Bicycling And Barging On French Country Waterways

The Cathedral Saint-Etienne at Auxerre, the medieval capital of Lower Burgundy on the Yonne River. © Ralph Grizzle

Barging on French Country Waterways compares to luxury cruising in many ways: We are being pampered; everything is taken care of, we needn’t lift a finger; dining is top notch; all beverages are included. One key difference, however, is the range of activities offered. Yesterday we spent the morning enjoying the canal and sampling wines in Chablis. That was a “busy” day compared to what was in store for today. The activity list spanned only three lines: We would 1) visit the city of Auxerre in the morning, followed by 2) lunch and 3) dinner.

Clearly, barge cruising is without rigidity  or regiment.

Even so, we would fill our days, and because the experience was so special, we would attempt to suck the days dry, to extract everything we could from this wonderful trip along the Burgundy Canal. Today would be no different.

Following breakfast, we made our way to the trusty Mercedes van. Once loaded, Matthew took the helm and steered us along picturesque countryside to Auxerre, the medieval capital of Lower Burgundy.

Our affable driver and guide had warned us that the town would be practically closed for the May 1 holiday known as Fête du Travail, loosely equivalent to our Labor Day, but with one major difference: It is also the day when locals are allowed to sell le muguet (lily of the valley).

In 1995 Auxerre was named Town of Art and History. © Ralph Grizzle

In keeping with a tradition dating back to the Renaissance, locals gather the lilies from the forests, picking them without the root, and selling them without elaborate packaging — on the street and typically without a stand.

As we drove through the town, we saw a few vendors sitting with their kids on the curb selling the lilies from a  bucket. Others stood behind folding tables on sidewalks and in the squares. It was a bit odd to see this thriving form of commerce when all of the shops were closed.

Inside the Cathedral Saint-Etienne in Auxerre, where the stained glass windows in the choir and the chapel are among the finest in France. © Ralph Grizzle

Before roaming the streets, we visited the Cathedral Saint-Etienne, renowned for its three doorways featuring remarkable bas-reliefs. Again, Matthew’s Wikipedian knowledge came into play as we stood in front of the cathedral admiring it. He then led us inside for a tour and even down into the crypt, where a sign informed visitors to “Behave Yourself.” I was looking for another sign that read “Or Else!”

Inside the Crypt at the Cathedral Saint-Etienne in Auxerre. The 11th century crypt houses the remains of the former Romanesque cathedral. © Ralph Grizzle

Once outside and on the streets of Auxerre, we stopped to purchase our a lily. When I asked to photograph the seller, he responded by giving us another lily as a gift and then stepping into the photo with Monica. Though she speaks French, most of our transactions in France were through hand gestures. That’s part of the excitement of travel, breaking down communication to its simplest levels, as if we were toddlers again, excited by the prospect of being able to understand and to be understood.

Monica buys a lily, collected and sold on May 1. The man pictured gave her an extra one as a gift. © Ralph Grizzle

We enjoyed seeing the half-timbered houses of Auxerre. At one point, a woman, perhaps imagining herself as Rapunzel with the golden hair, stood at a second-story open window smiling down on us. Even if the shops were shut, Auxerre exuded its charm.

The half-timbered houses of Auxerre. © Ralph Grizzle

After a few hours in Auxerre, we returned to Horizon II to enjoy lunch while we motored along the canal. It was a gorgeous day, so Monica and I asked if we could take a couple of bikes from the barge when we reached the next lock.

The bicycles were exceptionally well-maintained. Albert, one of the crew members, unlocked two and sat them on the lock. We hopped on and pedaled away on a dirt path alongside the canal.

Horizon II passes the tree-lined banks along the Canal de Bourgogne. © Ralph Grizzle

We easily kept ahead of the barge, and I stopped to snap a few photos. Horizon II was beautiful against the backdrop of the canal.

Pedaling along the Canal de Bourgogne. © Ralph Grizzle
Horizon II passes the tree-lined banks along the Canal de Bourgogne. © Ralph Grizzle
Enjoying leisure time on the sun deck. © Ralph Grizzle

We even had time to pedal into a small village called Ancy de Franc where we discovered a 16th century chateau and the Eglise Saint-Jean-Baptiste (the Saint John Baptist Church), a designated Historic Monument dating from the 12th century.

Pedaling along the Canal de Bourgogne. © Ralph Grizzle

After a few hours, we pedaled back to Horizon II, which would moor overnight within view of the chateau in Ancy de Franc.

The day had been another idyllic one in Burgundy on Horizon II. There was something magical about the leisurely pace of our travel, the proximity to the French countryside, the exceptionally fine lunches and dinners, bicycling and the soft buzz that accompanies a glass of good wine.

During dinner, we sat looking out at the chateau. Perched on an island was a small sanctuary for Herons, which were beautiful when they took flight. Through the opposite window, hundreds of swallows darted about dining on insects floating on the canal’s surface.

The shades of green, the fields of yellow rape, a brushstroked sky, the flurry of birds and croaking frogs made of a night that I will always remember. Time for sleep. Tomorrow promises yet another spectacular day.

The dining room on Horizon II. © Ralph Grizzle
Matthew presents yet another vintage to accompany our dinner. © Ralph Grizzle

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

Live Voyage Report Recap

Want to read more about French Country Waterways? See all of our posts from this week at the links below.

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