Canal barge cruising in Burgundy – you’ll want to return again and again
THERE can be no better way to unwind than drifting dreamily by barge through the canals of rural Burgundy with all the comforts provided that your heart could desire.
The luxurious L’Art de Vivre, perfectly named to reflect the quality of the experience, is big enough to carry eight paying guests. Work colleagues or groups of friends occasionally charter her for the experience of a lifetime.
Mostly, this grand old lady of the French waterways runs on the Canal du Nivernais taking paying guests on a gastronomic voyage of discovery. The on-board meals are everything you would expect to find – and more – in this rich region, renowned for its culinary excellence.
Captain and crew know their stuff from many years of palate-pleasing. The best wines of the locality are served at meal times and different regional cheeses are laid out each day to provide more perfection on a plate.
Within hours of settling in on board, we have already sampled a gourmet taste of things to come.
Not surprisingly, we have the pick of local wines to choose from – fruity Irancy, noble Chablis and a great Pouilly Fume (which raised a few smiles), called Le Bastard, to name but a few of the highlights. The lunches and dinners are the calibre normally encountered in the classier restaurants of Lyon and Paris. Without exception, it was agreed the quality of the cuisine was as good as it gets and conversation around the table was invariably punctuated with purrs of “mmm…”
We had booked up for a week on board the elegant canal barge. The brochure promised an unforgettable trip and it certainly turned out to be a memorable slowly-does-it way to get the best out of the colourful region of France.
Lap of luxury
European Waterways have been taking paying passengers for a taste of the good life for many years, cruising in the lap of luxury on the fully-restored barge.
Life on board is such a completely satisfying experience, they have to lay on some extra-special treats to lure guests ashore. And that they do with some style too.
Each daily itinerary carries fresh options to visit local attractions.
The guides are multi-lingual and have done their homework well, talking guests through everything of interest as the mini bus provided sets off on another adventure.
Those who prefer to remain on board can enjoy the changing canal or riverside scenery and sip a refreshing drink while Bach, The Beatles or Vivaldi fills the air.
The barge, complete with spacious deck-level saloon with picture windows, has a real home-from-home feel and comes complete with well-stocked bar. Fancy a drink? Just help yourself. It’s all included in the price.
In surroundings such as these you’ll find yourselves making friends in no time at all…and happy guests of course, make for good and cheery travelling companions.
The trip set off from Vermenton, but before we set sail, there was time for some sightseeing in Auxerre with pretty-as-a-picture lanes leading from the waterfront basin to the bustling town centre with its impressive church of St Germain where the crypt has faded ochre frescoes among the oldest in France dating back to 850AD.
As the barge left its mooring, we were whisked off to visit the 12th Century cellars of St Bris for our first wine tasting. We relished the contents of the musty cellars and were assured there would be plenty more to enjoy in the days ahead, but just to be on the safe side, re-emerging with squinting eyes into the sun-filled courtyard above, we all made a bee-line for the shop to purchase some quality Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to take home, at ridiculously reasonable prices.
There’s something quite magical about hotel barge cruising – a fabulous slowly-does-it way to unwind. Apart from the canal itself, locks frequently open to give access to wider stretches of the River Yonne. As sleepy hamlets, fields of sunflowers and deep, dark forests float by, the pace of life slows to an almost meditational level.
When it’s warm and balmy, there’s always a cooling breeze up on the sundeck from the water or just the forward motion of the barge itself. And, every waft carries with it scented hints of herbs and wild flowers which flourish on the verges.
This way, you get the chance to see and savour things which would be no more that a gone-in-an-instant snapshot viewed from other modes of transport. And, when something really enchanting comes along, you have the opportunity to hop off on mountain bikes provided and explore further.
The week is planned to offer guests a different trip ashore each day with transport laid on to take passengers to time-locked rustic villages, vineyards, castles and chateaux. Those who prefer to explore the surrounding countryside at their own pace, can take a bike off for an hour or two – or the whole day – and rejoin the barge later.
At the hilltop village of Vezelay, we found the perfect place to purchase quality souvenirs with its assortment of chic boutiques, craft studios and galleries all choc full of little treasures, many of which come from the studios of recently-qualified art students.
The Medieval hilltop village, a hundred years ago, lay abandoned, although its famous church, La Madeleine had by then been saved and fully restored. It stands in all its majestic splendour at the top of a steeply winding flagstone-paved street which leads to the bustling little square in front of the basilica.
An annual religious festival attracts hordes of pilgrims, many hoping for a glimpse of the religious relic held inside said to be bone splinter remains of a finger of Mary Magdalen.
Make the effort to explore the winding streets and alleys. There are fabulous cafes, restaurants and bars tucked behind the street frontages which need to be sought out.
Next day we headed for Chablis country and a taste of some of the finest crisp white wines produced there. Slap bang in the middle of the town are the cellars of the Laroche family who have been producing their distinctive classy wines for five generations. The cellars date back to the 9th Century and contain true connoisseur bottlings for those who like the Chardonnay grape handled with a touch of finesse.
We found a very special host to welcome us on our arrival at Chevroches where the Mayor, proudly wearing his sash of office, turned out to welcome us with a glass of the local speciality, Ratafia, de Bourgogne – two parts wine to one part cognac – allowed to ferment until it turns into a rich, sweet ruby red tipple.
During lunch on board, fellow passengers spontaneously burst into song, the chosen lyrics, “Heaven, I’m In Heaven,” summing up the general feeling around the table as we tucked into another hearty feast.
The week ended with a slap-up Captain’s Dinner, much laughter and amazingly, the feeling that we had been away for three weeks instead of one.
* European Waterways gained worldwide exposure when leading UK chef Rick Stein and his production crew charted another of their vessels to make the popular TV series, “A French Odyssey.” Contact the very helpful UK team by telephone (01753 598555) or via the website: www.europeanwaterways.com