Barge Cruising in Burgundy
Taking It Slow
Feature by Debbie Stone
Leave your preconceptions behind and embark on a journey of luxury, charm, and hidden treasures like no other.Flipbook Text
When most people think of a barge, they envision a flat-bottomed boat that hauls goods down a waterway – a working vessel. So when I told family and friends that I was going on a barge cruise in France, I received quizzical and confused looks. They didn’t understand why I was choosing to travel by what they perceived to be an uncomfortable mode of transportation.
“Au contraire!” I responded, and then proceeded to enlighten them, explaining that this was not a cargo boat, but rather a small, sleek, luxury hotel barge owned by European Waterways. And no, I would not be “roughing it!” In fact, I would be wined and dined, and my every need tended to by an exceptional staff, well-versed in performing the highest levels of service and hospitality. All this while meandering through the picturesque French countryside along the Burgundy Canal, far from crowds and the hustle bustle of city life.
European Waterways has been operating voyages since the 1980s and cruises in nine countries across Europe from the Midi in Southern France to the Scottish Highlands, and from Ireland in the West to Venice in the East. The company has an excellent reputation and is renowned in the industry. Its immersive cruises offer a more intimate, informal atmosphere than on larger river and ocean cruise vessels, and are a great choice for couples, single travelers, families or small groups.
Each cruise lasts for six nights and the all-inclusive pricing encompasses everything from transportation to and from your barge, stateroom, incredible gourmet meals, all excursions, hot tub and bicycles on board, world class wines and a fully stocked, open bar.
La Belle Epoque, the barge I traveled on, accommodated a max of 12 passengers, however, my cruise in April only had eight. All of us were from the U.S. and six of the passengers already knew each other. My husband and I were the “outliers,” but not for long. We were quickly enveloped into the fold and became fast friends with our convivial fellow shipmates in no time at all, sharing stories and plenty of laughs. The atmosphere was like a floating house party with likeminded people, who shared a love of experiential travel, culture, gastronomy, fine wine, local history…and most importantly, good conversation.
Originally built in 1930, La Belle Epoque was converted into a handsome hotel barge in 1995. The boat boasts four staterooms and two junior suites, a dining room, salon with bar and spacious outdoor deck. Though the staterooms are small, they are cozy, and have all the necessary amenities.
Our crew of six hailed from France, Poland, Brazil, Greece and England. At the helm was Andy, our very personable, knowledgeable and efficient captain/tour guide. Then there was Apostolos, chef extraordinaire; Agata and Maria, hostesses with the mostest, who were responsible for serving the meals and drinks, cleaning the staterooms and making sure we were comfortable at all times; Fred, the pilot; and Brice, the deckhand. All welcomed us warmly to the boat and preceded to ensure that our journey would be memorable.
Our trip began in Paris, where we were picked up and driven south to Tomlay in the Burgundy region. There, our barge and attentive crew awaited, greeting us, champagne in hand. After toasts and intro-ductions, we settled into our state-rooms and then convened in the salon to get to know each other.
Each day, the barge glided sedately along the canal, passing under bridges and going through locks. Most of the canals in France’s extensive system date back to the 17th and 18th centuries and represent a time when roads were primitive. The barges plied the rivers, carrying coal, grain and other supplies from village to village. These waterways were basically abandoned in the late 18th century when railroads took over as the main transportation system. They were later “dis-covered” by young, British travel entrepreneurs and the rest is history.
Although the barges carry passengers today, much has remained the same on these antique water routes. They are still intersected by locks, which serve to raise and lower the boats between the varying levels of land, and many are still tended to by lock keepers. We went through a total of 35 locks during our trip and at each, a lock keeper would be there to assist in the endeavor. Passing through them is part of the experience and our group never tired of watching the process.
As to the speed of cruising, it’s slow. We averaged about two to three miles an hour, a perfect pace for those who wanted to cycle or walk the towpath, then get back on the boat at one of the locks. It was a nice way to get some activity and work off all the delicious food. Another way I discovered to expend some calories was to try driving the barge. Our pilot let me take a go at it and it was physically much harder than I imagined. Turning the wheel gave me quite the workout! This leisurely pace allowed us to fully relax and luxuriate in watching the world go by. The bucolic Burgundy landscape is sublime, with fields of wheat and poppies, vineyards, grand chateaus and villages of cobblestoned streets and medieval buildings. You’ll pass locals on their bikes or strolling along, and fisherman patiently waiting for their next catch. Others, curious about the barge, will wander nearby for a looksee at one of the locks.
Each day, we left the barge to enjoy an exclusively curated ex-cursion in an off-the-beaten-tourist-path locale. One day, we explored Cha-blis, visiting Domaine La-roche to learn the story of St. Martin and the monks who began the history of the town and its famed wines. We toured the old wine cellar and saw a 13th century wine press that’s still in use, then had the opportunity to taste several aro-matic Classical Chablis, Pre-mier Cru and Grand Cru wines.
Another day, we toured Chateau D’Ancy Le Franc, a jewel of the Renaissance. Built in 1542, this imposing castle is the masterpiece of Sebastiano Serlio, a celebrated Italian architect. It’s known for its large square construction with four wings flanked by four pavilions, and an inner magnificent courtyard. The building is enhanced with richly sculpted ornamentations and inside, the apartments are lavishly decorated by Burgundy, Italian and Flemish painters. Of special note are the long galleries adorned with eye-popping, flamboyant elements and mural paintings representing mythological and religious themes. Sumptuous marble floors add to this lavish display.
In Montbard, we visited Fontenay Abbey, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Founded in 1118 by Saint Bernard of Coairvaux, it is the oldest preserved Cistercian abbey in the world. The monks, who resided there, produced and sold metalwork to economically sustain themselves. Up to 500 of them lived at the abbey until the time of the French Revolution. After they departed, the place was converted for industrial use, which preserved all the buildings of the Romanesque period, including the church (a model of simplicity and ethereal light), dormitory (a vast oak-hulled room where the monks slept, fully clothed on benches), cloister, chapter room, common room and the forge.
As our group walked around, we remarked on the beauty and purity of the architecture, which has remained unspoiled for over 900 years. With its lushly landscaped park and gardens, the Abbey is a remarkable site that evokes serenity and spirituality.
Two other excursions brought us in close proximity to French nobility. At Chateau de Ricey-Bas, we rubbed elbows with Baron Charles and his wife, Baroness Segolene, owners of this impressive castle that has been in the Baron’s family for over 200 years. Before dining, we visited the estate’s vineyards and the production building, where we learned how champagne is made.
The Baron explained that the grapes are harvested by hand and go through two fermentation processes in order to create the bubbling libation known as “champagne.” It’s an artform that heavily relies on science. Interesting fact: you can only label the finished product “champagne” if the grapes are grown in the Champagne Region of France. There are about 60,000 vineyards in this region.
The winery produces six to seven different kinds of champagne with a total of 70,000 bottles a year, and exports about 70% of its production mainly to the U.S., Germany and Canada.
Lunch consisted of salmon and local trout crustless sandwiches, along with guinea fowl as the entrée, followed by an assortment of cheeses and salad, and strawberry mousse for dessert – accompanied by pink champagne, of course! During the meal, the Baroness talked about the history of the chateau, the family and their endless efforts to restore the place. She was charming and effervescent, with a delightful sense of humor as she regaled us with story after story.
At Chateau de Commarin, we met with Count Bertrand de Vogue, whose family has lived in the castle since the 13th century. He represents the 26th generation of the family and resides onsite. The estate was protected during the French Revolution, so it retains its authenticity, and is known for its exquisite set of heraldic tapestries, artwork and furniture. A moat surrounds the stately chateau, offering a picture perfect reflection.
Against the backdrop of the chateau, we were treated to a display of falconry. Two professional falconers presented several birds of prey, including Tinkerbell, an American Kestrel, who flew from one to another of our hands in search of treats; Rico, a Harris hawk, who we learned can see a mouse from 218 yards away; and Daenerys, a very photogenic barn owl, named for a beloved character in the widely popular series, “Game of Thrones.”
Another highlight of the cruise was the sensational food. Our chef, who was from Greece, took us on a gastronomic adventure and challenged our tastebuds. Meals were feasts for the senses. At breakfast, there were always eggs or egg dishes, yogurts, cheeses, fresh fruit, cereals, breads and croissants, and freshly squeezed OJ. With a spread like this, we were sufficiently fueled for the morning.
Lunch, as well as dinner, was a 3-course presentation, consisting of fresh seasonal salads, sometimes a fish dish or even steamed mussels, homemade soup, a selection of cheeses and/or dessert, and was always complemented by both a red and white wine of the region.
Then there was happy hour, when the libations would flow, along with the hors-d’oeuvres, including such delights as tuna tartare, mango wrapped in prosciutto, beetroot blinis, snails and on the last night, caviar.
Dinners, which were announced by the ringing of a bell (causing a Pavlovian response to occur!), were showcases of French and Mediterranean dishes, with entrees that featured duck, lamb, chicken, beef and fish. And of course, there were French wines and cheeses, all of which were described in detail to us before serving.
Saying goodbye at the end of the trip was hard, as it meant we had to leave our cushy abode, fantastic crew and our newfound friends, not to mention the glorious food. Back to “roughing it!”