Aboard our boat Viking we cruised the canals and rivers of Northern France and Belgium. Chateau, forests, hills, water scenes at every turn. I depicted scenes such as this in a style mixing realism, impressionism and expressionism. This is a second version of this gorgeous and charming bit of history on the Sambre.
Aboard our boat Viking we cruised the canals and rivers of Northern France and Belgium. Chateau, forests, hills, water scenes at every turn. I depicted scenes such as this in a style mixing realism, impressionism and expressionism.
Liege is a large city in Wallonia, the French speaking region of Belgium, close to both Germany and Netherlands. We had family there although most of the people we knew are now gone. We loved its fruit filled waffles, not at all like so-called Belgian waffles, and its tart au riz (rice pie), and it’s fine cuisine more broadly. They make fabulous sauces that area world apart. making pork, beef, chicken and rabbit, as well as moules frites (mussels with fries) special delights.
A brief rundown:
Dating from Roman times, Liege is mentioned first in 558 as Vicus Leudicus. During the middle ages the bishop of Liege (Luik in Dutch and German) wielded considerable influence. As elsewhere in Europe, guilds were powerful influences on government. The Nazis took the city in three days, but much to the credit of the residents of Liege, the local Jews were saved from mass murder. Well before then the region was wealthy from coal and steel production, which began to collapse in the 1980’s, leading to significant social unrest. Wallonia plunged into steep decline from which it is just now recovering. Liege’s government is still dominated by the left wing.
Today the city has an aircraft and space industry, IT and biotech as well as chocolate production. There is a significant weapons industry as well. We visited the Maison de la métallurgie et de l’industrie de Liège. It has the oldest forge in the region as well as exhibits recounting the long history of metallurgy in the city.
After an overnight in Liege we traveled north on the Meuse, spending a beautiful night on a lake about half way to Maastricht. Friends who joined us in Dinant made this an extra special evening. Along the way the river became the Maas, now a water wonderland of river, lakes and streams, a delight for water sport enthusiasts.
Maastricht came next. It is the oldest city in the Netherlands. In Roman times it was a settlement called Trajectum ad Mosam Maastricht. The Euro was born here. There is a large international student population. It has a sizable historic downtown, narrow cobbled streets lined with brick buildings from its early times, of which 667 are registered historic structures. It is well worth a longer visit, either by boat from the conveniently located if rather plain harbor or in a longer term apartment.
The city has an extensive night life. The restaurants and bars are lively and attractively lit. The streets are pedestrian and bikes/scotters/etc only in the evenings, leaving ample room for roaming about. The atmosphere is friendly and you feel entirely safe. The crowd is on the young side due to the large number of university students.
We are passing through forests and small towns on the Sambre as it winds its way north. We encounter some of the most difficult locks out of the thousands we have used, leaving us dead tired at the end of the day. We stop in Etreaux, Landrecies, the border town of Jeaumont, Thuin, Abbaye d’Aulne again, Floreffe, Yvoir, Dinant, Namur, and then Liege before crossing the border into the Netherlands.
There is a section of the Sambre which includes a series of 32 locks, some of which challenge our boating skills. We did 14 one day and 18 the next. The first 14 were not unusually difficult. The next 18 however were difficult to enter and difficult to manage once in. To get through the turbulent waters in front of the lock without banging into the narrow entrance you have to go in at a higher speed than normal- normally you should saunter. The swirling waters are created by the emptying of the lock. They push you from left to right unpredictably, effects which higher speed make less extreme.
Stopping a boat is always a bit of a challenge, which is why boaters normally approach docks and locks as slowly as possible. The only braking you have aside from the natural deceleration of the boat due to the resistance the water provides, which isn’t a great deal, is to put the transmission in reverse. So doing causes the bow of the boat to head to left or right and the stern just the opposite, depending on the prop’s rotation ( some boats it’s clockwise, others it’s counter-clockwise), the current and wind if any. This makes docking of any sort a challenge to one’s boating skills.
In the last 18 locks we had a fellow traveler. They came into the lock slowly and thus found themselves crosswise to the entrance. They somehow managed to inch their way in and secure themselves to the side. The first lock we did in this series we were behind them. We saw how they approached the problem and told them we would go first to allow more time for the turbulence to subside. It also meant that we would save a lot of time as we would be ready to go once they were secured, rather than us having to enter after they had struggled in. Still they slowed us down tremendously.
All these locks are operated by remote controls we were issued at the first lock in the series. Once secure you push a button on the remote control or lift a rod to activate the lock. After we activated the locks in the series of 18 the water came in violently, pushing the boat back and forwards and left to right or vice versa. Following 18 of these battles our arms were limp. Having to watch the other boat struggle in time after time added to our exhaustion.
The remote control in this series of is quite remarkable. In lieu of red and green lights at the locks, there are red and green lights on the device. As you approach the lock there is a message on the device’s screen telling you the name of the lock you were approaching and that the lock was being prepared for you. When it is ready for you the green light illuminates.
One lock was under repairs. The device so informed us, and further said that the lock would be operated manually, which indeed was the case. As we approached the last lock in the series, a VNF employee arrived to retrieve the device from us, notified by the device and its associated network of our arrival.
We spent two nights moored next to the locks we’d just passed through. The nights were extra tranquil, the sky full of diamonds, a fabulous ending to days replete with visual treasures.
We come to Etreaux, a tiny village of about 1500 people, yet is has a hault nautique, a mooring for passing craft. Many larger towns lack one. This small town was in the middle of various World War I battles.
Landrecies is a bit bigger than Etreaux. It’s been the location for medieval era battles between the French and the English, the Dutch, and Germans in WW1. The border town of Jeumont is unremarkable, perhaps offering an explanation for its current efforts to renovate the downtown. We walk around quite a bit looking for the outstanding restaurant we enjoyed in 2002 when we passed through with some newly found friends. We never found it. Jeumont houses several companies making heavy electrical equipment for wind turbines, nuclear reactors and naval propulsion, rather surprising given how tiny and out of the way this town is.
Now we pass into Belgium, coming first to Thuin and then to Abbaye d’ Aulne. I have already written on these two very interesting and lovely locations here https://garyjkirkpatrick.com/abbaye-daulne/ Then we headed north to Dinant and Namur. I wrote about Namur and Dinant here https://garyjkirkpatrick.com/namur-and-dinant/
North of Namur you come to Liege, the largest city in the French speaking Wallonie region of Belgium. I first wrote about Liege in 2001 https://garyjkirkpatrick.com/nederlands-to-france-by-boat-july-2001/ I will write about it again in the next post.
A dreamy summer on the canals of northern France
The return trip through the Marne, made necessary by low water levels and damage to the Canal de l’Aisne to La Marne, was well worthwhile. Its sprawling vineyards, charming villages and forests make for a delightful journey. After a few days we made it to the Seine, mooring at the first lock, very close by and to the south. The next day, another bright and unfortunately rain-free one, took us through Paris again. It was just as magnificent as the first time. We spent the night on the Seine at a halte fluvial in Montigny-les-Corneilles, one of many such moorings affording no electricity or water. We had plenty of both already. The haulte is in front of two lovely restaurants, both of which we passed on. The heat declined as the sun dropped behind the trees on the opposite side of the river, taking us to a warm but lovely night with a star studded sky.
After the following day’s visit to Creil’s Chateau, we moved on to Jaux for lunch at the restaurant next to the decrepit moorings, then the delightful Compiegne where there were four others moored, including a Dutch couple we’d encountered previously, and another couple on a barge on the same path as us, heading north to the Sambre into Belgium’s Wallonie region, where French is the language and beer is the national beverage as it is in Flanders, the other part of Belgium.
From this point on we were largely in the countryside, aside from Soisson. Soisson is one of the oldest towns in France. It was a Celtic settlement and the seat of the diocese starting circa 300 CE. After Clovis died in 511, Soissons became the capitol of one of the four kingdoms into which his realm was divided. The Cathedral dates from the late 12th century. Joan of Arc liberated the town in 1429.
Bourg et Coming is another pretty mooring. The dock with the services was full, however the barge owner came out to say that she had cable if we wanted to plug in. We still had plenty of battery left, per the very useful Battery Volt Monitor I installed, so we did not take advantage of her offer. Her husband is in the hospital so she is there for two weeks.
Boating life can get complicated in these situations. She may not have the necessary license to pilot the boat, so to move she would have to find someone to help. Fortunately there is help if you stay connected to the boating community. There is a Facebook group, for example, called “Women on Barges” where you could seek such a person. We have friends who typically cruise with another couple where the wife had a brain tumor. She slipped into unconsciousness aboard their barge. Our friends moved the barge for them, driving back and forth and taking public transport to do so.
Chauny came next. It dates from the 9th century. Unfortunately it was heavily damaged during WWI. Nonetheless the Hotel de Ville (City Hall) is quite impressive.
The church in Beautor, our next stop
We came up a section of the Canal de la Sambre a l’Oise where you ascend the Aisne by means of 32 locks. The last 18 we covered in one day. Most were very turbulent, making entrance as well as while in the the lock very difficult as the water rushed in. By the end of the day in Oisy we were exhausted from trying to control the boat during the filling process, despite the lowered temperatures, which, when they were over 30c for days seemingly on end exhausted us in another way.
We proceeded along the lovely and sometimes overgrown Sambre, opening the locks using the remote control supplied by the VNF (Voie Navigable France). The device worked flawlessly and is easily the most intelligent of the remote controls we have used. It replaces traffic lights at the locks with its own red and green signals. A screen provides messages such as “We have registered you for this lock” and “You can now enter the lock. ” It notified the lock keeper at the last lock of the series, so he was there when we arrived, to collect the device. I was hoping the screen would at the end say, “Bon voyage, it’s been nice to get to know you,” but alas it simply went silent.
We proceeded to the border town of Jeumont, where once we delightfully dined in a small restaurant with a couple with whom we had become friendly on the waterways. This was in 2001. We were not able to locate the restaurant. It is probably long since gone.
He admitted to sexually abusing her daughter some years later, according to the wife. He’d already left her for the neighbor’s wife. The wife still lives in the same village with her ex. Last I heard he was still with the neighbor’s wife, whose ex-husband somehow blamed it all not on his wife but on our friend the wife, again according to her.
We say goodbye to France’s waterways. I doubt we will return.
We picked up a passenger for a short ride on the canal. It’s gorgeous scenery as the lock keepers accompany you through dozens of hand operated locks, one of which we approach here, a second in the background.
The Sambre River flows from France into Belgium. You pass through many small charming towns and villages such as Namur and Dinant.
The Blaton-Ath Canal has a long series of locks, some 18 in all, that takes you from Blanton to Ath at which point you are back on the Scheldt River. These are old locks. The Wallonie waterways authority sends you through with a team of lock keepers in a small truck or car. You go part of the way with one team before another takes over. It took us two days to do the approximately 25km. The scenery is lovely along the way. There are some attractive houses, including the old lock keepers’. The locks are easy to handle so it is a relaxing experience.
We stayed one night in each direction at Ladeuze, a scenic setting with a small village nearby, and several days in Geraadsbergen, back in Flanders at that point. The latter has a small town square up the hill, but otherwise there is not much to see. The people are especially friendly in these small towns. We tried some local beers at the marina’s bar. The owner received a package for us, a replacement for our failed marine radio, texting us when it arrived.
I noticed a sandwich press behind the bar. I asked if she could make a croque messieurs. Yes, but for those who had too much to drink. She was not about to offer to make me one just because it was lunchtime. When you drink beer, you drink beer. You do not eat. I keep forgetting.
Our lovely journey on this canal began with a night near a bridge outside the first lock, as a barge had just entered the lock, leaving no room for us. He said he was bringing a load of hops to the brewery up the canal. So we drove some stakes into the ground, I charcoal grilled a few few chicken thighs, and spent a quiet night there. On the way back we’d picked up a guest, Peg’s sister, but we sailed past that quiet spot, one of few free ones we’ve found in Belgium. It wasn’t pretty though, unlike the one in Ladeuze, and unlike Ladeiuze, there is no Chez Gina.
Chez Gina is a bar just off the canal. Gina is 80 and still runs the place. She has one tap of Jupiler, the crap from the national vat, or Maes it could be, I’ve forgotten. She has a half dozen bottled beers, fortunately. I ordered a St Feuillen (approximate spelling) Reserve, another good blonde. She does a magnificent job of delivering a small bag of ‘ships’ (chips, crisps for you Brits). Lays – they are everywhere in Europe. Quite a few locals stopped in for a chat and a beer. And maybe eat an entire ounce of ships.
Peg lured another child onto the boat for a ride between a few locks as we made our way back south. We are headed to the amazing boat lift at Thieu followed by the Ronquieres elevator lock. However there is a lock between us and them, and as it turned out, the lock had broken so we were forced to spend the night in Mons. Mons was not on the itinerary but it was certainly worth the visit. See https://garyjkirkpatrick.com/mons-by-chance/ for my account.