Destinations & Articles
and Easy, Life on the Burgundy Canal
Published in the
Fall 2010 Issue of Canadian World
Text by Tom
Photos by Annie Palovcik
through rural France is like living within a series of
paintings by the famous 19th century
mood is forever evolving with the advancing time of day and
variations in the weather.
As our boat rounds each bend on the placid highway of
water, the bright and vibrant colours change, as does the
fragrant Spring foliage.
It is a feast for the senses.
Pastures full of cattle drift slowly by.
We float through ancient villages with narrow streets,
old churches, faded stone walls and stylish tile roofs.
The diffused light, dappled leaves and mirror-like
reflections off the still water hint at where artists like
Monet, Pissarro and Renoir must have found their inspiration.
Burgundy by Barge
Annie and I have the good fortune to be touring the Burgundy
countryside in the most pleasurable way imaginable, spending
six laid back days and nights on board a deluxe hotel barge as
it navigates a centuries-old canal created mainly to move
plenty of time for us to get off the boat, on foot or on
bicycle, and without any kind of plan, to explore whatever
places or scenes along the waterway may strike us as
we savour it all in supreme comfort and luxury.
Paris from Vancouver, we sleep off our jetlag at an airport
hotel and, the next morning, take the suburban train to the
venerable Gare de Lyon station.
There is time to peek into one of the French
capital’s most famous restaurants, Le Train Bleu, with its
liveried waiters and gilded walls graced with amazing
frescoes. Soon we
board our TGV high speed train, which whisks us smoothly and
almost silently past towering wind turbines and bright yellow
fields of canola to Dijon, where our barge awaits us.
Aboard the Queen
Booked through Texas-based France Cruises and named La
Reine Pedauque after a mythical goose-footed queen, the narrow
boat, built in 1923 and renovated to provide opulent grace, is
39 metres long.
bright main salon is tastefully appointed with comfortable
leather couches and armchairs, a well-stocked self-serve
cocktail bar that is at the disposal of guests at all times,
and a convenient computer nook.
The dining room has a single large table set with fine
china, silver, and glassware.
Our huge stateroom and bath is one of only four double
accommodations for a maximum of eight guests.
The cabin is gorgeous, but we find ourselves spending
little time there, aside from sleeping.
There is too much to do and see.
two solo travelers, we total only six passengers, our tiny
group pampered by a staff of five.
And an international group the crew turns out to be.
All of them are French-speaking but also multilingual.
Stephan Peterlini, the boat’s pilot, is from Austria
but has a French wife. Kamel
Dimassi, the cruise director and maitre d’ at lunch and
dinner, was born in Tunisia but has lived all his adult life
Barnet, our chef, is Spanish but lives in Germany when not
working and sleeping aboard the barge.
Kevin Gosnell, the deckhand, is a Brit who has made
France his home for nearly 20 years.
And Fannie Lobry, a young French woman who is soon
leaving for Australia to study hotel management, serves as
waitress and chambermaid.
A large van leapfrogs along the barge route, day by
day, and is nearly always available for side trips, as are
several bicycles, which are carried on the barge itself.
Locks and More Locks
negotiates 45 locks in all, each one hand-operated by
government lockkeepers and requiring fifteen or twenty minutes
to raise us several metres.
The route leads upstream from flat land near Dijon into low
hills along the narrowing valley of the river Ouche.
The canal runs parallel and usually quite close to the
river itself, which is shallow and strewn with rocks and
Steering the barge is a tricky business, as I learn when
Stephan lets me take the helm for a few minutes.
The canal is narrow, with barely room for barges to
pass in opposite directions.
Our boat has been designed to fit into the locks with
only centimetres to spare on each side.
Stephan boasts that he scrapes the barge’s paint on
the lock walls only “occasionally.”
between the frequent locks, the barge travels no faster than
several knots, or walking speed, which means that the pace of
the entire trip is slow and relaxed.
We can step off safely at any lock and walk or bicycle
ahead, using the well-maintained and level towpath, a remnant
of the time when animals were used to pull the barges.
Charming Rural Burgundy
Walking, we find, is a perfect way to explore the many small
villages that line the canal and soak up the rich ambience of
along the way we meet people who are sitting by the water
fishing, or walking their dogs, or jogging along the mainly
soft dirt and gravel of the towpath.
Serious cycling teams in matching outfits zip by.
The villages are animated places full of shops,
bakeries, restaurants and cafes, where the locals sit out
enjoying their drinks and watching life on the canal.
After each stroll, we return to the boat at the next
lock ahead. La
Reine Pedauque pulls over to the quay around noon each day for
lunch and docks each night in time for dinner. And what
meals those turn out to be!
Meals Befitting a Queen
The welcoming dinner begins with an appetizer of
scallops in garlic cream and moves on to a main course of
steak au poivre flambéed in cognac.
The farewell dinner opens with salmon-creamed caviar
and king prawns and features filet mignon with duck liver fois
In between are some wonderful fish, lamb and veal dishes, and
each dinner ends not only with a sweet dessert, such as fine
fruit sorbets, but also a Tour de France of cheeses, three
varieties each night from different regions.
Some are truly exquisite.
The most memorable is a strong, runny Burgundy epoisses
cheese soaked in cognac and coated in wood ashes, called Aisy
Cendre′, that just knocks our socks off.
Its aroma is so strong that it is forbidden on French
and dinner are accompanied by wines, red and white, ranging
from good to excellent, mainly from Burgundy but including
other regions as well.
fellow passengers, Glenn and Jane Taylor from Australia, have
taken the trip mainly to experience Burgundy’s notable pinot
noir reds. While
on board, they celebrate their 40th wedding
anniversary one evening, the chef providing a gorgeous cake
with a big sparkler.
a retired businessman and serious wine connoisseur, enjoys
expounding on what makes a particular wine great, or in other
cases, not so special. After
tasting one fine Bordeaux, he beams and says “this wine
could live for 20 years, improving all the while,” which is
very high praise in his book.
Wine Tasting Cave
itinerary includes several organized outings, two of which
feature formal wine tastings.
The highlight is an all-day trip by van to the charming
provincial city of Beaune, the centre of Burgundy’s wine
descend into the catacombs of a wine “cave,” the Marche
aux Vins, to sample 16 vintages, mainly reds, including a few
with particularly complex and satisfying qualities and retail
priced at up to $ 100 a bottle.
Glenn wanders into a high end wine shop and reports
spotting one classic priced at over $ 5000.
We lunch at a fine cave-like restaurant, Le Cellier
Volnaysien, built into a hillside among the nearby Volnay
vineyards, and enjoy two local specialties, tender snails with
garlic butter and fragrant coq au vin.
Returning to Beaune itself, we tour its architectural
delights. The old town is surrounded by high ancient city walls with
closely spaced watch towers.
Dominating its centre is the large and beautifully
preserved 15th century hospital, Hotel-Dieu, now a
museum, where nuns once cared for patients rich and poor.
side trip from the canal takes us to a medieval, fortified
town perched on a hilltop, Chateauneuf en Auxois.
It features an imposing castle, built beginning in the
12th century, surrounded by a moat and with a view
commanding the river valley and sprawling fields below.
No rival army could have taken this refuge by surprise.
The narrow cobblestone streets are lined with old
houses now owned as summer and weekend residences by people
from all over Europe, especially nearby Switzerland.
soon, our barge docks for the final evening.
Next morning, the van drives us back to Dijon, where
the city’s Tourism Office has arranged for a private guided
walk through the downtown core to view the spectacular
most striking buildings are the huge palaces of the Dukes of
Burgundy, some of whom in the 14th and 15th
centuries were wealthier and more powerful than the kings of
in Beaune, many roofs are crowned with bright, multi-coloured
glazed tiles arranged in dramatic geometric patterns.
We stay that night in the stately old hotel La Cloche,
now part of the Sofitel chain, and in the morning stroll
through the huge central market.
It features a cornucopia of regional and imported
fruits and vegetables, including the fat white asparagus that
happens to be in season.
There is also an impressive selection of fish and
shellfish, even though we are far from the ocean.
Well, in France food is obviously an art form.
Paris for a few glorious days, we explore some of the
obligatory landmark attractions such as the Orsay museum,
Notre Dame cathedral and the heights of Montmartre.
Annie has never been to Paris before.
I spent a month here as a student decades ago,
improving my school French at the Alliance Française and
roughing it in a bare-bones university dormitory.
But this is entirely different.
We stay at a cozy yet elegant boutique hotel, the
Saint-Paul Rive-Gauche, which is run by a couple of British
women. Our room
is graced with old exposed wooden beams and looks out on a
quiet and narrow Left Bank side street.
There is a charming basement room for the buffet
breakfast, and a fluffy cat named Sputnik monopolizes the best
armchair in the lobby.
only a block from the noise and tourist bustle of the
Boulevard Saint-Michel, the hotel belongs to a relaxed and
the street are a bakery, where we buy baguettes, a tiny wine
shop with five indoor stools and a few outdoor tables, even a
Laundromat and a first-rate English language used bookstore.
The street dead-ends at the beautifully landscaped
Luxembourg gardens, where couples push baby carriages, local
residents practice yoga and tai chi, and children rent model
boats to sail on the waters of the large central fountain.
A Final Repast
a few blocks are many good and surprisingly affordable small
last meal before departing is lunch at a modest little place
called Au Beaujolais, just off the Boulevard Saint-Germain des
Pres, where I indulge in a big bowl of delicious steamed
proprietor flaunts his English, which is laced with American
part of the States are you from,” he asks eventually. “Actually, we’re from Canada.” “Well,” he quips, “nobody’s perfect.”
We laugh, but heading for the airport, we realize with
satisfaction that our visit to France has been just about as
close to perfect as we could ever have wished.
If You Go
Cruises of San Antonio Texas offers a wide selection of barge
and other boat trips on canals and rivers throughout France.
Toll free 1 866 498 3920
Saint-Paul Rive-Gauche offers affordable elegance in the heart
of the Left Bank. http://www.hotelsaintpaulparis.com
anywhere near Burgundy, spending a day or two in Dijon is well
information, contact the Dijon Tourism Office
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