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Towards the end of December the weather turned a bit warmer; it was the coldest December for 30 years in the UK. We cycled into town in a blistering 11 degrees C and bright sunshine we had not seen for a month to find the International Magazine shop. There are only about five of these shops in Belgium and they stock just about every magazine published. We bought the Christmas edition of the Radio Times, Women's Weekly and Computer Shopper for about twice the UK price!
After Christmas, winter set in again, the canal froze over and our water supply was turned off just in time for the arrival of the Hockeys. We walked around Bruges in brilliant sunshine with the thermometer hovering around zero, lunched in a Spanish restaurant where Chris was mistaken for a Bruges football supporter as his Bath Rugby scarf was the same colour, and supped hot chocolate to keep us warmed.
Just around the corner from the Coupure is Astridpark where you can find this beautiful old part wooden house.
On New Years Eve 16 bargees and their guests assembled at 't Nieuw Museum restaurant at 8pm and commenced to drink. This activity continued for some three hours, by which time we had still not been served any food. Lorna, who is vegetarian, had to return to her barge "Theo" for food as she was told there was no veggie option on the menu, this after Clive, when booking, had been assured there would be. Following several complaints and no sign of any sustenance other than liquid, we asked for the bill which also failed to materialise so all walked out. There have been times in my life that I felt like doing that but this was the first time I had actually done it, possibly due to our numbers but more likely due to the prodigious quantity of alcohol consumed on an empty stomach. I did say to the proprietor as I was leaving that I could not understand his attitude because people who arrived later than us had been fed and had departed whereas he had left us starving for three hours, so loosing our custom that night and for the next three months? He replied that he could not understand our attitude?!? Seems like a good candidate for Raymond Blancs TV programme "The Restaurant" where he gets a load of people running restaurants who don't have a clue!
Our first objective was to get some food into our booze filled but otherwise empty stomachs so we adjourned to the Market square where a Frites stall provided us with food. At the restaurant we had ordered venison steaks for €30 and here we were tucking into Sausage and Chips for a paltry €5. Well we have to cut back what with Sterling and the Eurole currently at parity! We then promenaded from the Market Square up to Tzand where we were informed most Brugeans would be seeing in the new year. Sure enough there was a large sound stage and about ten thousand people singing along.
We had thoughtfully bought along a small flask of malt whisky and this was quickly demolished. At midnight the band played and sang a song called "Happy New Year" and nobody sang Auld Lang Syne?? Never mind, there was a big firework display and much kissing, including a particularly ugly moment when Les kissed me! Now I know what Sal has to put up with but how he managed to take this photograph is a mystery! Eventually we all returned to the barge "Florence IV" with owners Gordon & Linda where we hit the Shampoo, finally retiring to bed in the early hours.
It was almost afternoon when, a little the worse for wear, we sat down to a nice fried breakfast and I for one went teetotal for the rest of the day. Sue roasted a leg of lamb for our new years day dinner.
The Hoks returned to Somerset on 2nd January and we were just about out of fresh water when they left, however, Eddy the harbour master arranged for the fire brigade to deliver water the next afternoon and they arrived blue lights flashing so all the locals thought we were on fire! Ade organised a fuel delivery and eight barges took on diesel, Clive and Sheila actually ran out 24 hours before and spent a cold night in sub zero temperatures.
The temperature dropped to minus 10 degrees centigrade during the first couple of weeks of the new year. Large commercial barges passing the end of the Coupure would break up the ice which was frozen over again by the next morning. When it eventually began to thaw about the middle of January we were often kept awake with the ice cracking and banging against the hull.
On one occasion we awoke to a really hard hoar frost which lasted all day. We walked along the canal bank in brilliant sunshine and minus 4 degrees centigrade, it was good to get back to our nice warm boat.
We spent a couple of nights with Les & Sally on their barge Nancy May moored in Kortrijk and all drove up to Maastricht to the bunker boat where we bought lub. oil, a new mooring rope and 24v fuses. We found a pub in the market square called The Dinner Pub which had a soup buffet. They had 4 different cauldrons of soup on the go and for €4.50 each you could indulge in as much as you liked, mopping it up with brown crusty bread, delicious. Then we spotted a hairdresser advertising Herren Gesnippen €9.50 so I was shorn. All in all a couple of good cheap buys in what is a usually expensive country. Then off up to Roermond to the Factory Outlet where Sue bought herself a new Helly Hanson waterproof reduced from €199 to €59 and Sal bought a frying pan! It was a long drive for a frying pan!
The cold weather turned to rain, our water supply was restored and the River Leie flooded sending Las & Sally's pontoon up so far that it floated of its dolphins and the pompiers had to anchor it to a bridge to stop it floating away. Our water level rose here about half a metre and I spent many happy hours loosening everyones mooring ropes in the freezing wind and rain!
Skip this next paragraph if you hate bureaucracy:
In order to satisfy new EU regulations we purchased a second VHF radio, this one is portable. The regulations require vessels over 20m LOA to have two radios, one to transmit and one to receive. The transmitter must be equipped with ATIS (Automatic Transmitter Identification System) which identifies the ship. The new radio must be programmed with the vessels unique ATIS number. Unfortunately the UK has not recognised this new ATIS system so OFCOM (the UK Office of Communications) advised us to contact the local Belgian authorities for advice. The advice was to use our MMSI (Maritime Mobile Service Identity) number prefixed by a 9. This is allocated by OFCOM for DSC (Digital Selective Calling) radios, a system not unlike ATIS which identifies the vessel but can also be linked into your GPS navigator to give the ships position. It is intended mainly for distress calls at sea. Our ATIS portable radio is not a DSC set so OFCOM say they can not issue an MMSI number for it! Catch 22 I think! See here for the latest situation.
On Thursday 29th Jan we drove south to try and find a suitable mooring for next winter on the canal du Midi in the south of France. We spent a couple of nights in Lyon to break the journey and took a day to discover the city.
We had booked all the hotels on the internet and had found we could stay in the Premiere Classe for an average of €40 a night. In the event we wished we had gone a little up market because we became a little fed up with bumping our heads on the overhead bunk and being unable to swing a cat in the bathroom! Sue reckoned the group should be renamed the Premiere Underclass! Added to the "compactness" of the rooms they were all situated next to a noisy motorway and were not very soundproof. We have since been recommended to the B and B hotel chain which for similar money provides a nicer room and a full English breakfast.
We began our exploration of Lyon in the old part of the city, little narrow cobbled streets full of interesting little shops and restaurants. We then took the funicular railway up to the top of Fourviére hill where there are two Roman amphitheatres. This one is the oldest in France, built in 15BC and seating 30,000 people. Right next to it is the smaller Odéon which was used for more intimate musical performances.
From the theatres we followed part of the Chemin de Rosaire through the gardens built on the hillside and where you get a great view of the city with the river Saône dividing the old city from the modern one. Our objective was the Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourviers on the summit of the hill, a relatively modern cathedral built in the late 19th century in the Byzantine style with a bit of Romanesque thrown in!
The exterior is not generally liked by the Lyonaise and is considered gaudy, as is the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur of Montmartre by the Parisians, but the interior is stunning. Like the Sacré-Cœur it was built by private donations after the Franco-Prussian war to emphasise the might of the church over the anti clerical third republic. Unlike the Sacré-Cœur which has a quite plain interior, virtually the whole building is covered from floor to ceiling in tiny mosaic tiles emulating the great Byzantine churches and artists of that old empire. The building was completed in 1884 but they did not finish the interior until 1964. It certainly compares with Westminster Cathedral which is built in similar style (not to be confused with Westminster Abbey) and the walls are not just patterned mosaics but are detailed pictures of biblical events.
It is difficult to capture the grandeur of the place on camera but here is my attempt.
Back down the second funicular to the old city and, in one of the gastronomic capitals of Europe, Sue decided she needed a curry, so we picked one of the many Indian restaurants around which, as usual, catered for French tastes and was very mild. The proprietor, who hailed from Birmingham, was sympathetic but did not produce a curry for English tastes! We crossed one of the many bridges across the Saône and walked the length of the city centre from the Place Carnot to the Place des Terreaux, all very uninspiring and a bit seedy, sort of shabby chic. Then we climbed up into the Terreaux district and discovered a traboule, a little covered alleyway that the silk weavers used to transport their wares. By this time we had walked enough and retired to our hotel and dinner at the Campanile restaurant next door, part of the same hotel chain as Premiere Classe, where a promotion gave us a 10% discount.
We drove on down to Bezier the next day and visited Graham & Roz Homan on their barge Nidd moored for the winter at Homps. They were a mine of information on winter moorings in the area. Anyone looking for winter moorings would be well advised to join the DBA and get the details. They also informed us a Credit Agricoles English language bank which is located in Nimes.
Narbonne is a lovely little city on the canal de Robine which travels from the canal du Midi 15km to Narbonne and thence a further 22km to the Mediterranean. We made contact with the city department who administer the port and will have to contact them again in April, once they know who is leaving this year and what vacancies they have for next winter.
We then drove down to Perpignan as Sue wanted to worship Dan Carter but he wasn't home. We were in Cathar country now and the Pyrenees above the city were clothed in snow. We decided to drive to Carcassonne through the mountains and began to wonder if this was a wise move when it began to snow.
The Cathars were regarded as heretics by the Roman Catholic church. Rugby Union is the main game in France but Rugby League is played around here and known as "Heretic Rugby" or "the Cathar sport". The Cathars were a religious sect who denied the divinity of Christ. In the 13th century they were persecuted and finally wiped out at Quéribus in 1255. They built spectacular fortresses on high mountain outcrops like the ones at Quéribus and Peyrepertuse pictured here, perched on a 800 metre high ridge of the Corbieres mountains. It looks impregnable but apparently surrendered without a fight in 1240.
As we drove through these mountain strongholds the snow began to lessen and the sun came out. The col du Linas was snow covered and the view looking up to the 1230 metre high Pic de Bugarach and across the lower slopes was spectacular.
We reached Carcassonne in the late afternoon, tried to find a restaurant in the city, failed miserably and ended up in a Chinese buffet which was cheap and cheerful but not what we wanted. We had been here before and had stayed in the very touristy Cité but knew nothing of the modern city across the river Aude. We parked the car and walked miles in every direction but failed to find a restaurant that was open.
The next day with the help of "Doris", our satnav, we found the port without problems. Smashing place right in the heart of the city, next to the station and with an airport where Ryanair flies to UK and Irish destinations. Its our favourite place to winter if we can get a place.
We called in to look at Castelnaudry but found that they had still not finished installing electricity and water so it was still not a potential wintering port. This was where they invented the famous Cassoulet, a stew of beans, sausage, pork, mutton and goose preserved in its own fat. Not to our taste I'm afraid.
Toulouse port is just on the edge of the city centre but being such a big place it is a good 20 minutes walk from the centre proper where all the action is. We met up with Des & Janet Leyden on their Broom 38 cruiser who were wintering here. They had spent the previous 5 years wintering in Carcassonne and only moved on because of political shenanigans in the Marie office which meant they could not be certain of a mooring there. Toulouse looks a great place to winter for us except that mooring for a barge our size is very limited.
We returned to Bruges with an overnight stop at Limoges where we visited Oradour-sur-Glane. This is a small town near Limoges that is infamous for a terrible massacre of innocent men, women and children by soldiers of the Der Führer Regiment of the 2nd Waffen-SS Panzer Division Das Reich on the 10th June 1944. They machine gunned and burnt to death 450 women and children in the church. Elsewhere they killed nearly 200 men and set fire to the whole town. No one was ever tried or punished within the German armed forces for the massacre of the citizens of Oradour. The French government decided not to rebuild the town but to keep the ruins as a memorial to the dead and it remains a moving experience to visit the site where there is now a memorial and visitor centre. You can obtain further information from this excellent web site.
Early March saw the first signs of spring in Bruges with a fine display of crocuses along the canal banks. We began to spring clean the ship, washing down all the deckheads took several days and large amounts of accumulated winter grime was removed prior to painting the main cabin and saloon deckheads. All the curtains on board were removed and washed then the outside paintwork cleaned. The service batteries were topped up with distilled water from the drying machine, no point in buying it if you can manufacture it yourself!
All the engines were filled with fresh oil after fitting new filters, we took on board another delivery of heating oil so we have full tanks of white and red diesel ready for the cruising season.
Walking through Bruges one sunny spring day we were met by Paul Letin from the Kerkhoven Yacht Club where we wintered for our first two years afloat. He was in Bruges on business and was just explaining to a client how he knew some people who were living on a barge in Bruges when we appeared! Paul came back for coffee later and we caught up with the Kerkhoven news.
Mike Thurstan and his lady love Sally came over for a long weekend in Mid March. This was their first visit to Bruges and the spring weather was perfect for the occasion. Here they are enjoying a poke of chips in the market square, the best in Belgium according to the hairy bikers!
Sue's cateract operation was another triumph for the surgeon and we traveled back to the UK on 20th March for a successful post op inspection. Our friend David Parry kindly let us leave our car in his garage for the summer while we are cruising and we came back with Jeremy and Ann Clifford on 29th March in their car. Back in Bruges we took them to Brug Beertjes for a couple of Kwacks (strong beer that is drunk from a glass shaped like a small yard of ale glass which is held upright in a special wooden stand), then over the road to the Hobbit where Jeremy attempted the world rib eating record. He managed to scoff 44 before Ann stopped him so is coming back again with his mate Declan to try again!
Two new starter batteries for the generators were purchased from a garage around the corner for €142 each. A new pump was also sourced at a local Brico to use for washing decks and blowing out blocked main engine suction pipes when we get back down to France then we set sail to begin our 2009 cruise on April 1st.