(62) The Zeechelde, Ghent and Bruges – May 2014.

We left the quiet port at Klein Willebroek on Saturday 3rd May, just before 1pm and I have to admit to being a little apprehensive at the thought of cruising on a tidal river. The sun was shining and the weather forecast promising.

Inside the lock.

The last section of the Brussels-Schelde Sea Canal took about an hour and we reached the sea lock at Wintam just before low tide. By the time we were through the lock the tide was turning and we headed out onto the small section of the River Rupel which joins the Zeeschelde. A large Commercial barge coming from Antwerp was turning left onto the Rupel and a small day boat followed on rather more slowly, cutting dangerously across our bow as we made our way onto the Zeeschelde. Fortunately we were able to avoid it.

Low tide – heading through the first bridge.

The first part of the Zeeschelde was wide with green and red buoys marking the channel. It was fairly industrialised too. Gradually, as we headed upstream, the scenery improved and the river narrowed. We passed lots of pontoons with cruisers moored alongside as well as several free ferries and strangely….a jet aeroplane! The river traffic was light and I was pleased we had chosen to move on a Saturday.

Not so easy jet.

We were making good progress and were confident that we would reach the lock at Merelbeek (near Ghent) by nightfall. The race was on and ‘Aurigny’ enjoyed the opportunity to ‘stretch her legs’ as Peter throttled up.

On checking the waterways guide I discovered that the lock closed at 7.30, but despite our best efforts we were unable to make it in time. Fortunately, they leave the lock open for latecomers and so we moored in front of two cruisers in the large lock and were later joined by two large commercial barges. After our late start and about 8 hours on the move we were quite tired. As we were in the open lock, we left the ropes with enough slack to cope with the change in level during the night and went to bed.  Neither of us slept very well and Peter was up a couple of times checking on the ropes. According to the guide, the lock opened at 7 am, so we set the alarm for 6.30am. However, our guide is an old one and we were rudely awoken at 6 am when the adjacent barge’s engine started. We threw some clothes on and arrived on deck just as the lock gates were opening. ‘Aurigny’ was in the middle of the lock attached by four long ropes to the lock side. We pulled the ropes in and once the commercial barges had exited, cruised out of the lock into the early morning mist.

Peter struggled with the steering as the rudder had backed over in the lock damaging the indicator mechanism. He eventually managed to bring us alongside the high quay on the right of the lock where we ended up staying for a couple of days.

After an early breakfast of tea and toast, Peter attended to various maintenance tasks….well it is not often that ‘Aurigny’ moves at such a speed……and I cycled into the Ghent to do a recce of the moorings in the city.

I managed to find Port Ganda quite easily but became lost in a maze of small canals and roads looking for Port Centrum. My only map was an enlarged waterways one, which showed only some of the roads, so I relied on the large city maps to find my way. Gradually the city came to life and the centre buzzed with tourists as the sun shone.

Pretty quayside in Ghent.

I headed back to the barge and inadvertently, cycled down a road which was in the ‘red light’ district, with women sitting in large front windows staring out at me. Definitely time for a cuppa….

The following day we both cycled back into the centre and were able to find both ports more easily now that I had my bearings. We had lunch in a small bistro by one of the smaller canals, and enjoyed exploring the ‘historic’ area of Ghent. We also purchased a Belgian SIM card for our spare mobile phone as we realised that phoning ahead to locks, bridges and ports would make things easier especially as most Belgians in Flanders speak good English.

We used it the following morning to phone the lock keeper of the lock which would give us access to a free 24 hour mooring near to a park. With the weather becoming unsettled, it seemed like a good spot. John and Catherine Best (‘Biggles’) were ‘en route’ to Ghent too and once they had arrived we invited them over for coffee the next day.

They were moored in the Port Centrum and after our coffee, we decided to join them there for a day. Another phone call to a different, but equally miserable lock keeper and we were on our way. It wasn’t far, but with barges moored on bends and narrow turnings, Peter had to keep his wits about him.  We met a large private barge in the junction just before the port and were glad we hadn’t met him earlier. We moored up on the pontoon under the eagle eye of the ‘havenmeester’ and joined John and Catherine for a welcome and unexpected late sandwich lunch.

I enjoyed a walk along the canal into the ‘historic’ area and later that evening we both retraced my steps, enjoying the spectacle of Ghent by night.

Before leaving the next day, we walked to the Bibliotheek (Library) to sort out our photos for the blog using the free wifi. This is a new and somewhat irritating pastime for us, as until this spring we had unlimited 3G broadband on the barge. Unfortunately, it took a while to work and while Peter persevered, I walked out into the nearby park.  A Remembrance Day Memorial service was in progress, it being 8th May. The service was similar to that in the UK on Remembrance Sunday, the only differences being the date (VE day 1945) and lack of brownies, guides, cubs and scouts. Instead, school children carried plaques and banners and also laid the flowers and wreaths on the Memorial.

It was early afternoon by the time we left Ghent and the weather was deteriorating. We left the inner city and headed out towards the ring canal, hoping to stop in an hour so. Passing what looked like the right hand branch of the canal that we thought we wanted, we reversed back and entered, but alas it was a dead end! To make matters worse, we ran aground at the stern and it took several attempts until we were afloat again.

The rain began to pour and we passed through the two yacht clubs by the junction and out onto the ring canal.  As the rain and wind increased we had no choice but to carry on and hope we would find somewhere to stop. However, all available moorings were taken and Bruges beckoned.

Eventually, at Moerbrugge, we found a 24hour mooring with free electrics and were finally able to stop for the night. It had been another long day…….and we had said we were not going to do long days!

As we sat watching a film later that evening, we were surprised when a huge commercial barge ghosted alongside……….we think the skipper was surprised to see us there too, but the time we were up the next morning she had left.

The foul weather continued all weekend so we stayed put. No one seemed to mind and I was able to do some shopping and enjoy a couple of pleasant walks. There was an unusual memorial to commemorate the battle here during World War 2. This quiet little spot had certainly seen some action.

 Quite a battle at the canal crossing at Moerbrugge.

Unusually for us, we had arranged to moor in the Coupure Port in Bruges the following week. We had a pleasant cruise there and were soon reversing into our mooring at the front end of the port as the clever little foot bridge lifted up to admit us.

About to reverse into the port.

Our spot for the week.

The week would be a trip down memory lane for us as we had spent our short honeymoon in Bruges twenty eight years before. As we had watched children ice skating on the frozen canals that February, little did we know that we would one day return on our barge.

We even found the hotel where we stopped on honeymoon all those years ago. I’m sure it was a five star back then!

Our only other visit to Bruges had been by motorcycle in ~2008. We had decided to spend a night there after looking at a barge moored near Dinant . Even then, owning our own barge had seemed something of a pipe dream.

The city had lost none of its charm and we walked and cycled in and around most of it. Even in May it was full of tourists and of course cyclists.

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The central square.

Surrounded by bars and restaurants.

Hard at work.

Posh Waffles.

We even took a trip to the seaside at de Haan, enjoying a beer in a beach bar. The only blot on the landscape was the parking ticket we received as a souvenir on our penultimate day.

Best way to get wet on the beach.

Our week being up, we headed out of port at the start of the next week and joined several barges and cruisers in the huge oval Dammepoort Lock.

Very large lock – four abreast and still room for four other boats.

 

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