Setting the Scene
Here’s a map that covers our travels we made in Belgium over the next two and a half weeks.
The big challenge for us newbies was ascending the big, tidal, busy, fast flowing Scheldt river to Ghent. After that, we would be in West Flanders, really within cooee of our wintering spot, just having to navigate canals and well-tamed rivers.
Just very briefly, a couple of general knowledge items on Belgium. Most important is that it is physically and culturally split in half – the north and west is Flanders, where the language is essentially Dutch and most also speak English; the South and east is Wallonia, where they are culturally aligned towards France and English is much less commonly spoken. There is a significant amount of tension between the two regions, less now than in the past, but noticeable none-the-less.
Barging-wise, the west is still relatively flat like the Netherlands, while to the east, the terrain becomes more hilly and similar to Northern France. There is a mixture of canals and rivers and some waterways carry large amounts of commercial traffic. However, there are lots of quieter stretches (or so we are informed!). Mooring is much more relaxed in Belgium, more like France, where you are pretty much able to stop anywhere unless instructed otherwise – compared to the Netherlands where you cannot tie up anywhere except where allowed.
We planned only for a short stop, still keen to get well into Belgium – also, the tides and cost of mooring were against us. For the first, our trip up the Scheldt had to start at low tide and even as we arrived, the low tide was already after 10 am and getting later. Cost was merely that this was the most expensive mooring we had stayed at.
Still, we wanted a day’s rest after traveling almost 200 km over the last three days, so we were only planning a quick look at a bit of Antwerp.
Off on the bikes on the evening of the day of arrival, we stopped at Het Steen, a picturesque medieval castle and Antwerp’s oldest building – there a long queue was waiting to get into a recently opened exhibit of a rather gruesome event.
Apparently, we were told, in the mid 15th century, there was a religious cult that felt the path to God was not just by building upwards, high steeples on churches and so forth, but also digging down towards Hell. So they dug the deepest well in Europe of the time, some 500 m, and into this, they tossed thieves, rapists, heretics and so forth. The well had recently been partly excavated and tours were being conducted of the diggings.
You were to be taken down in a lift, where you could see some of the unfortunates’ remains. We waited and were told the lift only held about a dozen people and had to be inspected for safety every hour or so. Also, there were no English tours, so we would have to pick up what we could from Dutch commentary. Eventually, we made it into the castle. The guide gave several long expositions to the crowd who oohed and aahed, laughed and tut-tutted to all the stories. We smiled benignly. We were then led through a passageway decorated with black plastic and a few ornaments. We arrived at the lift to find a normal looking door. A certain level of unease began to creep up on us.
Inside the ‘lift’ we gathered around an opening with a trap door and after lots of warnings from the guide we began to descend. Well, the room began to shake in a pale imitation of a lift – clearly this was all merely an ‘attraction’ not a real piece of history! After a few more limp special effects, including lava erupting after the excavators punctured the Earth’s core (as if!), we escaped – rueing the hour and a half of our lives lost, never to be recovered, to this bit of fiction.
Anyhow, just a bit further, into the old town, we comforted ourselves with a beer.
Beer in Belgium
It’s probably not news to most but the country most famous for beer is Belgium. There are literally thousands of different brands, varieties and strengths. Dubbel (6%), tripel (9%) and quadrupel (up to 12%) strength beers are all cheap and readily available.
In this shop there are 375 varieties of beer for humans and, apparently, some for dogs too!
Cathedrals and paintings
The next day, after a few shopping chores, we visited the largest gothic cathedral in Belgium the ‘Cathedral of Our Lady’. Still in active use, it is famous for a number of paintings by Peter Paul Rubens that were either painted for the church 400 years ago, or are now held here.
One of most impressive is ‘The descent from the cross’ painted from 1611-1614. The triptrich depicts the lifeless Christ being taken down from the cross in the centre panel; Mary pregnant with Jesus on the left panel; and Mary handing the infant Jesus to the high priest Simeon on the rightmost panel.
The cathedral was full of permanent artworks and a number on exhibition, which, for once, were well lit and easy to view.
Too often church art is in dimly illuminated positions and so sombre that it is hard to pick out any detail.
Especially impressive was the statue of the Madonna and Child in the Mary Chapel.
We left under ominous skies and just managed to get back to Catharina before we were hit with a torrential storm. Fortunately, the forecast for the ascent of the Scheldt tomorrow was for fairly good weather.
Up the Scheldt
As this would be our first serious venture into cruising along a tidal river we did what we always do when in doubt, have a detailed conversation with our long-suffering mentors aboard ‘t Majeur. Michel and Rebecca had lots of good advice, and thus reassured, we prepared for the experience. While it is possible to do the route to Ghent in one day, it is a long haul (90 km) under conditions that require a fair bit of concentration. The other issue is when the tide turns.
The idea is to get started about or a little before high tide, which is followed by about six hours cruise time before the tide begins to turn again. Cruising against the tide is slow going and wasteful of fuel. If you were able to do 8 hours, at an average of 12 km/hour, that might just get you there. Even being pushed by the tide, that is a big ask for the whole day.
Our tide was turning between 12:30 and 1 pm, so too late for any sort of one-hop cruise. Moorings are few and far between on the upper Scheldt, and the only significant one is conveniently located about halfway along – so our destination was the floating pontoon at Baasrode.
The first task was to get into the huge lock at the entrance to the Scheldt. The Royersluis is 180 m by 22 m and as it was low tide, we would descend about 5 m. We radioed ahead and were told to wait while a succession of about six big commercial barges entered. As the last one went in the VHF crackled with “English boot you come in now”. Careful to moor at the back, we waited as the lock drained. The commercials sped off, and tentatively we nosed out into the wide, wide Scheldt.
However, the cruise was pretty uneventful. The commercials that came our way, or overtook us had plenty of space; the weather was grey but not windy; and as the tide became stronger, we sped up. Our maximum ground speed was about 16 kph with perhaps 10-11 kph on the engine, the rest by the tidal flow. As there were no bridges, we simply “sped” onwards.
After only 4.5 hours, the pontoons at Baasrode came into view. After checking that we should moor on the outside part of the pontoon, we cruised past, executed a 180º turn so we would tie up into the current and with the assistance of a chap on the pontoon, got our ropes around the huge bollards that were set well back from the edge, and partially hidden by railings. It would have been very tricky without his assistance.
The tide was still only half up at this point, there was still a bit over 2 m rise to go before the peak which is about 5 m higher than the low tide point.
We took a stroll through the town, not much to see, so just had dinner and slept quietly through the night as our pontoon rose and then fell and rose again. Before we went to bed, the pontoon was truly floating at the top of the pilons, just under the white painted part in the picture! This was an amazing experience. Meantime commercial barges passed us going each way, with the tide, travelling at what seemed to be enormous speeds. Only one passed us close enough to give us a shaking.
Our next day leaving was not until after 2 pm as we once again waited for low tide. Casting off from our floating pontoon, we turned right around again and continued on up river (heading south and west actually). The scenery was pretty much muddy banks and scrubby edges, but the trip was uneventful – we only saw one commercial, and he was coming in the opposite direction. The tidal flow is gentler as you get more upriver and it can be viable to head against it if commercial demands warrant it.
It was getting quite late when we came in sight of the massive Merelbeke locks that end the tidal Scheldt and convert it into a constant height canalised river. We shared the 1 m rise of this huge lock with just one commercial, and once through the guillotine-like lock gates, we tied up temporarily just outside the lock, against a high stone wall. Lisette climbed up the slippery ladder and spent about 45 min completing the paperwork that was necessary for us to cruise in Belgium and paid for a 60-day cruising pass. As it was now 9 pm and getting dark, we cruised around the corner and managed to fluke a mooring in a marina, in a spot reserved for a boat coming for the winter, but not yet arrived.
Next morning, we left after a bit of a sleep-in for the short 7 km or so to take us into Ghent, where we had reserved a mooring right adjacent to the old town. We travelled along a narrow, but pretty canal, through the suburbs and were moored by mid-day – so we had plenty of time to relax and become tourists.
All in all, we were pretty encouraged by this cruise, it hadn’t been too hard, nor very challenging, so, without being overconfident and recognising that good advice and planning played a very important part, we are now much more relaxed about the prospect of dealing with tidal rivers.