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Belgium Mines and Canals

March 9-13
Updated March 17

Dear Friends and Families,

From Remagen in Germany, I headed toward Belgium, although in this part of Europe it is hard to know exactly which country one is in.  Germany, Belgium, Netherlands and even Luxembourg almost overlap and Belgium itself is split by language and character.  My trip would stick to the French-speaking part, Wallonia, where the plan was to see a few more UNESCO World Heritage industrial sites.

My first stop was the B & B Aux Beaux Buis, my home for the next two days.  It turned out to be a charming place, a beautifully-restored 17th Century Farm house, decorated impeccably.  Marianne would approve.  I decided to "dine in" and started shopping at a large wine store just up the road.  The man in the shop spoke adequate English, a comfort since my French is almost non-existent.  He suggested an Israeli Pinot Noir and sent me along to a cheese shop a mile away.  In the cheese shop I bought two pieces of local product from Herve. When I opened them back at the room, they proved to be as stinky as any I had ever tried.  Later I would notice that Herve is just up the road from Limbourg, so this really is strong smelling cheese country.

d130309_00_whereToday.jpg The skies had opened up with a cold, driving rain on Saturday morning.  After an elegant breakfast at Aux Beaux Buis, I headed out to see what I could from a list of attractions given in a local tour guide.  I'll admit, I was not enthusiastic to go into the weather, but I can't let a little weather interfere with having fun. (Or can I?)

My first stop was the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery.  We have gone to these places a few times and I always feel connected with history when there, albeit not a part of history we need to repeat.  Over 17,000  WWII American soldiers were buried here and, originally, over 10,000 German soldiers as well.  The American sector  was in the immaculately-groomed style we always see, rows and rows of white stone crosses, with a few Stars of David mixed in.  At least here, black and white, Christian and Jew, everyone was treated equally, something unusual in 1945 America or Europe.

d130309_50_Clermont.jpgd130309_52_graves.jpgSince it was too early for my visit to the Blegny Mines, I swung through the small village of Clermont, called the most beautiful village in the area by the guide back in my room.  OK, it was cute, but cold, driving rain is not flattering.  Next time I will wait for sun

By now, it was time to visit my UNESCO destination, the Blegny Mines.   The mine dates from the early 1800's, although coal was actually dug here, by hand from small, single pits, for 200 years before that.  The coal here is in seams about a half-meter thick, tilted at 38 degrees, so was always dug out by hand, but with the assistance of power drills, explosives, and small rail transports in the horizontal access ways.  It was a very rough way to make a living.

I learned these details on my guided tour, just me and about thirty Dutch tourists.  Our guide spoke only Flemish, close enough for the Dutch, but impossible for me.  I had been promised an electronic guide, in English, but it never materialized.  Oh well, it left me time to take pictures, although I generally didn't know what I was taking pictures of.  Maybe you can tell me.
Above ground is the towering "head works" as well as a mine-art exhibition and some artifacts, including the train running up the trash heap, now reclaimed with an invasion of trees.
Down below, I listened to Flemish and took pictures of rusty things.
Above ground, in the headworks buildings, we learned about coal washing and separating, I think.  (It was still in Flemish.)
From the mine, it was home to clean up and out to nice fish meal at Gusto & Poesia, an Italian restaurant well done.  We have noticed that French-speaking towns have some of the best ethnic food, sometimes even better than the original countries!

Sunday, March 10

It was still cold and wet and, on my 90 minute drive to my next mine, it snowed.  On the one hand, it is discouraging that the sun has disappeared, but pictures are more interesting with white snow than with just gray skies.  We'll see how things turn out.

The mine I visited is call Le Bois du Crazier.  The tour here was completely self-guided, using written English signs.  That works for me.  For most of my time I was all by myself, and that also works for me since I can set up the camera tripod and not worry about blocking anything.  Outside, the snow gave a different character to the views.  Inside, the neatly arranged old equipment struck me as far more "museum" than the seemingly-just-abandoned steel works down at Völklingen.  I preferred the old rust and invading trees, but today's museum was OK as well.  Just a different way to attack the question of making an old industrial site visitor-friendly.
Outside, the snow made mining life seem even harder.
Monuments were both planned and not-so-planned.
Inside, some of the massive equipment has been restored.
Details matter too: the old executive washroom, an old switch, and the old machine shop, with sculpture.

After the Bois, I decided to scout out the canal scene around my new base in La Louviere. Since my canal visits spanned a couple of days, I'll leave that story for tomorrow.  Finally, it was over to my next B&B, La Chapelle au Puits in  a small village just outside La Louviere.  The day had been a bit cold, and pretty quiet, but seemed successful after all.

Sunday through Wednesday, March 10 - 13, Boat Lifts on the Canal du Centre

In the early part of the 19th Century, Napoleon I authorized construction of a series of canals linking the coal fields in Wallonia, then a part of France, to Paris.  Some of these canals needed to descend almost 300 feet (90 meters) from the coal hills to the planes that run down to the French capital.  The engineering was further complicated by a limited water supply, making regular canal locks, so-called sluice locks, impractical.  Great Britain had recently developed canal locks, or caissons, that were themselves lifted by hydraulic elevators or "lifts".

Four of these 19th Century hydraulic lifts are still operable near La Louviere, south of Brussels.  While these old locks are just used for summer tourists, a massive modern version is also in the area.  My goal was to see as many of these as practical. 

"As practical" changed from cool Sunday to downright cold Monday.  The visit to old lock #3 on Sunday was convenient enough.  The weather was cool, the skies were gray, but this is still wintertime in northern Europe after all.  On Monday, the weather had definitely deteriorated to cold and snow.  I had already been discouraged about doing much on a Monday since all the museums and inside attractions were all closed, but now that all I had was outdoor activity, it was all I could do to get out of the nice warm B&B room. 

I sat Tuesday out.  Roads were a mess and even driving a few miles seemed unwise.  At least my room at La Chapelle, one of only two at the small B&B, was large and comfortable.  I had time for reading, diary writing, CNN viewing, and generally felt at home.  However, the deteriorating weather and a forecast of several more days of cold and snow, convinced me to cancel the balance of the trip.

On Wednesday, I managed two more locks.  The old #1 lock, the oldest of the old locks, looks much the same as the others, except that the caissons were in the upper position, revealing the huge hydraulic pistons that support them.  And the sun was mostly out, that was the best improvement.

The second Wednesday lock, was the Ronquieres Incline, a different design. At Ronquieres, barges pull in to caissons and then the entire assembly moves almost a kilometer on a huge rail system, climbing or descending 70 meters (230 feet).  I watched one ascent and one descent.  Each movement was surprisingly graceful, considering the massive size of the moving assembly.

The visited lifts, three old and two new, were quite impressive.  The old ones could each lift 300 ton barges up 50 feet (16 meters).  The new one lifts 1,350 ton barges 73 meters in one go.  Here are some of the pictures that I froze my hands for:
The map shows where I needed to go.  The sign shows how the old canal runs.  The bridge just below Lock #3 rotates on a mechanism that is operated by hand.  Good Scottish engineering.

Lock #1 - The oldest lock. Amazing that the floating pistons were enough to lift the caisson, with barges inside.

Lock #3 (Sunday, cool)
Lock #4 (Monday, cold and snowy)
From the top

A modern hydraulic lock at Strepy-Thieu.  Much much larger than earlier locks.

  Finally, a different form of lock at Ronquieres.  The Barge-carrying caissons ride on giant rails.

Speaking of snowy, I have tried to walk a bit near the B&B, because I definitely don't want to drive on foreign icy roads.  It's hard to describe just how cold walking is, but this open field captured it for me.

Tuesday, March 12

BULLETIN:  The rest of the trip was canceled.  The snow had gotten deeper and the winds stronger, so I did not move Tuesday.  I no longer looked forward to the polders and windmills farther north nor to the balance of the events, since the ten-day forecast calls for lots of cold, nasty weather.  I retired so I would NOT have to be out in weather like this!

All I could do Tuesday was to go out in the street to see just how nasty it was.  There was not a tremendous amount of snow, but it was blowing and drifting or freezing into a solid ice road covering.  THAT's why I am staying here until I can drive home on reasonable roads.
My car in front of the B&B doesn't look too bad, but it is sitting on ice.  The rest of the neighborhood has been dressed up by drifting snow covering the ice.

Wednesday, March 13
The day was better, but de-icing the car took some time.
I worked in another pair of canal locks, the first of the old type and the incline at Ronquieres.  Both are described above.

I also visited the UNESCO Heritage site at Grand Hornu.  This originally was a large coal facility fed by a dozen local mines as well as a residential community built to keep the workers close to their work.  Many of the houses are still being used.  The large track-shaped buildings were the center of the colliery and now are used for art galleries and small theaters.
My favorite part was a 1933 black and white movie describing (I think -- it was in French) life in the coal mine community during the Great Depression.  Not an easy life.

The drive back on Thursday was uneventful, despite snow squalls, fog patches, and occasional sun. The fact that it took just six hours, even with breaks, reminded me that Europe really is pretty small.  Maybe I can try this again sometime, when the weather is more enjoyable.

End of the trip.  Need to think about what it has meant.




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