Float your Boat in Burgundy
Six friends, seven days, 100 km of waterways, fifty locks, and countless baguettes and bottles of Chablis all added up to one stupendous holiday on a barge in Burgundy.
Our barge was lined up amidst a legion of crisp white crafts gently bobbing in the small base harbour of Migennes. Lugging cases and endless bags of supplies onto deck and down the steep stairway into the living area made me wonder whatever happened to travelling light. Then again, this was to be our floating home for a week, and one certainly did not travel all this way to face deprivation.
While the men literally learnt the ropes around deck, we stocked the compact kitchen and promptly pronounced the fourth berth a luggage room. Cabins are functional but do imply a tight squeeze, leaving no room for extras. Hardly bigger than airplane washrooms, bathrooms proved to test manoeuvring skills to the max.
Brilliant sunshine bounced off the deck furniture and a parasol rental was one thing we kept thanking ourselves for during the blazing days. Tous à bord, anchor lifted, and we were off to the first lock on the Nivernais. As the lock closed behind and iron gates in front swung open laboriously, we elatedly sailed into this adventure. Smoothly parting for us, the River Yonne gleamed greenly, reflecting the prolific growth of an unusually warm Summer spell on its banks.
Tackling locks proved to be a fair challenge accepted with gusto. Our unanimously elected captain deftly steered the craft while his deckhands valiantly, if less adept, attempted tossing heavy ropes around moors inside each lock. The charm of Canal du Nivernais lies in the fact that although locks are numerous and often busy in season, each is operated by a lock master, lessening the strain on crew.
Serene villages unchanged by time slipped by without fanfare. Ancient stone houses with slanting tile roofs straight out of Chocolat seemed to scrutinise barges gaily gliding past. Church spires pointing toward the ruthless blue French Summer sky, reminding crews to count their blissful blessings. Tiny farms, golden fields dotted with perfect rounds of hay echoed masterful Van Gogh paintings.
In keeping with the French mealtime obsession, locks close during lunch and at 19h00 sharp for the day. Sun barely past the zenith, it seemed unthinkable to have to anchor down for the night at such a bright hour. Calculations and predictions regarding the path of the merciless sun ensued in a hunt for impenetrable shade. Nosing the boat slowly into soothingly deep shade that promised respite from the glare while darkness failed to fall was ample reason to moor. Blessing the friend who had recommended bringing
citronella candles, those were soon lit in a bid to dissuade a nebulae of midges from descending upon our motley crew.
Still bathed in daylight way past 21h00 we lit the miniature gas braai without which we have refused to take to water. As the sun eventually bowed out at around 22h00, we tucked into succulent lamb chops and creamy potatoes, toasting our first day on board. Night lay still and warm on the canal, giving way to morning at what seemed an ungodly hour.
Anchor up and along we sailed, quickly learning to judge the height of Romanesque stone bridges elegantly stretched over the narrow waterway in order to retain our precious parasols. Auxerre, the largest city on the route, showcased its majestic Gothic cathedral against a periwinkle sky heavy with floral scents. Built-in wooden features dominating ancient town buildings told of the flourishing timber trade which had necessitated this very water route ages ago.
Mooring at an emerald bend in the river allowed reconnaissance of its idyllic pastoral surroundings. Our neighbours for the night were a proud mare and her foal fenced in a grassy field lined with plane trees. Winding along the river, a narrow footpath lead us past crumbling gate posts and overgrown gardens where bright yellow lichen lit up trees like electric sparks. A morning cycle into town saw the men return with a satiny brie and piping baguettes into which we tore without restrain.
Wondrous sights continued to pass like a slideshow. At Bailly we braved the melting midday heat, hiking to the underground quarry that had offered its stone to build much of Paris. Now, the four hectare underground cavern houses a wine co-op where a blissful tasting generously rewarded our courage. The Saussois rocks awed us with their white limestone outcrops dominating the Yonne. By Mailly-la-ville we passed a perky stone mermaid, looking disturbingly real in the afternoon haze.
A day moored in the harbour of Clamecy offered our heat-beaten selves a glimpse into life in this pretty town. Cool and dusky, the exquisite silent interior of the Saint-martin church brought refuge from both bustle and sun. On the quaint village square, against a backdrop of velvety indigo sky behind the church we celebrated an unforgettable barge cruise on equinox eve.
Nearing Tannay, our final port, morning birdsong teemed from the frivolous forest. For an instant I wondered: Is it possible that birds here sing clearer during sun-soaked Summers in rebellion against the dark days of a long, drawn Winter?