If you speak to travel aficionados, you may get the impression that the world is divided into two camps: cruisers and non-cruisers. Cruising devotees expound on the relaxation, convenience and economy of cruising--coveting more sea days, more ports, and longer cruises. Non-cruisers typically bash the big boats, grimy ports, on-board gluttony, motion-induced nausea, and lack of authenticity. It turns out that a barge trip in Burgundy might be the universal antidote to convert any naysayer into an avid cruiser.
My husband and I have taken offshore cruises and a river cruise and made a transatlantic crossing. Our interest in barging, however, was piqued not only by the novelty--but also by the opportunity to savor the regional foods and wines of Burgundy while visiting the small French towns and villages that produce them.
From a catalog of offerings across Europe, we selected a cruise aboard European Waterways' 12-passenger barge, L'Impressionniste. Our boat traveled upstream from Fleury-sur-Ouche to Escommes, on the southern portion of the Burgundy Canal.
Meet the Barge
After a comfortable 2.5-hour minivan ride from Paris--passing long stretches of verdant farmland interspersed with brilliant patches of yellow rapeseed--we met the barge, moored at a small French village on the canal. The boat's rails were decorated with window boxes filled with cheerful flowers.
Tanned, handsome and fit, Captain James took charge as soon as we stepped onboard. At 30 years old, he was about half the age of any of his passengers but captivated the group with his encyclopedic knowledge of French history, wines and barging. He welcomed us and introduced the five other members of the crew: a deckhand, a chef, a tour guide/driver, and two housekeepers/stewardesses (all of whom spoke English).
Then, he set down the safety rules:
The seven cabins on the barge all had portholes or windows that opened, and ranged in size between 87 and 150 square feet (including private bathrooms with showers). Our cabin was small compared to cruise ships, but was comfortably appointed and functional. With only eight passengers onboard, we felt like we had all become fast friends by the end of the first day.
The service was personalized to meet every need or whim, with the crew always pitching in to please. The cook made special meals for one vegetarian passenger and low-fat meals for another. When a guest wanted to have her hair washed and styled, one crewmember found a hair salon in a small village and drove her there and back in the van.
Originally built in Holland and measuring 126-feet from stem to stern, L'Impressionniste was refurbished and converted into a "hotel barge" in 1996. Most hotel barges hold between 2 and 20 passengers--so they are small compared to riverboats, which often hold hundreds.
The boat crept along the canal at about 5 mph, never really making waves. At many points, if I extended my arm far enough on either side, I felt as if I could almost touch the bank. Unlike being on larger, faster cruise ships, we never felt confined because we could hop on and off freely--to visit small towns and shops, to talk to locals, to take bike rides on the towpath running parallel to the canal (once used by horses), or to walk, jog or hike. We could always meet the boat at the next lock since the longest distance between two locks on our trip was 1.5 miles--and most distances were shorter.
We only traveled 30 miles over the course of the week but each day offered something new and different. We visited Clos de Vougeot, headquarters of the Chevaliers du Tastevin (a group of Burgundy wine enthusiasts); took a tour of a twelfth-century abbey converted into a Relais & Chateaux property where we stopped for lunch; visited the food market and shops of Dijon; went inside the medieval castle of Chateauneuf-en-Auxois; marveled at the town of Beaune, where we visited a premier cru vineyard, sampled local wines, and toured a 15th century hospice; and saw the 13th-century Chateau de Commarin, which had passed through 26 generations.
Food, Wine and More Food
The gastronomic odyssey (aka meals) began with the champagne and hors d'ouevres reception welcoming us on board. Each morning, a crewmember would find a local bakery and bring back fresh breads and croissants, served with fruits, cheeses and cereals, and fresh jams and preserves.
Our Australian chef created sumptuous lunches in the tiny galley -- salads, pates, cold meats, and soups; dinners featured local ingredients and traditional recipes (including coq au vin, roasted quail, escargot, foie gras, guinea fowl, honey-glazed duck breast, and crepes suzettes).
Burgundy is known for its wines, especially Beaujolais and Chablis. Captain James was as knowledgeable about wines as he was about the history of the canal, introducing us to different reds and whites at each meal. After dinner, we were treated to a selection of local cheeses, desserts, coffee, and liqueurs.
Making a Comeback
In the mid-nineteenth century, the use of barges and canals to carry freight -- primarily coal, iron ore, and wine -- came halted as railways took over. But in the 1960s, travelers began to rediscover barging as a pleasurable way to truly immerse themselves in the countryside.
The lock system, originally developed by Leonardo Da Vinci, allows boats to glide slowly through the canal, even when there are differences in water levels. We passed through some 41 locks on our voyage. At each one, a lock keeper came by, usually on bike or motorcycle, to manually open the lock and make way for our barge. The same lock keeper was responsible for four or five successive locks.
Simultaneous with the canal's construction, the government built housing for lock keepers at each lock. Almost all those historic buildings remain and 80 percent of them still occupied by lock keepers. Along with the grazing cattle, waterfowl, rolling hills, and river tributaries, the houses create a panorama of the past.
When we left Paris to meet the barge, I remembered one of our fellow passengers had remarked, "Once you've been on one of these, you'll want to go on another."
Having a very long bucket list, my husband and I usually don't repeat trips. But by the time we sat down for the Captain's Dinner on our last evening and watched the sunset, we clinked our glasses of Kir Royal in unison, "A Votre Sante! To our next barge trip!"
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Photos Courtesy of Jerome Levine
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