07 NOV 2017: I ended my last column as we left the Paris marina. On a glorious early October day we motored along the Seine, memorably passing Notre Dame and soon turning north-east towards Picardie, towards the region known as Nord-pas-de-Calais and eventually on into Belgium. These regions are well known to those who come to pay their respects in the many cemeteries that remember the bloody Battle of the Somme of World War I, but apart from those pilgrimages the region is probably not well-visited by North Americans.  

Yet Picardy is a beautiful area of forests and rolling hills, with soaring Gothic cathedrals and many ancient chateaux. And, of course, there’s the food: mussels, smoked herrings and eels (it was our first experience of the latter and we’re hooked!), hearty vegetable gratins, beef stews, the sausages and charcuteries for which the region is renowned and, of course, a wide choice of regional wines and locally-brewed beers. All were ideal for the shortening days and chilly weather we were to encounter as we travelled north.

Unfortunately our river and canal route through this region did not put us close to many of the area’s famous cities and sights: Amiens with its fabled cathedral, Arras with its monumental Hotel de Ville and fine museums and many other towns that our guidebook listed as interesting. Most were beyond our cycling capabilities, but not Chantilly. We tied our boat adjacent to a pretty park on the Oise River and set off on our bicycles.

Chantilly is France’s fashionable capital of thoroughbred horse racing. June is the high racing season, when top riders and their horses compete for two historic trophies: the Prix du Jockey-Club and the Prix de Diane-Hermes. As a street sign welcomed us to the town we were amused - though not surprised - to read that it is ‘twinned’ with Epsom in Surrey, England; a town we know well as we have family members living there. (No surprise, since Epsom is the home of the famous Derby and other flat races held throughout the season.) We duly took a photo of the sign and texted it ‘home’!

Chantilly is not only home to the racetrack and its surrounding hills and forest, it is also home to a Grand Chateau and a Petit Chateau which collectively form the Musee Conde. The buildings have suffered through the ages as titled owners with great riches at their disposal led them to demolish and rebuild in ever changing styles.

Then came the Revolution and complete destruction.

Later the last private owner - the Duke of Aumale, son of King Louis-Philippe - rebuilt and created a home for his considerable art and treasure collection. And all is there today, in what is considered the richest collection of painting in France after that of the Louvre (and far, far less crowded, I may add).

Treasures include the exquisite - and priceless - illuminated manuscript known as The Tres Riches-Heures du Duc de Berry. The pages of this 15th century volume are turned regularly and there’s a whole gallery of reproductions and computer programmes connected with the famous book. It’s very easy to become entranced with it all.

The gardens attached to the chateaux are spectacular, even in October, and nearby is the Horse Museum and the magnificent Grand Stables where horses perform live dressage shows (though unfortunately not on the day we were there). Although it had taken us several days to reach Chantilly via river, it is in fact just a 25-minute train ride from Paris’s Gare du Nord, so it is a great day-trip away from the bustle of the city.

A couple more days of river travel along the Oise brought us to Compiegne, another old town full of history, most notably as the place where Joan of Arc was captured in 1430. Of course there’s a chateau here too, this one once the residence of Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie This time we declined the tours offered; the weather was gorgeous and the grounds with their statuary and fading flower beds beckoned. We enjoyed our picnic there and, once fortified, set off on the 4km walk to Les Beaux Monts with its stunning view back to the chateau.

We had enjoyed this region of France very much. There is a great deal to see and do amidst gorgeous scenery but the weeks were flying by and our reserved berth in Antwerp awaited us. We crossed the border into Belgium, the region known as Western Wallonia, towards the end of October, first stop Mons, in the heart of the Borinage mining district.

In spite of its location, Mons is a charming town with 17th century cobbled streets and houses and some grand architecture and museums. Van Gogh once lived in a tiny miner’s house nearby while he trained to be a missionary. Lovers of his work will be familiar with the images of the hard-working people he painted during this phase of his life, including the famous 'Potato Eaters'.

Fans of engineering marvels who visit this region should have the grandly named Ascenseur Funiculaire de Strepy-Thieu at Canal du Centre on their itinerary. This gigantic structure raises and lowers boats in two water-filled tanks a distance of some 110 metres. And not just pleasure boats like ours … great commercial barges weighing up to 1,330 tons can enter the chamber and be lifted or lowered. Sharing the tank with one of these barges - as we did - was quite an experience.

Both the captain and ‘mate’ of this boating narrative grew up in London, England. The word ‘Waterloo’ was often on our lips: catching the train to Waterloo Station, crossing Waterloo Bridge and so on. And lots of pubs dotted around the U.K are named after the hero of the famous battle - ‘The Duke of Wellington’. Such a pub used to be one of his favourites!

So as we drew close to the ‘real’ Waterloo we knew we had to visit.

A mooring close to the town of Ittre enabled us to catch a bus to the battlefield and its Visitor Centre that tells the story of this pivotal event in European history. It’s well worth a visit. The battlefield is, well, just a field but the Visitor Centre is a museum full of reconstructed rooms, a panorama painting of the battle, yet more paintings, artefacts and uniforms. The visiting children were loving it, as did we.

And then it was on to Brussels, Belgium’s capital, where we received a warm welcome at the Yacht Club there. Not in a very salubrious area but with a convenient bus for central Brussels and its attractions. These, for us, included the impressive Grand Place with its ornate architecture, the Palais Royal and the three galleries that form the Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique. The Old Masters gallery of this trio contains the world’s finest collection of Flemish art. Don’t miss those famous Brueghels!

The few days that followed our successful Brussels visit were to be the last days we would travel by boat for a few months. We motored along the Scheldt River, negotiated the massive locks and entered Willemdok in Antwerp. This was to be our boat’s winter home and we, too, were destined to spend many weeks there.

More adventures lay ahead!

 

 

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Ann Wallace

Ann Wallace is living a writer's dream currently writing of her adventures as she and her husband sail their boat around Europe.

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