Float your Boat in Bur­gundy

Premier Magazine (South AFrica) - - Contents - Text & Images © Michèle Meyer

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?

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