbour in 1545, was recovered in 1982 and has just opened to the public following extensive restoration work. They also recovered thousands of artefacts giving a real insight into life in Tudor times. Fascinating.

On our return journey we took a left instead of a right at the Calais tunnel and headed for Bruges, only an hour and 15 minutes drive. We parked the car up at Flandria Yachtclub ready for our arrival there by boat in a few weeks. We were given such a warm welcome by harbour master Patrick and Josef that we are really looking forward to our stay there. Josef's little saying "you have landed in a cup of butter" made me smile, obviously the Belgian version of "a pot of gold". 

We were returning to France and the boat by train next day so had booked into a hotel close to the main square, the Markt, and the Belfry. We had a taster of Bruges for a few hours and as the weather was so lovely we did the tourist thing and went on one of the little boats that take you around the little canals. Bruges is called the Venice of the North.

Followed by dinner in the Markt, very romantic.

We are looking forward to exploring more of this beautiful city and its surroundings when we return by boat, and to sampling more of the things it is famous for, beer and chocolate, oh and the moules, frites and mayo, waffles. There are cyclists everywhere in Bruges and I think we shall be joining them to burn off all the calories.

All was well when we arrived back to the JR in Corbie and we set off again on our journey to the end of the Somme and our trip north into Belgium. The weather was glorious, so different to when we had passed this way 3 months ago at the time of the floodings in France. The word Somme is Celtic for tranquillity and that will be our lasting impression of this beautiful waterway, contrasting with the tumult of its past. We will hold onto memories of a wonderful summer here and happy times spent with our friends Terry and Terry. 

So the next adventure begins. We left the Somme on Saturday afternoon and turned left heading north on the Canal du Nord, a busy commercial waterway. It turned out not to be that busy at all and we only saw a few big barges. We travelled farther than intended to make the most of it and got through the Ruyaulcourt tunnel before mooring up at Hermies which was a comfortable overnight spot. The Ruyaulcourt tunnel is 4350 metres long and is unique in that it has a two way section in the middle controlled by traffic lights. Fortunately for us there were no other boats in there and the Captain pronounced it the easiest tunnel he had done.

Setting off again next morning we soon got through the last 7 downstream locks of the Canal du Nord and didn't know why we had been worried about it. It had turned out to be quite a pleasant experience.

We then found ourselves on what is known as the Grand Gabarit, a series of commercial canals that run from Dunkerque to the Escaut. The canal and the locks got wider, and the boats were getting bigger!  We couldn't moor up where we had hoped as it was choc full of those big commercial barges resting up for the weekend. So we carried on for another 15 kilometres to another mooring recommended by a fellow boater (thank you James) just off the Grand Gabarit on the smaller Canal de Lens. We were relieved to find the pontoon there empty, an oasis of calm away from the wash of the big barges. Judging by the fascination of the locals out walking in the adjacent park not many boats come down this way.

When we set off the next day, Monday morning,  the skies were gloomy, the landscape became industrial and the bigger and bigger barges kept coming. The biggest we saw was 105 metres long, 10.5 metres wide and weighed 2150 tonnes fully laden.

It was inevitable that we would end up in a lock with one of them but surprisingly it was very gentle on the way down.

It was with some relief that we finally turned off the Grand Gabarit onto the much more petite Canal de Roubaix, which would take us next day to Leers Nord, a mooring on the border with Belgium. This 20 kilometre canal was abandoned for decades following the closure of the textile industry along its route. It reopened in 2011 following investment of 37 million euros and pleasure boaters are being encouraged to use it. We received a very warm welcome from the lovely Camille and her team the next morning who accompanied us all the way opening bridges and operating locks for us. We were delayed for 2 hours at one point whilst police divers were searching the canal but we finally arrived at our destination Leers Nord at 6pm.

One side of the lock at Leers Nord is in France, the other side is Belgium. We are moored on the Belgian side which is actually the Canal de l'Espierres. Lined with plane trees on both sides it could be the Canal du Midi. This is a free mooring with free water and electric but best of all we are moored just steps away from the excellent Maison du Canal. 

This bar/ restaurant is a little gem the likes of which we don't think we have come across in all our travels in France. It is a favourite of our friends the two Terry's and we can see why. Lively and buzzing, it is a focal point for the local community, young and old come together over a coffee, or more likely a Belgian beer or cocktail or two. The landlady Anita, her family and her staff are so friendly and welcoming that you quickly feel a part of it all. Very reasonable food and drink prices too, I am working my way down the list but the Mojito is my favourite.

I can honestly say the moules were the best I have ever eaten.

How appropriate to be dining alongside a lock

 We are resting up here for at least a week and will explore the surrounding area on the different cycle routes. I have a feeling it will be quite hard to drag ourselves away.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Ailly to Saint Valery. All the way down to the coast.

 Reflections in the late evening sun

We met our visitors at the mooring in Ailly and spent a couple of days out and about exploring some of the WW1 battlefields and memorials.
We eventually tracked down the red dragon memorial to the 38th Welsh Division, now such a peaceful setting at Mametz, but where 100 years ago there had been eight days of fierce combat and heavy losses, reflected by pieces of barbed wire in its claws.

Midweek we set off cruising again continuing our journey downstream on the Somme. It was great to be moving after sitting in one place for a while. Granddaughter Harriet, now 8 months old, seemed to love being on the back of the boat, ringing the ships bell, fascinated by the water rushing by. The flow was still really strong. Full concentration was required by the skipper and son in law Mark who took his turn at driving the boat. 

Grandma loved pointing out the wildlife to Harriet

We had been warned about the current pulling boats towards the weir at Long but managed to moor up without problems there and fortunately there were no other boats. Long was once a very wealthy little town due to the success of peat extraction in the area. It's beautiful buildings seem very grand for the size of the place.

The chateau at Long with a huge orangery and gardens at the edge of the canal

Next day we cruised on to Abbeville, not without incident! No one had warned us about the bridge on the approach to Abbeville ( oh no you didn't Terry!). I am just glad that Mark was on the bow and not me. A sharp left hand turn to go under the bridge but with a strong current behind us made the turn practically impossible without colliding with the bridge support, despite best efforts of the crew to fend off with the barge pole. We smacked it on the bow first then the stern. Unbelievably there was not a mark on the paintwork, just a couple of scuffs to the rubbing strake fender. No damage done inside either although a few things fell out on opening the cupboards later! 

Abbeville is a lively market town very welcoming to passing boaters as everything you need is close by. 

The Saint Vulfran Collegiate Church looks more like a cathedral, a masterpiece of gothic art.

Abbeville also has an impressive railway station originally built in 1912, used in WW1 to transport soldiers to and from the front line, subsequently bombed in WW2 in 1940, then rebuilt to the original design after the war.

Good shops here too and Harriet returned home with some very nice little french outfits bought in the sales.

It was a shame that we could not get right down to the coast whilst our family were with us but there were too many boats moored there at the time so we went for the day in the car instead. 

Lunch on the beach

We stayed on at Abbeville after our visitors left, joined by new friends and old. The two Terry's on Renaissance returned from their trip up the Roubaix canal. Steve and Megan on Wavedancer arrived having sailed their cruiser from Portsmouth into Saint Valery and onto the canal network. The weather turned sultry and we enjoyed a lovely afternoon of boules followed by a barbecue. 

Our French friends Chantal and Claude who were moored down at the coast at Saint Valery telephoned to tell us that 5 boats were leaving in the morning so it was now or never if we wanted to get down there. So we were off at 9am passing all 5 boats on their way back up. Should be room for us now!

The Somme waterways guys are great, so friendly and helpful. At their main control centre at Amiens they have a map on the wall with the positions of all the boats shown by name on it. The long straight stretch of canal to Saint Valery is tidal with several swing bridges some of which have to be opened depending on the height of your vessel. They accompanied us all the way to ensure our safe passage and even helped us moor up.

So here we are having a couple of weeks at the seaside. Saint Valery on the Bay of the Somme is a charming place, a sort of French version of Saint Ives in Cornwall. Cobbled winding streets, lots of interesting little shops, a long waterfront promenade. Lots of people come here for the trips around the bay on the old steam train, which we have done ourselves. Very atmospheric, we see and hear it several times a day as it chuffs along past our mooring blowing its whistle.

There is a night market on Fridays and a weekly market on Sundays selling all sorts of produce and products. Salicorne or samphire as we know it is harvested from the bay. Sheep graze on the salt meadows here and salt meadow lamb is another speciality.

The garlic man at the Sunday market

Moules a la Salicorne, delicious

What a gorgeous little 2CV

It's great for cycling here, there are numerous velo routes all around the bay. It's a shame we don't have them in the UK so you don't have to go on the busy roads. It's great to see families out with the little ones with no worries about traffic.On Tuesday we cycled 20 miles return to Cayeux sur Mer, part way on a cycle track through the sand dunes.

We went by car though to the elegant resort of Mers les Bains as it was a bit further around the coast. When bathing first became popular in the late 19th century the resort attracted the wealthy from Paris and Europe who built these crazy houses of the Belle Époque era which can be seen throughout the town and are protected today. Every one is different, wonderful.

Walking along the cliff top path we came across this astonishing sight. An old WW2 German bunker had been painted overnight anonymously and rumours say it is a Banksy. A powerful statement, a symbol of peace on a symbol of war.

Boats are coming and going most days here and later next week we will start moving back up the canal stopping at the moorings we missed on the way down. In the meantime we will linger a while longer here enjoying the sea air.