Discovering the hidden side of Burgundy while travelling in a hotel barge is a fascinating experience. Everything is organised for you, all you have to do is sit back and enjoy the voyage. It is a perfect way to experience the rural heartland of France with its vineyards, lush fields and beautiful countryside.
I travelled with European Waterways L’Art de Vivre from Auxerre to Chevroches along the Nivernais canal. Beautifully renovated, it was hard to believe that this was once a WW1 munitions barge during the battle of the Somme. With just eight guests and four crew, a lively camaraderie quickly developed among people who had previously been total strangers. Our trip included four Americans and two Australians.
The six day cruise passed through countless locks, into which the barge had to be very carefully guided as there was no room for error. Once the barge was in the lock, at its widest point there was about half a centimetre between it and the wall! This is a canal that is only used nowadays by leisure traffic – without the barges passing through, the canal would quickly become silted up and the lock keepers would be out of a job.
The pace of life slows when travelling on a barge. Instead of rushing through the countryside by car, you are now travelling at around 5 miles an hour. The barge drifts gently down the waterways. Keen cyclists can borrow bikes and cycle along the towpaths, rejoining the barge at one of the locks.
Each day there was a short cruise to a new mooring place beside a village. Guided excursions via a minibus allowed us to explore historic villages and towns such as the hill top town of Vezelay. For hundreds of years, pilgrims en route to Compostella have stopped here to worship in the stunning basilica. Another highlight was the seventeenth century Château de Bazoches-du-Morvan with its lovely views across the countryside, formal gardens and period rooms. One of the most striking features was the Grand Galerie with its lavishly painted family trees created by local people which show how two sides of the family have been joined together after several centuries.
Using fresh local produce purchased from shops and markets along the route, chef Oli created gourmet food that could have graced a five star restaurant. Often decisions as to what he would cook were with little advance planning. On one occasion, while we were visiting the little village of Noyers we were asked to help our guide Melissa find unusual food Oli could combine into the evening meal.
Noyers itself was charming. The medieval houses seemed to tilt in places, there were lots of little archways to explore and unusual sights to be seen. One shop was devoted to the creation of medieval style illumination, while a cellar was decorated with carvings of the devil.
Once the barge was moored, there was time to stroll and explore. Hidden treasures included climbing up cliffs at Le Soissons home to large flocks of falcons, long rows of poplars turning brilliant yellow in the autumn light, fruit trees laden with mistletoe and the old quarters of Clemecy.
This was a glimpse into another world, far removed from the tourist towns of France, and one that is intensely memorable.
By Angela Youngman, freelance journalist and author.