Legends from our own lunchtimes

Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Last Poppy.
Monday 17th September - Ypres

Ypres or Ieper. like so many places around this neck of the flood plain can be spelled and pronounced in so many combinations that it seems to be impossible to get it wrong.  It’s the epicentre of a lot of awful history, the reminders of which are so omnipresent that one wonders how the people who live in the surrounding areas, deal with it.

One of the ways is in providing services to those who come almost as pilgrims to visit all those names on walls and tombstones.  This is inarguably a tourist town, albeit a war tourist town which has earned its stripes in that theatre, but in exploiting its history there is a fine line that needs to be trod if the lesson taught by that very history is to be preserved as the generations with direct connections to those names begin to fade away.

“Tommy’s Souvenirs”, “The British Grenadier Bookshop” and “The Captain Cook Restaurant” no doubt have instant appeal to parochial tourists, and the numerous specialised companies competing for battlefield and cemetery tour business serve the centenary visitor throngs admirably, but really couldn’t the world live without Poppy shaped lollipops?

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Last Post.
Sunday 16th September - Ypres

We’d hard-earned our twenty-four kilometres of progress today, with a bridge and two locks to negotiate and one of them broken,  so were in no state to race off exploring the city in the afternoon, (which is code for: we will be here for a few days so a nice nap may well be in order).  Having fully recovered by the early evening we set off for a minor reconnoitre of the village. 

The Last Post has been played at the Menin Gate in Ypres every evening for the past ninety years as an act of remembrance and gratitude for the price paid by the British and Commonwealth soldiers  whose lives were lost in “The Great War” while serving in this region and whose bodies were never found.

It’s a bit difficult while that’s going on, beneath the names of just some of the 600,000 who were killed on the nearby battlefields, not to think about stuff, to be more than a little grateful ourselves that by some cosmic quirk we were born in the place and time that we were.  It was on that happy note, with a few thousand others clearly also pondering, we quietly filtered off into the night.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Just One More Night.
Saturday 15th September - Diksmuide

We were going to move on this morning, but Jakob whom we expect will be Mr Perkins new medical specialist was delayed a bit.  Since Mr Perkins' health comes before all else, well one more night in town wouldn’t hurt.

We even had a fleeting thought about going out, which as so often happens was followed by an even more fleeting discussion about how so often when we do, we leave with the feeling that we could have had better at home.  Besides one of us was in the mood to cook up a bit of a storm apparently.

Not being the type to fight battles that cannot be won, the other immersed himself in conversations with Jakob about oils and filters and tappets while said storm was brewing in the galley.  It turns out that for reasons inexplicable, despite being able to achieve all sorts of wonders over a stove with one hand tied behind her back and both eyes closed, the culmination of all this effort turned out to be something of a fizzer.  In fact we looked at one another mid meal and agreed that perhaps, just this once, we may well have done better had we gone out.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Friday 14th September - Diksmuide

We’ve seen the happy sculptures in the Market Square, we’ve spent hours descending the Ijzer Tower museum and while we are definitely pacing ourselves, the day felt just about right for a picnic at the “Trench of Death”; a restored or perhaps enhanced rather than preserved section of World War One battlefield which Tourism Diksmuide describes as “a touching tourist highlight since 1919”.

The trenches may have been sanitised to enable us to visit without wading calf deep in bloody mud, and filthy clay sods and sandbags have been replaced by concrete filled bags, the sloppy black killing fields beyond are now happy green pasturelands, but the photographs exhibited in the very spots where they were taken pull no punches.  To try to understand the scale of what once was is an exercise as futile as war itself.

We’ve often thought that this sort of “education” is wasted on those of our age, that every school child should be compelled to visit places like this, yet today as we watched a class of teenagers romp through as teenagers are wont to do, we wondered if the highlight of their day wasn’t their excursion on pedal go-karts.  Elsewhere, an explanation being given to a group of six year olds did touch us, but in a way that in polite society would normally require consent.  

Neither touching, nor a highlight we thought, but a visit to the "Trench of Death" is time not wasted none the less.


The “New” Tower.
Thursday 13th September - Diksmuide

After more than a week of staring at the thing, we finally popped across the bridge to scale the dizzy heights of the Yser Tower.  Not that scaling it took a great deal of effort once we’d pressed the “close door” button on the lift, but there were still four flights of stairs to negotiate to get to roof deck which made it seem like a small victory.

The monuments have struggled at times to close the gap between Peace and Flemish Nationalism, but the fact that “Peace” gate was built from the rubble of the first tower which was destroyed by Anti-Nationalists, and that much of the main tower is constructed from the war-remnants of buildings from many of the villages and cities of Belgium makes the intent quite clear.

Here we are.  On the roof of a twenty-two storey building filled with artefacts and exhibitions which tell a story of horror so great that it will remain beyond our comprehension.  We can see the whole of the town, the fields that now hide so much of a truly grizzly history, and even the edge of the earth. 

Yet all we can do is gasp and say: “Look!  There’s our boat!”

The Man in the Moon.
Wednesday 12th September - Diksmuide

The Market Square in Diksmuide is famous, according to the internet for its two prominent sculpture pieces.  There is the solemn if just a little tilted, effigy of Général Jacques described yesterday, who seems to have his back turned in silent protest against the flippant goings-on in the near corner, and there’s the flippancy itself.

In the past week we’ve learned quite a lot about the cheery little “Manneke uit de Mane”.  The gilded statue that stands out somewhat discordantly, like a beacon to happiness. That same internet would have it that one time Prime Minister Leo Tindemans was its sculptor.  That does seem unlikely, but he was definitely “beaten” into a knighthood of the “Order of the Man in the Moon”, a not entirely secret society which among other things bestows this honour from time to time on prominent citizens of West Flanders.

This all apparently originated from the publication of a Flemish Folk Almanac filled with jokes, weather forecasts and old Flemish sayings, wisdoms and customs which is still printed occasionally.  Perhaps the Général is just miffed that he didn’t know the secret handshake.

Tuesday 11th September - Diksmuide

Jules Marie Alphonse Jacques, 1st Baron Jacques de Dixmude, (Général Jacques to his mates) was an all round good bloke it would seem.  Having lent a bit of a hand in darkest Africa cleaning up the nasty slave trade whilst still a mere Captain, he went on to become such a heroic commander of troops that immediately after the First World War he was elevated to the Nobility.

He is remembered fondly in a bronze effigy which when viewed from most angles portrays him as a picture of strength and leadership. It stands tall right there, not quite in the centre of the market square of the town he is credited with defending so valiantly.  He’s curiously positioned though, neither addressing nor defending the public buildings in the more traditional siting of such monuments.

Instead, he’s peering down Railway Street, and when viewed from the rear he has a curious tilt. Is he we wonder, ever vigilant, watching westward on the town’s behalf to be sure the nasty blighters aren’t sneaking back while everyone’s in bed, or simply waiting to surprise a grandchild hiding in a doorway?

Monday is Market Day.
Monday 10th September - Diksmuide

“Market Day” is not necessarily high on our list of things to visit, but since this was our first for here, we braced ourselves and we took the plunge.  The "Big Marketplace" did contain more people present than we’d ever seen before in one place in Diksmuide, but if we had added up the numbers the total would certainly not have qualified as a “crowd”, perhaps more a “small gathering”.  As has been our usual experience in markets of this ilk, a smattering of quality food product stood out among an otherwise forgettable collection of trinkets and the sort of clothing a person would not be seen in even after his time on earth had expired.  Strangely perhaps despite the fresh produce on offer, the greatest gathering of folk seemed to be around the various take away food vans.

Still not quite up to speed with the way the town works, we asked the nice man in an electronics shop why he was closed on Tuesdays.  

“Because Monday is market day” he replied ever so helpfully, as though that explained everything.  There were vague warning bells ringing in our heads though; Is it possible, we wondered, that indulging in market hot dog cheeriness is the kind of activity that needs a prolonged recovery time?


Friday, September 14, 2018

Living a Dream.
Sunday 9th September - Lelystad to Diksmuide via Antwerp.

It was not difficult as we ambled around the waterfront in the warmth of the evening in Antwerp after a delightful meal, and a delightful weekend for that matter, to find ourselves entirely content and perhaps more grateful than usual with our particular lot. There is no doubt that we are living in some sort of dream.

Oh it’s true that our eyes were still stinging a bit, perhaps from a day spent outdoors in the breeze, or perhaps from reading the price tags on the boats and accessories on display.   We had also been a little disconcerted to discover that after a decade of not too diligent searching, while the boat of our dreams did exist, the cost of realising that particular dream would require several extra lifetimes of saving.  

Apart from experiencing the temporary emotional fizz of unwrapping a new toy, it’s hard to imagine how forsaking our perfectly comfortable if heavily patinated floating home for something bright and shiny could bring greater happiness.   It would admittedly bring more warmth, arguably more reliability, seaworthiness and certainly less damp, but how could we be happier?  

Besides, what would be left to dream about?

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Saturday 7th September - Lelystad

The evolution of the English language is a terrifying albeit wondrous thing.  It’s terrifying when change occurs through laziness, when grammar and spelling evolve needlessly in a way that detracts from the joy of expression in that language, yet wondrous when words evolve through that same misuse, to succinctly define the previously less well defined.

One example that comes to mind, is the preposterous use of “tragic” as a noun,.  This it appears is a peculiarly Australian habit, which from at least a colonialist’s perspective is entirely more acceptable than allowing Americanisms to sneak up on us.   The  Macmillan Dictionary describes it thus:

TRAGIC - NOUN [COUNTABLE] AUSTRALIAN INFORMAL HUMOROUS - Someone whose interest in a particular sport or activity is so strong that other people find it strange or silly.

“Boat Tragics” - When four people who live on boats fold themselves into a Mini for four hours so they can stay overnight on a houseboat in a harbour in another country, in order to get an early start to visit an on-water boat show the next day.  

Better get a picture of this Ria, “ How did you fit the drone in?”

Around Here, the Earth IS Flat.
Friday 6th September - Diksmuide

We have lived on the waterways of Europe for a decade of summers, yet we still find it vaguely amusing if not confusing to find substantial pleasure boat ports in the hearts of towns which themselves seem to be in the middle of nowhere.   Generally these ports are considered by the residents of the towns to be eccentric curiosities, rather than “attractions” as may be the case in other places.

This is understandable since the waterways in much of Europe were created as industrial corridors and were traditionally less than desirable places to actually live.  It came almost as a shock to find that here waterfront property seems to command more of the premium with which we are familiar.

The docks of Diksmuide were once lined with buildings of a somewhat more utilitarian nature; tall silos in brick which had long since served their purpose.  Modern constructions were constructed more or less of the same scale and height as the buildings that they replaced, coincidentally on what appears to be the highest land as far as the eye can see.  While from our perspective it would appear that they are built overlooking the water, the fact of the matter is that that is exactly what they do; they overlook it.  We are reliably informed that even from the first level the edge of world is clearly visible across the plains, which surely must give the occupants some comfort when ugly arguments arise regarding the form of our little planet. 

Monday, September 10, 2018

In the Shadow.
Thursday 5th September - Diksmuide

It’s a lot easier to push the events of the past into some recess of the mind, to be brought out only on a particular day of remembrance when one is happily detached on the other side of the world, but we are not, we are once again in what was at one time “the thick of it”.

It may not be apparent in this photograph, but the the Peace Gate, the ruins of the first Yser Tower, and the current tower which houses a twenty-two storey high museum, are positioned in a way such that the Gate frames the inscription on the ruin, and the tower provides a perfectly aligned backdrop to both. We are moored exactly on this axis and no more than fifty metres away, so it is impossible to escape the shadow of the past.  Had we wanted to do that, perhaps we should have avoided Flanders altogether, particularly just two months before the centenary of the end of “The Great War”.

There will be more to say no doubt, as our journey continues, but for now the inscription that we read each time we look out of our window is enough to ponder; (loosely translated) “ Here they lie like seeds in the sand hoping for a harvest in Flanders.”

Thursday, September 06, 2018

Wednesday 4th September - Nieuwport to Diksmuide

The summer holiday finished last week, and it seems that the sun itself is now having a bit of a break, perhaps exhausted from its big effort, and is now sleeping late and generally not bothering to do much at all.  Technically it has a few more weeks of work to do before summer is officially over so perhaps its just catching forty winks before resuming its normal state of affairs for a bit.

That’s exactly what we are doing.  In a sense we have completed our journey, having arrived gently in Diksmuide without fuss or fanfare, on a day that was neither hot nor cold, not fine, but not raining, perfect for snuggling in to the place as we begin to make it our new wintering nest.

Now that we’re here, we’re not setting out madly to explore the district we’ve decided.  We’re going to absorb it.  When the time comes to leave a month from now we’ll be wearing it like an old sweater, which may turn out to be quite a comfort if the sun doesn’t get its act together shortly.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Everything Works In Belgium.
Tuesday 4th September - Oudenburg to Nieuwport (the long way)

We are constantly being told that we’ll really like Belgium, that it’s not at all like France because EVERYTHING WORKS.  If we thought three hours yesterday waiting to go through bridges that did work was a long time, then imagine our wonder today when we arrived at the first bridge to find it didn’t,  nor did the second for that matter.

The nice man at the control centre confirmed that he would open the first at our appointed time and that he would let us through all the bridges on our route today.   Twenty minutes later when I called again, another nice man said that he was sure that the nice man who presses the bridge buttons would do it as soon as he “returned”.

Forty-five minutes after the appointed time, not wishing to appear anxious, I again enquired, to be told in a very friendly tone that there was a problem with a lock (several kilometres away) and if I thought this was bad, I should have been here the day before yesterday.

Eventually we were allowed to pass, and after a further fifteen minutes, arrived at the second bridge to find it out of order.  The nice man on the telephone told me that a man in yellow van would be there very soon.  We weren't sure exactly what the man in the yellow van was supposed to do, and as far as we can tell, neither was he, so after arriving very promptly indeed it appears that he immediately took long service leave.   

We cannot be sure if we will ever move again, but it does take our mind off the weather.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Oudenburg Looks Nice - Probably.
Monday 3rd September - Bruges to Oudenburg

The photograph was taken somewhere in Bruges last evening, but perhaps it looks enough like downtown Oudenburg to use in the brochure.  We can’t be sure, because we didn’t actually leave the boat to find out.  When we arrived the weather was that sort of windy mizzle that if we’d been paying attention when Dave and Ria took us for that walk along the beach all those years ago, we would have understood meant “Welcome to Belgium”, and the snug little cabin of our “Joyeux” seemed to be a far brighter alternative.

In any case we were a little fatigued from all the thumb twiddling we’d been doing during the day, while waiting for the lifting bridge operators to have morning tea, or lunch, or to return from their cousin’s wedding on another continent, or any other reasons which may have detained them, and therefore us on our passage.

There was no need to go ashore as it happens, as an elderly chap on a bike arrived to take our orders for fresh produce.  He had potatoes he said he’d picked yesterday and eggs he’d laid today and jam that he’d make on the way home, and onions the he’d plant as soon as he got there.  He wasn’t to know that one of us is a sucker for old chaps on bikes, so he left with an order for enough produce to fill a small supermarket and enough money to buy one, and the world remained in happy equilibrium.


Well that’s that then.
Sunday 2nd September - Bruges

Life in a tourist town is different to that in a less salubrious location.  Even after almost a decade of travel in the manner that we do, we still occasionally need to suppress feelings of that particular kind of urgency that tourists have, to see everything all at once.

We have to reassure ourselves that we are living here, that we can take our time, that if we don’t see something today we may tomorrow, and if we don’t tomorrow our world quite possibly will not end as a result. 

Having suppressed the urge to get out and about, we settled in to occupy ourselves with the sorts of projects and Sunday tasks that no doubt most of the city’s actual residents were engaged in.  We were happy too and content, right up until the time we noticed the rosy glow downtown caused no doubt by the tourists slowly fading into the evening, and could no longer resist the urge for just one more twilight walk through its by then near-deserted streets.

Sunday, September 02, 2018

Imagining a world without boats.
Saturday 1st September - Bruges

We’ve long held the view that if mankind had been meant to go swimming, it wouldn’t have been given boats.

It is reassuring to see that people who are perhaps not quite as well off, are still able to navigate quite happily around the waterways of one of the most beautiful cities in the world with minimum financial outlay. This morning we happened upon members of the Canal Swimming Association of all things, whacking out a couple of k’s in the cities canals in the name of recreation.    

That they can do this and survive is a testament to the cleanliness of the waterways on which we live. Our own pre-digested contributions to it thankfully amount to a tiny drop in a very large waterway, but we are still more than a little squeamish at the thought of joining them should the boat for some extraordinary reason forget how to float.  

“Are they really swimming in this?” we wonder, “Or just going through the motions?” 

Complimentary Colours.
Friday 31st August - Bruges

There’s an orange thing floating on the canal just the other side of the bridge from where we currently live, it’s an installation called simply “Pavilion”.  It’s clad in translucent orange plastic, but the light that shines through it is actually quite red in an orangey pinkish kind of way. Within its space our feeble little brains have no trouble discerning that it’s very much from the red end of the spectrum, but in trying to balance what they are seeing, they can’t quite come to terms with  looking out of it the world beyond, which takes on a disconcertingly green hue from exactly the opposite side of that same spectrum.

The lounge setup in the car rental place on the other hand, was green.   So when we stood in the queue more than thirty minutes before the appointed time of return, and the nice young man apologised that he would be quite a while with the customers before us and if we would like to just leave the keys all would be well, we were happy to wait, telling him that we would prefer to make sure that there were no problems with the account before leaving.  

He returned after forty minutes, apologised once more, checked the car in, then told us that technically we were ten minutes overdue, but he would over-ride that in the computer.  It must have been our brains adjusting to all that time we had spent in the green space, because for a second or two, we almost saw red.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Life in a Postcard.
Thursday 30th August - Honfleur to Bruges

We weren’t in such a hurry to get home to Bruges that we couldn’t linger just a little over a simple breakfast by the yacht port in Honfleur, and while lunch, like our breakfast may not have been the most gastronomic of affairs, it was indeed made all the more palatable by the view over the Bay of Somme.  Our life in a postcard.

We almost gasped as we rolled over the hills outside Calais and caught for the first time, that view of Dover.  We have always known it was there of course, but have never seen it and suddenly the lack of distance between that Brexit mob and the rest of the EU became astonishingly clear.  At that precise moment we were much closer to England than we were to any other country.  

A little later we did actually gasp as the informal refugee camps rolled past at one hundred and thirty kilometres per hour.  Hundreds of people living in the open without water, food or money, many without shelter. Surviving on air and a prayer it would seem.  If they are as some would have it, just looking for an easier life, and this is it, then it’s a bit hard to imagine what the one they are running from was like.  We have no solution but it is quite clear that there is nothing right about any of this.  Our postcard world is quite different from the one in which they subsist.  

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Circle Work.
Wednesday 29th August - Saint-Pierre-sur-Dives to Honfleur

“D” Day had arrived.  That’s “D” for “Details.  Amazingly we’d managed to get some sort of consensus on the concept overnight, although it’s hard not to be a little suspicious that at least in some parts excitement was winning over rational deduction.

By lunch time we had the kitchen mocked up, the bathrooms done, the heating nutted out and the landscaping sorted in concept.  While one of us was thus occupied, the other was photographing every nook and junction within the old structure lest questions arise in the coming weeks regarding details that memory might fail to recall.  

Then came a frantic rush to sketch it all before all too suddenly we all had to leave, they to Paris and we a little further north. One moment we were at a table drawing the last wiggly line and making frantic notes in the hope that a draftsman we had never met would understand it all, the next with brain madly spinning we were heading to the sanity of Honfleur.   It might have been the intensity of the two days which in our confusion we had taken to calling “the weekend” that caused the dizziness, or it may just have been the new garden plan, but for now, it is done.

A fellow has to eat.
Tuesday 28th August - Beaumont

We are making astonishing progress with the design thing, although our hosts may well have lost a little sleep last night after realising that all of their work of the last several months had been reduced to a blank sheet of paper.

It’s been more than ten years since the last time I’ve carried such an emotional investment in a project, and it wasn’t without a little trepidation that the hazy outline of a new concept began to take shape over the course of the morning.  It all got a bit intense really, the excitement from both sides, as bubble diagrams and arrows, and solar trajectories morphed into use graphs and traffic paths, and boxes which became the outlines of where, at some future time spaces might be.   

It was all moving a little too fast really, rolling at such a pace that there was a risk of acceptance without question, and that will never do.  It was time to step back a little and perhaps to have lunch, so we drove into Beaumont taking time to breath the clear blue Normandy air.  There is after all, no point in one being in France if one can’t have the afternoon off sitting in a cafe with friends, even if somewhere in the distance the sound of a deadline approaching is building at a rate approaching disconcerting.

Space Jump.
Monday 27th August - Bruges to a Little Village in Normandy

After six merciless summers spent relentlessly renovating our house in Australia, we could have been forgiven for thinking that we’d had enough of that game to last for the rest of our lifetimes.

When the invitation came however, the opportunity of getting involved in the design process of another renovation proved to be too much of a temptation. Five hundred kilometres is not that far  to visit the site really, and so what if the sun comes from another direction in the northern hemisphere, there’s an App for that.  If we picked up a hire car at morning tea time, we could be there in time for dinner.

“Close your eyes, hold your breath, and always trust your cape.”

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Wastin’ away in Marieke-ville.
Sunday 26th August - Bruges

Bruges is a tourist town. The heart of the place seems to be bursting with groups of people listening earnestly to guides speaking in twelve languages while offering snippets of hitherto unheard historic secrets, and boats buzzing below every bridge with happy customers just as earnestly being oblivious to the history that they are passing.   

On the face of it escape seems impossible, but one only has to turn off any of the streets on the tourist path to find oneself in a delightfully quiet, ancient city, or if one chooses, perhaps one bubbling with activity of a different kind.   Today, right beside our mooring the twentieth annual “Marieke Fest”  brought us twelve hours of food, music and rollicking good times. 

Were I the skipper of a tourist boat passing by, I could have told my passengers that there are two hundred and eleven community festivals held annually in Bruges, and how not quite unconnectedly, Jacques Brel famously sang of his love for a local girl, Marieke, who lived “between the towers of Bruges and Ghent”.  In 1988, ten years after his death, a statue of her was erected just over there in the park, (under the mustard trees) celebrating the song,  I could have told them lots of stuff, but these are secrets not for tourists, they are for locals.  People just like us.

Besides,  tourist boats don't come this way.

Monday, August 27, 2018

A Whale of a Time.
Saturday 25th August - Bruges

It’s “Triennial” time in Bruges, a time when an exhibition of contemporary art and architecture is set out on a path through the town’s historical centre.   

As is so often the case when the words “contemporary” and “art” are mixed in the same sentence there are some pieces which need no explanation, the thought behind them leaping into one’s consciousness like a broaching whale constructed entirely from plastic objects retrieved from the world’s oceans.

Others are perhaps a tiny bit esoteric for we in the unwashed throngs, requiring actual reading of very big words that fail to convince us that perhaps this thing is more than just another really cool structure in a temporary exhibition for which someone was paid a significant sum of money.  Why does it all have to have meaning anyway?   Let’s toast unbridled, unattached enjoyment without the need for further thought.

Here’s to the bloke who invented whale watch tours in a canal in the middle of a city!

In Bruges (Brugge).
Friday 24th August - Beernem to Bruges (Brugge).

Quite possibly the easiest way to travel on the water apart from lounging on a cruise ship, is to follow  someone who has been down the route innumerable times before and can speak to oncoming ships and bridges in their own native tongue.  

Instead of spending the morning poring over charts, then plotting our course as we went to keep tabs on progress towards the next obstacle, we simply followed “the Max”. Before we could say “Liquid City”, which is no doubt a clever marketing person’s way of trying to break free from the inevitable “Venice of Belgium” tag, we were tied up in the centre of Bruges.

Before we could say “this seems nice”, Dave and Ria had us off the boats and into the local area just to assure us, not that we needed assurance,  that indeed it is.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

A change of pace.
Thursday 23rd August - Gent to Beernem

With close to sixty kilometres or maybe ninety of waterway to traverse until we reach Diksmuide, and barely six weeks left in which to do it, the need to get a wriggle on hung as heavily on our shoulders just as the jumpers did that we had to don against the sudden change of weather.

We’ve come in a big loop and now we are at the very apex of our trajectory, and like any apex it’s all downhill from here.   It’s downhill to the ocean, but not very downhill as more than thirty kilometres to Beernam without a lock attests.   There weren’t any lifting bridges either despite the one shown in the photo but the explanation of that is for a later time, perhaps tomorrow.

In Beernum by mid-day all we need do now is await the crew of “the Max”, so that we can continue our adventure once again in company.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Coming to a theatre near you.
Wednesday 22nd August - Gent

Once, when we were driving in the French countryside with Jacques and Maggie, one of us enquired as to the kind of crop growing in the fields speeding by.

“Mustard”, came Jacques reply, “Mustard of Dijon”  of the vast fields of red-leafed vegetable.    It transpired that during his years as a tourist skipper, that was his standard reply to any vegetation related question.  “Tourists don’t want to know” he explained, “They just want an answer.”

Therefore when the pilot of a tourist boat told us that the buildings facing what was once the principal port in Gent have sloping facades to facilitate loading into the upper floors, (and perhaps to save a bit on “land tax”), we maintained a cautious skepticism, although it was nice to know that it wasn’t just the diffraction of our camera lens.  Discovery of the truth regarding that, and the answers to so many more questions, will have to wait until our next, and perhaps even subsequent visits, for tomorrow we will move on, our experience of this city akin to watching a movie trailer for a blockbuster that we must not miss.


Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Now in Living Technicolour!
Tuesday 21st August - Gent

To continue a discussion I’ve been having about spelling, I suspect that the heading should actually be spelled “Technicolor®”, but that aside no one could argue that Gent wasn’t a spectacularly colourful place today.  

Whether it was the panorama over the entire city that we enjoyed from the top of the Belfry, or from the tourist boats in which we passed beneath the lowest of the city’s bridges, the brilliant sunshine gave a depth to the textures of this ancient place, adding to it’s already adequate sufficiency of vibrancy.  

The decision to become tourists on this day had been a particularly good one, although in weather like this it’s impossible to feel the gloomier side of a city’s history, not that we made any attempt to do so.  All those centuries of death and despair and battles for power that every city of Gent’s age has witnessed just seem to have been swept under that bright blue carpet, tucked firmly out of sight and out of mind.  We’ll leave those explorations for another day when the chill and greys that must eventually come will no doubt bring a more subdued pace, but today we were quite happy just to be taking snapshots of the pretty fizzy bits.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The Lie of the Land.
Monday 20th August - Gent

We haven’t met anyone who has been to Gent who hasn’t declared it to be their favourite city, or at least very close to it, and the first impression left us in no doubt that it is well on its way to becoming one of ours.  That impression was admittedly influenced by the weather and the atmosphere of the crowd intent on getting on with their enjoyment of a perfect Sunday afternoon.  

Today with skies slightly tinged with grey and the city back at work, we thought we’d eschew the tourist paths, perhaps to discover some different angles. We are no less enamoured with the place, but we are not quire ready to join the tourists, content to watch them from afar, while we quietly absorb “our” new city and get to know the lie of the land a bit.   

Perhaps tomorrow we will be as one with them, standing in lines to see the sights, traveling on the tour boats listening to the commentary in five languages, joining that frenetic rush to soak up two thousand years of history in a one-hour guided tour.  When that’s done, we will be content to see whatever we’ve missed at our own pace, however many return visits that may take.

Monday, August 20, 2018

I think it’s the “H”.
Sunday 19th August - Sint-Martens-Latem to Gent

I blame the education system.  When we were in year six, our School Reader foisted upon us a poem by Robert Browning; “How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix”, an horrific tale which along with the rest of the contents of those Readers seems to have irrevocably harmed the eleven year old minds of entire generations, but how we could spell.  

It wasn’t the foaming nostrils and bloodied eyes in the poem that fascinated me though, it was the “h” in the English spelling of "Ghent" in the title that seemed at the time to be some sort of Romantic affectation.  I have no idea why that single letter instilled in me a desire to one day find the place and see it for myself nor why it took more than half a century to actually do so. 

Yet here we are, on a sunny frenetic Sunday afternoon loving being in a town which seems to be galloping along at the same pace as the poem.  Perhaps it senses the last gasp of summer is upon it and it is trying to wring it to the end.  Perhaps the next few days will present us with a clue.

It’s all about the view.
Saturday 18th August - Dienze to Sint-Martens-Latem

We followed Max in what seemed to be our own special little patch of sunshine down the river Leie, the two boats romping after one another like a pair of puppies on a spring morning.   

As soon as we were through the village and the industry that supports it the river narrowed and began to twist in a manner that may well have been alarming had there been any risk of meeting commercial craft on its bends, but they have long gone, replaced by scores of tiny runabouts escaping from the city for a day of sightseeing, burbling around us like a cloud of gnats. 

If the farmland and forests on one side of the river were not enough, the houses that lined the other were sublime.  This is not the sort of district where average home loans prevail.  Robot lawn mowers endlessly tend manicured lawns, picking their way round topiary hedges and monumental sculpture pieces, taking care not to scratch the helicopter as they go.  Some houses are the size of small resorts, others the size of large ones, most sit quietly and understated in a national monument kind of way.  

Yet, as we sat over dinner on Max’s aft deck, watching the reflections of the dying sun, we couldn’t help but think of the owners of those houses, and wonder if they knew what they were missing.


Shore leave has been cancelled.
Friday 17th August - Kortrijk to Dienze

We had barely settled into the last unreserved guest berth in the Dienze Yacht club this afternoon when Karel popped his head in and invited us to join himself and Marilyn aboard their boat.  An intended short visit turned into an entire afternoon as these things tend to do.  We called a brief intermission and had just returned to the boat to cobble together a bit of food that we all could share, when a shiny grey boat drifted to a stop right in front of us.  


Dave and Ria, not content with tracking us down by car in Kortrijk a few days ago had decided to surprise us again with a visit by boat for the weekend.  It didn’t take long at all before our planned chat in quite of the evening over a few left-overs shifted into something between “dull roar” and “full party” mode. 

Normally when we “waste” an entire day having this much fun we’d at least wander round the town the morning after or even the next night as well, but there was a water festival happening and our berths were needed, so we settled for clicking a quick snap out of the window to remind us that we might like to return one day.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Meanwhile, right here in our back yard.
Thursday 16th August - Kortrijk

“In 1302”, according to our information booklet, “a French garrison in the royal castle found itself in a bit of a fix when the Flemish claimed victory in the Battle of the Golden Spurs. This event was followed by a number of riots and disasters between 1313 and 1340.  Meanwhile the Hundred Years War had broken out between England and France, and the Black Death claimed many lives in Europe.  In a nutshell;  peril reigned.”

We think of that stuff often as we look out from our saloon table at the towers which were built as the last piece of the cities walls at that time, and of the subsequent wars and destruction and pestilence that they have endured in the following seven and a bit centuries, with a mix of horror and wonder and no small amount of gratitude that the most we have to endure is a delay in a lock, or perhaps too much sunshine, or none at all when preparing to move on and one is trying to get that last souvenir shot of our view.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Simple pleasures.
Tuesday 14th August - Kortrijk

Today was a Public Holiday, so we thought we’d take the day off too.  

We’ve been in Belgium a month and we’re finally getting to see the sort of weather it’s famous for, not quite chilly but better spent with jeans and a jumper on, with a sky not quite grey but a bland primer as though it were an empty canvas on which the observer could paint the day any colour he liked. Fortunately for us, we didn’t have to think too much about colours as Kortrijk did a splendid job of filling them in as we discovered the exhibition of dozens of art pieces installed throughout the city.

Finding them was a puzzle even armed with a map, no less delightful than the children’s maze in the textile museum forecourt, although some of the pieces themselves were puzzles of the insoluble kind.   

“Killing Children, ‘220 Volts’”, a piece in which an apparently live electrical cable was left amid a collection of small toys, did not seem particularly in the spirit of the day, but a grassy slope that looked for all the world like a water-ski jump and imaginatively called “untitled (slope)” which visitors are “encouraged to roll down at their leisure, with an angle deliberately calculated to make one feel dizzy and euphoric” left some remembering just how dizzy and euphoric a roll in the grass can be. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The day we might have bought a wallaby.
Monday 13th August - Bossuit to Kortrijk

NIne years ago to the day we visited Kortrijk for the first time.  Then, few people spoke our language, and we barely understood a single word in one of theirs.   The “internet”, particularly “free internet” was mostly only to be found in that particular kind of Scottish hamburger chain that calls “frites” “fries” and it is there that we tried to purchase a coffee to pay the rent for the use of the internet.

While one of us busied himself logging on to check the state of the working world, the other set off to order a coffee. This may not have been a problem had we spoken Flemish, but we didn’t.  Every time she corrected her misunderstood French, pointed at something else by way of explanation, or even gasped a contradiction in English, another item would be added to the tray.  Thus this first attempt to order in French was a little too successful, and she returned with half a dozen coffees in four different kinds, a couple of brownies, some cake and a cup of tea.

A salutary lesson learned, we have been particularly careful ever since, lest a careless glance at an object should lead to unintentional purchase.  How times have changed.  Today armed with a confident smattering of at least one alternative tongue and carrying the entire internet in our pocket, we were poking around among what once would have been called “Curios”, but are now “Concepts for Living” when we were compulsively drawn to what appeared to be the remnants of a former marsupial.  “Do you like the wallaby?” came the voice of Christophe, who had heard us speaking in our usual whispers. “Perhaps you would like a coffee while we arrange the packaging?”

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

If you go into an ancient lime kiln, look up….
Monday 13th August - Antoing to Bossuit

We may have been at serious risk of factoid overload had we remained in Antoing another day, but we escaped into what very well may have been a dull grey, damp, windswept day without all our new knowledge to brighten the way. 

Did you know for instance the area surrounding here had once been known as “The White Lands”?Such was the volume of lime production that the dust from it apparently settled on everything changing its complexion.   This colour is curiously opposite that of the local stone from which it was produced.  Known as Black Tournai “marble”, a fine-grained Lower Carboniferous (Tournaisian) limestone, it was burnt to produce the lime, but it also found uses in paving and construction throughout the region, and in carved fonts throughout Christendom. 

The old lime kilns that still dot the landscape look very much like ruined castles with their Gothic arches and overgrown shrubbery. At least one of them dates back to Roman times apparently.   Some are being converted into wondrous houses, one has a simple modern house built discretely on top, and one we were able to clamber within to try to nut out how it worked for ourselves.  It’s difficult to see an application for all this new knowledge, but the view looking up was quite nice.


This Old Man Came Rolling Home
Sunday 12th August - Peronnes to Antoing

Quite possibly the most arduous part of our three kilometre long cruise this morning was rustling up  the lock keeper even though it was almost morning tea time when we set out.  Sadly for some, our journey was so brief that we didn’t need to refer to our brand new charts at all.

With nothing to do and all day to do it, we cycled off to Tournai in search of ancient bridges, cathedrals and perhaps a bite of lunch.  Not yet to grips with the customs of a new country, the latter turned out to be rather more difficult than one would have thought at midday on a Sunday, but we did find one place vaguely open in the heart of the town.

In the absence of any assistance forthcoming, we chose a table to our liking and settled in. This did rouse someone who advised that where we were sitting was not to his liking and he promptly ushered to an equally vacant spot three tables away.  The pizzas were delicious but of a size more suitable to feeding a small nation. Our request to share one was politely declined;"It’s just not possible sir".  Not wishing to cause a scene we made a gallant attempt at consuming the two before eventually raising a white flag, quietly accepting defeat, and rolling slowly home, a feat we could quite possibly have performed even without the bikes.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

We know where we are.
Saturday 11th August - Péruwelz to Peronnes

We’ve managed to travel across half of Belgium, the country that gave us Gerardus Mercator, with charts that amount to little more than road maps.  That these are the charts relied upon by most English speaking navigators and a good number of Dutch ones as well is probably an indication of how simple the task is rather than a reflection of our collective navigation skills and to be fair, we do manage to end up in some seriously pretty places.

None the less, we left our little stone clubhouse with it’s perfect replica tea-clipper interior this morning, on a mission:  We would voyage to Peronnes, where we completed our first incursion into Belgium nine years ago with Ian and Lynda.  Then we would cycle to the Fuel Barge in Antoing and buy proper chart books, the kind that are drawn to an actual scale and have grids with latitude and longitude and kilometre marks and water depths.

Given that the distance to be travelled to achieve this was something less than ten kilometres, it can come as no surprise that both missions were accomplished in plenty of time to spend at least part of the afternoon calculating what the insides of our eyelids would look like when projected using Monsieur Mercator’s theorem.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

On the Move Again
Friday 10th August - Thieu to Péruwelz

One feels like a bit of a goose really with all the uncertainty about whether to go or whether to stay in the face of a bit of wind.   In our previous life on bays and oceans we have often sailed home (though never gone out) in the face of a strong wind warning issued when gusts exceeded forty-eight kilometres per hour.  Today’s forecast was for winds of not much more than three quarters of that yet we had our doubts.

The difference is that in our current life we have no foil shaped keel nor sails to steady our way, nor a vast (or even a tiny) expanse of water to keep us at a distance from the hard bits round its edges.   When it comes to resisting the wind, our boat is a slippery as a soap dish in a public bathroom.  The wind points and we follow. To add to our troubles, there is an immutable law of physics that declares that maximum gusts will occur when boats are approaching lock gates, trying to catch a bollard to windward, avoiding an approaching ship or nearing a mooring.

We did leave in the early morning calm, which came to an end at exactly the time we called the first lock, and had a delightful day in which surprisingly our skills were barely tested, albeit that we were slowed occasionally to an excruciating six and a bit kilometres per hour on occasion when the wind thought it would try coming from in front.  Now we are tucked safe and snug in the lovely little haven at Péruwelz.  We just have to watch where we step.

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Fair Weather Sailors
Thursday 9th August - Thieu

Monsieur John, our convivial Port Captain reminded us yesterday that we’d been here for five days, which attracts exactly the same tariff as staying for a week, suggesting as he did that we would be welcome to stay longer if we would like.

We replied something to the effect that while we were enjoying our time here immensely, five days was quite enough in one spot thanks very much, and we thought we might just mosey on a little further up the river.

When morning came we noticed that the sky was no longer blue and thought perhaps six days might be the perfect length of a stay in Thieu after all.

Sudden Change
Wednesday 8th August - Thieu

The end of the heatwave came last night with a roar as it rolled across the countryside.    

While the brunt of the thunderstorm was directed elsewhere, the tail of it was enough have one of us out of bed checking mooring lines as even in the confines of this tiny port, the wind whipped the normally mirrored surface of the canal into a churning mess of spray and chop.    It may have been over as soon as it began or it may have gone on for hours, none of us could say, as the temperature plummeted by more than ten degrees and we all slept snug under covers for the first time in what seemed in our fading memories to have been months.

Daylight came and went, and we all slept on, delighting in the new comfort the change had brought.  

Eventually, with that tinge of sadness that comes when friends depart, Jørn and Birgit did just that, to continue their own travels.   We thought we had to go as well, but quickly realised we didn’t, so settled back to enjoy our first day in quite a time not seeking a shady respite.

Once More unto the Breach.
Tuesday 7th August - Thieu to Thieu

The proportions of the lift at  Strépy-Thieu are such that only way really to appreciate it’s enormity is to enter the thing, to be swallowed like a tiny minnow in the belly of a whale, to be transported up the twenty-five storeys give or take, before being spat out on that upper level without ado.

We thought it might be nice to allow the other two to discover that for themselves, and perhaps while we were at it we also thought, a repeat of our excursion on Sunday last, drifting down the historic canal with its ancient lifts could be a pleasant way of at least taking the edge off the heat for part of the day. 

Sharing that experience with good friends added to that pleasure, and sadly the six hours that the adventure consumed seemed to pass in a flash. It left us strangely drained though, or perhaps it was the dry roasting breeze that had sprung up.  Whatever the cause, we spent the balance of afternoon lounging in the deepest shade we could find, awaiting the promised change.

The Big Melt Continues.
Monday 6th August - Thieu

In two day’s time, according to the forecast, normal weather transmission may resume, but for now there’s not much for it but to sook around in the shade in an effort to stop our more important bits from melting off, all the while marvelling at the absolute breathlessness of the atmosphere.   

Then Jørn and Birgit arrived to share our evening shade, a little lost on the way to Lagarde for their summer reunion with “Miss Ellie”.  After a four hour detour in the the twenty degree comfort of their car they were remarkably perky, perhaps made more than usual having more or less accidentally bought a boat and sold another on the way.

There’s nothing quite like the company of friends to bring the sort of fresh air that the weather cannot, so given that the temperatures were not likely to abate tomorrow, in the still, simmering warmth of the evening we began to firm our plans to keep them for another day. 

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

A Joy Ride.
Sunday 5th August - Thieu to Thieu

Before the big lift that so captivated us yesterday was built, the old canal utilised a series of  somewhat smaller hydraulic lifts that remain exactly as they were when they were constructed in the nineteenth century.   The engineering of these contraptions is diabolically clever and it is not difficult to see why they are World Heritage Listed structures, preserved now in the sort of imperfect state that they have perhaps miraculously remained working for almost a century and a half.

When Andrew and Briony casually mentioned they were planning to take Krys on a scenic tour up the Strèpy lift and return via the historic canal and therefore its four old lifts, we were delighted to be in a position to invite ourselves along.  An invitation that was happily accepted, at least as far as we could tell.

Is it odd we wonder, that living aboard as we do, we should derive such pleasure from being on other people’s boats? Under clear blue skies and with nary a care in the world we dallied down a canal steeped in history wondering at times whether we would be as old as the lifts by the time some of the bridges were raised for us to pass.   Today was joyride defined.

Monday, August 06, 2018

Going Down.
Saturday 4th August - Floreffe to Thieu

The Strépy-Theiu ship lift was the tallest in the world until some bloke in China built a bigger one and spoiled its fun, but it’s still a bit of a thrill to join a couple of three hundred ton barges in a giant indoor bathtub to be gently dropped seventy-five metres or so over a cliff to the river below.

There are cables and counterweights and clever engineers who ensure that the journey is smooth and surprisingly swift. Even if it has not quite made the list of “wonders of the modern world”, which it well may have done, it is a wonder to us at least.

In the shimmering mid morning heat there was just a touch of the surreal about it as it loomed on the horizon.  Surely Belgium has never looked more like Dubai!

Down in the Valley Where the Green Grass Fails to Grow.
Friday 3rd August - Landelies to Floreffe

Having spent almost a week in the intimate green of the Sambre, the return through Charleroi did not fail to come as something of a shock.

The change does not happen slowly.  The forest simply ends and crushing plants begin.  From there it’s downhill all the way, or half the way at least both figuratively and metaphorically.  Two locks down and we were in the midst of that delightful industrial wasteland, three locks up and we were on a much wider waterway transitioning ever so slowly into rural landscape once again.

We would like to stop near Charleroi and explore it properly one day, but this time we had places to go, things to do, people to see, and the thought of a shady place to sit at day's end drove us ever onward with nary a sideways glance.

The Ruin of Us.
Thursday 2nd August - Thuin to Landelies

Aulne Abbey has waited patiently for our visit since the eleventh century, some of it since the eighth. It was pillaged then torched during the French Revolution and is now mostly shored-up as a reminder of all that has gone before, but it’s still worth taking an intriguing few hours to wander its cloisters.

Given that the world around us was melting in the heat, more sensible folk than we may have stopped right beside it to break their journey.  Perhaps they might have taken a leisurely morning tea in its shadow after the visit, before continuing slothfully on their way.  We are made of sterner stuff so sailed blithely on to find a haven for the night first, intent on walking the few kilometres back in the cool of the afternoon. 

The blistering tarmac underfoot perhaps could have been interpreted as a sign of how badly we had miscalculated what little cool there would actually be on this particular afternoon, but we set off anyway, undeterred.  On arriving at the Abbey, witnesses may have described us as hot and just a little bothered, but not so much that a cool drink on a shady cafe verandah could not repair entirely. By the time the Abbey gates closed in the early evening, perhaps soothed by the balm of its history, our return journey did in fairness, turn out to be just a tiny bit more pleasant.

Thursday, August 02, 2018

Another Change to the Plan.
Wednesday 1st August - Thuin

We woke with the expectation that we’d continue up the river for a day or two, before resuming our trek eastward.   After the first coffee of the day we thought maybe we’d save that for another time and get going today, perhaps first thing, or perhaps after completing a load of washing.

We wandered over to say our goodbyes to Koos and Val, but somehow forgot what we were about, picking up the threads of conversations from where we left off last evening, which led to us forgetting to leave at all as we chatted without ceasing until there was a grave risk of coaches turning into pumpkins.  

This in turn resulted in a new resolve, we would leave in the morning.  We would.  We would definitely depart, and to make doubly sure that we didn’t get trapped by their siren calls on our return journey from up river, we’d head back the way we came, mark our charts (or since they are borrowed charts, we’ll just make a mental note) “must come back to see what lies beyond the railway bridge”.   


Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Over the hill not far away.
Tuesday 31st July - Thuin

According to the brochure at the tourist office, this is a small yet relatively unknown mediaeval city which features hanging gardens, a Belfry recognised as a World Heritage Site, holds water jousting competitions and elects a mayor every six years.

Clearly if we were to see it all we would have to wait for how ever long it takes until next mayoral election.  Instead, we elected to walk the tourist path, to see what we could see.  

Not at all clearly marked but on a beautifully drawn map, we followed the path up the front of the town, along the ramparts, through the middle, down the other side and even back again, picking our way through the gardens as we went.  In doing so we did see all of the things that the map thought worth seeing and a few more to boot.   We really should spend time just letting it all sink in. Therefore tomorrow if our usual logic prevails we will be off as soon as we are able, leaving plenty to absorb on our return at some future time.

Lots of pretty bits.
Monday 30th July - Landelies toThuin

After a few days of travel during which had seen more kilometres pass under our keel than the previous fortnight had, we were quite tempted to stay a little longer in the little shady haven that was Landelies.   In this part of the world however, the locks are manually operated and the path of least resistance seemed to lead towards moving on rather than making a change to our appointed time. 

As it turns out, pretty bits and shady havens are not at all in short supply in this part of the world, and we spent a happy hour or two winding our way through postcard after postcard until we reached Thuin.

The village turned out to be more hilly than shady, and a delightfully eclectic mix of convents and castles strewn about with hanging gardens and cottages in a sort of mish-mash that defy conventional planning logic, except to bear out perhaps the time honoured convention that the wealthy chaps and churches get first pick and everyone fits in where they can.  
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