We very quickly reached the junction onto one of the busiest Belgian canals, the Haut-Escaut. I was on look out on the bow and spotted a large commercial fast approaching so we had to hold back and let him pass before turning left. Only 5 kilometres and one big lock, shared with the commercial, before we took another left turn onto the Kortrijk-Bossuit Canal.
Although pleasantly rural there was still some commercial activity on this canal, at least as far as the outskirts of Kortrijk where there are 3 locks too small to take large barges. They are manually operated by a lock keeper but only at 3 set times in the day. We had to wait an hour and a half for the next slot at 4pm and they were so slow to empty it took us almost another hour and a half to get through them. We finally moored up in Kortrijk at 5pm having set off at 8.45 in the morning. We had booked a 3 night stay here so had plenty of time to explore. It was a lovely town on the banks of the river Leie, classy shops and restaurants, lots of history and the gorgeous September weather topped it all off.
We left Kortrijk on Sunday morning 11th September to cruise the 26 kms to the town of Deinze. Sundays are a good day to travel as fewer commercials are moving and as this was one of the busiest waterways we thought it was a good plan. However we still met 6 of them and shared the 2 big locks with Jana, whose wash was so great when he started up his engine that we had to stay tied up until he had left the lock completely.
It took us 4 hours to get to Deinze, a very nice free mooring with everything on your doorstep, a large Carrefour supermarket, plenty of places to eat and drink, pretty church.
Half an hour after mooring up early Sunday afternoon the church carillon started playing numerous well known tunes. How lovely we thought, it sounded a bit like a music box, but the novelty started to wear off a bit when they were still going at 6pm and were playing the theme tune to the movie The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
We spent a lovely evening in the company of David and Trisha, drinks on their lovely barge and then supper in Bruno's Bistro on the waterfront.
Three days later, still enjoying Mediterranean style weather, we set off on "the crooked mile" or what was actually a crooked 15 miles. The winding, romantic old river Leie is one of the prettiest stretches of waterway, lined with stunning waterfront homes, most of which had two things in common, a motorboat moored at the bottom of the garden and a robot lawnmower. No wonder all the lawns looked so perfect.
Some of the most expensive real estate in Belgium is on the banks of the old Leie
There were more interesting sculptures along the way too...
After oohing and aahing our way along the old Leie it was time to pay full attention again as we approached the junction with the Ringvaart, a ring canal for mainly large commercial vessels around Gent. Fortunately the 'road' was clear so we crossed over and rejoined the Leie on the other side travelling the 4km into the centre of Gent and our pre-arranged mooring in Ketelvest. This was the only mooring available as a festival was taking place that weekend and many boats had already booked moorings. So we found ourselves moored at the back of the Opera House in a side canal with frequent trip boats passing, but a great location only a five minute walk into the heart of the old town.
We absolutely loved Gent. According to Lonely Planet it is Europe's best kept secret. It has won numerous tourist awards for its historic city centre but has a lively atmosphere due in part to its large student population. Of its 250,000 inhabitants, 70,000 are students. It is a popular winter mooring for boaters and we can see why, you would certainly never get bored.
On Saturday evening we joined the throng of people out enjoying the opening of the cultural season, musical performances all over town culminating in a big firework display at the harbour. By chance we had met up with old friends from Saint Jean de Losne, Henry and Steph, also here on their boat for the weekend. We met up for a drink later in the evening and somehow ended up joining a group of English Morris men who had been performing all over Belgium. We were given maracas and 'forced' to participate in a performance. What mayhem ensued, and Henry even knew all the words to the old sea shanty. Bravo!
We reluctantly passed on more drinks on their boat at 12.30am as we were setting off early next morning on the last leg of this season's boating, into Bruges.
We slipped out of Gent before most people were up and about on Sunday morning. Apart from a couple of water skiers, who created more wash than a huge commercial, we had a pleasant journey into the outskirts of Bruges. There are a series of lift bridges around Bruges through which boats travel in convoy to avoid too much disruption to the city's traffic. We had a delay at the first bridge, Moerbrug, as 6 boats were coming the other way in convoy. The skipper of a commercial who was moored up for the day invited us to raft on him whilst we waited. We got through the next 3 bridges in the company of the same two cruisers. After ringing Andy the English harbour master to ask him to open the pedestrian lift bridge we turned into the mooring at Coupure, a five minute walk from the historic centre of Bruges. There is something very special about cruising right into the centre of a lovely, historic European city in your own floating home.
Medieval Bruges is exceedingly pretty and romantic, with its cobbled streets and little canals meandering around gabled houses and gothic churches. It will be our winter base until the cruising season starts again next spring. Although we don't normally live aboard in the winter (although there are quite a few boaties here that do) we may well be popping back a few times between our other travels. We are told that it is lovely in the winter, especially in November/ December with the lights and Christmas market, the smell of gluhwein and warm waffles on the air.
Bruges's proximity to the UK, less than an hour to Dunkirk and the ferries and not much farther to Calais, means family visits are easy. We have just spent a lovely few days with Sophie, Mark and Harriet. It has been an added bonus that the weather has held out for so long this year.
So our fourth season of boating on the European waterways comes to an end. Since May we have travelled 1001 kilometres from central France to the north of Belgium, gone through 251 locks, 28 swing/ lift bridges and 4 tunnels. We have had another great journey, meeting old and new friends and tackling new challenges. We have been very impressed with Belgium so far and look forward to exploring it more next year on our way back into France, or maybe Holland. Who knows? We have all winter to think about it and make plans, although as all boaters know plans are often set in jelly!