Wednesday, March 07, 2007


After our visit to Aachen / Aix-la-Chapelle, we went to Blegny-Trembleur, Belgium to visit the last working coal mine in Wallonia (French-speaking Belgium) which shut down a couple of decades ago.

I was fairly sure the girls and I would skip the mine tour, because I wasn't sure how we would be able to get out if MeiMei decided she was "SKAWED!" all of a sudden. I'd heard that there were lots of playgrounds at ground level. I made sure we had a couple of snacks handy and we waved goodbye to John and the university students as they headed into the tour orientation area.

There were indeed playgrounds! One was for toddlers and one was for bigger kids. I have to say (again) that the playground equipment here is so fun, due in part to the novelty value for us Americans, but also due to the fact that the liability insurance issue is not as major here. There were things on that playground that no American playground planner would touch with a ten-foot pole. Long multi-person swings that basically look like seats on a swinging battering ram...the merry-go-round things that U.S. playgrounds did away with when I was still a kid...really really tall slides that have no guardrails on the top and seem greased for the ride down. Needless to say, the girls had a blast!

After about an hour of that, they started to wander from thing to thing and I thought okay, enough of this. I told them it was my turn to pick what we did, and we headed off down a tour path toward who-knows-what. Turned out to be an exhibit of the different types of coal cars and miner transportation vehicles, digging machines, etc., all connected to each other and displayed on rails. The girls seemed interested in all the little cars (short of course so they could fit through the narrow passages). And then: ANOTHER playground! And a little zoo with birds and farm animals!

Finally I saw a path that led up this enormous slag heap. It was so amazing to me that just the waste from the mining operation could create a mountain which now sustains a whole ecosystem of birch trees, moss, various animals, birds, etc., but which still smells faintly of coal. We climbed the mountain together, the girls and I, and I was impressed with their ability to make it to the top with a minimum of whining. The view from the top was reward enough (see photo). We had such great weather that day. It was a really fun time, just following our noses to see what we could see.
We headed back down and the tour was just ending, so we met John and the students and went back to the bus. They said the mine tour was really interesting, and the guide (b. 1943) had actually worked for the mine (mining and then managing) from age 16 til his retirement when the mine closed. They told some pretty horrific stories about the conditions the miners worked in, and how awful the lives of the horses were that had been used to pull loads of coal down in the mine before machines were available. The horses were sometimes kept down in the mine for years at a time, never seeing the sun and often going blind down there.
You might wonder, what's the value of this tour for a group of American university students? But coal was a major industry in Wallonia. The students no doubt learned the association between an industry, the local economy, the culture and identity of a place. Perhaps in the future they will think to inquire about the major industries and "economic heritage" of the places they visit and work.
Next: Bastogne and a great little hotel

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