Barging Burgundy: A Day On The Canal

Charting a course along the Canal de Bourgogne. © Ralph Grizzle

After stepping on board Horizon II  yesterday, we enjoyed a delicious dinner and a good night’s sleep. The next morning, while at breakfast, we heard the barge’s engine begin a gentle hum. Horizon II slowly pulled away from the river bank and began chugging along the Burgundy Canal. We were underway.

There were two breakfast tables set up each morning. On the menu, croissants, of course, as well as pastries, yogurts, cereals, eggs cooked to order — and more. © Ralph Grizzle

During the next five days, we would barge from Tanlay to Port de Venarey Les Laumes, covering a distance — now hold on to your hats — of slightly more than 30 miles. You could bicycle that distance in a few hours; walk it in a couple of days while stopping to fish for your dinner, and yet we would spend five days getting to our destination.

Get the picture? Life on the barge is slow and ultra-relaxed.

Caution, low bridge. Albert navigates us under a bridge and our French Country Waterways Burgundy Canal adventure begins. © Ralph Grizzle

Barging is about disconnecting. I’ve already mentioned there was no television on the barge. And while Horizon II does offer internet access, which operates through a 3G modem connected to a single laptop that guests are welcome to use free of charge, hardly anyone bothered. Along sections of the canal, there was no signal anyway.

Locks offered the opportunity to provision goods from the market. Fresh figs were part of the day’s provisioning. © Ralph Grizzle

We would pass through five locks on our first day. Each offered an opportunity to step off the vessel to walk (or bicycle) to the next lock, often only about a half-a-mile upstream. We could, if we wished, walk to locks farther upstream and reboard there. There was no worry about missing the barge. I saw a couple of joggers on the banks who left our barge in the dust. Horizon II outpaced nothing — deliberately.

Locks were manually opened and shut by the lock-keepers (and their dogs). © Ralph Grizzle

When the barge was inside the lock, the lock-keeper manually shut the rear gate. The lock filled with water rushing downstream, and in about 20 minutes, nature’s hydraulics had lifted Horizon II perhaps 10 feet to 15 feet above the water level behind us. After the lock filled, the lock-keeper opened the front gate, and we chugged forward.

Horizon II exits a lock. © Ralph Grizzle

Passing through the locks weekly, the crew came to know the lock-keepers. Each lock gave them an opportunity to catch up. Some of the lock-keepers lived in small houses beside the locks, not a bad life living in the heart of Burgundy.

Apple trees in blossom along the banks as Horizon II barges along the Canal de Bourgogne. © Ralph Grizzle

Spanning more than 240 kilometers, the canal is manmade. The idea was to build a waterway so that cargo vessels could navigate from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean via the rivers Yonne and Seine to the rivers Saône and Rhône. The 209 locks along the canal allow the barges to pass over the hills of central Burgundy.

French Country Waterways is a US-based company with French flair. © Ralph Grizzle

We spent all morning barging through locks and gorgeous countryside. It was an idyllic spring day, birds chirping, the many shades of green sprouting from trees and the earth, wildflowers blooming and endless fields of yellow rape, which Matthew informed us was part of the cabbage family and used to produce canola oil.

Lunch is served, and this is only the appetizer. © Ralph Grizzle

As fresh as the French landscape was the lunch on board. Horizon II was able to provision locally. After all, the locks made it easy to make a run to the supermarket or the local market. Several ocean cruise lines have “shopping with the chefs” programs, where passengers visit the market with the chef to purchase a few items that will be prepared as part of a meal. On Horizon II, every day was like a visit to the market. On our first day out, in fact, Matthew brought on board plums, produce and vegetables when the barge pulled up to a lock. Another day, Amina stopped at the local cheese merchant in her hometown to pick up cheeses that you just would not find that easily, if at all, back home.

Amina explains the day’s cheese selection, which she picked up in a local market. © Ralph Grizzle
Passion Fruit, raspberries and grapefruit slices to accompany the cheese platter. © Ralph Grizzle
Always for lunch, French wines, one white, one red. © Ralph Grizzle
Fields of rape, the source of canola oil, and the village of Yrouerre in the background. © Ralph Grizzle

Following lunch, we disembarked Horizon II for an afternoon visit to Chablis. The drive to the town that produces the eponymous wine was particularly scenic, as we passed the yellow fields of rape and quaint villages. We drove into the vineyards of Chablis for an overview of the town. Along the way Matthew pointed out the smaller plots that produced Grand Crus and Premier Crus.

What else but a glass of Chablis would be appropriate when overlooking the vineyards and town of Chablis? © Ralph Grizzle

While I thought Burgundy produced only red wines, I learned that the region produces primarily Pinot Noir and Chablis, and of course, we would get to sample plenty of the fine wines that come for these vineyards.

Most Chablis is vinified in stainless steel tanks. Monica sampling from the tank. © Ralph Grizzle

After visiting the vineyards, we pulled into Domaine Servin for a wine tasting and to learn something about wine production in Burgundy. It was a fun and educational excursion, and it set the tone for dinner back on board later that night, featuring, of course, even more fine French wines.

Many Grand Cru and Premier Cru wines receive some maturation in oak barrels, such as these at Domaine Servin in Chablis. © Ralph Grizzle

Stay tuned as we barge through Burgundy this week on Avid Cruiser.

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