26 July 2013

To Heusden

Mid-afternoon on Wednesday the 24th of July we slipped from our pleasant moorings within the walled city of Gorinchem and continued downstream under Visbrug.

We continued under Peterbrug and paused on the bollards just short of the lock to wait for up-bound boats to be locked through. When the door opened and discharged two small pleasure craft, we had our first glimpse into the tall, narrow chamber. There was room for us to squeeze in with about 10 centimetres clearance each side of our leeboards. With wiggle room at little more than one percent of our length, it was somewhat like threading a needle at arm’s length.

We left the lock and entered the Waal, a major branch of the Rhine, which was full of large and very large barges plying their loads between the coast and Germany and further into Western Europe. The river is the boundary between Zuid Holland and Noord Brabant and just over three kilometres upstream it becomes the boundary between Gelderland and Noord Brabant. Fortunately, we didn’t have to go that far in the current and the wakes of the heavy traffic; after only two kilometres on the Waal, at Woudrichem we turned southeasterly into the Afgedamde Maas.

The Meuse rises in France and flows through Belgium into the Netherlands to become the Maas, which flows into the Noordzee south of Rotterdam. We passed through the lock and into the Afgedamde (Dammed) Maas. This is a fifteen kilometre canalised branch of an old bed of the river, which flows across to the Waal, a branch of the Rhine. Near its original split from the Maas, the old river bed became closed off from the river, and Heusdenskanaal was dug to rejoin the waters. At less then two kilometres long, Heusdenskanaal is likely the shortest heavy traffic canal in the Netherlands.

At its end, we passed through the large high-water gate and into the Bergsche Maas, the main stream of the river on its way seaward from France and Belgium. Also on their way seaward as well as heading inland, were very large barges.

Less than half a kilometre upstream, we turned into the Jachthaven of Heusden and at 1802 we secured to the first finger of the first pier in the harbour. It was late in the day and this was the only available space large enough to take Zonder Zorg. It was also the moorage furthest away from the Havenkantoor and access to land.

Late on Thursday morning, after a sleep-in and a leisurely breakfast, we threaded our way along the floats to the marina exit and the access to the city. We walked into the old city through Wijksepoort.

The city of Heusden dates from the 13th century. It started with the construction of a fortification to replace a castle that had been destroyed by the Duke of Brabant in 1202. The new fortification was quickly expanded with water works and a donjon. The castle of Heusden was the property of successive dukes of Brabant and the community received city rights in 1318. In 1357 control went to the counts of Holland. 

During the first years of the Eighty Years War, 1568-1648, Heusden was occupied by the Spanish. However, in 1577, after the Pacification of Ghent, the people of Heusden chose to ally with Prince William of Orange. William decided to consolidate the town's strategic position on the Maas, and ordered fortification works to be constructed. Work started in 1579 with the digging of moats and the construction of bastions, walls, and ravelins and it was completed in 1597. With the construction of ramparts and moats, the castle became located within the city's fortifications and lost its function as a stronghold. The donjon was converted to a munitions depot. 

The castle of Heusden ended in sudden disaster; on 24 July 1680 during an intense thunderstorm, lightning struck the donjon. Sixty-thousand pounds of gunpowder and other ammunition exploded, and destroyed the castle, causing the economic demise of the city. For seven weeks the citizens worked to remove the rubble, but the castle was never fully rebuilt. The original outlines of the main features were restored in 1987.

By early nineteenth century the defence works had fallen into disrepair and were dismantled. In 1968, however, extensive restoration works started, and fortifications were carefully rebuilt, based on a 1649 map of the city of Heusden by Johannes Blaeu, son of the famous Dutch cartographer Willem Blaeu. In 1980, the city of Heusden received the European restoration prize.

We wandered out through Vismarkt to Stadshaven, the small port that had been built in the thirteenth century with its narrow entry under a lift bridge. The inner basin is small, about sixty metres across, but even with the moored boats, there appears to be sufficient space for Zonder Zorg to enter and turn around. We talked of nosing Zonder Zorg in for a look when we depart on Friday.

There are many wonderful views along the city walls and in the city itself. Many of the buildings are restorations or replicas of older structures, though we did see a few old date stones back to the beginning of the seventeenth century.

We explored along city streets that are mostly lined with tourist shops. In the bakery were loaves hanging around for the tourists to buy; there seemed to be no locals on the streets. The houses appear lifeless and we sensed no community vibrancy. The streets are filled with tourists and the shops are stocked with rather overpriced trinkets and snacks for visitors. In one small shop we looked at a thin selection of aggressively priced fruit and vegetables, a small cooler with a few pieces of meat and shelves with packaged food. The place was obviously set-up for the desperate boater, camper or cyclist caught with an empty larder.

We retraced our way through the marina to Zonder Zorg. By that time, with most of the other itinerant boats having left and she was in remote isolation. We relaxed onboard in the calmness of the hot afternoon.

We have now arrived on the Maas, which will lead us through Belgium into France and we reflected on our travels in the Netherlands to this point. The map shows the 298 kilometres of our 2012 track in red. The yellow line is our 2013 track, which thus far has taken us 459 kilometres through an extremely varied cross-section of this wonderful country. We look forward to seeing what is offered in our remaining 140 kilometres in the Netherlands before we reach the Belgique border.

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