ROWING Randonnées’ and Rain: Adventures on the Brussels Canal


Rowlocks, ‘Randonnées’ and Rain: Adventures on the Brussels Canal and Beyond PDF Print E-mail
Written by Liz Bostock
When I arrived in Brussels I decided to take up a new sport. I had relocated from a rural location in England, where the main sports were ‘hunting’, shootin’ ‘n’ ‘ fishin’', so the choice on offer in this European city were refreshingly wholesome and a great deal less blood thirsty. I considered Nordic walking, badminton and yoga, which to my delight, all completely avoid the demise of small creatures. In the end, my first step was to join my local gym, the heavenly sanctuary that is Royal La Rasante in Woluwe-Saint-Lambert. Here I could, if I really felt up to it, do ‘body jam’ or ‘body attack’, or I could simply restore my equilibrium in an altogether more dignified manner with ‘body balance’. I love going to the club despite having to run the gauntlet of the glamorous women in the changing rooms. The view that all continental women wear gorgeous, matching underwear is unfortunately true. I had hoped it was a myth. I find this very distressing as most of the time I wear non-gorgeous, non-matching underwear


 Perhaps it’s a cultural thing.

Photograph by Liz BostockHowever, after a few weeks I realized that I had the opportunity to return to the sport of my youth: rowing. A very long time ago, I would glide up and down the River Cam in Cambridge, magenta blades glistening in the rain (naturally). I would be chased by swans guarding their nests and dodge the many novice rowers who zigzagged happily from bank to bank. We were young. We were fit. That was then and this is now! A quick internet search revealed that there are four rowing clubs in Brussels: one for the university and three others. At random I chose the ‘Royal Sport Nautique de Bruxelles 1865’ and turned up on a September morning to investigate. The club is located on the Brussels Canal to the north of the city near the Vilvoorde viaduct, where the ring road rises up on giant concrete stilts. The approach is, shall we say, less than inspiring. The canal is a place of heavy industrial work with massive functional buildings lining its banks. There are incinerator plants, factories and strange grease-slicked mechanical structures. As I drive along the edge of the canal I feel increasingly gloomy. Surely it can’t be here, can it? And then I see it, set back from the road, a slightly crumbling, beautiful old building: elegant and defiant, but dwarfed by the transport depot that squats next door. The large boat house doors are painted red and green, the royal crest of the club hangs above a sun-warmed wooden bench and wisteria rambles up the wall. It’s a haven from the modern world, a world which has crept up to the very limits of its boundaries. A white haired man in a base ball cap stands on a small balcony smoking and surveying the canal thoughtfully. He turns out to be the charismatic Albert, who gently organizes us all into various boats on weekend mornings, usually consuming several cups of strong coffee and a couple of cigarettes in the process.

We are mostly divided into boats according to gender, age and aptitude. I often end up in a boat full of middle-aged women. Downstairs the boats, which are mainly of the traditional wooden variety with a few sleek carbon fibre sculling boats in between, are stored in a somewhat haphazard way. But upstairs, more importantly, you will find the most delightful bar in Brussels. Damian, the ever-present barman, provides beer or coffee (and probably soft drinks too) to prepare you for the outing ahead or help you to wind down after your exertions. There is sometimes a simple home-cooked meal on offer, which is always good although you need not be in a rush to get it. A few Belgians might be playing cards at one of the tables. Some members of the tennis or table tennis branch of the club might make an appearance. Smokers will drift in and out onto the balcony. Some people have been coming to this club for years. Jean Pierre, or ‘Jee Pee’ as everyone calls him, cheerfully coaxes any crew that asks and remembers cycling to the club during the war with his father.

Amid the ugly concrete surroundings, this special place has a real sense of community, of friendship and ties that go back a very long way. We, as expats, are welcomed in. They tolerate our poor French, encourage our efforts and occasionally remind us that our renewal fees are due. And the club is very happy to receive new members. Several club stalwarts are even taking courses to learn to teach novices. My own husband learnt with Albert, who stood on the jetty with a large megaphone, slowly enunciating the words: ’ Steven, open the windows’ - that’s a technical term for stretching your arms out wide on each side of the sculling boat, an oar wavering in each hand. It’s an operation to be undertaken very tentatively at the beginning.... or you’ll be glad of that spare change of clothes. Amid all this rosiness, I have to reveal that rowing on the Brussels canal comes with a frisson of danger. It’s not just about the soothing sound of oars in unison and lapping water. The canal is a place of work as the Brussels Port website proudly announces: "Thanks to its exceptional accessibility...the Port of Brussels has been given the status of a sea port. This means that it is accessible round the clock, 365 days per year for both river and maritime traffic of up to...9,000 tons."

This, as you can imagine, has certain implications for the average rower, who weighs just an intsy bit less. When the cry ‘peniche!’ goes up, a rower’s concentration is instantly renewed. The ‘peniches’ are the enormous barges that travel from Antwerp, the Schelde and the North Sea to Brussels, laden with oils and fuels and who knows what. They are massive beasts, with cabins at one end for the crew. I always find it rather incongruous to see the little domestic details on these vessels: net curtains and flowers in the cabin window, or a little Renault Twingo parked on the deck. Most captains have the courtesy to slow down so the fishermen can draw in their lines and the rowers can navigate the wake. However, a few don’t bother and if you happen to be in a sculling boat on your own, well, all I can say is ‘keep your mouth closed’ when the inevitable happens. I haven’t yet fallen in, but that is mainly because I prefer the relative security and camaraderie of rowing in a four. If you have the energy, you can row the five kilometers northwards to reach a lovely barge-free stretch of the river and real countryside. It has to be said that there is a slightly tricky maneuver to be undertaken at this point. Passing under the low bridge involves lying back in your boat, making yourself as flat as possible and gliding under the great iron girders which pass inches from your face. It’s quite an adventure as you hope you have enough momentum to reach the other side. Beyond is another world, a bit like Narnia but without the Snow Queen. There are plenty of informal outings or ‘randonnées’ to join. But if you decide to take part in any formal races, you are required to wear the club colors, which are bright red and bright green. This is, in my opinion, an unfortunate choice, but I am in no position to challenge one hundred and forty-six years of history. When dressed in full regalia, we are like tomatoes, highly recognizable wherever we find ourselves. It is really only the leg wear that I have a problem with. I own a pair of the official club leggings: red with a dashing green stripe down the side. I don’t care what anyone says, this is not and will never be a good look. Anyway, I am sure my grandmother used to say ‘red and green should never be seen’ except at Christmas time. Occasionally, our ladies’ crew secretly agrees to wear black leggings with the correct club tops. We risk disqualification and reprimand from the rowing top dogs, but the triumph of vanity over rules is (for the over forties) justified on the grounds of our mental health. You will understand then why I don’t wish to talk too much about the little ‘all–in-one number’ with straps that stretch over your shoulders. You can almost hear the ladies of the Royal la Rasante whispering: ‘quelle horreur!’ Since I have joined the rowing club, I have enjoyed several memorable rowing excursions. We entered a ladies’ eight into an event in picturesque Namur, where admittedly our enjoyment was somewhat curtailed as we missed the start due to unforeseen technical problems (rudder + wires + entanglement = a complete standstill). But I will never forget rowing up the Seine in Paris at dawn or the long trip along the rivers of Gent, stopping for refreshments at riverside restaurants along the way. You get a whole new and fun perspective on a place from the water.
If you would like to find out more, you can contact me via Rendezvous or get in touch with the club directly: