We are now back in France and it feels good. For one reason we can connect to the internet most days through our onboard 3G system which is an SFR annual contract so reasonably priced and with generally good coverage.
So to get back to our blog .. from our last blog leaving you at Deventer on the Ijssel we have travelled to Charleville-Meziers on the Meuse a distance of around 490 kilometres with 39 locks, most of them south of Maastricht, through Belgium and into France. In summary:
- A stop at Deventer and Doesburg on the Gelderse Ijssel
- The Gelderse Ijssel (heading south) leads into the Pannerdens canal which took us onto the Waal and after a run of 20 kilometres or so, we happily headed off on the Maas-Waal canal to moor at Mookerplas.
- From Mook we continued along the Maas to Maasbracht, then via the Juliana canal into Maastricht.
- From Maastricht we took the Albert canal to cross the border into Belgium where just before Liege it joins the Maas again but its name in French is the Meuse.
First we must go back in time to Deventer on the Ijssel only two-and-a-half weeks ago but it seems like months ago! So much has happened since (as usual) but especially along the Ijssel in terms of unforgettable moments.
We remember John and Lesley back in Ossenzijl being a bit surprised that we were going to use the Ijssel river as it is fast-flowing. Oh not too bad, we said and we all agreed we were going into the flow so it shouldn’t be difficult to handle the boat. When a strong current flows behind you it can sometimes take control. Besides the strong current it is relatively narrow and there are many bends in the river with lots of commercial traffic.
Quite often a commercial barge finds it easier to short-cut the bend on the wrong side of the channel and so uses a Blue Board to notify others that they are crossing and so you should do the same, or take whatever action necessary to get out of the way! We have a blue board light and one of our VHF radios is always on channel 10, the inter-ship communication channel.
Once we were on the Ijssel at first we thought it was going to be OK .. we could maintain six to seven kilometres an hour no problem, although drinking rather a lot of fuel to keep the revs up. But the further up-river we went the stronger the current seemed to become. All this was not really a problem; the trouble was having big commercial barges flying past in both directions, downstream and overtaking.
One of these overtaking commercial vessels was what Stewart calls a ‘Joy and John’ (ever since cousin Joy and husband John took a cruise ship along the Danube). The ship overtaking us was called Excellence Queen: 110 metres long, 11.45 wide and able to carry 143 passengers. Stewart’s SIMRAD told us she was travelling at 12 kilometres per hour (we were pushing hard at just under 2500 revs and getting less than 6 kph) and heading for Basel. As she overtook she displaced so much water in the narrow river that we were for quite a long few seconds stuck on the sand bar beneath one of the piles of rocks at our bank-side. It sucked all the water out of the channel and by then we were doing 0 kph and probably going backwards a bit. That was a really bad feeling. But we got over it, we had to.
The second big fright, on the same day, was by far worse. We were given the blue board signal from an oncoming commercial on a big left-hand bend, with commercials behind and in front. Stewart turned on our blue board light and we crossed channel but as we did this a commercial behind us did not slacken off speed, he was some way off but coming on fast. What he thought we were going to do we don’t know, perhaps he wanted us to stay out in the middle of the channel so he could continue to overtake us on the inside. Whatever, he just kept coming and I was sure we’d have a collision but at the very last minute, just as I could have touched him over the stern deck, he dropped off. This wouldn’t have been difficult to do given the six kilometres per hour or so flow of current on his bow. He only had to slacken off the throttle, ie, reduce speed and the flow of the river did the rest. What a shock. To get so close to us was an incredibly stupid thing for any boat skipper to do, even more a commercial/professional one.
You can probably imagine how relieved we were to find a good mooring off the river at Doesburg. Although, as our boat neighbour told us (the owner of a beautiful big cruiser bristling with gadgets) the relatively new long pontoon had recently been painted and it smelt like “dog shit” to quote him.
This town is a member of the Hanseatic League, or Hansa, which began as a northern European trading confederation in the middle of the 13th century and lasted 300 years or so. To quote from this website: Its network of alliances grew to 170 cities (including King’s Lyn in Britain) and it protected its interests from interfering rulers and rival traders using a powerful fleet financed by its members .. the first common market perhaps (as suggested in the article).
A lovely town but the Ijssel and perhaps these Hanseatic towns didn’t quite match up to the tourist description: “a sparkling river, described by many a person as the most beautiful river of the Netherlands, and the mediaeval cities of Hasselt, Kampen, Zwolle, Hattem, Deventer, Zutphen and Doesburg lie as beautiful gems.” Stewart recalled this description many times as we pushed up the river, perhaps because the water level was so low it looked drab and felt inhospitable to us. As we were leaving our neighbour asked where we were heading, Up-river to Strasbourg and then Paris, we said. He replied, “Not going up the Ijssel .. you know it’s the fastest flowing river in the Netherlands, no-one goes up it.” Well, we know for a fact lots of boats were heading up-river but we got his point, it’s a fast-flowing river.
By then we were almost getting comfortable if not totally confident with how best to handle the Ijssel and commercial barges with their constant blue board requests, zooming along in their own world it seemed, and finally we were off it. We have to say we were pleased when we left the river at a junction with the North Rijn (Rhine) heading along the Pannerdens canal. After some relief from rivers along this 10 kilometre stretch of the canal, reluctantly we had to turn on to the river we always try to avoid, ever since a very nice Dutch boat neighbour last year advised us “Don’t go on the Waal”. Basically he said you can use any waterway in the Netherlands but not the Waal. This is because it is another very fast-flowing river, very busy with commercial traffic, but it’s wide.
We have used small stretches of the Waal before, to cross to more pleasure-boat friendly canals, but this time we had 20 kilometres to go down-river through some very bad bends. Even our Netherlands Waterways guide-book marks this section in red with the words ‘DANGER .. Beware strong 4 knot (8 kph) current. Reflected waves/wash on outside very uncomfortable’, it states. I had been very anxious about this section of our trip, Stewart much more comfortable. We have travelled on fast-flowing rivers before starting back in 2008 with the tidal Rivers Trent and the Thames, and then in Belgium on the dreaded Rupel and Boven Zeescheldt.
The good news is we had absolutely no problems with this section of the river Waal. It is very wide, so the fast-flowing water doesn’t make handling the boat difficult (Stewart says), the massive commercials have plenty of room and we can keep our distance – and the skipper did a brilliant job as always. We were travelling mostly at 14 kph, and with very low revs so our fuel consumption was almost negligible!
This section of the no-longer dreaded Waal took us past a city called Nijmegen and on the other side of the river, north by about 20 kilometres is the city of Arnhem, which we’d passed earlier at the junction with Ijssel/North Rijn/Pannerdens canal. These two cities and this area was the scene of the terrible WWII battle for the bridge we’d just passed under on the Waal and the Arnhem bridge across the Rijn (Rhine) in the tragic Operation Market Garden; the story told in the 1977 film ‘A Bridge too Far’.
Twenty kilometres down the Waal we turned to port just past Nijmegen and entered the massive lock (sluis Weurt) into the Mass-Waal canal. No more fast-flowing rivers for the time being. We found an excellent marina on the beautiful lake near Mook, at Mookerplas, twenty minutes by bus from Nijmegen .
Obviously we had to find out more about the history of this area, particularly during the WWII period. Nijmegen is the only city in the Netherlands to be built on a series of hills (well, there aren’t many hills in the Netherlands) and they say it is its oldest town. There are apparently almost 20 locations from the Roman period still visible in this region and one of these we visited by chance.
From our mooring we cycled to find the site of the battle of Mookerheide(or Mookerheyde, the site of William of Orange verse the Spanish in 1574) up a very large hill by Dutch standards providing a great view of the surrounding countryside. Somewhere here the battle was fought .. all we could see was the gorgeous Heather known locally as Mookerheide (to confuse us), the word for Heather in Dutch is Heide. This we learned from a very helpful lady we met on our journey who recommended a route back down the hill which eventually took us to a Tourist Office not far from our mooring.
The tourist officer told us that a weekly guided tour of the area was going to take place in ten minutes, in English! We couldn’t believe our luck and just one other man joined us, Tao who was Dutch but of course spoke perfect English, and happened to have the same name as our guide, making it very easy for us. Tao the guide wasn’t sure how to handle a wheelchair on his tour; he’d never had this experience before. He scratched his head and we could see worry lines on his forehead.
Finally he said OK and lead us to a path inside the woods where he pointed out a water-mill, the Bovenste Plasmolen, the exact age is unknown but possibly it dates from the fifteenth century. Tao the guide explained about the formation of this ridge from Ice Age, with Tao 2 chipping in with further, clearer explanations. Tao 2 had a map of the region and we could clearly then see the power of the rivers Waal, Rijn and Maas all around us with Germany only just over the hill on the Rijn side.
The two Taos, guide and fellow follower, were very knowledgeable and seemed to compete for who knew most about whatever topic. They were great! This mill is special because of its water supply coming from the rare hill. Way before the mill was built the Romans also found the water supply and Tao the guide took us to look at the site of the biggest Roman villa in the Netherlands.
Unfortunately Stewart couldn’t get up the very steep hill to this one, although he certainly was going to try except a wooden fence stopped him with a gate not friendly to wheelchairs. Here someone official (we presume) has rather clumsily built segments of wall and a steel frame over the archaeological dig to show the outline of the Roman Villa as it was in the 2nd century AD. It would have been huge and incredibly ‘modern’ with a separate internal kitchen, bathroom with toilet, under-floor heating, plastered walls (apparently) .. similar to today’s most palatial houses.
The next day we visited the National Bevrijdings (Liberation) museum where we spent almost an entire afternoon absorbed in life in the Netherlands, here right around us, during the last stages of WWII. It was very worthwhile, excellent information presented in a variety of ways, eg, a video as an introduction, many static displays with posters and memorabilia of the time, another video on the heroics of Jan van Hoof, and a massive model display of the region with auditory guide through the stages of operation ‘Market Garden’.
It was quite tiring in the end but well worthwhile. We didn’t have time or energy to visit the town of Nijmegen but don’t regret it. Something for next time.
From Nijmegen (Mook) it was a very easy run to Maasbracht for our engine service and from there to Maastricht for our second visit, the most southerly point of the Netherlands. This city is where the Maastricht Treaty was signed in 1992 so it could be seen as the birthplace of the European Union, European citizenship, and the single European currency, the euro. Not sure how they feel about that these days. This is a favourite city, we feel it is almost a blend of French and Dutch in culture and style .. hard to believe!
In a matter of a few kilometres you can be in Germany, Luxemburg or Belgium (Flanders or Wallonia), it’s surrounded.
And it’s close to the home of our friends Marian and Gareet who didn’t have to drive quite so far to see us – we had a lovely few hours on our stern deck.
Soon after Maastricht we were in Belgium and the city of Liege (35 kilometres south) first calling the marina by ‘phone to confirm they have installed the ramp to get from the mooring pontoons to the quay and street level.
Last year we had huge difficulty getting to the street but finally made it with the help of a few boat neighbours using a very rough ramp from a commercial barge nearby. Stewart wrote to the Mayor giving him some good advice on how they could improve their port for everyone simply by installing a ramp from quay to street bypassing the six or so steps. The Mayor kindly replied, thanking Stewart for his letter and stating they would look into it. When we spoke to the harbourmaster (in French) by ‘phone this time he said yes they had a ramp for our wheelchair. Unfortunately when we arrived we found it was the same rough ramp that had been left there since our visit last year. It was simply not possible to use it again.
We also had disappointment at another favourite town, just across the border from Belgium in France at a town called Givet. We’d moored there twice before with good access using their long pontoon. When we tried to ring them to book we could get no reply. We arrived to find new signs prohibiting boats longer than 10 metres mooring on the long pontoon.. so there was no accessible mooring for us this time, despite a long battle of words with the harbourmaster.
We cannot believe how everything has changed so dramatically since arriving in Namur only a week ago. The weather feels like winter, most things are closed up and people seem to stare at us wondering what we are doing out and about on a boat. Autumn is definitely showing in the trees as they gently start to change colour .. but the flower pots and hanging baskets all look so wonderful still.. although somewhat neglected and overgrown particularly in Fumay. They are packing up everywhere .. just like the unfriendly Harbourmaster at Namur was, everything is closing so it’s messy with boating kit being packed away, all in transition.
Yesterday morning we had the most fantastic low fog hanging over the valley of the Meuse, the French Ardennes. As the fog lifted we had sunshine and a little bit of summer is back.
One of the rare other boats we see happened to moor with us at Laifour, a place we’d tried to moor at in previous years but it’s so popular in summer months it was impossible. It’s a tiny village, in a remote part of the beautiful Ardennes, with mooring facilities for a maximum of two boats our size. It is so gorgeous we were surprised to find they charge nothing for mooring and it comes with free electricity.
Yesterday, our lovely neighbour, Corrie, and I set off at 8.00am for the baguette shop .. a small Tabac we’d visited in previous years. One of the good things with Corrie (who is Belgium Flemish we believe) is whilst we speak in French she understands everything I say and I can understand her! The door to the ‘bar’ (for serving alcohol) was open and a man sitting inside at his table in the middle of the floor had a bag of baguettes and other patisseries but when we wanted to enter he said, “Non”. He told Corrie we had to return in half an hour, and then he closed the door.
We returned at the appointed half-hour and the door to the shop beside the bar was now open and inside was a slightly idiosyncratic Madame who gave us the look that made us think she was wondering what we were doing in her shop. She had the baguettes we were allowed to buy and croissants too. And I spotted a tub of honey for EU7.50 which brought a smile to her face, almost. For Corrie and for me she didn’t tell us the bill but added it up on a huge calculator and then turned it to face us so we could see the amount. No words of price or anything else from her were expressed. We think she realised French was not our first language and assumed it would be easier to show us the total rather than say it! You can tell from this they get a lot of tourists here, in season.
We are now on a run of around 250 kilometres in familiar territory all the way to Nancy. Mostly we know where we can get easy access to shore with the wheelchair and what to expect from the lovely towns. We’ve both had our down days, something very rare but rather intense when it lands on us. We’re now over it again and feel very much in harmony with our travels and look forward to the next section of unknown territory as we head from Nancy to Strasbourg to meet up with our friends from Australia, Ian and Pam McMillan.
We constantly think of our family and friends, we send our love and best wishes.
Lesley and Stewart