14 August 2013

Barging Into Belgium

At 1020 on Sunday 11 August we slipped from our berth in Pietersplas, Maastricht and headed up the Maas. 

After less than two kilometres we crossed the Belgium border and shortly entered Toeleidingskanaal, which led us in about a kilometre to Sluizen Lanaye, the first lock in Belgium. 

We joined four other boats in the chamber, one commercial and three pleasure, and rode up the 13.96 metres to the level of Canal Albert. Fortunately, there were floating bollards in the walls. Thus far we had not seen a Belgique checkpoint, nor were there any signs indicating where it might be. We followed the parade of boats out of the lock and headed up-canal toward Liege, looking for the checkpoint.

Seventeen kilometres further along Canal Albert through a dirty, drab and crumbling industrial canyon, we came to the next lock, Ecluse Monsin. There was still no indication of a checkpoint. After five kilometres we had rejoined the river, now called la Meuse, and arrived in Liege. We glided past walls of bland, modern apartment blocks, which had mostly replaced the old homes along the riverfront.

Some homeowners have managed to holdout against the rather unattractive and rampant development.

A few older buildings have so far managed to survive the unaesthetic redevelopment onslaught. Those we saw were so few that they stuck-out as being odd. Possibly further in from the riverfront there are some well preserved and restored old buildings, but what we saw did not invite us to pause in Liege to find out.

As we continued heading upstream on la Meuse, Edi brought up a platter of open face sandwiches.

The scenery was mostly heavily industrial, with very few breaks of green or pleasant for the twelve kilometres from Liege to the next lock, Ecluse d’Ivoz-Ramet. Here we waited for the lock to cycle down. The locks and approach facilities are set-up for huge commercial barges, and the temporary waiting arrangements show a lack of concern for pleasure boaters. This is likely why there are so few pleasure boats here.

Above the lock, we continued through a seemingly endless industrial complex.

There were a few breaks for more pastoral settings and small riverside villages, but they were very sparse and nowhere along the river did we lose sight of the factories and industrial plants.

Many of these appear to be rendering the surrounding limestone hills into various elements and compounds.

At 1735 we secured alongside the wall in the Port de Plaisance de Corphalie, across the river from the three nuclear power plants at Huy. We had come 53.7 kilometres into Belgium and had seen no sign of any checkpoint. When I registered at the Capitainerie, I was not asked for any papers, so it appears we are in Belgium.

The view upriver looked less industrial, and this coincided with what I had read: "La Meuse gradually becomes less industrial and more picturesque upstream from Huy". We were amazed by the dramatic decrease in pleasure boats and in the whole boating scene. In the small marina there were no boats over 10 metres in length, most being 5 or 6 metre runabouts. After the first lock in Belgium, we have been alone in the locks, whereas in the Netherlands we were often crammed in like sardines with six to over a dozen other boats. The boats we met heading downstream were almost all Dutch, and they appeared to be heading home.

At 1030 on Monday morning we warped Zonder Zorg back along the wall to the entrance, the basin being too narrow to allow us to turn around. Soon after regaining the river we arrived in Huy, a wonderful looking small town with well preserved old buildings and gracefully curved stone bridges.

Looking down on this is the citadel and as we passed under its ramparts, we checked to see whether the guns were pointed toward us as unauthorised visitors.

In the early afternoon Edi made a platter of panini and we enjoyed them as we watched the scenery steadily improve.

We had just finished lunch when we arrived at Ecluse d’Andenne-Seilles and secured outside its entrance to await the locking down of a commercial barge and a Dutch cruiser. The lift here is 5.25 metres, so it took a rather long time to drain the 136 by 14 metre chamber. When we finally received a green light, entered the lock and were cycled up to the top, l’eclusier walked over to ask us the name of our boat, explaining he hadn’t been able to see our name board as it was still below the lip of the chamber. We figured this was the end of our lawless run in Belgium. We told him Zonder Zorg, he jotted it down and walked back to his control tower. Shortly the upstream gate began dropping, and once it had bottomed, we were given a green light. We began breathing more regularly as we motored out.

Upstream of the lock the scenery changed to a much more gentle nature. What factories existed were small and ancient, tucked in against the bases of the tall cliffs.

There were wonderfully charming private estates tucked into the greenery along the river banks.

We passed through one more lock, Ecluse des Grands Malades and then entered Namur. Within two kilometres we came to the confluence of la Sambre with la Meuse and we kept left to continue up la Meuse. 

On the rocky spur above us was la Citadelle de Namur, overlooking the two rivers. Occupying over eighty hectares, it was once one of the largest fortresses in Europe. Just above Pont de Jambes we secured Zonder Zorg to the wall and hopped on our bicycles to go across the bridge to the capitainerie at Port de Plaisance d’Amée. From the river, it did not appear they had facilities large enough to handle our barge. 

We were right. They told us the options, which were to leave Zonder Zorg where she was on the left bank, just below the Casino with no security, water or electricity for €8 per night, or head half a kilometre upstream, through Ecluse la Plante and continue another kilometre and a half to Port de Plaisance de Jambes. There they have security, water, electricity and no rowdies from the Casino, all for €17 per day or €85 per week. We pedalled back across the bridge to Zonder Zorg, struggling again to find a route in the very bicycle unfriendly environment. What a change from the Netherlands!

We ascended in the lock and at 1715 secured to the end of a pontoon in the marina. We had come another 36.1 kilometres into Belgium, a total of 89.8 kilometres without seeing a checkpoint, nor being asked for our papers. From here it is only 43.3 kilometres up la Meuse to France. 

Since we were two-thirds of the way through Belgium and had not yet been formally welcomed into the country, we decided to do it ourselves. For dinner we had panfried fresh Icelandic filet de fletan with sautéed Friesland potatoes, Belgian haricots fins almandine and sliced roma tomatoes with shredded basil. To mark the welcoming ceremony, we accompanied dinner with a bottle of Cava Ferriol Brut.

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