Our Barge, Odysseus

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


We pulled into the small town of Veurne, at the junction of the Lokanaal and the Dunkirk-Nieuwpoort Canal. They have a great, free municipal tie-up on the canal, plus a very handy Colruyt (sort of like Costco). It was time to restock the wine supply. The Colruyt gives discounts by the six!
There was also a nearby gas station. A word about the fuel situation. Until last year, Belgium offered red-dyed diesel for boats. It was free of road taxes and much cheaper than undyed road fuel. Once the distinction was eliminated, waterfront fuel mostly disappeared and now about the only way to get fuel for the boat is by truck from the dock or jerry cans on a hand truck from a close-by gas station. Luckily we don't use much fuel, about 2 1/2 litres an hour, so refueling hasn't been much of a problem; aside from the cost. No whining from you statesiders about the cost of gasoline or diesel ... how about €1.40 a litre - $9 a gallon!
We're very close to the North Sea here and the weather has been pretty stinky; cold and overcast with the occasional rain shower, but it cleared up enough Friday night for Veurne's summer festival.
About 12,000 people live in the town and it was relatively unscathed by WWII so the town center is very picturesque. The town's market square was filled with locals snarfing bratwurst, drinking beer and checking out the local artwork for sale in the booths.

What small town summer festival would be complete without a group of guys who got really hammered in the local pub and decided to form a kazoo band .. in this case the "Kamelot Super de Lukse."

The town symbol is "The Sleeper" and, while nobody could tell us the origins, he showed up in a horse drawn carriage and proceeded to the town hall balcony where he and his assistant tossed bags of potato chips (?) to the desperate kids below.

That guy with the green suit in the middle of the crowd is the Town Crier, Joris Goen. We had a chance to chat with him later and he was very excited to be heading to the European Town Crier Championships soon. Seems he's been Belgium's champion crier the last two years and was ready to "take it to the next level."

Where does Cathy Jo find these guys?

Saturday morning it was time to head off again. The plan was to get close to Brugge so we could negotiate the bridges and lock on Sunday when there's little traffic, find a bankside mooring close to Ghent and then head into the city Monday morning. The Ghente Feesten began on Saturday and we've been told it may be tough to find a spot in the Centrum Haven. We thought if we just showed up they'd find us a spot. We were just there a couple of weeks ago. Hopefully we made a good impression!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

(Use Your Homer Simpson Voice) MMMMMMM, Beer!

We returned to the boat about 2 pm after our bike ride and moved about 8 km to our next tie-up spot, a little village called Fintele. From there we set out on our bikes again, making a beer pilgrimage to Belgium's hop headquarters at Poperinge.

Ok beer lovers. Name that vine!

We also tasted "the best beer in the world." Recently, thousands of beer enthusiasts on ratebeer.com proclaimed the beer produced at the St. Sixtus Abbey in Westvleteren as the worlds best. Since we were so close it seemed unreasonable not to check it out. There are no tours of the abbey itself but there is a cafe nearby that sells the famous brew so we were happy to sample some of the 5.8% blond and 8% brown. We took home some 10.8% for later, not trusting our bike riding skills after that. The percentages refer to alcohol content of course.

We can attest that it just might be the best beer we have ever tasted. However, we will be in Belgium for at least another couple of weeks so we don't want to be too hasty in our judgements.

That night the sun went down over the polder and the next morning we headed for Veurne.

In Flanders Fields

We left the boat at the bridge tie up and headed up the Ieper-Ijzer Canal to the town of Ypres (I'll use the French spelling; it's Ieper in Flemish), the site of some of the bloodiest battles of WWI. This was the only area of Belgium unoccupied by Germany and prevented them from attaining the important French ports. The canal was essentially the front line for four years and over 300,000 allied troops were killed in four major battles between 1914 and 1918. The town was reduced to rubble but has been convincingly rebuilt to look exactly as it did before. Unfortunately is was sprinkling most of the time we were there so I didn't get any great pictures of town but the thousands of grave sites scattered in cemeteries about the landscape only begin to give you an idea of the devastation.

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow...

Into the Wilds of Belgium

Out of the big city and into the countryside it was. From Brugge, the plan was to head west on the Ghent-Oostend Canal until just outside Oostend, one of the entry ports from the North Sea, then to head southwest on the Kanaal Plassendale-Nieuwpoort. We would then make a loop back to Nieuwpoort using the Ijser River, the Lokanaal and the Kanaal Nieuwpoort-Dunkirk. Along the way, we would bicycle the 30 km round trip down the Ieper-Ijzer canal to Ieper (Ypres, in French).
As one of our guide books points out, the trip would be almost entirely rural, bypassing the larger towns of Oostend and Nieuwpoort but spending time in smaller towns like Veurne and Ypres. The guide book also warned us that we would have to watch out for charter boats as this is a popular vacation area and there are big hire-boat bases in Nieuwpoort. The first day we traveled south with two other boats and only passed a couple going north. Not what we'd call crowded! When we first contemplated the boat purchase, Belgium was just someplace between Netherlands and France; country to be crossed. We've discovered some really beautiful, almost deserted cruising areas, friendly, unpretentious people and truly spectacular cities. Despite it's faults (the Italians must have taught the Belgians to drive and Al Gore could definitely teach them a thing or two!) we really like Belgium.

This was our tie-up spot for the bike ride to Ypres.

As we passed through the opening bridge we asked the bridge tender if there was a place to tie up for a couple of days; we wanted to ride our bikes to Ypres. He pointed to the 1 hour limit bridge-waiting tie up and said, "there." When we told him we wouldn't be riding until the next day he said, "No problem!" Now there's officialdom I can deal with!

Friday, July 18, 2008

In Brugge

It's probably already been at a theater near you but we really have been "In Brugge" and I think it's the most beautiful city we've seen in our two summers here, rivaled only by Paris.
I'll save a thousand words and provide some pictures.

The second two pictures were taken on day four. Unfortunately, days one and two the weather was pretty horrible, with wind and rain. Tim and Michael had to get to the train station in a downpour but as we didn't hear from them, we're guessing they made it out on time.
Since the weather was bad, indoor activities were called for and we visited the Groeningemuseum, which houses a large collection of the "Flemish Primitives." They were anything but; primitive, that is. The most prominent, Jan Van Eyck is considered the artist who created oil painting. We saw the famous "Adoration of the Mystic Lamb" while we were in Ghent and were able to see several other of his works, as well as those by Rogier Van der Weyden and Hans Memling. They lived between the late 1300's and the early 1500's, at the height of Brugges' wealth and influence. Their attention to detail is amazing. We especially noticed the beauty of their depiction of cloth. Then we learned that the foundation for Flanders early wealth (and they were tremendously wealthy) was the cloth trade, and it became a little more clear.
From our Lonely Planet guidebook:
"When Philip the Fair, King of France, visited Brugge in 1302, his wife, Joanna of Navarre, was so surprised by the inhabitants' wealth and luxurious clothes that she purportedly claimed: 'I thought I alone was queen, but I see that I have 600 rivals here'."
Unfortunately, the waterway that allowed the wool trade from London to reach Brugge silted up in the mid 1500's and the city's wealth moved to Antwerp. Brugge's long slumber began. In the mid 1800's tourists discovered Brugge beauty still intact and it has become a popular destination since then. Very popular. The place was crawling with 'em. We thought we'd seen lots of tourists in Ghent but Brugge has more. Luckily it still stays light until about 11 pm so an after dinner walk can usually be taken without having to shoulder through crowds.
And the light is great.

Day three began to clear and, although there were some heavy thunderstorms about, we decided to make a quick bike trip up through the village of Damme to the North Sea coast at the port of Zeebrugge. We got a good look at the way the Belgians spend their summer at the beach.

or maybe like this.

These were part of a window display for an eyeglass shop.

Returning from the coast it was clearing up and we could see the tower in Damme across the wheat fields.

The dock where we tied up while in town is a section of the canal that cuts through town but has been closed off. For those of you who remember your French, it's name, Coupure, will mean something. The rest of you will have to dust off your French dictionaries. (Oh, okay. Coupure is French for cut.)

Brugges is beautiful. It is also crammed with tourists. And churches, of course. We took a short break from some of wacky "cultural" events we've witnessed to take in some real cultcha, The London Pro Arte Choir at the Church of Our Lady.

But we couldn't miss the "country" music performance at the Brug Square the night before we left.

Sunday the bridges and locks are on a shorter schedule so at 10 am we were underway for the coast at Oostend. Unfortunately, Brugge just wouldn't let us leave and we didn't actually clear the city until about 12:45. Next stop is a loop taking in the North Sea coast, some famous breweries and Ypres and it's WWI battlefields.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

More from Ghent

One of our favorite tourist activities in these towns is to climb a tower. Any town of any size has one and it really allows a great overview of these medieval cities.
In Ghent we climbed the aptly named Belfry, which houses the city's clock and carillon. The view was great!

This is Sint Niklaaskerk.

And this is Sint Baafskathedral on the other side.

On the way down, Cathy got her noggin kloked! (Klok is the Dutch/Flemish work for bell.)

Another of our walks took us down Grafitti Street, a block long alley. It changes from day to day and some of the work is very elaborate.

We spent three days in Ghent but the big street festival, one of the biggest in Europe, is coming up from July 19 to 28. We plan to be here for some of it so we'll be back. Right now it's on to Brugges!

In Ghent, or, Back on the Tourist Trail

Ghent was described to us as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe and, after a couple of days there, we have to agree. We entered on the canal that rings the city, curiously called the Ringvaart, and ventured down a tiny canal to a tie up near the center of town. From there it is just a five minute walk to the center of the city and, really, I just can't take enough pictures to give the flavor of the place. But I'll try.

We've spent most of the last couple of weeks way off the tourist trail. Even in Maastricht, most of the visitors were from Holland or Belgium. Not so Ghent. We're hearing much more spanish, french and german spoken on the streets. Lots more English, too. In fact, we were tied up alongside a Welsh couple, Roger and Peggy, who have a fondness for Rioja, the full-bodied red wine from Spain. Oh, my aching head!
We are seeing much more of the expatriate boating community as well. In Holland, everybody has a boat and the boating community is mostly local. There is a pretty good sized Belgian boating community but there are many more foreigners thrown into the mix. We're finding more opportunities to be social, if our livers can stand it!

And no, we tried not to get lost, even though this map is of Lier.

This is us with our friend Tim's son Michael. He spent the last 8 months going to school in Spain. I think it's the water that did that to his hair.

Tim and his son visited an old castle that featured an exhibit on medieval torture instruments. Michael liked it; I'm not so sure about Tim.

We were wandeling on the second day and crossed town to check out the new marina. We walked right into The Big Jump, a celebration held across Europe to encourage improvement in water quality.
There was a Mr. and Mrs. Big Jump contest and the winners were the first allowed to jump in and swim across the River Leie, to the delight and encouragement of the crowd.

They were soon joined by quite a few swimmers, many in some form of costume.

All those people on the dock are gonna get wet!

Monday, July 07, 2008

This Is Not Odysseus, Either

But never fear! The Navigator is at the helm!

How to Make Odysseus Go 12 Km per Hour

We picked Lier for our stop because our friend Tim Minnear and his son Michael would be joining us after landing in Brussels. We read Lier had good train connections with the capital city. Correct. The train runs every half hour. But the town's boat tie-up is out in the middle of nowhere, quite a hike from the train station. And of course it was raining. But we managed to schlep their bags and two bike loads of groceries to the boat without getting too wet and prepared for out next journey, down the Netekanaal and onto the tidal Nete River and then up the Dijle River to the town of Mechelen. Yeh, right.
The tidal part of these rivers means that you have to plan your trip based on high and low tides and the currents they produce (we're pretty close to the ocean here and, though the rivers are brackish, they do rise and fall). It's right after the new moon so the tides are at their most extreme and we would be going downstream on the Nete and up on the Dijle to reach Mechelen. We thought we had it all figured out, leaving at 7 am instead of our usual 9 am, but I knew we were in trouble when the gps showed we were going 11.5 km down the Nete instead of our usual 8. Sure enough, when we turned up the Dijle we were down to about 3.5 km an hour or less. No way were we going to make Mechelen. The only choice was to turn downstream and head for Ghent, even though it was about 60 km away. When you're making 10 to 11 km it won't take so long. When we reached the Schelde River we had to turn upstream so we found a dock to tie up to for a couple of hours until the tide turned and then headed off to Ghent.
On the way we passed the village of Temse with the usual blend of old and new.

At about 7:45 pm and over 90 km traveled we pulled into the lock that separates the tidal part of the River Scheldt from the canalized part. Once we were through we tied up to the lock wall and barbecued some sausages. They would have to pass for our 4th of July hot dogs.
And once again we were in the company of the two American boats. We'd taken different routes to get there but ended up in the same place.
We left the wall the next morning at about 9 am and by 10 we were tied up in the center of Ghent, ready for a weekend in the city.

Turnhout, Lier and Antwerp

Turnhout is a nice small town with the usual stores and markets. Saturday morning was the big vegetable market so we stocked up on the good things, went to the free "rock" concert in the city square on Saturday night and just generally hung out around town until Monday morning.
I failed to mention in writing about Maastricht that we have met our first group of Americans this year. Two couples from Florida did about the same thing we did last year, just a little earlier. One couple, Pete and Lil, bought their boat up in Friesland and the other, John and Karen, in southern Holland. It caused some confusion when a satellite tv repairman showed up at "the boat in 't Bassin with the American flag" and discovered there were two. We also met another couple from Canada who share ownership with an American couple we have yet to meet.
The reason for the digression is that when we pulled into the marina at Turnhout, who should be there but the two other American boats. I think all of the American boats in Belgium were there for the weekend.

We departed on Monday morning a retraced out steps south to the mighty Albert Canal, sort of an interstate highway for barges across Belgium. After about 10 km we entered the Netekanaal and were on our way to our next stop, Lier.

The doors open onto the Netekanaal.

We had a free day as our friends would not be arriving until Wednesday so Tuesday we decided to make a quick train trip into Antwerp. It's only a 15 minute trip and the train runs about 6 times an hour so we left around noon and were back in time for cocktails.
Our first introduction to town was the train station.

We were only in town for a couple of hours but we saw alot more monumental architecture. Highlighting the main square and towering 123 meters over it, is the Onze Lieve Vrouwkathedraal (Cathedral of Our Lady) containing four paintings by Peter Rubens.

It's one of the finest gothic cathedrals in Belgium and was built between 1350 and 1520.

Looking across the Grote Markt is the Brabo Fountain and more beautiful buildings.

Really, I could fill up a thousand pages with pictures of the amazing architecture and it still amazes me that they were able to construct these buildings with the techniques of the time. Lots of time and serfs helps, I guess.
After a look inside a couple of other curches, including one designed by Rubens (although mostly rebuilt after a fire), we headed back to the train station and returned to Lier.