Saturday, July 23, 2016

Valenciennes to Antoing

I've almost been reluctant to continue our travel blog. I suppose it's because I'm still trying to get used to the fact that it's over and we are back home in the Netherlands - not that I don't like it here, of course. I do! But I loved the itinerant life on the water so much that I think I've been suffering from a bit of post holiday blues, and finishing this blog will be the final confirmation that it's back to normal business. The good news is that we are already planning another shorter trip this summer; maybe it'll just be for a long weekend, but it's something to look forward to.

The last of these blogs ended at Bassin Rond again, where we had another lovely night and encountered this very special boat in the morning. It's an ex-salvage boat from an oil rig and the young couple who were living on Milda (as the boat was called) had crossed the channel in her and were on their way to Paris. Isn't it fabulous?

We left Milda and co. late Saturday morning and started on our way to Valenciennes. This involved some negotiating round the thick weeds at the exit onto the main canal of the Escaut/Schelde, but we made it without getting our propellor mixed up with or attached to any hangers-on. Almost immediately, there was a big commercial lock, and after establishing by means of my recently dusted off and sort of serviceable French that the lock at Bruay beyond Valenciennes had been re-opened since 1 July, we knew we could continue with this route (we'd had to change routes on the way south because it was closed for a week or three - the length of time seemed to vary depending on who we spoke to). In this first lock, we tied up to one of the commercials whose skipper was clearly delighted to have another man to talk to and proceeded to regale Koos with all his opinions on life and politics as well as on the Dutch, including why Amsterdam is so much better than Rotterdam. I left them to it. His opinions didn't leave much room for comment or debate.

After another two locks on this wide, beautiful river, we reached Valenciennes around six o'clock and, joy of joy, found a marina with showers as well as electricity and water! Luxury!

On the way along the Escaut

A loading bay for the commercial barges

We lost our lovely Sunbrella in a gust of wind
 on the Canal de Saint Quentin, so I rigged up a replacement

Luxury mooring in Valenciennes
We spent a very refreshing night in Valenciennes (thanks to our first real shower of the journey - see  previous post re camping shower if you are now mentally holding your nose) and after a Sunday morning walk through the town and some internet catch up time outside McDonalds (yes, it did work, even though they were closed!) we set off again down the Escaut. There were three big locks to get through and then no more before Antoing where we wanted to spend the night. It was hot. And it was glorious. Waiting for the locks was no pain at all, and at Fresnes, the last one before the Belgian border, we had to wait quite a while. We only later discovered it was because here all the commercials had to produce their paperwork. As we had our vignettes (stick on boating permits), we didn't, but of course we had to wait for them. Fresnes took about an hour and a half all told.

More riverside loading quays

Waiting for the lock at Fresnes - not a bad life!

After a long stretch of rather lonely canal lined only with bushes and reeds, and where the only entertainment came from the busy activities of the water fowl, we arrived at the Belgian border. Almost immediately, the scenery changed. An avenue of tall trees replaced the bushes, towpaths were suddenly alive with cyclists and there was generally more to see altogether. Unfortunately, the weather also changed and we got well soaked on the stretch of canal that took us into Belgium. But it cleared up and by the time we moored up in the side basin at Antoing, the sun was out again. 

The old customs house on the border

Crossing the border into Belgium - note the trees!

Approaching Antoing with the castle as our beacon

Mooring at Antoing

We liked it so much in Antoing, we stayed there for two days. The town is not particularly beautiful although it does have a lovely castle (which was, sadly, closed). However, the people were really friendly and made us feel extra welcome; there were barges to watch and a great bunker station with a treasure trove of barge goodies; there was also an Aldi supermarket within a short walk of the boat. Tournai was an easy bike ride away too, and I cycled there to buy more cooking gas. On our second morning, we went to the market, where again we were treated with such friendly interest, it underscored for me once again why I love Wallonia so much. We met lots of lovely people in France too, but Antoing will remain in our memories as somewhere extra special.

Oh and yes, I bought Koos a hat at the market to protect his poor neck from too much sun - although from this photo, it looks as if his eyes do better out of the deal.

By now, it was Tuesday and we were nearly halfway through July. I was beginning to get work emails and as I'd originally said we'd be back at the end of June, I thought I should get back and get busy again, so we left Antoing for the last of the legs home.

This was really our goodbye to France and the French-speaking waterways. The next stop would be back in Flanders, so I'll leave that for a final blog.

Kortrijk, Astene and Gent deserve their own piece, don't you think?

This is by road as close as I can get to the route we took going.
We went by way of Gent, Oudenaarde, Roubaix, Lille, Douai and Cambrai,
then south.

And this is as close as I can get to the return route. We returned by way of Cambrai,
Valenciennes, Tournai, Kortrijk, Deinze and then Gent.

Friday, July 08, 2016

From the Bassin Rond to the Canal de St Quentin

Well here we are two and a half weeks into our travels. I can hardly believe we've been away so long already. This last week since we left Douai has been simply magical.

It took us two days to reach Cambrai in the end and we stopped for a night at one of the places we'd long dreamed of visiting, Le Bassin Rond, a lovely lake at the end of a side branch of the Canal de la Sensée at its junction with L'Escaut or the Scheldt as most English speakers know it. We've been there a few times by car but never before by boat, so this was really special for me. On a much more mundane level, it marked the point where the weather had improved enough for me to use my camping shower. For any of you who do not know this marvel, it is a big plastic bag, one side of which is black and the other transparent. It has a handle and a pipe with a shower head . The idea is that you fill the bag with water, leave it in the sun and the water gets hot enough for a good shower. I can confirm it was just wonderful and I've used it several times since...another indication that the weather has remained good.


From Bassin Rond, we continued to Cambrai where we had a great lunch with our friends Alain and David at The Jolly Sailor, their restaurant. This was another long time dream - to arrive by boat, moor up and have lunch there.

Honnecourt sur Escaut

We spent the night in Cambrai and the following afternoon, we started off on the gorgeous Canal de St Quentin that winds its way south. Five dreamlike days when we barely knew what day it was as one sun-filled day merged into the next. All I need say for now is that we went through something like seventeen locks and three wonderful overnight stops before reaching the Tunnel de Riqueval, the end point of our journey. We visited the villages of Marquoing, Vendehuile and Honnecourt sur Escaut, the last being somewhere I would love to park my barge forever. During this time, I got my hillside cycling legs back to some extent when we discovered any decent shops were always 7kms from where we were. Luckily, we always managed to find a bakery and my favourite place, Honnecourt, also boasted a limited grocery store.

I will be writing much more about the magical Canal de St Quentin in due course, but now we are back in the Bassin Rond ready to start the return journey. Tomorrow, we will be in Valenciennes and then we will head north, which is downstream on the Escaut/Scheldt towards Tournai. Homeward bound, but a different route, so still more of an adventure to come.

PS Apologies for the poor photo quality. These come from my not very smart smartphone.

Friday, July 01, 2016

Faring very well in France

I've been absent for a while, for which I apologise but for once I am not sorry. I have been and still am, having a wonderful time following my dream of gentle cruising in France. Not, as most people do, in central and southern France, but in the much maligned north - maligned because of its industrial past and its weather. However, I can confirm here and now that there are many magical waterways in the north and I am happily discovering them with Koos, although I will admit the weather could have been better!

We left the Netherlands on 22 June in pouring rain. Within a kilometre we were over the border into Belgium and forty minutes after that, we were approaching Gent in driving rain, fiollowed by an English narrowboat. Both of us with open steering. The following photos will say it all:

Ten hours later, we were in Oudenaarde. In distance, we'd done a mere 55 kilometres, but river time has its own dimension and we thought we'd done very well, especially as the sun came out as we tied up. Oudenaarde in lovely, but just an overnight stop this time.

By the next evening, we'd followed the Scheldt/Schelde river upstream (or south), crossed into Wallonia and turned into the magical Canal de L'Espierres that becomes Roubaix once over the French border and is a sort of back door into France.

We spent a total of 6 days and nights on this dreamlike canal and met some lovely people (the two Terries on their Widebeam narrowboat) at Leers Nord where we spent 3 of them, so when we left the day before yesterday, I felt quite down. The canal staff and lock assistants were wonderful on both sides of the border, and the whole week was made even more special by meeting up with Koos' son and daughter-in-law, as well as our lovely friends, Jackie and Noel Parry, but once we were on the move again, things seemed better.

The next night, Tuesday, we spent in Lille, revisiting the Bois Blancs where Koos took me the first year we were together. Much has changed and been redeveloped since those days, but the fun of faring through low bridges in the city that many others can't navigate is unmatchable. We almost didn't manage one and lost our flagpole when it was knocked out of its hold by the rungs of one particularly low bridge. Some rapid reversing and flailing with a boat hook and we succeeded in retrieving it.

After heading into the city (always worth a visit as Lille is lovely), we found the VNF offices (the waterways auhorities) and bought our permit from very charming woman, Francoise and were then warmly received by her manager who directed us to another kind woman who heaped us with maps and goodies to help us on our way. 

Wednesday night found us in the quiet village of Don after two hours faring from Lille, and then yesterday, we had a longish day and eventually moored up in heaven, otherwise known as the Canal de la Souchez near Lens. I cannot imagine any place that fits my dream of cruising the French canals more than this one, but time is becoming limited and we had to move on this morning.

Tonight we will be in Douai and tomorrow, our goal, Cambrai. I cannot write more now, but will catch up again as soon as possible. As you can imagine, I am loving every minute of this trip. This is what I have dreamt of for years now and it's worth every treasured moment...rain and all!