Burgundy is famous for great wines and cheeses but those not exported are a special treat best sampled while cruising in luxury through France on board a canal barge.
Cruising on the barges of European Waterways definitely falls into the category of luxury, if luxury can be defined as having large air-conditioned bedroom suites (unusual on barging holidays) being pampered, and being served superb food and drink.
The GoBarging company has been cruising European waters since 1974, since when their reputation as canal cruise experts has gone from strength to strength. Unashamedly serving the luxury end of the cruise market they deliver what they promise, food of the highest quality, fine wines, expertly chosen regional cheeses to accompany the dishes, and a crew that pampers and looks after everyone with genuine warmth. The 24-hour open bar carries a wide selection of spirits, wines and liqueurs.
In France GoBarging.com covers different parts of Burgundy, Provence, the South of France, the Rhone and Loire Valleys. Passengers are collected in Paris and driven in comfortable mini buses to the embarkation points.
Taking just one cruise for instance, one that departs from the scenic town of Auxerre with its magnificent Gothic style cathedral and streets of half-timbered houses, the barge passes through 45 locks on the Nivernais Canal. Negotiating the locks (by Captain and crew) gives passengers the opportunity to disembark and walk along the towpath or make use of one of the bicycles carried on board to explore further inland.
Getting to know fellow travellers is facilitated by a champagne reception hosted by the captain. The free-flowing wines and cocktails ensure a lively atmosphere at all times. The wines and cheeses are explained before meals by one of the charming hostesses on board and the chef ascertains guests’ likes and dislikes and offers alternatives if necessary.
Burgundy has some of the most stunning scenery in France. The canal and the River Yonne wind through rolling hills dotted with ancient villages in which every limestone house has pink roses climbing the beige walls and window boxes crammed full of red and pink geraniums. Vineyards, fruit orchards and farms add a variety of colour, and with 3-4 harvests a year in the area, there are always ribbons of green alternating with golden fields of wheat.
Barges on the canals sail approximately half a day, the other half being spent at a place of interest. All members of the crew are well versed in the history of the area and act as guides and drivers. If walking cobbled streets is not to everyone’s liking there is usually an interesting bar from which to people watch, or remaining on the barge with a book and some music from the library is the other option.
Few people want to miss the tours of the wine-cellars though, especially in Chablis, the tiny area that produces the coveted vins de luxe Grand Cru and Premier Cru Chablis. French vineyards in Burgundy are frequently small and family-owned specialising in only two grape varieties, the red pinot noir and the white chardonnay. The sparkling wine of the region, the Cremant, is a revelation to some people who have not tried it before.
The towns visited afford time for exploring and shopping, whether Auxerre with its gold sundial clock and quirky statues dotted throughout the maze of pedestrianised streets or Vézelay with the Roman Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene where the crusaders converged before setting out for Jerusalem, a centre for artists of all kinds and a perfect place to buy ceramics, paintings, or woven tapestries.
As an alternative to a spa stay, barging is perfect. It is just as relaxing, the food is much better, there is no TV, no “entertainment”, no jolly “mine host” encouraging audience participation, only good food over which to linger with a fine wine or liqueur. Cabins are comfortable and spacious, and the captain, chef and crew are chosen for their friendliness, charm and ability to cope with any emergency.
Many companies on the French canals offer cruises of varying periods, but I’ve only travelled with the company mentioned above, European Waterways. Having found one that pleases me, why change?