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A Barge Trip In Burgundy

European Waterways Hotel Barge La Belle Epoque in Burgundy

Linda Fasteson  Mar 05, 2010

Our cruise of local and culinary discovery was in the canals of Burgundy, France, aboard La Belle Epoque, the flagship barge of European Waterways. Before it was converted to a floating hotel in 1995 and refurbished in 2006, La Belle Époque was a freight barge carrying logs from Burgundy to Paris and Amsterdam. Built in 1930, it is 126 feet long, 16 ½ feet wide, and can travel at a maximum speed of 10 knots (11.5 mph).

Each day is an experience in local culture through its regional wines and cuisine, outings, and casual observations. You might travel past little-known communities or visit a medieval village, historic town, or troglodyte dwelling carved out of the rocks. Your afternoon might be spent sampling wine at a small vineyard or at a grand palace.

The crew - Captain, tour guide/deck hand, two housekeeper/hostesses, and chef - offers attentive and personalized service to a maximum 13 passengers, most of whom are from North America or the UK. Crew members are primarily from the UK and speak English and French.

La Belle Époque has a sundeck, a small spa pool, a wood-paneled saloon, a small library, and a dining room with a table large enough to accommodate all passengers. The seven comfortable passenger cabins have twin or double beds and en-suite facilities and are referred to as two suites (150 and 165 sq. ft.), one at each end; four junior suites (125-130 sq. ft.); and one single cabin (90 sq. ft.). The barge is fully air-conditioned, and electricity is French 220 voltage.

We found ourselves in the midst of medieval villages and in a landscape reminiscent of Impressionist paintings. We were in the Burgundy region of France on canals that at times seemed no wider than our barge. Our back door route revealed vignettes of everyday life in a way seldom seen by tourists.

The route is usually on the lower Nivernais Canal and River Yonne, but since ours was the first trip of the season, we traveled from the winter docking spot near the seven 350-year-old locks of Rogny-Les-Sept-Écluses to Moret-sur-Loing, a medieval town that inspired such Impressionist painters as Monet, Renoir, and Sisley. If booking a trip at the beginning or end of the season, be sure to clarify in advance just what the itinerary will be.

Our first day’s excursion was a tour of the building site at Guédelon in Puisaye in Yonne. Most people saw the site simply as an abandoned quarry in the woods, but Michel Guyot, who rescues historic sites throughout France, saw the building blocks - wood, stone, sand, and clay - of a 13th century castle. Using only the medieval construction techniques available at that time, a team of 50 - quarrymen, blacksmiths, carpenters, ropemakers, and more - work on a project expected to take 25 years. Then we were off to the village where the Briare canal spans the Loire River with a 2,174’ bridge designed by Gustav Eiffel. We moored on the canal by a 12th century church in the village of Montbouy.

The next day’s excursion was to wine villages. In Chablis, we toured a former 9th century monastery, site of a 13th century oak press and other historical treasures. A wine tasting followed at the Domaine Laroche, producer of Chablis wine for five generations, since 1850. At Domaine Bersan in St. Bris, we walked amidst aged oak barrels in a sometimes eerie underground labyrinth of vaulted medieval passageways, some dating to the 11th century.

Mooring that night was at Montargis, a city known as the Venice of the Gâtinais for its many canals. The next morning we explored its lively market and strolled through the streets to the historic shop where the almond candy created for the Duke of Praslines in during the reign of Louis XIII is still made according to the original recipe. Later that day we were off to a fortified hilltop, Chateau Landon, the birthplace of King Henry II’s father and a wealthy town in the Middle Ages. The Royal abbey we visited was devoted to St. Severin, who healed King Clovis. Stone from this area was used to build Notre Dame and the Pantheon in Paris.

On our fifth day, Thursday, we explored the grand Palace of Fontainebleau. Begun in the 16th century as a hunting lodge and expanded over the next 300 years, this Italian Renaissance extravaganza surrounded by a 50,000-acre forest is one of the largest royal palaces in France. Marie Antoinette lost her head before it touched the pillow in the opulent bedroom designed for her, and Napoleon left for exile in Elba from the grand horseshoe-shaped staircase he had commissioned.

We moored just south of Fontainebleau in Nemours. A family from this town, the du Pont de Nemours, made a fortune in chemical manufacturing in the United States. In the morning, the last full day of our trip, we were back to Fontainebleau for the colorful Friday Market.

After lunch back on the barge, we headed to Vaux-le-Vicomte, the grand Renaissance-style chateau that became the inspiration for Versailles. There are outstanding displays depicting the political intrigue that led to owner and finance minister Nicholas Fouquet being imprisoned by King Louis XIV.
Vaux le Vicomte was the site of the fairytale wedding of Desperate Housewives star Eva Longoria and San Antonio Spurs basketball player Tony Parker and featured in movies like “The Man in the Iron Mask,” “Dangerous Liaisons,” and “Moonraker.” The gardens are among the best in France.

Our final night we were moored at Moret-sur-Loing, a medieval town that inspired such Impressionist painters as Monet, Renoir, and Sisley. The church here is said to have been inspiration for Notre Dame of Paris.

The six-night cruises run from Sunday to Saturday and are all-inclusive - meals, regional wines with the candlelit dinner, open bar with alcoholic and soft drinks available at all times, daily excursions with your onboard guide, bicycles, binoculars, and local transfers.

Dress code is casual. Dress up as much as you like for the Captain’s Dinner on the final night, but you need not add more to your suitcase than a blazer for men and a dress or pantsuit for women. There is no phone or Internet service onboard this barge. This is a true getaway. Smoking is allowed only on deck and away from other guests.

Until the canals were built, horse carts transported goods through this often hilly region. Once this system of locks was completed in 1832 connecting the Yonne and SaĂ´ne Rivers, barges could transport cargo through France from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. Barges continue to travel through this agricultural region, and today many have been converted to floating luxury hotels.

Barge travel provides a behind-the-scenes view while offering the convenience of cruising - unpacking once and traveling while relaxing, dining, and enjoying onboard amenities. Everything is taken care of, including local excursions with your own tour guide in an air-conditioned minibus. The barge travels slowly, about the pace of a brisk walk, along tree-lined canals. The pace is never rushed and is as active as you like. Stroll or ride a bicycle along the towpaths, explore a local village, and wait for the barge to catch up with you at a lock.

Watch the lockkeeper operate hand-swung bridges and locks in the centuries-old way as his children wave from their garden or the windows of their historic cottage. If you arrive at a lock during or too close to lunch time in this country where break times are strictly observed, you will wait. This is part of the experience. This vacation is about immersion in local life, not the speed or distance traveled.

Burgundy is a region with a mild climate, warm dry summers, nutrient rich soil, and sufficient rainfall for a fruitful harvest. Vines arranged in orderly rows line hillsides that provide the ideal terroir for the production of grapes. This agricultural area is also known for producing the ingredients that go into creating renowned gastronomic delights, including legendary sauces, cheeses, and wines.

We were in the heartland of France, with cream-colored Charolais cattle - considered to be the finest beef - and free-range Bresse chickens –said to be the best in the world. Here lowly snails are combined with Chablis wine and garlic butter to become escargot. Local black currants (cassis) are transformed into a liqueur known as Crème de Cassis, which when mixed with a dry white Burgundy wine becomes Kir, the definitive French aperitif.

The day began with a continental breakfast that included fresh breads from local bakeries. Ah, those chocolate croissants! Lunches were typically salads with cold meats or quiche. Dinner was a regional specialty like Pork Dijonnaise or Duck à l’Orange by candlelight.

Evening meals included vivid descriptions of the regional wines and their appellations - Pouilly-Fumé, St. Véran, Nuits-St-Georges. Cheese plates were served with colorful legends like that of Ossau-Iraty, said to have been created by the shepherd son of Apollo and Valençay designed for Napoleon in a pyramid-shape during the Egyptian campaigns but made with a flat top since the defeated General severed the peak with his sword.


To barge through Burgundy is to experience the joy of living - the joie de vivre - that has been woven through the centuries into the tapestry of everyday life. It is life in the slow lane, with time to savor whatever catches your fancy. Santé! Barges travel throughout Europe - including the canals, rivers, and lagoons of France, Scotland, England, Ireland, Italy, Holland, and Belgium. Cabins may be booked individually or the entire boat can be chartered with family or friends. Charter itineraries can be customized to accommodate special interests. For a birds-eye view of the Burgundy storybook countryside, the crew can arrange a hot-air balloon ride.

FOR MORE INFORMATION on La Belle Epoque and hotel barging on the various canals of France as well as England, contact European Waterways, TEL: (Toll-free US) 800-394-8630 or 011 44 1784 482439; FAX: 011 44 1784 483072; Email: ; Website: .

European Waterways Hotel Barge La Belle Epoque in Burgundy
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