2016 Barging Belgium France

Appointment with a Vet: 19/08 – 21/08

Pont-sur-Sambre to Thuin

No, we have not succumbed to the charms of Panache and taken a pet on board, our next visitor is a veterinarian. We’ve arranged to meet in three days time, probably at Thuin. That will then leave us one more day to cruise past the écluse closure at Abbaye d’Aulne. A bit of a schedule but at least one day free. For a couple of reasons, we decided to spend it at Erquelinnes.

Back to Erquelinnes

Regretfully, we started back down the Sambre, leaving Pont-sur-Sambre as an enduring and precious memory. The locks were all down in this direction – always a little easier to handle. We hadn’t met anyone in the locks coming up – and we did not meet anyone going down. Given it is the middle of August, that’s incredible. All the locks were already full so we could pass quickly.

Can’t get up too early to get the good fishing spots.

After a pleasant cruise, we moored up at Hautmont on the long modern quay outside of the newly built or refurbished Port de Plaisance (harbour for pleasure craft). We had arranged to pop in and catch up with fellow DBAers and WOB Paul and Dawn Facer and Gunner, on their cruiser Casey May Too. The port has been upgraded by the town in anticipation of the reopening of the Sambre to full navigation in 2020. They then expect lots of business as the traffic recommences along this scenic route connecting France and Belgium. We had a pleasant chat and a cuppa and a quick look around each of the two boats but with a bit of a way to go, we had to press on.

After a couple more automatic locks, we came to the last on the French side of the border and followed the instructions to place the automatic controller back in the chute. When the system recognised we had returned it, the lock completed its cycle and we were allowed out. We had really enjoyed our first use of the automated lock system – it was quick, predictable and as we were in control, we felt more relaxed. It mightn’t be as social as chatting with the éclusiers but it was a bit more comfortable.

We arrived in Erquelinnes to find a number of fishermen on the quay. Fishermen (… mostly, fisherwomen are quite rare) and bargees often don’t get on. They think that we frighten their fish, interfere with their fishing lines and disturb their fishing spots. We think that we have to swerve all over the place to avoid their rods, get their lines get wrapped around our prop with serious consequences (story to come a few blogs on…) and they squat on spots designated for mooring and prevent us from stopping.

We try to be as accommodating as possible and just smile and wave but, in this case, we were faced with the only suitable bollard covered by a fisherman camped beside it. With some trepidation, Lisette in her best French, politely entreated him to move just a little so we could moor up. Fortunately, this worked and, although he didn’t look best pleased, he moved. Just far enough so we could do a single point mooring. We later offered him a beer as thanks but he demurred. He left late, was back early the next day and just fished and fished – rain, sun, wind etc. Never been able to understand fishermen.

We settled down for what was quite a rainy night; snug, dry and warm on the quiet waterway.

The first reason for staying in Erquelinnes was to visit a barge we had noted in the port two days ago. Our quick conversation with Lorna Beard a few days earlier  had elicited the information that Chris and Sheila Ries, were returning the next day and so we could pay a visit now we were back. Chris and Sheila have had a long association with our barge association, with Chris especially skilled in all aspects of the smokey DAF engines that power a large number of the barges on the waterways, including Catharina Elisabeth. The chance to talk to some world-wise folks was not to be missed.

Ian popped around, made arrangements and in a little while we were on board having a great conversation with Chris about engines and Sheila about barge life. Sheila was mostly confined to a wheelchair or frame for moving around but had taken over the helm duties some years ago while Chris did the ropes. They were still actively cruising. Ian collected a few tips for servicing our DAF fuel injector pump and with our next activity pressing, bade them farewell. Sadly, just a couple of months later, Sheila passed away, to much regret amongst fellow bargees and we could, somewhat, appreciate the loss to our community from this brief meeting.


Our other activity planned for Erquelinnes was to take a big (or at least ‘bigger’) bike ride.

As we’ve mentioned before, the idea of the electric bikes was to ensure that we could take moderate journeys away from the waterways to visit places of interest, unconstrained by a lack of fitness or gammy hips and legs. We had decided to take a road trip to the nearby town of Binche, via the dinosaur at Merbes-le-Château, which would entail a round trip of about 40 to 50 km.

After a snack, we set off down the towpath beside the river to Merbes-le-Château. We crossed the bridge and walked up to the fibreglass dinosaur. We’ve no idea why it is here, or when it was made (although Michel and Rebecca were aware of it so it must date back a few years) – just one of the quirky unexplained items that really require you to stay around and talk to the townsfolk to discover the story. Sadly, we didn’t have the time or opportunity to do this.

Jurassic Sambre

Google offered two routes to Binche from the dinosaur, one along roads, the other looked more like a bike path or quiet laneways. Ian opted for the latter.

Bike path it was not; laneway it was not; what it was, at least for the first five or so kilometres, was a sandy, rocky, rutted, chaotic farm road. It was one of those times when you keep thinking you should turn back in case it got worse but hoped that it would soon end and save the time that would be wasted if you did give up. Fortunately, our bikes, while not mountain bikes, are designed for the older crowd and have big tyres, soft seats and copious suspension. We took it all in good humour, (well, there was some suggestion we were auditioning for a BMX riders movie as we bumped over what was often very rocky terrain) instead directing our recriminations at the folks in Mountain View (thanks for the suggested route, Google). Eventually, we came to the anticipated laneway and then had a comfortable, scenic ride into Binche.

One of the better parts of the track.

From a tourist point of view, Binche has two features. One is the ‘Carnival of Binche‘ held from the Sunday to Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. A UNESCO Cultural Heritage event it features clown-like performers called ‘Gilles’ who, in a group of up to 1,000, parade through the streets, wear fancy headdresses and pelt the town and watching crowd with oranges. Apparently, all find this good fun except the houses with big glass windows on the parade route. It is bad luck to throw the oranges back, so presumably Vitamin C levels are elevated for the next week or so in the populace.  This parade takes place on Shrove Tuesday and the days preceding are a full-on festival with dancing, bands, singing, food and drink. Worth considering if you are nearby at the right time – which, of course, we weren’t.

A statue of one of the Gilles – with feather headdress made of ostrich plumes

Our target was the ruins of the Palais de Marie de Hongrie (Palace of Mary of Hungary). The castle dates from the 12th century but reached its peak when it was given to Mary of Hungary by her brother Charles V the Holy Roman Emperor. Not happy with the castle as it was given to her, she had it razed to the ground. After it was rebuilt, about eight years later she with her brother was involved in a war with Henry II of France. She had one of Henry’s favourite castles burnt to the ground. In retaliation, two years later, Henry had Binche Castle burnt to the ground.

The Middle Ages was a perilous time to be a castle.

The Binche Castle never recovered from these two destructions wreaked upon it in less than a decade and eventually fell into ruins. The castle walls still stand and inside, amongst the ruins, is a park where we enjoyed a delightful picnic.

Perfect spot for a picnic.

The place was beset by dozens of people wandering around glued to mobile phones looking for Pokemon but the sunny day made it a pleasant experience.

The walls of the castle tower over the town below.

We explored the ruins for a while, trying to read the old gravestones while dodging the pokemoners.

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Having learned our lesson, our return trip was planned along a direct route and to use roads and bike paths. This went well until about halfway back. We cruised down a lovely paved cycle track and passed a man walking his small dog. In the way of these diminutive and insecure animals, it barked with high pitched yelp that was supposed to terrify us. We smiled condescendingly at the owner and continued.

A little way further, we became unsure that we were following the correct route. After some discussion, we agreed to retrace our paths to check our entry point to this track. We again passed the small dog which yapped at us in a desultory fashion and we waved pleasantly to the man.

Our analysis at the road did not suggest an alternative route so we headed back along the previous route. The chap nodded at us while we stared fixedly ahead, the dog gave a yip, and we continued on until again it became clear we were heading in the wrong direction. Around we went again, as we passed the walker, he called out to us.

His dog was now wagging its tail, greeting his new friends, clearly enjoying the game we were playing (more than we were). Lisette had a conversation with the now bemused chap who pointed out a tricky turn-off that we had missed near the start of the path. We bade him and the now friendly petite chien, “Adieu!” and we were on our way again.

A much more comfortable trip back.

Back on Catharina, we were pleased with the performance of the bikes – it had been an easy ride for both of us. We clearly had some navigation issues to address – but the plan to use bikes for extended touring seemed to be sensible one.

Thuin Again

Next day, we cast off and retraced our route, again enjoying the meandering of the river, the nearby banks and hills rising around us. Delightful cruising indeed.

Tucked in behind Oscar’s barge with the Chateau Beauregarde above us.

Back in Thuin at the now familiar mooring, we were soon joined by our friend Jim. Smiling, tanned and healthy – he was raring to tour and so we again climbed up to the top part of town. The belfry was open and so Ian and Jim decided to climb up and take in the view. After the 60 m climb, we were rewarded with internal views of the keyboard used to manually play the carillon, and the bells themselves.

The carillon bells. Wires from each bell travel down to a keyboard and to a rotating drum like you would find inside a music box. The keyboard is played, (or the drum rotates), and the bells ring out.

We also had marvellous views of the Sambre and the town below.

Catharina Elisabeth is top left on the other side from the long commercial barge. The museum barge we couldn’t enter has the blue deck paint.


The downstream side with the lock just past the several larger barges moored together.

There was not time or opportunity to see a couple of other attractions in Thuin – there is a barge with a museum on board that was closed and a short cycle away is Château Fosteau which looks impressive, is still occupied, but visitors are welcome because most of the chateau is now taken up by antiques all of which are for sale.

After descending, we took another walk through the hanging gardens and returned to Catharina for the evening meal, wine, cheese, chatting with Jim and planning the next few days of cruising.



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    2 Responses

  1. Thank you for sharing your journey.

    Your photographs are as well chosen as well taken.

    I love your bikes too.


    1. Thanks Bruce. The bikes are pretty good although the experience we had with the company that makes them has been mixed. Heavy to lift off Catharina for casual, short trips – but we have the ability to do longer trips that otherwise we mightn’t bother with.

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