BARGING THROUGH BURGUNDY
Story by: Larry Mayran

“Of all the creatures of commercial enterprise, a canal barge is by far the most delightful to consider. There should be many contented spirits on board, for such a life is both to travel and to stay at home.” Paraphrasing Robert Louis Stevenson’s An Inland Voyage (1877)

Captain Walsh and pilot  look on in mock horror as Larry Mayran  takes the  helm through a very narrow canal.

Welcomed aboard by Captain Mathew Walsh, Horizon II is a festive looking craft painted black with white, blue and red piping. This barge is not your typical galumph carrying scrap iron on the Eire Canal. The 128 foot long vessel is air-conditioned and configured in a split level design with four comfortable suites with private bathrooms located a half deck below a spacious lounge, well-stocked bar, dining room and library. Topside is a sundeck for lounging and aft are the pilot’s station, helm, and gears controlling the engine.

French Country Waterways, an American owned company understands American passenger expectations and exercises this understanding with its experienced French/English speaking crews. The cruises are somewhat expensive at $5,895 - $6,695 per person double, all inclusive, including two nights with breakfast in a Paris hotel)) but the price you pay for high standards of comfort, wonderful cuisine and wines, personal attention and knowledgeable guided tours certainly beats foreign country uncertainty and unpleasant hygienic discoveries. The company has five barges in its fleet that ply routes through the Upper Loire Valley, Burgundy-Cote d’Or, Champagne and Alsace-Lorraine.

Our cruise cruised the Nivernais canal through northern Burgundy. The route extends a little more than 100 kilometers (about 60 miles) which a car can cover in less than three hours. But barges move along at five miles per hour in navigating the waterways leisurely twists and turns, as it passes through the Nivernais 36 individually operated locks and stops each afternoon for shore excursions which adds up to a six day cruise.

If you’re a Type A personality noted for “time urgency” or  “time impatience” better downshift to neutral and just go with the flow. A barging cruise on this canal is slower than a Monday morning dialup on your computer. The best prescription for acclimatizing to Nivernais Canal syndrome is to ease yourself onto a deck chair, have a couple of glasses of wine and let your mind float on the undulating landscape of rural Burgundy sliding by. The languid rhythm of barge cruising gives your senses a rare chance to absorb a visual canvas of the French countryside. Imagine fields of barley waving in soft geometric curves, while fat, beige colored Charolais cattle graze in the hills beyond a half timbered farmhouse. The barge floats by sheer, ivy fringed limestone cliffs slashed with thin streams of waterfalls, as well as church steeples soaring above a 1,000 year old medieval town. At days end the setting sun pours its amber light across a stone bridge garlanded with red poppies. It is easy to understand what motivated Cézanne and Monet.

You can add the pleasures of having your personal French chef creating inspired salads and sumptuous dinners paired with fine wines and cheeses. A small congenial group of barge mates enjoying the pleasures of each others company plus an attentive,  cheerful Captain, and crew add up to a beguiling vacation.

Guided shore excursions will take us through, Gurgy, Mailly-le Château, Vincelles, Vezelay at Chatel-Censoir, Chablis and Auxerre. Few of these names would raise a blip on the average American tourists radar screen, but these lovely places preserve their long history waiting to be rediscovered. Together they offer some of Burgundy’s finest examples of medieval towns and Romanesque churches, chateau estates, and wineries bordered by expansive vineyards and Michelin starred restaurants.

Our seven person crew consists of chef, pilot and helmsman, first mate, concierge, and sommelier plus, housekeeping, wait staff and Captain Walsh, bon vivant host and knowledgeable tour guide. With the exception of the chef and sommelier who hail from France the others are British. All are seasoned bargers, and all make France their permanent home.

ABOVE: In St-Pere-sous-Vezelay is L'Esperance, a celebrated Michelin three star restaurant of chef-owner Marc Meneau.
BELOW: At Domaine Servin, Chrystelle Lefevre, whose family has owned almost 82 acres of vineyards in Chablis since 1654 is in the aging cellars for a barrel tasting with Captain Walsh.

There is a daily barge regimen that passengers seemed to find comfortable. Some may wish to sleep in, skip a meal, wine service, or tour on their own. Any time the barge stops to pass through locks, you are free to disembark and exercise by walking, running, or biking along the canal towpath or explore nearby villages and then rejoin the barge further downstream.

All meals are served buffet style on crisp white table linen, accompanied by cleverly folded napkins, fine cutlery, china and stem ware.  Breakfast is available from 8:00-930 and offers an abundant buffet of flaky croissants, variety of rolls, cheeses, ham, fresh fruit, juices, and cereals. Chef Richard (Reeshard) will happily prepare any special orders of eggs or omelets.  He defines the gastronomic pleasures of French cooking by crafting the most delightful luncheons (12 noon-2pm) and formal candlelight dinners (8:00-9:30PM) with an array of seasonal meat and fish dishes, the freshest vegetables, novel choice of salads, and deserts accompanied by grand, premiere or 1st cru wines and six varieties of cheeses daily. (There are 235 varieties of cheese in France). A frustrated Charles de Gaulle was once quoted as saying, “How can you govern a country that makes 235 different kinds of cheese?”  Seating arrangements are left to the passenger’s discretion, which allows everyone a chance to chat up their fellow barge travelers. After lunch we pile on board the accompanying barge van and are whisked off to discovery another slice of history.

The passenger list totaled seven including ourselves. Bob, 57, is a semi-retired corporate real estate attorney and knowledgeable historian and Lauri his bride of one month are from Harrison, New York. College sweethearts, they both married different partners, both got divorced 20 years later, rediscovered each other and got married just before the cruise. Lauri’s daughter Shirley, and her husband Stuart, a structural engineer from Winston-Salem, North Carolina are in their early 30’s. Traveling alone was Charlotte, a sprightly, white haired 82 year old from Albany, New York. The widow of a former New York State Supreme Court judge, Charlotte, nicknamed “Toots” won the hearts of her fellow passengers and crew with her candor and habit of sprinkling mild four letter words to make a conversational point. She and the judge were married in 1977 and until he died in 2001, traveled extensively.

On the banks of Yonne River is the St. Germain Abbey and St Etienne Cathedral.

The 2nd day of the cruise I am sitting in the lounge around 11am when Charlotte asked me what time was it appropriate for her to have a cocktail. In my navy days we use to say “anytime the sun’s over the yardarm”—meaning that somewhere in the world at any hour of the day the sun will pass over the yardarm (spar on a mast for sails or signal flags) of a vessel. Charlotte then asked, “Would you make me a Gibson with two onions please,” and she carried on this ritual for the remainder of the cruise.

Piloting the 128-foot, 250 ton, single screw barge through the canal’s shallow depths and narrow locks can usher moments of excitement. The canals depth is often only 6 feet and the barge draws more than five feet, leaving just a few inches of clearance. Occasionally the canal will silt up causing the barge to ground. Then the pilot would have to reverse the engine, maneuvering the barge on a slightly different course and power ahead thru the silt. Coming into the locks the first mate would be leaning over the side yelling out the very tight clearance space between the locks and the barge. “Plus 2” he would shout (equals four inches), “Plus one” (two inches) or “Minus one” which meant  “stand by, we are about to crash into the lock unless the helmsman could deftly alter the barge’s path.

Auxerre with its cobblestone streets, timber framed buildings and 17th century clock tower in the center of town.

Auxerre on the banks of Yonne River offers St. Germain Abbey and St Etienne Cathedral in a town seemingly unchanged since medieval times with its cobblestone streets, timber framed buildings and 17th century clock tower in the center of town

The Romanesque Basilica of Saint Mary of Magdalene, a medieval structure dating from the 9th century overlooks the river at Chatel-Censior. It was originally was one of the most noted stops in all Christendom. In the 11th and 12th centuries it was on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compstella over the French border in Spain. It’s importance as a shrine was due to its claim to have some bones of Mary Magdalene.

Another highlight in Vezelay is the fortress-like  Bazoches Chateau of Marechal de Vauban military engineer of Louis XIV from 1675-1707. He designed more than 300 military fortifications throughout France. His ancestors still live in a section of the red roofed and turreted Château but visitors have access to the lovely grounds, furnished rooms, his bedroom and study.

In St-Pere-sous-Vezelay is L’Esperance, a celebrated Michelin three star restaurant of chef-owner Marc Meneau, said to be one of France’s most creative and innovative chefs. The evening turned out to be a gustatory delight unencumbered by even a hint of pomposity from the staff. The restaurant is in a beautifully restored old mill house by a stream with manicured acres of greenery, and gravel foot paths richly scented with roses, and flowered shrubs. The subtly lit mirrored rooms, ushered in an inviting French country décor with tables of elegant china and crystal. In the glow of an unforgettable dining experience that nourished our senses to the fullest, the exuberant Chef Meneau came out of the kitchen and reveled in our fractured French attempts to explain our rapture.

The vineyards of Chablis capped off a salute to the noble grape the last day of our cruise. On hillsides, ripening Chardonnay grapes produce four classes of Chablis including the famous grand and premier cru’s. Unlike the U.S. where all wines are named by their variety, French wines are named after the origin of their distinctive quality—as in the town of Chablis. At Domaine Servin, Chrystelle Lefevre, whose family has owned 33 hectares (almost 82 acres) of vines in Chablis since 1654 toured us through the aging cellars for a barrel tasting.

Unlike the U.S. where all wines are named by their variety, French wines are named after the origin of their distinctive quality—as in the town of Chablis.

From a pipette she drew some golden liquid called Blanchot (Blahn-Shoh) a grand cru Chablis. Tasting the still very youthful wine we learned the characteristics of Blanchot, which are said to be of a feminine style because it displays elegance and finesse. Several more months of aging will add more dry, complex aromas.

Later that evening, drawn to the Captains Final Banquet, cleverly folded napkins depicting a fully blossomed flower for the ladies and a tuxedo jacket with boutonnière for the men denoted our assigned seats. The dinner table arrayed in Horizon II’s finest china surrounded by glass forests of crystal, goblets and flutes augured in bottles of Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru 2000, Mersault 1st cru 1995 and Charmes Chambertin Grand Cru 2000. Chef Richard’s Foie gras, cassolette homard aux petits legumes, and medaillon de veal gratine forestier, pomme paille and puree chlorophylle, chocolat passion and Plateau de fromage paired beautifully with the wines.

Our small band of seven passengers, strangers when the cruise began, now bonded by friendship, shared our experiences on-board as well as “talking out of school” tales from our past. We all agreed it was a relaxing, yet highly enjoyable journey.  Will our paths ever cross again?  Bob and Laurie love barging and plan to do it again. Stuart and Shirley say perhaps. Charlotte says she’ll follow the Gibson with two onions on other barge adventures throughout Europe.  As for Julie and I, absolutely, but right now we’re still working on our Plateau de fromage (cheese platter).

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