Cruise - River Cruise
Barging through Burgundy
105 people found this review helpful
Burgundy is in the heart of France and to my mind is the heart of France. Its not such a popular destination for overseas visitors and it’s far too provincial for most Parisian’s but that’s it beauty – its rural France and that means its very traditional.
France is criss-crossed with excellent autoroute and rail networks that whisk visitors between city centres and on to holiday destinations. Less well known and far older is the canal network connecting key rivers into an ingenious transport system that links the Atlantic Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea.
The Burgundy canal was conceived in the pre-industrial era of 1603 although construction didn’t start until 1765. In 1808 horses began towing great barges the length and breadth of France distributing goods and fuelling the economy. Horse drawn barges were soon replaced by steam power but the growing enthusiasm for railways put an end canal expansion.
British narrow boats are small by comparison but the French have made canal barge cruising into an art form – barges are twice as wide, twice as long and a key crewmember is a top French chef.
We took the car ferry across the Channel, because it was half the price of the tunnel but I’d forgotten how comfortable and relaxing it can be – on a calm day. The P&O Club Lounge option is a bargain as it comes with complimentary champagne, beverages and newspapers and as I bought from the duty free store (not available on the tunnel route) the crossing worked out even cheaper.
Our barge captain for the week was James Bairstow who collected us from Dijon and drove us to our barge in the village of Escommes – the highest part of the canal and just south of the 3.3km Pouilly tunnel. The barge was named L’Impressionniste and unsurprisingly all six smart en-suite cabins were named after French impressionist painters. It’s described as a luxury hotel barge and in terms of food and service it tops many of the five star hotels I’ve stayed in.
Although we were cruising through France’s premier wine region this wasn’t one of European Waterways’ specialist wine cruises, however, our captain was also a trained sommelier so both lunch and dinner were an education as well as a delight. Our chef, Marie Touchet, trained in Normandy and her four-course gastronomic creations were artistry on a plate. She made early morning forays for fresh bread and croissants and market visits for fresh local produce like guinea fowl, duck and Charolais beef but she could never resist her Atlantic coast upbringing so crab, mussels and Breton scallops in cider sauce made spectacular appearances.
I doubt that Marie has read celebrity chef Rick Stein’s book (or seen the TV programme) about his gastronomic barge trip through France but it was part of our inspiration for the trip. He summed it up perfectly when he said, ‘you can still eat better in France than almost anywhere else in the world. Everything still stops for lunch … and the quality, the range of food and the attention to detail are why I think France is still the best …for food.’
The TV programme is excellent and while Rick Stein busily cooked his way along the canal we were happy to just eat and drink our way along.
Lunch and dinner always included carefully chosen red and white burgundy wines. A great thing about Burgundy is the simplicity of the grape varieties – if it’s white its Chardonnay, if it’s red its Pinot Noir. James with his sommelier hat on, or our hostess Elza, always explained the qualities of each wine and why they were chosen for each meal.
Embarrassingly, what I learnt was – I’m a philistine when it comes to quality wine – they were all great and I would happily drink any of them at home – with anything. Fortunately I wasn’t such a philistine as to mention this to our sommelier.
Cruising on a canal boat is unlike any other form of transport, it’s so slow that it’s more akin to floating while the landscape comes to you. One minute vineyards drift past, the next you’re gliding beneath shady avenues of poplar, plane or willow trees. Castles loom on tantalisingly close hillsides and the sound of church bells on a gentle breeze signals the approach of another tiny village.
On day two L’Impressionniste moored up beneath a medieval hilltop village dominated by the fairytale like castle of Chateauneuf. Instead of opting for a glass of wine in the hot tub I offloaded one of the mountain bikes and set off up the zigzag road to the fortified village.
The narrow country lane was steeper than it looked and coupled with its defensive walls it would have been a formidable place to attack. Entering through the arched gateway the village appeared unchanged for centuries – not a modern building or advertising sign anywhere. There were discretely converted B&Bs, craft shops and a village inn but you would barely know it. The twelfth century castle is an architectural jewel – turrets, moat, chapel and tapestries – everything you could want to feed a medieval fantasy. Another film set pretty village was Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, the setting for the 2000 movie Chocolat but locals totally disregard their Hollywood fame. Apart from a little grocer the only other shop is an ancient sweet shop that only makes aniseed sweets. The Benedictine monks of Flavigny abbey have made the Anise of Flavigny since 719 when the Roman traveller Flavius first brought it to the region. This might also explain the French passion for aniseed-flavoured drinks like Pastis, Pernod and Ricard.
We had a surfeit of wine tasting on the barge, at vineyards and Chateau’s. The most memorable was at Bouchard Aine in Beaune where instead of just telling visitors what they were expected to taste they had interactive jars of chocolate, leather, vanilla etc and rolls of silk, velvet etc to attune the senses and for the first time I began to understand something of the sommelier’s jargon.
We had barely travelled 30 miles during the week but saw and experienced more of traditional France than most tourists racing around the famous sites. For a gastronomic treat, a crash course in Burgundy wine, exploring rural France, or just chilling and watching countryside drift past, a canal cruise is a great way to disengage from the outside world and indulge in some serious luxury.
105 people found this review helpful
This review is solely based on the opinion of a Silver Travel Advisor member and not of Silver Travel Advisor Ltd.