These days, little more than a trickle of the river Senne flows through Brussels; however, water lovers have many opportunities to enjoy a liquid holiday throughout Belgium.
Bruges is not known as the Venice of the North for nothing. This fine Flemish city’s charming, narrow lanes and quaint alleyways are encircled and bisected by a network of canals that give the map of the centre the appearance of a human heart.
Bruges is a real walking city but, after a while, all that meandering along alleys, peering into quirky chocolate shops, bargaining for fine lace while negotiating hordes of tourists in the main square can take its toll on the shoe leather.
It’s good to have a break and just sit back and admire the view – admittedly from an unusual angle and a quite different level.
One way to get a different perspective on Bruges and avoid the crowds for a break is to take a canal boat trip and explore the nooks and crannies from below.
The tours usually last half an hour and set off from five possible boarding points, situated south of the Belfort (belfry) close to the Stadhuis (town hall) and finish at the Onze Lieve Vrouwkerk (Church of Our Lady).
After exploring the city on the surface, visitors find that the view from the water offers something quite new. You might think you’ve seen all of the Flemish masterpiece while strolling the streets, but it’s quite a surprise to discover another side and level to the Unesco-listed city and also the fact that you’d have missed 75% of the place if you hadn’t taken the tour. It’s great inspiration to explore further on foot.
The boat cruises gently along some of the most beautiful stretches of canal, overlooked by fine town houses, some with casement windows jutting out over the water and small private stone quays. Passing under hump-backed bridges, brushed by the fronds of overhanging willow trees, it’s like a journey back in time.
A guide gives a commentary throughout the trip, but you may find yourself drifting away into a daydream about living in a more elegant age as you gaze at the houses whose walls plunge down into the murky depths.
For a more racy trip on the water, take a white-water kayak trip in Dinant in the heart of the stunning Ardennes region; along the Lesse, it’s a great way to get fresh air, see another part of Belgium and build up an appetite for yet another plate of moules-frites.
Arriving in the town of Dinant, 80 kilometres south-east of Brussels, first check out the unusual black church and precipitous cliffs looming over. A little mountain train to the town of Houyet from where the five-hour, 21km journey sets off. It’s also possible to alight earlier at Gendron and take a shorter, two-hour 12km trip back.
Prospective kayakers – and it’s open to all aged over 12 – are given a bucket to keep all possessions dry, a life jacket and single or double kayak, which can be a standard or even a ‘super comfort’. Once seated in the craft, before they know it, they’re shoved down a steep ramp and splashing into the water, swooshing off downstream, northwards to Dinant.
The Lesse meanders through gorgeous, green countryside and passes bars and friteries, all located conveniently and far too temptingly close to the riverside – stop off at beaches filled with Belgian grannies having picnics and toddlers pottering, all having a great day out.
If there’s been a lot of rain, the Lesse rushes impatiently, pulling kayakers under
overhanging willows where they end up sideways or up against a tree, but it’s all good fun, messing about on the river. Bear in mind that it is quite likely to capsize, especially with the less experienced paddler, so it’s advisable to leave expensive cameras and watches at home.
If the weather has been dry – strange as it may seem, this can happen in Belgium – then the Lesse is low and sluggish, but the ride is more leisurely. At the lower reaches of the river, the scenery is spectacular, as the kayaks enter a deep valley, surrounded by high cliffs pitted with prehistoric caves and the occasional
Medieval chateau perched high above.
At Anseremme, there are hot showers and free changing rooms, plus a lovely café with a terrace overlooking the rushing waters. Then, take the little mountain train back to Dinant for
a gourmet dinner in the spectacular Ardennes scenery.
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