We left Maassluis at 7:15am on Thursday 27th August, having had a relaxing and enjoyable time with our good friends, Michel and Nadja. We had planned to leave Monday but Storm Francis was making its presence felt across Ireland and the UK, with northern mainland Europe next in its sights. We had winds of over 50knts overnight on Tuesday into Wednesday, so staying tucked up in harbour was the only sensible thing to do.
Our intentions of leaving so early in the morning was to catch the rising Maas tide to carry us down into the Haringvliet and on to Willemstad. I don’t know how we got it wrong, but we were 2 hours into the journey, just entering the Spui before we started to pick up some additional and welcome knots of speed.
Once in Haringvliet, the current becomes neutral again and as it was a beautiful day we just enjoyed the journey, along with dozens of other pleasure boats and commercial barges.
Willemstad has a couple of mooring opportunities – in the fully serviced marina, which is a bit of a walk into town, or our chosen spot, along the quay in the town harbour where a bit of innovative fendering came into play to keep Thirza’s paintwork intact.
We came here once before with our first love, Armanda, and then Frank came here when he brought Thirza from Maassluis to Essex over 3 years ago. On that occasion he was with our friends, Colin and Gary and he said they had a fantastic meal in a restaurant called Het Wapen on the quay, so we booked a table then went off to do some shopping and buy some charts from the chandlers.
Willemstad is a lovely and interesting town with an old windmill on the quay which has been beautifully converted into a home. The star-shaped moat around the town cleverly conceals WWII bunkers and battlements, all now left abandoned for tourists and dog walkers to enjoy.
That evening, we got our glad rags on and walked 20 yards to the restaurant and our comfy 60’s booth-style table with a birds-eye view of the kitchen….love it!! Our drinks order was taken and delivered but then we waited and waited and waited for the menu. Whilst waiting I took in the surroundings and watched the food being plated up when it dawned on me that this was a seafood restaurant. Great. I had noticed the odd burger going out and Frank said he’d had a fab steak the last time he was here, but I love browsing menus and having lots to choose from. Oh well.
When the menu arrived my fears were confirmed and in addition to the burger and steak, the only other non-seafood choice was a vegan meal. We both chose the steak and were still
looking forward to our meal, as the plates coming out of the kitchen all looked beautifully presented.
Having ordered food, we realised we’d forgotten to order wine and asked for the wine list. Whilst still browsing through, our food arrived, looking fantastic. We explained we hadn’t yet ordered or received wine and in fairness the waiter got a bottle of Rioja organised and on the table in no time.
The wine was lovely – good job at £40 a bottle – but the meal was lacking. The meat was cold and chewy but full of flavour. The vegetables and sauce were very good but with cold chewy meat it lacked too much. It wasn’t long before I was cutting up the meat into doggy titbit sized pieces and wrapping it in one of the posh linen napkins. When one of the waiting staff asked the standard question ‘is everything ok?’ we didn’t lie.
Soon the manager came over and was very concerned about our feedback, offering a free desert and coffee. Trouble is, when the service and food aren’t up to scratch, you don’t want to spend time in the place, so we declined. The manger explained that the restaurant changed ownership about 18 months ago and he’d only become manager 2 weeks ago. We told him about the service and food – not complaining just being honest. He genuinely appeared to appreciate our views and opinions, which was backed up by the fact that when we went to pay he presented our €130 bill and immediately retracted it saying everything for us was on the house. Blimey, it wasn’t THAT bad!!!!!
Back on board Thirza, we enjoyed a liquor coffee up on deck, taking in the sights and sounds of a busy Willemstad evening.
The following morning we hiked round to the harbour masters office to pay our dues and were shocked to pay €36 for the night. Oh well, we weren’t planning on staying two nights anyway!
As soon as you leave Willemstad you swing round to the left and through the lock, which we had just missed so had to wait 30 minutes. We tied up on the lock entrance wall and passed the time admiring a Corvette trawler yacht moored nearby.
This section of canal is quite busy and in no time more pleasure boats had arrived and we all locked through together. Our stop for the night was the lovely town of Tholen where I spied and bought a souvenir – a clog shaped birdhouse and feeder. Cheap and cheerful rubbish really, but it just appealed to me.
The approach to Tholen is quite interesting because there are huge piers in the entrance of the harbour for commercial barges to lay up overnight, then beyond that there are flood gates to go through to the marina. A big sign announced the phone number for the Haven Master so I called up and spoke to a very friendly Ducth lady who, of course, spoke excellent English. “I have number 61 for you, in front of the large white Princess…..do you see it?” Yes, we could see it. I thanked her and said we’d come and see her as soon as we were settled. Number 61 was the left pontoon of the two-berth mooring, with number 59 as our immediate and empty neighbour. The wind was quite strong and although he did his best, Frank couldn’t get Thirza near enough for me to throw a line on 61. We ended up in berth 59 so I called our harbour master. “It’s me again. We were aiming for 61 but the wind blew us into 59. Are we ok to stay in 59?” She cracked up. She thought that was hilarious “yes, you can stay in 59”. She was still chuckling when we went to pay the bill and get the gate code.
Tholen is a lovely town with a couple of nice bars on the quay where we enjoyed a bevvy or two….in the pouring rain, as it turned out. There are plenty of shops, bars and restaurants – a perfect stop for us boaters.
Saturday morning we left Tholen and headed for Antwerp. Shortly into the journey you have to pass the double lock at Kreekrak – both locks measuring a colossal length 350m, width 24m, depth 50.5m. We went into our lock with 5 commercial barges, one that was 135m x 15m!
Now we just had to traverse through the docks at Antwerp to get into the city. Oh my god – what a nightmare. As the second largest European port, Antwerp is huge. Massive docks branch off from the main route through, which is constantly occupied by various sized barges and ships. You know you are in a big dock when 4500 tonnes barges look tiny in comparison to the ships around them.
It took us 2 hours to get through to Willemdok Marina – well 3 actually because we had to wait an hour for the lifting bridge.
Once in we had our pick of mooring spots. Large empty pontoons were everywhere and as we landed on the closest hammerhead to the exit gate, a man came up saying the marina was empty because of coronavirus and that Antwerp had been designated a Red Zone – in other words we wouldn’t be sightseeing or eating out as expected. It seemed sensible to stick to our own little bubble, eat on board and leave ASAP in the morning. It was a long way to go for an overnight stop!!
Then, we committed an error that we warn others against. We researched through blogs to see the best way to go from Antwerp to Gent and if it was possible to do in a day. The problem lies in the fact that the river is tidal all the way to Gent and although there are a few stopping places you can never be guaranteed a berth. Added to that, when the tide ebbs it runs at approximately 7kms so if it stops coming with you then you’re not going anywhere. It seemed most bloggers or forums were simply relaying what they’d heard from others but one guy had done it and wrote 2 pages worth of information about it – and it sounded terrifying! His calculations for getting the tide right where to the minute and we had no way of knowing how long it would take us to get through the Londenbrug and Siberiabrug leading out of the port back into the docks – or through the lock to get in to the main river – as you always have to give precedence to commercial vessels. It was a sleep disturbed night worrying about the journey and kicking ourselves a bit having gone to a lot of trouble to get to Antwerp only to find it was effectively closed due to Coronavirus.
In the morning we went to pay the harbour master and asked if he had any information on the tide times and possibilities of reaching Gent. He told us we could leave by the 10am or 11.30am bridge lifts and because the tide is 4 hours later in Gent than it is in Antwerp we would have about 7 hours of push all the way up – more than enough time to get there. Which we did – and we were glad we didn’t rely on stopping because the only sensible place to break the journey was packed full. Happily, at about 6.15pm we arrived at the lock but was told by the lock keeper the next lock would at 6am the following morning – but we didn’t care , we’d made it. The downside was we had to carry the dogs up the ladder for the night time pee walk. This is ok, until you consider the ladder is about 2 meters to the top of the lock when the tide is in – and about 6 meters when the tide is out. It was, quite frankly, dangerous, but we managed.
The following morning having purchased the Belgium waterway licence we proceeded on to Brugge. It is a pretty and straightforward route with enough commercial barges to give some interest but not so many that you have to be on guard the whole time. Eventually we came to the first of many lifting and twisting bridges that you have to negotiate around Brugge. Frank remembered from his last stop here with Thirza there was a harbour with, what he described as, a boom across that had to be lifted. Sure enough as we cleared Gentpoortbrug the boom came into view and immediately we could see the bridge operator was there and had already set the process of stopping the pedestrians and cyclists and lifting the bridge, so we didn’t have long to wait to enter the harbour. One thing that is always of interest (to us, anyway) is there number of different methods engineers come up with to move a bridge out of the way for waterway traffic. This particular one is suspended by a number of wires that are winched up around a large barrel bringing the bridge section with it to a clearence of 5m.
Once through we were met on the pontoon by a lady asking in a lovely English accent “Is that a lovely English accent I can hear?”. Yes, I replied, I’m an Essex Girl! It transpired that the lady, Helen, and her husband, the bridge operator, Steve, run the port. They gave us a very warm welcome and we immediately knew that it would be a nice place to stay. They gave us all sorts of useful information about the town, the facilities, the nearest bakers etc. and we spent some time swapping stories about how we all arrived in Coupure harbour.
Brugge has been on our list of places to see properly so it was great to be able to tie up and know we had no where to go for a few days. The harbour is close to the heart of the town, which has been referred to as the Venice of the North. I don’t know about that, but it is very beautiful in places and certainly reminicent of the Italian water wonderland.
We decided to eat out on our first night, and both were craving a proper Indian. The first Indian restaurant we came across was “Gesloten” so we continued our search. We soon came across Delaney’s Irish Pub and decided it was time for refreshments while we decided where our search for a Ruby would take us. One pint of Guinness for himself and a glass of wine for meself later, we checked out the menu and having established that the bangers in “bangers and mash” were from Galway we decided to abandon our search for a curry and put a few quid in Delaney’s pocket. We had a great night and enjoyed the Craic with the Irish bar staff.
On Wednesday 2nd September I decided to take the day off work so we could go sightseeing. We had a lovely day and ended up in a canal-side restaurant for a late lunch and a couple of bevvies – it was lovely.
Thursday we did washing, shopping and souvenir hunting so we were ready for the off on Friday morning. As we left the harbour both Helen and Steve gave us big waves and best wishes, which of course we returned. What a lovely couple and what a difference people can make to your stay anywhere. We would highly recommend the harbour at Coupure to anyone.
So here we are. In a small village called Leffinge in the region of Middelkerk. Tomorrow we will be back in France and just a couple of days from Calais, where Frank will leave to get the truck out of storage and then we wait for the weather to be kind enough for us to get back to Brightlingsea.