13. July 2019
A Watery Dalliance: Five Charming Canal Cities
Towns and cities built on water hold a deserved fascination in our collective psyche. They bridge architectural, structural, and cultural aspects of the human condition as they literally bridge expanses of water. Venice is the most famous of them all but there are other places equally as deserving of our admiration around the globe.
Dominant during the heyday of the Industrial Revolution and now dominant again, Birmingham sits proudly on the Grand Union Canal, part of the resurgence of interest in the forgotten English waterways.
A haven for photographers, historians, and engineers, professional or not, it is unsurprising that the BBC drama series “Peaky Blinders” chose to use Birmingham’s gritty beauty as its backdrop. The canal network and traditional narrowboats command attention as they adjunct to old industrial buildings and factory yards with red-brick walkways and bridge laden waterways crisscrossing behind and around them. Alongside moored boats, trendy bars in warehouses, gourmet eating establishments, and modern art galleries have been opening up with incredible regularity.
London by boat is a mere 137 miles, 166 locks, two tunnels, and a week of cruising away. Birmingham, which once supplied the capital with goods from industry, is again a major hub of the English Canal Network. Birmingham supplies excited families and boating enthusiasts with a diet of old steel, industrial charm, fanciful grit, modern loft conversions, and enough real ale pubs and hipster coffee shops to sink the nearest Thos Clayton narrowboat and butty.
Bruge is the height of European sophistication and wealth. It’s a charming and complex city with an interesting and layered history. Canals and cobbles surrounded by medieval architecture, it is a gem nestled in the northeast of Belgium. Easily navigated by boat and bicycle, cycling its winding waterways in search of the famous Belgium chocolates or a cheeky beer in one of the many microbreweries that the city boasts, is a joyous adventure in itself.
Art buffs and historians will delight in the Groeninge Museum and St John’s Hospital where they can indulge in long hours contemplating the Flemish Masters. If you embark on a walking tour of the canal, you should stop at Bonifacius Bridge beside the Church of Our Lady and the world famous statue of Madonna and Child by Michelangelo.
Finally, a stop at the most famous point on Bruges waterways, the Rozenhoedkaai (Quay of the Rosary) is in order. Night or day, in wind, rain, or snow, this picture perfect vista is snapped by thousands of tourists delighting in the reflections on the water, of the bridge, the architecture and in the background the infamous Belfort van Brugge, the tower belfry.
The mighty tuktuk might be the method synonymous with modern-day Bangkok, but it hasn’t always been so. Boats were the norm in days gone by.
King Rama I founded the city on Rattanakosin Island in 1782, and Bangkok’s Khlongs (canals) were initially created from the Chao Praya River as protection for the Grand Palace. However, they quickly became dominant as the main means for irrigation, drainage, and transporting goods across the city. The network continued to grow throughout the early and mid-19th century but with the advent of the motor car and the development of the cities road system, these intersecting waterways were ultimately filled back in to make way for streets.
Traversing Bangkok’s backwaters is still the best way to see the structural and historical development of this city, from the tiny homes leaning over its khlongs to the ultra-modern structures of today’s business and industry. A visit to one of the many local floating markets in the city, while a bit of a cliche, is still an amazing experience.
Within the ‘golden triangle’ of Hangzhou, Suzhou, and Shanghai, Xitang is one of the many beautiful ‘water towns’, for which China is famous. Xitang is particularly enticing for its ease of access from these major cities. Less than 2 hours by bus or train will place you in the midst of 1300 years of Tang, Song Ming, and Qing dynasty culture.
Arched bridges, 104 in total, cover the waters at junctions and tributaries. Their effervescent reflections mirror them joining streets and territories together. Wooden canopied, waterside walkways; lángpéng, populated with homes and shops, as well as bustling with people going about their daily business adorn the banks of these popular waterways.
A walk there drops you back into bygone eras and provides a taste of ancient China. That taste will deepen as you try the local take on its famous steamed pork in lotus leaves or its ‘Cake of Eight Treasures’, loaded with medicinal plant ingredients. Xitang is well-known for being one of the more relaxed and ‘authentic’ of the water towns in this region.
Finally, if what you are looking for is a tiny, secluded place then look no further than the last on this list. Certainly, the smallest but arguably the one with the most character and charm is a little known, idyllic place in the east of Germany--the village of Lehde, otherwise known as the ‘city of punts and pickles’.
Set within the Spreewald Biosphere Reserve and on one of the tributaries of the Spree river is a village where letters and parcels are delivered daily by the local postmistress in her canoe, a visit to the neighbours is a slow paddle up a short watery junction and a date at the local restaurant involves a pair of rubber boots and a life jacket.
This village has all the intimate, old world charm you could ever want. Imagine sunny spring days spent surrounded by watery gardens covered in a profusion of green clover and blue hyacinths, or winter nights, cozy by the fire, as the first flakes of soft snow cover the thatched roof and the canal network freezes, giving rise to opportunities for ice skating.
Wherever you travel there are opportunities to see places which have developed unique water-born structures and have stunning, different perspectives on what it means to wend their watery way through the world. Which wet wonder will be next on your bucket list?