Our Barge, Odysseus

Friday, August 29, 2008

La France s'améliore

Things have changed in France since we were last here three years ago. Smoke-filled bars and cafes are no more!
If you look in the lower right corner of the picture you can see the sticker on the door that prohibits smoking in the "Smoking Rabbit."

The Europeans Pay Attention! August 28

We get our news here from occasional copies of the International Herald Tribune (published by the NY Times) and daily doses of the BBC. Both have been full of news about the Democratic convention in Denver and the nomination of Barak Obama. The Europeans are paying very close attention to our presidential campaign and their excitement over the possibility of an Obama presidency is only slightly greater than their relief at the end of the current presidential term. We had drinks with a Swedish couple last week and they observed that our elections are so important to the rest of the world that they should be allowed to vote. I don't think most Americans realize the impact that decisions made for purely domestic purposes have worldwide.

Further Southward, August 22

It's not time to head into the winter storage yard yet so we passed the Canal des Ardennes and continued south. The weather has been real spotty, not much rain but overcast and some windy days. Doesn't seem much like August! It's really unfortunate, too, because the scenery is beautiful. The river winds up a valley between the forested hills of the Ardennes, little hillside villages along the way. Sunshine would make it much nicer.
One of the smaller towns had a real nice tie up with this peculiar statue at the end of the ramp. We're not quite sure what to make of it. Any suggestions?

Out next stop was in the town of Sedan. It has a great old fort/castle whose construction was begun in 1424.

Just across the channel from the marina was apparently one of the city's best fishing holes. This guy looked like he was really enjoying his "fishing."

We wandered around town the afternoon we arrived and planned to do some more the following day but when we got up is started to rain and it rained all day long, heavy at times. Much reading was accomplished.
Saturday is market day in Sedan so while I did the pre-departure chores, Cathy Jo mixed it up at the market (sharpen your elbows if you go early!), and we pulled out of town about 10 am.
It cleared throughout the day and by the time we pulled into Mouzon about 1 pm it was pretty nice.

You can just see our bow at the city tie up on that little side channel.

This is Mouzon from the top of one of the old city gates.

Our plan was to be in Pont a Bar around September 7 so we planned our most southern point this year as Verdun. There's supposedly a great free city tie up with water and electricity right in the center of town. We'll spend a couple of days there and then head back down the Meuse to the Canal des Ardennes.
We spent Sunday night in Stenay (a really small town and nothing but cafes and bars are open on Sunday; a nice cheap pontoon with services on a small side channel)) and Monday night in Consenvoye (even smaller than Stenay; there wasn't anything to be open but the tie up was in a nice city park) and arrived in Verdun on Tuesday to find it as advertised-a free, city-center tie up with water and electricity! Thank you VNF (Voies Navigables du France)!

La France! August 14

At 1:15 pm we pulled into the Ecluse les 4 Cheminées, purchased our permit to use the canals in France and crossed another border. Love the EU. Not even a sign this time!
By 2:15 we were tied up in Givet. We didn't use the marina since we didn't need the power or water, instead we tied up on the other side of the river. This was the view back across to the marina as the sun set.

Most of the major towns along the Meuse have some kind of fortification, some bigger than others. Originally built by Charles V in 1555, Charlemont Fort was rebuilt by Vauban, who seemed to have a hand in every major fortification in France, in the 17th century.

The next morning it was up and away, this time to face another feature (or is that bug?) of the French canal system; a tunnel.
In this area the Meuse is a very curvey river and rather than make you do all of the double-backs, the canal builders helpfully cut across some of the meanders. In this case, we entered the Ham Tunnel.

It's dark in there! Luckily we bought a spotlight to use during tunnel navigation. This one is only a half kilometer long. Later (in other parts of France, not this year) we'll face some that are as long as 4 kilometers!
On the approach to the tunnel we spotted a feature of the French power generation system. No greenhouse gasses here!

We spent the night at a pontoon in the small town of Haybes. We tied up about 2 pm and there was a "fete" happening in the park along the waterfront. The only problem was that they had the speakers blasting bad Europop right at the boat. The celebration was supposed to end around 7 pm so we went for a walk up to a viewpoint where we could see another of the Meuse' snakelike bends around the town of Fumay.

We'll be going through there tomorrow.

The next couple of nights were spent tied to the bank in the small village of Montherme. We wanted to do a little bike riding and there's an old railway line that used to run into Belgium that's been turned into a bike path.
This was the view across the water at the hillside town.

Our next stop was Charleville-Meziers, which will be the largest town close by our winter storage location. We found a great free tie up and spent a couple of days. Unfortunately the weather was pretty crummy so the pictures are sparse. Maybe next spring the weather will be more cooperative.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A Look Back at Beer

Since we're now out of the land of beer and into the land of wine, it seems only appropriate that we should now make our beer judgements.
We have found the following beers to be worth mentioning. Bear in mind that our personal preference is for more bitter beers and the higher alcohol content of many of the Belgian beers result in a sweeter drink. Also remember: These Are Strong Beers. Nothing under 6% and most are closer to 8% alcohol or higher.
The St. Sixtus Abbey bruin and blonde may be the best but since you can't get them anywhere but at the abbey they really don't count. In Turnhout we drank Corsendonk Agnus which we really like but it's also hard to find out of the region. Another good local brew was the Litre of Palliter in Lier.
Orval and Westmalle Triple are high points of the Trappists. Duvel is widely available and Don's personal favorite for getting cross-eyed. The Brugges Zot was better on tap than in the bottle. For cheap beer (none of it that cheap) we drink the Grimbergen blond.
Now we've crossed into France and you can get a good, perfectly drinkable bottle of French wine for under €2.
And bread! Don't get us started on the bread! Less that a euro for a really good baguette! And a bakery seemimgly on every block!
Vive La France!

Under the Cliffs of the Meuse, August 12-14

We had been told that the Muese between Namur and the French cities of Charleville-Mezieres was some of the most beautiful river cruising in Europe. The scenery was gorgeous.

Dinant was right up there on the picturesque scale.

The citadel looms over the church.

The cliffs are very close to the waters edge and make Dinant basically a four street town, two streets paralleling the river on each side. It's also a very popular tourist destination.
We found a nice free tie up and intended to leave after just one day but the wind was really howling down the river on Wednesday so we decided to stay an extra day. We used the day to hike a way up the nearby Lesse River which is a popular kayaking destination. On the walk back to town we got a good look down the river toward Dinant.

Thursday morning we were off at the crack of 9:30 at what Cathy Jo describes as "faster than a speeding ox cart!" Our next stop would be in France!

Namur, August 3-11

Because of its strategic location of the Meuse and Sambre Rivers, Namur's history goes way back, even for these parts. It was originally setteled by the Celts then by the Romans. The Counts of Namur built a castle overlooking the confluence that was taken over by the French. Later the Dutch moved in and razed and rebult the fort. In WWI the theoretically impregnable fortress was taken in three days by the Germans and the town suffered major damage during WWII. Now, even though it's not Wallonia's largest city, it is home to the regional government.

This is the junction of the Sambre and Meuse Rivers,
the Sambre sort of hidden by the trees in the lower left.
This was shot from the citadel.

This is looking up the Meuse (south; just a little confusing. It flows south to north) toward France. We're tied up among those boats on the river.

And this is the famous citadel with the Sambre off to the right.

Since Namur is a major town, we decided to spend some time here because we really needed to make arrangements for winter storage of the boat. Also, there are really good train connections and our son, Cory, was going to have to be heading back to Amsterdam to catch his plane home later in the week. We rented a car for a couple of days and headed up the Meuse.
When we began the trip in June we had thought we could get over to Alsace for winter storage but that was just too far; we didn't want to rush the trip. We had heard about a small spot just off the Meuse on the Canal des Ardennes called Pont a Bar. It seemed a likely spot, highly recommended, although pretty isolated. It turned out there was plenty of room for us, the people were very friendly and the price was right.
That decision made, we turned to exploring the Ardennes, home of dense forests, beautiful river valleys and all thinks processed pork.

This was the result of our visit to La Roche; some of the most delectable ham you've ever eaten!
We also visited the Grottes de Hotten, a network of underground caves similar to Oregon Caves. Not as spectacular as Carlsbad or Mitchell but worth the trip.
On Friday we used the car for shopping; loading up on groceries, replacing an empty propane bottle and running all those errands made easier with a car. We also dropped Cory at the train station as he had to head for Holland; his plane left Saturday morning.
Saturday was market day in Namur and it was one of the most extensive we've seen. It seemed like every street in the old section of town was lined with booths. Just about anything could be bought on the streets.

This guy was selling onions.

They'd even filled up one of the smaller squares with sand and had a "beach" volleyball tournament underway.

Sunday was a day of rest and Monday morning we filled the diesel tank (ouch!) and headed off up the river to our next destination, Dinant.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Makin' Kilometers, beginning of August

The trip across the bottom of Belgium, the Nimy-Blanton-Perrones, Centre and Charleroi-Brussels canals, and the River Sambre are pretty much pass-through territory; just not very exciting.
Occasionally there is what some people (like us) find interesting. At the junction of the Brussels-Charleroi Canal and the River Sambre, the waterway passes through a working steel plant. I think the guide books would call this "an industrial outlook."

There's also a long section where the walls of whaterever plant is on the other side have been covered with some really interesting art.

By just about lunchtime on Sunday we were tied up on the city quay wall in Namur. We'd reached the Meuse and even the air smelled French!

A Boat Elevator August 1

What should be one of the wonders of the world made its first run in September, 2002; The Strépy-Thieu Boat Lift.
When it was completed, it bypassed 4 19th century boatlifts, one of which later malfunctioned and destroyed a cargo barge, and two regular locks.
Each side is a tank that is lifted or dropped 73 meters (about 240 ft.), complete with boats. Large cement blocks ride on the outside of the tower, acting as counterweights.
We entered at the bottom for an elevator ride up.

In this view as we approached, you can see the right hand tank is at the top letting boats out into the canal that stretches out to the left. We'll be following that 40 meter barge sitting by the red light. The tanks are each 112 meters long and 15 meters wide. There will be plenty of room.

Now we're tied up behind the barge we'll be following and the tank is about halfway down.

These boats just took the ride down. The tank door opens up and you leave the tank under it.

Now we're about halfway up.
We got to the top, the door lifted up and we were on our way out. The long walls on the canal allowed a great stop for lunch and some pics.

Cory is enjoying the view even if he just found out the film in that camera around his neck was no good.

This Is Fun? July 29

So we leave Kortrijk at about 9:30 am. The days first task is to negotiate three locks right out of town. These are totally manual locks; the lock keeper uses levers and muscle power to close the lock door and hand cranks to open the valves that let water into and out of the lock. (See the new sidebar addition, "The Lock Game." If you haven't already played it on John Hardman's site, here's a direct link,)
Three more modern locks and we entered the Boven Schelde or the Haute Escaut depending on whether you're Flemish or Waloon. We have officially entered francophone territory!
About five minutes later the engine stops. Dead. No noise.
Crew deploys anchor to prevent boat from
1. Going on rocky bank nearby, and
2. Drifting in front of 80 meter fully loaded barge rounding the corner upstream.
Over the side goes the swim step, followed closely by me, knife held firmly between my teeth. (Heh!)
We had a blanket(!) fouled in the prop.
After about a half hour of slicing and dicing, the swim step followed me out of the water and we were underway again with no damage.
We spent the night at a very rough city pontoon with large barges going by very fast. Luckily the local Mr. Helpful had advised us to tie our lines around the float pilings instead of the cleats on the dock. We thank him. We probably would have damaged the dock if we hadn't taken his advice.
We overnighted in Mons, mostly because the marina is right on what use to be a 3 canal junction but is now like a big lake. It was really hot and swimming was required.
After that it was mostly kilometers to be crossed. We wanted to reach Namur and the Meuse.

City on the Move July 26

One of our guidebooks describes Kortijk as "the Texas of Belgium." We all don't know wot t' hail they're a talkin' about but we found the city very interesting. We came in on the Leie River which splits through the city. The main yacht tie up is on one arm while the commercial traffic makes a straight line through the city. They are in the process of rebuilding the intersections on both ends of Buda Island, the piece of land that results from the split, with green spaces and pedestrian bridges in a very modern style. This is the north end of the split of the Leie which includes the junction with the Bossuit-Kortrijk Canal, which we'll be taking out of town.

There's alot of new development going on in town and the city appears to be very conscious of the design decisions being made on this new building.
This is the newer section of the large local hospital taken from across the river. If you look carefully in the middle of the lowest row of windows you may find some people you recognize.

Of course the town features a magnificent bell tower on the main town square.

One of the town's claims to fame is The Battle of the Golden Spur. On July 11, 1302, a group of irregulars, mostly weavers and members of the cloth guilds, defeated an army of French knights that were (again) trying to enforce the kings rule on those uppity merchants. It's was the first victory by commoners over an army of knights and is now celebrated as Flanders Independence Day. This giant monument in one of the city squares celebrates the battle.

Our son Cory arrived by train Monday afternoon. He'd spent the previous week in the Amsterdam area and would be spending the next 10 days with us. Tuesday morning we set off south with the ultimate destination of Namur on the River Meuse but first we had to negotiate the boat lift at Striepy-Thieu.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Escape from Ghent July 25

There's only so much party we can take. Friday morning we left the city and headed down the Leie River. The weather was perfect; sunny and warm.
The Leie is very much like the Vecht River is Holland, just narrower and curvier and the houses are even more spectacular.

"Te Koop" means "For Sale." Any takers?

It was just a short 3 hours to our stop in the Deinze Yacht Haven and Saturday morning we headed out for Kortrijk. We'll be spending a couple of days there; Cory will be joining us on Monday.

Ghentsefeesten, or, Does My Head Hurt! July 20-25

Sunday the weather was pretty bad, windy and cold, but we made it through Brugge without too much fuss, clearing the last opening bridge just after noon. We managed to find a bankside spot to tie up for the night and reached the Ghent Centrum haven about noon. Sure enough, Pierre the havenmeester found us a spot and the party was on!
Unfortunately, the weather was the foulest it's been since we've been here. Near constant wind and rain and cold! It was so cold we were wearing long underwear. Luckily by Monday evening it had stopped raining and the first concert we attended got our blood pumping again.
We're glad we were here a couple of weeks ago because the transformation of the town is amazing. Cars are banned from the central section and there are at least five main venues for music. There are carnival rides for the kids in the Vrijday Markt and Cirkus Centrum in a small square nearby. All over the city are small venues for MiraMiro, roving small theater groups, the Puppet Busker Festival and music! Music everywhere from jazz to disco to funk to salsa to world and best of all IT'S ALL FREE!!!! All you have to pay for is the beer. Lots of beer.
The most amazing transformation is just a couple blocks from the haven at a venue called Grassleie. Just after St. Michaels Bridge there is a stage completely spanning the canal. They've also floated barges on each side of the canal so there is room for the tour boats to get through but not much; there's much more room for dancing.

This is the back side of St. Michaels bridge before the stage.

And after.
Those tents on the canalside barges are for beer sales, of course.
The dancing takes place in front of them up against the stage.
The tour boats run until about midnite and their customers get a real kick
when they cruise under the stage.

Most of the big events don't even start until 9:30 or 10 at night so we've adopted our old high school schedule: up until 1 or 2 am and sleep 'til 10 or 11. And after Mondays weather fiasco it's been beautiful! As I write this (Thursday afternoon) under the patio umbrella on Odysseus back deck it's sunny, about 80 degrees and a light breeze. This is one amazing party.
We also met up again with some other bargees we met in Brugge, one couple from near San Fransisco who've been living the barging life essentially full time for the last 10 years, and a couple from New Zealand who just bought their barge, Theo; the trip from Brugge to Ghent was their maiden voyage. Both boats are much bigger than ours, Libertine of Alphen is about 30 meters, and both couples are very welcoming. Many more party opportunities.

Libertine and Theo in the Ghent Haven.

There is more to tell but right now a Grimbergen Blonde is calling so more later.

One thing I must mention is the view of this city at night. As I've mentioned and shown a little, the monumental architecture in this city is, well, monumental. The city fathers have taken great pains to light all those buildings at night and the result is just spectacular. My skills as a photographer are not up to nighttime shots; you'll just have to take my word for it or, better yet, see for yourself. We highly, highly recommend a visit to Ghent on anybody's European tour. It's a beautiful city.
The Feesten is also an amazing civic undertaking. It lasts for 10 days and the city, except for restaurants and totally necessary services like street sweepers, sound and light people and the cities finest, takes a holiday. Hundreds of thousands of people come from all over Europe to attend and the city goes to great pains to make sure they're never bored ... or sober. We only stayed for 4 days; I don't know if we could have lasted longer!
Better than Mardi Gras!