Reflected sunlight from the water outside dances on the chestnut ceiling of my cabin the first morning I awaken aboard the luxury barge La Belle Époque. I get up to look out the open porthole window and am greeted with a friendly squawk. A large white swan approaches expectantly, followed by several mallard ducks. We are eye level with each other. Having no bread to offer, I quickly close the window.
It's a fine fall day in France, still summer in the afternoons, with nights that offer a crisp reminder of winter to come. This state-of-the-art hotel barge carries just twelve passengers, with six crew members to take care of every possible passenger need.
Nick, our guide, had picked us up in Paris the previous day in front of the Hotel Ampère. A two-hour journey by minivan through rolling French countryside had brought us to the medieval town of Auxerre, where La Belle Époque and her crew awaited. We enjoyed a champagne welcome accompanied by freshly-baked popovers. After meeting the crew and getting settled into our cabins, we explored the cobblestone streets and fashionable shops of Auxerre.
At the junction of the Canal du Nivernais and the River Yonne, Auxerre was a pivotal town on the ancient north-south road through France. It was a big market town for lumber and wine as well as an important spiritual center. Surrounded by timber-framed buildings are a 15th century tower with a large decorative 17th century clock.
Monday morning, about "tenish", La Belle Époque glides gently away from the Auxerre waterfront. Before the week is ended, we will travel through 31 locks to the town of Clamecy. Barge speed is limited to 3 mph on the canals and 10 mph on the rivers.
Soon we reach our first écluse or lock. La Belle Époque slides into a chamber to rest while a set of gates at each end closes so that the water level can be raised or lowered. Potted flowers and a picturesque stone house indicate where the éclusier (lock keeper) lives. At Captain Lee's call he comes out to manage the gates. Timing is important, however. If we arrive while the éclusier is at lunch we will just have to wait. The French take their dejeuner very seriously.
The Canal du Nivernais passes through western Burgundy, crossing the Yonne Valley and sometimes merging with the Yonne River itself. It was originally built to transport wood from the Morvan forests to meet the firewood demands of Paris. This wood trade was the main source of income for this area until the 1920s. The canal saw the last of its merchant traffic in the 1970s.
As we glide by a rolling patchwork of green hills and picturesque vineyards, lunch is served: quails in crème fraîche sauce, tuna pasta salad, caprisi salad, fruits, a white Savignon St-Bris and a red Chitry. There are two kinds of cheese with exotic namesDelice de Bourgogne and St. Mair de Tourraine.
After lunch there is another lock, and while the barge rests we pile into European Waterways' minivan. Nick takes us to St-Bris le Vineux, a little wine village above a network of medieval passages. At the stone farmhouse (complete with satellite TV dish) of Monsieur Bersan, we descend into an ancient cave for a wine-tasting. The cool air is strongly scented with damp, wet wood and thriving mold. Everywhere there is a flat surface, wine bottles lay in horizontal slumber.
"This is the only place in Burgundy where sauvignon blanc is grown," explains Nick. "All white wines are made from chardonnay grapes, all red wines are made from pinot noir grapes." We learn that St. Vincent is the patron saint of winemakers and that during World War II a monk named Kir invented the wine drink of the same name.
"Wherever you find wine, you'll find monks," says Nick. "When they came here in the 4th and 5th centuries they needed wine for mass, so they began to plant vineyards."
Nick says, "The way to remember how to hold the bottle is to remember the mistress and the wife: the champagne bottle is the mistress so you hold her by the bum, and the wine is like the wife, so you hold her by the neck."
La Belle Époque rests for the night near the neighboring village of Vincelles. As we drink kirs outside on the deck, someone says, "It's eight-ishmust be time for dinner."
Tonight Guy has prepared vanilla-scented lobster in vol au vent cups, a white fish with saffron rice, followed by a selection of cheeses and orange and lemon-flavored roasted peaches. With our dinner we are served two of the best wines of the area: a white Perand-Vegelesses and a red Savigny-les-beaune. Cheeses are Langres and Camembert. Fanny says, "This is a buttery cheese created for Napoleon by a lady in the Norman village of Camembert."
I'm on deck early Tuesday morning to sip coffee and watch the sun rise above the treetops. Church bells ring in a distant village. Ribbons of mist laze above the glass-like surface of the canal.
At lunch we write down the exotic names of our cheeses, Pont-léveque and Crottier de Chaugnol, and wines, a white Bersan Cote 'D' Augere and red Epinaul.
We are no longer counting the locks as we pass through them; there are simply too many. Barges have played a major role in France's economy for centuries, transporting both goods and people. Barges navigate well in shallow water, able to go anywhere there is three feet of water or more.
"If you sat on this river, in a week you'd float to Paris," says Captain Lee.
Tuesday evening we are taken out for dinner to Auberge de la Fontaine in Accolay. The restaurant is in an old cave, its curved brick walls and ceiling painted white and glowing warmly from the illumination of several torcheres. The village is quiet at night, but the auberge is lively, dinner is superb, and we enjoy a white Pernand-vergelesses and a red Savigny-les-beaune.
On Wednesday we discover that on the shelves behind a banquette are games, a small library of novels, and a CD player. Music choices include Joe Cocker, Jimmy Buffet, and Ravel's Bolero.
After lunch we visit another historic French village, Vézelay. A hilltop town and Christian shrine, this was the site of the Call to the Second Crusade by St-Bernard in 1146. Dominating the town is the 12th century Roman Basilica of St. Mary Magdalen. Regarding its spirituality, it has been written that "One comes to Vézelay as towards a star." This was the gathering place for the Knights Templar. The "logo" of the city is the scallop shell, signifying their patron saint, St. Jacques.
"This is the origin of the name of the famous scallop dish, Coquille St. Jacques," says Nick.
The sun is so warm, the food so satisfying, and the wines so flowing, that by Thursday morning ("What? No wine with breakfast?" someone jokes.) we are too mellow for words. We cruise past woodlands, pastures dotted with white Charolet cows, and pass through more locks. The bicycles are brought out from below deck for a ride along the canal.
Guy presents two kinds of quiche and two kinds of salad for lunch, along with more cheese and more wine. The cheese called La Pierre que Vivre (the stone that lives) is worth noting, otherwise we are too laid back to make food and wine notes. But we discover where all this wine is coming from: Under each banquette in the salon stand about a hundred bottles of wine. Shouldn't they be resting on their sides? "Mais non," replies Fanny. Perhaps because we drink it up so fast. . .?
The afternoon is hot hot, and I doze below (It's cooler in our cabin.) until our arrival at Lucy-sur-Yonne, where La Belle Époque moors for the evening. Nick takes us off in the (air-conditioned) van to visit La Ferme de Misery ("mee-zair-ay").
This real French farm, dating from 1850, is where ducks are raised for foie gras. The origin of foie gras goes back to Egyptian times. The Egyptians noticed geese would eat everything before their migration and the liver at this time was particularly tasty, so they began feeding corn and figs to their geese.
The ducks we meet today are nine weeks old, all male. The females go elsewhere to be raised for roasting. These ducks will next be hand-fed. "Men are better for hand-feeding because they can communicate with the duck. Women are busy multi-tasking in their heads and can't focus as well."
Fois gras, 100 percent duck liver, is rich, but not particularly fattening. Paté has pork in it. What you want to buy is foie gras du canard entire, we learn.
After stuffing ourselves with fois gras (accompanied by a little white wine) we face another of Guy's culinary extravaganzas: risotto and a pork filet mignon in mustard sauce, two cheeses, two wines, and homemade ice cream with a raspberry sauce.
"I can't eat another thing. . . ," murmurs a guest. "Well maybe just a bite."
In the morning Nick takes us into the countryside where there is a thousand-year-old road of iron ore rock. It leads deep into the woods to an old Roman ferier from the first century. The foundation remains of the Roman administrator's house are still in place.
Lunch on Friday is two salads, a ratatouille of eggplants and peppers, and sliced roast pork. The cheeses are Larquetot and St. Felician. All is washed down with a white Pouilly Fume and a red Coulanges. The saying that the Holy Trinity of the French table is wine, bread, and cheese is well-founded.
Château de Bazoches.
Marshall de Vauban was a forward-thinking man. He was the first person to use statistics to prove points, and he invented the iron cannonball. He wrote the first book on pig-farming. One of his less celebrated writings is a treatise in which he presented the novel idea that taxes should be paid according to the amount of one's incomea higher percentage for the rich and lower percentage for poorer people.
In Marshall de Vauban's bedroom, richly decorated with carved furniture, paintings, tapestries and trompe l'oeil, Nick says, "The beds are short not because people were not tall, but because they slept propped up on pillow: it was believed that if you slept flat, you'd die in your sleep."
Nick presents history full of anecdotes sprinkled with humor. Here we learn the origins of the phrases, "the stinking rich", and, "so cold it's freezing the balls off a brass monkey."
La Belle Époque approaches Clamecy, where the waterway alternates between the Nivernais canal and the Yonne. Clamecy has been described as "a town of beautiful reflections." It's an old medieval fortified town, and the center of the 19th century logging industry. We've arrived at the end of our watery road.
Barbara and Fanny, also in dresses for the occasion, have arranged a formidable table. Napkins for the gentlemen are folded to resemble a tuxedo front, and napkins for the ladies are folded to resemble a large rose. Wine and water goblets sparkle warmly from reflected candlelight. The white wine is a Chablis and red is a Vosne Romané. Cheeses are Epoisses and Roquefort.
Between churches, cheeses, museums, momentous meals, wines and caves, this has been a week of sensory overload. La Belle Époque has only traveled 40 miles. Passing through the hills of Morvan, the wild valley of the Yonne, and the green meadows of Bazois, the Canal du Nivernais is one of the most beautiful canals in France.
"Roll us carefully off this boat. . .," murmurs a guest at our departure the following morning.
A special thanks to "bargemates" Bev and Kathy for making meticulous notes of the cheeses we ate and the wines we consumed while I was distracted by eating.
Photos and feature by Carolyn Proctor, Jetsetters Magazine Food and Wine Editor; photos by Carolyn, and courtesy of GoBarging.com and the Château de Bazoches.