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When most people think of a barge, they envision a flat-bottomed boat that hauls goods down a waterway – a working vessel. So when I told family and friends that I was going on a barge cruise in France, I received quizzical and confused looks.
They didn’t understand why I was choosing to travel by what they perceived to be an uncomfortable mode of transportation.
Not Your Run-of-the-Mill Barge
“Au contraire!” I responded and proceeded to enlighten them. I explained that this was not a cargo boat, but rather a small, sleek, luxury hotel barge owned by European Waterways. And no, I would not be “roughing it!”
In fact, I would be wined and dined, and my every need tended to by an exceptional staff, well-versed in performing the highest levels of service and hospitality.
All this while meandering through the picturesque French countryside along the Burgundy Canal, far from crowds and the hustle and bustle of city life.
European Waterways Has a Stellar Reputation
European Waterways has been operating voyages since the 1980s. They offer cruises in nine countries across Europe. From the Midi in Southern France to the Scottish Highlands. And from Ireland in the West to Venice in the East.
Planning a last-minute trip to France?
Top Experiences and Tours in France:
- See the sights with a tour of Louvre Museum Paris – Exclusive Guided Tour (Reserved Entry Included!)
- See Paris with Eiffel Tower Skip the Line and Small Group Tour with Summit Access by Elevator
- Explore more with Mont Saint-Michel: Entry Ticket to Mont-Saint-Michel Abbey
Where to stay in France:
The company has an excellent reputation and is renowned in the industry. Its immersive cruises offer a more intimate, informal atmosphere than on larger river and ocean cruise vessels. They are a great choice for couples, single travelers, families or small groups.
Each cruise lasts for six nights and the all-inclusive pricing encompasses everything you need. This means transportation to and from your barge, your stateroom, incredible gourmet meals, all excursions, hot tub and bicycles on board, world-class wines and a fully stocked, open bar.
You’ll Find All the Bells and Whistles on La Belle Epoque
La Belle Epoque, the barge I traveled on, accommodated a max of 12 passengers. However, my cruise in April only had eight. All of us were from the U.S. and six of the passengers already knew each other. My husband and I were the “outliers,” but not for long.
We were quickly enveloped into the fold and became fast friends with our convivial fellow shipmates. In no time at all we were sharing stories and plenty of laughs.
The atmosphere was like a floating house party with like-minded people. We shared a love of experiential travel, culture, gastronomy, fine wine, local history…and most importantly, good conversation.
Originally built in 1930, La Belle Epoque was converted into a handsome hotel barge in 1995. The boat boasts four staterooms and two junior suites, a dining room, a salon with bar and spacious outdoor deck. Though the staterooms are small, they are cozy, and have all the necessary amenities.
The International Crew of Our Barge Cruise in France
Our crew of six hailed from France, Poland, Brazil, Greece and England. At the helm was Andy, our very personable, knowledgeable and efficient captain/tour guide.
Then there was Apostolos, chef extraordinaire; Agata and Maria, hostesses with the mostest, who were responsible for serving the meals and drinks, cleaning the staterooms and making sure we were comfortable at all times; Fred, the pilot; and Brice, the deckhand. All welcomed us warmly to the boat and preceded to ensure that our journey would be memorable.
Our trip began in Paris, where we were picked up and driven south to Tomlay in the Burgundy region. There, our barge and attentive crew awaited, greeting us, champagne in hand. After toasts and introductions, we settled into our staterooms and then convened in the salon to get to know each other.
You’ll Be Cruising On the Historic French Barge System
Each day, the barge glided sedately along the canal, passing under bridges and going through locks. Most of the canals in France’s extensive system date back to the 17th and 18th centuries and represent a time when roads were primitive.
The barges plied the rivers, carrying coal, grain and other supplies from village to village. These waterways were basically abandoned in the late 18th century when railroads took over as the main transportation system. They were later “discovered” by young, British travel entrepreneurs and the rest is history.
Although the barges carry passengers today, much has remained the same on these antique water routes. They are still intersected by locks, which serve to raise and lower the boats between the varying levels of land. Many are still tended to by lockkeepers.
We went through a total of 35 locks during our trip and at each, a lock keeper would be there to assist in the endeavor. Passing through them is part of the experience and our group never tired of watching the process.
Stretch Your Legs and Burn Off Some Calories
As to the speed of cruising, it’s slow. We averaged about two to three miles an hour, a perfect pace for those who wanted to cycle or walk the towpath, then get back on the boat at one of the locks. It was a nice way to get some activity and work off all the delicious food.
Another way I discovered to expend some calories was to try driving the barge. Our pilot let me take a go at it and it was physically much harder than I imagined. Turning the wheel gave me quite the workout.
The Scenery is Idyllic
This leisurely pace allowed us to fully relax and luxuriate in watching the world go by. The bucolic Burgundy landscape is sublime. There are fields of wheat and poppies, vineyards, grand chateaus and villages of cobblestoned streets and medieval buildings.
You’ll pass locals on their bikes or strolling along and fisherman patiently waiting for their next catch. Others, curious about the barge, will wander nearby for a look-see at one of the locks.
Enjoy Daily Bespoke Excursions
Each day, we left the barge to enjoy an exclusively curated excursion in an off-the-beaten-tourist-path locale. One day, we explored Chablis, visiting Domaine Laroche to learn the story of St. Martin and the monks who began the history of the town and its famed wines.
We toured the old wine cellar and saw a 13th-century wine press that’s still in use. Then we had the opportunity to taste several aromatic Classical Chablis, Premier Cru and Grand Cru wines.
Tour a Stately Castle
On another day, we toured Chateau D’Ancy Le Franc, a jewel of the Renaissance. Built in 1542, this imposing castle is the masterpiece of Sebastiano Serlio, a celebrated Italian architect. It’s known for its large square construction with four wings flanked by four pavilions and an inner magnificent courtyard.
The building is enhanced with richly sculpted ornamentations and inside, the apartments are lavishly decorated by Burgundy, Italian and Flemish painters.
Of special note are the long galleries adorned with eye-popping, flamboyant elements and mural paintings representing mythological and religious themes. Sumptuous marble floors add to this lavish display.
Explore a UNESCO World Heritage Site
In Montbard, we visited Fontenay Abbey, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Founded in 1118 by Saint Bernard of Coairvaux, it is the oldest preserved Cistercian abbey in the world.
The monks, who resided there, produced and sold metalwork to economically sustain themselves. Up to 500 of them lived at the abbey until the time of the French Revolution.
After they departed, the place was converted for industrial use, which preserved all the buildings of the Romanesque period. This includes the church (a model of simplicity and ethereal light), dormitory (a vast oak-hulled room where the monks slept, fully clothed on benches), cloister, chapter room, common room and the forge.
As our group walked around, we remarked on the beauty and purity of the architecture, which has remained unspoiled for over 900 years. With its lushly landscaped park and gardens, the Abbey is a remarkable site that evokes serenity and spirituality.
Rub Elbows With Nobility
Two other excursions brought us near French nobility. At Chateau de Ricey-Bas, we rubbed elbows with Baron Charles and his wife, Baroness Segolene.
They are owners of this impressive castle that has been in the Baron’s family for over 200 years. Before dining, we visited the estate’s vineyards and the production building, where we learned how champagne is made.
The Baron explained that the grapes are harvested by hand and go through two fermentation processes to create the bubbling libation known as “champagne.” It’s an art form that heavily relies on science.
Interesting fact: you can only label the finished product “champagne” if the grapes are grown in the Champagne Region of France. There are about 60,000 vineyards in this region.
The winery produces six to seven different kinds of champagne with a total of 70,000 bottles a year. They export about 70% of production mainly to the U.S., Germany and Canada.
Lunch consisted of salmon and local trout crustless sandwiches, along with guinea fowl as the entrée. This was followed by an assortment of cheeses and salad and strawberry mousse for dessert – accompanied by pink champagne, of course.
During the meal, the Baroness talked about the history of the chateau, the family and their endless efforts to restore the place. She was charming and effervescent, with a delightful sense of humor as she regaled us with story after story.
Chateau de Commarin
At Chateau de Commarin, we met with Count Bertrand de Vogue, whose family has lived in the castle since the 13th century. He represents the 26th generation of the family and resides onsite.
The estate was protected during the French Revolution, so it retains its authenticity and is known for its exquisite set of heraldic tapestries, artwork and furniture. A moat surrounds the stately chateau, offering a picture-perfect reflection.
Against the backdrop of the chateau, we were treated to a display of falconry. Two professional falconers presented several birds of prey, including Tinkerbell, an American Kestrel, who flew from one to another of our hands in search of treats.
There was also Rico, a Harris hawk, who we learned can see a mouse from 218 yards away. Plus Daenerys, a very photogenic barn owl, named for a beloved character in the widely popular series, “Game of Thrones.”
Food, Glorious Food
Another highlight of the cruise was the sensational food. Our chef, who was from Greece, took us on a gastronomic adventure and challenged our tastebuds. Meals were feasts for the senses.
At breakfast, there were always eggs or egg dishes, yogurts, cheeses, fresh fruit, cereals, breads and croissants, and freshly squeezed OJ. With a spread like this, we were sufficiently fueled for the morning.
Lunch, as well as dinner, was a 3-course presentation. This consisted of fresh seasonal salads, sometimes a fish dish or even steamed mussels, homemade soup, a selection of cheeses and/or dessert. Lunch was always complemented by both a red and white wine of the region.
Then there was happy hour, when the libations would flow, along with the hors-d’oeuvres, including such delights as tuna tartare, mango wrapped in prosciutto, beetroot blinis, snails and on the last night, caviar.
Dinners, which were announced by the ringing of a bell (causing a Pavlovian response to occur), were showcases of French and Mediterranean dishes. Entrees featured duck, lamb, chicken, beef and fish. And of course, there were French wines and cheeses, all of which were described in detail to us before serving.
Saying goodbye at the end of the trip was hard, as it meant we had to leave our cushy abode, fantastic crew and our newfound friends, not to mention the amazing food. Back to “roughing it!”