2017 Barging Belgium

Unfinished, unfinished business: 18/09 – 27/9/2017

Bergues – Veurne – Diksmuide – Fintele – Alveringem – Veurne


It was a rather grey day as we sadly bid farewell to wonderful Bergues. Catharina Elisabeth and Rotterdam Diena left in convoy and we made our way down to the automatic lock that would take us onto the Canal de Furnes. Catharina made it through without incident. However, the lock simply wouldn’t cycle for Diena. After a few phone calls to Dunkirk, who manage this particular lock, Alan and Sarah eventually made it through and soon both of us were on our way to Veurne. There were a couple of bridges that did seem to take a while to contact anyone, although at the one below, we could see several people in the office.

As we waited at the last bridge that would allow us access to the marina at Veurne, we were approached by Alex and Louise who we had passed a few minutes earlier. They were planning on joining us in Veurne in their Humber Keel – Riccall and the crew of Catharina and Diena were invited over for a drink the following evening. Arriving in Veurne, we both moored on the floating pontoons and set about our various chores. Ours consisted of getting ahold of Ben who would be confirming our winter booking.

The next day we took the short cycle into town and decided to re-visit the WWI exhibit ‘Vrij Vaderland‘ (Free Fatherland – the website is excellent) that we had seen two years previously able the tourist office in the town square.

The exhibit was the same but we had been gathering more understanding of the war and how it affected West Flanders, so it meant more to us this time. And it was even more interesting with a new and fascinating exhibit that described the involvement of the soon to be the first and only woman to win two Nobel Prizes, Marie Curie, and her daughter, Irene.

They were working as nurses and operators with the ambulances and X-ray machines on the western front in western Flanders.

Mobile X-ray ambulances. French in the middle, and from 1 o’clock, clockwise – German, British, Belgian and American.

After this visit, it was off to do some shopping at the big Colruyt supermarket in preparation for a few days cruising.

The next day was market day and we delayed our departure to make sure we could visit because it was the first one we had ever managed to attend in the multiple times we had visited and stayed at Veurne. But it was hard to walk past the food vans with their cheeses, charcuterie and hot, dripping roast chickens and potatoes as we were due to leave very soon now for the trip back to Australia. Hopefully, we will be around for at least one market day next summer when we return.

After strolling around and making a few (non-perishable) purchases, it was back to Catharina where we bid Sarah, Allan and Loobie Lou adieu as we were off to Diksmuide to get the fuel tanks filled up for next season.

After a short cruise up the Lo canal and down the Iser, we tied up near the fueling station in the Diksmuide port. We had arranged to take fuel on board and would spend one night here before returning to Veurne, via Fintele. Tim and Jo of Maria of Zaandam had been following our travels and decided to make a quick trip by car from Brugges to Diksmuide to catch up with us. They arrived just as we were finishing topping up our fuel tanks and we had a lovely chat over a cuppa before they had to return.

Next morning, we were off at 10 am for the short trip to Fintele. This is a favoured mooring in the region because it is out of the way, so you can do some noisy work but it is next to two highly regarded restaurants. Unfortunately, they are both closed at this time of year, so all we had was the isolation.

Just us and the cows.

Still, that’s what we wanted so we could get some more work done. On the list was more attention to the windows, adding more sealant to prevent some leaks

and Lisette wanted to strip the mast and oil it.

We also had some unfinished business. Our time in Belgium had converted us into lovers of Belgian beer and the world’s best beer (awarded in 2010) is brewed in an abbey near to Fintele. Sint-Sixtus beer comes from Westvleteren, a modest cycle ride away. We had been intending to get to the brewery at the start of the season, when our plan was to leave Diksmuide, head to Fintele, Veurne and into France. That didn’t work out, so here was our chance.

Getting this beer is difficult. The monks only make enough for their funding needs and the demand far exceeds the supply. It is only sold at the abbey and a condition of buying it is that it is not to be resold. They sell it at about €2 per bottle, but on the grey market, it can occasionally be found at €30 a bottle. You can book a visit to the monastery by car where they will give you just one case of the big bottles, 90 days after your booking. The monks rarely answer the phone, so these car boot sales are quite restricted. The only other option is to visit the nearby abbey tea room where, we understand, you can take away two six packs of the ‘stubby’ size. So, that was our plan.

After a morning’s work,

we set out on the nine-kilometre trip, in cool but sunny weather, and arrived at the abbey to watch cars queueing up and passing one by one through a drive-through, collecting their case of beer. Saddened that we were not in that stream of cars, but satisfied that we could at least get hold of a couple of six-packs, off we then went to the tea room – which was closed! The monks were on retreat and the public facilities were closed for a couple of weeks. Curses! We thought the life of a monk was one big retreat. But no. Foiled again!

Disappointed and thirsty, we noticed a tourist information poster that advertised a tavern about two kilometres further along that also had a small WWI museum. So onto the bikes and with an electric whine, were soon at ‘t Jagershof. We sat down for a beer and a snack and then asked if we could visit the museum. Somewhat like the ANZAC Rest nearby in Iper, the displays are mostly upstairs. The cost was trivial but the museum was excellent.

The owner, Guy, took us up and gave us brief introduction – the museum was mostly a labour of love by himself and his father. He provided us with a booklet in which the content of information on most of the displays was translated into English. Two features stood out. There were numerous posters describing aspects of life during the war and interesting exploits. One covered the heroism under fire of nurses at the casualty clearing stations. So close to the front were these that on one occasion the station was shelled. Several nurses were killed and one was injured and later died of gas poisoning after she gave her gas mask to an injured soldier.

The other highlight was the numerous displays of life-sized figures, dressed in the uniforms and clothes of the period, engaged in wartime activities.

Surgery in the Casualty Clearing Stations

These must have taken an enormous amount of work to assemble and display.

Uniforms of soldiers from several countries.

Guy also told us that the house next door had housed the young Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII who abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson) during part of the conflict.

The ‘t Jagershof and the ‘Swiss house’ in which the Prince of Wales was billeted.

All in all, it was a very successful jaunt. We wouldn’t have found the museum if the abbey had been open – but we marked Sint Sixtus down as top of our list of places to visit when we return next year. One way or another!

Back on board, we spent three days in maintenance – the limit imposed on anyone who wants to moor here. Also, we had to move down the Lo Canal because work was about to start on a bridge and the canal would be closed. With a plane to catch it would be a trifle inconvenient to get trapped. But we understood work would not commence on the bridge for another week.

The mast was stripped and now being oiled.

However, before getting to our winter mooring we had another item of unfinished business, lunch at the highly recommended Potje Paté brasserie in Alveringem – which is about halfway along the canal between Fintele and Veurne.

Approaching the lock at Fintele.

The menu and especially the frites had been lauded by our friends Michel and Rebecca on a number of occasions. We had an unsuccessful attempt to have a meal there at the end of our last season – a long walk, a long wait and eventually giving up for failure to open. The sign on the door did indicate it would be open mid-afternoon, but we walked around the town for a couple of hours, then we waited and waited, but, I guess we were close enough to France that long lunches (for the owners) are a necessary part of life. As, apparently, was the decision to not bother opening at the advertised time. Ho hum.

This time we arrived at the Alveringem mooring plenty early so we did a load of washing and pulled out the sander and paint brushes and were working away assiduously to establish a good appetite for the treat awaiting us. Lisette missed a couple of calls on her phone but eventually rang back to find out it was the local éclusier (the lovely gentleman who had taken us through the lock at Fintele a couple of hours earlier). Knowing we were headed down, he told us that preparatory work on the bridge was about to start and the canal would be closing at any time. So he was just letting us know that if we stayed, we would not be able to reach Veurne for about a week while the bridge in question was out of action. However, our flight out of Paris was less than three days away! Perhaps recognising the unadulterated panic in my voice, he offered a second possibility: if we set off now, he would make sure we had a quick passage through the couple of bridges that needed raising. So, just as they were no doubt laying out the silverware at Potje Paté, we dumped our brushes and cast off to race to Veurne.

Again, we will have to find a way to get to this tantalising eaterie that has been dodging our grasp these last two years when we get back next season.

Back in Veurne we tied up against the wall of the port, our designated winter spot. We were only a few metres away from one of the best-equipped hardware stores in Belgium, Delva – and wore a path from Catharina to their door over the next three days as we finished off painting and sealing around the windows and packing up.

One of the very last tasks that Ian completed, literally at the end of our last full day, was to refit and rewire the new motor to the bow spud pole. With fingers crossed, unsure if it the gearbox had also failed, he threw the switch and, for the first time in two months, the spud pole shifted down then up. Multiple fist pumps!

New motor fitted and wired in – it worked! Thanks to Michel for help with diagnosis and repair.

We had our now traditional visit with Jude and Roger from Beats Workin’ and had a lovely time chatting about things boaty over drinks and dinner in town. Next morning, we finished packing and close to midday, the delightful Alan and Sarah arrived in their car to take us to Dunkirk for the first of two trains to get us to Charles de Gaulle airport and thence home.

Lisette leaves Catharina Elisabeth for the last time in season 2017.

The Season

We’re not much for counting every bridge and lock we passed, but there were plenty and they were varied – allowing us to gradually hone our skills. We travelled some 875 km and our DAF 575 engine put in 138 hours of smokey work. We used about 515 L of diesel for an average consumption of a pretty good 3.7 L/h. Compared to the previous two seasons, we had travelled a little less – but with close to a month at Courchelettes Resort, this was to be expected.

Catharina Elisabeth’s Mystery tour.

We learnt that we must have two ropes whenever a commercial barge was passing us while we were moored and not to cut across the bows of an oncoming commercial just so we would be passing on the correct side. We also learned more patience, care and precision in all our shipboard activities. Most of all, we met many, many warm, generous and memorable fellow travellers who added immeasurably to the enjoyment as we wandered around our long village.

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    3 Responses

  1. Well done on completing 2017 before 2018 starts!
    Btw at the end of the season we use PCN to give a summary of locks and ‘other’ obstacles. We just input the minimum via points to get a summary.
    Enjoy getting back on board.

    1. Good trick Shaun! Brains rather than brawn.

    2. We were pretty pleased with ourselves, Shaun, to have posted the last blog before we packed this year’s bags. We have been known to be waiting for our flight to be called at Melbourne International Airport and not wanting to join the queue to board until we hit the button. We tell ourselves there will be so much more time in retirement, but everyone tells us that we will find ourselves extremely busy. Whatever it brings, it will be fun.

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