The mere name Burgundy evokes splendid wines, fine cellars and epicurean feasts. Now the secret is out among wine and food connoisseurs — the best way to sample it all is aboard a luxury barge slowly gliding down the Burgundy canals. If you’re independent, borrow a bike and head off on your own.
Barging is different from 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 Elbe 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. The French Country Waterways barges ensure an intimate experience: the hotel-barges cater to eight to twelve guests.
Recently my husband and I, who thoroughly enjoy France, took it up a notch further with a French Country Waterways cruise down the Canal de Bourgogne. Can life get any better? Let me know about that. No.
We joined five other couples on an elegantly appointed luxury hotel-barge, the Nenuphar. We had a captain, a crew of six (for twelve guests), fully equipped bikes and, needless to say, an extensive wine cellar. The emphasis is on fine cuisine, superb wine, relaxation, and personalized butler-style service. Spacious staterooms are available in both twin and double categories, all with private bath. The lounge is cozy, English country- style with book-lined shelves.
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 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 – walk or bike along the towpaths by the canal and join the daily excursions to villages or wine cellars.
We quickly realized we were joining wine aficionados with extensive private wine cellars.
We left the barge every day for a different outing with our French guide Greg. One afternoon we drove to the vineyards of Chablis, where we samples several vintages, out of the oak barrels, at the property of a private grower.
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.
The market was set amid timber-framed houses with sculptured corbelling. Architecture of the Middle Ages rubbed shoulders with Renaissance windows. Covered passageways lead from one square to another.
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. Was that too much? Oh no, bring it on. Luscious red and white wine was served to accompany each course at lunch and dinner.
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.
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 Grand Cru 2011, Nuit St. George 1er Cru 2011, Pouligny Montrachet 1er Cru 2008, and on and on.
For six days we glided through a green fantasy forgetting the rest of the world.
“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 five-course meal with a finale of homemade lemon sorbet to accompany the flaming Crepe Suzette.
For more information: www.fcwl.com