Bur­gundy River cruise

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Front Page -

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

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