Burgundy River cruise
Paul Miles meanders through the vineyards on a ‘hotel barge’
The best way to appreciate one of France’s prettiest stretches of water is by cruising on a vintage canal barge, says Paul Miles
Ahunched, elderly man in overalls takes a break from weeding his vegetable patch and waves, his weather-beaten face beaming. At a house next door, a frail-looking woman leans from the window of a gently decaying pantiled house. She too greets us with a smile. It’s as if they’re auditioning for the part of “friendly local” in a French art-house film and we’re the judges, sailing just a few feet from their back gardens.
I am sitting on the deck of a hotel barge, L’Impressionniste, eating a bowl of fruit salad. With the assistance of a pair of lock keepers we have just ascended through our first lock of the day, rising 9ft. The two women push open the heavy lock gates, hop on their mopeds and nip along the towpath to meet us at the next lock. This is the life.
In Britain I live on a narrowboat, often alone. It’s not unusual for me to be steering, operating locks, eating breakfast and waving at passers-by. But for this cruise in rural France there were full-time lock keepers – and a crew of six attending to just 12 passengers – leaving me free to wave at the friendly locals, pop another grape into my mouth and smile.
We cruised along at a snail’s pace. The landscape unfolded slowly, a pointilliste composition of light, water and colour: the banks of the 200-year-old canal dotted with wildflowers; meadows with small herds of Charolais cattle; limestone outcrops and forested hills, and villages of stone and terracotta.
We were cruising a stretch of the Burgundy Canal that follows the River Ouche. This section is considered (by the Editions du Breil guidebook at least) to be “perhaps one of the prettiest stretches of waterway in the whole of France”.
It was not only the landscape that was extraordinarily pretty. Already we had enjoyed an evening glass of champagne at a very fine Cistercian abbey turned hotel. Abbaye de la Bussière is all gargoyles, topiary and 14th-century frescoes revealed after an expensive and meticulous renovation by its new English owners.
L’Impressionniste has had a makeover too. She was built in 1960 to carry coal and gravel. Now the former cargo hold has six small en suite cabins, described by European Waterways as “staterooms” and “junior suites”. They all have windows or portholes that open, as well as airconditioning and (intermittent) Wi-Fi, but the walls are thin.
Above the cabins, an open-plan living and dining room has large windows and opens on to a good-sized outdoor seating area, partly under a canopy. There’s even a hot tub at the bow so that guests can, if they wish, cruise along semi-naked like a figurehead on a bowsprit.
The French captain not only allowed me to join him in the wheelhouse but also offered me the wheel. “You have to allow time for the boat to respond,” said Rudy Cote, and he soon grabbed back control, spinning the wheel hand-over-hand to ensure our 126ft- long vessel made it around a bend without going aground.
“The canal is supposed to be more than 6ft deep but it’s been silting up since commercial traffic stopped in the Eighties,” said the chatty 31-year-old. He talked about L’Impressionniste with Gallic flair. “Our riveted Belgian hull is better than others shaped like soap that move around,” he said, wiggling his bottom to demonstrate.
The ever-silting canal and our 4ft 9in draft meant that when we moored we couldn’t get close to the banks, so Hadrian, the “matelot”, had to put out a gangplank.
As we reached another lock, Rudy squeezed our 16ft 7in-wide non-wiggling hull into the 18ft-wide chamber without so much as touching the sides, and then threw a big rope over a bollard, lassoing it in one. The lock-keepers laughed and applauded. It was easy to go ashore when the boat was in a lock, and these appeared every half-mile or so. (On our six-day cruise, the boat passed through 42 locks and travelled just 29 miles.) There were bicycles on board andthe towpath was devoid of people, so a few of us decided a ride was in order.
“The boat goes so slowly, we could head off the towpath for a few miles and it still won’t have overtaken us,” suggested Cesar, an American passenger in our otherwise-English party of four. We were not sure at first. We might have missed lunch, but we didn’t want to appear unadventurous, and so, adopting an air of bravado, we followed our New World explorer.
We were soon on an empty country
The landscape unfolded like a pointilliste composition of light, water and colour
lane winding steeply uphill to a picturesque cluster of medieval houses and a semi-ruined château. From the hilltop, we could see the canal which follows an ancient trade route, part of the Via Agrippa, along which salt was transported from the Mediterranean. More prosaically, from up here we could see that the A6 motorway roughly follows the same path too, but, on this itinerary at least, the road was never more than a thrum of traffic in the distance.
“We’ve been to the top of that mountain and you’ve only moved this far?” one of us teased the crew when we returned to the barge. We had earned our lunch, though. The food was good, with local ingredients. A delicious confit de canard was made with duck from Dijon market. Tender Charolais beef came from a multiaward-winning farm just a cow-jump away. Chef Selby Clements excelled with puddings but one vegetarian was disappointed when offered a humble omelette as an alternative to duck.
This being Burgundy, lunch and dinner were accompanied by local wines from pinot noir and chardonnay grapes, introduced by one of our two “hostesses”. “This grand cru has lovely floral top notes and is very mineral, perfect with salt-baked salmon…” was typical of the insight they offered.
We learnt more on a minibus excursion to Beaune, the wine capital of Burgundy. In the musty, cool subterranean passageways of Bouchard Père et Fils, we straggled behind our guide. I resisted the temptation to sneak a bottle into my rucksack. Surely they wouldn’t miss one? There are two-and-a-half million after all, and some are really rather old.
On another excursion, we visited the village of Epoisses, famous for smelly rind-washed cheese, which we discovered tastes even better accompanied by a cool chablis.
Each time we returned from our excursions, L’Impressionniste had moved to a new location. At one spot, I wandered around a small marina and came across a man who offered me a sip of birch sap he had just tapped. It tasted a little like coconut water. On board L’Impressionniste, fresh birch sap was one beverage not stocked in a bar full to the brim with premiumbrand spirits and wines such as pouilly fuissé (at least £15 a bottle in British supermarkets), and others including beaune grèves vigne de l’enfant Jésus, which cost far more. “Some Russian groups drink thae bar dry,” said one of the crew.
“We often have extended families chartering for special anniversaries,” said James Bairstow, our guide. “What we’ve found is that grandfather usually pays and the grandparents enjoy having their children, and especially their grandchildren, captive for a week.
“The cousins have fun in the hot tub, the parents cycle along the towpath, grandparents relax on deck and everyone meets up for meals.”
Beautiful scenery and your own captain to steer you through it, a chef and hostesses, matelot and guide; fine food and wine, plus hefty doses of culture and adventure… this canal trip ticked all of the holiday boxes – and then some.
L’Impressionniste glides along the serene Burgundy canal, left; and one of the waterway’s 42 locks, below left