C'est La Vie usually translates as "so goes life" but the literal translation is perhaps most fitting for this cruise: "It is the life". I can think of no finer way to describe this trip. Having never cruised on a barge before, I came to France with no expectations. I knew from the website that the barge would be very nice, but nothing prepared me for the relaxed, casual yet luxurious atmosphere that was provided by owners and crew Olivier, Deborah, Katherine and Glen. We were picked up at our hotels by our guide Glen, an Englishman who moved to the Burgundy region over 20 years ago. Leaving the bustle of Paris we traveled through the Burgundy forest, catching a glimpse of the Fontainebleau Palace, and navigated the back roads to our new home for the next 6 days as Glen began to introduce us to the history of Europe and France and especially Burgundy.
We arrived at the quay in the quaint town of Villeneuve to meet the rest of those who will pamper us for the trip. As we walked aboard the barge we were greeted with a sparkling wine from the region and appetizers, then were shown to our cabins by Deborah. This is not your usual cabin! I have lived in smaller apartments. The bathroom is spacious and with multi-head shower. The cabin stretches across the entire width of the boat so we could see both the port and starboard shores. There is excellent closet hanging space, a hair dryer, bathrobes and both European and American outlets. The camera does not do the cabins justice. Because there are only 4 cabins aboard, you are likely to get to know your fellow travelers over excursions and shared meals. The other lucky travelers aboard were from Latvia and they loved the trip as much as I did. Everyone on board spoke excellent English, French and a number of other languages.
Our first dinner onboard was the beginning of the many joyous meals that we were to share together. Katherine, our chef, by the middle of the trip we decided was the saint of all things cooked. Both lunch and dinner started with a wonderful explanation of the wines and cheeses selected for the meal. Each one had an interesting story to go with it. Who knew that the milk from the morning and evening milkings were different?! I can now ask at the gourmet store, "Can you tell me whether this cheese was made from milk collected in the morning or the evening?" (The evening milk is thicker and richer I now know). Then the menu was read and explained to us. We begin to salivate just at the descriptions.
The first night, dinner started with a lovely rich pumpkin soup with Moroccan spices, followed by roasted quail, roasted root veggies and white beans. This was followed by a cheese plate with two wonderful regional cheeses, and dessert was an amazing cheesecake made from scratch in the barge galley. This was all paired with an excellent white and red regional wine. At other meals we had such gourmet choices as quiche Lorraine, quail eggs, escargot, wild -caught salmon, coq au vin. We loved meals served outside on the foredeck as we motored by the forest and small farming villages.
The wine on the barge is excellent. I am not an expert, but I am a regular at wine tastings at local wine bars in St. Petersburg, Florida, such as A Taste of Wine (http://tasteforwine.net/), and I say this was great wine… every bottle. I remember on our last night after enjoying another great dinner and phenomenal wines, we all decided to sit in the salon for conversation. Of course we were all offered more wine. We suggested just something cheap and simple since our taste buds were exhausted at this point. Olivier was quite proud to say "There is only excellent wine on board", so we must just enjoy more great local flavors.
Because of the small number of passengers on the barge, personal requests could usually be accommodated. Our barge hosts contacted us ahead of time to ask about dietary issues that could be addressed in the meal preparation. Luckily I am an omnivore, enjoying all the food that they had to offer. One person on the barge was on a special diet that was easily accommodated, as was another eating vegetarian. Our hosts Olivier and Deborah did everything within their ability to address everyone's needs and wants. But most things were already taken care of, such as bikes to ride into town as the boat moved through the canal. We also had many opportunities for exploring small towns on our own for sightseeing and shopping.
One of the nice things about such a small group of people on board is the ability to customize the trip to the desires of the passengers. The days were relaxing with daily excursions planned based on our progress through the canals. In the morning as fog danced on the water and birds started singing, we could enjoy coffee in the crisp air of the foredeck watching the lockkeeper and crew work ropes and wheels. Some days excursions into town were after breakfast and other days after lunch. The other hours were open for reading, relaxing, listening to music or exploring towns or paths along the canal. Exploration was equally as enjoyable whether by foot or by bicycle. The weather was amazing even during this early part of the cruising season. It was early April , but we could wear shorts as we dozed in the lounge chairs on deck, satiated with local wines and cheeses. Our evenings were cool enough for a light jacket.
One of my favorite ways to work off all the amazing food and wine was by walking along the path that paralleled the Burgundy Canal. It was easy to step off the barge at the first lock after breakfast. Deb was always full of knowledge about interesting things to see along the canal path and pointed out nearby towns to explore.
One of the unique aspects of barge cruising is the slow speed of the barge plus the delays of the many locks. This slow place means that you can comfortably walk at the speed of the boat or easily catch up at the next lock. Along the path you may encounter local people from a nearby village walking along for some exercise; a simple "bon jour" will always get you a smile and a similar response. I enjoyed folksy lawn ornaments often seen in the lock-keepers' yards and finding all the local wild medicinal and edible plants along the canal. (I am an herbalist and Traditional Chinese Medicine physician, see www.acuherbals.com).
One morning after breakfast we traveled by van to the city of Sans for a tour of one of the oldest Gothic churches in the area, with a long history and architecture of both Gothic and Roman styles. An odd feature: the faces were removed from most of the stone statues and icons on the walls; they had been beheaded during the French revolution. Glen, our tour guide and walking encyclopedia, took us down a few side streets to show us the outer walls surrounding the city that had been built by the Romans of large limestone blocks. These stones were often salvaged for the building of homes and other structures over the years. Of course, according to Glen, during the 100 Years War, higher walls were needed and for this smaller stones can be seen built upon the older, larger Roman stones. Glen is extremely well-versed in the history of France and its relationship to art and architecture. He has a personal interest in visiting the sites of many of the battles of the various wars and most recently has been researching the unique history of Americans in France during the First World War. His ability brings life and color to the history of each area through his exploration of the intrigue of the royalty, church and various factions. Glen takes great pleasure in explaining how history has shaped the countryside and named many of the towns. If you are a history buff, be sure to email the boat for a list of recommended readings on various history subjects.
On our trip to Sans, we were accompanied by our chef Katherine. She took us to the center of town to an indoor/outdoor street market with a wonderful assortment of cheeses, meats, and fish, from the local to the exotic. She was kind enough to allow us to choose some cheeses to enjoy during our lunch two hours later. The town's narrow streets were a pleasure to wander around looking at the local shops, cafes and interesting architecture.
Excursions varied each day. One day we saw a church with amazing stained glass, an old manor house the next. Each trip was designed to be a little different. Each tour felt like we were getting a private behind the scenes look. Of course no trip to Burgundy would be complete without a winery tour in Chablis. Olivier chose one of the smaller family-run wineries, Alain Geoffroy Winery (www.chablis-geoffroy.com), for a tasting and tour. We were given the pleasure of picking a few wines to stock the ship's wine collection, which we enjoyed that evening at dinner.
The last full day aboard was one of the most memorable. After our afternoon exploring Chablis, we returned to the boat to find that the captain had arranged for a private concert by Duo Ricercare. This guitar and flute duo earned a gold medal in chamber music in 1998. Florence and Aurelie played an amazing set of chamber music taking us from the 1560s to the more modern music of Jacques Ibert of the 200th century. Then Olivier, Deb and Glen joined us for a wonderful captain's dinner that left us sad to leave the next day.
Our hosts, Olivier and Deborah, are truly unique and obviously vested in their community. One morning after breakfast, the engines came to life and Olivier presented a meal of some of the leftover food that we had not consumed to a homeless man nearby just before we pulled away. Olivier and Deborah exhibit a love for the environment and humanity, while sharing the simple elegance of their beautiful craft. Each day as we slowly cruised upstream on our idyllic spring days, we passed through locks, with smiles and waves from the friendly lock-keepers, everyone obviously well-known to the captain, Olivier always taking time to chat with each keeper. When we entered the Burgundy canal, the locks were just large enough to fit the boat in and we slowly worked our way along the wooded canals. I chose this area to get out and walk the last 5k to our evening stop where there was a small town to explore.
As I walked in the morning fog along the frosted grass, I feel close to the countryside. A local woman smokes as she walks slowly by; her dog, leash in mouth, waddles alongside. I walk along the canal path, exploring a side path to see where it takes me, wandering into the woods and balancing carefully on a log that crosses over a stream. Herbs and flowers grow wild, and I can pick the herbs and eat them while walking.
My early spring trip to this luxurious vessel allowed me to see the fields of yellow canola flowers stripe the hillsides as swans cruising along the banks, bobbing for fish. The trees lining the river bloomed with white and red blossoms, while willows swept the surface of the river and medicinal herbs such as Shepard's purse, chickweed, cleavers and dandelion burst out in every patch of sunshine.
As our trip drew to a close I felt as if I had begun to understand the countryside of France and its people. I had glimpsed another way of living. I had learned to savor my food and drink. I began to look for history at every corner, in every bite and sip. All this was brought on by the great depth of pride and knowledge of our hosts. If you are lucky enough to experience this trip, be prepared to relax, learn and create a new rhythm to your life which you will desire to bring home with you. On my return to Paris I felt it try to overwhelm me with its excitement, but I did not let it. I would suggest you see Paris first and just return home after your days on the Burgundy Canal, carrying with you the peaceful smile you will surely wear for weeks afterward.