Get your skates on

Winter blues may be getting to you, but the freeze is perfect for a mobile party along the Bruges-Sluis canal.

Whenever it freezes, council officials from the tiny Belgian village of Damme hold a meeting on the banks of the Napoleonic canal that runs from Bruges to Holland. If the ice seems thick enough, an envoy gingerly tiptoes out to test the surface. If the ice is really thick, all the councillors clamber on to the canal, and jump up and down. If they make it back to the bank the stage is set for the great skate, from Belgium to Holland.

This doesn't happen every year. From 1987 to 1990 the canals were only fit for ducks. But occasionally the ice passes the council test: over the course of two weekends in 1991 more than 10,000 people skated, walked and crawled past the windmills, restaurants and ice-bound locks from Bruges to Sluis.

It was a chance remark at a party that alerted me to the great Belgian skating marathon. With reflexes speeded by the temperature, I headed round to the nearest skate shop, bought a new set of Hockey Skates for pounds 50, borrowed a car and headed for the Continent. As the ferry cut through the still, cold air, I sat steamy-warm inside, while truck drivers played cards in an atmosphere of shared adversity.

The Continental attitude to the big freeze is a little different to ours. The British authorities tend to discourage skating. Yet over in Belgium, as soon as it freezes, people are out there skating away for all they're worth. On the way from Ostend, driving through a world waking just before dawn, I caught sight of a solitary skater describing lonely circles on a roadside canal.

It was probably his only chance to skate in peace. As the day wore on, more and more people joined in, carpeting the canal with bright snow clothes and adding the bubbling noise of a nation in party mood. From a distance, the canal surface resembled a trail of vibrant ants. Close to, it was much less sinister and much more fun.

Brueghel might have scraped the ice from his palette at the sight. All cars seemed to have been frozen in their garages by the weather, and the entire population had taken to the ice in an eerily silent world of white fields and frost-rimmed avenues of trees. Parents pulled children on sleds, grandparents hurtled past at speed.

Meanwhile, unfamiliar in new skates, I steered an erratic course, one eye on the way ahead, the other spellbound by the view. Crowds faded, within a few hundred yards, into a haze where the glow of the sky blended with the gleam of the land.

Border formalities might be a thing of the past, but cultural differences live on in Europe, and at skating speeds - especially mine - these are unmistakable. The traditional skating route runs along the canal and covers 34km (21 miles). Over this distance the atmosphere changes dramatically. From the crusty respectability of Bruges, the tree-lined canal cuts through picture-postcard scenes of rural Belgium, windmills glowing faintly through the haze amid restaurants that advertise the fact they serve eels. Top of the twee - and a central place to stay overnight - is the village of Damme, where flower baskets hang from houses that look as if they have been coated with sugar icing. Out in the fields the atmosphere is already relaxing fast. Vendors set up stalls on the ice, using gas fires to heat "opwarmers" of hot wine.

The last traces of quaintness evaporate over the border. The small town of Sluis is the nearest point for Belgian tourists to rub shoulders with their Dutch neighbours. The canal cuts straight into the town centre. Usually this radiates the cosmopolitan ambience of a historic port, complete with dark-watered canals for disposing of double-crossing diamond smugglers. In winter, the waters are turned into hockey ground, village green, and meeting point. On top of the rims of the stone canal walls, high above circling skaters, shops line the narrow waterfront streets, selling fine cigars imported from former Dutch colonies, dodgy videos and plenty of beer. Whatever you make of Sluis, the gliding ice-journey here can't fail to appeal.n

Damme essentials

By sea, the two closest links are from Ramsgate to Ostend on Sally Ferries (0990 595522) and from Hull to Zeebrugge on North Sea Ferries (01482 377177). By train, the special Eurostar bus link from the station at Lille to Bruges operates only in summer, so is of little use for skaters. You can either travel on a roundabout rail journey via Brussels, or go by sea; the rail/Jetfoil link from London to Bruges is about as quick as Eurostar. To reach Damme, take bus 799 from Bruges railway station.

Belgian tourist office: 29 Princes Street, London W1R 7TG (0891 887799). In Damme, the tourist office is in the main square (00 32 50 35 33 19).

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino, goes back to his family's Sicilian roots in the first 'Godfather' film
film
News
Kim Kardashian speaks on the Today show about her step-father's transition
PEOPLE
Arts and Entertainment
Kermit and his doppleganger Hyalinobatrachium dianae
film
Sport
Wenger and Mourinho square-up to each other earlier this season
All the action from today's Premier League, including Everton vs Man Utd and Chelsea vs Arsenal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: MI Developer

    £35 - 45k: Guru Careers: An MI Developer is needed to join the leading provide...

    Recruitment Genius: Fitness Manager

    £20000 - £22500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leisure organisation manag...

    Recruitment Genius: Visitor Experience Manager

    £25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Delivering an inspiring, engagi...

    Recruitment Genius: Learning Team Administrator

    £17500 - £20500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are looking for a great te...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions