Lazy Days in Burgundy
by NICKI CHODNOFF
It was an odd sensation, like riding in a giant freight elevator. The Mirabelle descended into the stone lock, dropping at about an inch per second. One minute, sunlight ignited the autumn trees and fields in an array of dazzling colors. Several minutes later, the sunlight was replaced by battleship-gray stone walls and metal lock gates. Our dark, cocoon-like world lasted about 10 minutes until we reached the lower level of the canal and the lock gates swung open, revealing landscapes with bell towers and meadows.
On my leisurely barge trip through rural France, the passage through locks on the Burgundy Canal also transported me through time to a slower, carefree pace. Our cruise from Vandenesse (near the highest elevation of the ca-nal) to Dijon (the regional capital) traversed the beautiful Ouche valley, indulging our senses with vistas of vineyards and medieval villages, and the memorable tastes of local wines and foods.
My six-day journey was aboard the 128-foot-long Mirabelle, a canal barge operated by Ewaterways.com, a company which runs barging trips in France, England, Ireland, and Holland. Built in 1942, the former workhorse Dutch barge was converted into a floating hotel in 1982, and now offers luxurious features such as an expansive sundeck and a wood-paneled lounge with large windows, so you won't miss any scenery.
The history of Burgundy dates back to Roman times: Julius Caesar conquered the region in 50 b.c. Its name comes from the Burgundii, a Germanic people from the Savoyan Alps who settled this part of east-central France in the 5th century. Once a separate kingdom, the region subsequently became the realm of the Dukes of Burgundy, who wielded substantial power dur-ing the 14th and 15th centuries, even at times allying themselves with the English against the French kings.
The Heart of Burgundy
Starting in the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church developed vineyards and perfected wine-making techniques in the region. Two important legacies remain from the Cistercian and Benedictine monks who once toiled in the fields: the Chardonnay (white) and Pinot Noir (red) grapes, which are still at the heart of Burgundy's famous wines.
In France, commercial goods were carried aboard barges long before auto routes and cargo jets. Some claim the Burgundy Canal started because merchants needed an inexpensive and efficient way to ship their wines. Others say the canal evolved because Burgundy supplied lumber for Paris, utilizing spring floods to float huge timber rafts to the Seine.
Construction of the Burgundy Canal began in 1727 and was completed in 1832, after many years of interruption and troubles. The 150-mile-long, 209-lock canal is part of the extensive network that joins France's major rivers,thereby linking the Atlantic Ocean to the Medi-terranean Sea. Although the Burgundy Canal still hosts some commercial traffic, most of the vessels today are tourist barges.
Being aboard a hotel barge is completely different from booking passage on a large cruise ship. While an ocean liner can have a passenger list that numbers in the thousands, a canal barge usually hosts fewer than 30 passengers. Although the Mirabelle can carry up to 24 passengers in 12 cabins, there were only 19 passengers on our trip.
Our group consisted mostly of well-traveled professionals from the United States, about 40 to 60 years of age, all looking to relax. From the first even-ing, when we all met and sat on the Mirabelle's outside deck, we got along well. Tending to all our needs were a French crew and chef, British hotel manager and Australian tour guide.
A barge cruise has no litany of cruise ports. Instead, you choose a barge by the region it sails in. For instance in France, you can choose Burgundy, Bordeaux, Alsace-Lorraine or Provence.
Another major difference is speed: canal barging is more high leisure than high adventure. You float along a nearly still canal at about three miles an hour, slow enough to notice the landscape mirrored in the calm waters.
Alongside the canals, old towpaths remain from pre- combustible-engine days when hefty draft horses and oxen pulled the boats. Since the barge travels so slowly, you can ride a bike, walk at your own pace, or explore the surroundings and easily meet up with the barge as it cruises along.
Gus, one of the passengers who loved to power-walk for his daily exercise, would stride ahead of everyone on the ca-nal towpath and wait for the Mirabelle to arrive several locks down. While Gus hiked full-steam-ahead, other passengers simply sat on the Mirabelle's outside deck and watched the countryside drift by.
On her journey, the Mira-belle passed through 40-plus locks, each overseen by a local lockkeeper and manually operated. Lockkeepers are as-signed several locks; when their duty is finished at one lock, they bike to the next barrier, always reaching it well ahead of the barge. Rustic stone lock houses, many with lace curtains and pots overflowing with colorful flowers, add a nostalgic flavor to the scenery.
Chateaux and Cobblestones
Our routine was to tour by land after breakfast for half a day, then cruise on the canal after lunch. Each day featured a trip by bus to a nearby town. Our first day's excursion took us to the 12th-century cha-teau at Commarin, which is privately owned and still lived in, and the medieval hilltop village of Chateauneuf en Auxois.
The village offers a true glimpse of the past, with 13th-century stone buildings, cobblestoned streets, and a plethora of cats sunning them-selves behind leaded windows. From the hilltop at the edge of the tiny village, our guide Brad pointed out the Auxois plain below and its landmarks, including the Mi-rabelle docked at Vandenesse.
Another day, we visited the wine cellars at the Cha-teau de Meursault, which date back to the Benedictine monks from the 15th century. After sampling various Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vintages in the tasting room, many visitors bought bottles to take back home: many of the wines are not sold in the U.S.
We also toured Beaune, a picture-perfect medieval town with walls dating back to the 13th century. The city's crown jewel is the Hotel Dieu (House of God), a magnificent 15th-century structure with multi-colored tiled roofs that is a Burgundy landmark. Originally used as a hospital for the poor, it is now open to visitors who can admire many of the original tapestries, paintings, and furnishings.
The Hotel Dieu still generates substantial income to support a modern hospital and other philanthropic causes from its 100-plus acres of vine-yards. Many wine shops along the alleys and passages thrive in the old town and sell the Grand Cru (the best quality) Hospice wine, a variety coveted by oenophiles.
Dining with Elegance
All meals were provided aboard the Mirabelle, prepared by our onboard master chef Pierre. The service was as elegant as the food, with linen-clad table tops decked out with cleverly folded linen napkins, a different design for each meal. Breakfast, the most casual of the meals, always meant a buffet table loaded with warm croissants and breads, fruits, cheeses and even cold cereals to cater to American tastes.
Lunch and dinner showcased the food and the wines of the region. Local specialties included a garlicky escargot, poached egg in red wine sauce, or the classic boeuf bourgui-gnon (beef stew). We also enjoyed classic French dishes such as quiche Lorraine, creme bru-lée, and tarte tatin (apple pie).
The food was paired with the appropriate wines, mostly from Burgundy. Katie, the hotel manager, started lunch and dinner with detailed descriptions of the two wines that accompanied the meal and the assorted cheeses that preceded dessert. Coffee and tea and the contents of the fully stocked bar were always available.
As our official cocktail-hour drink, my cruise gang adopted the Kir Royal - cham-pagne with a touch of creme de cassis (black currant liqueur). The drink is named after Ca-non Kir, a hero of the French resistance and former mayor of Dijon.
By late afternoon, the barge anchored at its overnight spot on the canal. In Gissey, we tied up near an ancient bridge, with a foundation believed to date to Roman times, when France was known as Gaul.
Our mooring in the quiet village of La Bussiere was one of the most beautiful, located near a 12th-century Cistercian monastery that in the last cen-tury became an Abbey (Abbaye de La Bussiere). To get to this petite village - little more than 10 stone houses, a stone's throw from the canal - we sailed on a small aqueduct often considered one of the most scenic canals in France. The waterway bisects a steep valley with wooded slopes and lush pastures where cattle and horses graze.
On board the Mirabelle, there was no gambling, bingo, or dance classes. The cruise line did, however, schedule one evening of entertainment mid-week. A local musician - prac-tically a one-man band - sang French standards (in English) while playing a keyboard. After the obligatory French songs, the rest of the evening he belted out an array of American rock classics. Though he spoke little English, we loved his phonetic renditions, which somehow had a touch of South-ern twang.
On board the barge, the crew's thoughtfulness always made us feel comfortable and special. They cheerfully helped passengers on and off the barge, unloaded our bicycles so we could ride on the towpath, and offered cool drinks or hot, soothing cups of coffee when we returned after our explorations.
After days of pampered care, great food and a respite from worldly concerns, it was tough to say goodbye to the crew and each other. Docked in Dijon, the last night's dinner was our chance to laugh and talk about our trip and express our appreciation to the staff. Anne, one of the guests, summarized it best: "This has been the most relaxing vacation I've ever had!"
On lots of trips, one exchanges addresses and phone numbers with fellow travelers, but often those promises of "let's stay in touch" never materialize. Amazingly, the bond that formed during my journey remains. We still send each other e-mails, postcards and Christmas cards. The joy of the barge experience remains.
Ewaterways offers barge cruises in France from March through November. All barge cruises are 7 days/6 nights, and prices range from $1,499 to $3,690 per person. Rates include all meals onboard, round-trip TGV train service between Paris and Dijon, bus transportation to and from the barge, use of on-board bicycles, and sightseeing with a tour guide. For further information: Tel: 800-546-4777; Fax: 212-725-0573;
E-mail: sales@ewaterways. com.