Time for a feast

Namur, Belgium. Our boat, Vrouwe Johanna, moored below the floodlit citadel walls. Nice eh?

We were on the way from Central Holland to Central France and stopped in here in Belgium. Wallonia in fact which is the southern and French-speaking part.

Why time for a feast? Well, we’d had a few years on a limited menu in Holland. This was partly because Dutch food is ‘uncomplicated’ and partly because we didn’t speak the language. Ordering anything apart from the staples was either down to pointing, visual recognition or the vendor speaking English. We’d tried one or two adventurous purchases but they’d ended up either in the store cupboard because we were too cowardly to eat them, or in the canal.

So, here in Namur was a magnificent market. It looked like we imagined a French market to look. Stalls galore offered an abundance of animal, vegetable and mineral. Fabulous cheese and fruit and delis with pate’s, terrines, cooked meats to die for. The Belgians, like the French are obviously great eaters. Or at least great providers. At a deli I spotted some tongue, one of my favourites on buttered brown bread with a hint of mint sauce. Got it back and it tasted great. Then a chap told me it was actually pâté de tête. I looked at him. He looked at me. ‘Well?’ I said. ‘What’s that?’ He explained it was the soft bits from a pigs head boiled, rolled and pressed. ‘In jelly,’ he added. With a smirk.

Market similar to my ‘head pâtémarket!

The Belgians it seems, like their Gallic neighbours, don’t like waste. Anyway the stuff tasted delicious. The fact that it was a blunder of procurement is incidental. Just because I’d mistaken it for something edible didn’t mean I couldn’t (pretend to) enjoy it! I rounded my lunch off with something I recognized. A glass of red and a wodge of Brie.

Our vista was equally impressive with the sun out.

We are on the River Meuse and it continues into France. We’d been on here for over 2 weeks battling the current which at times was quite strong. In fact we stopped for a few days for the flow to ease. We joined the river near Nijmegen in Holland where it is called the River Mass. Here in Namur the Rivers Sambre and Meuse meet. The Sambre heads west towards Charleroi through lands that were enormously wealthy in times past due to their coal and steel industries. In fact in the 19th Century Wallonia was second only to the United Kingdom as an industrial power in proportion to it’s poplulation and territory. So impressed with this fact are we that we ignore the Sambre and continue south on the Meuse towards France. And more food.

Sailing barges in Holland

We saw the magnificent barge above in Hasselt, Netherlands when we visited an historic ship festival. The image could well have been painted by a Dutch Master. The sail ripples in the breeze and drapes seductively like a chiffon scarf over the shoulder of a beautiful girl.

The boat is a klipper aak I believe, a magnificent example of Dutch waterways history. These flat-bottomed boats would ply their trade on the shallow waters of the Zuider Zee (now The Ijsselmeer), rivers and canals. One example of the trade they plied was the transport of shells from the Waddenzee in the very north of Holland to here in Hasselt where they would be burned over peat for several days. The resultant lime residue would be used in construction. Behind the boat in the photograph you can see the kilns. They are no longer used, apart from anything else the Dutch have very stringent pollution regulations.

The pear-drop-shape board you can see is called a leeboard. There is one on each side of the boat. These sailing barges have no fixed keel because many of the waterways are shallow in places. The leeboards are winched down into the water to prevent the boat slipping sideways.

Many of these boats were constructed from the 1860s and a few of the originals survive today. They were built with an iron hull (as opposed to steel which I believe became widely used from the 1920s). This period saw the advent of the motor-driven barge such as the Luxemotor. The insides of the hulls were smeared with grease or animal fat to prevent corrosion on the damp bilges.

These days old barges are home to a few and pricey playthings to a few more. Others are used as charter boats where adveturous travellers pay good money to haul ropes and defecate in a bucket for a week out on the meers. Whoever has custody of these lovely old ships we must thank them for preserving such magnificent examples of waterways history.

Below is a wonderful three-masted klipper on the slipway in Urk.

The klipper is roughly 40 metres long without bowsprit. It will have a big engine, proabably a 6-cylinder diesel like a Daf, but the main, fun way to handle this vessel is under sail. Goodness knows how they keep track of all the rigging. Great skills passed down the generations. In full sail they look magnificent out on the lakes. There is usually a breeze over the flatlands of central Holland so handling these boats in tight areas without bow-thrusters takes skill and nerve.

They will come out of the water every five or six years as a condition of their insurance to be inspected, cleaned and re-painted. They are old ladies, some over 150 years, and they need careful looking after.

Owning one of these boats is a privilege. I felt we were merely custodians, preserving a slice of history. Ironically many of them are owned by non-Dutch people. British, German, American, Antipodean and others all keep the heart of a wonderful tradition beating.

There are numerous types of barge raging from bulky sea-going vessels with a high freeboard (basically the distance between the water and deck) to those of three or four metres that act as little tugs in small ports. Many are designed for a particular purpose. For example we saw small, narrow ‘dumb’ (motorless) barges transporting reeds for thatch. They would be pulled by small tugs (or horses historically) and plied their trade on small waterways between fields, off-shoots of larger waterways.

The Dutch really embrace their festivals. It’s an important part of their way of life, the way they nurture their heritage. You can see a wide variety of different barges in the link below.

There are photos of the festival here.