Reims Cathedral and its Fabulous Light Show #regalia

Notre Dame de Reims (Our Lady of Reims) is an ancient church done up in High Gothic Style. From Thursday to Sunday they project a superbly produced free light show after dark. Last night it started at 2245h.

The Cathedral is the traditional location for the coronation of the French kings. In its previous incarnation as a Romanesque building it was the site of the baptism of Clovis I in the early 6th century. Construction of the current church began in the 13th century after the destruction by fire of the previous structure. It features flying buttresses like the ones at Notre Dame in Paris, allowing for a well light interior. It is owned by the government of France, which pays for its care. The Roman Catholic Church is allowed use.

After the severe bombing damage of WWI, when it was used as a hospital, the building was restored, with three windows by the Russian born Chagal. The Rockefeller Foundation donated to the project. In the 1990’s they found the 5th century baptistry along with parts of the original church, itself built upon the site of the baths.

In 816 Louis the Pious was crowned by Pope Stephen IV. From Henry I in 1027 most French kings were crowned here. It was held by the English but returned to the French by none other than the 20 year old Joan of Arc in 1429.

Reams have been written about Reims (actually pronounced something like ‘Rance,’ no ‘M.”) There’s a PhD thesis around every corner. Just looking at its main facade is more than an eyeful, even though the main entrance is currently covered. There are more statues than I can count without a large photo print.

Garybob says check it out! Get there from Paris on the TGV. It does not take long.

Stepping our way through the Canal des Ardennes

There was no rain.

Thus began our early morning journey through the 26 step locks of the Canal des Ardennes. We are extra thankful. Since there are many low bridges we must lower our rain hood. We could have been steering in the rain for the next seven or so hours. Instead we enjoyed more sunshine than we have seen we started this year’s boat travels.

la chesne viking
We started from La Chesne. Great steak au poivre across the street at the Odyssey (French, not Greek).

The locks are remote controlled. We only had to wait for help at one lock that would not open. A VNF employee was there within minutes. Another lock closed and emptied while we waited, then filled and let us in. Otherwise the system worked well.

The locks were not turbulent. We are descending. When you are ascending you are much more likely to experience turbulence.

We made the journey in just five hours, instead of the typical seven hours. Stopping at Attigny, we spoke to the Danish couple also moored there. The day before it took them 9 hours, having lots of problems with the locks. At one point they had to wait an hour for assistance. We saw VNF employees everywhere. Many were mowing or doing other maintenance chores near the locks or along the way, or driving back and forth along the canal. We lucked out.

step lock fills Stern waiting
In one of the locks
cows on the hill
Rolling hills and lots of cattle and farmed land
small village
One of the small villages along the way

After the last lock on the Canal you enter the River Aisne after passing through a lock, then into its canal. As you approach Attigny things get rather narrow.

things get narrow
Squeezing through narrow portions of the Aisne Canal

Finding our Meuse

Winding our way down the Sambre from Manage to the river Meuse at Namur, we turned into the current of the swollen waterway. For the next 143 kilometers we would be pushing against the run off from the extraordinary rainfall in the northeast parts of France and the southeast parts of Belgium. We skipped by both Namur and Dinant, having been there previously, but also so we could more quickly arrive at the Canal des Ardennes in France. Once there we’d be out of the current. It’s 46 kilometers to the French border, then 97 kilometers in France. We must traverse some 40 locks, each of which takes at least 20 minutes.

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Rain followed us much of the way. Combined with the strong, sometimes intimidating current, it created a darkened mood over the journey. When the rain lifted and the current fell off or disappeared when we were in the short canals after locks, the mood turned around, even if briefly. Getting to the Ardennes promised a more pleasant experience.

The Meuse cuts a path through a hilly region

After a grinding week we entered the Canal des Ardennes. We were greeted by a friendly woman at the fuel dock. We topped up our fuel and water tanks, then docked in front of the lock per her instructions as it is a no mooring zone. Then we went straight for the one bar in this tiny collection of businesses, houses, rent boats and private small craft. A few people live on their boat, in addition to perhaps a few dozen residents. Bigger towns lie ahead, through dozens of locks, including 21 locks in the space of just seven kilometers as we climb the hills.

Mansions along the way
Approaching the first lock
It’s a one bar town.

So Inclined- Belgium’s lift technology

From Tournai we made our way easterly, stopping for the night on a dock equipped for large barges just outside Ascenseur 4 – on the old Canal du Centre. There are four elevator locks on the old canal, replaced by the new canal and the Strepy-Thieu lock that bypasses the four locks, raising boats 73 meters/240 feet straight up in a single motion. This saves hours compared to the four old elevators.

Nearby our mooring there’s a store called Bella Sicilia. No choice, we just had to go there, even with rain threatening. The recommended route took us through a closed-off underpass along a muddy unused dirt road for a few hundred meters. Then it was a wooded country lane into town.

When we arrived there was a sign saying Bella Sicilia was permanently closed. Disappointed and about to leave, we saw that behind us stood Bella Sicilia reborn, open and doing business in a much bigger space. Inside it’s an instant journey to Palermo. Almost everything is Italian branded. There’s a huge deli counter, five employees serving the locals. You can choose among a huge variety of stuffed breads, and several arancini, the rice balls that are THE street food of Palermo. All this and more in a tiny country town in a very small country far from Italy.

I learned that almost all the employees speak Italian. I spoke with a woman who wanted to know where we were from and the like.

After two daysat the dock by the elevator lock we went to the Strépy-Thieu Boat Life. We were about to rise 73 meters straight up.

thieu lock in distance
The lift’s tower rises in the mist

Four hours later at the Viesville lock the lock keeper said it was closed for a week due to objects that had damaged the mechanism. Fortunately our batteries were full and there was plenty of water in the tank. We sailed back two hours to Menage, a tiny village with a brand new barge dock, directly across from Le Nautic Lodge, a restaurant we enjoyed several years back.

Manage has grocery stores, bars and bakeries, as well as a train station. The train to Brussels takes just a bit over an hour with one change. We visited the Victor Horta Museum, a house designed and lived in by the architect Victor Horta (1861-1949), before taking a self-guided walking tour to see a half dozen turn of the century Art Nouveau houses, some designed by him.

horta 1

After four days near Manage we again sailed away from our destination for about two hours to the WSV (abbreviation for a marina owned and run by members) at Ittre. We’d been there before and found the location to be pleasant even if barely adequate for a boat of our size. The people were very friendly and helpful on our last visit. Getting to town to make purchases requires ascending a long and very steep hill. A member drove us there to get a few things that time.

On the way to Ittre we passed through the Plan Incliné de Ronquières, the Inclined Plane, a lock that moves boats from one level to the next in a large basin that is moved along rails.

Plan Inclinee in Belgium
Plan Incliné de Ronquières
cheeese bella sicilia
Cheeses at Bella Sicilia
One of the first two arancini we tried. I biked back for 2 more.
thieu lock tower
After entering the lock the gate drops down, then the tub rises
One of the planks at the Nautic Lodge.

ittre club
Some of the friendly members in the club house

After sidling up to the visitors dock we helped a couple dock their boat. In turn they bought us a beer. There’s Chouffe on tap, one of Belgium’s best that is available nation-wide, exported as well. We spent the next few hours talking. Our story is unusual in many respects, being Americans deep in the Belgium countryside on our own boat after starting far away in Haarlem. In boat terms that is a good distance. Many boaters are confined to local travel due to time and budget constraints so are interested to learn more.

Afterwards we saw an email from Wallonie notifications. The blocked lock had been cleared. Tomorrow we have several hours to go before we get back on course, including another trip through the Plan Inclinee and several locks with 7 meter drops.

Our friendly neighbors for the night left at 9:30 the next morning. When we arrived at the lock at 11:30, they were still waiting. The backlog of commercial vessels was just clearing.


Tournai is an ancient city sitting on the banks of the river Schelde, which terminates in Antwerp and there subject to some mighty tides. Recently a large barge capsized, killing the captain. Here there is just a gentle current.

Dating to Roman times, fortified in the 3rd century. It was the capital of the empire of the Franks in the 5th century. The next capital was Paris.

I am in awe of Notre Dame de Tournai. What a magnificent structure and so old – construction began in the 12th century. Its five towers stun the observer with their beauty, soaring high, dominating the skyline. The square towers rise to 83 meters/272 ft. It is a World Heritage Site.

The building was hit by a strong tornado in August 1999, revealing underlying structural issues. Repairs and and archaeological work continue.

Tournai main square
The Gran Place

We revisited our favorite restaurant here. L’Imperatrice (The Empress) is traditional Belgian cuisine, heavy on the meats, also featuring rabbit and duck. Sauces and gravies are a big deal in the cuisine, and these they do superbly, as with the fries. The same waitress served us. She’s a pro, making sure we understood what was on offer this day. Peg did, and loved the duck with its rich dark sauce. I did not quite get it. They served a substantial amount of smoked salmon on my plate, with two stuffed tomatoes, their version of the diet plate. I liked it but it was not what I came here for, which in this case I believed was a sauteed salmon. I also failed to order one or more of their many Belgian beers on tap and in the bottle, opting for wine, good but not Belgium. But beer with fish? Maybe with deep fried, on the menu as Fish and Chips, but not salmon in any configuration.

L’Imperatrice in Tournai

Previous visit to Tournai

cathedral tournai
Notre Dame de Tournai from the Grand Place
mons jesus sculpt
Jesus giving the keys to Peter. The most effeminate Jesus I have ever seen.

Tippy canoe

We entered the Oster (east) Schelde after a night in Willemstadt. The Oster Schelde leads to the North Sea. This means we are in a tidal zone, with significant tidal current at times. If the wind is against the current, or simply if it’s very windy, the water can get pretty rough. This can make us passengers pretty uncomfortable. Fortunately we did not have this issue despite the wind. However upon entering the harbor for the night we had to turn to face the wind to control the boat, otherwise the wind can push the back end of the boat away from the dock when you want the opposite to occur, of course.

Some friendly boaters helped with the lines, showed us where we were supposed to go, as we had first moored in order to find our assigned spot rather than taking the boat into more narrow spaces. Then they helped us moor at our assigned space, the one given to us by phone earlier in the day.

The next day at 6:45 a.m. we left for Terneuzen. We did not get far. Just outside the harbor the water was too rough for comfort so we returned to our mooring, having to pay the big bucks for the night. This zone is more expensive than most areas of the Netherlands. The next day promised to be sunny and calm and indeed it was. It is a route said to be traversed by many big ships. It was that as well. The small craft lock was closed for maintenance or repair, so after some confusion we found ourselves going into the huge lock with the big boys.

On the canal going south we were in some dense fog from time to time. It lifted by the time we arrived at the next lock, at Haanswert. After that huge lock you enter the Wester Schelde. Following it in the southeasterly direction takes you into Antwerp. As we head in the opposite direction, to Terneuzen, we were running with the low tide. We cruised at 7km per hour over our normal cruising speed of 10 kph. Going against the current would mean 7km under our cruising speed, about 3km per hour, so there’s a huge difference. had we gone to Antwerp at this time it would have been very slow going. Here you must pay attention to the tide tables, which we had not required to do since we took the U.S. Power Squadron course in the early 1990’s.

The last time we entered Belgium we went through Antwerp, going south from the Haaswert lock rather than angling to Terneuzen as we did today. By this route you enter the port of Antwerp, the largest or second in Europe. However AIS (Automatic Identification System) is now required. Something approaching $1000 is what you need to lay out for the purchase and installation of the equipment. This is the first time we have found it to be a requirement, so the expense is not justified.

So we were off to Terneuzen. We weren’t alone. We were with huge inland barges and gigantic seagoing vessels, but this is a large body of water so we were not at all concerned. For safety and to avoid the sometimes significant wakes, the harbor master told us to stay between the green and yellow markers, the small craft lane. The route is well marked so you avoid the shallow areas exposed by the tide. In fact we passed by several visible sand banks along the way. Most large vessels stayed out of the zone marked by the green and yellow buoys. Using it reduces the distance you need to travel. We were bounced around by wakes from time to time, but nothing above about .5 meters.

There is not one but two huge locks at Terneuzen. The lock “meester” directed us to the one to starboard, and to go in behind a particular huge ship, one with lots of pipes and things on it making it look like a floating oil refinery. We were tied to the huge ship splinter-laden moorings for over an hour as more lumbering giants entered. Finally about a half dozen monster commercial ships emerged from the open door. Then in went the big boys waiting with us, followed by us and one other small boat, once the lock meester told us it was our turn. It took over an hour to this point and we still had the lock to go. Huge ships struggle to get going, so once the door was open it was at least another 20 minutes before we were out and into the canal, the concerns about the crossing behind us.

Giant lock at Haanswert, two huge barges at the front.
One of the huge ships staying in their lane
In the lock at Terneuzen
The gigantic gates at the Terneuzen lock- I am holding the boat in place while shooting this thus the shakiness.

Ships pass in the night

With good weather upon us we sidled into a mooring on the Gouwe River in Waddinxveen next to the lifting bridge. Along the way we passed a huge lot filled with containers used to transfer goods on container ships. The barges that load and unload there passed by our mooring over the next few days, day and night, as we snuggled behind the huge pylons.

After completing the chores we had been unable to complete due to the weather, we moved down the river to Gouda. Gouda is an ancient town, founded by the Goude family circa 11th century, near where the city hall is now, in what was then a peat zone. Peat was harvested for fuel for centuries.

The 13th century castle was destroyed in the 16th century. In the 19th century the city walls were removed. However the city is still divided by many canals.

As we were coming into the central harbor we had to wait for a bridge to open. We blinked our eyes trying to interpret what we were seeing. A large barge was backing up through a narrow bridge.

After passing the lock and the next bridge, and had been moored for a few minutes, the friendly havenmeister (harbor master) came by, recommending we move to the other side where there was electricity and water. The price was the same where we were, while lacking those amenities.

We walked through old neighborhoods to the old harbor. There are a dozen or so turn of the century barges converted for their live-aboard occupants. There’s a very charming small restaurant by the lock with its what I half jokingly call guillotine style gates, as I cower beneath their sharp looking down facing blade when we enter.

Gouda’s city hall is world famous, for good reason. Today the huge plaza is filled with the Thursday cheese market

Gouda cheese market
Photo by Peg

Gouda is indeed the home of the cheese of the same name, in case you were wondering. It is the world’s oldest cheese produced with the same recipe, first mentioned in 1184. It is wrapped in wax to retain moisture. Here, unlike in most countries, there are many versions of the cheese, varying by the degree of aging, from one to twenty months. The latter is termed ‘oude Gouda.” I have tried some that are as hard as a well aged Parmesan.

Traditional barge in the old harbor in Gouda
Turn of the century barge in the old harbor

Laying in Leiden

After a cold and wet week in Haarlem we traversed the town’s bridges as we navigated south, getting a bit lost for a few minutes when we were uncertain about interpreting our new navigation software. The day had turned partly sunny, a rarity to date. We found our way into the municipal harbor in the historical city of Leiden, welcomed by the friendly and helpful harbormaster and his assistant. They were waiting at the two available spots, then had us turn around to face into the wind, as high winds were expected the following day.

Leiden is an ancient city at the junction of Oude Rijn (Old Rhine) and the Nieuwe Rijn, with earliest written reference dating to the 9th century. It is home to the famous Leiden University (1575), where the likes of Rembrandt and John Quincy Adams studied, along with 13 Nobel Prize winners. As we walked about students filled the streets visiting their favorite hang outs, shops and cafes, along with a substantial portion of the city’s population 125,000, with another 100,000 or so in the immediate area.

leiden city hall

It is late spring so as in Haarlem there’s a fest, with a live band playing on a stage along one the many canals.

We stopped for fries at a friets haus (house). Note the clever add-on sauce cups in the photo. In one there’s mayo, in the other a peanut sauce, termed ‘satay’ here. The use the Indonesian term, a remnant of the days of the Dutch East India company that exploited that island nation.


The Pilgrims lived in Leiden before some of them left for the “New” (to them) World, some remaining behind to eventually blend in with the locals. They resided in the area surrounding Pieterskerk. FDR, the Bushes and Obama trace their heritage to this location.

Pieterskerk is a magnificent former church with ceiling soaring high above. Its long central isle has a large organ at one end. There was a chapel here circa 1100, while construction of the current building began in 1390. It became a Protestant church in 1572, The church’s artwork was destroyed during that period, as is common in the Netherlands. The church was deconsecrated in 1971. It isnow is rented out for events. Where the altar once was there now sits a bar with tables.

Beginning with the siege of 1574, there was an annual meal giving thanks for the liberation of the city and the arrival of supplies. This might be the origin of the American Thanksgiving celebration.

st pieter2

Small houses snuggle against the towering walls. A pulpit seems to hang mid-air.

st pieter pulpit
A short walk through the old and former church

Leiden University is both impressive and comprehensive in its offerings. Its library contains some 5 million volumes and numerous collections. Affiliated with the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies, the University houses the Leiden Observatory (1633), the Natural History Museum, the National Museum of Antiquities, a museum of Dutch antiquities, three ethnographic museums, as well as geology and mineralogy museums. The botanical garden is one of the oldest in the world, going back more than four centuries. The large university has no central campus, it’s buildings scattered about. This makes for lots of bike and foot traffic, adding to the dynamic feel. I imagine that living here would be a culturally enriching.

As the weather improved so we had several extensive walks on the busy streets along the canals, and the quieter narrow streets in residential areas. The architecture is typical Dutch, laid out along canals, alleys and a few main streets with little traffic to be found in the center areas.