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