Sue Bryant explores a sleepy corner of France by luxury barge
Puffing and panting I leaned my bicycle against a mossy stone wall in the hilltop village of Chateauneuf-en-Auxois. Far below us, the rolling Burgundy countryside stretched as far as the eye could see; green fields grazed by majestic Charolais cattle, clumps of woodland and medieval hamlets. Winding across this bucolic scene was the shimmering ribbon of the Burgundy Canal. We scanned the water anxiously; we’d been gone an hour, most of it uphill, and we had to estimate the progress our barge, L’Impressioniste, would have made in order to cycle back down the hill and jump back on board at a suitable lock for lunch.
No barge. Mild panic. Then, one of our group started laughing. “There it is,” he said, pointing back almost to where we had started, where a blue-and-white speck was edging its way along the canal. “We’re looking in the wrong place. It’s barely moved.”
Such is the pace of barge cruising along France’s canals. Forget slow. Forget dead slow. After just a day, the mood slows down to what I can only describe as completely blissed-out. Not only does the barge move at walking pace, it has to manoeuvre through a succession of locks that are operated by two cheery ladies who zip up and down the towpath on a moped, cranking the gates. During a week, you’ll sail just a few miles, under overhanging arches of green trees, past flower-filled lockkeepers’ gardens and across farmland. The stress of daily life just melts away.
Although it’s tempting to laze on board watching the world drift by, the villages and vineyards of Burgundy await beyond the canal. L’Impressioniste, a Dutch cargo barge that’s been luxuriously converted to carry 12 passengers, comes complete with two mini-vans that whisk guests off to nearby towns for sightseeing and wine-tasting, while the fleet of bikes is always available for those needing to burn some calories.
Some days, I’d just walk along the towpath, enjoying the stillness, the birdsong and the odd whiff of farmyard smells. On others, we went on tour. We visited Beaune, the 2,000-year-old capital of Burgundy, where we wandered the labyrinth of dripping underground cellars of the wine grower Bouchard Pere et Fils and sat in the sunshine with a crisp Kir – this is the home of the aperitif, made with dry Aligoté wine and the tiniest splash of Crème de Cassis.
We returned to Chateauneuf-en-Auxois, thankfully in the minibus this time, and poked around the craft shops and the splendid castle, once a hangout of the Dukes of Burgundy. One night, we cycled to the 12th century Abbaye de la Bussière for a tour of what is now a swish hotel, but with elements of the abbey and crypt remaining, and sipped champagne overlooking the ornamental gardens and lake.
Food and wine play a major part in these holidays. Evenings would begin with sundowners and canapés on deck before settling down to an absolute feast, as we worked our way over the course of a week through luscious, rich, classic French dishes: Coq au vin; pan-fried duck breast; beef in a glossy mushroom sauce; buttered scallops. I still dream of the puddings. Crème brulee with a hint of rosemary. Chocolate fondant, warm on the outside, decadently liquid at the centre. Profiteroles, oozing cream. Pear and mascaropone ice cream. Everything was paired with amazing wines, many of them premier cru. And just when we’d all be collapsing in our chairs, out would come the cheeseboard, with its lure of rich, creamy cheeses, from almost liquid Bries and Camemberts to a pungent Roquefort and an exquisite Bleu d’Auvergne. We tried 20 different varieties in one week. Dieting on a barge? Absolutely impossible.
the king of cheeses
Being a bit of a cheese fan, I was looking forward to the visit to the pretty village of Epoisses on our final day. I’ve always been intrigued by the eponymous fromage, so pungent that it is allegedly banned from public transport in France. We tasted this ‘King of Cheeses’ in the courtyard of a restaurant, where, in the sharp spring air with a chilled Chablis (yes, white wine with cheese), it took on an exquisite and almost subtle flavour. I bought two boxes and smuggled them home on the Eurostar, tightly wrapped in plastic bags. More fool me as the stench got stronger and stronger as we neared London. I disembarked the train to dirty looks from my fellow passengers – but over several evenings that week, happily savoured my illicit little slice of Burgundy.
Life on board
Barge holidays in France range from basic, self-drive and self-catering peniche boats to sumptuous vessels like L’Impressioniste, on which all food, drinks and excursions are included. It’s possible either to charter the whole barge or to book as an individual traveller on certain sailings and take pot luck on your fellow travellers; most are from the US, Canada and Australia on the higher-end boats. On a luxury hotel barge, the crew will arrange all kinds of extra activities (for a fee), from horse riding to hot air ballooning.
Sue Bryant travelled with European Waterways, which operates luxury hotel barges all over France and offers six-night Burgundy Canal voyages on L’Impressioniste from £3,090pp, including all meals, wines, an open bar, excursions and local transfers (Tel: 01753 598555 / gobarging.com). Wine- and golf-themed departures and a family cruise are also offered.
WAY TO GO
Local expert Burgundy Canal offers holidays on luxurious catered barges (including L’Impressioniste) and self-drive boats as well as cycling and ballooning (Tel: +33 614 250 200 / burgundy-canal.com).
Headwater offers a Classic Burgundy eight-night hotel-to-hotel self-guided cycling holiday from £1,199 per person. Highlights en route include prehistoric Arcy, the Roman baths at St Pere and the Mary Magdalene Basilica at Vezelay. (Tel: 01606 828 559 / headwater.com).
Belle France has a 45-mile, wine-themed walking holiday, covering much of the Cotes de Beaune and Cotes de Nuits (Tel: 01580 214 010 / bellefrance.com).