Exploring the backcountry of France counts among the great pleasures of life, and one of my favorite ways to do so is along the country’s extensive network of canals. Spending six nights aboard a converted 1920s-era cargo barge might sound like rather an ordeal, but in fact the best boats compare with any well-staffed luxury yacht.
Thomas Jefferson may have pioneered the French barge vacation when he cruised along the Languedoc’s Canal du Midi in early 1787. In a letter to a friend he wrote, “Of all the methods of traveling I have ever tried, this is the pleasantest. I walk the greater part of the way along the banks of the canal, level, and lined with a double row of trees which furnish shade. When fatigued, I take seat [on the barge] where, as much at ease as if in my study, I read, write, or observe.” In many respects, little about the experience has changed in the ensuing 230 years.
Jefferson would likely have recognized the rhythm of the cruise we took aboard the Hirondelle, a four-cabin barge operated by Afloat in France, a company now owned by Belmond. But I suspect our barge — painted smartly in white, burgundy and black — offered a far greater level of comfort than his. On the teak deck, a canopy shaded a table surrounded by eight faux-wicker armchairs. Stairs led down to a combined lounge-and-dining room with hardwood floors, brass sconces and numerous windows with wooden Venetian blinds, plus a paneled ceiling with a large skylight. Fresh flower arrangements and comfortable sofas upholstered in red linen added splashes of color. A built-in buffet counter provided a good selection of both French and international spirits, plus white wine, water and soft drinks in a small refrigerator.
Our cabin, similar in size to the other three, proved snug but agreeable, with small windows that could be opened to let in fresh air, soft carpeting and a simple beige color scheme enlivened by a print of a Burgundian town square and a wall covered in Empire-style wallpaper. We had opted for a room with a king-size bed, but it is also possible to request two twins. A single vanity flanked by ample counter space occupied the wall beneath the windows, and a door concealed the bath. The latter contained a shower stall and was stocked with L’Occitane toiletries. We had enough storage and closet space to unpack almost entirely; however, the room lacked a chair, which was occasionally irritating, and I wished we’d had more than a single electrical outlet over the sink.
Each morning we breakfasted on fresh fruit salad, eggs and fresh-baked bread, often succumbing to the tempting pastries procured from a nearby boulangerie. We would then start gliding along the Canal du Centre — we also spent two days on the River Saône — near Burgundy’s hallowed Côte d’Or. At numerous small locks it was possible to disembark and walk along the canal — the barge moves at approximately the same speed as a pedestrian — or to head deeper into the countryside on a bicycle. Beyond the trees that lined the canal were fields of sunflowers, tidy villages and undulating pastures dotted with white Charolais cattle.
We typically returned to the Hirondelle an hour or so before lunch, giving us time to sit beneath the canopy on the geranium-bordered deck while reading or simply watching the idyllic landscapes slip by. During our introduction to the ship and its crew, the chef told us that lunches would be “light — salads and that sort of thing.” What he meant by “that sort of thing” was, for example, mild Toulouse sausages, Moroccan-spiced couscous, ratatouille, pork rillettes, fried frogs legs in a light lemon-butter sauce, and seared tuna steaks to place atop a Niçoise salad. A top-quality cheese, Neufchâtel, was served as dessert. This particular lunchtime feast was accompanied by a bottle of Saint-Bris, Burgundy’s little-known but excellent Sauvignon Blanc.
In the afternoon we headed out on memorable excursions with the Hirondelle’s top-notch Burgundian guide, Armelle. On one occasion our little group had the grand Château de Rully entirely to ourselves, and as Armelle led us from room to elaborate room in the 12th-century castle, she pointed out fascinating details that illuminated the history behind the family paintings. She also led us on a walking tour of her lovely hometown, Chalon-sur-Saône, which culminated in a sampling of chocolates and cookies in a friendly patisserie.
And then there were the wine tastings: one in a hilltop facility with panoramic views of the vineyards of the Côte Chalonnaise, and another in the cave (cellar) of a family winery in the village of Gevrey-Chambertin. The son met us, dressed in work clothes, after parking his tractor in front of the winery; this lack of pretension and formality is typically Burgundian, and it is one of the region’s most surprising and endearing characteristics. He poured some rich and elegant premier cru wines for us along with an unusual sparkling Pinot Noir.
By the time we returned to the Hirondelle each afternoon, it had usually moored for the day, often next to a picturesque town such as Dole, Verdun-sur-le-Doubs or Saint-Jean-de-Losne (only Chagny proved unattractive). After a stroll through town or a game of boules, we would refresh ourselves with aperitifs and canapés and then sit down to dinner.
One night we enjoyed savory gougères topped with mushroom cream sauce; duck legs with turnip purée, Puy lentils and sweet red cabbage; nutty Beaufort cheese from Savoie; and flawless crème brûlée. On other evenings we had lighter fare, such as our dinner of red wine-poached pears with grilled goat cheese and hazelnuts, Atlantic scallops with a Noilly Prat cream sauce, local Chaource cheese, and a brightly flavored lemon cake. Indeed, the food was so consistently superb that it was something of a disappointment to dine out one night at a Michelin-starred restaurant. Wines, too, ranged from excellent to sensational, and not a dinner on the Hirondelle went by without at least one Burgundian premier cru. Each evening different legendary names — Chassagne-Montrachet, Meursault, Chambolle-Musigny — graced our table.
The small size of the ship ensured that the five crew members got to know our preferences, habits and temperaments very quickly. At one point while chatting with the chef, for example, I complained that in the United States it is often difficult to find the pâtés en croûte at which the Burgundians excel. Two days later, while shopping at an outdoor food market, he led me to a charcuterie stand so that I might select a pie or pâté to serve at lunch. I chose a tourte Bourguignonne froide filled with pork, garlic, parsley and béchamel. When we had free time in Chalon-sur-Saône and Beaune, our guide acted as a personal shopper for one passenger, helping her find exactly the kind of table linens she was seeking. And after dinner each night, the barge’s hostess always had my preferred digestif of marc de Bourgogne at the ready.
Of course, unless you charter the Hirondelle, which many do, you can’t be sure who will join you on your cruise. However, the chances are high that travelers who find canal cruises appealing will have much in common. The Hirondelle attracts those who want to escape the crowds and to explore lesser-known sights; I have traveled aboard canal barges before and have yet to encounter a fractious group. And for the food and wine lover, I can think of few better ways to spend a week than on the waterways of Burgundy.
“Dole to Saint-Léger-sur-Dheune” is a six-night cruise offered by Belmond along Burgundy’s Canal du Centre and the River Saône (other itineraries include the Canal de Bourgogne). Cabin, $6,010 per person; full charter, $40,430. Rates include all meals and beverages (including alcohol), excursions as described in the itinerary and round-trip transfers from downtown Paris.
Expert staff in the Andrew Harper Travel Office will be delighted to discuss the Hirondelle. Contact us by email at [email protected].