2016 Barging Belgium

The Army comes to Town: 26/08-29/08

Thieu to Mons

Wobbling into Mons

We had a relaxing morning as the next leg to Mons was not long and we’d done it before so we were familiar with the locks we would be using along the route. We decided to stretch our legs in the glorious morning sunshine and wandered around the base of the lift to climb the stone steps beside it up to the next level of the canal. This gave us a completely different view of the structure – standing outside the action as we watched Austin’s cruiser Freshwater being taken up in the caisson. They were just going to do the short cruise as far as Ascenceur 3 and return later – the four Ascenseurs were only being opened on the weekends. At other times, you can experience this magnificent feat of engineering by going up (and then back down) Ascenseur 4. On the way back to Catharina Elisabeth we found a plot of raspberries growing wild (or at least poking out of the fence) at the back of the engineering building so we picked a few handfuls to add to a late breakfast.

Lisette bathed and changed the dressings on Ian’s leg and it was looking ragged, but clean. But his ring finger was rather swollen, so we adopted a watch and see attitude. More on that later.

As we were preparing to leave, the tour boat came up the lock. This boat takes people up and down both Strépy-Thieu and Ascenceur 4. Again, it was interesting watching the process as they engaged the lock mechanism and slowly rose into view. Once they were being led into the lower caisson for their lift up, we triggered our descent using the activation pole somewhat inconveniently placed across the other side of the waiting basin.

Yesterday’s and today’s cruise route.

The trip to Mons was pretty uneventful (at least according to our recalibrated sensitivities). There were three deepish locks that we shared with commercials and had to deal with broken floating bollards in one (while sharing the lock with a very large commercial) and only getting the bow line on in another. As we approached the last of these locks, we had to tie off and wait for a commercial coming through from the other direction. Ian came up to where Lisette was sitting beside her ropes at the bow, and ever-so-casually asked if she thought there would be a jeweller at Mons, and if they would be able to cut off his wedding ring. The swelling around the ring was now rather pronounced, and the vet, the nurse and the patient all agreed it would be wise to remove the offending item. Quickly. Remembering how Lisette’s ring had been cut off at the hospital after her hands were caught in the ropes last season, we realised we might as well cut the ring off ourselves. With some initial reluctance, but soon with a sense of theatre, the pliers came out and the amputation of the ring ensued to prevent the same fate befalling the finger. (Photographed and filmed for the children with an overdone soundtrack of groans and moans.)

With the feeling returning to Ian’s finger we entered the last lock but as we powered up Catharina to leave, she began to shake and rattle once we approached our cruising speed of 8 kph. Backing her off to  6 kph reduced this to a bearable level and so we cruised back into the Grand Large and back to our previous mooring spot, at this tickover rate.

As it was a nice hot afternoon, it was an easy decision to have a swim and check out the prop. Ian and Jim stripped off, jumped in and Ian found a small handful of fishing line wrapped around the prop shaft.


It didn’t seem enough to have caused the problem but Ian and Lisette took her out for a run around the bay the following day, and it seemed as though all the shudder had disappeared so it must have been the cause and just goes to show how finely balanced the propeller and the shaft are.

Nuit des Musées

Out with the bikes and the three of us went into town to do a bit of touristing and have a beer.

Rubbing the monkey’s head with your left hand is supposed to bring good luck. Perhaps no more accidents?

We found out from the Tourist Bureau that it was the ‘Night of the Museums’ when all the town’s museums and attractions were open until the early hours of the morning for the one, low, €6 price.  So we collected tickets and while waiting for the opening time, we strolled around and viewed the inside of one of the churches, the Stadthuis and tried to check out the Beffroi (simply: belfry or tower) but it was closed off until the Night of the Museums started at 7 pm. Jim treated us to a lovely meal with a couple of delicious bottles of wine between us before we set off for the Beffroi.

When we arrived we were absolutely delighted to find that the park around the Beffroi had been given over to an accordion festival. Ian especially loves the instrument, and for him, all interest in seeing anything else disappeared at that moment. They had set up three playing venues around the Beffroi tower and as a session ended at one, the audience strolled through the sparsely-lit gardens in search of the next little stage and performance. The playing was wonderful – solo accordionists, ensembles lead by an accordion and ensembles with several accordions – divine!

Leaving Ian in transports of delight Lisette and Jim decided to make use of the ticket to climb the Beffroi. It was artfully illuminated with coloured lights and while there was a long queue waiting to enter, the strains of accordion music filtered through the gardens and provided plenty of enjoyment.

Having made it our business to check out the Beffroi it was worth the climb. From the top, there was a lovely view of the lights around Mons and the town below. The interior appeared to be rather new or refurbished, and there was less of the historical feel to it that we have seen in some of the others. Still – tick off another one. Around 60 belfries in Belgium and France are UNESCO World Heritage listed and we aim to visit and climb as many of them as we can. It’s a job, but someone has to do it.

Between the wandering around, viewing the Beffroi and listening to music, it was midnight before we left and cycled back to Catharina. A memorable evening.

Next day it was time to say goodbye to Jim who caught the train mid-morning after literally cleaning out the entire supply of La Chouffe glasses from the Carrefour Hypermarché that was down the road. The story behind this is that we have been adding to our little collection of beer glasses as we travel, and firmly believe that on board, as well as in any pub in the country, one should drink one’s beer out of the matching glass. Jim was just as taken with this idea, and although we were somewhat dubious that six glasses would make it back to Australia intact – as it turns out, they did, via Switzerland where Jim was heading next to climb a mountain or two. Just for something different.

The Quest: Episode IV

The decision had been made. No more subtlety, Ian was going to chop off the Netherlands regulator and replace it with a fitting that would screw into the French regulator – inelegant but simple. A bike ride to a large Brico (hardware store) took him to the gas fittings section and after checking the fitting mated to the French regulator, it was purchased, returned to Catharina, and the Dutch regulator amputated from the gas hose. A radiator clip clamped the new gas fitting onto the hose and voilà – we had a functioning Webber again, breathing French gas. Now we were set for the remainder of the cruise and by the time it ran out next season, we’d be in France.

Here endeth the Gas Quest of 2016.

A bit of Maintenance.

We knew where and when our next guests were arriving and this gave us a couple of free days, so, in between some trips into town, we – but especially Lisette – started some painting. Her main attention was taken by applying our burgundy paint to the (herft) deck box on the stern which had been languishing with just red anti-rust primer since it was built.

There were also maintenance and touchups to be done all around Catharina. This season we had been, and were going to continue to be, very busy jumping from drop off to pick up and maintenance of the paint and woodwork was taking second place. That probably wasn’t going to change this year, but we endeavoured to get urgent items patched and covered on days like this and on afternoons and evenings after short cruises.

We also did some shopping at the hypermarché – the first one we had entered. These stores are huge – a combination of a supermarket and department store, carrying a huge range and variety of foods, clothes, electrical items, toys, camping gear and so forth. They boast, for instance, that on any day they have at least 400  different varieties of beer! And cheap too. We made it back to Catharina with our pannier baskets containing their usual complement of beer, wine and cheese and a smattering of other necessities.

Tanks in Town

The next day was the Sunday and after some more painting and a light lunch, we headed into town, to get a seat to watch the army arriving.

We had found out the day we arrived back that the annual event where the region celebrates their liberation in WWII was to finish in the Grand Place in the mid-afternoon. ‘Tanks in Town‘ is a spectacular event. Every year, a huge group of historical motorbikes, trucks, armoured vehicles and tanks tours through the countryside, passing through the towns over a two day period and ends with a massed display where they arrive over a period of about two hours in Mons. The vehicles are driven into the square, with crew and passengers dressed in 1940’s costumes, all looking very authentic.

Even though we were almost two hours early, the place was already packed. We managed to find a table, in the shade and had a beer while we waited.

Eventually, there was the roar of motorbikes as the first group of the parade arrived and over the next hour or so, in they came – bikes, sidecars, jeeps, tankers, ambulances, gun carriers and finally a dozen or so tanks arrived the square.  The roar of their engines and clank of their treads was almost visceral.

They were guided into the last few spots available as it was now full of vehicles.

All except one tank.

The centrepiece of the celebration is one small light tank, with a great story. It took pride of place, reversing into the archway in the front of the Stadhuis.

When Mons was liberated, on the 2nd of September 1944, the lead vehicle of the American 83 Reconnaissance Division was the Stuart light tank Fish ‘n Chips commanded by Major John Randolph Tucker Jr. Of course, like all liberators, he was famous at the time. Someone also recorded the number of the tank. After the war, and following some enquiries, the townsfolk of Mons woke up one morning in 1946 to the sight of a tank dumped on a roadside in town. This proved to be the liberating tank.

The full story of Mons, the tank and Major Tucker is summarised wonderfully on this web page. One of the highlights is that since its restoration, every year Fish ‘n Chips has led the tank contingent into the Grand Place. On the 45th Anniversary, Major Tucker himself drove it in. On the 50th Anniversary, he was asked again, but he was too frail to make the trip. Instead, they took Fish ‘n Chips to him. He and the tank paraded in front of President Clinton in the Millennium Independence Day celebrations in Washington on July 4, 2000.

Sadly, they announced that Major Tucker had died before this year’s event – so this was another especially memorable parade for the people of Mons. In Mons in particular, we were struck by how enduringly grateful the people in Belgium are to those who liberated them in WWI and WWII. This celebration was one example and if you are a Canadian, then you will see the Maple Leaf flown all over town in recognition of your armed forces that liberated the town in WWI. In the pictures of this event, you can see that the Canadian Flag figures prominently.

Once the official business had been completed, the fences were opened and the public swarmed over the vehicles, clambering over, under and inside wherever they would fit. It was impossible to get a photo without others being around. Somewhere in the area, it was possible to have tank rides but we did not take the opportunity.

Late in the afternoon, we headed back to Catharina and dinner. The next day was spent on more maintenance – Lisette finishing the deck box and the last coats on the front railings and we both did some more shopping at the hypermarché.

Over two visits to Mons, we had stayed six full days plus two afternoons, the longest we spent at any one town during our 2016 cruise. Partly this was for convenience but mostly, this was a rich and delightful town; the mooring was free and quiet; getting to town was simple (even if you didn’t have bikes it was a €1 bus ride from the stop at the edge of the basin) and the history and culture of the region was fascinating.

We had not thoroughly explored all the museums and attractions and could easily have spent more time in Mons, however, we were now ready for a couple of days cruising to take us to the original capital of France and our next guests.

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    2 Responses

  1. You guys really seem to hit the jackpot when it comes to arriving at ports where things are happening! I see the army arrived with its walking wounded – we trust that all is now well healed Ian.

    1. As you well know Shaun, those serendipitous events are one of the delights of cruising. That said, it would be nice to have better access to lists/sites of events – thus http://www.waterwaystourist.com.

      Yes, leg recovered pretty well with only a minor hiccup (next blog).

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