Thursday, February 4, 2016

Travelling the Inland Waterways of Europe from The Netherlands to France - Part 14

Read about this trip from the start - here.
Mist leaving Revin
The next morning there was a mist on the river. It looked so beautiful. Luckily we could see where we were going. It was a long day ahead and we'd gotten up nice and early as we had another lengthy trip planned  My other half dashed up the road to the Boulangerie which opened at 06.30am and bought us each a pastry. Unbeknown to us they had a 2 + 1 special. It's hard enough having to resist the baked food in France and then they go and give you a freebie. Oh my word they were good. He also came back with a freshly baked loaf of wholewheat bread. We'd figured out how to ask for one in French.
The French guide said the automated locks open on a Saturday the same times as on weekdays which is 07.00am. As we approached the lock, we noticed it didn't have any lights burning. Two reds = closed for the night or a problem. One red = the lock is busy from the other side. One red and one green = get ready the lock will open. One green or two greens = enter or exit the lock. We pushed the button on our remote but nothing happened. We phoned the number in the guide. No reply. We phoned the number on a board next to the lock. No reply either. Dejected we motored back to the mooring at Revin to the surprised looks of other boaters. They came to help us tie up and we explained there was a problem at the lock. Turns out the guide is wrong and the lock opens the same hours as a Sunday. We lost two hours of much needed travel time.
Amenities Revin
I re-read the Imray French waterways guide and the author is at pains to explain that there is a massive shift in France away from a centralised waterways management system toward a devoltion or handing over of the management of the waterways to local regions and towns. It's not been easy as the skills and resouces - as well as the will to take on this function - is not always there. One possible reason for the later opening of the locks and the discrepancy is shorter hours due to cost saving.
Laundry in the car park in Revin
The region from Givet to Charleville-Meziers is known as the Ardennes.  It has forests and valleys. It's a particularly beautiful part of the world that attracts not just boaters on the River Meuse but also cyclists, campervans, hikers and ramblers, rock climbers, fisherman and I saw a stall with animal heads so maybe even hunting? We travelled to Charleville-Meziers on a Saturday and saw people setting up stalls and info kiosks for some event along the banks of the river. The French waterway maps give suggested walks and talk about birdlife in the woods and on the waterways as well as a few local legends. It would have been nice to have more time to go for a walk in the forests but we had a long way to go to our final destination at St Jean-de-Losne.
Greenie going for a run along the tow path
I decided to go for a run on the tow path while my other half drove the boat. It's really difficult trying to throw the ropes around a bollard in the locks when you're locking up. The boat is so low down in the lock that you can't even see the bollards. They paint yellow arrows on the walls inside the lock but you still don't know how far the bollard is set back at the top. There are ladders on the walls of the locks but I'm too scared to use them. It would useful if I could be at the top of the locks and help with the ropes. Running alongside the boat would force me into a bit of exercise. Our boat doesn't travel very fast. But aside from that, there are speed limits on the canals to prevent wash causing the banks to deteriorate. Our boat was going 8 kilomtres per hour. A reasonably fit person could probably do a jog at that pace or ask the captain to drive a touch slower and walk it.

I mentioned hire boats earlier. Hire boats are a favourite for bloke holidays. These guys usually come in big groups and squeeze as many of themselves as they can onto their hire boats. They tend to drink copious amounts of beer, play loud music and hang about the deck of the boat sunning themselves with the odd swim to cool off or sober up. A hire boat with about 10 guys that fitting this description came hurtling at break neck speed past us creating an almighty wash only to do a swift U-turn and charge back the way they came. We passed them a while later on the side of the canal. A few of them were holding the boat in place hanging on a tree while another was sawing branches off the tree. One chap was standing on the river bank. Next thing they dashed off leaving him behind. And after a short while they did yet another abrupt U-turn and went screaming back to fetch him. We weren't keen to share a lock with them so took a tea break at a mini mooring spot.
Our stop for the next two nights was Charleville-Mezeirs. It's actually two places - Charleville and Mezierres - that have merged. It was created in the 17th century by a wealthy man who wanted his own town. You can see it was planned because of the square layout. It has lovely golden stone buildings and a massive town square. It's the biggest town in the Ardennes region. We arrived Saturday evening so popped up the road for a drink at the square or Place Ducale. Who should we bump into, but the Germans who did the locks in convoy with us a few days ealier. We had a quick conversation about where both of us had been. Late that night a night club next to the river got going and the music got louder and louder. It only stopped about 05.00am so that put paid to a decent night of sleep. I'm never sure if it's better to be in a tiny village where that kind of thing won't happen, but then you strruggle to buy food. All these towns have a market day one day a week but we kept arriving on the wrong days.
We got a free map with a mini walking tour of Charleville-Mezieres the next day from the tourism office. And did a spot of shopping at the local Carrefour supermarket. We've been so lucky with the availability of vegan foods in almost all the supermarkets in the Netherlands and in Del Haize supermarket in Belgium. Various plant milks, different soy yoghurts, meat substitutes like burgers and sausages, tofu, tempeh and even superfoods. We also found International shops where they sold Indian and Asian foods and ingredients such as gram flour, almond flour, rice paper wraps, agar-agar and heaps of spices in cities in Holland and Belgium.
The story continues - next week.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Travelling the Inland Waterways of Europe from The Netherlands to France - Part 13

Read about this trip from the start - here.  
Greenie in Givet
We tied up in Givet, which is a very small place. The Capitain was a glamorous French lady who spoke not a single word of English. But to be fair, we were in France, where they have spoken French for a couple of thousand years. Why should she? By now we were able to speak in words. Not sentences - just words.
Une nuit = one night. Deux personnes = two people. Prevision meteo = weather report.
The mooring cost was €8.55 which included water, power, and facilities. The facilities were excellent. We strolled past the boats on our way into Givet and chatted to the American. He said his crew had let him down at the last minute. I so badly wanted to ask more and find out what happened but resisted the urge to be nosey. MapsMe showed us the town centre and we found a mini Carrefour supermarket. Bought a few provisions and went back to the boat.
Shangri La in Givet
Almost all the cities and towns we've been through right back to the Netherlands have a church or three. Maybe even a cathedral. They have bells that chime. Sometimes long complicated tunes. Sometimes only the time. I can always tell the time at night in bed listening to the bells.
That night it rained. And it rained into the next day. The first lock outside of Givet we had to wait while the canal filled up with water or our boat would have touched the bottom of the canal. There is a tunnel and the water slows down squeezing through the tunnel. It took over an hour to finally have enough water to get out of that lock. Which put paid to our plans of reaching Revin. Our journey on the waterways that day was in ceaseless rain. My other half works with Norwegians and apparently they say there is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes. I certainly picked the wrong clothes. I could have changed but kept thinking the rain would lift and my clothes would dry. I didn't want two lots of wet clothes hanging inside the boat. The rain never let up and I spent the day soaked to my skin. We thought of the lone American and wondered how he managed.
Tunnel outside Givet
We went through a 560 metre long tunnel. Have I mentioned I'm claustrophobic? I was very tempted to walk over the top but it wasn't that bad after all. I could see light at the end of the tunnel which helped. The next few locks were easier. The German couple went through them with us. Only two biggish or three small boats can fit into these locks. They are automated. When you pass a senor on a pole, you push a button on the remote control the French waterways give you. A light flashes atop the sensor and voila! The locks set and open. They fill or empty and open the gates to let you out. Easy peasy.
Facilities in Fumay
We tied up in Fumay which is also an itty bitty town. Again excellent clean facilities including a washing machine and dryer. You first pay the Capitain, in this case another Lady Capitain, then she connects your electricity. And they had free wi-fi (wiffy). Only 30 minutes - but that's a whole lot better than nothing. No ways were going walkabout in the rain but a weather report showed an improvement in the weather. A drastic improvement in fact. The weather would go from a whole day of driving rain and a maximum temperature of 14'C to blazing sun and an anticipated temperature of 31'C in just two days. I find it hard to grasp that the weather can shift 17'C in 48 hours! But that's Europe for you.

We hot-footed it up to the Boulangerie the next morning. It had moved but we found it. Actually we followed a stream of people coming out with their daily French loaf. Only thing is we had no idea what they were selling. We're not keen on refined food. I was hoping to find a seed loaf or at least a wholewheat bread. In a small village in a remote corner of France it was unlikely they spoke English. I resolved to try and remember to take our French-English dictionary with us in future. Along with a sun hat, maps, mobile phone, sun cream, wallet, shopping bags, reading glasses, sun glasses, DSLR camera, ID, toiletry bag, etc. Now you know why I hadn't been schlepping our rather large dictionary with me.
The captain checking maps on his phone
These little towns are the sort of place a stressed out person should escape to. Town folk stand on street corners chatting, smoking, doing nothing, cats and dogs sleep in the road and occasionally a car passes by. Lunch and supper are pretty important and everything comes to even more of a standstill. We wanted to get to Revin as it was slightly bigger and we needed a few hardware items. Our one window was leaking profusely and water was seeping through the wooden panelling into the hull. We knew there was a problem with the windows when we bought the boat. My husband had helped the guys at the marina repair a few of them already. We've never been sure if the windows fitted the frames when the boat was built or if the rubber seals had perished over time. The boat is 21 years old.
Leaving Fumay
The big difference between the waterways in Holland and France is the sheer number of locks. There are a LOT of locks on the French waterways. They even have lock chains where locks are bunched together and you need to let them know if you don't intend to complete the chain. Our boating holiday in 2014 in the Netherlands was 1034 kilometres and we did 41 locks. This trip in 2015 through the Netherlands, Belgium and France was 1274 kilometres and included 298 locks. France has fewer opening bridges than the Netherlands. Locking up or down takes time as the lock chambers have to empty or fill. The locks are also old and can be slow to open and close. The motion of water coming in causes a current which drags and bounces the boats around. More than once I was hanging onto our boat ropes until I lost feeling in my hands as water surged into the lock chamber.

Schools in Europe re-open around 1st September. Most of the boats we passed were Dutch and Belgians coming back from France toward home. The waterways were a lot quieter than we were expecting. Revin was another one night stop but I could easily have stayed there at least one more day. The mooring was tranquil. No traffic, sirens, bikers or noise. Just fish popping up in the river, an occasional child laughing and the water rolling past our boat. Revin marina also had sports facilities (tennis courts, playground and boules) and BBQ spots. Sadly no wi-fi but c'est la vie (that is life).

The story continues - next week.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Travelling the Inland Waterways of Europe from The Netherlands to France - Part 12

Read about this trip from the start - here.
There aren't many washing machines at the marinas in Belgium but luckily they seem to have laveries (laundromats) which is maybe why they don't need to provide washers. We struggled to figure out how to use them as the instructions were in French and Flemish. While we were trying to translate the instructions into English, a bloke came in, saw we were battling and kindly explained the procedure to us in perfect English. We had three huge loads of washing to do. And then the bikers surfaced. The noise started all over again. These people roared past the street cafes and the quayside in a never ending procession of bikes roaring, thumping motors, hooting and revving. One would think they would move on and actually ride their bikes but if I didn't know better they had one purpose and that was to disturb the peace. They went round and round the small town. It seemed such a pointless thing to do. I rather wished ill on them after a while.
The next day we set out to explore Dinant. It was Monday and the bikers had gone. We went up the Citadel where the view was amazing. They incorporate the history of Belgium and the area in the museum visit. A person can't help but feel sorry for Belgium sandwiched between the Netherlands, France and Germany. The Belgians have tried to be a neutral country but they have been invaded right, left and centre and at one stage were ruled by Austria. A visit to the Citadel is well worth €8 per person. After that we walked along the quay in both directions of the town. We wanted to do the Leffe beer tour but that was closed on Mondays. Not far away were the Grotte La Merveilleuse caves. Also closed. Our plans for Tuesday would include those two attractions. We ended up doing a nice shop-up for provisions at Del Haize. They probably had the best selection of meat-free and dairy-free foods of all the supermarkets in Belgium.
View from the Citadel
We decided to go right into the Tourist Info office the following morning and try the free wi-fi once more but inside. It worked. My other half had business negotiations he needed to keep abreast of and both my parents weren't well. It wasn't good news for either of us but at least we knew what was going on in our lives. We walked up the hill to do the Leffe beer tour. It was €7 per person and included a walk around a church where they had a selection of video presentations about the history of the monks, the Leffe abbey, the region, how they made their beers as well as a beer tasting and a complimentary Leffe beer glass. I really enjoyed learning more about beer brewing however a good few of the information screens were broken so we only got half the information. We had three mini glasses of beer to taste - a rose, a blonde and a brown beer. All good. Have I mentioned how much we love Belgian beer?
Leffe beer tour
Sadly we never got to see the caves. My husband had ordered boat spares via the Tourist Info office. The bloke who was meant to come and see which spares at 14.00pm only arrived at 16.00pm. My husband ended up having to go back to their workshop to collect his goods. They charged a call-out fee of €40 which we thought was a bit cheeky. I have to confess I was sort of pleased to miss the caves. Much as I wanted to see them - I'm a claustrophobe.
At the Citadel
We sat that evening planning the passage to Givet - our first stop in France. A person can never know what a place will be like. More than once we've been surprised in a good way. We've also been surprised in a bad way. The Imray waterway books have been an immensely valuable guide for us. I noticed the French one had much less info on the towns than either the Belgian or Netherlands guides. The Netherlands waterways have a series of individual maps for each of their waterway regions while Belgium has one single large map with the entire canal and river network on it. The French maps are just the business. They're actually in a book format with maps and a guide combined. The books include history, tourist info, places of interest, mooring spots, local restaurants and more of that kind of info.
Free Leffe beers from Tourism office in Dinant
The trip from Dinant to Givet was 23 kilometres and four locks, three in Belgium and one in France. We locked up 10 metres in total. A group of us travelled in convoy. One couple on a hire boat. No idea where they were from. I couldn't recognise the language they were speaking. A German couple. A lone American from Hawaii on a big Dutch barge. And us. At the last lock, the lock keeper (eclusiere) made sure we all went up to his office to buy a vignet, a waterway license to travel in France. Vignets cost €400 per year or €133 per month or part thereof. Almost double what the Imray guide had suggested which is a steep increase in only 4 years.
The Gallery in Shangri La. We were able to make plant cheeze and veganaise
We needed two vignets for two months. You stick these on your boat window so they can see that you've paid. They also load all your boat information into their computer system to keep check when you pass through the locks. And one more thing - they lend you a remote control to manage the locks yourself. With an instruction manual. On reading that I felt a whole lot better about my poor French. The English instructions were most definitely not done by an English person. We realised how easy it is to get translations wrong and wondered what we must sound like trying to speak French.
Belgian vignet
I crossed into France with no immigration, passport control, no questions - no nothing. Since I hold a South African passport I'm used to the European immigration people at the airports making a big fuss and asking a zillion quesions. Clearly on the waterways in Europe none of that stuff happens. I just hoped that when the time came to leave France there wouldn't be an issue.
French vignet

The story continues - here.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Travelling the Inland Waterways of Europe from The Netherlands to France - Part 11

Read about this trip from the start - here.  
I needed to go for a run. Let's not pretend, I go for a light jog, but whatever, I needed to move. One nice thing about the waterways in Belgium and in France is there is always a tow path right next to the canal. Long ago back when there weren't motors, they used horses on the side of the canals to drag barges. Apparently, according to one of the tourist guides they used humans in Belgium!

Woman would knit as they walked dragging barges. Now that's multi-tasking. The upside of a run is I get a bit ahead and see where we're going. Namur had a lovely promenade next to the canal. It was yet another hot day. All the world was out swimming, water ski-ing, canoeing, basking in the sun and generally enjoying the good weather while it lasted. I liked Namur.
The Capitain as they call a Havenmeester (harbour master) in French arrived late. He's a busy guy managing 3 marinas. He spoke perfect English and offered loads of information and advice including a fuel top up. Hell yes! And the rate was excellent considering it was being delivered. He gave directions to the organic market and advised us not to go too early. We were thrilled to have the fuel problem solved and geared up to pop across the River Meuse around 09.00am the next morning. He also collected his fee for the two nights a whole €7 per night. Excluded electricity which was .50c per 3 amps. No facilities either. But for those who want or need the full works they had facilities on the opposite side at the private marina.
Taking in fuel
We did the city walk in Namur as per the booklet. It took two hours. It's nice and worth doing. We like that they kept it short and we could follow it without getting lost. We also went to the organic market. It's small but they had all a person needs. According the the Capitain it's busier outside of holiday season. Many of the vendors were on vacation. We bought the tastiest tomatoes I've ever eaten in my life. The farmers supplying them are doing something right. And we bought a bag of whole brown rice. There were also organic cheese and meat vans but we're almost vegan so gave them a miss.
Handy direction sign
We were expecting to take in fuel so untied bright and early and popped across the River Meuse to a vacant spot and waited. And waited. And waited some more. The Capitain had phoned and the fuel man said he was five minutes away. Which wasn't true. He arrived two and a half hours later with his fuel tanker then drove up next to the boats. It's a bit like pumping petrol into a car but you pump it from a lorry into a boat. Fortunately we weren't leaving that day or our travel plans would have been wrecked. We were grateful to have fuel delivered to our boat. We paid €1.20 per litre for diesel.
Heading towards Dinant
The next day we left for our very last stop in Belgium - Dinant. The terrain was changing. It wasn't as flat anymore. We spotted the odd castle (chateaux). The architecture had more slate roofs and turrets. Swans glided along the canal. The canal was only going to get narrower so less big barges came past. Six deep locks later we arrived earlier than expected in Dinant and tied up on the town side of the river. The Tourist Office was directly opposite on the other side of the river so we popped over the bridge and loaded up on leaflets and were delighted to be given three FREE Leffe beers. Dinant is the home of Leffe beer. It was hell hot so we wanted to avoid the sun and sit on our back deck reading up on Dinant. We chatted to a couple who planned to go to Paris but alas their engine packed in. They were limping back to Roermond in the Netherlands to have their engine replaced.
Trying to figure out how to do a load of washing
Back at the boat we tried to connect to the electricity supply but nothing happened. My husband tried another socket. Still nothing. He took out the extension cable, moved to another pole and tried the sockets there. Nothing. We were dejected and realised we must have an electrical problem on our boat. We have an invertor and a generator so we could manage. It was a Saturday and we could only start to find someone on Monday. Not much we could do but chill and drink beer watching the world go by. What we didn't know is they were having a biker rally in medieval Dinant. Hoardes of bikers roared around this normally sleepy town. They made an almighty noise. Emergency sirens went off every few minutes. No exaggeration on this. One has to wonder what could be going so wrong for emergency vehicles to be charging about so much? More than one boat left to find somewhere quieter. We were stuck as we had to solve our electricity problem.
Keeping cool in Dinant
One thing we found in Dinant is we could sort of understand when they spoke. I keep referring to the folk in Wallonia as French and saying we couldn't understand them. I suspect the reason is they speak a French dialect in Belgium. Close to the French border it was more like we expected French to be. We were furiously brushing up on our Michel Thomas French CDs. Also some of what we'd forgotten was slowly coming back. But we still had a long way to go before we could have a conversation. I needed to prioritise numbers and counting so I could at least understand how much money they were asking for at the supermarkets. All I could say in perfect French was that I couldn't speak French. Locals would look at me perplexed.
The next day it was bucketing down
Sundays not a lot happens. We decided to move our boat to the opposite side of the river as the amenities and Tourism Info office were both there. We hoped it would be a bit quieter and we thought we might have better signal so we could avail ourselves of the free wi-fi in Dinant. We tied up right outside the Tourist Office. I don't know what made my husband think to try and plug in the electricity again. But he did. And it worked. Just like that. So it wasn't our boat but a bunch of power points that were broken. Next we went to get tokens to do our washing and . . . the washing machine was broken. And the free wi-fi? That didn't work either.
Power point in Dinant

The story continues - here.
And for a different take on this trip, from the captain's perspective, click on - this link.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Travelling the Inland Waterways of Europe from The Netherlands to France - Part 10

Read about this trip from the start - here.  

Our next stop was Huy. We clearly were pronouncing Walloninan place names all wrong. People did not know what we were talking about. Huy, which we were calling hay, as in straw, is actually pronounced like the French word for yes, as in Oui. When asking for a Carrefour, a French supermarket, we were saying - Carry For - but it's pronounced - Khar Foohr. Given that it was still the height of summer, and France is a boating Mecca, we were expecting to see a lot more boats on the waterways. Belgium is a through route to France for a few countries. The Meuse River from Liege is mostly unspoilt by heavy industry and I think beautiful. I would rate it up there with some of the scenic routes we have passed through in France or the Netherlands.
Approaching Huy via the canal
The marina at Huy was a pleasure. Nice clean showers with 24 hour access, a restaurant, full strength wifi, water and electricity included in the €13 fee. There were 5 other boats with us in the marina. My husband and I took a day out and went to explore Huy. The marina is about 1.5 kilometres from the town centre. We walked along the river and over the bridge into the town. It was market day. There were some familiar faces from the Liege market. We found what we thought was a Tourist Info office but later discovered a proper one near the fort. The woman there tried to be helpful but could not speak a word of English. She gave us a map and marked key attractions and shops for us. We got by with a mix of our awful French and gesticulations. She probably wondered what the hell we were doing there but was kind enough to help us anyway. I'm sure that scenario would have made a great comedy sketch.
Stair to the fort
The cable car to the top of the fort was out of order so we walked up. With all our purchases from the market. It's a steep walk up. Not the smartest idea, but we managed. After that we walked out of town to find a hardware shop. My other half wanted empty gasoline canisters. We'd been asking about fuel top ups en-route and discovered that not many marinas sell fuel. A bit of a problem. Our solution was to buy diesel from regular car fuel stations when we encountered them in close enough proximity to our boat. We had bought a shopping trolley which we used to wheel our groceries back to the boat. It's possible to remove the bag from the frame. We could roll the fuel back to our boat on the frame and not have to carry it.

We were just over a month on Shangri La. Heading steadily south and the time of year was edging closer to the end of summer. The sun was setting earlier. When we left Zwartsluis it was light as late as 22.30pm. Now it was dark by 21.00pm. With the passing of time, our boat had become home to a few insects. Spider webs were popping up all over. I don't like bumping off creatures but I was removing spider webs from the rails and awnings regularly.
Friendly swan hoping for a snack
The next place on our itinerary was Namur. Before we left I dashed round the corner to pick wild berries from the bushes. They are yummy. And free. After about four hours motoring - excluding time spent waiting for locks - we arrived in Namur a total of 32 kilometres later. Both locks went smoothly with minimal waiting time and we berthed around 14.00pm. A person can almost always spot a hire boat in the locks. I'm sure the lock keepers must have a laugh. Not that I know it all, and for sure a few years back I made those same mistakes. But people on hire boats have no idea what to expect or how to handle a boat in a lock. They put out a single rope. They leave it slack. They focus on having a holiday and basking in the sun. They don't know how to manoeuvre a boat. Once the water starts flooding into the lock it creates turbulence and surges causing a boat to bounce all over the place. Which is why two ropes - a front and a back rope are critical. They need to be reasonably tight to stop the boat bashing about. And keeping an eye on all corners of the boat. Using boat hooks and fenders to stop bashing is rather important. We saw a hire boat sink before our eyes in a lock in France. It happens.
Marina in Huy
We chose not to use the private marina but to rather moor up next to a quay at the municipal mooring spot. As we came in we recognised a few boats from other places we had stayed. And gave a recognisory greeting. We chatted to one or two people. A Brit/Belgian couple told us they had sold up everything and now lived on their boat. All year round. They usually find a marina with all the trimmings for the winter months when the canals  have limited services or close before they freeze over. They gave us some handy boat wintering tips. Another Dutch/Australian couple were making there way back to the Netherlands from a few years spent in France. He commented that things are a lot cheaper in France but nothing works. I hoped he was a cynic.
Once tied up securely we consulted MapsMe app to locate the centre ville (town centre) and once there, looked for Tourist Info signs. They're usually easy to find - but not always. You might remember in Ghent the signs pointed in the total wrong direction. One new thing to get used to is making sure we had ID on us. A Belgian requirement is to carry some form of ID.

The lady at the Info office was wonderful. She made suggestions and gave handy leaflets. We asked about places to buy our kind of food - read organic, fresh, wholefoods and vegan - and she gave a host of options. It was too late to start any serious exploring so we went back to the boat and read up on Namur. The guide book had a mini walking tour which was a must. There was also a mention of  a Friday organic food market from 15.00pm to 19.00pm in the car park of the Omnisport Hall in chaussee de Dinant which is off avenue de Plante. Another must. While it may not be strictly sight seeing we like opportunities to engage with locals and meet like-minded people.

The story continues - here.