The mere name Burgundy evokes splendid wines, fine cellars, history and epicurean feasts.
The secret is out among wine and food connoisseurs — the best way to sample it all is aboard a luxury barge cruising along the Burgundy canals.
Barging is not a river cruise
If you are thinking a barge trip is like European river cruises, think again. River cruise ships typically cater to 100 guests or more and ply the busy waterways of Europe: the Rhine, Danube or Elb with stops in cities such as Amsterdam, Cologne, Vienna and Budapest. You may visit four countries in four days and have both morning and afternoon group excursions. A canal barge is slower, smaller and offers a lazy glide past velvety-green fields and vineyards in the French countryside.
Recently my husband and I joined five couples on a French Country Waterways cruise down the Canal de Bourgogne.The barge was a floating luxury hotel with a captain, crew of six and fully equipped with bikes and, needless to say, an extensive wine cellar.
Our elegantly appointed hotel-barge, the Nenuphar, accommodated 12 passengers in six elegantly appointed staterooms with all the amenities of a fine hotel. The emphasis is on fine cuisine, superb wine, relaxation, and personalized butler-style service.
Each day we floated, at a turtle’s pace, deeper into the French countryside. And the picturesque never ended; a fusion of small pastures dotted with cows, and large velvety-green open fields, rolling hills, deep forests, apple and lilac trees in full bloom, Hollyhocks and creeping roses and pitched roofs with flat tiles composed a scene full of rural charm.
Socializing with our congenial, well-traveled shipmates we learned that six of them were enjoying their second barge trip with French Country Waterways and they knew the ropes: relax, eat and drink unapologetically – any mention of diets or calories is taboo.
Some days we walked or biked along the towpaths by the canal and we joined the daily excursions to villages or wine cellars.
In addition to feasting, walking the towpaths or riding bikes, we joined daily outings, guided by Greg, our French guide.
At the twelfth-century Abbaye de Fontenay, one of the oldest Cisterian monasteries in France and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we learned that the monks made wine and cheese and invented the hydraulic hammer.
Another day we visited Noyers-sur-Serein for the bustling morning market. Farmers sold white asparagus, wild mushrooms, homemade sausages and stinky cheeses. The market was set amid timber-framed houses with sculptured corbelling. We discovered the architecture of the Middle Ages rubbing shoulders with Renaissance Windows. Covered passageways lead from one square to another. Each spring, hundreds of swallows arrive to take advantage of the shelter they find in the seven defensive towers of the old town fortifications.
The next morning at the Chateau d’Ancy-le-Franc, one of the most beautiful sixteenth century Renaissance mansions in Burgundy, we walked through rooms filled with sumptuous murals, vaulted ceilings, and the salon where Louis IV spent the night.
When we returned to the green and white barge, chef Cyril (Paris and London trained) served a lunch buffet including three salads that might be a crayfish dish, fresh julienned beets, quinoa with sun-dried tomatoes or cauliflower with apples and mango. Then came a warm slice of homemade quiche with flakey crust, followed by, perhaps a tender guinea fowl finished with a Calvados glaze, or a filet of Scottish salmon in a beurre blanc and tarragon sauce. And that’s just lunch.
The lunch and dinner menus always included a sampling of three mouth-watering cheeses, always ripe and gooey. We sampled 27 varieties, served over five days. Luscious red and white wine was served at lunch and dinner to accompany each course.
As we devoured a cheese platter of fig goat cheese, a blue from Auvergne and a fragrant eppoise, Rick and Tricia from Baltimore said “Chef Cyrl’s cuisine surpasses the dinners we had at the stared Michelin Restaurants in Saulieu and Paris.” The crew shopped for fresh ingredients and ripe cheeses at local markets along the way.
Breakfast was equally indulgent. Sam, the first mate, picked up warm croissants, pain au chocolate and apple pastries from a local patisserie to compliment the spread of raspberries, strawberries, kiwi, passion fruit, cheeses, cold cuts or eggs prepared any way you liked them.
Dinners were always a five-course candlelit extravaganza featuring French specialties such as; foie gras marinated in Porto, crabmeat with avocado, a filet of Charolais beef with red wine Burgundy sauce, a saddle of lamb, or jumbo shrimp flamed in whiskey, cream and white wine.
And what wines we sipped (more than two dozen), all French and all selected after judicious testing and tastings by the staff. We indulged in some of Burgundy’s best vintages such as St. Emillion Grand Cru 2012, Corton Chalemagne Grand Cru 2011, Nuit St. George 1er Cru 2011, Pouligny Montrachet 1er Cru 2008, and on and one.
For six days we glided through a green fantasy forgetting the rest of the world.
A lock every couple miles punctuated our barge ride and passing through them became a fun experience in itself. When we pulled up to the lock tended by lock keepers, beefy men and muscular woman, who live in the historic lock houses were always ready to help out cranking the wheels to raise or lower the water level to let the barge cruise through.
“This was the most relaxing trip ever,” stated Bill and Mary from South Carolina.
All too quickly the week slipped by. On the last night we raised our champagne flutes and toasted our new friends, the stellar chef, crew and staff and sat down to a final five-course meal with a finale of homemade lemon sorbet to accompany the flaming Crepe Suzette.
For more information: Burgundy Tourism Office, French Country Waterways.