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‘We ate like the Dukes of Burgundy’ says Marilyn Floyde who spent a week enjoying Burgundy from a new watery perspective cruising on the Nivernais Canal on board the hotel barge ‘Luciole’
It’s not just a boat trip, of course. The unhurried rhythm of the days allows you to cycle or ramble your way along the towpath, take an excursion in the minibus to a nearby château, town or vineyard, or even ride up with the sunrise in a hot air balloon. The pace of life also gives you plenty of reading and sunbathing time, and the opportunity to enjoy high quality food and famous Burgundy wines in an informal and sociable atmosphere.
Most of my fellow-passengers were American. They had flown in to Paris and were driven down to meet the boat. There were thirteen of us in all. When we arrived on board the crew had prepared a welcome, and we broke the ice with Kir Royale (a cocktail of Champagne and Cassis liqueur) and canapés.
Our route was from medieval Auxerre in the Yonne down to Clamecy, a picturesque and lively town in the Nièvre department, some 65 kilometres to the south. We passed through some of the most beautiful and varied scenery in Burgundy. We visited nearby places of interest in order to experience the region and discover some of its special magic. I thought I knew the area well as I’ve lived here for over six years, but in fact I was genuinely surprised and sometimes enchanted by the experience.
Highlights were many. For me the actual cruising was as enjoyable as anything else. The route changes from the Nivernais canal to river (Rivers Yonne and Cure), and back again many times. Sometimes there were old walnut trees on the banks – planted when the canals had been built. Open fields of maize gave way to high rocky outcrops. Shallow weirs provided vantage points for heron and swans. Sitting up on deck watching Herbie and Max – the Pilot and Matelot – manoeuvre the Luciole into the locks with millimetres to spare, exchanging pleasantries with the lock-keepers and taking on supplies was always absorbing. The picturesque lock-keepers’ cottages sometimes sold regional produce, or crafts. One lock-keeper kept goats in his garden. They all had a wonderful show of flowers.
The changing scenery still bore the marks of a different past. Little iron trackways disappearing under fields of sunflowers once brought stone from the quarries high up on the limestone escarpment down to the canal for transportation to Paris. Those same quarries were used during WW2 by Nazis to build ‘planes. And of course, many hundreds of years before that, the Merovingians had mined the stone for their burial sarcophaguses – and several thousand years before that, Neanderthal man and woman had made their homes in the caves and fished the River Cure. And so the reverie goes on...
Visiting the Grande Cru vineyards high above Chablis was very interesting. I’d only ever drunk the stuff before. The town of Chablis owes everything to its wine. The vast acres of ripening Chardonnay grapes – all parcelled up in small areas – each with different owners – bears witness to a life little-changed in the last thousand years. It was monks, of course, who developed the industry. The vines are lovingly cherished at every stage in the wine-producing year. Since the Romans brought grapes to Burgundy all men - invaders – marauders – soldiers - have respected the vineyards. The only pestilence that almost destroyed the industry was not man-made at all. It was the phylloxera - a root-boring beetle which spread like a plague through Europe in the late 18th century. The industry was saved only by bringing back bug-resistant stock from the New World (which had originated from the ancient French stock in the first place) and grafting on the European vine. A fact which delighted my friend-American passengers.
Other memorable trips were to Vézelay, UNESCO World Heritage site, and to the fabulous Château of Bazoches – home to Maréchal Vauban (1633 – 1707), one of France’s most brilliant men. He was an engineer, soldier, inventor, social and scientific commentator and philanthropist. His radical ideas for fortifications revolutionised the defensive capabilities of major cities around the perimeter of France. Not enough is written in English about him! Michael, the Captain of the Luciole is very knowledgeable, and provided an intelligent commentary throughout the visits.
One very happy lady
Ruth Field, a retired nurse from Chicago, was the only one of us who decided to take advantage of the balloon trip. She’d never been up before. There were two balloons. Several of us rose to watch them take off at 7.30am from behind the trees in the little port of Vermenton. When she returned some two hours later, she was carrying a bouquet of wild flowers and had a broad smile on her face, which lasted all day. The balloon company is France Montgolfières which specialises in tourist balloon trips. I asked her how it felt. She said that the whole flight had been wonderful (that was obvious). She hadn’t expected it to be so smooth. They had risen above the early morning mist to a height of around 3000’. She had had no scary moments at all. She’d seen the world as “a model train set – roads, canals and rivers. I could see deer, and swans swimming. I felt as if we were floating – not flying.” She said, “It was quiet up there – we could hear people in the other balloon talking. We waved at each other. I looked down and could see the shadow of the balloon drifting across the hills.” It not only left her with an experience of a lifetime, but also because of her delight, it gave the rest of us so much pleasure too.
The food and wine were an essential part of the cruise. This was food not as function, but as culture. We ate like the Dukes of Burgundy. Fine foods, local specialities, locally produced. The Chef, Adrian, introduced our meals. Michael the Captain introduced our wines, and the two Hostesses, Livvy and Sarah told us about each of the 28 cheeses we sampled during the week. It was a gastronomic extravaganza. There is no point in dwelling on weight-gain here. When you choose to come to Burgundy, you choose to experience life as a gourmand. Do the diet thing before – or after. But while you’re here enjoy food as it was always meant to be enjoyed.
Back to the cruising – for that’s what makes the holiday unique. Imagine waking up in the morning with a duck looking in at you through your window. The level of the water is just the right height for that. Imagine the uniquely pretty little ports where you can stop for lunch or overnight – each one with a handful of interesting other boats and stunning scenery. My favourites were Vermenton, Mailly-la-Ville, Mailly-le-Château and Clamecy. The château on the cliffs above Mailly emerges like some ancient floating palace high above the tree line. Imagine a holiday which is so deeply relaxing that the most arduous task is to decide whether to wear shorts or trousers …….
There are as many different holidays as there are people to enjoy them. One person’s white-water rafting is another’s language course with cookery. So what makes us go on holiday, and are there any common factors that make it a good one? I had plenty of time to think about that on the boat. It seems to me that a good holiday should transport you into another world - a world that allows you to dream about something different – a world that gives you the time to look at your own life from a distance. There has to be good food and accommodation – whatever that may mean to you. For me, I also like to meet new people – hear their stories and adventures. A good holiday will imprint itself on your memory for years to come. My week on the Luciole did all of that, and more.
Luxury Bed and Breakfast at the start or finish of your journey: Château de la Resle, north of Auxerre.