Geraardsbergen to Ath
The best laid plans….
Having spent the past three nights in Geraardsbergen snug between two small lifting bridges we arranged for the one in front to be opened for us at 9.00 am so we could enter the lock which was just beyond the bridge. The Dutch couple behind us were moving on at the same time and we were all set to enter the lock together. The day was grey and close, having turned to torrential rain the night before.
We entered the lock, to be told the lock keeper didn’t know what would happen next, as the overnight rain had changed the flow of the river, (running at several km an hour against us) the barrages had been opened to manage the flow, and he was waiting on advice from the next lock. “They will only speak to me in French!” he complained, with a pained shake of his head. We were in fact on the cusp of moving from Flandrian Belgium, into Wallonian Belgium. In Flanders, they speak Dutch/Flemish and English. In Wallonia, they speak French.
We said that was fine, we understood the situation and would await advice. How long might we wait, we enquired? Foolishly we were thinking a half hour or so – it is what it is. But he shook his head and with another telling shrug of his shoulders, he told us we might have to stay in the lock for half a day or so. Another European shrug of the shoulders. Again, we accepted this as another aspect of cruising life, so we tied off once the lock had raised us up, ready to wait. Originally he said he would leave us in the lock until further notice, as there would be no traffic expected in either direction for a while. We understood there was nowhere to tie up outside the lock, but in a very short time, he came back and said we had to leave the lock as now there was a boat coming our way that would need to pass through the lock. A scan of the ground beyond the lock told us there didn’t seem to be anything at all to which we could tie up, so we were going to have to use stakes. A first for us – but not a last, as it turned out.
This is not an easy task, but we quickly had it under control, all the while watched closely by a couple of men standing the other side of a fence that marked the edge of a building site for some lock/weir works planned to take place over the next three years. The minute Lisette finished they called out that we were not allowed to stay there. Lisette told them she knew that, but under the lock keeper’s instructions, we were obliged to wait until further notice.
We invited the Dutch couple over for coffee and killed a bit of time that way, then there are always some chores to be done on board. At noon, we took a call over the radio that “the Australian boat and the Dutch boat” would be able to move on at about 2.30 that afternoon. At 2.15, we upped-stakes, and headed off slowly.
We (the Dutch cruiser and Catharina) ended up following a group of three cruisers (each around 10 m or so) through the next two locks. The lock keepers were really helpful, staying with us from one to the next and opening the bridges as needed, so all five boats could pass through at once. In the locks, however, two cycles were required each time – one for the three cruisers, and then a second one for us and our Dutch friends. Regardless of whether you are locking up or down, if the lock has just let a boat through ahead of you, and travelling in the same direction as you, it needs to be filled (or emptied) again before you can enter. So we would hang about outside waiting for our turn – which can take 15-20 minutes or so for locks of this size.
By the time we were approaching Lessines, the éclusiers advised us we would be spending the night there as they would not take us any further that day. The earlier delays due to water flow were responsible for this decision on their part. We knew boats would not normally be permitted to stay at Lessines – you can tie up there for an hour or so, particularly if you wish to visit its famous museum, but not moor overnight.
So as we came through the last lock, we were told to tie up in front of the three cruisers we had been following for the past few hours, and our Dutch friends moored up on the opposite side of the riverbank. But the best part of all this was that as soon as we had tied up, the éclusier came by and said we could go to the museum if we hurried, as it would close at 6.30. It was now 4.45, so we were very keen to take up his offer. Lisette was also delighted to hear that he wanted to be able to use her to translate if needed, when he gave instructions to the other boats, as her French was very good. Yeah!
We quickly took the path he indicated (…”le pont, puis droite, gauche, droite, l’autre pont, gauche, gauche”…) and found ourselves at L’Hôpital Notre Dame à La Rose. In 1242, Arnoud d’Audenaerde died on the battlefield, and his widow, Alix de Rosoit, complied with the last wish of her deceased husband, and used the fortune she inherited to found a hospital for the poor. Over the following centuries, Augustine nuns continued to run the hospital, using the considerable donations and financial support they received to reconstruct part of the old convent, the hospital and the farm. It is an amazing example of self-sufficiency, with the nuns producing as much of their own food as they could, including growing medicinal herbs. The nuns studied for four years under a pharmacist to learn the skills they needed to help the poor.
Onwards to Ath
We had been advised that our little convoy of five needed to be ready to move off in the morning and to wait for the éclusiers at the first lifting bridge at 9.00 am. Five locks awaited us today, as well as 18 bridges, most of which were high enough for us to pass under with ease, but our guides opened any that needed it as we travelled from lock to lock. As we approached Ath we tried to leave the convoy and tie up for the night, but the éclusier said we could not remain between these two locks as they could not control the water levels overnight, so we finished up in Ath around the middle of the day, with the remainder of our convoy scattered along the length of the stone walls of a large basin.
It was a warm and sunny afternoon and we cycled into town for a reconnaissance and a beer in the pretty town square. Immediately it became apparent we were almost in a different country. We had crossed into Wallonia where the language and culture is dominantly French. The Flemish language is offered as well, but not prominently. One can see just how different the two parts of Belgium are by making this border crossing.
We lose the ready access to English that is characteristic of Flanders but we gain (much to Lisette’s delight) the musicality and beauty of the French language. It, and the culture that is associated with it, will be with us for the next couple of months as we wend our way east and south in Wallonia.
City of Giants
Ath is the at the centre of the celebration of the cultural feature of “Géants”. This is most pervasive in this south western part of Belgium and into Northern France. From the end of the Middle Ages, the Géants originally represented characters from local folklore – the Horse Bayard first appeared in Ath’s procession in 1462. As time went on other figures were added such as Goliath (3.85 metres tall and weighing 126 kilos) in 1481. In 1715, Ath gave Goliath a wife (3.90 metres tall, and 118 kg). Today, the festival is the result of a history of more than five centuries.
Each géant is built to a specific design, by a number of experienced artisans: the basket maker models the silhouette; the sculptor creates the features of the head; the dressmaker works on the costume; the wigmaker for the beard and hair.
Local men are honoured to be chosen to carry the giants – they climb under the wicker frame and settle into a harness, then move the figure around – walking, swaying and even dancing to choreographed steps. It takes a lot of practice and great physical prowess because these giants can be up to 6 m high and are very heavy, often weighing between 60 and 100 kg, with some as heavy 130 kg! Some need more than one carrier to move them in the parades. There are even some géants that require as many as 16 to 24 carriers, with some taking breaks while others take over. While the wicker structure the clothing and the accessories have to be replaced from time to time the heads are carefully preserved, with some several hundred years old.
Each year, Ath hosts the Festival of Géants but sadly we won’t be around at that time, although we did visit the Museum of the Géants. The two featured Géants of the Ducasse (‘Festival’) are Goliath and Lady Goliath. These two date from 1481 and 1715 respectively and both are nearly 4 m tall!
The exhibits in the museum were impressive and the explanations frequently included English text. It is so impressive and revelatory for us Aussies with our short cultural history to see the power and pervasiveness of a cultural display that dates back over so many centuries. The rich, shared experience of the locals today that is derived from that long history is something to both envy and, when fortunate enough, to share when it is on show.
We also took in a tour of the museum themed around Roman times. Not quite as impressive, but still it struck a chord with us as it featured several river vessels dating from Roman times that had been discovered, excavated and carefully preserved.
It was something of a revelation to realise that even at the dawn of Christendom a thriving river traffic was supporting a wide-ranging commercial economy and using wooden vessels almost as big as Catharina Elisabeth.
Time to get a move on and REALLY practice lock work.