Dendermonde to Geraardsbergen
Jeannie and Jonathan arrived at Dendermonde as planned, got all settled on board and temporarily added the Canadian flag to our mast.
We set off soon after for a short cruise to Aalst, the next town along the river Dender, heading south, upstream. We still think this one through each time we enter a new river system – always scientists, taking the problem back to first principles for a solution. Right from the start, we could feel ourselves in a completely different cruising environment. The river banks were close; the undergrowth, trees and towpath that cosseted us made for a delightful setting; and the warm sun, blue skies and gentle thrum of Catharina’s languid progress (6 km/h) as we wound our way along was a soothing contrast to the rush of the previous days.
Our first lock was the Denderbelle Sluis (sluis = lock), with a rise of only 1.6 m, so nothing too challenging. All the locks along this river, and the canal that follows, are about 40 m long and just over 5 m wide – much smaller than most we had been using on the commercial routes we had been travelling for much of our past cruising.
Designed for the small Belgian Spiz commercial craft of the last century, these are the close equivalent of the Freycinet locks in France designed for the French Peniche barges. We fit in comfortably, although there is only about 40 cm to spare on each side as Catharina enters, so there is a bit of care/skill required to not rub against the walls as we cruise her 20 m length in and out.
Arriving in Aalst mid-afternoon we spotted the mooring we had looked up on the DBA guide and a nice gap where Catharina Elisabeth would fit comfortably against the low pontoon. However, the couple from the last boat, in front of whom we showed our intent to tie up, waved frantically that we were not allowed to moor there. They then told us the boat that had been there previously was due back that night. This was plainly untrue (you can’t hang onto these moorings – either you are there or you are not and take your chances on your return) and we went through the list of people we know who would not have accepted such nonsense from the other boat. However, in the interests of a non-combative evening, we took ourselves across the river to a high stone wall. The concrete bollards were more conveniently placed for commercials than our 20m, but we tied up nicely and sat down for a well-earned drink. It is always time for a well-earned drink once one has successfully moored. First stop – aft deck and a beer.
We took the time to learn a little more about our guests, (and they about us) and continued to talk long after dinner. Although Jonathan and Jeannie, like us, don’t have a sailing background, they do live next to a canal. Their apartment block is right next to the Lachine Canal in Montreal. This canal was opened in the 1820’s and opened up the upper St Lawrence River for navigation and spurred the development of Montreal as a seaway port. It was closed in the 1950’s after the opening of the St Lawrence Seaway, and is now used for recreational boating. Jonathan has even cruised this canal – in his car!
Jonathan is the proud owner of one of the relatively few remaining Amphicars – vehicles designed to be driven on the road and able to simply drive into a waterway and continue as a cruising vessel. About 4,000 were built in Germany in the early 60’s. These cars have crossed the Channel and cruised from LA to Catalina. Not high performance but “the fastest car in the water and the fastest boat on the road”.
Not content with that means of canal travel, Jonathan also has an amphibike – where a set of inflatable bags are attached to the frame and he can pedal along the canal. Lacking a dinghy on Catharina Elisabeth, perhaps we need one of these for situations where we are anchored off shore!
Events at Aalst
We did not look around Aalst but it is worth mentioning that there are a couple of notable festivals in the town – neither of which we could have attended but worth keeping in mind for the future.
Carnival of Aalst
The Carnival of Aalst is an event that takes place over three days, leading up to Ash Wednesday. It’s held every year although the dates vary as Easter and its related dates shift back and forth. Most years it ends up in February. The Festival has its origins in the Middle Ages but the modern festival started in 1923. Its cultural significance was recognised by UNESCO in 2010. Much of the festival is based on street events such as a parade of floats, a Broom Dance and an ‘onion throw’ which take place on both the Sunday and Monday. Tuesday has a procession of men dressed as women – so perhaps a slightly Mardi Gras feel! The whole festival ends with the traditional burning of a puppet effigy. A pretty varied festival.
At a warmer time of year, Aalst hosts another three-day festival in late August. Entitled “Cirk!” – this is more directed to performing arts: circus, dance, street theatre and music – along with the usual festive food fare and drinks. Doubtless a delightful and exciting way to while away a few summer days.
Onwards to Ninove
The following morning we cruised on passing through three more locks all around the standard rise of two to three metres, (and 14 bridges) again along a delightful stretch of river. We stopped at Ninove, where we found a very pretty mooring against a smallish pontoon, right before a high footbridge wildly decorated with flowers.
The weather had been lovely since we entered the Dender and was getting warmer each day. So a stroll to the local pub was in order, particularly since the owner had dropped by as we tied up to tell us the water and power was free should we need any. The pub was just behind us, nestled under some shady trees. Refreshed, we all walked up and over the bridge and into town to explore, and have a light lunch. (We’re not sure there is such a thing as a ‘light lunch’ in Europe, but we do keep telling ourselves that’s what we are doing to justify the exercise.)
We found a beautiful church deep in the old part of the town, where masses of beautiful hydrangeas made a colourful carpet, but it was now after 5 o’clock and it was closed.
Back on board we enjoyed another balmy evening out on deck, only retiring when we felt the temperature had settled down just a little.
Next morning, we decided to have a quick visit to the church that was closed the previous night while Jeannie and Jonathan relaxed in the morning sunshine, on what was their last full day before leaving for Paris the next day.
The church was an absolute delight. While churches are wonders of art and ornate decoration, they are almost invariably rather dark and somber places. The Saint Cornelius Abbey church is a striking exception. A fresh bright interior is immediately uplifting as you enter and enhances the feeling of expansiveness of the broad aisles and high ceiling. Well worth the morning diversion.
Geraardsbergen and our first hills
And so onto Geraardsbergen, where Jeannie and Jonathan would be leaving us. The cruise was, as it so often is, full of surprises. As we approached the first lock, Sluis Pollare, we were approached by the guy who had cycled past the night before asking when we would want the lock in the morning. He was ready to prepare the lock for us, but asked if we would mind waiting for another boat that he knew was coming soon. No problem. So we went in and set our ropes ready, then settled down to wait. In the meantime, Ian starts to chat with the guy, who had great English, and this amazing story unfolded.
Hans van Laetham, when not working the locks, is the official Ninove Town Crier (called a Belleman). He is very good at it. He has won just about every local and national competition where this traditional skill is judged. He was especially pleased to see we were an Australian boat because in in 2005, he won the World Championships that were held in Maryborough, Queensland – performing in Dutch. Here’s a short video of him in action:
He is held in such high regard, that the town has even made a Giant in his likeness. More on ‘Giants’ later, but briefly, one of the long traditions (dating from the 15th century) in this area of Belgium is building tall figures out of cloth and wicker which are carried by one or more people inside. Usually these are historical or allegorical figures – so making one of a ‘real’ person is a high honour.
While there are many thrills on the waterways, we think it is the people you meet and their stories that make the whole experience so delightful.
More lovely river scenes until we came close to Geraardsbergen when, suddenly, we saw a hill! Truly, it is no exaggeration to say this was an actual surprise – and a very pleasant one. For the last two years of cruising we have been in the Netherlands and Flanders. These are not called the Low Countries for nothing. Nice as these regions are for cruising, they are monotonously flat. Suddenly our eyes could take in fields, grazing animals, copses, villages and farmhouses on an undulating landscape. A feast for our eyes.
Our plan in Geraardsbergen was to stay between two lifting bridges, right in town. When we and the Dutch cruiser arrived, we found there was room for both of us on the pontoon, so we settled in and immediately set off to explore. Hans had told us to look for a small shop, Olav’s, up the cobbled hill above the town. Ian and Lisette found it the following morning after seeing our guests off at the train station, and stopped for coffee and a Mattentaart.
The Mattentaart is a local sweet cake make with cheese curds. Some years ago, Olav conducted a successful campaign to get a ‘protected geographical indication’ for the tart. This means that only tarts made in, or just nearby, Geraadsbergen can be sold as a Mattentaart. He doesn’t run the coffee shop any more, his son does, but the beer sold there still has his image on the bottle.
We took a quick look inside the Saint Bartholomeus church in the main square and could see it was worth a better visit later. It was a gorgeously ornate church – and we dallied for quite a while.
Today was Belgium’s National Day so apart from many shops being closed for this public holiday, a service was obviously about to begin inside the church. But as we peeped inside, we heard the wonderful strains of the organ and then a lovely baritone singing in (probably) Flemish. Straining our eyes up to the organ, there was indeed a gentleman in some kind of uniform, with a beret smartly in place on his head, practicing for the service that was about to take place.
But firstly, back to Catharina Elisabeth and more painting. She was looking pretty shiny and new by the time another coat was added to both port and starboard bow railings. Let’s not pretend this painting lark doesn’t take time, but four hours later, Lisette agreed to hop on the bikes and cycle back up to the square. Ian’s bike was giving him grief, and so Lisette waited for him beside Manneken Pis right outside the stadhuis.
This is the original Manneken Pis the locals will tell you. Originally placed in the square in 1459 it was stolen at some point, and replaced with the one we see today in 1985. The original Brussels statue was also stolen, and replaced by a replica in 1965. But still, the idea predates that of the famous statue in Brussels.
When we asked for hills, we didn’t know that Geraadsbergen is famous for how steep the roads are in the town. It is a feared part of the Tour of Belgium cycle race. Steep cobbled stone roads are a challenge for racing bikes, but we decided to take them on.
The high point of the town is a wall, the Muur, which is a remnant of old fortifications. There is also a beautiful chapel right at the summit. The road there is very very very steep, and entirely surfaced in lumpy cobblestones, zig-zagging up the hillside. One of our reasons for getting electric bikes was to be able to surmount the hills in France to get into the towns and villages. Geraardsbergen would be a good test.
We started off on assist level one (electric bike terminology), but it took assist level three to get up to the top. Lisette pressed on somewhat bravely and eventually we were rewarded with scenic views and a tour of the lovely chapel, devoted to Mary. The walls inside are being gradually and completely covered by engraved plaques entreating Mary to “Pray for Us”.
We’re not sure if going down was more frightening that going up, but, with judicious use of the brakes, we made it safely back down. Over a well-earned beer in the square, Ian’s comforting comment was “now we know we’ll be fine in France – none of the hills will be as steep as this”. Good to know!
Over our beer we decided this would be a good night to eat out. We found a fantastic restaurant just a few streets away and treated ourselves to some wonderful food and wine on the stone terrace of the ‘t Abtenhuis, then cycled back to Catharina Elisabeth for a good night’s sleep.
We stayed in Geraardsbergen a third night and covered off a few more chores, all ready to leave the next morning heading towards Ath.