Boat-lifts and barges in Belgium…. .

L’Ascenseur furniculaire de Strépy-Thieu, before it was trumped by the Three Gorges Dam in 2016, was the largest boat-lift in the world. We thought it would be interesting to take a look. At just over 100 metres high and 135 metres long it is a monster.

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Strepy-Thieu boat-lift.

By the 1960’s the four existing hydraulic boat lifts, built in the late 1890’s and early 1900’s, were no longer sufficient to accommodate the larger barges that were by then plying the canal network. A program of modernisation was needed. Taking twenty years to build the lift was finally unveiled in 2002 and can accommodate barges of up to 1350 tonnes.

The Voies d’Eau du Hainaut website entices you with the words ‘climb up through the core, all the way up to the panoramic viewing point at the top where you can experience the “Land of Genius” interactive tour’. We were not to be enticed. After seeing a barge enter the lift at the bottom we frantically scrambled up the steep bank to see it exit at the top. It’s cheaper that way. Genius!

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Out comes the barge at the top.

Parked right on the edge of the canal at the free aire at Thieu we spent three days cycling and walking the canal.

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The aire on the canal at Thieu.

Designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site the four ‘old’ boat lifts were a much more photogenic affair than the new one.

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Boat-lift number 3.

Spaced out over seven kilometres each boat lift hauls its cargo up or down 15-16 metres. They are still in their original working condition.

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Boat-lift number 1 in the foreground and number to beyond.

Tim extolled on the quality of the rivets and the craftsmanship of the build. Not being an engineer myself I can’t really comment but it all looked pretty sturdy to me.

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Odd to see a flock of goats on a housing estate?!

Even though Belgium hasn’t been up there for spectacular landscape it has got some excellent traffic free cycle paths. 15km along the canal took us into Mons.

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Mons.

We didn’t go specifically to see Mons as we were after a bit of peace and quiet really but we had to find somewhere to print off a couple of documents to get posted back to the UK.

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The Bell Tower at Mons.

Job done the round trip took about three hours. It is nice to have the time to take three hours to print and post a letter though.

Twenty kilometres further up the canal we stopped to take a look at the Ronquières super lock completed in 1968. It’s not a lock as such more a kind of boat slide. Stretching 1.4km in length it is quite a sight. The boat motors into a type of lock which is then winched, on rails, up or down the 68m hill.

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Ronquieres super lock/lift/slide.

We arrived expecting to be able to walk along a tow path alongside it but were disappointed that it can only be seen from the bottom, halfway up or at the top. Also there wasn’t a boat to be seen so we didn’t see it in action.

We nipped back over the French border to stop for a few days at Givet as I thought we could cycle to Dinant along the river Meuse from there. We parked up at the ‘unofficial aire’ on the opposite side of the river from the town. The official aire, a ten minute walk away, was full of plant machinery for some refurbishment that was going on.  I don’t think anyone uses it though.

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Givet, France.

I asked at the tourist information whether they had a route map for a cycle to Dinant. Unfortunately, as Dinant is in Belgium it’s not their remit to provide guides for anything across the border but I could have a lovely spiral bound glossy guide to the Voie Verte going south along the river on the French side.  Oh, Ok.  So we went south down the Meuse towards Fumay instead.

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The view from Chooze village on the cycle path.  So picturesque but there is a nuclear power plant on the other side of the village!

Along the way we happened upon a rather large group of youngsters on an outing with just two adults in charge and nary a high viz vest in sight. They’d never get away with it in the UK 😉

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A gaggle of  over forty goslings 🙂

We’d never seen anything like it before counting at least forty two goslings being led by two adult geese. I later googled it and was surprised to learn that goose crèches are fairly common. An article in the Daily Mail does say though that forty is exceptional. It made my day seeing them 🙂

Not being able to find a suitable traffic free route along the Meuse to Dinant we drove instead.  Quite a lot of the route followed the edge of the Meuse and was very picturesque.  We were into the Ardenne region which is full of gently rolling hills, forests and quiet roads.  Quiet roads, that was, until we got to Dinant where every man and his dog seemed to be driving through.  Our guidebook describes Dinant as ‘picture-postcard’ which it kind of is except for all that noisy traffic.

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Dinant, birthplace of Adolph Sax, inventor of the saxophone.

We didn’t have the relaxing stroll we were hoping for and spent just an hour there.   Adolph Sax, inventor of the saxophone, was born in Dinant so with Tim being a sax player it was a chance to get the obligatory photo outside where the inventor was born.

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Outside the tiny Adolph Sax museum.

There is a free tiny museum to look around but it isn’t much to write about and the interactive commentary was drowned out by the constant traffic rumbling past outside.

We stopped overnight at the free aire behind the fire station at Arlon which is in the Province of Luxembourg but in Belgium and where many residents apparently speak Luxembourgish.  Mmm weird, but then Belgium has a curious mix of languages in different areas with predominantly Flemish (similar to Dutch) spoken in the northern region of Flanders, French spoken in the southern region of Wallonia and a teeny German speaking area in the eastern province of Liege.  Add in the Luxembourgish and all the different dialects and it all gets a little bit complicated!

We went out for a couple of Belgian beers and I ordered them in French.  So far so good.  On the second round I asked the lady ‘Qu-est ce-que vous recommendez?’  She started to reply in French and seeing my blank expression morphed into what sounded like German and then what appeared to be Dutch?  I just said ‘yes’ to what she had suggested to keep things simple.  What came out was not a beer at all but a kind of homemade wine or punch with a bit of orange floating on the top.  And foul it was too!  When I paid she said she thought we were Dutch which explained a lot!

Anyway, next up Luxembourg.

Au revoir.  Auf wiedersehen.  Vaarwel.  Ӓddi!

On the road again…. .

So, after just over three weeks back in the UK seeing family and friends and sorting out various bits and pieces that needed sorting like giving away all our possessions (!) we are back on the road for Season 2 of our tour.   I just want to say a big thank you to all our family and friends for taking the time to meet up with us.  It was lovely to see everyone on our whirlwind of a tour and we’ll look forward to doing it all again next year!

So what’s the plan this year?  This year is going to be a bit different as we are going into new territory now!  Queue drum roll.  Not being ones to make any rash decisions we were pretty cautious when we first set sail for France in May 2016.  For our first extended foray into Europe we just planned to tour through France, Spain and Portugal to get a feel for long term travel in countries well set up for motorhomers.  Even though neither of us had visited Spain before (in our adult lives) we’d already been to France several times (in the van) and Portugal a few times (flying) so we felt we were squarely in our comfort zone.

We’ve had a loose plan for this year in our heads for some time but I have been somewhat lacking on the planning front of pin pointing exactly where we’ll go.  I say me because that’s my job as part of Team Ollie.  I do the planning, Tim does the driving.  We travelled down to Dover from Yorkshire ten days ago to catch an overnight ferry to Dunkirk.  After a quick flit to Aldi to stock up on this year’s tea bag supply I thought it would be a good idea to maybe have a look at the guidebooks and maps to start planning our route for this year.  A bit late maybe but…..what can I say?…….I’ve been busy with other things!  The beauty of travelling in a motorhome though is that, well, you don’t really need a plan as such.

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Tea bag stash 2017!

Driving off the ferry at Dunkirk we could choose to go left, right, or straight on, whatever, it doesn’t really matter.  However, the very loooooose plan is to travel through Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Slovenia and Croatia to eventually end up in Greece for the winter with a few stops for some volunteering via Helpx along the way if it fits in.  That’s as detailed a plan as I have got at the moment though!

I’d been perusing the guide books looking for an interesting route down to at least Germany as a start but was feeling pretty overwhelmed with information overload.  It seems to be taking my little brain forever just to get my head around the lie of the land so to speak.  I did, at one point, throw up my hands and bleat to Tim that maybe he could plan a route for a change.  After pointing out to me, in addition to all the driving, the 101 different van related tasks he undertakes as his part of Team Ollie, including the dreaded toilet emptying, I thought it prudent to wind my neck in and go back to the guide books!

Our first stop, then, was just across the Belgian border at Ypres.  There’s a very good aire a fifteen minute walk from the town centre which costs a very reasonable €8 per night inclusive of electricity.  Before we went rushing off into town, though, it was time to break out a shiny new sticker for our map of Europe on the side of the van.  It’s been a long time coming as the map hasn’t been added to since we crossed the border into Portugal back in September last year.  Yay, Belgium, new country.  We are sooo easily pleased!

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Belgium goes on the map.

On first sighting the town centre of Ypres (or Ieper as it is also known) you’d be fooled into thinking that all the buildings date back hundreds of years.  Not so.  The centre of the town, which served as the Allied communications centre, and within range of German artillery, was completely razed to the ground by shelling in the First World War.  The citizens had to be evacuated in 1915 but returned after the war determined to reconstruct their town.  The reconstruction, which took twenty years, is remarkable.  It really is hard to believe that the Lakenhalle (old cloth hall) and the Cathedral are less than 100 years old.

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The Lakenhalle (cloth hall) at Ypres.
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Tucking in to a tasting tray.  Well we are in Belgium after all!

You can’t come to this area of Belgium and not be moved by the reminders of the Great War.  World War I cemeteries, monuments and memorials pepper the towns and surrounding countryside.  The Menin Gate war memorial has engraved upon it the names of fifty thousand British and Commonwealth troops who died in the Ypres Salient but who have no grave.

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The Menin Gate War memorial.

The Last Post is sounded every evening at 8pm under the memorial.  We joined another 2000 or so people that evening to pay our respects.

Consulting our Camper Connect App we found Lesaffre Escargot, a France Passion site, just back over the border in France, where we would be able to take the bus into Lille.  Even though we’re not members of France Passion the site accepts non members at €5 per night and €3 for electricity.  We got a warm welcome from the owner and it was a chance to use that rusty French that I have let slip over recent months.  Oh dear!  I have forgotten so much of it that I am making a conscious effort again to relearn what has drained away.  Goldfish must be a part of my DNA I think.

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Lesaffre Escargot France Passion site.

The little campsite is really nicely laid out, set in quiet countryside and is a 15 minute walk to the bus stop so a perfect base for a few days.  The owners raise their snails in poly tunnels and sell various snail related produce in their little farm shop.  We had a peek into a couple of the poly tunnels to see the snail nursery with the inmates, looking exactly like the snails you’d find in your garden at home, fattening themselves up over a period of 5-6 months for their eventual fate.  Snails being ugly and slimy aren’t really our thing so we weren’t tempted into buying any of the produce.  Our dogs, who were real scavengers and would eat anything, even drew the line at snails and wouldn’t touch them!

Lille was easily reached by the bus which took about 45 minutes and only set us back €3.60 return each.   So much easier and less stressful that driving.  Lille, unfortunately, didn’t really capture our hearts though.

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Lille.

Oh it was nice enough in the old town but lacked something I couldn’t quite put my finger on and sitting here now, writing this, I still can’t!  It just didn’t have the wow factor that we’d seen in Seville, Granada and Valencia I suppose.  Lots of the old town is made up of chic boutiques and as we don’t do either chic or boutique it didn’t really do it for us.

We ended up wandering around aimlessly not really having any direction so called it a day after a couple of hours and returned to the campsite to make the most of the afternoon sunshine.

To counter our disappointment of Lille we had a day of biking to get out into the fresh air. We picked up a cycleway in the pretty town of Comines which follows the canal towards Lille. We whiled away some time watching the huge barges trundling past.

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Barges in Belgium are just slightly bigger than our Narrow boats!

Went past a bijou little campsite.

 

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Glamping site next to the canal.

And were chased off by these geese!

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These geese wanted us off their patch!

Right, I’m going to quit now whilst I’m ahead as we’ve had little or no free wifi since we left England and it has taken an age getting these photos uploaded and my battery is almost flat!  Such is the life of a vagabond!

A bientôt!