Back through Paris to the Sambre

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.

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Bridge at Chateau de Criel, watercolor on postcard stock

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.

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Hotel d’ Ville, Soisson
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Soisson Cathedral

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.

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Hotel de Ville, Chauny

Beautor's church

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.

Antwerp, Lier and Dendermonde

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.

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Antwerp’s castle

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The Cathedral

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.

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Guildhauser
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Grote Markt

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.

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Beguinage

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Town hall in the main square
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The gorgeous Zimmertoren

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.

 

Dendermonde town hall
Dendermonde town hall

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Dendermonde town square at dusk

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.