For the past ten days we have been living on a barge in Belgium. We have visited Belgium only once, some years ago, a weekend trip to Bruges, but now a chance encounter has brought us to a city that we have never heard of in a region that we know nothing about. We met the owners of this barge in passing as we cruised along the Somme a few months earlier. Now we find ourselves looking after their dog and their barge while it rests at its winter mooring and they take a long road journey to Spain to see friends.
Our new home is on the River Leie in the town of Kortrijk, in the north west of the country. It’s a Dutch barge, about 20 metres long and beautifully appointed.
In times past and future this mooring spot was, and will be again, a peaceful oasis in a busy city, but for the moment it has building sites on both banks. Each morning at 7am we wake to the sound of the crane, learning to recognise the distinctive whirring noise as it powers up. Teams of men begin work on three different blocks of flats whilst it is still half-dark, floodlights fixed to the base of the crane giving a false dawn light. Our days are spent listening to a discordant orchestra of banging and grinding, welding and cutting, of cement mixers and blow torches, of men shouting and the persistent blare of a radio, which surely none of them can hear through their ear defenders. How can the human race make so much noise?
All day long the crane hoists building materials from the ground up to the roof where most of the work is being done. I screw my eyes up and try to see who is in the cabin so high above me, the man in the sky exercising such delicate control, but there is no-one there. Instead it’s all controlled by a man on the ground, a remote control device hung around his neck and he absently twiddles nobs and pushes levers whilst yelling instructions at his fellow workers. If there had ever been some mystery, some wonder at the astonishing power of these other-worldly towering giants, modern technology has overcome it, made it pedestrian.
As evening falls and the builders go home the normal sounds of the city can be heard: police sirens wailing and church bells ringing, planes flying overhead and the muted hum of the traffic as it creeps over the bridge, stalled in the rush hour. The footpath running alongside the water fills up with cyclists on their way home and people walking their dogs. At night it is strangely quiet for a city and we are left in peace, just us and the crane, reflected with a mechanical beauty in the still waters.
We pick up a leaflet from the tourist office. It proudly states that Kortrijk is experiencing a regeneration, a metamorphosis of development and construction that will breathe new life into the city. As I stand on the river bank I count seven cranes in addition to what has now become ‘our’ crane. Walking through the old part of the city, past the much-photographed Broel Towers, window-shopping my way past designer clothes boutiques, I am struck by the number of blocks of flats in various stages of development. Some are newly finished, and through the plate glass frontages I see that most of them are empty, unfurnished. Who is going to buy these flats? Where was this great influx of people coming from? It is the curse of the constant traveller to ask questions and not be around long enough to find out the answers.
Kortrijk is a city for cyclists. Hardly anyone wears helmets and they all travel at speed. The racing bikes and their lycra-clad riders are a minority, outnumbered by children riding to school, by people cycling to work or to the shops and the preferred design of bike is the sit-up-and-beg variety, rather than the hunched forward and down position beloved by the racers. As in so much of Europe, the bikes rule the road: the cars are expected to give way and pedestrians need eyes in the back of their heads to avoid being run over. As the schools empty we see a mother with what can best be described as a deep wheelbarrow attached to the extended front wheel of her bike with two children bouncing around inside it. On several occasions I spot a man with a wheelchair attached to the front of his bike and a young child firmly strapped in, his back slightly crooked, his shoulders set at an unnatural angle, leaning into the corners and grinning madly with joy as they speed with no thought of safety along the river trail. I have no idea whether it was his son, or whether he was a carer who offered this service but my heart lifts to see them. What a wonderful gift to be able to give to someone whose mobility is severely impaired.
Our hosts have kindly offered us the use of their electric bikes and we plot a route that will take us out of the city.
‘You look like a dwarf,’ laughs Michael as I perch on this strange bike, my knees coming high as I pedal, my back straight, so different to the position I am used to.
‘I think I quite like it,’ I say as I wobble my way off down the path. ‘Although I’m not sure what my knees are going to make of it.’
We follow the river north out of the city, past never-ending, sprawling industrial sites and factories, guessing at what they manufactured from the smells that waft across the cycle trail, hints of fertiliser, of malt and grain, and the unmistakable cloying stench of a sewage plant. At last the industrial landscape thins and eventually disappears and we see farmhouses and green fields. I stop at one point and sniff the air.
‘I can smell sprouts.’
Indeed we are surrounded by them, lush and green and pungent, conjuring immediate memories of Christmas turkey with all the trimmings. The next farmhouse has an honesty stall by the gate, leeks and cabbages piled up on a table, freshly picked from the surrounding fields.
‘We need two euros,’ says Michael picking up a bunch of long, thick, juicy leeks, five of them, perfect for a leek and potato soup.
‘I didn’t bring a purse.’
He rummages around in his pockets and finds some loose change. We strap a bunch to the pannier racks on the back of his bike and I am treated to the aroma of fresh leeks as I cycle behind him until, all too soon, we are back in the city once more and I am breathing in car fumes instead of an earthy vegetable.
We take a day-trip to Ypres to pay our respects to those who lost their lives in the carnage of The Great War. The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing lists the names of more than 54,000 officers and men who have no known graves.
The Flanders Fields Museum documents the history of the war in Belgium, the strategies, the numbers of lives lost in each battle as a few metres of ground were gained and then lost again. As with so many museums these days it is an interactive experience, with handsets to hold and sensors to activate. With my handset held close to my ear I listen as a modern-day professor of history explains that the ratio of dead to injured, across all wars not just this one, tended to be one to four. Ten million died in this war and if he is right that means forty million were injured, mostly serious injuries with limbs lost, injuries that would blight the rest of their lives.
A few days later, and it is time to pack our bags. This Friday afternoon we head back to Olivia Rose to drain her tanks and leave her safe and secure for the winter. We are beginning the long drive back to Le Shack but have decided to punctuate the journey by a couple of house-sits. More about that next week!
Hope all is well.