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.
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 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.
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 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 went to 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.
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, too dangerous for those not familiar with the river.
After Woerden we were two weeks off the grid. We entered the Amstel River, the river that gave Amsterdam (dam on the Amstel) its name many centuries ago. For several days we were in Oudekerk (Old Church), moored in front of several restaurants that had just been permitted to reopen outdoors. The weather did not cooperate so few chose to brave the cold winds and rains that plagued so much of May. We ordered borrels (appetizers). They delivered to the boat, quite the treat, and on ceramic plates with silverware, not plastic. When we were done all we had to do was call and they came with the bill.
Across the river you are in Oudekerk proper, a town of a few streets. As the weather cleared the bars and restaurants filled, which h we noted as we biked past looking for the grocery store and the Gamma, a large chain selling paint and lumber. Their paint machine broke as they prepared our boat’s dark dark blue paint but at least we saw all the outdoor activity on a lovely day, at last.
We are not far from the larger town of Amstelveen about 15 minutes on our bikes, and about 20 kilometers from Amsterdam. Amstelveen has a large immigrant population. We learned this as we searched for grocery stores in the area. Many were Indian and other southeast Asian shops. In one Indian shop we found red chili flakes, a must for Indian as well as Italian cooking, at least as far as I am concerned. We stocked up on wine from another shop, racing home against the forming clouds.
We turned back on the Amstel, as we can go no farther towards Amsterdam due to low bridge clearances. We are again in Uithoorn, south of town. We were here the other day, moored while the bridge was repaired. Two hours turned into three, but no matter, as we had shopping to do. With these small refrigerators, found in many apartments in European cities as well as boats, you must go out often for fresh items. From our mooring we are just about 10 mGoogle maps. I went looking, The locations marked on Google maps no longer exist. I went several kilometers several times to find nothing. I headed back to the boat through the tiny downtown to check there, just in case. I saw no Post NL and was about to give up when I saw a postman. He pointed just a few meters towards the Bruna. You can get what you need there, he said. It was only then that I saw the small sign sitting rather high off the ground. This was before I learned that the Bruna was one possible outlet.
Then came Tolensluis. I think this translates as Toll Lock. ‘Sluis,’ is the English ‘sluice’ but a sluice in English is generally used for small locks, in Dutch for all however. You can see many shared words between English and Dutch, although often the meaning is different if somehow related. The movement of peoples is embedded in their languages, something I always find fascinating, these verbal artifacts just sprinkled about.
The sluis is tiny, of course, operated by the man who lives in the adjacent house. After a few minutes he comes out. I was happy to see him as the winds were pushing us about quite a bit.
Oude Weettering was next, after a night in a marina to charge the batteries. Friends again came by to our mooring in the long stretch of houses and a few shops that line the water. Cuckoos live here too, not just in deeper countryside. Youngsters squeal and giggle as they play in the water. Girls in their early teens sing pop, wearing two piece suits for the most part. Everyone stops at a fast food shop called The Family for ice cream, fries, burgers. It sounds so American, I know, but the presentation and atmosphere is not, and besides, where can you get chicken with a peanut sauce in a fast food restaurant in the US?
Boaters are out in force, sloshing the moored boats, up to a dozen or so tied to the docks. The majority are day boats, meaning they have no cabin. Most are completely open, others offer some cover from the rain, not necessary in this week of perfect weather.
In the meantime we are waiting for our final covid vaccination and the Belgian border to open. As of July 1 the EU covid app is due, which you use at border crossings where necessary. Spain is now allowing visitors without testing, Italy with. Concerts and large venues can operate. Europe is gradually coming out of the long, dark winter of confinement. Spring has arrived. We all hope that there will be no repeat come next winter.