Albert Canal (134.5 km)
The Albert Canal was authorized in 1928, primarily to improve the route from Antwerp to Liège. In addition to a radical improvement in speed (what used to take two weeks is now traversed by a modern motor barge in a day), the capacity was much larger. The canal was also seen as a giant moat to stop the feared next German invasion, it avoided Netherlands territory entirely, and it would aid Antwerp in its competition with Rotterdam (which would benefit greatly from the Juliana Canal then under construction north of Maastricht). By the time construction finally started in 1930 the canal had another great purpose: as a jobs program. It provided employment as many as 13,000 construction workers. The canal was completed in 1939.
The importance of the Albert Canal is evident as soon as you start your ride along it. Rarely (except on Sunday) are you out of sight of at least one moving barge. In 2002 the canal carried a record 43 millions tons of goods of various kinds, more than half the Belgian waterway total. And there are numerous industrial and commercial facilities that utilize canal transportation. Some, in the petrochemical field, are quite new. While the coal fields that used to provide major traffic are all closed, coal remains a major commodity - imported coal brought from the Antwerp port to inland power plants and the steel ovens of Liège
Yet the Albert, once you leave Antwerp, provides a pleasant ride. There are well paved service roads on both sides most of the way, and most is through farm land. In places you see fortifications on the south bank - a defense built with the canal against the possibility of another German invasion. (This defense turned out to be of little use - the new German invasion of 1940 occupied the whole country in 3 weeks.) But, as with other newer canals, the embankments are very wide and you rarely ride under an arcade of trees such as you find on most older canals.
photo by André Maes
East of Wijnegem, the canal is now being widened between the Wijnegem lock and Oelegem. André Maes reported on 20 November 2005 that the north side has been repaved, but that the south side is now a complete mess. And further on 6 May 2006: The south bank is being used to pile and dry the muck being dredged out of the canal. But you can get through if you are careful.
The project includes replacing many lock doors. N.V. Aelterman Montage has the contract for several. Check their web site for some pictures. (Information from Karel Roose)
Antwerp - Herentals (35 km)
(Junction numbering starts at Schoten with 22)
Looking west into the port you see ocean-going vessels in the distance, with closer areas dedicated to barges and some pleasure craft. The structures are mostly warehouses. To the east the Albert Kanaal is lined with commercial and industrial activities that (did) take advantage of water transportation. The south bank is often sand and gravel companies or cement plants. There is a dock which blocks the south bank on the other side of the elevated Antwerp ring road. The north bank is a mixture of commercial and industrial activities, many now dead, but is mostly good for cycling.
Continue across the bridge and make a left U-turn at the bottom of the ramp just before the traffic signal - by Ziegler's - on the street that runs next to the bridge ramp. 200 m brings you to the bank of the canal, below some power lines. To the left is a pub. Turn left (east) along the road and under the bridge. Just past the bridge you reach paved towpath.
At the fifth bridge (Merksem, KP 126.958) the LF 2 bike route joins the towpath. (You could cross here and continue on the south bank, but the occasional sand and gravel port makes the road a bit messy on occasion. I recommend staying on the north side.) Shortly thereafter you cross a bridge over a branch canal - or actually the Merksem dock. This dock extends about 800 m to the north.
200 after the Merksem dock is a bridge over the canal and the towpath narrows. The next 800 m have often heavy and usually fast-moving traffic, and one section where the towpath is too narrow to ride. A better option is to turn left (north) away from the canal just past the bridge - following the LF signs. Follow the bike path for 400 m to the first street to the right - Toekomstlaan. Turn right and follow the road and bike path for 800 m to a T junction. Turn right and follow the street 500 m back to the canal by the Bosto tower. Cross the road and follow the towpath east. The ride is fine for the 1.5 km to the junction with the Turnhout canal at Schoten, except for one crane that you might want to walk around. (January 2001) (Thanks to André Maes for pointing out the detour, although his is longer than mine. André surveyed the LF 51 route.)
2.6 km past the Turnhout you reach the Wijnegem road bridge (junction 24), and 200 m after that the massive new locks at Wijnegem. These were built in the late 80's-early 90's to remove a bottleneck on the canal. The capacity for the entire canal is now 4,500 tons. There is a pedestrian bridge (or more accurately two bridges) across the locks at the west end. Rogiers/Depret had a contract to replace the lock gates in 2005. There are pictures on the firm's web site.
One km past the windmill you pass under the A21/E34 bridge. Just past the bridge the canal widens about 500m to the north. This is not a harbor, but rather the proposed junction (now bike route junction 56) between the Albert and an Antwerp bypass canal - the Antitank Canal. To continue on the antitank canal go straight when you reach the peak of the junction, toward junction 57. To continue on the Albert, turn right at the peak and follow the towpath toward junction 70.
About 3.7 km past the E34 bridge you reach the Viersel bridge. If you are on the north bank and want to connect with the Nete canal, cross the Albert by this bridge in the direction of junction 74. Continue east about 900 m, past a popular area for water skiing and jet skis, to the junction with the Nete canal.
4.7 km east of Viersel the Nete river passes under the canal. On the south bank west of the river is a motocross track. Note on the north bank (the upstream side) the combination flow control device and strainer for the Nete. The south bank now has 3 km of port and commercial, mostly sand and gravel, while the north bank is wooded. The next bridge, for Grobbendonk, marks the beginning of a military base on the north bank. From the markings, this is used mostly for NATO and SFOR logistics vehicles - trucks and such. The base is mostly wooded, and in the middle the fence curves inland for a bit to allow for a ski club. (The bar may be open to anybody.)
4 1/2 km past the ski club you reach the first of the Herentals bridges, a rail bridge and then a road bridge at KP 99.6 The south bank is now joined by a rail line - which is now part of the "Iron Rhine" - a new freight line connecting the port of Antwerp with the Ruhr in Germany.
As you enter Herentals you reach a harbor area and then the path is blocked by the junction with the Kempen canal (junction 12). Climb the road up to the bridge level. At the bridge you have the choice of continuing east on the Albert (toward junction 61) or turning north on the Kempen Canal toward junction 13. (If you arrive on the south bank, the third Herentals bridge - KP 98.1, junction 60 - is just past the junction with the Kempen. There is a railway crossing about 100 m west of the bridge, and then paved road up to the bridge.)
Herentals played a major role in a minor episode of Belgian history, the farmers' (or Flemish) revolt again the French Republic in 1798. At the beginning of November 1798 the city was bombarded and burnt by a French force under General Bonardi. (May 2000) (route verified by Jan Steyaert July 2003)
Herentals - Briegden junction (71 km)
A straight run on very good to excellent pavement, except for the last 2.5 km, through farmland with occasional industry. Both sides have good service roads most of the way. There are kilometer markers (KP) on the retaining walls along the canal (though some have disappeared), most bridges are marked with the KP, and along some sections the KP are also marked on the service road itself. The distance counts down from Herentals (KP 98) to the east. Apart from five locks, each with a height of about 8 m, the route is flat.
There are occasional havengebied (harbor areas). Most are embankment sections used for loading or unloading freight, usually sand and gravel. A few are short canal branches where you have to climb to a bridge across the harbor entrance.
From the Herentals bridge over the Kempen canal, go east a few meters and then down through the parking lot on the left side of the Albert Canal bridge approach to the service road. You now have a straight run with occasional "harbors" along the canal where sand and gravel are unloaded. One large warehouse has a gantry crane that extends over the canal for unloading coils of sheet steel. On the opposite side of the canal you pass a couple of petrochemical plants, one of which seems to make plastic soft drink bottles.
At Kwaadmechelen (KP 75) is a junction with Dessel - Kwaadmechelen canal. You have to make a detour to the north about 600 m to a bridge across that canal. (This is not a bicycle route junction - no number. Just cross the first bridge.)
At KP 37.1 (junction 69) there is a bridge. Cross back to the north bank. (You can actually continue on to the next bridge at KP 33.3 on an unpaved route, but after that the south bank is blocked to the east. The sign says "danger - cave-ins.") At this point kilometer markers (KP) on the embankments and even on the bridges cease entirely. From here the land on the north bank raises above the canal as it skirts a hill. You are riding toward junction 65. (May 1998)
2.9 km later is the Gellik bridge and junction 65 in the Kempen & Maasland network. The bicycle route network turns away from the canal, which we will follow. The towpaths are difficult to very dangerous for the next 2 km. Instead, continue east on the gravel road (Boonakkerstr.) In 600 m you reach paving, and in another 300 m a minor highway. You are at the boundary of Gellik. (If it is really wet, go north on the road for a few hundred m to a T junction and turn right on Dorpstr. You end up at the same place by the Gellik border.) Turn right on the road and in 100 m there is a paved bike on the north side of the road. (This path is a rail trail, which probably will be extended across the canal on the dead rail bridge you can see to the south - the one with the upper arches.) Follow the bike trail for near 2 km to the next bridge and a bike route interchange.
If it is time for a break, you might go straight into the town of Lanaken. (There is apparently no reason to go there for sightseeing.) Click for aerial photo of Lanaken bridge.
Back by Lenaken, If you wish to go north on the Zuid Willemsvaart, or into Maastricht, go through the tunnel and follow the paved bike path. It quickly ends. Follow the road to the right back to the towpath (direction 54). You come down to towpath level just before Briegden junction, and quickly turn NE away from the Albert (and by a wood products factory). In less than 1 km you come to a lock. Follow the signs to the left of the building. Just after you go under a bridge, the same dead rail line as by Gellik. (This dead railway saw its last train in 1990, but is now being rebuit as the route for a tram line that will connect Maastricht with Hasselt. (For an ongoing discussion of this project in Dutch, click here.) (Click here for status of reactivation in English.) To continue north on the Zuid Willemsvaart, take the path to the right - lower level in the direction of 54. For Maastricht island, or Maastricht itself, take the left - climbing - path. At the top of the climb is a pedestrian/cycle bridge, marked Smeermaas on the map.
If your objective is to continue south on the Albert towards Liege, cross the the Gellikbridge at junction 65 (direction junction 66) and immediately after the bridge turn left on the paved road. This takes you down to a fine towpath and in a few hundred meters Briegden junction. (May 2000)
Briegden junction - Herstal (29 km)
Going south on the west side of the canal, you generally have fairly good pavement. There are short hard dirt sections of 100, 300 and 800 meters in the nearly 12 km to the Lanaye bridge, south of junction with the Lanaye canal. The bridge is an interesting one-legged suspension.
This section contains some massive earthworks, particularly a cutting that begins 6.5 km south of Briegden junction. On both sides of the cut there are some tunnels into the rock, perhaps remainders of old mines. This cut is about 1.5 km long.
1.4 km after the cut, and after detouring slightly around a yacht harbor (refreshments available on the south side), you reach a "do not enter" sign and another cut. The gate seems to have been open for a long time - just keep going. You are now in a military reservation that includes the fortress Eben-Emael. It was in 1939 considered virtually impregnable - on a hill with 42 hardened gun emplacements and 1,200 soldiers. Belgian generals called it the "Strongest Fort in the World." 78 German paratroops landed in gliders in the fort at the beginning of the offensive in the west on 10 May 1940. By noon 11 May it and two bridges across the Albert Canal were in German hands. The fort can be visited on some summer weekends. (Note 30 March 2006: There is a fascinating description of the German assault, with photos taken by a German participant, at The first glider assaults of the war.
From Lanaye south to Oupeye (nearly 9 km) you have a decision to make. Much of the west bank is unpaved or rough cement, but it offers riding under trees on some stretches. The east bank is a fine paved service road, but with no shade. Along the west bank there are large cement factories, and parts of the side of the canal are thick cement walls rather than earth dykes. The cement wall sections are rather rough. As you approach the first cement plant you go around a harbor, with a wonderfully elaborate complex of machinery for loading gravel and such onto barges.
The next section is fine riding on either side, 2.3 km to the Oupeye bridge. On the east bank you have a detour around a side canal (harbor) that adds about 800 m to the distance.
As you approach the Oupeye bridge you see a large industrial complex ahead - the Cockerill-Samber Chertal steel mill. The mill blocks the east bank 1.3 km south of Oupaye. You need to cross to the west bank. (Note: the ovens are scheduled to close in 2007.)
Then you pass on the opposite bank the Chertal mill. It obviously recycles a great deal of old metal. The next bridge (3.9 km south of Oupeye) is the E40, and you enter the Liège urban area. You continue along a fine paved service road 1.1 km to a fairly new one-legged suspension bridge. Shortly past that bridge you come up to a road for 50 m, and then onto a fine paved towpath. The next bridge is bow, and shortly thereafter you pass on the opposite bank a lock - a canal connecting the Albert with the Meuse.
Just past the lock you join a road, with little traffic, through a boat yard and then through a park area. The opposite bank is a major industrial area. After the next bow bridge you approach a lighthouse and the junction of the Albert and Meuse. On the upstream side of the lighthouse is a heroic statue of King Albert I. You are now on the Meuse.
The first opportunity to cross the Meuse is 1.2 km further, the Atlas Bridge. The first 400 m is good towpath but then the pavement ends. Climb the ramp and use either the rough sidewalk or the road to the bridge. (September 1998)
Last update 4 December 2008
Copyright Dan Gamber, 1998 - 2008
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