Travelling the Inland Waterways of Europe from The Netherlands to France – Part 9

Travelling the Inland Waterways of Europe from The Netherlands to France – Part 9

Read about this trip from the start – here.  

Turnhout marina at night

I still struggled to understand Flemish. But I was starting to see a Gallic influence in Belgium. Local supermarkets had four times the space allocation for wine. We stared and stared at the range of beers on sale. Never in my life have I seen anything like it. Their pastries looked sublime. And you could buy hand-made chocolates – at the supermarket! We avoid cheeses but the cheese selection was looking a lot more French. And of course, although we were in Flanders, we heard a bit of French spoken around us. I could see a bit of southern Europe in the appearance of locals. I also noticed holy Mary statues on the corners of buildings.

Turnhout is the heart of the brick industry

The shift from super industrial Antwerp to sleepy rural St Job – which was our next stop – was dramatic. From the frenetically busy Albert Kanaal we turned off into the Schoten-Dessel-Turnhout Canal and it was instantly rural. The little marina in St Job was an absolute pleasure. No more sharing Internet with hundreds of humans. It worked. The showers and toilets were immcaulate. Havenmeester came out to meet us and we got a parking space right next to the facilities. There were only a few more boats to arrive after us and that was it! Even the barges tied up along the banks of the river for the night.

Schoten-Dessel-Turnhout Canal

Speciality foods to try in Belgium? As aspirant vegans most people would think we don’t have many options. But we do. Belgian frites are available on nearly every corner. We skip the mayo and have salt. We found dark Belgian chocolates which are milk free with nut and fruit fillings. Don’t know how they do it but Belgian chocolate is good. And Belgian beers are the business. There are around 400 different beers in Belgium. A person could drink a new beer a day for a year and still not get through all of them. Brewing is an art in Belgium and the Trappist monks seem to have been blessed with a knack of making what we think are the best beers on earth. I was told by the vegan I met in Antwerp that all the Trappist beers are filtered with a reusable sediment and contain no animal products.

After one night in St Job we set off for Turnhout. Four locks and 10 bridges that needed to be opened. The Imray book said the waterway operators keep in contact with each other and open the bridges for you. But we found that you had to call them up on Channel 20 on the VHF radio. A bit of a problem as ours wasn’t working. We had yet to find someone who could fix it. Fortunately we were in convoy with a family who lived on their barge. They spoke a little Dutch and got us through. There wasn’t a lot of space to moor but a sweet elderly chap motioned us to a space next to his boat. And helped us with our ropes. I love that people pitch in and help out with ropes. We’ve met some lovely people on our travels. By 7.30pm the havenmeester (harbour master) still hadn’t come to collect his mooring fee so my other half went looking for him. The havenmeester came past later to let us all know that there was a public holiday that weekend which would affect bridge and lock opening times. We were grateful for that info. He looked just like Father Christmas. A most unlikely looking havenmeester. His English wasn’t great but we managed to get by with a mix of English and Afrikaans.

Playing card museum in Turnhout

Turnhout, capital of the Kempen region in Flanders is the main shopping area. Expect to find the usual retailers represented. Turnhout is where bricks are made. If you look at their houses, but also the local castle, you can see fancy brickwork with different coloured bricks. It’s also an agricultural region. The Dessel Turnhout canal winds through farms and the region is distinctly pastural. It’s flat and the canal is surrounded by a mix of tall trees from Oaks to Copper Beeches. We were expecting more boat traffic in such a pretty area but it was surprisingly quiet. Which is a pleasure on a wide canal. So I’ve mentioned it’s been hot. Europe had experienced 8 consecutive weeks of high temperatures which had caused a water shortage on the canals. The lock-keepers were being judicious with openings and closings. We had to wait for a boat to lock down before we could lock up.

Card playing museum Turnhout

This area is distinctly reminescent of the northern French canals with a tow path and tall shady trees on either side. Except you encounter the odd small working barge. Knowing there was a public holiday disrupting bridge and lock times, we thought it best to go as far as we could along the Kanaal-van-Dessel-over-Turnhout-naar-Schoten Kanaal. Yes we were on schedule, but a person never knows what can happen en-route. Bridges break, boats give trouble, public holidays all conspire against a proper plan. We both prefer to have a day or three in hand with our travel plans. And on that note, we think that boat hire companies are far too ambitious with their recommendations. Yes, a person does want to see as much as possible. But part of being on a boat is relaxing. And enjoying your trip, your meals as well as exploring local villages and markets. A hectic boating schedule puts paid to that.

We took a day out in Turnhout and popped into the Tourism Info office to find out what to do. Belgium is not really geared for English visitors. It seems they expect obviously Belgians, possibly Dutch and maybe German tourists. So unfortunately not all information is available in English. They rotate open days at the various museums in Turnhout. The card making museum had free access that day so we made a turn there. There was a young guy who spoke perfect English but he was at the reception desk. The lady giving the tour said her English wasn’t good enough. We wandered around on our own or tried to listen in and make sense of the talks in Flemish. Turnhout was the place where playing cards were printed. Fortunately many of the the exhibits had English information. The youngster popped away from his station to check on us (so nice of him) and asked if we had questions which he answered. We each got a complimentary deck of cards from them which was a lovely gesture.

The story continues – here.

Belgium – Part 2

Belgium – Part 2

The real Mannekin Pis is tiny

Read Part 1 of this blog – here.

Belgium is bi-lingual so all signs and notices are in Flemish and French. Since I can speak Afrikaans I was more or less able to figure out the Flemish words.

So, what to see and do? We only had a few hours at the end of each day. Heading out to the Atomium wasn’t an option. That’s the structure that looks like a huge big molecule, Google Antomium to find it. We did see it in the distance from the train when we went to Antwerp. We also saw a red light district just north of Brussels from the train window. They have windows with girls in them, exactly the same as the ones in Holland. Who knew?

Belgian chocolatier

Fortunately our hotel gave us a map so we could find the key attractions. Once we got close to Grande Place/Grote Markt we encountered hoards of tourists, all with the exact same idea as us. The square is really impressive. It’s surrounded by some of the most beautiful and gilded old buildings I have ever seen.

Belgian beers in matching glasses 
Grand Place/Grote Markt

Mannekin Pis is not far away. He is much, much smaller than I was expecting. Trying to get a pic of him without other tourists posing is impossible. We wandered around this area finding pubs and shops. We noticed frescoes of Tin Tin and other cartoon characters on the buildings.
Brussels has signs pointing you to the various attractions. If you can follow the signs you can see quite a bit, even at night, as we did.

Grand Place/Grote Markt

The following evening we went walk-about in Avenue Louise area via the Palais du Justice. I guess Avenue Louise is the Brussels version of the French Champs Elysee. All posh and pretty. Then we walked back to a Lebanese restaurant we found the night before, near the Grand Place/Grote Markt area.

It was cold, raining and we just wanted to relax and eat. After a Belgian beer and Belgian chocolate of course!

Mediterranean food area

What we did do – because we were viewing boats – was catch a train to Antwerp and then another to Bruges. A train trip is around €7 one way. Because Belgium is so small, the ride doesn’t take long.

The great thing about getting out of Brussels was observing ordinary everyday Belgian life just outside the city and seeing the countryside. Both Antwerp and Bruges are different in character to Brussels. We had to make a detour via Ghent due to an accident on the train line. I wish we had been able to stop and see Ghent. It looked lovely.

Although Brussels is the home of NATO and plenty other international headquarters, it’s a relaxed country, free of pomp and ceremony. I loved the juxtaposition of comic characters alongside awesome architecture.

It’s as safe a city as you can get, and strolling about, working off beer and chocolate, is a great way to explore the city.

Up around the posh Avenue Louise area

Just don’t forget your umbrella.

Go to – My Holidays and Trips – at the top of this page to read about other places we have visited. Or just click on – this link.



Travel in Belgium in 2012

Eurostar train times ex London

This was a whistle stop trip as we only had two nights and three days in Belgium. The point of the visit to Belgium was essentially for my husband to look at boats. Fortunately Belgium is a small country making it possible to squeeze in a fair amount of sightseeing around the boat viewing. It’s the ideal place for a long weekend or city break.

The Eurostar

We arrived at London Heathrow early Friday morning and took the tube to St Pancras Station. That cost around £5. From there we took the Eurostar, which traveled south through the UK, into the underground tunnel, back up and on to Lille in France, ending up in Brussels. The train takes 2 hours from London to Brussels and cost £69 each. There is a one hour time difference between the UK and Belgium so bear that in mind if you make any travel connections.

Ibis Ste Catherine

Turns out the Eurostar is a great way to get around much of Europe. There are trains to Holland, Switzerland, Germany and Belgium. See more here – Eurostar.

Tin Tin fresco

The Belgian weather is a lot like Holland and Britain. It’s a sequence – the sun comes out and then it rains – all day long. We arrived at Gare du Midi/Zuid Station to a chilly, drizzly Brussels. We usually stay at Ibis Hotels since we always look for bargains. The cheapest Ibis was Centre Ste Catherine which was in the heart of the city. It wasn’t the most upmarket area but their rooms were of the same standard we have come to expect from Ibis Hotels. Affordable, comfortable, clean and decidedly compact. Most services are usually extra at Ibis, however in this particular Ibis, wi-fi was free.

More frescoes

Read more about Ibis here – Ibis Hotels.

Ibis do a buffet style breakfast, for a fee, with emphasis on local cuisine. We always eat breakfast out.
One reason is because we usually find cheaper food elsewhere and the second reason is that it gives us a chance to explore the place we are visiting.

Breakfast on our first day wasn’t great. We were in a helluva hurry and ate at McDonald’s. No need to explain. But on the second day we found a gorgeous place where they served pastries and quiches with coffee.

Waffles and ice cream vendor
Art at one of the underground stations

There were plenty fancy restaurants in and around the Grand Place/Grote Markt which was walking distance from our hotel. Since I don’t eat meat and Belgian food is similar to French fare, we opted to eat at the one of the Mediterranean places that we found. They are cheaper and healthier with lots of fresh salads. But not before we tried a Belgian beer, or two, in a pub. And we ate Belgian chocolate. After all that is what Belgium is famous for. Be warned. Belgian beers are surprisingly tasty and some of them pack a punch. The chocolate is divine. You can buy assorted individual hand-made chocolates and we tried loads of different ones. Good thing we only had a few days in Belgium.

Read Part 2 of our Belgium city break – here – or go back to the – Travel Archive – page to read about other destinations.

Go to – My Holidays and Trips – at the top of this page to read about other places we have visited. Or just click on – this link.

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