YV&C Recommended Yacht Charter Links
Floating Through Burgundy
Local color abounds on inland waterways
By: Chris Caswell
Apr. 26, 2006 02:30 PM
A drive-it-yourself canal barge includes all the luxury amenities you'd expect on a yacht, but costs less than staying in hotels and eating all your meals out. What's more, it's an adventure that lets you experience the "real" countryside.
The cardboard sign, taped to a post and crudely lettered, was mystifying: "We Sell Vine." We puzzled over it as we sat on our canal barge, waiting to be lifted in a lock for another leg of our cruise along the canals of the lush Burgundy province of France.
It wasn't until we had risen to eye level with the sign that we saw the small print: "Vente du Vin" (we sell wine). It was simply a slight Franco-American misspelling that led to a leisurely chat with an amiable lockkeeper who showed us his wine cellar, offered us a taste of pleasant burgundies, and pocketed a few Euros for several bottles while we waited for the lock to fill.
It was just another day on a most leisurely and delightful self-drive cruise. When you mention France and canal barges in the same sentence, most people think of the blindingly expensive five-star hotel barges that cruise the French waterways while plying their guests with haute cuisine and fine wines. Our trip, however, was a do-it-yourself adventure open to anyone regardless of whether you're a millionaire or not, since it costs less than staying in hotels and dining out. In fact, we've since met several well-heeled families who prefer this form of barging because it allows them to go at their own pace.
Best of all, you don't need the seamanship of Horatio Hornblower, and a quick checkout by the charter company provides more than ample skills to anyone who can steer a runabout. Slow and heavily fendered, the barge is ideal for novices. Besides, you can't get lost because you're on a canal and there's no navigation needed.
To arrange our charter, we put ourselves in the capable hands of Susan Anschen, whose Skipper Travel Services of Capitola, California, specializes in canal holidays throughout Europe. She, in turn, booked us with Locaboat Plaisance, one of the biggest names in European waterway holidays with 20 bases across France, Holland, and Germany, and access to 6,000 miles of canals.
On her recommendation, we selected an itinerary on the River Yonne and the Nivernais Canal that would give us a one-way charter so that we wouldn't backtrack over waters we'd already seen. In the heart of Burgundy, the Yonne would give us a feel of the open river with its lock-free stretches while the Nivernais, once the main route between the Loire Valley and Paris, is now used mostly by charterers like ourselves as well as a few of the posh hotel barges.
For self-drive boaters, Locaboat Plaisance created the Penichette, a mini-version of the working barges that have been on the French canals for decades, but upgraded to include all the amenities you'd expect in a comfortable yacht. Our Penichette 1500 was just under 50ft long but only 12–1/2ft wide, making it skinny enough to pass through the many locks, bridges, and narrow waterways of European canals. In spite of the attenuated shape, however, it had all the comforts of home: four staterooms with double berths and ample closets, two toilet compartments with vanities, and two separate shower compartments. In the salon, which also served as the pilothouse, there was a large dinette and a galley roomy enough to prepare all of our gourmet meals, plus a sunroof and windows that opened to let the breezes in. A rear sundeck allowed al fresco dining, and the bow had a built-in bench seat with a round cocktail table so the crew could relax with a glass of local wine while enjoying the passing scenery.
Our crew rendezvoused at the Gare de Lyon train station in Paris for an easy 90-minute train ride to the Locaboat Plaisance base at Joigny, due south of Paris. Our boat, appropriately named Joigny, was spotless when we arrived, and we were quickly checked out on all the systems by Bob, a cheerful Britisher who also shared an insider's knowledge of where to stop, where to find the best wines, and what sights to see (and skip).
Our first day on the water was delightful, and we were soon chugging south along the Nivernais at a leisurely pace on mirror-smooth water, oohing and aahing as we slid quietly past chateaus and tiny villages, through flotillas of swans and under overhanging trees that lined the canal edge.
We had been a bit concerned about picking early September at the tail of the French summer season when the weather might be a bit iffy but, for the most part, we had flawless cerulean skies, a warm sun, and a solitude remarkable for a tourist area such as Burgundy. In fact, we were all incensed to find another boat on "our" canal one day, but it soon turned off and left us alone again.
Summer, of course, is the high season for canal cruising, with warm weather and more traffic on the waters. The shoulder seasons are also good, with a few drizzly mornings (snuggle back into the covers) and afternoons with a sky so blue it hurts your eyes as the overhanging trees dapple the deck with passing shadows.
At each lock, you are expected to help the lockkeeper open and close the gates, which necessitated the sort of amiable sign language that results when a non-French speaking crew passes through. You'll soon find that the lockkeepers are entrepreneurs, offering their captive audiences a chance to buy local wines and often a selection of other goods. You might buy salad makings fresh from the lockkeeper's garden, while a more artistic lockkeeper will display pleasant watercolors of canal scenes, and yet another will have a rack of home-fired pottery. We had been told that tipping the lockkeepers was considered bad form (not to mention expensive considering the dozens of locks!), but our American candy bars (from several bags we brought with us) were offered and accepted with pleasure, especially by those lockkeepers with small children.
As the days blurred together, we found that a particular delight of canal cruising is that you go entirely at your own pace. While Locaboat provided a suggested itinerary for our particular trip, we were free to modify it on a whim. Many small villages provide quays for docking to encourage you to stop, but each canal barge also has a large mallet and steel stakes that convert any canal bank into your private mooring. Sleep late if you want or get going early, explore the countryside by bicycle or browse the village shops for antiques, prints, and other mementos.
Since the lockkeepers close for a one-hour lunch at noon every day, canal cruisers will find themselves immobilized between locks at mid-day, but this often leads to propitious discoveries that would otherwise be missed. At Mailly le Chateau, we offloaded our bicycles to ride into town and explore during the lunch hour, finding a hilltop castle with a spectacular view. Of course, the bike baskets rarely returned from these outings without creamy pastries or more bottles of wine.
At Auxerre, our mooring provided a spectacular nighttime view of three ancient cathedrals, and we prowled the streets for boulangeries with pastries, baguettes, and fluffy croissants. Further south, we stopped at the wine caves of Beilly to sample Burgundy's version of champagne (called Crémant de Bourgogne) and at Pregilbert we snuggled into our cozy cabin as an evening rain pattered on the roof.
At Clamecy, we used our mooring next to the town square as a base to stroll past 14th-century homes and photograph the gargoyles on the 13th-century cathedral, before finding a 21st-century wine merchant who filled our empty plastic Evian water bottles with red wine for a few Euros. Our stop in Chatel Censoir on a Sunday (when everything is closed) was equally memorable, and we ended up sipping red wines in a tiny bar with a crowd of friendly and curious locals.
As your week on the French waterways winds down, you may find yourself moored for the evening along the canal bank, as the last rays of the sunset turn the rows of plane trees into molten gold. Over glasses of a lovely French wine, from a lockkeeper who was bargained down to just two Euros for a full liter, you might be looking at a map of your trip. From the galley come aromas of capers, garlic, and white wine simmering for chicken piccata and, in the distant stillness, you can hear the sounds of a French farmhouse nearby: doors banging, children being called for dinner, and an occasional dog barking.
You wonder how to explain to your friends at home the languid pleasures of drifting along a tree-lined canal at perhaps 5 knots. Where your nightly stop isn't a posh marina, but a grassy canal bank so you can bicycle into the nearest village and share a glass of local red in a friendly cafe. And how, at the end of an absolutely idyllic week, you measured your chart to discover happily that you've traveled only 70 miles!
Just say, "C'est la vie!" and tell them to try it themselves.
Insider's Guide to Bareboating the CanalsWhat's the cost?
Our Penichette 1500, the largest boat available for charter on the French canals and suitable for up to four couples, ranges from roughly $2200-$3600 for seven nights on the boat, depending upon the season and the exchange rate.
What about food?
What about drink?
What to bring?
For more information: Skipper Travel Services, phone (800) 631-1030, fax (831) 462-5178, firstname.lastname@example.org
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