From the champagne welcome to the captain’s farewell dinner, a barge cruise in Burgundy is relaxing and educational.
Story and Photos by Alison Gardner
After Paris and the French Riviera, what could be a more iconic destination for Francophiles than the province of Burgundy? And what better way to savor this historic destination — known equally for its colorful European history, gastronomic specialties and wines, and its lush green countryside — than a barge cruise? Join Travel with a Challenge editor, Alison Gardner, aboard the eight-passenger L’Art de Vivre for a leisurely one-week exploration along the Canal du Nivernais with a mission to inhale deeply the essence of Burgundy and discover “the art of living” that the French practice so well.
L’Art de Vivre squeezes through a tight lock.
With construction beginning in 1784, the Canal du Nivernais links the Loire river basin with the Seine river basin following approximately the course of the Yonne river in a north-south direction. Like these historic waterways all over France, they served as the reliable “roads” of their day with the barges acting as the equivalent of massive transport trucks until railways and road transport made the canals obsolete. They then fell into sad neglect until tourism provided a new motivation to revive these picturesque routes.
Today, the Nivernais is used only by leisure craft, both modern and historic, like our own L’Art de Vivre. Gliding along at a stately six kilometers per hour (the maximum speed allowed), the water below us was never more than a few feet deep, and the hum of the engines used for a mere one to three hours a day reminded me of the sound made by a dragonfly’s wings. Through several locks a day, we navigated with no more than a hand-width of space on either side, supervised by lockkeepers who live beside their lock, plant brilliant flower displays in their very considerable spare time, and keep each of their distinctive historic homes and small orchards in apple-pie order.
During some of the straight stretches with no bridges under which to navigate by the slimmest of margins, those guests who wanted to do so could take a turn at the wheel under the watchful eye of either Captain Laurent or Deckhand Elie, the two licensed pilots aboard. The rest of us admired the 1,000s of mature trees along the banks, herds of horses and French Charolais cattle in the fenced green fields, took a dip in the deckside hot tub, or waved graciously to the occasional barge passing by. Who would guess that our elegant L’Art de Vivre started life as a Scottish munitions carrier in 1917? We were certainly not telling.
Captain Laurent Charbonnier ran a tight ship with grace and good humor. He also knowledgeably guided most land excursions by van.
Hailing from the French island of Guadeloupe in the Caribbean, deckhand, pilot and van driver, Elie Ficher, took his turn steering our 100-ft/30m barge.
Living at pretty close quarters with only a few fellow travelers for a week, my husband and I (the Canadians) joined an American couple from Oregon and three Australians on this adventure. We quickly discovered many areas of common interest, and began that naturally-hoped-for process of looking out for one another and teaming up with one or two others for towpath walks, bike rides and spontaneous explorations of nearby towns as time permitted. One theme around which we certainly found plenty of common ground was a deep appreciation of the essential ingredients of French cuisine!
Thank heavens for the towpaths along each side of the canal! They provided the “no excuse” opportunity to walk, jog or cycle off the gourmet meals Chef Sarah from Shrewsbury, England put before us morning, noon and night. Our first dinner aboard L’Art de Vivre set the culinary bar high for the week with a starter of cheese and pear tarte, duck with orange, a cheese course, and a dessert of crème caramel.
Wines from the region were served with lunch and dinner, selected to complement each course. This made the cruise an extra treat for wine aficionados. Our steward, Bonnie (also from Shrewsbury), expertly described the special features of each wine, indicating why she had paired it with a particular dish, and often sharing details about the family-run winery from which it had been purchased for the barge’s extensive cellar.
It is a testament to Burgundy’s unique status in the world of wine that we never repeated a wine during our cruise. The same table-side ritual applied to our daily sampling of local cheeses whose variety, flavor and texture were always a much-anticipated surprise each day. With great animation, Bonnie shared her very considerable French cheese expertise … just listening to her descriptions put my taste buds on full alert even before the tasting began!
Top: A hand-written menu appeared in advance of each meal. Above: During lunch and dinner, our steward, Bonnie (right), gave a briefing on Burgundian wines and cheeses selected to accompany each course of the always-creative menu highlighting French cuisine prepared by Chef Sarah (left). The ladies from Shrewsbury made a formidable culinary team! Below: L’Art de Vivre’s saloon served as a comfortable living room, self-serve bar and dining room.
For those who might be concerned about the confine-ment of a small vessel or the potential for boredom on what is undoubtedly a vacation in slow motion, the daily excursions, scheduled either morning or afternoon, invited us to explore further afield than our feet allowed. A comfortable, air conditioned van accompanies all European Waterways cruises, with one of the crew serving as driver and expert guide.
On one excursion to the 800-year-old Chậteau de Bazoches, we toured an authentically-restored castle whose illustrious visitors included Richard the Lionheart.
In our case, Captain Laurent shared his extensive knowledge of the history and culture of the region as we enjoyed our drives through the French countryside, often with vineyard vistas as far as the horizon, on the way to each destination. In the excursion program, there was a fine balance of interests, like the classic medieval castle of Chậteaux de Bazoches, the walking tours of deeply historic villages and towns where residents still live and work, and a visit to one of Burgundy’s most outstanding wine cellars.
On another excursion, we visited Noyers-sur-Serein, considered one of the most beautiful villages in France. Its remarkably-preserved architecture dates from the 13th to 18th centuries. Other excursions included a walking tour of the UNESCO World Heritage town of Vézelay with its impressive pilgrimage Basilica Church of St Mary Magdalene, and a tasting tour of Domaine Laroche’s medieval wine cellars in Chablis.
One evening after dinner, we were warned to expect a surprise. As we settled into the maroon leather sofas of the saloon with a post-dinner digestif to hand — to aid the digestion of another of Sarah’s wonderful meals, of course — a pair of classical guitarists came aboard to add their own musical digestive skills to the evening. An hour of dazzling duets played for our exclusive pleasure was as good as it gets on the Canal du Nivernais.
There’s not much room for navigational error on the Canal du Nivernais! The speed limit for larger barges like L’Art de Vivre is a stately 6 km per hour; for small boats it is 8 kph. To quote a sign along the canal: “Restrict your speed to preserve the canal banks! If it took less than 10 minutes to cover the stretch since the last sign, you are exceeding the speed limit.”
A picturesque Canal du Nivernais bridge.
L’Art de Vivre canal cruising at 6 kph!
Burgundy, the most popular hotel barging area in Europe, is renowned for its vineyards, Gothic churches, Renaissance châteaux and picturesque villages. This is a region of France in which gastronomic delights and the art of living have reigned supreme since Roman times. European Waterways,www.gobarging.com, has six hotel barges that cruise on different canals in the Burgundy region.
Since 1974, European Waterways has been a leader in luxury hotel barging. The company presently offers cruise vacations on the waterways of France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Scotland, Ireland and England. Its large fleet of beautifully-presented 6 to 20 passenger hotel barges allows guests to truly experience a country’s character from within.
EW barges feature restaurant, bar, saloon, sometimes sauna and spa pool/Jacuzzi, bicycles with helmets, cabins with ensuite facilities, a knowledgeable English-speaking crew, great food and quality guided excursions. You may travel individually or charter a whole barge with friends and family. Check their Special Offers page for added value discounts.
Barge prices change with the season, but always include meals, regional wines, an open bar, daily guided excursions, admissions, local transfers and use of barge facilities. Airfare, transport to and from the cruise meeting point and crew tips are not included.
Guidebooks for your pre- or post-cruise travels in France
Eyewitness Travel’s Backroads France (2010) uses in-depth local knowledge to create a series of driving tours throughout France. Its 264 pages are full of original ideas for activities, off-the- beaten-track stops, and authentically ‘native’ places to eat and to stay.
Lonely Planet’s Discover France (2nd edition, 2011) is a full-color, 416-page guide compiled by 12 expert contributors with a mission to highlight “the best of France”. With 48 maps, it is ideal for planning one to two week itineraries anywhere in the country.
Rick Steves’ France (2012) is a 1,145 page guidebook offering this famous Europe travel expert’s humorous, grassroots take on the France he describes as “a multifaceted cultural fondue”. His picks for sight-seeing, eating and sleeping are all Rick-tested.
Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge Web magazine. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.