Chateaux and Chablis: experience a leisurely, cultural cruise through beautiful Burgundy
A couple of months after returning from this idyllic, slow, slow voyage on board L’Impressioniste, the painterly images are as clear as ever: I can see the tranquil, tree-lined towpaths, feel the warmth of Spring sunshine and re-live the taste of exquisite cheese and wine on board this charming hotel-barge.
With 1,200 kilometres of waterways, the best way to tour the towns and countryside of Burgundy is by boat. Its very name symbolises fine wines and classic cuisine (Boeuf Bourgignon, L’Escargots, Kir, Chardonnay), to be sampled amidst a backdrop of historic abbeys and castles.
European Waterways is a well established company with a fleet of small luxury hotel barges offering an enticing choice of canal, river, lagoon and loch cruises across Europe from South of France to the Highlands of Scotland.
This Lower Burgundy cruise offers visits to premier vineyards and wine cellars without having to drink and drive!. With the Captain in charge of navigating the canal locks, the chef and crew in charge of all-inclusive hospitality, we can just sit back to enjoy scenic views while sipping a glass of ice-cold Chablis.
Our journey began from Edinburgh, taking the East Coast train to London – comfortable, leisurely and direct city centre to city centre in just over four hours. I would recommend travelling First Class with old fashioned railway service. Expect spacious seats, a calm and quiet environment, with excellent at seat hospitality from morning coffee to a delicious lunch with a glass of wine.
We read, relax and watch the changing landscape from Berwickshire coastline to Newcastle and York, as we head south to King’s Cross Station.
From here it’s just a short walk over to the fabulously refurbished, redstone St. Pancras Renaissance hotel. First opened in 1873, this is a Gothic masterpiece now refurbished to preserve the grand marble halls, staircases and vintage station signs. After an overnight stay, it was just a quick stroll to the Eurostar check in desk at St. Pancras for our onward journey to Paris.
The transfer from the Gare du Nord to Gare du Lyon is not exactly convenient with our suitcases but within an hour or so, we connect to the high speed TGV train to Dijon. I wonder if Jeremy Clarkson and his petrol head boys have raced the TGV in an Aston Martin! I think the train would win – smoothly snaking through the green French countryside.
In 90 minutes we were in the capital of the Duchy of Burgundy, renowned for Gothic architecture, fine art museums and gastronomy: Dijon mustard, gingerbread and local blackcurrants used to make Crème de Cassis liqueur.
Passengers joining L’Impressioniste are collected from Dijon station or alternatively, as we were, from La Cloche, a heritage hotel surrounded by gardens – the ideal place to stay before or after the cruise.
It’s easy to walk around the cobbled streets, visit the Ducal Palace, Gothic churches and food market. A recommended restaurant is Le Sauvage where we sampled L’Escargots and Les Oeufs en Meurette, washed down with a bottle of chilled Rose.
At 4pm, the mini bus promptly arrived with Captain James Bairstow (the Skipper) personally driving us all to the hotel-barge moored at Escommes. On this particular cruise there were just six guests – with a capacity for twelve, plenty extra space and comfort.
Welcomed aboard, we are offered a glass of champagne and meet the rest of the crew – Francois, Kitty, Joe and Chef Marie. We then settle into our comfortable suites (with shower rooms), each named after French artists.
L’Impressioniste is a former Dutch cargo barge which has been furnished in Country House style, featuring polished lacquer wood, art prints, spacious lounge and dining salon and open sun deck with loungers.
Wining and dining on board is taken extremely seriously. This is a culinary and cultural themed cruise during which we shall experience regional dishes accompanied by matched wines from the Cote de Nuits and Beaune vineyards of Southern Burgundy.
On our first night the menu is Vichysoisse, Confit of Duck, Cheese (Merbier, Faurme D’Ambert), Tartlet Tatin, served with Pouilly Fuisse 2008 and Pommard 1er cru 2007. Over this gourmet feast, lively dinner party conversation ensues as we get to know the other four guests from Canada and Australia: with Ken and I from Scotland it’s a mini Commonwealth convention!
The barge is moored overnight to ensure a restful sleep. Around 7.30am, the soft rumble of the engine and even more enticing, we awake to smell the coffee. Each morning, one of the crew (with any guests who would like a walk), visits the local boulangerie for fresh bread and pastries. With fruit salad of juicy kiwis and sweet nectarines, baguette, croissants, cheese and jam, it’s a delicious breakfast.
And so our canal trip meanders along in warm sunshine as we sit out on deck, passing meadows, orchards, distant forested hills, from village to village, cruising slowly at 3 mph through a series of locks (Ecluses) en route to La Repe.
It’s fascinating to watch the Lock Keepers at work – due to health and safety we are advised not to offer to help. At Vandenesse, two young women on scooters arrive to open the gates and then when we are on our way again, they zoom off to the next Ecluse to await our arrival.
There’s a great sense of tradition, the original lock keepers’ cottages on the canal bank either still government owned or private homes. They boast pretty flower gardens and many have displays of arts & crafts with perhaps a paddock of goats and donkeys. Others appear abandoned, but still with a rusty old Ecluse number above the door.
Today the team of itinerant or resident lock keepers stop for lunch at 12 o’clock sharp and will not be available again until 2pm, so that the barge itinerary must keep to a strict timetable. The remarkable waterways system is due to the geography of the region, located in the heart of three river valleys, the Seine, Loire and Rhone. From the 17th to 19th centuries, a network of canals was built to connect rivers across France, from the English Channel to the Mediterranean.
The Canal de Bourgogne, 150 miles long, links the Rivers Yonne and Saone, an expensive, complicated engineering project taking 200 years to complete with the first barges arriving in Dijon in 1808. Before the railways, barges transported limestone, wood and wine from Burgundy to Paris.
And so from historic trade craft pulled by horses, the rural beauty of the canals can now be appreciated by boating travellers with the towpaths used by walkers and cyclists under the shade of Poplar and Plane trees. And of course due to the sedate pace of the journey, we have the freedom to stroll or jog along the canal paths with bicycles on board for a gentle ride from lock to lock.
The week’s itinerary ensures we experience the cultural heritage of the Burgundy. Daily excursions are included in the cruise fare, travelling by minibus to castles, abbeys, villages and vineyards.
A few of many highlights: Chateau de Commarin has been in the de Vogue family for 26 generations, the grand salon and bedrooms preserved untouched since the 1870s for posterity.
We drive past acres and acres of Grand Crus vineyards, the heartland of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes to the Medieval town of Beaune for a private wine tasting at Bouchard Aîné & Fils. We tour the 18th century cellars to hear about the family history and vintage collection of this prestigious Maison.
We all love the visit to the stunningly ornate Abbaye de la Bussiere, formerly a 12th century Cistercian monastery, now a luxury Relais and Chateau hotel with Michelin starred restaurant. After walking around the ornamental gardens, we sat outside under patio sunshades, to indulge in a sumptuous lunch (octopus, snails, seabass, strawberries) with, of course, fine Burgundy wines.
Other delightful moments were simply observations of canal life as we pottered along. One evening Captain James moored carefully, reversing to a particular spot for a perfect view of the magnificent Medieval fort, Chateauneuf en Auxois, located at the top of the hill.
We had dinner that night on deck and later watched the gradual sunset bathe the Chateau in a rose-tinted light.
Amusing incidents too – Francois tried to tie barge ropes to a tree, only to pull off the branches; a mallet for securing mooring posts ended up a few feet under water, the skipper donning long waders to retrieve it.
Blessed with warm weather, it was lovely to have a Jacuzzi hot tub on deck for a blissful dip – with a glass of Cremant Burgundy bubbles in hand.
Meanwhile, Bob from Canada who had brought his own fishing rod, tried his luck to catch perch off the side of the barge.
What was so memorable was the ever-changing painterly Paysage like picture postcards – sunflowers, poppy fields, waterlilies, herons in flight, an avenue of cypress trees along the curving canal, sunlight shimmering on the water. This scenic beauty was like being part of a living Monet or Seurat impressionist landscape.
Planters of ivy and baby roses decorate the deck as well as pots of thyme and mint for the galley – the watering can, tied securely with a rope, is filled from the canal to keep the plants flourishing in the sunshine.
The unhurried rhythm of the daily routine allows everyone to be as lazy or energetic as they like, cycling a few miles or sitting reading on a lounger. We shout a cheery Bonjour to an elderly Eclusier in his straw hat as he turns the gate wheel, and wave to groups of cyclists on a touring holiday along the canal.
It’s the attention to detail which creates a taste of luxury: a refreshing Kir aperitif served before lunch on arriving back on board after a morning excursion. This cocktail is Crème de Cassis added to white wine, invented by Canon Felix Kir, a former Deputy Mayor of Dijon.
The high standard of all meals from our first breakfast to farewell dinner (Smoked salmon millefeuilles, Charolais beef, Epoisses cheese, Crème brulee) is exceptional with paired wines knowledgeably described with passion and flair. Chef Marie is La Reine de Cuisine!.
This has been a fabulous, fun and and such a sociable house party with professional 6 star hospitality from the hard-working, friendly crew. In the Visitor book I read comments of previous guests, “ Wine, food, countryside, company. How do we top this?” Diane and Bruce, Melbourne. I could not agree more. This is a unique and inspiring style of cruise travel.
At the end of the week’s cruise as we board the TGV at Dijon, I notice on the train livery the icon of L’Escargot – an ironic symbol of a snail to represent the speedy journey back to Paris.
What a contrast to our graceful glide along the Canal, surely the most relaxing way to explore rural Burgundy – a casual, classy classic journey through the winelands and waterways where time has almost stood still for centuries. Enchanteur, magique!
Copyright: All photographs by Kenneth J. Scott.
The Hotel Barge: L’Impressioniste (max 12 guests). 126 ft long. 16ft, 6″ wide. max speed, 12 knots. Barge Facilities: 2 twin/double junior suites, 4 twin/double staterooms (all en suite). Lounge and Dining salon, sun deck, jacuzzi, 8 bicycles. Crew: Captain, Tour guide/ deckhand, 2 Hosts, Chef.
Cruise company: European Waterways. Founded in 1974, this is the largest hotel barging company in Europe. Their fleet of Hotel-Barges accommodate 6 – 20 passengers with destinations in France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Holland, England, Scotland and Ireland. Themed cruises (culture, golf, walking, food, wine). Private charter cruises ideal for families and friends.
http://www.gobarging.com Tel. +44 (0) 1753 598555.
European Waterways News, February 2014. An investment of more than £250,000 and a grant from the regional government to create a dry dock maintenance base at Ravieres, alongside the Burgundy Canal. The facility will operate winter refurbishment and upgrade programmes for their entire French hotel-barge fleet.
Journey Description: 6 nights, Lower Burgundy Canal cruise from Dijon to Dijon. Daily excursions to castles, abbeys, towns, villages, vineyards, wine-tasting, food markets, arts and culture.
Unique selling point: Fully inclusive fare – all meals, lunch and dinner with selected wines. Open Bar. Escorted excursions. Knowledgeable crew about the region, food, wine, culture. 1 – 2 Crew-guest ratio.
What to Pack. Comfortable, seasonally appropriate, leisure wear, deck shoes, walking/cycling/sightseeing clothes, swimwear for hot tub. Smart-casual evening attire, esp. for Captain’s Farewell dinner.
What to Buy: Dijon mustard, Burgundy wines, Creme de Cassis, local arts and crafts.
Accommodation: London: St. Pancras Renaissance. www.marriott.co.uk Dijon: Pre/post cruise – Hotel de la Cloche. www.hotel-lacloche.com. Recommended restaurant. Le Sauvage, 64, Rue Monge, Dijon.