It’s not called “catching’. it’s called “fishing”

Well, dear reader, here we are. Where? I hear you ask. Well, let me inform you – still the same place we were last time I updated you – Montherme.

Let me explain, because I’m sure you are just about to consult my last edition to check whether I said we were going to be moving on Wednesday last. Save your fingers – I did, and we didn’t. To cut a long story short, we were informed by our local lock-keeper that Wednesday was moving day, only to be informed by the lock-lockeeper’s lock-keeping boss that “Non monsieur! Pas de moving zee bateau” which is a rough translation of ‘no mate, your going nowhere tomorrow’. Ho hum, ce la vie. Apparently the flooded river washed down all sorts of detritus including trees and small building which have inconveniently come to rest in a number of lock along our route, so we are again (or still) stuck, probably till next Wednesday. Ho hum, ce la vie.

We are starting to feel like we are locals, regular order at the boulangerie, favourite seat in the bar, and free topping at the ice-cream kiosk!

We have also partaken of some tourist activities, mainly consisting of fishing. Oh and a ride on a 4 wheel cycle, which I am sure should be classified under the Geneva convention as a ‘cruel and unusual punishment’.

Me providing the power, Nicola the glamour and Alfie the navigation.
If I was catching dinner, we’d be VERY hungry!

And so it’s a case of sit back, relax, and wait for the river authorities to do their thing. Hopefully we will be moving soon (or else I’m going to have to find a hiding place for 2 dozen machines of torture)!

Only another 22 to hide !!

Plan? What plan?

To misquote Helmuth von Moltke, no plan survives first contact with the enemy, in our case the enemy has been the devastating floods which have hit Europe and which we were lucky to have been only slightly inconvenienced by. Our plan was originally a nearly 700 mile cruise from Bruges to Auxerre taking nearly 4 months.

But now we have a new plan!

A plan so cunning that you could pin a tail on it and call it a fox, a fox so cunning he has just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford University (Baldrick; Blackadder).

Because of our ten day forced lay-up at the lovely Montherme on the Canal de la Meuse, we have revised our route to Auxerre. Our preferred way of cruising is to chug along at just over walking pace for two or three hours and then moor in time for lunch at a promising little town or village which we hope, like a fine wine, will improve over time. We often just stay a night, but like to visit markets and brocantes (a French flea-market), eat and drink local produce and let Alfie explore the local area. So any schedule we come up with has lee-way to stay a few nights in an improving town. As we have lost a week or so due to floods, and Nicola will be returning to the UK in August to check on the house, we have cut a hundred odd miles off our journey.

Our mooring at Motherme in the morning mist

North and mid-France have many thousands of miles of navigable rivers and canals and this makes route changes fairly easy with more often than not many different routes to get from A to B.

For those of you who would like to follow us on a map – here is the plan:

From Montherme, we will head south on the Canal de la Meuse; turn west onto the Canal des Ardennes at Port a Bar; south at Berry au Bar onto the Canal de l”Aisle a la Marne; west onto the Marne to Paris; south onto the Seine; onto the Yonne and to Auxerre.

Our low-tech paper map – great for an overall plan

This route has a few things going for it not least appealing is the fact that it goes through the heart of the Champagne region of France, including the capital city of the fizzy stuff – Reims. Now as you all know by now it is unusual to find a picture of Nicola or I without a glass of something or other clasped tightly in our hands, looking like wild horses couldn’t drag the vessel from us. So the thought of spending a lazy few weeks travelling along the valleys from one Champagne house to another is difficult to better (well I suppose a few patisseries could do it for Nicola).

The route being around 370 miles cruising from here and us travelling at around 10-15 miles a day and having to be in Auxerre at the end of September we have plenty of time to eat, drink, (recover), and explore.

Don’t panic! River receding

After the last cliffhanger of a post, where the water levels were rising fast and we had lashed poles to the side of Anticus, I am pleased to report that the river is now receding. Not quite at is benign, non-threatening, tranquil best, but certainly not pushing huge tree trunks and other detritus past at 10mph (14kph). Unfortunately though we still cannot move as the VNF (French river authority) has placed a navigation ban on the whole of the Canal de la Meuse.

STOP PRESS: We have just been told by the local lock-keeper that navigation re-opens on Friday.

After the 10 days enforced lay-up in the beautiful Monthereme, we are now considering altering our planned route so that we don’t have to rush our journey to reach Auxerre. So the next couple of days will be spent cleaning the boat and route planning – more to follow.

Beautiful day in store as the mist rises from the river in Motherme

Flood patrol 02:30hrs

Good morning all. Here a I am at half past two in the morning updating our blog after just checking our boat (and the other half-dozen) on the quay at Montherme on the Canal de Meuse in the Ardennes region of Northern France.

If you have caught the news over the last 24 hrs of catastrophic flooding in western Germany and eastern Belgium, you will recognise that our location is just on the southern edge of the affected area.

Two days ago we were instructed that navigation on the Meuse was closed due to imminent increase in speed and level of water, so we pushed against a strengthening stream to our present mooring in Montherme where we tied up with a few extra lines!

Over the last 24 hours the river level has steadily risen to within about 3 inches of flooding the quay. This necessitated the VNF (French waterways authority) delivering 3 metre long poles to each of the boats moored here, in an attempt to stop them being washed up on the quay should the river rise more.

Trigger, from Mimosa, the other Piper barge we are travelling with and I then summoned our collective firefighting knots and lines knowledge and lashed the poles to the side of our boats. The idea being that the poles would add extra draught to the boats by effectively sticking down from under the boat by a metre or so, and thus making it more unlikely that the boat should be washed ashore.

We have not been able to find out what the level of the river is forecast to rise to, even though weirs along the river are controlling flow and levels, hence the fact that the poles are in place and I am patrolling the waters edge in the middle of the night.

Friends of ours who are downstream of us in Namur have been evacuated from their boats at the insistence of the local Police and firefighters and moved to a local hotel. Namur is on the northern Meuse and not far on the river to Liege which apparently is under grave threat of flooding.

Anyway, I’m off for another torch-lit walk along the quay! Hopefully a more cheery update to follow when the rains have stopped.

Amazing Ardennes

I could try and wax lyrical about the beauty of the River Meuse as it winds it’s way timelessly through steep hills covered in tress in a myriad shades of green, with occasional cliffs of various stone and slate, forcing their way to the sun like holiday makers fighting for a spot on the beach. However, even armed with a bundle of thesaurus’ I couldn’t do the scenery justice, so instead, dear reader, here are some photos.

Nicola and Julie taking the ferry across the meuse, hand pulled by a blond body-builder (they went more than once!)
Beautiful village of Vireux

Below are a series of images of an extremely poignant memorial to atrocities carried out in Dinant on 23 August 1914. Carved into metal are the names of those who perished.

New month, new views

The beginning of July sees us continuing our journey to Auxerre from Bruges, and finding ourselves moored for a couple of days in a beautiful small town of Profondeville on the River Meuse, still in Belgium but only 17km from the French border.

So far, since leaving our last winter base at Flandria Yachthaven in Bruges we have travelled 192 miles, in around 60hrs of actual cruising time – to save you doing the maths, that works out at about 3mph – slightly slower than walking pace. Just to explain though, the hours referred to are engine running hours, so include ‘hovering’ in the middle of the waterway waiting for locks and bridges to open, and also running time in the large locks, which can take 30 minutes to operate. It is often far safer to keep the engine running when sharing these giant locks with giant commercial barges.

Talking of locks, so far we have been through 51 locks, 31 lift bridges and one barge lift. Any guesses what the total will be when we have arrived in Auxerre in September?

Here are a few photos from our journey so far.

And finally, best wishes to Derek – a high seas mariner, good friend, and reader of this blog.

Streppy Thieu – Gina 87

On lonely river, stands a village with no name, surrounding a bar run by an octogenarian, Gina. Yes, I know this sounds like a newly discovered Bob Dylan song, but it’s true. Well almost true – the village is called Ladeuze and is towards the southern end of the Dender, Blaton-Ath Canal which on which we had been travelling pretty much since leaving Gent nearly two weeks ago.

Chez Gina is a substantial looking building a minutes walk from our mooring, it has been a bar since the war, and probably a drinking house long before that. It is legendary amongst boating folk, not for it’s architecture, and not really for a fine selection of bottled beer, but for its eponymous host, Gina. Sat in a chair next to an electric heater in a bar full of curios, memories and memorials, Gina nodded as we came in, easing her back in the chair to get a better view of our dogs. We surveyed the menu and ordered 4 different beers, at which point she sprang into life, dressed all in black, apparently still in mourning for a husband who died ten years ago, and produced beer matching glasses and a smile. For the next hour we sat there, drinking, chatting in pigeon Franglaise, wishing we had a greater command of French as we quizzed her on the walls and ceilings full of memorabilia. Many have been there before us and I hope many will still visit and revel in the memories at Chez Gina.

Trigger and I at Chez Gina

After Gina’s we untied our lines and headed south, towards our ultimate destination of Auxerre, France in a few months, but more immediately towards an area containing a selection of engineering masterpieces, and a UNESCO world heritage site to-boot. Strepy-Thieu (pronounced Strepy two – which caused confusion for me as I scoured maps looking for Strepy one) is a boat lift build over the course of a decade to replace the historic ascenciour lifts nearby. In case you missed the significance of that, this is basically a tub of water, into which you can drive a 1350 ton, 85m long fully laden barge, and a couple of pleasure barges such as ours, press a button and open a valve or two and the whole lot is lifted, in 7 minutes a height of 73 metres (240 ft). Phenomenal! There was even the nest of a bird of prey, complete with three chicks in one of the pillars.

First impressions of Geraardsbergen

Well to start with, it is nearly impossible to recognise that here is where you are (if you follow my drift) when a local accent pronounces the town’s name. But here goes, in the spirit of the intrepid traveller and explorer – and determined not just to be remembered on a blue plaque for tasting beer and eating food with the excuse of integrating with the local populous. Geraardsbergen in my best local accent. What it is NOT is Ger or even Jer, it starts with more of a clearing the throat kind of Hheeeer. The aard bit is less problematic, not quite the elongated aaaaaaaaa that you may expect, but more of an ard, as in yard or hard or even lard. With the ‘bergen’ suffix we are back to the smokers throat pronunciation, common in these parts, as berghhhh’n trips lightly off the tongue, or to be more accurate, rumbles and rasps to the lips from deep inside the recesses at the back of your mouth.

And there you have it – easy when you know how – welcome to Hheeeerardsberghhhhh’n, the home of the mattentaart.

Our mooring at Hheeeerardsberghhhhh’n

Walking up from the river through a housing estate to the local shops you are starkly reminded that this isn’t the carefully managed, hyper-clean, tourist orientated, traffic reduced, manicured facade of Bruges or Gent. The assault on the senses of cigarette butts on the pavements, where before on our travels unseen worker bees pushing bins and dressed in orange kept the streets as clean as a dining table, reminded us that without the finances of the Euro tourism pot then councils here have just the same resource problem as councils everywhere.

The terraces of Geraardsbergen

The walk to the bakers, for the best croissant we have tasted – glazed in sugary sweetness – takes me through streets of terraced houses, not the bright colours of immaculate planning and control of Bruges, but a more drab tightly pack row upon row of 12 or 15ft wide abodes with the sound of dogs barking within and occupants of indeterminate age sat on their front steps lighting up a gasper, blowing smoke into the air and mumbling “morgen” as I passed. Here is the Belgium off the tourist trail.

Anyway, today we are off to bakers, cafes, monuments, views, town squares, churches and obelisks – just the other side of the terraces. We are off to find the mattentart and sample one or two in your name dear reader. Off to chase the blue plaque – not of incisive social comment, but the blue plaque of glutony and hedonism – hey! someone has to do it.

Down the Dender

We left Gent on the mark of 9.45am. Why so precise I hear you ask. Well I’ll tell you. It was all about the tide on the Schelder river which flows past Gent from (and also to) Antwerp. We were heading for the Dender river which we would join at Dendermonde (Dendermouth), so to make the journey easier and quicker we had consulted the tide times and were keen to surf the high tide from Gent to Dendermonde. To put this in perspective, our usual cruising speed is around 4.5-5mph, against a tide it could be as low as 1.5mph and with the tide maybe 9mph. As you can see, this bit of planning can save quite a bit of time (and fuel) and also get us out of the way of the large commercial boats on the Schelde.

Large lock onto the Schelde
Turn left towards Antwerp for the Dender

We made good time with no sight of any other boats moving, other than our travelling companions Trigger and Julie on Mimosa. Turning off the Schelde into the Dender, we our intentions to moor at the first spot on the river were thwarted by a couple of cruisers who seemed to have pitched camp – washing out, BBQ smoking away and kids inflatable boats bobbing around. Our equipment on board includes a few different navigation tools, including a database of moorings throughout Europe which we can overlay onto Google Earth or maps.me, this allows us, in case like we now faced with our intended mooring unavailable to make a new plan very quickly.

Maps.me showing mooring spots on the upper Dender

We could see a couple of miles away a promising mooring at Denderbelle, where we found ourselves refreshing with a cold beer about 40 minutes later.

Leaving Denderbelle the following day, we made our way further south, with no clear timetable and a general plan to cruise for a few hours and moor up somewhere nice for a night or two, or three, or even four. As you can see no great plan, and a very hedonistic approach to cruising in Europe.

Our next stop turned out to be the lovely village of Ninove, only a small mooring, but Mimosa rafted alongside us and we made the village our home for a couple of days. It really was full of surprises, a huge shop selling all sorts of garden brick-a-brack at designer prices, a lovely bakery, and a thirst quenching bar on the village green.

And so onto Geraardsbergen, through some of loveliest reaches of river you could wish for stretching mile after mile in front of us.

One of the loveliest stretches of river we have been on

After a leisurely few hours we arrived on the outskirts of Geraardsbergen and slowed down for a lift bridge ahead as the operator pressed the “open” button, only to see it rise about 18 inches and come firmly to a stop! Apparently the heat of the recent sunny weather had caused the bridge to swell (and become stuck). Much to the delight of Julie and Nicola this meant the arrival of the local Fire Brigade with blue lights flashing, to spray copious amounts of cooling water until we could pass through. Trigger and I, both ex-Firefighters, sat and drank coffee!

Firefighters to the rescue – calm down girls!

The mooring here looks good, can’t wait to see what the town is like.

Mooring at Geraardsbergen