After missing the European boating season for 2020 we were hopefully optimistic that we would return to our Joie de Vivre in 2021. However to achieve this end a number of hurdles had to be successfully navigated.
1. Vaccinations with documented proof of the required 2 jabs.
2. Permission from the Australia border force to leave the country
3. The purchase of airfares(not too difficult thanks to Julie Avery)
4. A documented negative Covid test 72 hours before departire
5. Health declarations for all the countries we were transiting through
With all these documents in our hot little hands we finally departed on Wednesday 28th to our first stop, Hong Kong. All I can say is international Covid travel is e very different experience. To my dismay with the lounges closed there was no pre boarding glass of champagne. And the flight, only 25 people on board and no walking around the plane while in the air.
The next shock was on arriving at Hong Kong airport. This previously vibrant shopping hub was deserted , with the shops not only closed but empty. Again no lounges opened and to add insult to injury our flight to Zurich was delayed which pushed back our connecting time time from Zurich to Amsterdam from 1 hour to 6 hours. But I’m not complaining, we had escaped!
After the Armageddon like experience of both Melbourne and Hong Kong we felt as though, instead of arriving in Europe, we had been diverted to another planet. The airports were packed with people enjoying the luxury of travel. Admittedly everyone is required to wear a mask, but you can forget about contact tracing and social distancing. It is even difficult to find complimentary hand sanitiser.
We finally arrived at Joie de Vivre at 6.30 pm on the Thursday after a mammoth 40 hours from door to door. We were warmly welcomed by the harbour master. I even had the lady who lives in the house opposite our mooring come and say hello promising a catch up when we return for the winter mooring in October.
The joyful news is that all the systems on the boat kicked over on the first try. The downside is after 2 days on board I still have miles of cleaning and thousands of spiders to chase away.
We are now in Coupure, our winter mooring in Bruges. It has been rather a wet trip south, with rain everyday. I wish I could stuff a few storm clouds in my bag to bring back to the drought effected areas in Australia.
But all the rain did not impact on our journey. The wheelhouse is snug and as there are not many locks in this part of the world, so the crew did not have to step out very often to throw the lines. And the purchase of a new warm jacket at Willemstad offered protection when I did have to brave the elements.
The last part of our journey took us from Rotterdam, back to Dortrecht, then onto Willemstad and Tholen, down the Scheldt Ring Canal through Antwerp harbour to Dendermonde and Ghent, then the 4 hour trip on the Ostend Ghent canal to Brugge. Not bad for our final 2 weeks on the waterways.
In summary our 2019 year on Joie de Vivre saw us cruise the Thames, cross the Channel into Europe, explore parts of the Belgium, French and Dutch waterways, covering approximately a total of 2628kms, visiting 51 ports and welcoming aboard 9 staying guests and a number of new friends.
We said goodbye to our boat, packed up and winterise on the 22nd October, with plans to return in April with new adventures waiting.
In 2016 we had a fabulous trip through South Holland with friends on a hire boat. So it was time to revisit, again with friends, on our own boat. Our starting point was Utrecht where we meet Robin and Phil Mellet. Peter did not brave the bridges of Utrecht in our boat , as he did in the hire boat, so we came off the Amsterdam Ring Canal on a sunny Sunday afternoon, turned right onto the Vecht, and were lucky enough to find the last mooring through the lock at Utrecht.
Joie de Vivre in Utrecht surrounded by hire boats
We thought we had a lucky mooring until I woke the next morning to find my beautifully cleaned boat covered in bird shit! Uck, a warning to the unwary, don’t park under trees. The first day in Utrecht with the Mellets saw us walk our feet off with not only a city walking tour, but an underground tour as well.
we were now off on our adventure, with our trip down the Vecht taking us pass luxury houses to Loenen and dinner at the 1 star restaurant t’Amsterdammertje, which was as tasty as I remembered it from 2016.
Then it was onto Amsterdam with a mooring at Six Haven. And that was a long day, as we sat waiting for bridges to open. We eventually found out after a lot of phoning and radioing that they were having problems with the system, that left us waiting at a few bridges for over an hour.
For those familiar with Amsterdam, Six haven is across the Noord sea Canal from the city, with easy access via the free ferry. So it was Amsterdam, with a segway tour in order, a visit to the Rijks Museum (my third) and a little bit of shopping (while Peter and Phil visited the Maratime museum).
And yes we would venture back again to Amsterdam, but now we headed north to Haarlem, arriving on market day. This is perhaps one of the best markets that I have visited in the Netherlands, the other being in Maastricht. The market gave us the opportunity to introduce the Mellets to a speciality of the Netherlands, the fish truck with not only fresh delights, but fried prawns with a dipping sauce, which have now become one of my go to dishes.
Lunch in the market
We had our last spurt of the European summer in Haarlem and although we were now heading south the weather worsened.
But it’s snug inside
With a change in the weather we didn’t linger in Leiden or Delft but made a dash to Rotterdam and the historic harbour of Veerhaven. The museum in Rotterdam closed in May, for renovations that are estimated to take 5 years. With no museum to visit, Robin, Phil and I took a day trip on the train to Den Haag to see the Mauritius Haus and Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.
Sadly the day came too quickly and we farewelled our last visitors for this season. As I sit writing my blog, with the rain tinkling on the cabin roof, I think, like the swallows we should be heading southto Australia and a warmer climate. The start of this journey has been delayed by storm warnings, but hopefully we can throw off our lines tomorrow and commence our trip to our winter mooring in Coupure.
There is only one thing I can say about these last 2 weeks, and that is, ‘how do you pronounce the name of that city’!! However, the haven master at Leerdam gave me a good hint, if you see a ‘g’ pronounce it as an ‘h’ as in hospital, but then he confided that most English speaking people don’t even try.
So we left Nijmegen (pronounced nighmaygan), for Tiel, then up the Amsterdam Ring Canal to Wageningen (the ‘w’ is pronounced as a ‘v’), to Arnhem. This is on the Nederrijn, which is a tributary of the Rhine. Then back to Culemborg. From there we left the major rivers for a trip down the Merwedekade to the Linge and the town of Leerdam and Gorinchem. (There’s that ‘g’). We rejoined the commercial route of the Bowen Merwede to Dortretch, then up the Noord to the Lek, stopping at Kinderdyke, then Schoonhoven. Sounds confusing? Well don’t run off to find a map, I have included one below. And if it looks as though we have been travelling around in circles, well yes we have!
Map of travels
Each town or village has its own unique character. Arnhem was the site of a major battle in the Second World War. The town was heavily bombed, but the church was in its final stage of rebuild, with the reopening scheduled to coincide with a 75 year commemoration of the battle at the end of September. We went to the top of the tower by lift, to admire the view and stand on the projecting glass floors.
Gorinchem gave us the opportunity to unpack the bikes, to ride along the top of the dikes and take a ferry to the other side of the river to explore further a field. Who said bikes weren’t a good investment?
The church in Dortrecht boasts beautiful stained glass windows, from past centuries and from present time, and of course an opportunity to light a candle.
We planned a visit to Kinderdijk and and the world heritage listed windmills. The nearest harbour to the windmills was across the river, so it was out with the bikes again, and onto the ferry. After the peaceful seclusion of the towns along the rivers and canals, it was a bit of a shock to be back in the land of the tourists and even though we are late in the season, there was still plenty of them.
The windmills are not only a museum, but still operate dragging the water from the land below sea level, and pumping it out into the river. You really have to admire the Dutch ability to manage water. Perhaps some should go to France to educate the VNF.
We have admired windmills, ancient fortification, (this part of the world has been fought over for years), lovingly maintained listed buildings, harbours full of historic barges and of course the river traffic, both the monsterous barges that dwarf our Joie de Vivre and our fellow pleasure boats.
And finally, it was fun discovering the small statues hidden in obscure places in some of the towns.
These fellows guard the town gates at Gorinchem
From Kinderdijk we cruised up the Lek stopping at Schoonhoven for a sleepless night on the town wall, suffering from the seemingly continuous wash from the commercials, who still ply the river at night. This wash surged into the harbour and threw us against the wall. This combined with about a 1 metre tide, saw us up and off early to dive off the Lek and back into the quieter environs of the Mederweder canal and our journey to Utrecht to meet the Mellets on Tuesday.
I really can’t be more blunt about this part of our journey. The Meuse in the Netherlands becomes the Maas, and of course as with any rivers, it becomes wider as it meanders to the sea. It is also a busy commercial route with 2 very deep locks. A lot of people asked about the traffic on the channel, but that was a walk in the park compared to the barge traffic on the rivers.
In one lock, we were called in as the second boat, wedged between 2 110 meter barges. As in all locks, once the lines are secured, it is important to control the movement of the boat as the water is let out or in as the case maybe. The next challenge is to hold the boat secure and not to be thrown around, as the boat in front motors off. As the big commercials throw out a lot of wash this can sometimes be quite a task.
And Karen still has to smile for the camera!
But big rivers and boats aside, back to a commentary on our visits along the river Maas and Waal.
We had a lovely 4 days in Maastricht moored in the historic harbour (the Bassin), close to the city centre. Wednesday and Friday were market days, and the best thing in the market, the cooked fish stands!
Our new bikes also got a bit of a work out, as we travelled further afield than the historic centre. Not that the suburbs were exciting, but we did find a watchmaker to fix my broken watch, at a very Christian price, €0!
The next European heat wave was starting to kick in as we headed from Maastricht to Maasbrecht. Fortunately all the marinas along the river are equiped with power, so once moored up, we kept cool in air conditioned comfort.
The 2 day stop in Maasbrecht was to accomodate a visit to Linnson boat builders, which only confirmed that we preferred our Piper boat, not only for the cost, but also the detailed fit out and finish.
From the Maas we turned onto the Waal, which is the Rhine in the Netherlands and travels to Rotterdam. We motored upstream a few kms to the port of Nijmegen. Even at this time of the year, with a reported drought, the river was flowing at 2.5 to 3 knots, that slowed our uphill passage quite considerably. Just as well it was only a few kms! Nijmegen sits on a bend in the river, so the commercial barges were indicting to pass on the starboard side, instead of port. Quite a challenging traffic situation.
The interesting town of Nijmegen is the oldest town in the Netherlands, being settled by the romans and boasts the ruins of a castle built by Charlemagne. It was also the home of the medieval painters, the Limbourg brothers, who produced 2 book of hours, and are considered to be the fathers of Flemish art.
And if you asked what Peter did on his birthday, it was navigating from the Maas to the Waal, dodging the commercial barges and battling a strong current.
If I was to write a travel guide it would have to include a recommendation for the best boulangeries in the villages or towns on the Meuse. So as we meandered downstream the focus of each village, was ‘where is the boulangerie?’, and ‘is it open’. We are in the middle of the summer holidays, so the ‘is it open ‘ question was pertinent. For example in Revin, (which had a beautiful port), a notice on the door of the boulangerie indicated it was closed for August, as she needed a holiday and in Haybes I was lucky to catch the boulangerie open, before it closed at 11am. Again holiday hours. All in all had had success in each town except for our first day in Dinant where they had sold out of baguettes 🙁.
In all, our return journey to Namur took 9 days. We had a few days of rain, when we decided to stay put instead of braving the elements, then a few days in Dinant to see the bath tub races. This is a picturesque part of the world, that I hope we can return to one day.
The Maison d’espangol in Revin
The mineral museum at Bogney
The Hotel de ville in Haybes
When we arrived in Dinant, were advised by our French travelling companions, who we had shared the locks with on both our outward and return journey, that there was a bathtub race and associated festivities the next day. Luckily when we arrived we were able to secure the last mooring in town, but were soon assailed by another boat wishing to raft up. No problem, as long as they had sufficient fenders.
The festivities involved an all day market along the quay and of course the race. The weather was rather inclement, with showers and intermittent wind gusts, but although it played havoc with the stall holders, it did not deter the brave aquanauts, who if they didn’t get wet enough in their bath tubs, made up for it by jumping in the river. Our neighbours were sure we had never seen anything like it until I told them about the birdman festival we have for Moomba.
Bath tubs coming under the bridge at Dinant with water hoses aimed at the crowd
To the rescue
From Dinant to Namur we were back in the land of commercial barges, jagged cliffs and riverside chateaus. We specifically planned the stop at Namur to refill the cheese in our fridge, that was unfortunately lacking since Charleville.
Don’t book into the Grand Hotel at Waulsort!
Is that a barge or a very large garden statue
As we were walking down the lock I noticed a New Zealand flag on a lovely Linssen, and yes before we knew it we were sharing banter and drinks with our new friends who harked from Auckland.
Next day it was onto new environs , as we turned right and continued down river. We had planned to break the journey at Huy, but on arriving found the port was opposite a nuclear power station. Not the best outlook. In fact the lower Meuse is rather more industrial, and lacks the beautiful vistas of the upper Meuse.
The journey from Namur to Liège was over 60kms, with 4 commercial locks. In all it took us about 7 hours, and as it was raining on and off it was better to be motoring down the river, than sitting looking at uninspiring landscape. As we arrived at the yacht haven in Liège at around 5pm, we were rafted up to a lovely old barge, built in 1916. Lucky us, last mooring available!
We were informed by our neighbours, that the largest market in Northern Europe was held the next day (Sunday), just along the dock. But as it turned out the market did not see much of us as it pored with rain all day, and it was only as the market was packing up , that we were able to venture out.
Liège, however did manage to collect some of our tourist dollar. There was a large Decathelon store in the city, where at last we purchased our much needed bikes. It might have taken Peter over 30 years before he bought a barge, but with a lot of nagging from me and advice from other boaters, it only took 4 months to convince him that bikes were as necessary part of our boating equipment.
Peter testing out the bike
Other than the successful purchase of our bikes, Liège was a bit of a disappointment. It seems to have lost its way, empty shops, rubbish on the streets and more homeless beggars than I have seen in any other city. The contrast is just 20kms down the river is Maastricht, which just after a brief walk into the centre today, is vibrant , with a busy shopping district, loads of cafes and of course people, a lot of whom are riding bikes!
From Dinant we headed south up the Meuse and into France. Along the way we passed Bayard rock, which stands out on the side of the river like jagged teeth. Then it was onto Freye Chateau, built in the style of Versailles and the largest chateau in Belgium.
Our guide fluvial (waterways guide) indicated there was a customs stop at Pont de Heer where we crossed the border into France, and although we kept a sharp eye out, there was no such stop, so with only a change of curtesy flag, we breezed along the river and into France. At the next lock we collected our remote control to operate the automatic locks, which were the feature of the next part of our journey. This control looks rather like the old fashioned garage door openers, and to operate it you point it at a box before the lock and voila, like magic the lock gates open to admit you. Once inside the lock it is only a matter of pulling a pole for the gates close, the water fills (or empties as the case maybe) and in about 10 minutes, you are on your way. Well, that’s the theory, and it does work most of the time, but when it doesn’t either the skipper or the crew needs to climb a ladder and contact the eculsier via an intercom, who jumps in a car and comes rushing to rectify the situation. Our first non operational lock was over 3 meters deep, so Peter kindly offered to make the climb!
Our first night in France was spent at Givet. The last available mooring was under the bridge, which was not a choice spot. We happily left early and made our way to Fumay, past the Charlemont fortress and through the tunnel at Ham which is 564 meters long. After the long tunnels in Alsace, I stupidly said as we entered”call that a tunnel” only to discover it was quite narrow and low, with rocky outcrops jutting down from the ceiling.
It was with a sigh of relief that we exited in less than 10 minutes, that felt more like an eternity.
Entering the tunnel at Ham
The countryside along the river is very picturesque, high cliff faces and rocky hillsides dressed in the varied greens of the forest, but of course where the terrain is mountainous there are a lot of locks.
This was originally a slate mining district so the villages are a mixture of miners cottages and large mansions, presumably once the dwellings of the mine owners. They all have one thing in common, slate roofs.
The rocky outcrop of Dames de la Meuse
This one needs a bit of work.
As the locks are too small, there is no commercial traffic on this section of the river. And with no commercial traffic, may of the locks need a bit of loving care and lots of money poured into them. The title of this blog refers not only to the absence of commercial barges, but also the general absence of pleasure boats. We had all the locks to ourselves, and moorings were very easy to find, even late in the day. The towns were very quite as well, though I did manage to find a boulangerie everyday , and in Monthermé there was a great chacutier.
It was only on our way back down the river that we meet some other bargees in the port at Charleville-Meziere.
Our destination was going to be Verdun, before we turned to head north again, but the river level past Charleville-Mézières dropped quite substantially so we erred on the side of caution and turned around at Sedan. The river past Verdun was closed last month due to a lack of water, and with the rumour of further closures we did not want to press our luck.
But it does flood sometimes, a marker indicating past flood levels
We had the locks to ourselves
Perhaps the highlights of the towns in this part of the river is the place Ducal, at Charleville-Mézières which echoes the place des Vosges in Paris, and the fortified castle at Sedan , which is reportably the largest in Europe.
At Charleville-Mézières the place was sorting a summer plaza, with ‘trucked in’ beaches, and water amusements, even a 2 story merry go round. In contrast, the fortress at sedan, as well as the town and our mooring were deserted.
So now its farewell to Charleville-Mézières, as we travel down the river, visiting the villages that we missed coming up, then back to Belgium and then onto the Netherlands
One of Peter’s favourite descriptions of himself is ‘a bald headed old coute called Lucky’. Well his luck was in overdrive! In the morning I returned our electricity key to the Capitainne at ADEPS only to be told the the Ronquières incline plan had been closed again and would not reopen until 2nd August. It certainly would have put a hole in our plans if we hadn’t got through on one of the 4 days it was open.
Our journey now took us in south eastly direction, through Charleroi with an overnight stop at the small village of Auvelais, where we left Dori to catch a train to Dinard.
We were advised not to try and stop in Charleroi, and yes I’m glad we didn’t. The scenery of deserted factories and graffiti was like a scene from a Mad Max movie.
From Auvelais it was onto Namur, which sits at the confluence of the Sambre and the Meuse. Instead of keeping on the Sambre towards Maastricht we chose to take a detour south along the Meuse. Our plans were delayed when European heat wave hit. As we were connected to power, we could run the air conditioner continuously. Why give up this comfort and move to regions unknown?
No we didn’t just hibernate, there was a bit of sightseeing, Namur has a citadel to explore and what better way to do it than on a Segway!
Even a little shopping!
With the heat wave breaking we left Namur in the rain. Not a drastic decision, it was still warm and the blessing of water from the heavens was refreshing. We had an overnight stop at the tiny port of Yvoir, then onto Dinant.
This section is very pretty, with little commercial traffic, a marked contrast to Charleroi.
Moored below the citadel in Dinant
Dinant is a popular tourist town, with cafes along the quay and tourist boats plying their trade on the river. They make a big fuss over the inventor of the saxophone being born here. There seems to be a replica saxophone around every corner!
But the winning attraction is the view from the top of the citadel
After 3 nights in Dinant we plan to go further up the river to…. well we will decide when we get there!
I’m sure if there was a ‘Bargees Rite of Passage’ it would include successfully transversing the incline planes and boat lifts on the European canals. During our hire boat life we had achieved the passage through the Azvilliers Incline Plane and the flight of locks at Beziers. But more challenges awaited!
Heading south from Brussels the Ronquières Incline Plane loomed as our next potential achievement. We had waited the week in Brussels as it was closed, but now our day had come. An early start had us at the base about 6.30pm, but as we approached, we were radioed and told there was an hour wait at the bottom before we could ‘monter’, or ascend. It was with a sigh of relief that we consented to this enforced delay. After an early rise and 7 locks we deserved a rest.
Before long the gate opened and we were in!
One of the 7 deep locks south of Brussels
Well, were we in the basin, with the door shut behind us, only to be told by the eclusier that they were having problems with the water level and a technician was coming to sort it out. The time lapse, well it would be ‘longtemps’. That translates to I don’t know when.
So with nothing else to do…. we had a drink!
Another hours wait and we start moving up, to the plateau at the top, passing on the way the other basin that, (and we found this out later) had not been used for over 2 years.
What goes up necessarily must come down, and how do you sail a boat down 73 meters. How else but via the 2nd biggest boat lift in the world which seamlessly transports boats in 2 basins, the engineering marvel of the 20th century, the Ascenseur de Funiculaire de Strepy Thieu.
Our destination was Mons, where we had arranged to pick up our friend Dori and as luck would have it we pulled into port and encountered 2 Aussie boats, Gordon and Ann on Downunder and Austin and Susie on Freshwater. This meeting, of course resulted in the consumption of quite a few refreshments, but also a helpful exchange of canal banter.
No tourists in Mons, but we invested our tourist dollar and visited an art nouveau house and a museum with an extraordinary collection of clocks made in the Louis XIV style. Most importantly there was a number of super markets, including the biggest Carrafor I think I have ever seen.
With Dori in tow we were now ready for our next adventure, the four old boat lifts of the Canal du Centre that are now a UNESCO world heritage site
We marvelled at the 19th century engineering as we ascended back up to the plateau. These locks are now a tourist attraction so there were no big barges, just us and the lock keepers organising our relatively quick passage through this historical canal. As each of the 4 gates loomed above us, they looked similar in construction to the steel work of the Effie Tower. There are 2 basins, as one rises the other lowers.
Approaching the last lift
We did it! What a great experience. We exited the last lift and turned right, onto the main Canal du Centre, mooring at ADEPS yacht haven for a well deserved rest.
The only mooring in Brussels is at the Bruxelles Royal Yacht Club, and unlike our previous moorings, it is not in the centre of town. But conveniently there is a tram stop just outside the club that whips you into the centre in about 15 minutes.
The population of Brussels is about 1.2 million and mostly French speaking. It has a cosmopolitan feel, with very wealthy neighbourhoods adjacent to very poor areas with homeless sleeping rough. And of course being the capital there are lots of tourists.
We spent our first day getting our bearings, organising a tram ticket and purchasing Margaret’s train ticket for her onward journey.
Brussels not only offers the usual tourist musts but also, if you do a little research, a great variety of art Nouveau and Art Deco destinations.
These destinations of course required a bit of walking, so we certainly saw a lot of the city via foot.
Yes there was a lot of walking but a lot of eating and drinking as well. We have sampled all the delicacies of Belgium, beer, mussels, meatballs, fries and chocolates. Can’t believe I drank beer, but I must admit that the fruit beers are rather nice!
All too soon it was time to farewell Margaret. We are now restocked (found a supermarket not too far away,),and waiting for the Assenseur Funiculaire de Steph Thieu to reopen after some maintenance. Hopefully this will be on Monday 15th, but I will keep you posted.