Often – a weekend with kids contains birthday parties, matches and other events with friends.  When time is precious, you need trips that  can be made in a couple of hours. A rainy Sunday in December, we had a lovely candlelit breakfast, squeezed in a bike trip for ¾ of the family along a tiny stretch of the Brussel-Charleroi canal, and managed to be back to get the little one ready for a party. The eldest took herself to some handball matches and then we could all dig in at dinner together in the end. ¾ of the family ended up feeling like the Avengers – ¼ was also feeling good, except a little bit sick on cake and candy - Hulkishly Green.

Flexibility is the key!

The Brussel-Charleroi canal has a genius bike- and hike-path on both sides. It’s mostly flat and easy to decide how far you want to go before you head over one of the bridges and turn back. We parked at The Sloping Lock of Ronquières, took a small and lovely detour into the forest and fields, before following the eastern side of the canal for about 10 km, crossing over and biking back on the west bank. One way, the path  along the entire canal runs for about 70 km – and – there are side canals to be discovered too!

Past and present

Yes – there’s industry. The importance of water as infrastructure for transportation in the past can not be understated. Biking, hiking or paddling along European canals gives you a brilliant opportunity to give kids insight in how goods and people were shipped around relatively easily in a world with much larger obstacles to land-based travel (and when flying was not an option). 

This has shaped the map when it comes to location of cities and later industry, it’s how the Vikings travelled inland to rob their sorry victims, was an effective way of collecting taxes and, in conjuncture with watermills, it gave power. No wonder you find lots of industry in varying states of rusticity along the Brussel-Charleroi canal. It’s not all grim – some are just ugly commercial buildings still in use, but some of it is actually quite charming in its own way.

The idea of linking Antwerp with the cities of Hainaut (the province where Charleroi lies) by a canal, stems from the 15 th century. Mary of Habsburg, Governor of the Netherlands, ordered the building a canal in 1550, but further effort was hampered by the Napoleon wars (probably among other things). Then came the Industrial revolution and coal, which could be found in the area around Charleroi, became an extremely important commodity. Work on the first canal was therefore started in 1827, and it was opened for traffic in 1832. Since then, it’s been upgraded several times. The water way is linked to Antwerp in the north by the Brussels-Scheldt Maritime Canal.

Along the canal you’ll find different kind of locks, based on varying technology. The Sloping Lock of Ronquières is maybe the most interesting, as it has a giant basin of water that it drags up a sloping construction (68 meters elevation over 1400 meters length) – boat and everything in the bucket.

Although it’s outlived much of its old commercial importance, the canal has been put to new tasks as a recreational area – and as a living area. We passed a lot of house boats along the canal – pottery plants, toys and bicycles making a lively scenery. The popularity of living alternatively on the water is a trend on the rise, globally. As tiny house living is one of my passionate interests (in direct conflict with my husbands’ ideas of adequate housing) – I’ll have to dedicate a post to this phenomenon at a later point. Maybe I’ll eventually learn enough French to actually go talk to these people.


A real-life horror story - for real!

On 17 December 2005, the body of former Rwandan cabinet minister Juvénal Uwilingiyimana was found dead (in mysterious circumstances, as the Guardian puts it). He was found in the canal, but an autopsy found no signs of a violent death (the story is kind of contradicting itself on this point, but then I’ve already stated the mystery part…). 

Uwilingiyimana had been indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) for his participation in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. He had been meeting with ICTR officials, and was put under pressure to testify against high-ranking officials from the former Hutu regime. If you ever saw Hotel Rwanda, you know what this is all about. The genocide claimed the life of 800 000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. If you didn’t – go see it immediately. It’s the African Schindlers list. And if you haven’t seen that either – bring a roll of toilet paper an get on with it. You’ve missed out in movie-time history-class. 

The former minister had gone missing on 21 November 2005, and when his body was found, it was naked and badly decomposed (who jumps in naked and willingly in November?!). And yes, I can imagine he wasn’t a looker by then – a month in the tub wouldn’t make me pretty either.  Quoting the Guardian: “Mr Uwilingiyimana's hands were severed and his wedding ring is missing.

"This is either because we are dealing with professional murderers or it's just by chance, that a boat cut off his hands," the family's lawyer, Sven Mary, said”. It’s of course still possible to speculate that he might have taken his own life to refuse ratting out his former genocide-colleagues. Not a nice guy however way you put it. When it comes to the missing wedding ring: The waters aren’t exactly see-through and swimming in the canal is illegal, but here’s a chance for gold-digging for the adventurous type. Look out for boats and don’t swallow!

A Norwegian Fjord(ing) in Belgium

In between the industry (which I feel like I have definitely over-emphasised so far), there are nice areas of greenery – and the great body of water is a wonderful flowing host to lots of different birds following you all the time as you pedal the kilometres away. Next time we’ll bring stale bread to satisfy the disappointed flocks of geese and ducks that enthusiastically came to greet us. We also encountered lots of cormorants, sea gulls, and geese and ducks of different types.

Still – what hit me closest to home, was a small wet pony standing in the drizzle with his friend the donkey and a couple of hens. It was a Norwegian Fjording! This breed of horse is one of only two kinds of horses originating in Norway, and it’s reckoned as one of the oldest and purest breeds of horses in the world. It has strong connections to the western parts of Norway – where you also find the deepest fjords. 

The look is distinctive – with a golden-beige coat, dark eyes and a black stripe in the middle of the fair mane. It’s a small and heavy-set horse, made for the rough conditions in Norway. The Fjording is considered an endangered breed due to the low number of breeding hops. There are about 70 000 Fjordings in Europe. In Norway there are only about 5500 of them. This exact specimen looked a little dishevelled, dreadlock style, and made my daughter want to take it home and give it a bath (no surprise there). 

Other practicalities

You'll get there using Google maps. Parking was no problem in December (ours was the only car on the lot), but I don't know how it will be in summertime. It is however possible to bike all the way from Brussels to Charleroi if you have the time – and take the train back. Some parts of the pavement is very good – good enough for roller skies actually (we’ll try that another time), while other parts were in poorer condition. On the east bank you pass a marina – with a small café. No time to check it out though…

As we only travelled a small fraction of the entire water way, there’s of course so much more to see – I have heard of castles and churches, but that’s actually just perfect – we’ll be back, and I’ll tell you all about it. 

Questions? Wanting to share? Duke of Edinburgh or plain Jane? Feel free to contact me.


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