SOME VERY DIFFERENT BOATING IN BELGIUM – Canals

August 2022 (Week 2)

We normally go canal boating in Europe every two years, but due to Covid it has been 4 years since our last trip, so we are really looking forward to this.

Masher and Kathleen are flying in from India, where they are now working. We have packed the essentials ready for the trip.    Masher eats Vegemite like regular people eat jam, so we thought it best to pack an extra squeezie tube or two.  And the sunscreen is because we have all been in the embarrassing position of being sun-conscious-Australians who have suffered sunburn in Europe.  The soft sun creeps up on you and Europeans don’t mind a spot of sunburn, so we can’t use the locals as a guide to sunscreen time – you live and learn. Mother-in-Law said we were obviously travelling light (I did reply that I was taking Peter – hehehe).  But in all seriousness, we don’t travel as lightly as we would like when we canal boat because there are some items that are just worth taking the big bag for. I have included a list at the end of this entry for anyone interested in what we have learnt over the years regarding short term canal boating.

Our first night on the boat with some wine and cheese, and a lovely sunset to get started.

We took the train and tram and taxi to Nieuwpoort where Le Boat has its base in Belgium (actually Rik the manager, got his wife to pick us up as the taxis’ were all booked – Thank you Rik).  He and his crew were rushed off their feet trying to turn over nine boats that day (it’s the height of the summer holidays and everyone in Europe is going on holiday – even the taxi drivers).  Peter couldn’t help but show Rik a photo of ‘Opal Lady’ and as he knew of Nordhavns he said he was confident that we would be able to handle the canal boat and we didn’t need to do the introductory lesson.  It always makes me sad to see how battered many of the hire boats get, even surrounded by fenders and bumpers as they are – they have a very hard life due to over confidence by inexperienced boaters.  The traditional boats people picture when thinking of canal boats, are the English long boats or French penichette – long and thin with sloping floors.  We usually see quite a few of them set up as homes, with gardens, patio furniture and even small cars on the back of the bigger ones.  You can hire these types, but we like a horizontal floor, so we hire the non-traditional boats that are more like a regular cabin cruiser, but with a flat bottom and definitely not as high.  The big determining factor for boating on canals is air height.  We found even a deck umbrella caused chaos when going under some of the low bridges during our first trip in France in 2012.  The other thing to bear in mind when canal boating is that European canals were built for commercial traffic, not holiday makers and sightseers, and they are still operating.  There is real big working traffic out there and it has right of way (even if you can’t find that clause in the handbook).

He has right of way and first pass under the bridge – fair enough

We headed for Bruges the following day (Brugge in Flemmish).  Most place names in Flanders have at least two spellings, French and Flemmish/Dutch. For these blogs I’ll use the name that we are most familiar with, which is usually the French or English and include the local, in parentheses.  We passed the exit to the port of Zeebrugge (to the sea – but we’d rather not head that way in a canal boat) and after a long day of bruggen, bruggen and more ponts (just to mix it up – they are all bridges to you and me), we pulled into the Flandria Marina in Bruges.

We were on the opposite bank to the camping ground and office, but it was only a short bicycle ride over yet another bridge for checking in.  The more rural canal marinas are setup next to or as an extension of camping and van parks – it makes for more efficient provision of amenities.  The locals were out the front fanning themselves with papers as it was very hot. 

I dare say you are thinking “What’s the deal with bridges around here?”  Well, boating was and for some industries still is the most efficient way to carry goods around the country and into towns (that is why so many canals go through the middle of built up cities).  But cars, bikes and pedestrian traffic need to cross the waterways, so there have to be bridges (and Bruges is known as the city of bridges because there are A LOT).  And the ones around here work on a two hour timetable on weekends and public holidays, so if you are late you wait; and we were heading off on a Sunday, so start the stop watch.  And Masher (as navigator) also has to phone the main bridge keeper for each section of canal before we arrive.  So, there is quite a bit to consider about bridges (and I haven’t even started on locks yet). 

Masher’s conversation with the bridge operators starts with “This is David from Australia” and they immediately switch to English which is very user friendly.  We book in so they know where in the canal circuit that circumnavigates the city we are. 

Then you have to watch the lights and arrows so that you are in the right place at the right time and not getting in anyone elses way.  We have fun while waiting, by guessing how each bridge will open.

Green means go in most languages (Red means stop. Red and Green means get ready for action, but with some bridges and locks it could take some time.  If the lights stay red but the bridge is opening,  it usually means there is a big boat on the other side coming through first, so stay clear)

This one lifts an entire double lane section of roadway up using a funky cantilever setup (Scheepsdale Bridge, constructed in 2011, is a rolling bascule bridge with a moveable pivot point – very cool).

A bit more cantilever action here (double beam drawbridge style).  The roadway was swung up in a counterclockwise direction and the diamond shaped bits end up pointing to the sky when the bridge is lowered.

This one is the old style that pivots horizontally on a central pillar (a swing bridge) – these guys can be really slow.  Sometimes the pillar that is pivoted around is off centre, as for the Krakelebrug Bridge.

A view of the rollers between the bridge and the pillar. 

A family member observed that he could see the engineers getting giddy watching these things in action.  In fact, the engineers (Masher, Peter and I all studied engineering at the WA School of Mines in Kalgoorlie) do love coming to Europe for the engineering.  On previous holidays we have; deliberately taken a side trip in France (2012) just to ‘drive the boat, in a canal, on a bridge, over a river’, pivot the boat (as there was nowhere else to go) and do it again to get back – soooo cool to be the ones looking down at other boats.  In Germany (2014) we also took a short return trip just to do ‘the boat through a tunnel, into a boat bathtub, on rollers, conveyored 40m down the side of a mountain’ to a river below.  And while we think we are pretty clever now, we passed under a bridge in Trier (France trip 2018) that was the original put in by the Romans in 250AD – those guys really knew their engineering.  But I digress, back to getting to Bruges.

This is the standard lift bridge (drawbridge style).  The boat in the photo that appears to be trying to hit the bridge was indeed having some issues.  It can be quite tricky for car-drivers to get into the swing of steering a single prop boat and this chappy (yes we checked) was not feeling the rhythm. They did spend much of the day zigzagging along the canal.  We were relieved when they pulled over for an early lunch, which was a good idea as it can be quite stressful when you feel you are constantly correcting the boat.  We saw these guys a week later and I am happy to report that he’d found his groove.  We did see another hire boat who after a week, was still fighting the boat-in-water physics.  Most of the modern canal boats have bow thrusters (moves the front of the boat sideways) and you can hear the less experienced operators thrusting their way around.  There is a maneuver for walking or pivoting a single drive boat within its own boat length, (full steering lock to starboard/clockwise for a right hand propellor, with alternating forwards/backwards throttle).  Every captain-to-be is taken through this maneuver before they take a boat out, but it takes a fair bit of confidence to trust the odd mechanics of it (it feels like magic the first time you do it – at least it felt that way for me) so many just rely on the bow thrusters.  Peter uses this maneuver all the time with ‘Opal Lady’ with just a touch of bow thruster to finish off, so we disappointed many an onlooker waiting for some panicky parking on the canals (it is something of a spectator sport – and everybody knows that most of the users of hire canal boats are first timers – that’s why the boats look like they do).

I didn’t find a choccie shop the day we arrived in Bruges, as we were distracted by some seriously evil little cones of sugary goodness.  We bought some of the purple Cuberons; crusty on the outside and pure goo inside – diabetes here we come.  They were based on raspberries, so it will be a healthy diabetes.  Choccies and Lace will have to wait until tomorrow.

Monday was a public holiday in Bruges (Assumption of Mary) and the main square was very busy.  There was an historical parade complete with Lords and Ladies, Nuns, Street Beggars, a Trebuchet (medieval weapon) and even part of a boat! 

Later in the day we were passed by a parade of horse carriages.  We all agreed that the hearse horses looked quite the part (and I do love a feather foot horse). 

We don’t usually plan to be in particular places for specific events, as the holiday feel can get dampened by the keeping-to-a-schedule feel, so it is nice when we jag an event during our stay. 

Following the parade, we retired for lunch at a nice looking pub.  Lunch required a testing of the local prizewinning beer (a rare photo of Masher without his hat).

Of all things to find in Bruges, there was a Salvador Dali Museum (thanks to a private collector donation).  You can actually buy the artworks – we didn’t.

Peter has always loved the melting clock works. 

I find Dali’s work interesting, but confusing;  I’m hoping that is the point.  One of the quotes attributed to Dali goes “The fact I myself do not understand what my paintings mean while I am painting them, does not imply that they are meaningless.”  I find that quite reassuring.

While in Bruges we also managed to stock the boat with enough chocolate for the entire trip (although it could be a close run thing, so I might have to top up in each town) and I have done my best to support the local lace industry (Happy Christmas, Mothers).

Where is Peter?  On the Riviera?  Well yes and no.  It’s not the Riviera as we would know it from the movies, but the Belgian version in Ghent (Gent), which was very pretty.  The PoL today was all about buildings.  PoL = Proof of Life message for the Mothers.  Every day I send a little photo or story to the Mothers, not to show that we are ok, but so that, when they reply, we know they are ok (they both live on their own).  Our blog is based on these messages (and sometimes I get a little carried away with the story telling – just warning you for a bit further on).

We are always taken with the different styles of architecture we travel in Europe.  So on to buildings;

Tall ones…

Really tall ones… they are in fact churches, not houses, but let’s just go with it (Kathleen is walking her bike over the bridge).

Those odd Dutch rooved ones…

Short ones…

Towers playing peek a boo…

Helloooo, I’m here.

And no houses at all.

The weather was turning damp as we headed off to visit a castle (LOVE castles – and museums – and usually over here they combine the two – serious yay).  Anyways, settle down now for a little story about rain and umbrellas and castles….Once upon a time in a galaxy not far away there was a group of friends who sensed a change in the heavens.  The brave knights found Ye Olde Brollie Shoppe that really took rain cover seriously.  And suitably attired…

The knights marched on prepared for whatever trials befell them.  (I think I have purchased a brollie on every canal boat trip we have made. I retipped my Dutch one and use it as a walking stick off the boat).

Finally, they came upon their destination – Gravensteen, the Castle of the Counts (of Flanders).

The Captain and Navigator were quickly embroiled in a discussion as to who should attempt to hold the not-Excalibur sword (it was huge – surely no one actually lifted the thing for real?).

The Captain won the discussion using a technological advantage.  But this was considered cheating in the opinion of Senechal Suz (medieval keeper of records and budgets) so…

The Captain was banished to the not-so-private privy, to hang his bare bottie over the river from the parapets (in a figurative not literal sense, you’ll notice that it had to be clearly sign posted that it was not an operating toilet!).

Unfortunately for the Steward Kathleen (organizer of the medieval household) her quick getaway was foiled by sets of ####ing spiral stairs.  I should explain here that Kathleen doesn’t DO stairs or heights, but she said that about boats ten years ago (I must share the story about the two of us at the Eiffel Tower sometime).

The quest for the Grail over- a pack of pesky Poms with coconuts had taken it away some years earlier- the company retired to Ye Olde Bakkerij for some well-deserved Flap Appels (apple turnovers Belgian style). 

The audio tour for this castle was hilarious.  The commentary recorded by the Begian comedian Wouter Deprez, is deliciously sarcastic; a humour that we noticed back in 2014 was employed a lot by the Dutch.  The Gravensteen we see today was pretty much completely rebuilt at the beginning of the 20th century.  It started life as a 9th century wooden fort, that became a fortress in the 10th century, that  was rebuilt in limestone as a luxurious residence in the 11th century, that became a motte castle, that was then rebuilt of stone as an imposing castle over the town in the 12th century (the Count was miffed that the town’s rich merchants had started building limestone houses of their own so he thought he’d best go one better).  The Gravensteen acted as the center for administration, the courthouse and the prison and torture theatre during the Middle Ages and finally provided space for wool and cotton factories in the 18th century.  It was eventually bought back by the Ghent council and Belgian government and rebuilt to what we see today. 

This is often the type of history associated with the castles in Europe

Our story continues.

As the intrepid adventurers continued down- possibly up -stream, along tree lined, watery avenues they were getting ever closer to their destination back at Nieuwport where the journey began, before starting a loop in the other direction (to the WWI battlefields of Flanders).

Having looped around the countryside (pigging out on the truly mouthwatering wonderfulness that is a European strawberry – red and juicy aaalll the way through) we were once again passing through the city of bridges that is Bruges.  The company were joined by fellow pilgrims waiting for the God of Bridges to grant passage.  Janus was the Roman God of these things (quite apt as we were to stop that day at the olde Roman town of Oudenburg).

Janus finally got his act together and 7 water chariots passed under the bridge into the circular lock and looped ropes ready to ascend 1m to the next bridge.

This is the only lock we encountered on this trip – which is unheard of.  Our 2018 trip ended with 24 locks in two days, which is a lot of rope work – generally easy but time consuming. 

Peter took a 180o photo showing all the boats around the lock wall.  This lock is different from those we’ve done before as it is a big circle (so the really big canal boats can turn around).  The thing to remember in a lock (I may have mentioned it before in the Darwin entries – but you really do come across it over here) is DO NOT tie off the lines (you need to be able to keep changing the length of the lines because the boat is going to move up or down).  Rik had shown us one of his boats that had just had the front ripped off because the users had tied the ropes off, and when the water dropped, the boat had been left hanging against the wall (boats don’t hang well).

We pulled over to visit Oudenburg, a Roman town that became a monastery. 

Masher considered leaving the company and joining the monks (unfortunately for him the abbey of St Peter was destroyed during the French revolution).

Kathleen discovered that the Roman map of the world showed they hadn’t discovered Australia, so we’d have to stay incognito.  [The map, in the case in the foreground, is a 13th century copy of the original 4th century map, which is no longer in existence.  The map shows everything along one line as if you were walking the world – a different representation than we are used to].

Peter was busy worrying that a remote-controlled water barge was going to ram us – it didn’t but it did take the corner rather oddly.  It is covered with sensors, so we all waved for the cameras (smile and wave, smile and wave).

The incognito ruse was going well – no one will ever know the Australians were here.

Meanwhile Suz was practicing her effluent French on the Dutch speaking Belgian ducks – still not sure what the word for zucchini is, but they liked it (and we all know bread will kill them, so let’s not feed them that).  The zucchini was delivered by Marcello who cycled up on his bicycle from his market garden when he saw a boat of pilgrims park up (very enterprising older gentleman).

By now the company had become lost in the fugue of holiday time when they happened upon a bridge early the next morning only to find the bridge keeper saying something about ‘zaterdags’.  Fooey, it was Saturday and the portals were back to only opening every 2 hours. 

Two real time hours later they were at the head of a great convoy of pilgrims (no one wanted to be at the back in case they didn’t get through and had to wait another 2 hours).  In this photo you can see the road on the right side and the bike road on the left (the bike trail was often busier than the road and is well surfaced and maintained).

When they returned to the base marina, the company were then dealt a most fiercesome blow.  The Dreaded Dragon of Drought had finally set his evil eye on little Belgium and the keepers of the canals had no course but to close the waterways (to non-commercial traffic).  The company was somewhat flummoxed and sought other paths to salvation at the local pub.

To Be Continued…

Canal Boat Learnings:  Pack the following –

  • Big boat pegs for hanging washing securely to the rails along the sides of the boat
  • Aussie flag
  • Bike paniers for carry the groceries and beer (the bikes we hire are often not setup for paniers, but Kathleen never travels without a kilometer or two of double sided Velcro for fastening them to handlebars.)
  • Sheepskin seat covers for the bikes (Kathleen and I would swap a husband out for these). Hire bikes do not come with what we would consider a seat with ample support for a decent set of buttocks and there is usually a fair bit of riding involved in canal boating.
  • Light raincoats and backpack covers – Europe is wet, even in summer
  • Insect repellant dots for anointing the boat
  • A roll of gaffer tape; this year we needed it to cover the security sensor in the hallway of the boat that kept on turning the light on.  It is also used for displaying the parking tickets in the window (looks nicer than the bandaids we used our first year)
  • English Breakfast teabags (Masher and I need a real cuppa in the morning and most places have the delightful, but infused with ‘insert some totally unnecessary herbage here’ tea in a beautiful caddy, when all we want is a small teaspoon of just black-tea tea-leaves.  If you know there is something that you are particular about, it is not admitting cultural defeat to take some with you – for ‘those days’.
  • At least a smattering of the expected local languages – Please, Thank you, Beer, Yes, No, Don’t shoot we are Australians.
  • One person in your group who will happily eat whatever turns up unexpectedly on your plate (Go Masher)

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Only you Suz, can make me genuinely interested in bridges! Also, Masher has one hell of an impressive mo.

    1. Glad I have opened your eyes to the wonders of bridges, Alana. That mo is very indeed very impressive, together with his hat, it makes Masher very easy to find in a crowd.

  2. Yes, surprisingly (to me) I read every word about bridges and, although no boat trips are planned, I took serious note of all items in the suggested packing list too 🫣 I thoroughly enjoy reading your adventures, Suz, particularly because I can so clearly hear your spoken voice in your written words ☺️

    1. You never know when a bit of bridge knowledge will come in handy Bek. Don’t write off the possibility of a canal boat trip yourself some time, it is a lovely way to see a country.

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