WATERWAYS & WINE
by Risa Weinreb Wyatt & Andy Alpine
Chalk up another lifetime experience: bicycling across a moat. We pedaled through the massive entrance gate and over the stone bridge to enter the grounds of the Château de Santenay. The distinctive yellow, red, and green tile roof of the castle had served as our beacon as we cycled past vineyards up the hill from the town of Santenay. Dominating the countryside, this grand citadel dating to the 11th century had belonged to Philippe II le Hardi (Philip the Bold), the first duke of Burgundy and son of the king of France.
Along with our friends Andy and Daya, my partner Steen and I stood on the terrace of the château, looking down toward the stone structures of the town and the patchwork rows of vineyards cloaking the hillsides. But our most remarkable perspective came from how we were exploring Burgundy’s wine country: by canal barge.
Once major commercial thoroughfares, France’s canals and rivers now predominantly go with the flow of pleasure boating. In Burgundy, over a half-dozen cruising routes are available. Most follow in part the Saône River that flows for 300 miles south through the heart of Burgundy to the Rhône River. For exploring, visitors can choose either hotel barges — vessels that carry from 6 to 20 guests and provide meals as well as staterooms and services — or self-drive boats, which was our choice.
The captain-it-yourself barges resemble the houseboats at U.S. locales such as Lake Shasta and Lake Mead, only sleeker and more yacht-like. Easy to drive, the newer, top-of-the-line barges offer features such as flying bridges, so the skipper can take the helm from inside or outside the vessel; as well as bow thrusters for better maneuvering in the locks and marinas. Handling the boats is easy since they motor along at a very stately 5 to 6 knots.
Combining a relaxed pace with the freedom of being able to do what you want, when you want, canal barging makes a perfect choice for friends seeking to vacation together. Buddies for nearly 20 years, Andy, Daya, Steen and I had shared adventures ranging from scuba diving in Roatan to caving in Dorgogne, so we knew we traveled well together. Even more importantly: we knew we cruised well together, having previously shared a canal-barging trip through France’s Languedoc region.
Our boat chartered from Crown Blue Line was a Calypso Elite, one of the newest and most luxurious additions to the fleet. Thanks to the wide (13-foot, 6-inch) beam, the boat featured big, open living spaces with a large salon fore and outdoor decks at the bow and on top. The galley was huge, accommodating a full-size refrigerator, stove, and tons of counter space. Although the barge had three cabins, we needed only the two aft ones (each with an en-suite bathroom with plentiful hot water) for sleeping; the third became a very comfortable walk-in closet for overflow clothes and luggage.
Once the realm of powerful dukes who vied against the kings of France for supremacy, Burgundy today reigns as the capital for Grands Crus wines and gastronomically lavish cuisine (think foie gras and escargot). On the corner of every byway, signposts announce legendary names: Chablis, Vosne-Romanée, Puligny-Montrachet, Gevrey-Chambertin. “Burgundy features a remarkable ampelographic unity,” one of the Michelin guides proclaims solemnly, since just two grape varietals dominate the vineyards here: Pinot noir for red wines and Chardonnay for white wines. Landscapes mingle vistas of vineyards with pastures for pale-beige charolais cattle ... simple half-timbered cottages with mighty châteaux crowned by the region’s characteristic tile roofs.
We cast off on a sunny afternoon from St. Jean de Losne, setting for the largest inland marina in France. The friendly English-speaking Crown Blue Lines base manager had given us a detailed briefing on the layout and workings of the barge. A bit overwhelming at first, handling the barge soon became très simple. We went for a test cruise around the marina and practiced maneuvering into a slip. Helping matters: we knew that the boat had large bumpers that forgave any navigational faux pas that we committed.
The major challenge of canal barging lurks in the locks that raise or lower boats on the waterways. Fortunately, our first lock on the Saône opened wide and empty, so we didn’t have to worry about hitting another boat — a good thing, since our vessel swung nearly 180 degrees because we were unfamiliar with the rods and cleats. But after a lock or two, we figured out how to tie on, and we voyaged along as competent bargistes. (Advantage #1 of traveling with friends: More hands on deck make for easier maneuvering.)
In Burgundy, most nights are spent in marinas, which might accommodate anywhere from ten to hundreds of boats. Every port had its capitain (harbor master — invariably efficient and cheerfully multilingual), who directs boaters into the slips that run about $10 per night. For Daya and me, the huge advantage of tying up in a marina was the AC hookup, which allowed us to run our hairdryers. (We needed to match the chic Frenchwomen.)
Each village where we stopped taught a mini-history of France. Located at the confluence of the broad Saône and narrow, windy Doubs, Verdun once marked the frontier between France and the Hapsburg Empire. The name itself comes from the Roman word verdunum, meaning a fortification.
A port dating to Roman times, Chalon-sur-Saône combines medieval architecture with cosmopolitan energy. Attractions include the Cathedral of St. Vincent, which dates to the 11th century; and the Musée Nicéphore Niepce, where exhibits honor the inventor of photography. Cobbled with pearlescent limestone, several of the streets radiating from the river have been turned into pedestrian thoroughfares lined with galleries, jewelry stores, and boutiques. (Advantage #2 of traveling with friends: Daya and I could head off on our own for shopping, without toting along guy-partners feigning patient interest in whether we should buy the red sweater or the blue one.)
After cruising on the Saône with its wide banks and large locks, we turned into the quaint Canal du Centre from Chalon-sur-Saône. Over the next few days we gracefully negotiated the 12 locks — we were a seasoned crew by then — to our turn-around point near Santenay. With large trees overhanging the canal and vineyards in the background, the scenery unfolded like a pastoral painting. Bicyclists, joggers and couples strolling arm-in-arm frequented the pathway bordering the canal.
In tribute to Burgundy’s renown as an epicurean epicenter, our most important question each day became: “Where should we have dinner?” We pored over Michelin guides and roamed cobbled alleys to decide which restaurant seemed the most sympathique (appealing). In each district, we ordered wine from one of the local vineyards. This way, we kept discovering small but delicious appellations, such as the fruity, smooth Pinot noir from Rully, part of the Côte Chalonnaise.
In Seurre, we followed a recommendation listed on the Crown Blue Line website and sought out a restaurant called Le Castel. As the twilight darkened, we walked down the townlet’s zagging streets lined with medieval half-timbered and brick buildings, following directional signs to the restaurant that appeared — sporadically and haphazardly — on lamp posts and street corners. Our treasure hunt paid off when we found the charming restaurant hidden beneath a row of chestnut trees. Here we tried a local specialty: sandre, a river fish served sautéed and topped with crayfish sauce, followed by a chocolate marquise cake layered with mousse.
We enjoyed our favorite meal in Chalon — at Chez Jules, cozy and chic with its wood-beamed ceiling and pale-salmon walls and tablecloths. The meal excelled at all the touchstones of French cuisine: rosy foie gras served atop buttered toast, plump escargot enthroned on mushroom caps, crackle-crisp duckling so tender you could cut it with a fork. Here we also had a chance to taste wine made with Aligoté, one of the lesser-known Burgundian white-wine varietals. The finale came with a bounty of desserts: a chocolate pavé studded with pistachios, profiteroles a-swim in chocolate sauce, the millefeuille layered with pears and peaches, a raspberry-scented tiramisu. (Advantage #3 of traveling with friends: you get to share more desserts.)
After lavish dinners, we’d pledge that we’d eat light the next day. But our good intentions evaporated like the river mists. We established the morning ritual of heading for one of the local boulangeries (bakeries) for fresh breads and treats. In addition to carrying favorites such as the long, thin baguette bread, each local store also had its specialties. One day we’d be surprised by a chocolate croissant, another time we’d discover a flaky round pastry filled with a crème and chocolate chips. We’d then breakfast on deck while graceful swans gathered around our bow to beg for leftover crumbs.
While it’s possible to visit wineries along the canals, as we did during our sojourn along the Canal du Centre in Chagny, Remigny and Santenay, most of the celebrated châteaux lie a distance from the waterways. Consequently, we planned a special wine-tasting day, renting a car in Chalon to journey through Burgundy’s most esteemed appellations.
The most distinctive aspect of Burgundy is the concept of climat — each stone-walled vineyard (however miniscule) has its own name and acknowledged characteristics of soil and weather. Parcels are measured by the ouvrée (about one-tenth of an acre) — barely the size of a suburban backyard. Some lands have belonged to the same family for generations.
For our explorations, we followed the designated wine-tasting road called the Route des Grands Crus, which crosses many celebrated wine-making villages. Dating to the 11th century, the Château de Meursault has been lavishly restored and now offers tours and tastings. Smelling of damp wood and earth, the vast caves hold more than 800,000 bottles of wine.
Burgundy’s wine-making traditions also encompass many small, family winemakers. In Volnay, we stopped at Domaine Louis Boillot. When we arrived, proprietor Louis Boillot and his wife were in the 17th-century cellar putting labels on their 2002 vintage. Showing how the Burgundian wine map presents a mosaic of small producers, the Boillots have a monopole (sole ownership) of the Volnay ler Cru Clos de la Chapelle appellation — a smidgen of land near the church.
We also visited Beaune, le coeur et l’âme (heart and soul) of Burgundy wine country. A bastion first of the Gauls, then of the Romans, it became seat for the dukes of Burgundy during medieval times. Surrounded by ramparts, the town is best known for its Hôtel-Dieu, founded in 1443. Although it served as a hospital for the poor, the building is lavishly decorated, topped by a roof of multicolored glazed tiles.
After our day exploring wine country, it felt good to come home — home to our barge. A sign at the entrance to the marina docks read “Réservé aux Plaisanciers” — “Reserved for Pleasure Boaters.” We were glad to belong to this elite but egalitarian fraternity able to enjoy — liberally — both the wines and waterways of Burgundy.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Crown Blue Line offers several different self-drive barge itineraries in France: Tel. 888-355-9491; E-mail: email@example.com; Website: www.crownblueline.com.
For information about additional tour operators and programs, see "Find Your Adventure" and put in “France — Barging."
BARGING IN BURGUNDY — Waterways & Wine: Travel Tips
• Although Burgundy offers several different cruising itineraries, the route Saint Jean de Losne to Chagny (Santenay) and back tends to be the most scenic, with the fewest locks.
• Barge charterers should specify that they want the top-quality mountain bikes offered by Crown Blue Lines for their voyage. Regular small-tire bikes are also available.
• Having a cell phone is a good idea, especially to call the supervisor at the automatic locks if they do not function properly. The lock supervisor is constantly driving back and forth along the route in his small car and provides a reassuring presence.
• Before and after their canal barging trip, most travelers will want to explore Burgundy further, as well as other regions of France. The Châteaux & Hôtels de France association highlights hotels of character, with accommodations ranging from former abbeys to mansions built around windmills to one-time lodgings for the Knights of Malta: 888-924-2832; www.chateauxhotels.com.