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European Waterways Hotel Barge

In the lap of floating luxury

Paul James  Feb 18, 2010

It was the slowest, laziest, and most indulgent holiday break we'd ever had — and one of the best. Doing absolutely nothing quite well is quite difficult in these rushed, deadline-dependent, got-to-be-there-a-minute-ago times of ours. But we acquitted ourselves tolerably well in the circumstances.

This was a "let's be languid" interlude for those familiar with the exquisite pleasure to be had from simply sitting, staring, and maybe doing something... eventually. We were watching this wonderful world go by at the gentlest of dead-slow paces on a beautiful old luxury hotel barge through dear old Burgundy.

The weather was nearly on its best behavior, as were our four fellow "cruisers" and an equal quota of crew members who spoiled us something rotten.

So here we were, the chosen 10. The next week could go one of two ways — an unmitigated disaster with the biggest bores this side of a debate on parliamentary expenses or a joyous coming together of disparate dudes. Happy to report that the latter was probably the more accurate assessment of the way things were.

We cut things a tad fine to get to our 1:30 pm rendezvous in northwest Paris by chancing it with an early morning flight from Exeter with the bang-on time, no hassle masters of South West regional aviation, Flybe — for which many thanks.

Just over three hours later, the scramble down the Lyon-bound autoroute threw us into the hamlet of Chevroches and the arms of a girl I fell instantly in love with — Art De Vivre by name — a head-turning, brightly-appareled demoiselle of bulky dimensions who knows how to seduce the odd towpath boulevardier or two.

The lucky 10 — me, Bigs, the amazing popsy bride, the eternally youthful Bermondsey brothers Eddie and Danny, Essex farmers and charmers John and the beloved Christina, Captain "Inch-Perfect-in-the-Lock" Nigel, Ken the adorable chef, and his trusty stewards and companions, Em and Rob — banged our bubbly flutes together on deck and toasted happy times ahead. And so it was, except for the bride who went down with a mystery bug the following morning.

This gave her groom the chance to test one of the eight bikes stacked neatly behind the on-deck jacuzzi, which all of us shunned simply because we felt the blushing Burgundians were not ready to see the body beautiful from Britain in all its uninhibited glory. Now, is there absolutely anything better in life than to flit, butterfly-like, along a towpath in the heart of la belle France atop a bicyclette? I humbly think not. But a dawdle on a barge through the same countryside runs it a close second. Sheer heaven whatever mode is fancied, n'est pas?

A couple of miles down the canal-side track found the happy pedal-pusher in pretty Clamecy where he found a pavement café in which to dash off postcards to those poor unfortunates elsewhere. An amiable pastime this, scribbling inane sentiments to the likes of invisible Nimrod, too-distant Mela, mes parents et mes enfants who one hoped were not having half so much fun.
But pleasure was not the only purpose of this commute to Clamecy. I was acutely aware that calories needed to be burned off pronto if I was to survive this break without ballooning to Billy Bunter bigness on account of the quite demanding eating schedule.

In short, this was a food fest afloat. Aussie Ken's presence on board was a give-away. His mission, I suspected, was to fatten us all for market. All those kitchen knives to hand... it was a lingering anxiety for one playfully paranoid recipient of his a la carte creations. And these three- to four-course ensembles were served up twice a day! There was work to be done to avoid Pythonesque spontaneous explosion of an amply-filled gut.

Not to mention the wine, as much as you could tip down your front. The bottles just kept coming and coming — and we were powerless to stop such a voracious vinous vanguard. This may explain why the towpath trips on the bike became a phantasmagorical union with nature in which fleets of dragonflies sometimes resembled a squiffy swarm of tiny helicopters piloted by fanciful fairies without any facility for flying.

Back in the real world, manful efforts were made to stay sober. And on the whole this was achieved admirably. Hic! We paid homage to Bacchus and his pals in the surprisingly spacious salon below deck where the conspicuous consumption was played out in comfort. Table chat was a doddle in the company of the London raconteurs and tales aplenty from dear John.

We were graped together, sorry, grouped together, in the Sauvignon Suite — a tidy little rest room, which housed two single beds, four portholes, and an en suite in which a dead cat could be uncomfortably swung about with care. Air con was available for those who liked to be lured into the arms of Orpheus with a gentle chorus of mechanised murmurs. Breakfasts were, as you might expect, a fulsome start to the day with a selection of breads, croissants, and other tempting tid-bits from the local boulangeries, all washed down by beaned coffee, a range of teas, and a colorful mix of fruit juices.

Our first off-boat excursion was to Guedalon where 13th century building techniques are being copied by a hardy team of jobbing masons, carpenters, blacksmiths, et al, to erect a sturdy chateau. It's a popular tourist attraction, but is unlikely to stay that way once the gang completes their Herculean tasks in the year dot.

Day three again started with a hop on the two-wheeler to surrounding villages, in this case Breves and Asnois, where a Steptoe and Son junkyard yard afforded half-an-hour of innocent fun for one scrap searcher who managed to uncover an old Singer sewing machine treadle, all the way from Paignton.

After another wine-happy lunch of extraordinary sumptuousness, we ventured to Tannay to taste — of all things — more vin rouge et blanc at Cyril Ponnelle's atmospheric Caves Tannaysiennes. Some 15 euros was frittered away on my least favorite fruit of the vine, a dessert wine name of Ratafia – just what you'd expect a vile Welshman such as myself to acquire.

Cyril's shrine to the grape will always be remembered for the two wine press lamps, which shone a soft and gentle light on his magical hideaway on the rue d'Enfer. The Ratafia will be cracked open this Christmas when the many absent friends of Burgundy will be well remembered, not least the rugby-loving Monsieur Ponnelle.

Then back on the minibus to the boat where food and, errr, the juice of the grape, beckoned yet again. It was a day even now I find difficult to recall with total clarety. All this makes for bad spilling and bad spelling.

What I do remember is the pain of forgetting to bring my hat to protect my bald loveliness from the harsh Burgundian sun. Most of the holiday was spent on the bike in fruitless pursuit of civilization where a cheap piece of headgear might be had for a few euros. Nothing suitable was found for the ever-so particular dandy who overcame his fussiness by consenting to using a floppy number called Brie, kindly loaned by the wonderful Christina, for which many thanks mon amour. Let me know what the laundry bill damage was, and I will forward the readies, once you settle up for the four stamps I lavished on you.
Another handicap of losing yourself in the glorious, unspoiled landscape of rural France is the total absence of retail outlets for camcorder cassettes. Fortunately, the last one in France's rural idyll was snapped up gratefully by this Tour de France-fit saddle traveler in Corbigny.

The highlight of the day trips was undoubtedly the trek to stunning Da Vinci Code-mentioned Vezelay, a gorgeous hilltop citadel crowned by the exquisite Romanesque Basilica of St. Mary where two impressed visitors were seduced by the heavenly choir whose mellifluous outpourings gave us the spiritual equivalent of goose bumps. And we never got to see the remnants of Mary Magdalene.

Loafing around the tiny shops during our descent of the main street was a joyous distraction, which saw one tight-fisted trekker emptying his tiny purse in exchange for a knick-knack of devilish design and expense fashioned by the hands of sculptor Bernard Van Den Bossche — a much treasured memento of a quite exceptional day.

Just one evening was spent away from the groaning table of delights — and that was at the Auberge du Centre in tiny Monceaux, which more than matched Ken's culinary classics. Indeed, the foie gras de canard maison here was the probably the best thing which has ever passed my lips, except perhaps the words "will you marry me?" which I once uttered in a moment of complete recklessness in the foothills of Andalucia's Sierra Nevada where the desired answer was gratefully celebrated.

Enough of historical romance. Back in the present, we were in the middle of nowhere, feasting like royalty. And obviously news of good eating places spreads fast hereabouts. The restaurant under the shadow of the village church was packed — and rightly so. What a find! Not to be forgotten in a hurry, so thanks to our kindly and attentive hosts Katharina and Ronald Kluft.

I bypassed the visit to the centuries-old chateau home of the famous defense engineer Marechal Vauban at Bazoches to take advantage of another peep at much-missed Vezelay where sadly it tipped down, and the place was not quite the same.

The last day's dawdle down the Nivernais was by far the best and most exciting as we illuminated the barge with flares to pass through three lengthy tunnels. This was a truly eye-popping crawl as we made our way through a deep-cut passage replete with a variety of hanging greenery. We half-expected hobbits to crawl from the vegetation to wish us bon voyage — or was that just the wine talking again?

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In the lap of floating luxury
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