Never does “It’s all about the voyage” ring more true than when that voyage happens to be a luxury hotel barge cruise on France’s Burgundy Canal.
And small wonder. While the facts and figures are interesting, the feelings you experience are what make such a voyage so special and which linger long after the trip ends.
Still, we need a few of those facts and figures to set the scene and launch our voyage.
On this cruise, the European Waterways barge La Belle Epoque, its six passengers (out of a maximum 12) and six crew members travel 63 km/39 mi. over six days, gradually (at 4kmh/2.5mph) descending through 34 locks from the small town of Veneray les Laumes to Tanlay.
With 18 vessels, EW is Europe’s largest luxury hotel barge operator. The focus is on a high-level mix of attentive service, gourmet food and wine (including, on our cruise, 19 cheeses and 22 wines), and varied excursions.
So, let me give you a rundown of those six days on La Belle Epoque. Then you can judge for yourself.
Sunday. With barge Capt. Jolanda at the helm (well, steering wheel), an EW Mercedes minibus picks up the six of us from the Hotel Westminster in the centre of Paris for the three-hour drive to meet our barge.
We would never have known La Belle Epoque used to carry logs from the Burgundy area to Paris and Amsterdam – especially as we notice the hot tub and table and chairs on the forward deck while we drink “welcome aboard” glasses of champagne and nibble on canapés.
Inside, we look around the wood-panelled saloon-dining area, with its well-stocked (open) bar, as Jolanda says:
“This is your home for the next six days. We take on town water every night when we tie up, so you can enjoy a shower as long as you like. If you want anything at all, just let one of us know.”
And she introduces us to Julian, the pilot; Brendan, the chef; hostess Lola and host Carlo (who take care of housekeeping as well as serving the meals) and deckhand Albert (pronounced the French way – “Albair” – even though he comes from England).
The cabins and bathrooms are compact but comfortable, not cramped, with portholes that open “but please close them when we are going through the locks, so water doesn’t come in from the lock walls,” Lola reminds us.
I won’t describe every meal. But the Sunday night dinner gives you an idea of why I gained 5kg/8lbs after last year’s barge cruise on the Midi Canal. (I haven’t spotted a scale yet after this trip; admittedly I haven’t looked very hard.)
• Red onion tarte tartin with whipped goat cheese and candied walnuts.
• Black garlic chicken, pomme puree, peas and garlic foam.
• Cheese Abondance, Brie de Meaux, St Maure de Touraine.
• Natural yogurt mousse with pistachio. Chocolate and raspberry delice.
• White wine: Clos de Malte Santenay 2011, Louis Jadot. Red: La Comme Santenay 1er cru 2007, Charles Noellat.
• Tea, coffee; liqueurs.
Chef Brendan announces the details of each of the food courses; Lola or Carlo do the same for the wines and cheeses.
Dinner over, Albert sets up one of the mountain bikes and a helmet for me so I can burn off at least some of the calories before it gets too dark. The towpath along the side of the canal (where horses used to tow the barges) is exceptionally wide and smooth, not like some you find that are narrow with loose gravel or tree roots.
And so to bed, with never a worry about rough seas day or night (we always tie up for the night).
Monday. Awake before dawn for another bike ride, I’m off to explore sleeping villages along or just off the canal.
Then I’m back to the barge just in time to do the daily morning run with Albert or Jolanda to the nearest bakery to collect a very large, very strong paper bag full of crusty baguettes, croissants and various sweet treats for breakfast (which also includes fruit, cereals, freshly squeezed orange juice, cold cuts and any cooked eggs you’d like – as well as a daily hot special).
Today we cruise in the morning, quickly adapting to lying on deck or strolling or riding on the towpath along the side of the canal (where horses used to tow the barges) as we glide from one lock to the next.
“Bonjour, la belle fashionista!” I call out to an unlikely looking lock operator: a 20-something blonde who rewards me with a smile and a wave.
Like her more usual older male lock operator counterparts, she cranks the big lever to open and close the gates so our barge can be lowered to the next level of the canal. Still, I suspect no lock activities were responsible for the trendy tears in her tight black overall pants.
This afternoon we visit Alesia, famous as the site of a decisive battle in 52BC between Julius Caesar for the Romans and Vercingetorix for the Gauls (think Asterix)…although there is some controversy over whether this was indeed the actual site.
I have a limited attention span when it comes to relics and ruins. But this large wooden cylindrical MuseoParc interpretation centre does an excellent multimedia job of transporting my fellow cruisers and me back to the times leading up to the battle (wherever it was held), explaining the two campaigns which led to a Roman victory.
We then drive up a nearby hill to see the 6.6m sheet copper statue of Vercingetorix with a face resembling (surprise, surprise) Napoleon III, who commissioned the statue.
Final stop for the day: Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, where the movie Chocolat was filmed but which today has a greater claim to fame though les Anis de Flavigny, a candy-maker dating back to 1591. We sample the variety of flavours in addition to the original anise.
Tuesday. Another historical site comes into sight – this time UNESCO honoured Abbaye de Fontenay – and again another pleasant surprise for this history hesitant visitor.
Not only is the abbey an actual series of buildings with an expansive garden but its story fascinates:
In 1118 Saint Bernard founded the abbey, home to 200 monks who espoused complete self-sufficiency and solitude. Ahead of their times, they diverted a river to power giant hydraulic tilt hammers to beat and fashion iron.
Then came the French Revolution and the state sold the abbey, now with barely a dozen monks, to Elie de Mongolfier, descendent of the inventors of the hot air balloon, who turned the place into a paper mill.
But former glory returned after 1906 when Banker Edouard Ayard bought the abbey from his father-in-law, Raymond de Montgolfier, to “extract Fontenay from its industrial slime” and the restored results are indeed worth the visit.
Wednesday. Too much wind means no hot air ballooning, much to the relief of Sue, who is celebrating a late 70s birthday on the cruise. Instead, there is plenty of time to visit a small, local market and then wander around medieval Noyers-sur-Serein.
Local knowledge kicks in here as Capt. Jolanda stops by a house to take a key from the mailbox to unlock a gate, allowing us to climb up to a viewpoint on the ruins of the town ramparts. Then it’s time for coffees and beers all around at a café by the market.
An afternoon cruise brings us to Ancy-le-Franc where, for a change, we go ashore for dinner at a restaurant with an impressive cheese trolley featuring some 30 different varieties.
Thursday. Well-timed showers allow us to stay dry during our indoor visit to Chateau d’Ancy-le-Franc, with France’s largest collection of Renaissance murals. The rain lifts in time for us to stroll through the nearby local market and then back to the barge.
Whatever the weather, several of us make good use of the hot tub with its hydromassage jets, and regular “Can I bring you anything?” offers from Lola or Carlo.
It doesn’t get much better than being water massaged in a hot tub, a cup or glass of your favourite beverage in hand, while the scenery drifts slowly by: Burgundy’s famous white Charolais cattle, hay in distinctive round bales, unharvested wheat fields, bikers on the towpaths, locks to go down, bridges to go under.
Friday. Perhaps with favourite beverages in mind, today we visit the family-run Domaine Alain Geoffroy outlet in Chablis to learn about and taste six wines ranging from a $16 Petit Chablis to the top-of-the-line $55 Grand Cru Chablis (prices in France).
Equally intriguing (at least to me) is the amazing variety of 4,118 corkscrews, which make up more than half of Geoffroy’s prized Corkscrew and Vineyard Museum’s entire collection of 7,953 wine-related instruments and equipment.
“Three of the corkscrews were made by convicts in Cayenne, French Guiana, in sculpted corozo nut featuring grotesque heads,” says Geoffroy. Other corkscrews date back to the 1800s, including a selection of novelty phallic items called Les Pisseux.
We all dress up a little for the Captain’s Dinner this evening, and the crew join in the reminiscing and laughter which goes well beyond the usual bedtime hour.
Saturday. Did the six days really go by that quickly? What a memorable trip – the first barge cruise for some of the passengers but from their reactions certainly not the last.
The minibus takes us back to Paris, and to a world where once again we have to decide where to go and what to do – especially what food and drink to buy. And where life’s scenery passes by far more quickly than 4kmh/2.5mph.