Sunday, September 24, 2017

Adventures in Wifi

On our summer travels, it was very difficult to remain connected to the internet world we are accustomed to when we're at home. Now I don't mind this. Apart from this blog, which I like to keep up, I am perfectly happy to revert to a non-social media, non-browsing lifestyle and just read books for entertainment; or go for walks; or paint the boat; get the idea, anyway. I love that feeling of detachment from the 'real world'.

My dearest and beloved, however, is less sanguine about being off-grid, so to speak. His passion is photography, and next to that is his passion for sharing his photos with others. Yes, even when we are in remote and sleepy parts of the French countryside and access is almost interdit (a very common French instruction), let alone impossible. Well, I shall say no more about that for fear of reprisals (haha), but I do want to tell you about some of the adventures he had in attempting to break the barriers of French internet resistance.

The man with his passion

Technically, it should all have been very simple. When in France, you can buy an abonnement for a limited period to connect with the internet by means of hotspots. In Koos' case, this was with Orange, who claimed to have something like 700,000 hotspots throughout the country. How this works, though, is not quite so easy and I hope I can explain it. There are indeed huge numbers of hotspots, but they are not in comfortable, easy locations like cafés or bars. Oh no.

When a householder organises broadband Internet at home, he/she agrees that, for a reduced monthly fee, passing members of the public can use a small part of his/her bandwidth, thus making his/her home  or premises a hotspot. There are lots of companies offering this throughout Europe, so it is nothing unusual. In the Netherlands, for example, we have KPN Fon and many others. What it means in practice, though, is that anyone with an abonnement such as the one Koos bought needs to be close to the said premises to make use of the hotspot.

Well, I think a lot of people are not fully aware that their homes might be the centre of such 'hot' attention, so to speak. So what happened was this:

Koos bought his abonnement when we were in Douai, but only discovered then how close he had to be to the nearby hotspot to get a connection. In Douai, it wasn't too bad. There was a garden bench on the road opposite the block of flats where the happy, probably unsuspecting, subscriber lived. He would trek up to the bench with his laptop and sit there uploading photos and checking in with his followers. Barring a few odd looks, nobody paid him much attention. After all, what's so odd about a man with a laptop these days? Just an oversized phone, you might say. However, when we moved up the Scarpe away from the urban world, connecting with the world proved more difficult.

Flats in Douai: which one is home to the hostpsot?
At our first stop, Koos walked into the village of Brébieres some distance from the boat, wandered around with his laptop open until he found a hotspot (as anyone would, of course), found a convenient bench (he wasn't always so lucky) and sat down. All of a sudden, life became interesting. A woman had collapsed not far from where he was sitting and was being attended to by anxious friends. She herself was cheerfully chatting on her phone when the ambulance arrived, but seeing Koos on the bench, they pulled up to him first.

'Are you ze one who called for us?' they asked, for all the world as if they were a taxi service.
'No, not me. Her,' said Koos, pointing to the prostrate lady with a smile. She was still talking and laughing on her phone.
'Oh merci monsieur.' And off they went to rescue the real victim. Koos could only imagine they saw his grey hair and beard and just assumed it must have been him, despite his calm demeanour and open laptop. A youngish woman lying flat on the ground? couldn't have been her.

On another occasion, he had to sit on someone's front step to find the magic hotspot. Luckily, the house was closed up, but I cringed with embarrassment on his behalf with this one, although not half as much as I did on a later occasion at Cappy on the Somme. Once again, he was obliged to sit outside someone's house. It was early evening and the blinds were down so he felt safe that the owners were not at home. Unfortunately, though, they arrived back when he was in mid-upload.

Cappy on the Somme
Now Koos has a gift I don't have. I would have felt as guilty as a criminal even though what he was doing was perfectly legal and fully paid for. Koos has no such handicap and proceeded to explain to the bemused householders how the hotspot system worked - in fluent French. My daughter called him a silver tongued charmer the first time she met him, and I am guessing he had to bring the full load of his easy charm to the fore to avoid serious misunderstandings on this occasion. I know I would have failed hopelessly, especially in French!

As you can see, there's a bit of an actor
in my Koos - very useful on such
occasions :)
Apart from these, there were other, even less comfortable hotspots: the dodgy side street in Haubourdin where I was afraid he wouldn't come home with his laptop, if at all and the church square in Marquette-lez-Lille under the eagle eye of the Lord. Most notably, though, he had to get up close and cosy with a lamp post in Leers Noord. Yes. Can you imagine trying to explain that one? 'Yes, officer, I'm getting messages from the aliens. This lamp-post is their earthly antenna.'

So next time you see someone lurking with intent with an open laptop next to a postbox, garden hedge or shop door, don't's probably Koos. Just ask him what he's doing and experience all that silver he's capable of conjuring up at a moment's notice and enjoy it. He's quite an actor, but totally harmless really :)

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Last of the Magnificent Moorings

I've been sifting through my photos again to find more of our favourite moorings, and I think this is the final selection. We stayed at so many places, and most of them were great, but the ones I've shown you were special for a number of different reasons. Here are the last of my special favourites.

Douai halte nautique in the town

Douai: we've been there three times now and enjoyed each visit. Because the Hennie H is only fifteen metres, we can go right to the halte nautique in the town and from there it's a ten minute walk to the old centre with all its charm and history. The moorings have bollards on the wall, electricity (if you have the VNF key) and water too. We stayed there both going south and returning north. It's a great spot; there are always people to talk to; the city is close; it's peaceful at night and there's a big shopping centre just by the bridge going out of town.


This next spot is Courcelles, which was quite a discovery. It used to be run by the local mairie and had its own capitainerie, but when the mayor changed, interest in the marina dropped away. When we arrived, we were welcomed in, shown where the water, electricity and showers were and then told it was all free, bar the showers (50c a go). I don't know how long this will last, but it's a very nice place to relax and spend a few days. There is an E. Leclerc supermarket fifteen minutes walk from the harbour. Anyone going there would need to ask directions, but on a bike, it's even less than ten minutes, so easy for shopping.

Brébiere on the Scarpe

This photo is at Brebière on the Scarpe. I can't tell you how much I loved it there. There was nothing at all and we had to search for the bollards below the signs, but it was just too gorgeous. The scenery, the sunshine, just everything was lovely, especially the clarity of the water. One of those very special spots. 

The morning we left (for the second time), we decided to clean the mooring sign. It was so grubby. I also painted the bollard white so more people would see it.

Anywhere on the Canal de Saint Quentin will do
I'm cheating again with this one. It's the Hennie H on the Canal de Saint Quentin, and in principle, the whole of this canal is perfect for moorings. Again, there are no services, but if you are self sufficient, you can moor up in any of a large number of spots. We noticed they'd been doing a lot of work on moorings and on the banks with new rubber sidings along the waiting areas by the locks. We wondered why they were working so hard on it, but whatever the reason, it's great to see this canal is not being allowed to deteriorate. It is absolutely my favourite arterial waterway and I just love it. The locks are easy to operate (just as well - there a lot of them) and apart from the long tunnel, the entire 90 kilometre length of it from Cambrai to Chauny is a joy.

Séreaucourt le Grand on the Canal de Saint Quentin

This is a particularly idyllic mooring on the the Canal de Saint Quentin. Séreaucourt le Grand is in a side arm just a bit south of St Quentin itself. There's water, electricity and a shower if you can raise the harbour master. We couldn't until the next day but by then it was too late for us. There's a restaurant, a supermarket and several beautiful ponds next to the Somme river, which is here too. It runs close to the canal and even crosses beneath it a few kilometres from Séreaucourt before it branches off at St Simon. This is one of those places I could have stayed a while. It gave me a wonderfully restful feeling.

Chauny - free mooring, but there is a marina
Our place at Chauny above was not the most beautiful of moorings, but the town of Chauny was the biggest surprise of our trip. I was expecting a run down dreary place, but it was lovely: alive, bustling and colourful. There were flowers on every lamp post and the whole place had a vivid, vibrant feel that made you want to park up and stay there. For those who like more comfort, though, there is a marina with full services, so highly recommended as a stop over.

Pont L'Evêque 
Now here was another surprise. Pont L'Evêque, which is at the point where the Canal Latéral à L'Oise joins the Canal du Nord. The entrance to the harbour is through the bridge you can see in the photo above. It looks as if it is a no entry area, but that is misleading. There are moorings with electricity and water, which you pay for at a machine up the road in front of the post office. Pont L'Evêque is such a nice place and the harbour area is wonderful with pretty quayside houses and a working shipyard to keep the Koos and Vals of this world entertained. We loved it and spent two days there.

The Canal du Nord just outside Péronne
 Last but absolutely not least, was this mooring on the Canal du Nord just north of Péronne a hundred metres or so before the turning into the Canal de la Somme. This was another spot where we just tied up to some bollards on the canal side so we could stop for the night. The bollards were a bit far apart for us; they were designed for commercial barges, but we managed with a rope and anchor as a spring to stop us being pulled out too much by passing commercials. Why was it special then? It was so incredibly peaceful. Once the locks had closed for the night, there was simply nothing to disturb the quiet and as darkness descended, I even heard an owl in the woods. We went for the most wonderful walk and felt we had to whisper so as not to break the silence. Just magical.

So that's it. I've already given you the special mooring on the Canal de Roubaix and as I've said, nearly everywhere we stopped was great. We didn't have one mooring where we were bothered by anyone or unhappy, so it was hard to choose the favourites, but I think I have pinpointed the really special places now.

It's back to teaching for me this week and the weather is cooling down dramatically, so I hope you are all enjoying the early autumn weather. Have a good week allemaal. 

Saturday, September 09, 2017

More magnificent moorings in northern France

As promised, here are some more of my favourite moorings in northern France with a bit of blurb about what makes them special. We had some idea of places we really wanted to stay, and oddly, these were not always the ones that appealed to us. For instance, we wanted to go to a place called La Bassée (not far from Bethune and Lille) after visiting it once by car, only to find that what we thought was a lovely quiet mooring was actually plagued by noise from the two bridges it lies between. As a result, although it was great to go there (which we did - twice), it wouldn't rate as one of my favourites.

So here again, in no particular order other than that in which reached them, are the ones we did like.

Halte Nautique Menen
These two photos are from Menen. It was a lovely mooring off the Leie river against a quay. We had electricity, but no water, although we learned the next morning that the power was not really for visitors, but they didn't seem to mind. I loved all the bird life on the water here!

The local community at Menen

This next photo  is from one of our absolute favourite spots in the Gare d'Eau at Bauvin, near the locks at Don on the Canal de la Deûle. It was just before the junction with the Canal d'Aire that heads towards Dunkirk. I don't know why no one else seems to use it, but it's been empty both times we've been there.

The Gare d'Eau at Bauvin
There are no services but it's really beautiful and we stayed overnight twice on this last trip. The mooring is easy with good bollards and you can get off straight onto the tow path. There are some lovely walks through the woods and along the canal as well. A very precious place.

Bethune town centre 

The first place we stopped after turning into the Canal d'Aire was La Bassée, mentioned above. It was good and convenient for the shops but doesn't rate as a favourite. However, after La Bassée we stayed a night at Bethune, which by contrast was a delightful surprise. This mooring is at the end of an old canal arm and you have to motor past several old péniches to reach the pontoon. There's water and electricity available if you have the VNF key, which you can also buy just along the road into town at the VNF office. Bethune itself is a lovely place and well worth a visit. Apart from the old belfry, it has been completely rebuilt since the war, but in the original style. It looks very authentic and I found it very attractive.

Mooring pontoon at Bethune

This next mooring is at another of my favourite places: Aire sur la Lys. It's at the end of the stretch called the Canal d'Aire (no prizes for guessing why) and is where La Lys, the river, crosses the canal. This halte nautique is on an off-shoot side arm, which may or may not have something to do with the river Lys. I wasn't too sure how that all fitted together, but it was off the main channel.

Halte Nautique at Aire sur la Lys

I don't honestly know why I liked it so much. There were no services, the pontoon creaked like crazy with every barge that passed on the main canal and the nearby grain processing plant hummed constantly. Maybe it was because the weather was so beautiful and Aire sur la Lys is such a lovely place, but I fell in love with it and would have happily stayed a while. One other plus for the mooring is there's a big shopping centre just a five minute bike ride from the pontoon with, joy of joys, a great DIY store. It's away from the centre, but not that much.

The Lys river in Aire sur la Lys

Here we are at Les Fontinettes or Arques (below) on the Canal de Neuffossé. It's the same canal as the Aire, really, but changes its name after La Lys crosses it. I'm cheating a bit here as it wasn't the mooring I liked as much as the old boat lifts that we could see from where we tied up. That said, there is electricity, but We didn't use it as we didn't have a key at this stage. Being there was one of the highlights of the trip for me!

Les Fontinettes: historic boat lifts, sadly out of use

Our mooring: spot the electricity box on the side

And the last special mooring for this week is this one on the same waterway. We stopped here on our return journey. It's the halte nautique at Garbecque, a name we had great fun with, especially as its neighbouring village was Berguette, which in turn was on the way to Isbergues. For those with associative minds, you can make a meal of this! 

Halte Nautique at Garbecque
That said, although the mooring was right on this busy route to Dunkirk and carries a lot of very large barge traffic, it was incredibly peaceful. There weren't any services at all, but it didn't matter (we never worry too much about that, anyway). What was special was the stillness. We couldn't hear a thing except the ducks and other water fowl, which as always, I loved. A memorable spot.

Wonderful evening light and tranquillity

That's enough for this week, I imagine. I don't want to bore you all to bits. Next week, I'll tell you about some more of our special places further south and why I liked them so much, but for now, enjoy the rest of the weekend allemaal and have a great week.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Favourite moorings in northern France

During our recent travels, we've moored up over night at a variety of wonderful places. Some of these will remain firmly fixed in my memory, and often for different reasons. There have been places of incredible beauty, others of great tranquillity, some of unusual convenience. Whatever the case, I thought it would be fun to write a couple of posts about moorings I've particularly enjoyed. Here are a few good ones to start off with:

This first one (above) was actually the last on our trip this year. It's at Oudenaarde and is against the quay where the commercials tie up over night. There is a marina at Oudenaarde, but we prefer it here because we can watch the barge traffic going past. There is electricity, and as far as we know, it's free, although we're not sure if we were just lucky and someone had forgotten to turn it off. It might be intended for the commercials only, so it probably isn't something we should count on. The only downside is if barges speed past, it can set up a lot of rocking. When we were there ten days ago, a huge barge sped through the lifting bridge and then promptly did a handbrake turn (use your imagination for that) so it could go back through the bridge before it closed. I felt seasick for a good fifteen minutes after he'd gone as the rocking just went on and on...and on. Yes well. That aside, it's a lovely place to be and there's an Aldi just over the bridge and round the corner. Just what everyone wants, yes?

This next one is one of last year's photos, but we moored there this year too, and it's at Leers Nord on the Canal de Roubaix. We absolutely love it there. In fact, there seems to be something called the Leers effect as confirmed by the owner of another barge that was also there when we arrived and was still there when we finally dragged ourself away after five days. One of those 'you can check out any time you like' places but you never want to leave. There's definitely free electricity and water, a great café/restaurant and good shops just a kilometre away. There are some other lovely places to moor up on the Canal de Roubaix that have electricity too, but we haven't tried those yet. The whole canal is highly recommended.

I know this next mooring doesn't look all that interesting, but we really liked it. It is on the canal to Brugge/Bruges and it is totally unofficial, but then we tend to be attracted to informal moorings. They seem more adventurous somehow. This one is at Aalter. It's against a loading quay that has rails along the top and a moving crane. I suppose commercials come there to load up with concrete slabs or just the raw materials, but we found a bollard in the grass and a hook right at the end beyond the rails. We weren't in anyone's way and there were steps up to the quayside. We had to walk along the rails to find a place to get out onto the road, but then once round the corner, we found a good friterie. It was a bit on the pricey side for a chip shop, but it was just what we needed at the time.

This last mooring was on the Scarpe at St Laurent de Blangy. I'm not sure I would say it's a favourite all the time as it was a bit busy with all the kids coming to the water sports centre there (see the canoes), but there's free electricity and water and if you want to pay for Wifi, you can get it from the watersport centre's office. That costs €7,50, but it seems to be valid for three months, not that they'd be happy if you stayed that long, but if you really wanted your money's worth, you could always drive back there for some Wifi time. I mean you would, wouldn't you? Anyway, a very nice French man told us that most of the year, the mooring is wonderfully peaceful (remember: he said that, not me ) and as I loved the Scarpe, I thought it was worth adding. It's also a twenty minute walk from Arras or a bus ride if you're clever enough to figure that out. French public transport remains a mystery to me. I think you have to get up very early to spot a bus in these parts.

That's it for this week's favourite moorings then. I'll probably do a few posts of these as they might be useful to other boating friends. Have a good Sunday allemaal, and I'll catch up with you all in the coming days.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Faring home: the end of the journey

When I posted my blog last week, we were still on the Canal de Roubaix at Leers. We eventually left on Sunday afternoon; neither of us really wanted to go at all and if we'd been able to squeeze one more night on the Belgian stretch, we would have done, but let me backtrack a bit first.

Sunday dawned bright and sunny. It was a lovely morning, so we decided to make a bit of a day of it and took the Hennie H back the way we'd come to the first (or last) bridge at Grimonpont. We'd noticed some good moorings there when we were on the way to Leers and we thought it would be fun to go and spend a few hours there. It was only about twenty minutes faring, but we enjoyed the move to this lovely spot.
Mooring at Grimonpoint

Looking towards the bridge at Grimonpoint
I took a walk around and found it an attractive and peaceful place. In fact, it is on the outskirts of both Leers and Wattrelos, so mostly there are just houses there, some of which caught my eye, like these two - one so vivid and colourful and the other so classically serious:

I loved these colours!

Symmetry and classicism  - seriously
We then cycled into Wattrelos, which had some nice architectural features. I quite liked the town altogether even though it wasn't very coherent.

I loved the upper windows on this house
and the pretty balcony

Looking down a side street in Wattrelos

The Wattrelos town hall complete with palm trees
and decorative paving

Wet paving always looks lustrous. This
was just after a shower

When we got back to the Hennie H, we called the Wallonia waterways service to ask if it would be possible to go through the locks beyond Leers. Being Sunday, we weren't sure if they would do it and it was already nearly 4pm. At first, they asked if we could wait till the next morning, but shortly afterwards, they called us back to say we could do it as there were some other boats coming through.
We cast off and headed back to Leers where a crowd was at the lock to watch the action. This is always fun as we know how fascinating it is to watch boats locking through - we do it ourselves all the time.

The Walloon lock keeper was every bit as nice and friendly as our French crew and he took us through the three bridges and two locks with great good humour and friendly banter. In truth, he was too good as we were tempted to stop on the way, but he was ready for us in advance every time so we didn't have the heart to say we didn't want to go further. This eight-kilometre stretch of the system is called the Canal de l'Espierres (the 's' seems to be optional depending on what you're reading) and it is absolutely beautiful as you can see below:

Tree-lined canals like this are just so Belgian. I love them

A lovely sight. This girl stopped her horse to watch us pass

One of the classic lifting bridges on the Canal de l'Espierres

Our delightful lock assistant. What a nice man he was/is

Magnificent barns around a village church
As we left the last lock and waved our friendly Walloon goodbye, I felt a great sense of loss. This was it now. The holiday was over and our return through Oudenaarde and Gent would be all too familiar. After all, we'd done it all last year on the way south. But I hadn't taken into account that everything looks different when going the other way. Added to that, this time the weather was beautiful (it poured with rain last year) so in fact I enjoyed it to the full all over again. The Schelde/Scheldt is a lovely river. It has a sort of majesty in its remote beauty as it winds its way north and down to the huge estuary the other side of Antwerp. It also has some of the industry we enjoy seeing so much, as well as being very busy with commercial barges. Here are a few images.

Waiting at a lock on the Schelde for a big one. The barge
that came out was 110 metres long!

The kind of industry I like seeing

Industrial art in heaps

We spent the night in Oudenaarde, a classical Flemish town on the edge of the Vlaamse Ardennes, so called because it is an area of outstanding beauty with some unusually high hills for this rather flat region. I like Oudenaarde, but for me it's a real sign of being close to home. Everything is familiar and normal, unlike France, which still feels exotic in its different customs and culture. Shops in Belgium open all day, as do restaurants - just like the Netherlands, so in many ways it is more comfortable; I love being in France almost because of its differences. All the same, it was good to be there and the morning light at our mooring was breathtaking.

Morning light in Oudenaarde
On Tuesday we made the final push for home. Once again, it was lovely weather - in fact even lovelier than the day before. I had such mixed feelings heading north. The river was magical, the skies were clear with picture book clouds and the scenery was a perfect mix of rural splendour and industrial loading quays heaped with a variety of sand, coal and cement. There were commercial barges aplenty whose skippers waved cheerfully to us. 

Huge commercial barges waiting to go through the lock
at Asper

Rich reeds and greenery

A lunchtime stop at Gavere

Industrial buildings on the Schelde

In other words, it was a perfect day, but all too soon, we were crossing the Ringvaart round Ghent and winding our way through my favourite of all cities. Again the mixed feelings fought each other: the sorrow of a journey reaching its end, but the joy of being on some of my favourite stretches of water. The lock-keeper at Brusselsepoort lock in Ghent was another lovely chap who cheerfully operated the lock manually (which takes time) and seeing we had trouble getting our umbrella down, he sped off on his bicycle to open a low bridge for us (Yes...his bicycle! All the other lock assistants we've had have driven vans - even to go a couple of hundred metres. I was very impressed with this one :)). 

The lock assistant in Ghent

Approaching the lifting bridge

There's much love for the Hennie H

Our passage here is the middle of a roundabout
 And at last we were back out on the great Ghent to Terneuzen Canal. As always, I loved being on this huge shipping corridor with its docks, cranes and turbulent, choppy waters. It never fails to inspire me and I felt my spirits lift, even as we headed for home.

And back out on the Ghent to Terneuzen Canal
We finally arrived in Sas van Gent at about 6:30pm. It had been a glorious day, both uplifting and poignant, but now we've brought the Hennie H to rest after two months of fantastic faring. What a great little barge our Hennie is! We can really give thanks that she never once let us down. We had a few battery issues but that wasn't her fault and she brought us safely and happily through 930 kilometres of glorious waterways. A big 'hats off' to our Shoe for her faithful service.

So that's it, allemaal. I hope you all have a wonderful week. I will have some other news next week, but for now, our journeys on the Shoe are over for this summer. Many, many thanks to all of you who have been kind enough to read these blog posts. I am so grateful for your kind comments. I've loved writing them for you and it's been a great way of cementing my impressions. Bless you all!