Blog post by Nena, Bridget’s comments in [italics]. This post is too long... you might want to look at the photos and skip to the part about the canal swim incident. Also, Stijn has some additional photos here!
On Friday morning we awoke to the hamster wheel (a common occurrence in Belgium) at Nonkle Jan’s and Tante Els’s house in Bierbeek (Beertown). The day prior we had gone for a long walk through the fields and orchards with Els, Ona, and Ides. Ides decided to bike, but the past weeks’ rain had saturated the trails. The back wheel whipped up mud on his shirt, and he spent the next hour whining about doing the laundry (quite a responsible whine for an 11 year old). We passed orchard after orchard of pears and apples, eating a piece of fruit at each until we were nearly sick. Delicious! Two weeks ago, Russia stopped buying pears from the Belgians due to the Ukraine conflict, so the trees were still lush with ripe pears. The Belgian government is trying to convince the citizens to eat a pear-a-day to help the farmers.
After a huge pasta-veggie dinner, Bridget and I sipped wine while we watched my first Design of Coastal Structures lecture online. [Nena’s aunt cut me off after I missed my mouth while trying to drink sparkling water]. Ok, back to Friday.
Els dropped us off at the Leuven train station, with 30 minutes to spare before our train to Ghent. We cleverly decided to catch the earlier train. We soon realized that this was the local train, which takes approximately twice as long, resulting in a 30-minute late arrival in Ghent. We met my Bay Area kayaking friend, Stijn, who was patiently waiting at the station. Stijn and I are both members of the Bay Area Sea Kayakers and met at Berkeley Kayak Polo. He’s from Belgium and still spends a portion of his time working on art installations here. [He gets paid to design tree houses in Italy.]
With Bridget hidden stealthily in the back of the cargo van [stuffing my face with an Italian sandwich I was supposed to save for lunch], Stijn drove us to a launch site south of the city, in Drongen, where the kayak rental company (PONAS) had parked the trailer near the Leie River. Three yellow river-running white water boats (Taifuns) were perched on the top of the otherwise empty trailer. We waterproofed our cell phones (plastic bags with no ziplock), loaded up a plastic drum that served as a dry box, and launched before a massive group of kids on tiny sit-on-tops had a chance to take over the canal. The white-water flair of these kayaks immediately manifested itself as we struggled to maintain a straight course up the channel [major understatement]. While awesomely purple, our paddles weighed at least 100 lbs and the task ahead was daunting.
There was no obvious flow in the channel. Stijn informed us that it connects a river to another channel, and while it experiences some tidal influence (this surprised me – I had forgotten how close we were to the coast), it was not large enough to notice in our paddling. We headed north, towards the city. Initially, the channel was lined with perfectly manicured lawns [mowed by automatic drone lawnmowers] and well-windowed mansions. Stijn remarked that he felt a twinge of claustrophobia in this overly-developed narrow channel, and we agreed that grassy lawns are terrible things.
|Bridget taking her 4th nap of the day, and Stijn stressing about the manicured lawns.|
The next stretch was rural, with pastures, corn, and other crops. Every ten minutes a massive yacht passed by, leaving little room for us to fit our boats. Bridget set the tone for the day by placing herself in the middle of the channel every time a massive tour boat or yacht came around the bend [I swear they were trying to hit me]. After a couple pee breaks (Stijn found a scenic grove of trees and Bridget and I chose a highway underpass), we arrived at a sign pointing to Ghent Centrum. We also asked a canal-side pedestrian for directions, but he pointed repeatedly in both directions, resulting in more confusion than assistance.
We soon tired of our overly-responsive kayaks and heavy paddles, happily arriving in Gent Centrum at 1:30pm. Our pace slowed a bit as we stopped to take photos of the churches, bridges [Nena accidentally wrote Bridgets, but I had to correct this], and other scenic architecture. As we approached, the tourist boats multiplied and we found ourselves weaving between crowds of tourists who photographed us rather than the gorgeous old buildings that define the city. We saw only one other kayaker in a racing boat (with admittedly terrible form). Narrow stone staircases punctuated the rock walls that lead up to the adjacent sidewalks. Since the stairways are inset and are not as wide as our kayaks, it took a bit of maneuvering to get out of the boats [It was not that hard].
|Entering Gent Centrum, under Jakobijenstraat|
|Stijn explaining something emphatically|
|Disembarking kayaks: a great success!|
First order of business: fries and beers. Stijn directed us to a narrow alleyway where Bridget and I found a little “frietkot” (fry shack) while he stayed to watch the kayaks (you’re not really supposed to unload your kayaks in the middle of the city center…). We ordered 3 portions of fries, 3 sauces, and 3 beers, which generated quite the ruckus from the impatient locals behind us. We spent an hour or so snacking on fries, people watching, and napping (on Bridget’s part, of course).
|Little yellow kayaks in front of some of the oldest buildings in Ghent|
|Pommes frites! Photo by Stijn S.|
Next order of business: loosen our PFD straps to accommodate fry/beer-bellies, launch without falling in front of hundreds of curious tourists, and kayak towards the CASTLE. Yes, we kayaked to an ancient castle [and played kayak polo with a green floaty ball that Stijn found in the moat of the castle]. It's called Gravensteen (the Count's Castle), was built in 1180, and later served as a courthouse and prison. There wasn’t too much to be seen, other than Rapunzel’s hair, an overgrown moat, and some Dutch lovers sitting romantically in a grassy patch.
|Conquering the castle. Photo by Stijn S.|
|WiFi in the canal. Onlookers amused/confused/angry? Photo by Stijn S.|
We continued on a side channel until we arrived at an all-too-common impasse: the lock. The water level on the other side was significantly lower, and signs warned us from getting too close to the overspill. Exhausted, we turned around and paddled towards the agreed-upon take-out, where the kayak dude was supposed to meet us an hour later. Stijn’s friend’s house is on the same channel [and he happened to have the key to it], so Stijn suggested we spend our spare hour having some tea/coffee. Stijn got out of his kayak into the nearest stairwell, and Bridget was up next. She turned to push herself up onto the narrow rock surface when we heard a “PLOP” and “SHIT SHIT SHIT SHIT” from Bridget [I’m pretty sure I said F**k]. Her brand new iPhone was sinking to the bottom of the channel. She got that look in her eye, and we knew she was going in. SPLASH – Bridget was in the channel. A long minute later she emerged, dripping cell phone in hand, to a crowd of 25 concerned tourists, who collectively groaned when they saw the wet cell phone. Unsure of whether to laugh at the ridiculous situation or make sympathetic statements, I kept my mouth shut. We dragged the boats up and quickly hid ourselves in Stijn’s friend’s apartment, just across the channel.
|Bridget sipping vodka at the sliding glass window, overlooking the kayaks. Don't fall out!|
Stijn provided Bridget with a few shots of vodka: one to pour on her bleeding foot, which had picked up a shard of glass in the ruckus, one for warmth, and one to forget. One hot shower later [On my part, after Stijn made a comment to his friend in Dutch that he though I was gross for not taking one], we enjoyed the view from a massive window, which opened the entire wall. We sat, legs dangling over the canal below. [Not really sure if it was supposed to support that much weight, but we survived. Also, there were more stuffed birds in the architect friend’s house, but Nena did not think it worthy of taking a picture, and I could not due to my saturated phone, which we stuffed in a bag of open rice we found in the house]. Stijn said “It used to be much colder here,” and I (naturally) responded, “oh, because of global warming.” Bridget and Stijn responded with faces aghast/rolling eyes. “No nena, because he installed insulation in his house.” Ok, so we did just discuss that a moment earlier…
|The end of the day, at Rabot|
|Rabot towers, in older times. We paddled under the bridge and disembarked our kayaks there (see photo above). Photo thanks to NL wikipedia|
Arno and Miyako (who is studying in Ghent) came to meet us, and we went for a drink at a café near the train station. We drank a variety of Dutch drinks, like apple beer, fresh mint tea, coffee, and fruit soda.
Date: Friday, August 29th, 2014
Duration: ~ 5 hrs
Distance: ~ 11 miles (!)
|Part 1: Baarledorp to the inner ring of Ghent|
|Part 2: Inner ring to Centrum Ghent (where the castles and churches are)|