At a population of 500,000, Antwerp is the biggest city in Belgium, not Brussels, which is the capitol. Antwerp is known for its diamond industry but more so as a port city, being the second largest in Europe . This made it a target of WWII bombing, with much damage done by the Nazis after the liberation. There are still many historical buildings remaining but much is post WWII, especially around the harbor, but given how inaccurate bombing was at the time, the damage was widespread.
The city lies on the River Scheldt just 15 kilometers south of the border with Netherlands. We came in on the canal as the river is tidal. This makes timing important, as coming with the tide saves fuel.
After you cross the border from the Netherlands you are required to check in at the first bridge. Our VHF radio calls were unanswered so we proceeded to Willemdok, the downtown harbor named after William I of the house of Orange. We arrived in the rain. The harbor master met us in a dingy, his head uncovered in the downpour, and guided the boats to their berths.
I spent the next two days replacing the heat exchanger after I noticed antifreeze pouring out the exhaust pipe. The harbor master referred us to Evers Herman, a retired mechanic. He helped us get the job done for a reasonable price. Unfortunately the hoses still leaked, as I learned after we left several days later. I had to do a bit of disassembly to resolve the problem. This was the second serious issue to occur during the journey south. Over the winter the hydraulic pump started leaking. I added oil to get it working again at the beginning of the season, hoping to find someone to replace the seals later on. I did just that in Papendrecht, getting a name from a fellow boater. They replaced the seals for me. However the steering failed completely on the big river not far from them. Fortunately I had hydraulic oil nearby and added some, restoring the steering. I got back to them. After several efforts they finally bled the air from the system.
After a few days in Gent, my daughter and granddaughter joined us. We walked to the castle that sits on the river, taking the convenient tram to other parts of the city.
The city was alive with pedestrians, bikes, with comparatively little motorized traffic in the center. The cafes were generally busy, mostly with people drinking one or more of the hundreds of craft beers produced in this country. It is the best beer in the world, with many Trappist monastery beers leading the way. The national dish is moules frites, mussels with fries, served natur (plain) or with one of several sauces.
With the cooling system repaired, we set off for Emblem, a small marina in a rural area to the south of Antwerp. We called ahead to the marina and were greeted by a friendly Canadian born retiree. He and another kindly gent helped us moor. We had drinks with them and the others in the clubhouse, located in an old push barge. I spent an hour or two reinstalling the hoses on the heat exchanger to stop the leaks. My daughter and grand daughter swam in the river off a floating pier with a group of local teens. They found it quite pleasant, and both are half fish so I was happy they got some time in their element.
We set off for Lier the next day, a small town a few hours away. Dating at least from the early 8th century, Lier lies on the River Nete. My daughter and I visited the town on the bikes. It has a famous beguinage. A beguinage was housing for women who lived a religious life without taking vows. There are a number of these in the Flemish section of the country, all Unesco World Heritage structures.
Gent was next. We waited for the ride. This almost doubled our speed, from 7.5 to 14 kph, quite the boost. Had we been able to wait the previous day our 6 hour journey would have been 3, but would require night travel. This is too dangerous.
Brugge is a very popular tourist destination and was an important port until the 15th century. Then the Zwin silted up and commerce transferred largely to Antwerp. Sugar imports were hugely important to the economy. The city developed a stock exchange, which drew European bankers. Antwerp became the richest city in Europe and the second largest north of the Alps. It’s reputation of tolerance attracted Jews, who remain heavily involved in the diamond trade to this day. Skilled workers processed wool, sugar and other imports. It became the capitol of the revolt against Spanish rule. The city was sacked in 1576. The Spanish gave citizens two years to settle their affairs, at which point many influential citizens moved to Amsterdam, helping it become an important center of trade and initiating the Dutch Golden Age. Belgium was part of the Netherlands between 1815 and 1830.
This tower was built in the 14th century. The clocks were added in 1930 by Louis Zimmer, an astronomer and clock maker. There are 12 clocks surrounding the main clock, which is 1.4 meters in diameter. They show time on all the continents, moon phase and tides, and other such natural occurrences.
The next day we started our journey to Ghent (Gent in Flemish), with a stop about halfway in the historical town of Dendermonde. We would now be going against the tide, dropping from 10 kph to 7.5 at first. You moor on the river so you need to come in against the current. In this case we were going against the current already. A couple of locals were there to give us an assist, not needed but always welcome. One turned out to be the harbor master.
Dendermonde sits at the junction of the Scheldt and Dender rivers, and is another delight to visit. It’s a 10 minute ride by bike from the moorings on the Scheldt, over a bridge and along the river a bit until you turn left to enter the town.
Traces of human settlement date well back in pre-history. Graves show activity in the second century and Merovingian times. The Treaty of Verdun (843) references Dendermonde. It received a city charter in 1243, having at that time a thriving cloth sector. In 1384 it came under the control of the Dukes of Burgundy. It suffered along with the rest of the low countries under Spanish rule. A the beginning of WWI the town was heavily bombed by the Germans. There is a Unesco beguinage in addition to the prosperous looking buildings of the town square.
The next day we went to Gent (Ghent is the English spelling), some 48 kilometers. We go with the tide this time, taking our speed from 7.5 to 13, a huge boost. Had we been able to do so for the journey to Desdemonde we would have saved almost three hours of the six hour journey. However this would have required night time travel.