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

Gent is a beautiful lady

As I write this the nearby church bell is tolling 8 in the morning of Sunday 13 June 2021, and we are about to head off with our friends Trigger and Julie who are coming with us on their boat Mimosa. Just to clarify, Trigger is called Trigger, not because he has a penchant for firearms, or that he has a particularly short temper, but because he bears a striking resemblance to Roger Lloyd-Pack‘s character, Trigger, in Only Fools and Horses.

Trigger and Trigger

Anyway, I digress, and still have a bit to do to check the boat is good to go, so just to say, Gent is a beautiful university city filled with historic buildings, well used waterways in the city centre, and a cafe claiming to serve the ‘best frites in the world’. Nicola tried them twice and had nothing to complain about!

Rather than prattle on about everything, I’ll follow the maxim that ‘a picture paints a thousand words’ and leave you with a few photos of our last few days.

Weigh anchor and splice the mainbrace

We’re off!

After what seems an eternity we have slipped our moorings at the lovely Yachtclub Flandria in Bruges and are heading South, with the destination planned to be Auxerre in Burgundy, France.

Our original plan had been a year or two in Belgium followed by a year or two in the Netherlands and then onto explore the inland waterways of France. However restrictions on tourist visas in the Netherlands and length of stay in Europe following Brexit meant a change to those plans. France has granted us 6 months visas which means that we miss out on everything Dutch and look forward to everything French – gone are the tulips, but we welcome the garlic!

Leaving Flandria

Our first hour’s travel was familiar as we found our sea legs (well actually canal legs – but it doesn’t sound as dramatic) on our way to Moerbrugge where we stopped for the night and checked that everything was functioning correctly and the water was staying on the outside of the boat!

As we were settling down after dinner, the largest barge we had seen – 100m (350ft) long – gently eased up to us and asked us to move a little to let them moor. As you can see from the photo below it was HUGE, over 6 times the length of Anticus, which you can see with a couple of other similar boats at the stern of the bulk barge.

The following morning we followed a slightly smaller commercial barge through the lift bridge at Moerbrugge and headed along the Oostend-Gent canal towards the mediaeval city of Ghent. A trip of just over 4 hours leisurely cruising a distance of just over 20 miles – as you can see, leisurely is the word! We had booked a fabulous mooring spot in the city centre and look forward to exploring.

Back aboard, abroad

Well here we are! Back in the land of waffles, chocolate and beer (apologies to the Belgians, I’m sure they have contributed more to the world than these things – however it’s arguable whether any have been so enjoyable).

Considering how much paperwork and worry were generated during the build up to travel back to Anticus from the UK, the journey and border checks were pain free. We had, this trip, the dual hurdles of Brexit and Covid to jump over to allow us access to our boat. Brexit affects length of stay and what we may take with us from the UK (now classified as a ‘third country’) to the EU (the ones who are classifying us as a ‘third country’. The length of stay issue was solved with a six month long-stay visa issued by France – otherwise we would have been limited to three months. Next on the list was Alfie, our border terrier. He too is now a third country citizen so needed a new set of paperwork from the vet to allow him to travel to the promised land. Not quite promising enough for him, as we weren’t allowed to take over his favourite dog food so he’s having to get used to Belgian food!

Covid rules regarding travel have been changing as fast (and as unpredictably) as the weather in the UK, we have traffic lights, quarantine, covid passports, PCR tests, lateral flow thing-a-ma-jigs, no go countries, countries you know are really bad but the government want a trade deal with so it’s ok to travel etc. etc. etc. Plus, Belgium and France, although in the EU have different rules, both of which change frequently and with little notice. Test to travel 72 hours before – oh! no, make that 48 hrs before. You must have a good reason to travel – oh! no, make that an essential reason – oh! no, make that a compelling reason.

Anyway off we set around the M25 heading for the Channel Tunnel at Folkestone, full of fear and trepidation and fully expecting to be turned away and sent back home. Arriving we checked Alfie in – all good. Onto British immigration – no worries. Then to the French Border Officers – Gud moaning, were are you off too? “Belgium”. OK zank you, ‘ave a plesont journeeeeey. (Apologies for the French accent). And there we were, no problems, off to Belgium and back to the boat.

First job is cleaning – pressure washer out – but great to be back

Mind you, we are luck it was just cleaning, a couple of our friends boats took a hit from falling branches during a recent storm.

As you can see, after 8 months without a visit, the boats get very grubby, with a green mildew clinging to every surface. Luckily enough we have room onboard to carry a pressure washer, which makes relatively light(ish) work of all the cleaning of decks and cabin roof.

Anyway, next on the list is to charge my electric bike up and go shopping – so see you all next time. (By the way, look out for a weekly Barge Anticus YouTube channel – coming soon to an internet connected device near you )!

Hoop jumping

I mentioned briefly in a previous post about the mountain of paperwork we had got together so we could travel to the boat this year, so I though I’d go through the seemingly endless hoops we now have to go through caused by BREXIT and COVID.

Getting a grip of copying with the rules regarding travel under the COVID regulations and advice is actually not too taxing. There are really two strands which we need to look at – the UKs approach to travelling abroad and coming back, and what rules are in place in France and Belgium to allow us in.

The UK has become simple – there are no restrictions in travelling abroad (to green and amber countries), but there are restrictions that kick in when you come back. We are not returning until the beginning of October, so have no clue what will be happening then, so have decided to travel and then comply with whatever is in place then.

BREXIT however is a different kettle of fish – or better still a different lock full of barges! We in the UK are no longer in the EU, nor are we a Schengen country. (I’m deliberately avoiding arguments for and against these decisions). This means, as far as the EU is concerned, we are a ‘third country’. As such we are restricted to traveling for tourism to 90 days in every rolling 180 days. Our plan when building Anticus was to spend the summer months (6 or 7 in total) cruising the waterways of Europe (well actually mainly France). So we obviously needed to find a way around the 90/180 day restriction. France to the rescue. They have available on application a 6 month tourist visa, and this mound of paper is our application for the precious visa.

Paperwork for a French visa

It doesn’t stop there though! We have to get additional travel insurance because the EHIC is now not comprehensive enough, we have to get a certificate to allow Alfie, our border terrier across the Channel with us, and we also need a green card to get the car across. I’m not even going to mention the £300 this has cost us (oops too late) but the mound of paperwork seems quite onerous. BREXIT huh? The gift that keeps giving.

See you next time – hopefully from a boat somewhere in Belgium !

2021 here we come

We are nearing the end of May, and still not onboard Anticus in Bruges. Covid is still rife as I write this (23 May), and countries are only just relaxing their barriers to travel, so much so we have been able to book a Channel tunnel journey for the 1 June. At the moment we are negotiating the mountain of paperwork needed to travel – this time, not so much to do with Covid, but very much to do with BREXIT (the gift that keeps giving).

Some of the paperwork to travel to the EU for the summer

I appreciate some of our American and Antipodean friends have had to do this for ever, but it does come as a bit of a shock after years of freedom of movement throughout the EU.

Anyway, what are our plans for the year? Firstly the boat will need fuelling and cleaning for the season after being neglected since September, and we will need a few days to accomplish this, restock the wine and food (and also I’m sure Nicola wants a visit to the chocolate museum). Longer term, we are heading into France having decided to change our winter moorings for 2021 – 2022. Auxerre is our destination for this summer, at the end of a leisurely cruise through northern France via Paris, a journey of around 450 miles (780km), taking about 4 months with plenty of stops and a few longer stays.

This year we are hoping to add a YouTube channel to this blog, with videos of our trip. Please let us know if there is anything you want to see or read about, whether it is technical, travel orientated or simply how we manage our lives on a 50ft Piper barge!

A much belated end of season

Well, to show I was brought up right, Im starting with an apology. As I write this, it’s 23 May 2021, at the tail end of the latest pandemic chapter and we are sat in our house in the UK watching the Monaco Grands Prix.

We are also planning on getting back to the boat, and how our cruising itinerary will look this year. But first I feel we should conclude last years brief cruising season.

Having left Diksmuide we headed down to Ieper (Ypres), down peaceful canals and rivers, in tandem with our friends Cath and Alan on their Piper Barge, Plan B – and before you ask, I have no idea what Plan A was.

Ypres is the most beautiful city, with a square in the middle of a circumference of stunning Flemish/French buildings. All this balanced with the poignant simplicity and solemnity of the Menin Gate.

We rang ahead and spoke to Freddie, the rather eccentric and (thankfully) English speaking capitinaire at the small harbour on the outskirts of the town, booking neighbouring mooring for both boats. The moorings are at the end of the Kanaal Ieper/Ijzer and were remarkably quiet – Covid has really taken it’s toll on travel.

After a lovely few days, including, what should be a mandatory, visit to the sounding of the Last Post at the Menin Gate Memorial, we up-anchored (not sure that’s even a word) and set sail (we don’t actually have a sail) for our home port if Bruges.

We had only been away a couple of weeks, but felt lucky just the same, as many of our friends had not even managed to get to their boats at all. We settled back into Flandria, and prepared to put the boat to bed for the winter. But not before a highlight of our time in Bruges, an invite from Ian and Jeanette’s boat Alwil, a magnificent century old converted barge around twice the length of ours. The occasion was a murder mystery evening where we all dressed up and ate magnificently, all washed down with excellent local beer, wine, and port from the skippers cellar.

And there we have it – the end of 2020. A short cruising season, but filled with great memories and experiences, shared with friends old and new.

Nationalism, war and peace on 23 floors

Turning left at Oostende from the Kanal Gent-Oostende onto the River Ijzer we left the large commercial barges behind (some of which are 100m long 9m wide and around 2000 tonnes in weight), to ply there trade in northern Belgium and the Netherlands.

As we passed through pretty villages and towns heading towards Diksmuide we occasionally met other pleasure cruisers, and, more regularly, small commercial barges from the river Authorities moving sand and other aggregate along the river. Amazingly, one of these small barges (only around 1800 tonnes) was fully automatic. There was no skipper! No engineer! No one, except a youth presumably acting as a safety lookout, sitting at the bows. However when we spotted him he seemed to be looking for threat and danger on his iPhone! We came across the skipper-less barge on a few occasions and it was fascinating to watch as you could almost see its computerised brain working out the images from its plethora of cameras, radar, and sensors to work out its speed and course and avoid denting us on the way past.

From a few miles away, across the flat landscape of this part of Belgium we could see a huge tower which seemed to be near our destination.

The Yser tower can be seen for miles around.

The Yser tower which is also know as the Peace Tower dominates Diksmuide. It is monument containing a 27 floor museum! Amazing. Fascinating. Eye-opening. The tower and the contents of the museum are a monument to the victims and soldiers of WWI designed to remind all that peace should prevail over conflict. After taking the lift to the top of the tower and taking a few snapshots of the amazing views I started the decent down spiralling stairs through the many floors of exhibits. The first few floors explore national identity and nationalism – both at the core of the reasons for the outbreak of the Great War, as you defend through the floors the exhibits change theme subtly to pictures and artefacts of the local population and military around the start of the war, eventually quite literally decending into a mock-up of a trench complex and a field hospital complete with sound and lighting effects, discarded munitions and very realistic dummies. The whole thing is immensely moving, hugely interesting, and truly a lighthouse for peace.

A short walk outside the town is the “Trench of Death” a preserved complex of fighting trenches along the banks of the Ijzer where many allied soldiers met their deaths. The complex acts as a site of remembrance to the Battle of Yser, and was the first such memorial in Belgium.

These monuments are certainly a poignant reminder of our end goal on this trip, a visit to Iepers and the Menin Gate. For now though we are staying in Diksmuide for a couple of days to see the more retail and leisure attractions of the city.

To Jabekke, Leffingbrug and beyond…

What a fabulous cruise we are having! After leaving you on tenterhooks last post with a promise to take you to Jabekke, not only have we been there but we have ended up in Iepers (Ypres), or indeed Wipers as the brave Tommy’s in WWI christened this charming, sad and poignant town in northern Belgium.

Our plans have had to change slightly. We were hoping to get to Veurne having heard good reports from fellow boaters, but unfortunately someone in charge of some bits of machinery and a group of workers has decided to order repairs and the consequent closure of a bridge in the middle of Veurne until January, which means that we can no longer get to the city. However Plan B is now in operation – Bruges-Iepers-Bruges with a few stops on the way.

After visiting Jabekke for a short overnight stay where we sampled a beer or two and did some essential shopping (cheese and cake), we made our way steadily to Diksmuide.

I had never heard of Diksmuide before planning our trip even though it was an area of huge importance during the Great War and also, on a lighter note, recognised for it’s superb butter and cheese!

I took us 3 days easy (3 hours) cruising to reach the moorings at Diksmuide, with stops at Jabbeke and Leffingbruge on the way. We ended up mooring for 2 nights at Leffingbrug as we managed to get on a lovely new pontoon next to the lift bridge with easy access to the village. In there was a very pretty church and a bar which we visited on the second night for a beer and a lovely steak followed by Damme Blanch – which is basically 3 scoops of vanilla ice cream, loads of whipped cream and hot chocolate sauce – what’s not to like?

It looks like a bit of a habit is developing, because at Jabekke, our previous mooring, a visit to the bar next to our boat also resulted in ice cream, cream and chocolate sauce, this time though, preceded by an exceptional Flemish beef stew. Nicola exhibited little will power and also succumbed to dessert after here fish pie.

On the 3rd September we upped sticks and made our way to Diksmuide, calling the moorings in the city centre to book two slots as we left. Diksmuide had lots going for it, as you will find out next post.