During a recent road trip through Belgium, we got to see four UNESCO sites.

The first is called “The Four Lifts on the Canal du Centre and their Environs, La Louviere and Le Roeulx (Hainaut)”.

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These are hydraulic boat lifts from the late 19th century and are the only ones in the world still in their original working condition.

The way they work are the boats come along the canal (the green water that you see there) and then stop at the contraption shown in the photo to be lifted or lowered to the next level of water, which is above and behind that structure.

If you look at the photo you can see what looks like a container at the top right-hand side of the lift. That’s where the boat goes into to be lifted or lowered hydraulically to the next level.

There is a container on each side of the lift; when one is in the up position the other is in the down position. Just a few centimeters of water triggers the movement of the containers.  

A traditional lock system on a canal works by raising or lowering the water level. With the lift system, the water level doesn’t change – it’s the boat that moves instead of the water.

I would love to have seen it in action because it’s simply ingenious.

This site is free to visit.

We took a short stroll along the canal and the algae-filled water looked other-worldly.

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The green was reflecting off everything and I felt like I was in the Emerald City from the Wizard of Oz.

The second UNESCO site we stopped at is called “Major Mining Sites of Wallonia”.

There are four of these sites in the Wallonia area of Belgium and we stopped at a former coal mine called Bois-du-Luc.

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We had the place to ourselves and got a private tour, which was nice. The tour consists of a visit to the former director’s office with its original furniture, as well as the workroom yard and the mining village to see how a miner and his family would have lived in the early 20th century.

After the tour you are free to wander around on your own to explore the actual mining facility and the grounds.

One of the things they point out on the tour are the green “guillotine” gates that you see here.

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They were put in place in 1896 to protect the mine against workers who were engaging in strikes and social protests. The towers that you see contain the mechanisms used to raise and lower the gates. As we were finishing up our visit we actually got to see them in use when a car was driving onto the grounds. They raise up veeeeerrrrryyyyy slowly.

Although the coal mine was created in 1685, most of what you see revolves around the St. Emmanuel pit that was opened in 1846. The mine stopped operations in 1973.

Bois-du-Luc was not just a mine. It was what was referred to as a paternalistic society.

In order to attract workers, the company offered them housing. 166 houses were built starting in 1838.

The company eventually also built a hospital, nursing home, savings bank, canteen, grocery store, butcher, pub, party hall, brewery, church, park, library, school and two churches for its workers.

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The housing you see there is still occupied today by low-income families. When the units were first built, each one consisted of 2 rooms plus a garden that contained the toilet. Later, a second floor with 2 bedrooms was added as were 2 rooms at the back of the house for a kitchen and a laundry/bathroom. Even though it was common for 3 generations to live in one house and for families to have 4 or 5 children, the housing was still considered good by the standards of the day.

Entertainment was also provided for and by the workers who, for example, formed brass bands and a football team, threw parties and participated in card games.

The downside of all this was that while the mine director was looking over the well-being of his workers, his was also controlling them.

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His house, shown there, looked right over the town. People had to watch what they said and did or they could lose their jobs, which also meant losing their housing and all the other benefits that went along with that such as schooling for their children. Excessive drinking was not tolerated and striking workers could also be fired.  So basically you said and did what the company wanted you to if you knew what was good for you.

Walking around the St. Emmanuel pit, you see photos and explanations that show what a typical day in the life of a miner was like in 1922.

In that year, a miner would have worked 8 hours a day as opposed to the 12 or 14 hours a day they previously would have worked. When the workday was limited to 8 hours in 1922, shifts were instituted. People would work one of three 8-hour shifts to ensure that the mine was operating 24 hours a day.

While only men did the actual mining, women and children also worked at the mine and performed duties such as hauling coal.

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That work was later taken over by ponies and then machines.

Until 1889, children as young as 8 or 10 years old worked 12-hour days in the mine and were paid as little as one quarter of what adults were paid. Their health was terrible. In 1889 the law changed, forbidding children under the age of 12 to work in the mines. In 1914 that was changed again and children had to both go to school and be at least 14 to work in the mines. Whether or not these laws were actually enforced was a different story.

The information in the exhibit makes it clear that mine work was extremely dangerous. Workers could be severely injured or killed by landslides, floods or gas explosions. They could also contract diseases from breathing in coal dust all day as well as suffer hearing loss caused by pneumatic drills.

Aside from the danger, it was a very uncomfortable way to make a living. The heat and humidity in the mines made conditions almost unbearable. Miners were allowed a 15-minute break each day to eat and drink, but they had to do that below-ground while still in the mine.

In order to account for their workers after they went down into the mine, the company instituted a numbering system.

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Each miner had a medallion with a number on it. When he reported to work each day he was given an oil lamp to take down into the mine with him. He would exchange his medallion for a lamp, which had the same number on it. If a lamp was not returned at the end of the day, the mine would know who to look for based on the number on the medallion.

In 1911, Belgium made it mandatory to provide shower facilities for their mine workers.

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That was the good news. The bad news was that the water temperature was about 8 degrees Celsius – 46.4 degrees Fahrenheit. Brrrr.

I have taken quite a liking to visiting the former industrial sites on the UNESCO list, much to my surprise. 

Bois du Loc has an entry fee of €10 for adults up to age 60 and €9 for adults aged 60 or older. Children over 6 will pay €7 as of this writing and children 6 and younger are free. There is a family rate for 2 adults and up to 3 children for €16. Tours are given several times a day and the mine is closed on Mondays.

The third site we visited is called the Plantin-Moretus House-Workshops-Museum in Antwerp.

The house belonged to a 16th-century printer named Christophe Plantin. When he died in 1589, his son-in-law Jan Moretus took over the company, hence the name Plantin-Moretus.

The company existed until 1867 and the museum opened just 10 years later after everything was sold to the city of Antwerp. And I mean everything, from the house to the equipment and everything in between such as inventories, letters, bookkeeping ledgers, contracts, catalogues etc. It is truly a complete history of the company covering over 300 years.

The printing company run by this family was one of the largest in Europe during its time.

The museum is pretty big with 35 rooms and I highly recommend renting the audioguide for €2 to enrich the experience.

This was a very wealthy family and the original furniture in the house is very lavish.

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The artist Peter Paul Rubens was friends with Jan Moretus’ son Balthasar and the house contains several of his drawings and paintings.

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Of course the museum also contains old printing equipment.

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We have been to a few printing-related museums now and it’s always mind-boggling to see the intensive work that went into making books.

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Each letter had to be set individually by hand and sentences were set backwards as you can see here. The ink was then applied to the letters by hand and finally put to paper. Everything was then checked by a proofreader.  There was no such thing as automatic spellcheck or white-out then, so if there was an error the whole process had to be repeated.

It was a long and tedious procedure and I always think that it had to have been a real labor of love.

In between the wings of the museum is a magnificent garden area.

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Back inside, on display are examples of printed books covering a period of a few hundred years, including an original Gutenberg bible and other rare volumes. There are also dictionaries, maps and other printed materials.

The library room, which also used to serve as a private chapel, was impressive.

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Apparently the printers were a fun-loving group.

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It seems that when apprentice printers were “freed” and became journeymen, the members of the printers union would beat the new journeymen with that ceremonial stick and also pour water over them.

There was a lot of beer involved though so I’m guessing everyone had a good laugh about it and the new guys probably woke up the next morning, like so many of us do, wondering where their bruises came from.

On the face of it a printing museum may not sound like a lot of fun but it really was a captivating look at both how wealthy businessmen of the time lived and the printing business itself.

The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday. You can check ticket prices and opening times on their website, which has an English version.

The fourth site that we got to see is called Belfries of Belgium and France.

There are 56 of them in total and 33 of those are in Belgium. We saw 3 of them on this trip.

The first one was the Cloth Hall in the city of Ypres where we spent 3 nights.

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That was the view from our hotel room and the Cloth Hall is the tower on the left-hand side.

The Cloth Hall was a warehouse and market for the cloth industry that was originally completed in 1304. It was destroyed during World War I, as was most of Ypres, and was reconstructed between 1933 and 1967.

Here it is in all its glory.

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The other two belfries that we saw were in Antwerp.

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That one is the Cathedral of Our Lady, which is simply stunning both inside and out. The tower is the highest in the Benelux (BElgium/NEtherlands/LUXembourg) region. I’ll talk a little bit more about the cathedral in the upcoming blog post on Antwerp

And the last one we saw was the City Hall, built between 1561 and 1565.

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We are having so much fun fitting UNESCO sites into our travel plans and seeking them out has taken us to a lot of locations where we otherwise probably would not have gone.

If you have any suggestions on which sites we should visit next, let us know!

 

About the author: Trish

 

Website: http://travelsandtipples.com