Friday, September 30, 2022

It's not the places we go; it's the people we meet

Here we are again, two weeks already since my last post. I'll confess I'm struggling a little. It's not that I have a block or anything like that; I just seem to be so busy that writing even a weekly blog seems quite a mission when there are so many other priorities. 

Anyway, since I wrote about my favourite holiday moorings, we've had a week on the slipway with the Vereeniging, a labour of love and a lot of very hard work that has pretty much swept all those holiday feelings and experiences out of my consciousness. It's inevitable, but still a pity. I need to do a blog about that too, but for now I'll try and immerse myself in the summer glories once again.

I don't know whether I mentioned it before, but we set off on 15 August after we'd received a visit from one of my longest ever blogging friends, the lovely Fran whose blog Bonnie of Clyde some of you may remember. We've kept in touch over the years on both Facebook and Twitter; we also met once back in 2016, so it was a huge delight to have her and her husband Pete arrive in Sas van Gent the morning before we departed. What a treat it was to see them. They live in a fabulous converted barge on the Essex coast, but this time they were travelling Europe in their camper with their gorgeous spaniel. We had the best of chats and I'm so glad we were able to meet up before we left the harbour. Thank you, Fran. That was so special and I hope to return the compliment before long.

Fran, Koos and me

Pete and Koos, two of a kind when it comes to
wry humour

Just two days later, we met up with another special pair of friends, Jo and Peter from Australia. We'd already seen them in Sas van Gent before Koos had his stent operation, but we all felt we hadn't finished catching up. Imagine our delight, then, when they told us they were coming our way. We were at Kerkhove on the Schelde for the night and given the prospect of bad weather the next day, we were only too happy to sit it out in such great company. Many chats and much yummy food prepared by Jo in their amazing boat's kitchen added to this most enjoyable interlude. Thank you too, Jo and Peter. We'll remember the times shared with so much pleasure.

Koos and Peter before our departure (a photo you
might remember)

Another of Peter's lovely photos of our Hennie H
as we were leaving the marina

And as if these great encounters weren't enough, we had another one a day later in one of our favourite places, Antoing, just south of Tournai. Another two long-standing boating friends, Jude and Roger, also from Essex, gave us even more warm, fuzzy feelings when they drove all the way from Diksmuide to visit us. Jude and I did what we nearly always do...talked books, while Roger and Koos provided the nonsense factor. It was the most beautiful evening and I will cherish the memory of their company as well. We felt very blessed to have been able to spend time with such great friends during this first week of our holiday. Sadly, I don't have a photo of Jude and Roger this time, but the images in my mind won't fade; that's guaranteed. A visit to Essex is definitely on the cards as a return match. I'd love to add Australia to that wishlist too, but I think that might be overdoing the optimism factor.

We always enjoy our meetings with local people on our travels, but this time we didn't stop that much because of our haste to reach the Sambre. It was therefore a real pleasure when we reached Tupigny on the Canal de la Sambre à l'Oise to find ourselves in company with so many very nice folk. When we arrived, we were greeted with open friendliness by a French barge owner, who was justifiably proud of his huge Dutch Luxe Motor. He took great pleasure in telling us about the history of his boat and its unique historic engine, an Industrie two-cylinder motor with 40 horses per cylinder. Everything about the barge was large, and the owner's character matched it well. He was effusive in his pride of the magnificent vessel.

A magnificent Dutch Luxe Motor, so wide it only
just fitted into the locks

 When these good souls departed, we were joined by another, much smaller river cruiser with an intriguing Californian flag on it stern. We were initially puzzled, because the owners were audibly French, but all was revealed when a friendly face with an American accent popped up on the deck of the Hennie H and invited us for drinks that evening. Janis and Michel (she being American and he French, but they speak French at home) hosted a small gathering on the quayside that evening. We were joined by a French couple, Martine and Jean-Luc from another Dutch barge and together we sat, chatted and sipped wine until the sun went down and the midges arrived (a powerful incentive to end the socialising). I couldn't follow everything that was said, but it was such a delight to sit on the bank of a French canal and listen to these charming people conversing in the language I love. Michel, a former architect, was full of amusing anecdotes and there was much laughter along with the rosé and snacks.

The following morning, Janis and I exchanged books after discovering we'd both written memoirs. Hers is a fascinating and wonderful story of their family's sailing adventures. Here's a link to it. I devoured it and can recommend it very highly. We met them again a few days later at the halte nautique in Le Gard on our return from Vadencourt. For me, the click with Janis was confirmed and it was so good to spend time with them there too. We shared a table at the local, excellent restaurant, Le Lever du Jour (in case anyone's interested) and had drinks on the Hennie H that evening.

Leaving Le Gard and the lovely Janis and Michel

A couple of other memorable meetings also took place at Le Gard, where we spent two nights enjoying the mooring and the facilities. The first of these was just after we arrived. The gangway to the moorings had come off the grooves on which its wheels ran up and down and was in danger of slipping off the pontoon altogether. Koos and I decided to try and lift it back onto the runners, but before we had a chance to make the first shove, a young man who'd been cycling past leapt off his bike and rushed down to help us. He, being young, fit and strong, made short work of heaving the heavy gangway back in place, then dusted himself off, grinned broadly, chatted briefly and went back to his bike. We were both charmed and astonished at his willingness to run to the aid of two total strangers, and, in all honesty, we couldn't imagine the same courtesy being extended to us back home. These northern French were living up to their reputation for kindness and amiability. Even the lock assistants were unfailingly kind and helpful.

The following day, during my wanderings around the village, I came across a shop that seemed to sell the kind of slightly bohemian dresses I like. Seeing the door open, I succumbed to my curiosity and went in. This impulse became one of the highlights of the trip for me. The proprietor of the shop was friendliness itself, and in my halting French, (for which she completed my sentences, filled in the gaps and then told me I spoke her language well – bless her) I managed to talk to her about all manner of things. When I then mentioned how kind the people we'd met had been, she told me it was 'la mentalité du Nord'. I agreed and mentioned the film Bienvenue Chez Les Ch'tis from which I'd learned that northerners were known for their friendly attitude. She almost screamed with excitement and told me it was a hundred percent true; that she'd seen the film four times and that each time she'd cried because it touched her so much. I left the shop with gifts I'd bought for my daughters and a huge smile. If we're ever in Le Gard again, I'll definitely pop in to say hello. I don't know her name, but she made my day and more than confirmed the truth of the region's reputation.

Well, I think that's quite enough for now allemaal. I'll try not to leave the gap between posts so long next time as I've got plenty more to write about our holiday and also the Vereeniging's hellingbeurt

Have a good weekend and keep warm or cool, whichever is appropriate! I'll leave you with a few more of my favourite Schelde river scenes.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Reflections on our journey: Part 1 My favourite moorings of the trip

 During the four weeks that we've been away, internet access has been very difficult, so I have only been dipping in sporadically. As for blogging, it's been virtually impossible. I only had my iPad and Blogger does not work well with iOS, so my only post was a somewhat jumbled collection of photos. Now I'm finding it difficult to know where and how to start telling the story of our magical month-long trip.

Maybe I shouldn't even try; perhaps I should just confine myself to anecdotes or reflections on aspects that struck me most particularly.

What can I say that I haven't already said in previous blogs and books?

Well, perhaps I should sum things up in four ways: what were my favourite places on each of the main waterways we travelled? What impressions struck me most forcibly? What meetings gave me the greatest pleasure? And what were the best things we had with us to help us travel more comfortably?

I'll probably do four separate posts to cover them all, so I'll start with my favourite places this time because although we've done much of this trip before, we stopped at different moorings and explored different towns as well. We also went further along the Canal de la Sambre à l'Oise than we have done previously, mainly so we could reach the aqueducts that closed the canal from 2006 until 2021, so without further ado, here are my personal favourite places on the Schelde/Scheldt, which we followed upstream as far as Antoing, south of Tournai. We also returned along the same stretch, so we had the opportunity to spend the night at different moorings:

On our outgoing travels, we stopped first at the Kloron marina in Kerkhove, which was really pleasant, despite the somewhat overcast weather. The harbourmaster was welcoming, there were full services (shower, leccy and water) and a good supermarket nearby. But it was also in a lovely setting, a sort of lagoon-shaped short arm off the river. Of course, it was enhanced still more by the fact we met some very special friends there, but more on that next time. The second two photos here were taken by our friend, Peter. It's always so nice to see our Hennie H on the water from another perspective.

Our mooring was right at the end of the arm

To leave, we had to reverse to the wider basin and turn

On our way out

Also on the outgoing trip, we stopped in Antoing, an old favourite where the mooring has no services at all but it's close to the town, which I like very much, and it has a great view of the main waterway with its constant flow of barges heading north and south. I should also mention we stopped in Antoing going home as well for all the above reasons, and also because it has a bunker station where we could top up with fuel.
A favourite mooring in Antoing

The handy bunker station at Antoing

On our return journey, we not only stopped at Antoing, but also in Tournai and Oudenaarde, both of which were great for different reasons. The mooring at Tournai is very new, very secure and very hi-tech. We loved the first two features (clean, safe etc.), but the hi-tech part was a challenge. Long story short, it took us an hour to pay for €1's worth of electricity, which had to be achieved by scanning a QR code, registering on a website with name, address, telephone number etc. and then paying by bank transfer. It became even more complicated when the QR code of the electricity point next to our boat didn't work involving a phone call to their help desk. Luckily, we both read French and Koos speaks it very well, but I can't imagine how people cope if their French isn't good. While part of the site was in English (if requested), much of the important information was still in French. Madness for €1. Tournai was beautiful, though, and we enjoyed our day there, and the mooring, very much.

As for Oudenaarde, we know the town well, but had never been into the marina before, always opting to tie up against the quayside. The marina was a delight: an attractive setting, a lovely harbour master and all the services too. 

Tournai: A delightful city

The spanking new and secure mooring

Photo showing the protective 'wall' in the river
to prevent too much disturbance

Oudenaarde marina. A lovely tree-lined setting

And again.

There's not much more to say about our overnight moorings until we reached the Sambre. We spent a night on a quay wall in Mons, which offered us the most beautiful sunsets (I'd have to pinch some of Koos's photos for those) and another night at Marchienne-au-Pont in the outskirts of Charleroi, which we like very much but is not particularly photogenic. The real treats came when we reached the French border, so in short order, my favourite places to stay were Erquellines marina, Tupigny on the Canal de la Sambre à l'Oise and Vadencourt (likewise)where we saw the brand new aqueducts I've been so excited about. 

Erquellines doesn't look much from the photos, but it was so peaceful, so serene and so open. We loved it. Added to these qualities, it had an immaculate shower block and, to Koos's delight, the train trundled past every half hour (or maybe more), but it was the peace that struck both of us the most. We'd happily have stayed there much longer.

Erquellines marina: peace incarnate

Permanent moorings for these old classics

Tupigny was something of a Mecca for us. We've been wanting to take our boat there for a good ten years and missed the opportunity in 2018 owing to some incorrect information we were given. We first went there on a road trip and were smitten by the beauty of the setting of the village, nestling as it does in a deep valley. We saw the canal had an 'arrêt d'ammarrage' (mooring stop) with bollards and decided this was where we wanted to be one day. We finally made it this year and were so pleased to be able to spend two days in our dream spot, exploring the village. We also met some lovely fellow travellers, but again, more of that later.

The empty lock keeper's house by the Tupigny lock. Oh what I
could do with one of these! There are so many.

The arrêt d'ammarrage we have dreamed of so long

Looking along the towpath from the lock. The Hennie H is
just visible in the distance

Vadencourt was just five kilometres, three locks and three moving (turning and lifting) bridges further on from Tupigny. As our second Mecca, our main delight in mooring up on the arrêt d'ammarrage there was that we could see the restored aqueduct, which is more than impressive. I can scarcely believe it was a collapsed and overgrown mess just three years ago in 2019, but it was opened in 2021, so within two years, they have rebuilt and restored the entire system of aqueducts, locks and bridges that had been closed for so long. The village had a small épicerie, where we could buy baguettes and wine, so even better. A real highlight, it was!

Our arrêt d'ammarrage just before the aqueduct

The river from the aqueduct

The aqueduct from the river

Of course, there were other lovely stops, but in some places we only stayed an hour or two. We also spent a night on the old Canal du Centre in Belgium at La Louvière, but I'll do an entire post about that because the historic lifts we went down deserve more attention.

Next time, I'll write about the people we met and other special encounters, but I hope I've broken the blogging drought suitably with this post. Tomorrow, we are off to the shipyard with my Vereeniging. Time for an inspection again, so wish her luck! I haven't seen her for nearly five weeks now, so it will be a happy reunion in any event.

Have a good weekend allemaal!

Friday, September 02, 2022

A picture post as an interim


Arriving on our beloved Sambre

About the only industry remaining on the river in Belgium

Leaving the big lift at Strèpy Thieu a few days before arriving on
The Sambre

Faring through Tournai on our fourth day from home 

Typical Wallonian scenery

Evening at one of our favourite moorings in Antoing
south of Trournai 

One of the biggest locks on the Canal Nimy-Blanton

On the Sambre

 Unfortunately, captioning all these photos seems to be too difficult on my iPad. I hope you enjoy them anyway and I’ll try and address the problem later. For now, we have had a wonderful two and a bit weeks, and are now heading northwards for home next weekend. My apologies for the lack of posts and disorganized order of the photos, but I’ll do my best to sort them out and add text soon.

Have a great weekend allemaal and I’ll fill you in as soon as signal and connection allows. Meanwhile, maybe you’d like to guess at some of the spots  pictured here :)