Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Thuin, alive with history and charm

Two weeks in Thuin. Who would ever have thought we would stay in one place so long while faring? We never intended it that way, but plans have a habit of changing in our world and when I agreed to dog-sit for my daughter while she was on holiday, we had a different scheme altogether.

What happened was that we arrived in Thuin on Monday the 23rd of July, planning to stay a couple of nights before heading towards the border with France and Erquellines (which is where we are now). We thought we would spend the week Charlie the spaniel was with us there at the official Port de Plaisance. But Thuin charmed us immediately; of course, it helped that the mooring costs were apparently minimal (we didn't know then how minimal) and that we had free electricity and water. We are Dutch after all and I count myself as well integrated. But that (the free stuff) wasn't the only attraction. The town is a maze of the most wonderful nooks and crannies in which gems of fascinating history can be found. Added to that, it has serious historical sites, convenient shops and best of all an old tourist tram that runs at weekends with a tram museum to boot. With so much to explore, how could we possibly resist? So we didn't.

The batteliers' quarter
Thuin has a wealth of barge building history and at one time was the most important port in Belgium next to Antwerp. It seems hard to believe it now as everything has gone, but the Town was once home to five shipyards where they built the classic Belgian spits barges, one of which was the Michot yard where my former barge, Ténacité was built (Volharding in Dutch). The sign that a barge was built in Thuin was the distinctive fleur-de-lys symbol always present in relief on the bows, and it was oddly poignant to see there were still several of them moored up in town and used as liveaboards or, in one case, a museum. But before I took the train back to the Netherlands to fetch Charlie and my car, we'd discovered the batteliers quarter as well.

Symbols of the barge town's history

During its heyday, the town's bargees lived in the oldest of its neighbourhoods along the waterfront, and to our huge delight, many of them still do. We came upon this quarter during an evening stroll when we were wandering through the mews backstreets. It is visibly old, quaint and none the less charming for being a little shabby. The streets are cobbled and many of the houses have the name boards of the owners' barges above the doors. Some have the fleur-de-lys symbols from their boats too and there are all sorts of other symbols to show these homes belong to former skippers.

Boat names above the doors

Even better, during our wanderings, we were greeted by a senior gentleman, who promptly regaled us with stories from his family's past. His wife's father was a skipper and she was currently the honorary 'mayoress' of the quarter. Apparently, they have a festival every year in which the old batteliers' families vote for a mayor and deputy, whose job is then to organise charitable activities for the residents in need. This tradition was and is still part of the town's history. The old gent also told us that the much loved Belgian singer, Jacques Brel, had his yacht built in Thuin and that he had met him as a child. 

More symbold of the former occupant's former life

Later in the week, I was wandering round the quarter again taking photos when another old boy approached me and told me with great pride that his father and grandfather were the two men shown in a photo on the information board, both of whom had been mayors. I told him how much I loved the neighbourhood with all its reminders of the barges, and I asked him if he too had been a battelier.  'Mais oui, bien sûr,' he said, 'and my house is at the end of the street just round the corner.' Judging by the twinkle in his eye, I felt he was almost inviting me along; plenty of life in this elderly Frenchman, for sure. It made my evening and these encounters gave real life to the town's history. The sadness is that its glory days as a great port and barge building centre are over and there is no commercial water traffic on the Sambre river at all.

Other than these discoveries, we found our way to the upper town too and explored much of this originally wealthier part too. We have been to Thuin before, a visit I described in Walloon Ways, but we have never spent so much time getting to know the place. It has a long and venerable history going back to the middle ages when it was an important seat and defence point for the Bishop of Liège because of its commanding position at the top of a high ridge on the Sambre. In its early development, the town grew down rather than up and its famous hanging gardens, which we saw and are still in use, were created to support the important personages who lived at the top. I imagine that the further down the hill you lived, the less significant you were. Today, there is less obvious difference between the upper and lower towns; all of it is lovely except perhaps the shopping street in the lower town, which is just that.

The hanging gardens 

Koos and Charlie exploring an old posty or passage

An exhausted pup
Well, I could go on and on writing about Thuin, but I do realise this is my blog and I'm not producing a book here, so I'll restrain myself and finish by saying it did us good to stay. We found new delights every day; we met some wonderful people and had a marvellously social time too with other boaters who came and went. Special mentions are for our instant 'best friends', Peter and Jo, and also for the lovely Mike and Rosalee from Ireland, who I really hope we'll meet again. Lastly, there was Oscar from the neighbouring barge, whom we met eighteen years ago on the Moervaart. At that time, his wife was still alive; now, sadly she isn't, but at 83, Oscar is the life and soul of Thuin, and I imagine anywhere else he decides to go in his wanderings. Bless him and bless them all.

Dusk in Thuin
Have a great week allemaal, and I'll fill you all in with the next phase next week.


  1. What a pretty holiday place you have found in Thuin. The barge owners homes are so sweet and attractive, and very ship-shape too. Charlie is simply gorgeous, and I hope he is having fun too.

  2. Merry Val, I look forward to travelling with you and Koos every summer, and no less this time! Your talk of visiting with the colourful locals and meeting new (and old) friends along the way warms my heart. This is truly what travel is about! Fare on, Val and Koos xx

  3. Wow Val what a great time you had there it looks a lovely and very interesting town. Happy firings.

  4. Hi Val - sounds like a wonderful place to spend some time ... time to see areas, time to chat and not feeling you were rushing away to get on. Gorgeous and I bet you were all tired. Lovely to travel round the town with you and meet your friends ... cheers Hilary

  5. Fascinating, Val, and sounding very beautiful too! I'm glad you're having such a good time.

  6. Thank you so much, Patricia, Dale, Carol and Roger! I’ve just managed to look at these comments for the first time since I published this post. You are all right! It’s been a marvellous stop over place and I’ve just loved the history of the barging world too. The weather has broken today and it’s wet and windy, but we’ve come to the end our our route for this year at Landrecies, the end of the river section of the Sambre. I’ll be writing up my blog soon.

  7. Oops! I somehow missed this blog Val. What an interesting place, Thuin. Yes, I can feel yours and Koos’ sadness on the disappearance of the barging industry there. Wonderful that there are still proud memories displayed in the town and living memories with the old folk. How about publishing a book of interviews with these old gentlemen and women? Just a thought! Happy faring!

    1. Your suggestion is a great one, Colin. I have thought about that too! It might be nice to come back in the cooler months and chat to them all. They have so many wonderful stories to tell!


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