Canal Barging in Burgundy
by Rob Mariani
In a medieval castle in the little Burgundian village of Rochepot, there is a 17th-century French-made clock. Its face has only one hand and all it tells is the hour. Period. But what could be more appropriate?
Time is a relative thing here and telling someone you will meet them around "one-ish" is as precise in a Frenchman's mind as anyone needs to get. The Gallic secret to enjoying life lies in slowing down and savoring the moment. No schedules and arbitrary time frames.
In mid-October, my wife, Jan, and I found the perfect way to slip into this slow-motion frame of mind: a crewed barge tour through the Burgundian countryside. As we lazily cruised at 3 to 4 knots (about the speed you walk when you're not in a hurry), listening to the rush of the wind through the aspens and the cry of magpies from the nearby vineyards going gold in the autumn sun, I felt I was traveling at exactly the right speed. If all life moved at this pace, how long and luxurious it would be.
We were barging with worldwaterways.com, departing from Dijon. There we found our boat, L'Impressioniste, moored on the Canal de Bourgogne. Measuring 126 feet long, the vessel had six small but comfortable guest cabins, as well as quarters for a five-person crew.
At Home on Board
Each guest cabin had its own bathroom with shower and reassuringly good water pressure. The brochure from worldwaterways.com notes that there is a "fitness studio" on board. And I guess that's true, if you can call a room the size of a walk-in closet with one treadmill and a washing machine a fitness studio. But none of the passengers was remotely interested in the tread-mill, or in doing laundry.
In the saloon, we met our fellow passengers: four couples from the U.S. and one from Canada, all seasoned travelers over 50. Because of the close quarters, it was important that everyone be compatible. Our group began to bond immediately, and by dinnertime everyone was on a first-name basis and getting along famously.
Dawn's Early Light
At first light the next day, Jan and I were awakened by a gentle bump as the barge cast off from the dock. We were floating along the misty canal at the speed of life. Breakfast in the saloon was a help-yourself affair featuring coffee, tea, croissants and a few nice cheeses and cereal.
L'impressioniste was to take us south through the C™te-d'Or - "the golden slopes" - so called because of both the ample revenues from its vineyards and the rich, mustard-gold color of the soil in the Sa™ne Valley. Wine aficionados acknowledge the superiority of the vintages grown in this region, and we'd get a chance to taste many of these before our week was over.
Our crew and chef were all young Brits who exuded casual conviviality and competence. Running the barge is a full-time job, but they were never too busy to stop and answer questions, pose for pictures, tell you about a local landmark, or exchange jokes.
Every couple of hours we'd come to a lock, and the crew would scramble out to operate its 19th-century cranks and gears. Much of our fun revolved around sitting on deck and watching as the barge rose or descended to the next section of the canal. How long did we stop at each lock? Fifteen minutes, perhaps? But really, who knows? Who cares? Time was starting to slow down. These stops also provided a good opportunity to get off and walk, jog or bike along the old towpath (there were bikes aboard for everyone).
Select Side Trips
On a number of prearranged occasions along the route, the barge stopped and we boarded a mini van that drove us into a larger city such as Dijon, Chalon-sur-Sa™ne or Seurre for shopping or sightseeing.
On our third morning (or was it our fourth - time can really slip through your grasp at this speed), we visited the small riverside town of Beaune for a tour of the Hospices de Beaune Hotel-Dieu. Built in 1443 by Nicolas Rolen, Duke of Burgundy, and perfectly preserved, this magnificent structure served as a refuge for the sick and starving people of the town over the centuries. Inside, the 28 sturdy four-poster wooden beds had red-velvet coverlets and curtains that could turn each berth into a kind of private hospital room.
The hospice also features a fascinating display of medieval medical instruments and "cures" that look like they were designed by the Marquis de Sade. The hospital here at Beaune actually functioned until 1971 when it was converted to a museum.
One half-gray morning, Jan and I left the barge and pedaled into the little town Chagny. There was absolutely nothing going on. The grapes had all been harvested, and the vines were recuperating in the fields. A few pure-white Charolais cattle placidly munched the bright green grass, and all you heard was the wind in the leaves in this obscure little French village on a Wednesday morning.
Chef John always served two hot entrees for lunch, with four kinds of salads, and three or four delightful cheeses from the surrounding farms, along with a local wine that had probably never traveled more than ten miles from where it was produced.
After lunch, most of us usually lazed around the saloon and read or watched dreamily as the scenery drifted by. One day Roger, our skipper, arranged for us to visit the town of Seurre, which dates back to the 6th century A.D. Surrounded by freshly turned fields and vineyards that slope down to the canal, the town has a 13th-century church with spooky gargoyles and spiked towers.
Most nights we would change for dinner around sunset, pass a half hour sipping cocktails - we made our own at an open bar - and then sit down at the big table in the saloon. There was no TV on board, thank goodness, but there was a stereo with an eclectic collection of compact discs.
Captain of the Ship
We never traveled at night and the barge nestled securely at some quay by cocktail hour. Captain Roger always sat at the head of the table and explained the names and origins of the wines and the cheeses. He was a handsome man in his early thirties, and every woman on board fell under his spell.
He also was a whiz at doing everything from fixing bathroom pumps to handling special requests. One morning my wife arose at 4 a.m. and traveled into town to watch Chef John shop for provisions at a huge Home Depot of a food market.
Meals on board offered good, solid choices. Over dinners, Jan and I got to know more about the other passengers. Like us, Joan and her husband, Jerry, were recent empty-nesters. Graham and her husband, Jonathan, were a tall, stately couple in their well-preserved seventies. A classic steel magnolia from Virginia, Graham lent an aristocratic air to our group. Whereas most of us wore slacks and other casual attire to dinner, Graham always looked like she'd just stepped out of a Lord & Taylor's window. She mentioned to my wife that back home she was president of her garden club. Duly impressed, my wife asked what she grew. Flowers? Vegetables?
"Oh, my dear," Graham replied in her best Tennessee Williams drawl, flipping her silk scarf over her shoulder against the evening's damp chill, "I'm the president of the garden club. I don't actually garden."
Isabel and Homer were from Colorado Springs. He was a lean, ruddy-faced gent in his early eighties, and she had short gray hair that framed a pixieish face. Avid hikers, they'd hop off the barge at the first lock we came to each morning and walk briskly along the towpath, soon outdistancing the barge. An hour or so later, we'd find them waiting patiently for us at the foot of the next lock.
One afternoon, we all biked a few easy miles into town for a prearranged wine tasting at a Nuits-St-Georges vineyard. As an experiment, we tasted a year-old Pinot Noir straight from the barrel. Then we tasted one that had been aged in oak another 12 months. The increase in complexity and the rounding out of flavors were remarkable. (And what a nice surprise when John the chef caused that same wine to appear at our table for dinner that evening.)
After a morning slipping languidly along the canal, we stopped for an afternoon in Chalon-Sur-Sa™ne. A good-size city with lots of shops and cafes, it presents an animated mixture of early and modern architecture. Along the quay we came across the Muse Nicphore Nipce, named after a local resident who in 1816 discovered the basic technique of modern photography. The museum contains a fascinating history of cameras and photography and photographic memorabilia that well merit an hour's visit.
First Class All the Way
On the last night aboard, Graham emerged from her cabin at dinner looking particularly glamorous and chic. She flipped her silk scarf to one side and immediately busied herself with something she'd obviously been longing to do from the moment she'd stepped on board. She went from picture to picture in the saloon, methodically straightening each one a fraction of an inch up or down. "Graham," I told her, "traveling with you is what first class is all about."
What with serpentine turns and backtracking to Dijon one day, we had covered all of about 15 or 20 miles by the end of our six-day journey. And yet we'd traveled through several centuries, our slow-moving rivercraft a kind of time machine. We had stopped looking at our watches and had fallen into sync with that ancient French, one-handed clock that blurs the minutes and the hours. Having taken this journey, I will never invest my timetables and schedules with quite the same importance again.
Worldwaterways.com offers barge cruises in France from March through November. Most barge cruises run one week, with some 3- and 4-day programs available. Prices range from $995 to $5,000 per person. Rates include accommodations, meals and wines on board, daily sightseeing excursions, use of bicycles, arrival and departure transfers and more. Some barge specials include airfare from the U.S. and overnights in Paris. For further information: Tel: 800-546-4777; Website:www.worldwaterways.com; E-mail:mailto:salesforus@worldwaterways.
• Ground transportation: Barge passengers are responsible for getting to a central location in Paris. There, they will meet up with other worldwaterways.com cruise groups and travel on a single chartered bus to their respective barges.
• Tipping on board the barge is not included. On L'Impressioniste, guests tipped $125 per couple for the five-member crew.
• Autumn with its changing foliage can be a lovely time to visit French wine country, but weather is unpredictable. Travelers should dress in layers. In summer, passengers generally spend more time outside on the barge's deck; meals can be served out there as well.
• Schedules on board the barge are flexible. The written itinerary handed out before departure may change, with certain activities replaced by opportunities that present themselves at the moment.
• Also see GoBarging at /www.gobarging.com