2016 Barging Belgium

The old Capital of France: 1/09 – 4/09

Antoing to Tournai


Next day, we woke up, had a cuppa and trotted around the corner to the bunker barge, Neptunia. It was occupied again but after a 15 min wait, the commercial moved off and we turned neatly around and pulled into our first bunkering. We took on 425 L of diesel (we have two tanks available for the engine 650 L main tank and a supplementary storage tank of 200 L) at a cost of nearly €500. That represented about 3/4 of our cruising for this season so we figure about €750 for the full trip which we can almost do on one set of full tanks.

We also bought some small items from the chandlery on board which was pretty well stocked. We had been told this was one of the best chandleries on the waterways, but in our estimation, the one at Pont de Loup, associated with the Vankerkoven shipyard, was far better stocked. (Note the dressing on the shin of the chap on the bunker boat. He told us he had slipped on a wet deck – a common enough injury it would seem.)


We then proceeded up the rather industrial canalised Escaut (Scheldt) river, with only a few old ruins as we left Antoing to provide any relief. It was wide and straight but that’s about all that can be said for it.

Some pretty ruins along the way.

As we approached Tournai the canal narrows and takes a starboard (right) turn. As we approached the VHF radio chirped into life with someone hailing “Bateau Catharina Elisabeth”. A short exchange ensued – well, after he had tried a couple of other languages, and finally settled on French which Lisette pounced on as the one one she was going to be able to use for this conversation. The large commercial boat that was talking to us was still out of sight but was clearly heading towards us around the blind bend, and he wanted us to slow and pull over to allow him to make the turn without us being in the main channel. He must have seen us via his AIS system because our AIS would have been reporting our approach. Nice work!

We were coming in the other direction of the commercial in this photo – you can see how little room there is for another boat to be manoeuvring around the corner. Shudder!

We pulled over, he passed and gave us a nice wave and we cautiously, after checking our AIS again, took our turn to go around the corner into the main mooring basin of Tournai. There was a nice long floating pontoon that we tied up to and as it was early in the afternoon, we set off to the town centre – to seek out the tourist bureau and the hospital, in that order.

Ian’s shin wound was beginning to look a bit red and angry. He has a history of shin wounds becoming a surgical issue because of lack of (his) care. Lisette was having none of it this time, and having drawn a line around the edge of the red area the previous day, and finding it was now much much larger, it was time for a medical review. The helpful lass in the tourist bureau pointed out the hospital (one of three, but the one with a decent emergency department), which was a little out of the town centre but was a pleasant walk in the sunshine.

Getting some advice in the Tourist Bureau.

We were seen quickly and without fuss. The doctor who examined the shin told us off for not getting it stitched, “You must do this within three hours”, she said testily. Never mind that we were nowhere near a town when the injury occurred, and stitching a gashed shin wouldn’t be easy. Anyhow, it was probably down to swimming in the Grand Large in Mons rather than lack of early treatment. A ten-day course of antibiotics ensued and the shin then healed with Lisette’s daily attention to dressing the wound and Ian had no further problems.

Left with more time to ourselves, we returned to the large, attractive town square for a refreshing beverage.

An average and a strong Belgian beer but behind us – some even stronger alcohol.


Monsieur Whiskey and Lisette with a present for our son.

We took a brief look inside the imposing Cathedral of Our Lady. This is a striking edifice with its five towers but as you get close, it is obvious it is in need of attention. Indeed, renovations are currently underway, having started ten years ago, with at least another ten to go. Inside, there is unfortunately very little to see as most of it is walled off or with restricted access.

The other feature of the town centre, however, was in great condition. The Tournai Beffroi dominates the square and for a small charge (€2) you can climb the tower. One of the historical films we saw while at the Tourist Bureau told how the belfry and the towers of the cathedral were added to from time to time in an attempt for each to be taller than the other (religion vs the state). One of the reasons for a high tower was to scout the surrounding countryside for impending danger such as rebellious hordes, or fire. You wouldn’t really want to be one of the belfry’s watchers, as, should you fail to quickly identify a problem and alert the town, you could lose your life. Eek! The bells were also used to keep time, and originally would be rung to indicate the start and end of the working day.

There are about 254 steps to the viewing deck nearly 70 metres above the square. On the way up, there are several small rooms off to the side of the stairs with informative displays about the history of the tower and its uses – they also provide a spot for a bit of a rest. Near the top is a room filled with impressive machinery – a huge drum and varied assemblage of clockwork mechanisms, pulleys, levers and connectors.

Every 15 minutes the bells are rung and waiting for this is well worth it. As it starts there is clanking and whirring and then the drum begins to rotate. Much like a music box, the drum has pegs that activate one of the bells as they pass a striker. The drum turns only part of its range each time, allowing four different tunes to play over the hour. The pegs can be moved to make different tunes and this is generally done once each year.

Up a few more steps is the viewing area with most of the bells behind chiming away – a little disconcerting if you forget the time and the next noisy cycle begins! It is fascinating to watch as individual bells sway when tapped and the sound rings out.


We were able to go outside at the top of the tower, although it is a rather tight squeeze between the stone of the building and the railing. But we were able to can walk all around and absorb a 360 degree view of the town and surrounding countryside. Above are some splendid gilt covered decorations including a flying dragon on the wind vane right at the top.

After some shopping at the large Carrefour near our mooring, we returned to Catharina via a frite shop, a must in every town we pass through – we are both scientists, so we think of it as a research exercise to compare frites – if we didn’t do it, who would? And this is where our research paid off. Here we discovered our new favourite frite condiment. We had not realised there are upwards of two dozen different sauces from which you can choose to top your frites. As we scanned down the list, we settled on Sauce Andaulouse. This sauce became such a favourite with Ian that we brought several bottles back home with us.  Lisette was leaning towards the baguette filled with frites, sauce (and meat) – what’s not to like? Like an enormous chip butty! But we shelved that idea for another day.

We enjoyed the snack immensely and still managed to fit in dinner before an early night as our next guests were due tomorrow.

Guests and Museums in Tournai

Our guests were not due until late in the afternoon, so after some morning chores, we consulted the material that we had gathered from the tourist bureau for something attractive to fill in the waiting time. It seemed that there were around ten museums in the city area – with plenty of variety. Not only that, but the following day all, they would be open for free. Free entrance to museums on the first Sunday of the month seems to be a fairly common feature of the region. Unsure if our next guests would want to stay that extra day, we decided to visit some of them before their arrival. By now time was limited and with so many to cover, we decided to split up. Ian took on the Musée des Beaux Arts, while Lisette thought she would go to the Museum of Folklore.

Musée des Beaux-Arts

Not far from the hospital was the small but imposing Musee des Beaux Arts. The collection was not huge but it was varied and arranged in rooms around a central atrium dominated by a flying hippo.

It was a pleasant place to wander around with other rooms beckoning in front of you and across the atrium. I particularly liked a Manet painting, one of his later works, of a dandy insinuating himself with a pretty woman seated in a coffee shop. ‘Chez le père Lathuille‘ was painted in 1879 featuring the son of the restaurant owner dressed in Manet’s silk shirt with the second of two models (Mile French) who sat for the painting.

The large painting by Louis Gallait, La peste à Tournai en 1092 commemorates one of the momentous episodes in Tournai’s history. In between 1089 and 1090 the town was struck by a plague (probably ergotism bought on by mouldy grain) that devastated the town and surrounding region. In desperation, the townsfolk sought protection from the Church and gathered at the cathedral. The bishop of the time, Radbod, held mass and then led the townsfolk in a procession through the town (depicted in the painting) on Friday 13th of September 1090. The deaths began to decrease and from that day until now, over 900 years later, each year around the 13th of September, The Great Procession is held in Tournai to commemorate this deliverance from suffering.

Folklore Museum

Hidden away down a narrow, cobbled street the Folklore Museum was well worth the effort it took to find it. Housed in two 17th Century buildings with dozens of halls over three levels the museum is intended to be a reflection of daily life in Tournai. While I had intended to also spend some time in one of the other museums there was simply too much to see in this one, so I settled in to enjoy it until it was time to meet up with the others. Much of the accompanying text was in French, and while challenging, it was another opportunity for me to see how much I could read and understand.

I was particularly taken with a massive loom used to make lace stockings, le balotil – stockings made on a machine (bas à l’outil). Originally, only men of superior class wore stockings (no comment). Towards the end of the 16th Century William Lee built a machine, but neither England under the rule of Elizabeth I nor France would endorse the use of the machine as they wanted to preserve the work of the manual tricoteuses. It would be another 20 years, after Lee had died in poverty, before his invention spread throughout Europe.


Several rooms were given over to examples of school life, including well-preserved specimens of cross stitch and lace. There was quite an extensive display of games, such as an example of an early version of boules (jeu de quilles), where the boules were made of wood, measuring 30 centimetres across, each weighing 3-4 kilos.

Ian would have enjoyed the old cart that, for almost 50 years, cooked and sold frites at the foot of the beffroi.

A little embarrassing was the exhibit that included an old slide rule (régle à calcules) – since both Ian and I remember using these at high school!

Part of our life has already become a museum piece – beginning to feel old!

There were some very moving exhibits that told of the life and death of several of the local heroines executed as ‘spies’ during WWII. And one quite fascinating diorama that described how poor families unable to feed their many children, could deposit an infant in a hole in the wall of the convent so that the child could be raised and schooled. Often a small personal item would be left with the child so that if the family found themselves in a position to reclaim their child, they would be able to prove that the child was theirs. This was not an uncommon scenario in the early 19th Century.

Indeed, there is a fascinating story of how Handel’s Messiah would not have become the famous piece that it is without his links to the London equivalent of this hole in the wall – the Foundling Hospital.  As part of a benefit concert that was held to finance the start of the hospital, Handel composed some original music and performed it in the hospital chapel. The next year, and every year after, the Messiah was performed there, either conducted or attended by Handel himself until his death. These performances secured the finances of the hospital and fame of the Messiah.

Guests Arrive

Mid-afternoon, our guests Gina and her partner Geoff arrived. Gina is Ian’s cousin who lives in New Zealand where her mother (Ian’s mother’s sister) emigrated in the 50’s. Of recent, she and Geoff have been spending half the year in the UK and surrounds and half the year in New Zealand. No prizes for guessing which season gets repeated! They both have a keen interest in architecture and archaeology.

We took a quick walk into the centre of the town, stopping off on the way to visit the Church of Saint Piat. A very ancient church (dating back to the 6th century) it had some nice stained glass windows and a striking gold and silver statuette.

One of the texts described how Saint Piat (who was sent to Tournai in the 4th Century to evangelise there) was martyred during the reign of the Emperor Maximillian by the gruesome method of having the top of his skull cut off.

After some discussion, Gina and Frank decided that they would like to take advantage of the Museum open day tomorrow (Sunday) and start cruising on Monday. After eating, drinking, chatting and watching the continuous succession of large commercial barges pass by us each way (carefully tied off so we barely noticed them unless we were on deck) we turned in for the night.

We just kept out of the way as they cruised back and forth.

Next morning, after a languid start, we headed back into town for, first, another visit to the Cathedral. A small area was open with some artefacts but in the end, it was the plastic figures that were being prepared for a concert to take place later and a model of the cathedral made out of clothes pegs that were the most interesting objects to our eye.

Yes, this model, made over a 10-year period, was built entirely of wooden pegs. You can imagine his wife, year on year, complaining that she couldn’t understand where the pegs were disappearing to, and how annoying it was to get the washing dried. Outside, we stopped for a coffee near a really beautiful sculpture.

This enamelled bronze sculpture had been created by Marcel Wolfers (in 1934) as one of a pair (the other in Brussels) to honour the early Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden. Despite this Flemish name, Rogier was born in Tournai as Roger de la Pasture – only changing it when he went to live in Brussels around 1435. The sculpture is based on one of Roger’s works and depicts Saint Luke painting the portrait of the Madonna and Child. The colours of the enamels were rich and striking – having been restored in 2012 after being damaged during WWII.

Archeology Museum

Our next stop was the Archeology Museum. While we are not that well versed in such material, Gina and Geoff proffered that the exhibitions were well presented and good quality. Most of the exhibits were from Roman times or the Merovingian period.

The latter period marked the beginnings of modern France. When Clovis I became king of the Franks in 481 AD, his capital was Tournai. Over his reign much of what is now France was conquered and put under his rule, hence Clovis is regarded as “the first king of what would become France”. So for a time, Tournai was effectively the capital of France. In 505 AD however, Clovis decided to move his capital to a more central location, Paris.

We headed back to the market square and either relaxed or did some window shopping while Geoff took his turn to climb the belfry. The next and last museum we visited was the Museum of Natural History and Vivarium. This is the oldest museum in Belgium, first opened to the public in 1828. It is in newer premises, but many exhibits date from that early era.

Tarantula – very popular with the kids.

The Museum part is largely composed of a multitude of displays of stuffed animals – rather passé by modern standards, but we suppose this is almost a museum of a museum in that respect. The vivarium section contains many displays of live plants and animals. One highlight for some of us, was watching an enormous python shed its skin. The live displays were a bit more interesting and certainly, the crowds in this museum attested to its popularity, especially with the younger folk.

Venus flytrap

Gina and Geoff had noticed the characteristic and common availability of moules (mussels) as they wandered the city. They kindly offered to take us out that night to a meal – featuring moules. We had booked at one of the nicely appointed restaurants in the square and arrived to find it very busy – good job we had booked. Choosing a meal was simpler than usual, only Ian was not having moules for the main course. Anyhow, when the waiter arrived he frowned at our order and told us that all the moules had been eaten by the end of lunchtime. Great disappointment all around but we turned back to our menus and found some delightful dishes to somewhat assuage our misfortune.

Dodging the ever present dog poo that, unfortunately, seems to be a feature of Tournai we returned to Catharina to rest up for the next day’s cruising to what many say is the prettiest canal in Belgium.

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