Here are the statistics for the next leg of our 2012 journey:
- In Belgium we travelled from Brussels to Antwerp (or Antwerpen) on the Zeekanaal Brussels/Schelde and out onto the tidal Boven-Zeeschelde: 87 kilometres, 3 locks, 4 lift bridges
- Leaving Antwerp, Belgium we entered the Netherlands to Willemstad on the Schelde-Rijnverbinding, across the Volkerak and just into the Hollands Diep: 74 kilometres, 2 locks
- Willemstad to Dordrecht continuing on the Hollands Diep and along the Dordste Kil and Oude Mass: 27 kilometres, 1 lock
- Dordrecht to Rotterdam on the Noord and Nieuwe Mass: 23 kilometres, 1 lock
The names for most of the waterways in the Netherlands are a challenge to spell and pronounce, we thought the French ones were difficult but Dutch is harder!
Although the most significant difference between French and Dutch waterways is the lack of locks in the Netherlands. In their place, in this relatively flat country, there are hundreds of swing and lift bridges which may or may not need to be opened for us.
Sometimes a short journey in kilometres can take many hours as we may have to wait more than an hour for one bridge to be operated. We can manage heights down to 2.5 metres so sometimes we can ‘risk it’ and slip under without it being opened. Quite a different experience to France where a low bridge is a very rare event as they introduced the Freycinet standard for waterways which means all bridges have a clearance of a minimum of 3.7 metres.
In or last blog we had just entered Brussels cutting our way through the city feeling as if we were in a roofless tunnel (again) as the high concrete-sided banks hid most of the city from our view.
We arrived at the Brussels Royal Yacht Club (BRYC) where we’d reserved a place asking for wheelchair access. It wasn’t too clear whether this was going to be possible or not .. sometimes over the phone and with language differences it’s not always clear whether they fully understand we have a wheelchair which means no steps please! The BRYC is a lovely marina and luckily for us it was John who came along in his alligator skin pointy-toe boots and explained to us in his very gravelly voice (Stewart was right, he was a rock singer) that we would have to moor on the other side of the harbour where there was a ramp.
The problem was this spot was not for ‘visitor boats’ and we would be in the way of the working crane which lifts boats in and out of the water but at least we could use it on Sunday (the next day). So from our temporary spot and with enthusiasm we set off on our tour of Brussels starting with a long zigzag trail to get out of the marina to arrive at the tram stop. John had given us a map and explained the tram number to catch, “get off at the Bourse” he said, that’s near the Grand Place (centre).
The trams in Brussels are accessible with our own short ramp; unfortunately they’re not well designed like those in Valenciennes, France (see Stewart’s Tram blog). We disembarked with the help of our ramp at the Bourse stop, now underground, and headed for the lift. After a few minutes of pushing the button to call it down we had to acknowledge it was ‘out of order’. That meant, after searching for someone to assist but finding no-one, we had to get back on the next tram to another station where we hoped the lift was working.
It was, so with that glitch out-of-the-way we headed to the tourist information office at the Grand Place (some way off given our detour) where unfortunately we found it was not accessible with three or more steps up. In fact we found Brussels to be the most inaccessible city we have visited, even competing with Mons (last blog). Many pavements had no ramp off at any point, including at the zebra crossings, or they had extremely steep short ramps at almost 45 degrees, making a simple journey from one block to the next a real challenge.
We were shocked to find this apparently great city, at the centre of Europe and the seat of government, to be completely negligent in their planning, implementation and maintenance of wheelchair accessibility.
Sadly, we also found the city to be drab and soulless. We thought it important to visit the buildings of the European Parliament but it was a very difficult journey there along those pavements just described, and when we arrived we were directed to the Parlamentarium, the name says it all.
This was the centre where they managed all tourists visiting the parliamentary complex, it seemed to be their opportunity to trap us and tell the story about all the wonderful things they do with the vast pool of tax-payers money. We had wanted to visit the parliamentary chambers but we discovered they demanded a week’s notice for this!
Back at the marina we met Alan, the harbourmaster, who very kindly helped shuffle boats so we could stay an extra day in our accessible spot beside the crane.
This meant we stayed on to discover the delightful Comic Strip Museum one we think even our Pollyanna would be impressed with given the excellent displays with many ways of interpreting comic characters such as TinTin and Snowy and learning about their creators, in this case Hergé. It was also the former Waucquez Warehouse, a treasure of Art Nouveau design by ‘grand master’ Victor Horta (1906).
So we left Brussels on a positive note with a great museum visit and good relations with the marina even though we could never use the clubhouse and restaurant as it also had six or more steps up and no lift.
We were happy to be on the move again although we’d been building up a bit of anxiety over the run from Brussels to Antwerp via the tidal river, Boven Zeeschelde, which we had to use to enter Antwerp.
This time we were going down river (see our blog for last year, going upstream) and had to co-ordinate tide times with the large (250 metres long and 25 metres wide) Wintam lock (Nieuwe Zeesluis) taking us off the more gentle sea canal Brussel-Schelde into the river.
When we arrived at the lock Stewart radioed announcing our intentions, ie, we were pleasure boat ‘Endellion’ wanting to enter the lock travelling from Brussels to Antwerp. We couldn’t understand the various conversations in Dutch taking place over VHF, had anyone heard or understood our request, we didn’t know. A few minutes later the working tugboat close by came chugging up beside us, shunted his bow into the concrete jetty to a holding position, popped his head out of the cabin with a broad smile on his face. “Do you want to go into the lock?”, he asked. Yes please, we said. And he then became interpreter with the lock-keeper. Come in behind me, he kindly instructed, and despite the fact there was a massive commercial container ship coming up (normally we have to go behind all commercial vessels) we followed him like a shadow into the lock.
We shouldn’t have worried about tides and current, we had timed it right, just on high tide. We roared into the river behind our helpful tug skipper being chased (or so it felt) by the big sea-going commercial. It was almost an anti-climax as we had no flow at first and were doing around eight kilometres at 2300 or so revs, our average and preferred pace. But within twenty minutes, once the tide had turned, we were picking up speed and by the time we reached Antwerp we were on the lowest revs doing more than 10 kph, not as bad as the rivers Thames or Trent but quick enough. Our next challenge was getting off the river, in through the newly re-opened Kattendijksluis (lock). We radioed the lock-keeper on approach, we started our turn just beyond the lock, which was on a big bend, and heard the engine with its turbo-charge hiss at full volume working flat-out (consuming almost 20 litres an hour at this point) turning in the river to push our 37 tonnes forward again, this time into the out flowing river.
Thankfully, all worked well… skipper did a brilliant job, the new Steyr engine performed as it should and we were soon safely tying off in the short entrance to the lock to wait for it to open. Being a tidal lock this took almost one hour, and just as we scuttled inside to the safety of the lock a cruiser came in behind us. This lock had double gates at each end to manage the changing tidal water and so it took a long time to get through it.
The cruiser decided it wasn’t necessary to tie off (it was a huge lock) and floated around somewhere in the middle. Unfortunately for them it was at times very turbulent as water was exchanged to fill it up to the level of the canal we were about to enter for the final stage into Willemdock marina. We had chosen the slow and safe way of tying off and were very thankful.
Finally we exited the lock behind the cruiser and optimistically we thought we were about to enter the marina and could have a restful afternoon and evening. But we found we had missed the opening of London Bridge (in Dutch, Londonbrug) and had to wait with our cruiser colleagues in the large outer harbour for another two hours until finally we could make our way into Antwerp’s fantastic Willemdock marina.
Willemdock Antwerp is one of the best marinas we’ve used to date. One reason is Tony, the Harbourmaster, who greeted all of the boats (by now eight or more of us gathering for the opening of the bridge) in his rubber ducky giving instructions on where each boat was to moor once inside. We also love Willemdock for its location which is just off the central marketplace in the heart of the city and there is a long, gently sloping ramp up to street level.
When I asked Tony in which direction we should head for a good restaurant he insisted he book one for us .. ‘Felix Pakhuis’. A great place just above our mooring at street level , within two minutes of the boat: fantastic style, large and packed with happy customers creating a vibrant atmosphere and even providing great food! Perfect. We loved Antwerp!
Over the next few days we visited the Plantin-Moretus print museum and Vleeshuis (Butchers Hall) music museum, both excellent. The Plantin-Moretus museum originally housed the printing company, founded in 1550, of Christoffel Plantijn, the first industrial printer in history. After his death it was owned by his son-in-law Jan Moretus.. hence the name today. It was like stepping back in time as we walked through each room, unchanged for almost five hundred years. Not surprising, it included two of the oldest printing presses in the world (16thCentury). Many original manuscripts that were printed here were on display including an original Gütenberg bible and the first printed Atlas.
There were paintings by Rubens and Van Dyck, personal friends of the family at that time. No wonder it was the first museum in the world to be added to the World Heritage list. For us this ancient building was even more of a delight when we were greeted so warmly and then left to explore the many rooms on our own. At one stage a door was too narrow and as we had our short ramp with us we could use a side-door, one step up, and continue our tour. Many times people tell us the reason their building (museum, tourist office or whatever) is not accessible is because it is an old building!
The Music museum was also an intriguing building in Gothic style, built between 1501 and 1503 with alternating layers of red bricks and white sandstone (apparently sometimes referred to in Dutch as ‘speklagen’, or ‘bacon layers’), very fitting (deliberately) for a meat hall. The exhibition was centred on the history of music of Antwerp and the region.
From there we started the walk back towards the marina but stumbled upon an amazing church. We could see the open door and wondered what was in there and Stewart sat in the brief moment of sun while I quickly checked what was behind it. Wow, a totally amazing sight, it was the Calvary of St Paul’s church, this one we learn is unique in the world. It comprises 63 statues depicting the last days of Christ. I grabbed Stewart although he couldn’t get over the first step and along the huge cobbles but didn’t really need to (we could have used the ramp) as he could see from the hall. I walked over for closer inspection and when I turned around he’d disappeared. I could see a suspicious movement to my right, a chair lift in action and Stewart disappearing into the main church. He had been abducted!
While sitting waiting for me a very helpful volunteer of the church decided Stewart would like to go inside and before he knew it he was swept along in the most caring way. I joined him and we agreed, it was wonderful: To quote this website : ”Former church of the Dominican monastery of 1571 with baroque altars, sublime furniture, famous organ, over 200 sculptures and more than 50 paintings, among them a series of 15 works of Jordaens, Rubens, Teniers, Van Balen, Van Dyck..”. What an experience!
Finally, we returned to the marina where we thought we’d ‘saved the best for last’ having planned to visit the stunning modern MAS museum right beside our boat. Happily we’d had such a positive experience at the oldies in this city (the museums and church mentioned above) we didn’t care that we were treated aggressively by some staff of this new museum and that, unlike most people who could use the escalator, we had to have escorts to visit each level of the nine floor building. This meant asking permission to go to another floor and waiting while they found an escort to operate the lift. We would never visit this one again.
Antwerp is a beautiful city with so much to do and see, and with one of the best marinas (Willemdock) we’ve visited .. although it is a little tricky to get to using the tidal Scheldt River. So we certainly weren’t thinking of going back out onto the tidal river and out to sea to leave Belgium and enter the Netherlands.
We left Antwerp using the Schelde-Rijnverbinding canal which is like a big motorway for ships, it’s part of the main transport axis Antwerp-Rotterdam-Germany, but it is a canal and it’s not tidal!
So this part of our journey was purely A to B with vast grey industrial landscape all along the way until we reached Zoommeer (now in the Netherlands) where we spent our first night in pouring rain at Tholen. Here we briefly met the harbourmaster Vessel (not sure of spelling) who Stewart described as ‘Empty’ due to the fact he was not able to help us with any information such as tidal water conditions ahead or the harbourmaster’s name or contact details of the marina at Willemstad, our next stop only twenty kilometres away.
We were extremely lucky to arrive in Willemstad when we did, around lunchtime, and by mistake Stewart thought the harbourmaster said to take the space we could see on a long jetty which was allocated ‘short stay’.
We still had a tight space to squeeze into but it was relatively easy to get to and it was beautifully wheelchair accessible ending in a ramp to the street. A little later harbourmaster Willam (Stewart asked, is the town named after you or you after the town?) floated alongside in his runabout to tell us of our mistake but rather than direct us into the little harbour where all other overnighters were going he said to wait and they will see what they can find for us.
Luck remained as at the end of the day the hotel boat ‘Holland’ kindly allowed us to stay in our current space (it was reserved for them) tucked in behind them with only a few feet to spare. We have never seen so many boats come into a marina, flowing past us entering the tiny port. They were stacking them in four and sometimes five abreast, rafting up so it was literally like a can of sardines!
Willemstad is a classic Netherlands fortified town with the star-shaped green banks surrounding it, many of them hiding long tunnels with the occasional concrete bunker.
We were thrilled to be back in the Netherlands, hearing the sound of the carillons in every town, the immaculate paintwork on every building, the beautifully presented window sills of almost every house, the warmth of the people who would easily slip from Dutch to English, and the boats and bikes everywhere. Now we were heading to Dordrecht, another town we hadn’t visited before.
In fact most of this southern Netherlands region was new to us .. we’d carefully read all we could about the canals and rivers around here and knew some of the lakes could be hazardous in certain conditions. One of the recently discovered challenges with our boat was that the air vents in our engine hold (compartment) have no dorade boxes which are usually fitted on the inside of air vents to stop water splashing in.
We’d experienced several rough waterways like the Boven SeaScheldt for example but whilst they’re very challenging pushing against the current or turning into it there is little concern about taking on water. However, when in rough waters like the Amsterdam/Rhine canal with huge commercial vessels passing within metres, throwing up big wash, we’ve sometimes found a lot of water in our engine hold. But .. the Amsterdam/Rhine is nothing like our experience when we left the gorgeous Willemstad and headed for Dordrecht.
This meant crossing the Hollandsdiep which on a good day shouldn’t have been a problem, however, we wanted to keep to our plan and get to Dordrecht on the allotted day, even though there was a strong wind blowing. Perhaps if we’d waited a day or so it would have been relatively calm but we didn’t .. this became one of our most worrying days to date. Consequently we had ‘heart in the mouth moments’ lasting a few hours as we knew we were taking on bucket-loads of water into the engine hold as we surfed the swell, battled the cross currents and tried to avoid the huge wash coming with the passing commercial vessels. The crossings were the most challenging, when we had to go from starboard (right, the side we should be on) of the channel to cross the busy ‘highway’ so we could then enter the relative calm of the slightly tidal canal.
We made it safely to Dordrecht although that evening I sucked out (with our wet/dry vacuum) something like ten buckets of water or more (equivalent to ten gallons) from the engine hold, more than ever before. And we both agreed, we don’t want to do that sort of trip again, at least not until we have dorade boxes fitted over the air vents.
Dordrecht is a lovely town although unusually we thoroughly enjoyed sitting on board watching the mayhem of boats around us. Similar to Willemstad this port is extremely popular with boaters and the harbourmaster didn’t want to send anyone away so they kept pouring in from the Oude Mass and his team just kept stacking them in one rafted to the next. We watched boats coming and going and on both days of our stay we had three very large boats (our size) attached to us all abreast.
We wondered how our ropes were holding as these big boats were all attached to us, and we were attached to the floating pontoon. Throughout the night we heard creaking and groaning of ropes working on our bollards and the pontoon cleats. There was wind no as such, just movement from the huge commercial barges running throughout the night on the main canal outside the marina. We didn’t have a good night’s sleep although I’m sure we’d get used to it if we were staying longer.
Instead we headed off on the relatively straight forward journey into Rotterdam and back into familiar territory (see our block from last year). We will talk more about the next leg of our journey in the a week or so .. and let you know how we went with fitting the dorade boxes to prevent our engine hold flooding again!
We send love and best wishes to our friends and family.