Belgium – Bikes, buses, trams and trains, but no canal boating

Or “When the Gods rain lemons on your plans, spit in their eye and make limoncello”.

August 2022

With the canal boat saving its energy for a rainy day (not so funny at the time), the family types back home were asking about our options; Europe is small so there are always travel options.  The local staff were very helpful and we were negotiating with Le Boat regarding what had now become the most expensive form of non-moving accommodation and what refund was available.  The second week of our trip was supposed to be for exploring the more recent history of Flanders (read the war years) and we weren’t going to let a lack of water get in the way.  And fair warning, this is quite a long blog as we really did get about in that week.

To Middelkerk, for some beach time, by bicycle

Our first day out we took a trip along the seaside to Middelkerk.  There was real sand (not the pebbles we had expected) and a huge boardwalk along the entire coast.  This area is the holiday coast for Belgians and they were out in force.  There were kiddies on every type of peddle-powered contrivance tearing up and down the pavement, dogs being polite to each other, surf life-saving schools and some very keen swimmers in the water (it wasn’t that hot – in fact we were wearing jumpers).  We followed along a series of sculptures of the various (and many) comic characters created in Belgium; they have produced more than TinTin and the Smurfs. Comics are one of the few arts in which Belgium has been a world leader (who knew?) and is an integral part of Belgian culture.  Certainly, those little blue guys are everywhere.

The company were considering other modes of transport en route for a day at the seaside.  Mary might have been comfortable on a donkey, but Suz and Kathleen said Neigh. 

Peter wouldn’t volunteer to be on the peddles.

A bit too much ventilation on the steel chariot (making some sort of church reference we thought).  This is a piece called ‘Caterpillar 5bis’, by Wim Delvoye.  Apparently, the odd combination of a steel industrial machine and all the gothic church decoration is to cause a “tension between the modern world and the medieval world” – well it looks very pretty.

Masher thought it would be really cool to put his ipod (Yes, he still uses one of those) in the smaller end, playing ACDC, and see how it would go down with the beach crowd.  (This is called ‘I can hear It’ by Ivars Drulle).

The ‘Navigator’, monument to the internet search engine not the sea, by Simon DybbroeMoller.  What you can’t see from this photo is the size of the thing.  Just before I took the pic there was a group of children climbing on it and sitting on the steering pegs (it is deceptively big).

The tram was going the wrong way.  But the photo shows how wide the bike paths are, and this is along the main coast road – there is often more bike traffic than cars on the road.

Eventually we retired to the beach for cake (20km round trip on our bikes that day).

And hot chocolate. Kathleen and I also found a gin that really did taste of the sea, in a good way.  We bought a bottle of the appropriately named ‘Jus De Mer’ just to support the local distilling industry.

Peter found someone who had done too much “retiring and eating cake”.  This is Agent 212 a comic policeman.

Next Day On To Oostende (Ostend); because we liked the tramway along the coast

Belgium has a lot of bikes, boats, buildings and belfries; and sometimes they are all in the same photo.

Some belfries are part of cathedrals that are sooo large you can only capture bits on camera.  [This gargoyle is not actually on the belfry.  It just makes a better photo, as the actual bell tower is so high the photo is fuzzy]

This is just the Granny flat out the back.

And you have to be in the next block over to fit the whole front into the frame – it is 70m long, 30m wide and the spires are 72m high!

So, the considerate Belgians have made a model for the tourists.  This is the church of St Peter and St Paul.  Although it is in the Neo Gothic style it was only built at the turn of last century, on the ashes of the church previously on the site.  King Leopold II must have adopted the motto was ‘go big or go home’ as the original church was certainly not that big.

Bikes rule; where a bike vs car situation might arise on the road, the red painted area indicates the bike way and motorists must (and do) give way to bikes.  And instead of car parks, there are really big bike parks at train stations.  You definitely need to take note of where you parked your bike, as you can’t just go round pressing the keys looking for flashing tail-lights.

Veurne by bicycle; because it was mentioned in the guide-book

We rode to Veurne (because we could).  The guide-book said the square was more picturesque than Bruges and we would agree and it was very much less crowded, but they really should get that car park out of the square.

Veurne became the capital of Belgium during WWI and has a well curated and presented museum about this period of history.  It includes many stories about regular people, but it was surprising how people ‘from history’ just appear in the regular story.  Such as Marie Curie and her daughter bringing mobile x-ray units to the field hospitals.  We do tend to forget when we teach about the ‘people in history’ that they are more than just a set of dates and an achievement, they lived in their time.

Masher really wanted to check out the big building behind the square, but we couldn’t work out why.  The working church of St Walburga’s is definitely big, but nothing special compared to some of the buildings we had seen.  It did give me an excuse to wax lyric about flying buttresses to whoever would stand still long enough.  They are the arches off to the side that help distribute the weight of the top of the building.  [Like you really wanted to know that – certainly the rest of the group didn’t, they took refuge in the church]

To say we were surprised doesn’t come close.  The interior of this working church is beautiful and oddly enough had a lovely comfortable feel to it.  We could have sat and stared at the many stained-glass windows for ages (and some of us did and nearly missed our morning tea).

Saint Walburga was a Benedictine Abbess from the 8th century (born in Wessex, Olde Englande) and asked to run the only joint monk and nun Abbey in Europe at the time – go girl.

To Ypres (Iper) by bus; because it’s the town we came to Flanders to visit

We decided to splurge and booked a private tour of the WWI area around Passendale.  Our guide turned out to be a history buff from London, so language was definitely no problem.  We really enjoyed the way Goran catered the tour to the Aussies.  He got quite excited when he found out we were Mining Engineers, as our first stop was Hill 60 (of the movie fame), ‘constructed’ by Aussie miners in 1916/17.

The crater is what’s left of the famous Hill 60 when the Aussies blew it up with explosives to destroy the German bunkers above.  The Mining Engineers amongst us got quite excited about the techniques employed by the Australian Mining Corps; the 1st ,2nd,3rd Australian Tunnelling Company and the Australian Electrical Mechanical Boring and Mining Company (the mechanics who kept the equipment working).  These guys actually tunnelled under the German tunnels (that would have meant running very deep in badly ventilated, soggy clay) and some of the explosive charges were put in months before they were used.  Imagine having to seal it up so it stays safe, but will still go off at the right time.  They did their job well and only two of the charges didn’t go off when they were supposed to; and their location was lost! In 1955 one of the mines was ‘rediscovered’ when it was hit by lightning and blew up!!  The other lot is still down there somewhere!!!  It was very impressive mining.

The trenches we walked through in the photo are those used by the Aussies and Kiwis (rehabilitated I imagine and we were feeling very exposed without the sandbags etc that would have been piled on the sides).  They were only about 30m from the Germans, which sounded a bit close to us, so…

We paced out the distance to check for ourselves.  I’m the Aussie sticking my head out from our trench and Peter is pretending to be an unsuspecting German trooper, with a bad sense of direction given the direction he is facing… and it really did seem far too close.

One of the more modern statues in this area is the “Brothers In Arms” memorial.  A group of five Aussie soldiers was unearthed by a backhoe in 2005 and three identified using DNA (the first time the process had been used to identify battle remains).  The Belgian who unearthed the remains was so moved that he had this memorial constructed with no Government assistance.  I remember reading articles in Australian newspapers about it at the time.  The statue shows John Hunter dying in the arms of his younger brother Jim.  Jim wrapped his brother in his ground sheet and buried him.  But when he returned later to take John back to Australia, the area was so damaged by shelling that he couldn’t find the grave. Jim’s daughter Mollie provided the DNA that identified her uncle 90 years later.  This memorial, by a regular guy, shows how deeply the Belgians feel about the sacrifices made by the Commonwealth nations to protect their country.

This photo was taken at the cemetery of Tyne Cot; Aussies and Kiwis are buried there.  It is just one of 78 cemeteries in the Ypres region.  All in all, it was a very moving day – rows and rows of headstones and then to see the thousands of names on the Menin Gate listing those that were never found.  On a personal note, we didn’t end up bawling like some of us did walking around Sachsenhausen (a former concentration camp in Berlin) during our German tour, trying to process the evil of that place.  We left Ypres sad, but not emotionally wrung out.

On a slightly lighter note – Take a close look at this photo of those Aussie miners from Hill 60.  One of the pesky blighters is holding a Kiwi flag (quite a few Kiwis fought in the ranks of the Australians).  I wonder how many people have wondered why that flag doesn’t look quite like it does at the Olympics? [For the non-antipodean out there, it’s a red/white thing; the stars of the Southern Cross on the Kiwi flag are red, whereas the Australian flag has white stars and an extra, larger Federation star].

There was an archeological dig going on in the church yard next door to where we had lunch.  Yes, there were bones (apparently it’s hard not to dig up bones and unexploded ordinance around here) but these were OLD bones.  The bones are too far down to be from the wars and are probably associated with the original monastery.  The pot is more Roman-ish. They were very cool about it; as if it happens all the time (I guess it does).  The really interesting thing was that they were surveying in a layer of large, preserved planking.  I got quite excited (the photo was taken from the window of the mens loos – there was no one else in there at the time.  And on the subject of toilets, Kathleen and I were very disconcerted to find that some toilets here are ‘all in together’ – it’s hard to keep your eyes from drifting over to the dude at the urinal – mon dieu).

I used the term ‘original monastery’ earlier because the fascinating thing about the town of Ypres is that none of it survived WWI.  It was completely rebuilt, exactly as it had stood before the war (although the cathedral was rebuilt with a steeple that people couldn’t recall being there before).

Now for something a bit lighter

As a bit of light relief the next day we took the longest tramway in Europe down the coast to De Panne for lunch.  De Panne is on the French border.  This area celebrates the formation of Belgium as an independent nation in the 1830s and King Leopold I as the first monarch (he was asked to do the job by the government and he wasn’t even their first choice!)  Masher and Peter thought they’d shake his hand for a job well done – Leopold was quite keen on railways and had built the first passenger line in Europe.

Due to the drought, the English sewage works can’t process properly and are just pumping waste straight into the channel.  The French and Belgians are a bit miffed as the currents bring the nasties straight over.  There is an ecoli warning system set up so people can still safely swim (we didn’t). We are thinking the light bulb the octopus is holding lights up when English turds are detected (hehehe).   The sculpture is called “Touching You Through Our Extremities” by Laure Prouvost.

Well that was our week of ‘making limoncello’. Although it was disappointing not being able to boat for the second week, we ended up having a great time and saw a great deal of the countryside so it was all good. Kathleen and I have nearly worn the fluff off our bicycle seat covers and we are all au fait with Belgian public transport.  By the end of the week we had negotiated a settlement with Le Boat that everyone was happy with.  We left the boat spick and span (as we always do) and Rik the Manager drove us to the train station (the taxis were still on holiday) to head back to Brussels.

Some final thoughts regarding Canal Boating that I had forgotten about-

  1. Europeans seem to think Aussies are ok and are very surprised we would travel so far to see their country.
  2. The smell of silage. Silage is fermented hay used for cattle feed.  It’s not pretty to look at like haystacks, and is usually seen as a large, long pile under a tarpaulin stacked with car tyres! But it is really useful stuff in very cold wet regions for getting stock through winters. You will smell it in most every rural area, and canals are often going through rural areas. It’s not a bad smell, but an odd slightly sweet.
  3. If you want to do the tick-the-box European tour, don’t take a canal boat.  Canal boating is very much about the journey not just the destination.
  4. Bicycles have right of way in the countries we have visited.  They have their own lanes (red painted especially where they cross car lanes).  This can be very confusing when we are people from a country where drivers generally detest bicyclists.  We often cause confusion by giving way when we shouldn’t – it takes a while to get into the swing of it (like so many things).
  5. Pet dogs are everywhere, and a pram is just as likely to have a dog in it as a human baby. 
  6. The elegance of wind turbines.  I know there are people who see these as a blight on the landscape, but I find them very soothing in the relatively small groups we’ve come across. 

This is our 5th canal boat holiday.  Things we have learnt along the way.

If you can afford it, hire a boat with one cabin extra to your requirements.  This gives you a space to escape to if things get too close and somewhere to store your bags.  But remember bigger isn’t better when it comes to parking a boat.

Take care about who you buddy with, as at some point during the holiday you will

– Hear things you’d rather not

– Smell things you’d rather not

– And there will be a day when you won’t want to look at, let alone talk to, anyone else (and this is not just me talking here)

Assign roles so that everyone is useful.  If the various jobs need to be completed at different times, even better, as then everyone has their time to shine or have some alone time.

On our cruises Peter is the Captain; drives the boat and directs actions to do with the boat, Masher is the navigator, bridge operator communicator and alternative captain; he loves a map book full of post it notes (who doesn’t, but that is not my role).

Kathleen is the Steward; she is moderately fanatical about the colour, flavour and smell of tomatoes and don’t try to hurry her out of a Charcutier. Kathleen also cleans the outside of the boat (and by the time we return a boat she has exorcised every last skerrik of grime and detritus that the boat has been quietly collecting for years). 

I am the Chatelain; in charge of the records, bookkeeping and bending ticket vending machines to our will (also cleaner of the indoors).

We have tried a variety of ways of keeping track of spending and have found the easiest is a two-column system, one for each party, in the black book (yes, it is black and I carry it everywhere, so nothing gets left out).  The aim is to have the two columns tally to the same amount.  Which usually means each party is paying for meals/groceries alternately.  This does require (again) the right friends who aren’t going to stew over how much each person ate or whether someone had an extra coffee – we each eat and drink what we want and alternate the bills regardless. Also ensure that both parties have paid their half of all the big booking fees before you start out (else one party seems to be paying a lot at the start).

Make sure you have a goodly supply of cash as well as the debit card – many rural places and villages prefer cash in small denominations.


Inland Waterways of Belgium, J Jones, Imray, 2005.

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. I guess you just have to tell yourself that things happen the way they’re supposed to and apparently you were supposed to explore the surroundings in a way different to the original plan! This blog post made me say ‘wow’ out loud a few times – so much fascinating history and when it involves Aussies it’s that little bit more special (to me anyway!). Can’t wait to visit Belgium – it’s on our list!

    1. We certainly ended up fitter than we had expected after all the bicycling in that last week Alana. Lucky you living in Europe, you will be able to do little trips to lots of interesting countries – I look forward to hearing about them. Suz

  2. Great post Suze! We’ll done on making limoncello and taking the drought impacts in your stride. Your tips are awesome….I feel you’ll be writing travel guides soon!

    1. Now there’s a thought Jackie. Although I fear that if I wrote a travel guide, the book would be far too big to carry (I do like to wax lyric).

  3. I see the likeness between Agent 212 and Pete!. A bit of background on that Hill 60 movie, all the mine plans were discovered in Charters Towers, when I worked in Charters, 1987 to ’93, coincidently where I met Kimberley, there was a character who had all the historic UG mine plans, did have a few chats with him, was the go to guy if you wanted to know historical production data from anywhere underneath Charters. Produced 6moz of gold from 6m tonnes of ore. This guy usually did his best work from 10pm to 7am with a pack of rollies and a bottle of scotch, you know the characters. Anyway the Mines Inspector who lived in Charters, a mining engineer called Ross Thomas, who I got to know really well, both good and bad, came across all the UG mine plans for Hill 60 in Charters, he ended up producing the Hill 60 movie.

    1. What a coincidence. I do remember you telling me about Ross. He was the mines inspector when I was at Wirralie. Small world indeed. Good to hear from you Peter.

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