I pedal leisurely along the towpath beside the Burgundy Canal, past neat rows of old oaks, maples, and poplars that form a tall, shady green cathedral along the flanks of the shallow canal. My bicycle’s tires crunch on the white limestone. Coming to a lock I stand on a small stone bridge that crosses over the canal. I’m waiting for La Belle Époque — the luxury hotel Barge that will be my home for the next six days.
Its dark blue bow slowly glides into view around a bend. The barge navigates with ease and slows down to enter the narrow lock. I watch as the barge squeezes gently into the locks, with inches to spare on either side. The gates shut. The boat slowly rises as water cascades into the locks. Minutes later the barge is level with the upstream river.
Soon, the gate swings open, the engines thrum, and we cruise gently out of the locks. I settle in a deck chair under the umbrella on the barge’s foredeck. We glide past golden fields of rapeseed and wheat, and immaculate green farmland pastures. Small herds of white dappled cows casually chew grass. Bright bursts of sunflowers cut wide yellow swathes across the countryside.
I see a small stone village, perched on a verdant hillside ringed by small copses of ancient trees. Church spires rise above this perfect panorama. These scenes must have inspired many impressionist painters.
Earlier that day, our canal cruise started in the tiny Port de Tanlay, where La Belle Époque, was moored to the town’s cobblestone walkway. With her long low navy blue hull and white painted cabins, La Belle Époque radiates more luxury and class than we expected for a barge that was used to haul logs to Paris along this same canal. Our crew of six greets us enthusiastically, handing us flutes of champagne and tasty canapés.
We’re escorted to air-conditioned rooms where our bags are already waiting. The cabins, with stained dark hardwood walls and rich carpeting, are surprisingly larger than expected.
We explore the 128-foot long barge, and I’m surprised at what’s packed into it. La Belle Époque has six exquisite en suite cabins and accommodates up to 12 passengers. It boasts a sun deck, a spa pool, and a galley, touring bikes, a CD player, a small library, and a tastefully decorated saloon, bar and dining room.
After our orientation, we stroll through the quiet little hamlet of Tanlay. It’s a perfect introduction to the Bourgogne region. We amble through still, shady, narrow streets. Every building is made from ancient, rough bricks and flaking mortar. Infestations of bushy green ivy cover anything—lintels, walls, and doors. Aged wooden shutters frame the windows, painted in pastel blues and yellows. Weathered red tile roofs show their age. This is all so frightfully . . . French!
The next morning after breakfast we hit the canal—and float serenely along past small stone villages. The ever-present eglises tower above the two-story houses. Trees sagging with fruit and vegetable gardens form green oases in back yards.
One of our first canal locks, at Ecluse d’Argentenay, was unforgettable. The small, perfectly maintained, tangerine colored lock house measuring perhaps eight paces by twelve paces. The lawn on either side of the locks is crammed with an eclectic collection of surreal sculptures; a postman beside a multi-colored bicycle, a lady milking a metal cow, small trolls, neon painted chairs, funky computers, a green giraffe—all accented by brightly colored flowers in planter boxes, and small gardens. It’s like being in a 3-D Dali painting.
The 40 other lock houses would each have their own charm and character—I never got tired of gazing at the tiny, pathetically romantic lock houses, built in the 19th century for the lock keepers, and still inhabited today.
The following week blurs past in bucolic bliss as we cruise sedately along the canal, stopping every mile or two at a lock, only to continue anew past more medieval villages, waving at the passersby. The countryside between these rural towns is an endless panorama of stubble fields, haystacks, scraggly hedgerows, tree-clad hills, and farmhouses surrounded by thick groves of trees. And the ever-present white chalky towpath alongside the canal.
As the urge took us, we would jump on our touring bicycles, pedal alongside La Belle Epoque, and then accelerate away to rendezvous at the next lock. It’s impossible to get lost—you just follow the towpath to the next lock.
When it got too hot on the sundeck, we retired into the air-conditioned saloon to browse the small library or chat, listen to classical music, and watch the landscape drift hypnotically past the wide cabin windows. Two wide couches with dining table tucked away, an amply stocked bar, a couple of classical French floor rugs, and French accordion music playing quietly, and you have a perfect place to relax and talk with other guests.
A never-ending stream of delicious hors d’oeuvres appeared from the galley, with wine, beer or juices, were served by our friendly stewards. The evening dinners were another barge cruise highlight—where conversations lasted for hours into the night.
And the food. French classics from the Burgundy region like Beef Bourguignonne, Filet mignon de porc avec sauce dijonnaise, and Escargot de Bourgogne. And traditional French dishes like Champignons a l’ail cognac, Magret de Canard, Quiche Lorraine, Cotelets d’agneau avec ratatouille, Toulouse sausage salad, and Filet de boeuf au gratin dauphinois.
Our chef describes each dish she serves, elevating each dish into an art form. Every dish qualified as gourmet, with flying colors. And I don’t even want to think about the world-class desserts!
Each evening we moored in little French towns with quaint names like Tanlay, Lezinne, Ancy-le-Franc, Ravieres, Montbard, and Venarey-les-Laumes, with their own distinctive character. Sometimes we walked or cycled around the village. Each afternoon we were whisked off in vans for guided tours of regional chateaus, villages, abbeys, and wineries, all unique enough to entrance us with their history, legends, architecture, and charm.
Our tour through the Renaissance Chateau de Tanlay, built by Francoise de Coligny, a leader of the early Protestant party, was fascinating. With its Louis XIII Triumphal Arch, shallow moat, Vestibule of Caesars complete with Roman busts, corner domes, and lavishly painted ballroom, the Chateau features many exotic highlights.
A tour of the Jean-Marc Brocard winery, followed by tasting was also most enjoyable. We learned that this region is all about Chablis, because of its chalky soil. Later, we drove home via the bustling rural town of Chablis, stopping for a stroll past its enticing tasting rooms, colorful kitchen shops, garden stores and aroma-filled cafes.
Flavigny-sur-Ozerain proved to be the perfect medieval town for walking, and undoubtedly one of the most stunning. Perched on a mountaintop, and surrounded by a thick green forest, this gorgeous, small walled village is best known for where the hit film “Chocolat” was filmed in 2000. It starred Juliette Binoche, Judi Dench, Alfred Molina and Johnny Depp.
Noyers-sur-Serein is another perfect medieval town that we visited on market day and then returned to dine at the following evening. With beautifully maintained 15th century houses, crooked walls inset with stained cross beams and filled in with white painted plaster, ancient stone arches, castle turrets that have been integrated into modern houses, and quirky weathered gargoyles and wooden statues peering down at you, this town provides marvelous photo shots wherever you look.
Our walk through the restored Abbey of Fontenay, one of the finest surviving monasteries of Romanesque architecture, gave us a first hand idea of monastic life. Three hundred monks flourished here from the 12th to the 14th centuries growing their own vegetables, cattle, fish, medicinal plants, and even brewed their own beer. Not to mention making their own tiles, woven cloth, tanned leather, and dyed fabrics.
Hotel barge cruising provides a memorable, relaxing, personalized experience at the far end of the “cruise” spectrum. We were encouraged to unplug from the electronic/digital circus and enjoy our surroundings—I only checked my emails once during the cruise and didn’t even notice the absence of a TV on board. I had better things to do. Life slows down on the barges and I bet everyone’s blood pressure dropped 20 points.
La Belle Époque translates into “The Beautiful Era”, the period in French history (1871 to 1914) characterized by peace and prosperity and a vital resurgence of literature, theater, arts and music. How fitting then, that my weeklong cruise down the Burgundy Canal on La Belle Époque was unsurpassed for its peace and tranquility—the most relaxing and revitalizing vacation I’ve experienced for many a year. That week was my belle époque.
European Waterways is a pioneer in luxury hotel barge cruises with excursions in Scotland, France, England, Ireland, Germany, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Each barge is renowned for its luxuriously renovated and beautifully refurbished rooms, creative itineraries, fine gourmet dining, and excellent crew selection. Several of its cruises pass through French canals. Its barges are also available for charter.
Written by Roy Stevenson and Photographs by Linda Popovich for EuropeUpClose.com