The pace of everyday life is such that a holiday without any pressures in idyllic, uncrowded countryside does not always sustain its promise. Luxury and total relaxation have to be essential ingredients whilst relative isolation and lack of passing interest can soon lose its appeal. However, adding the ingredients of the home of some of the world’s best wine – Burgundy and the most relaxing, eco-friendly and luxurious means of travel – Hotel/Barge through unspoilt countryside is an unbeatable combination.
These former voluminous 38m. cargo vessels are very suitable for conversion into luxurious accommodation, ideally for three or four en suite guest cabins. They are chartered both per cabin and for sole use. A crew of five both operate the barge and offer a very high standard of service to the guests from excursions to fine dining, with a constant flow of exquisite wines and other drinks in between. Our chef Mike’s experience includes cooking at two of the most expensive ski chalets in Courcheval 1850 no less. He exploits the wide range of locally grown fruit and vegetables to great effect changing menus weekly depending upon seasonality and availability of local ingredients. Lunch was usually based on French dishes with innovative European Michelin style dinners.
Before our six nights cruise, we stayed over in Dijon, of mustards fame, in the Grand Hotel La Cloche before joining the barge. The staff was personable and welcoming; the top floor featured an eclectic mix of suites, we chose the heavily beamed Chambertin suite. The attractive city centre with all its historic buildings has been extensively restored, but perhaps a little too sanitised? The market, designed by Gustav Eifel of tower fame, is the main source for the barge for vegetables and fruit very largely grown locally.
We cruised on ‘Finesse’, part of the European Waterways fleet, the first operators in France, on Burgundy’s Bourgoyne canal. We were collected from Dijon for their ‘Classic Cruise – Southern Burgundy’ which usually runs from St-Julien-sur-Dheune through to St-Jean-de-Losne; whole vessel charterers may vary the itinerary and the numerous excursions to fit their wishes.
There is plenty of room on board either to mix with your party or to find a quiet niche. On deck, there is a hot tub and areas of shade and sun in which to sit. Inside, there is a large multi-purpose sitting and dining area combining an open kitchen. Below are the spacious four twin/double cabins, there are large, opening portholes providing plenty of light. The en-suites have a toilet, large shower and twin basins.
No-one need be concerned about sea-sickness, the motion of the barge is hardly noticeable as the ever-changing countryside slips quietly by - the occasional locks are like chapters in books. Whilst the barge is eco-efficient, guests can walk along the tow path or take bicycles to explore further afield. I found it very rewarding to get deep into the countryside where tiny hamlets were nestled into the folds of the land. The less energetic would appreciate e-Bikes to get the best, long vistas.
Each day we were offered the opportunity to ride in the accompanying minibus to visit places of interest throughout the cruise. The choices were varied:
• One visit that was quite thought provoking was a visit to the 14th century Chateau de Germolles, formerly owned by the Dukes of Burgundy. The owner, an architectural historian, whose family had lived there for some 150 years showed us over the rambling buildings. Whilst his descriptions and tales were fascinating, it was all too obvious that the costs of maintaining the Chateau were astronomic. As the estates had been sold centuries ago, there are no vineyards to generate the means to cover those outgoings; a big challenge or a stone around the neck of the family?
• If ever there was a wine lovers’ ultimate view, surely the vineyards of the Chateau de Chamirey would take some beating. We enjoyed tasting a selection of the wine and later drank their Mercurey 2015 at dinner that night.
• To the average person who appreciates wine, the Vougeot commune’s vineyards all look the same, even the Clos de Vougeot vines appear no different but their 50 hectares is the largest Grand Cru of the Côte de Nuits. Within the confines of the walled vineyard, due partially to inheritance laws, it is divided into 85 parcels. Some of these parcels are relatively large whilst others are mere strips. Such is the prestige of the wines, the last transaction was rumoured to be at the rate of US$40m per hectare; just for a small strip.
The prestige is enhanced by the majestic and imposing Chateau dating back to the 12th century. Even today when everything is on a grand scale, looking at the grape presses are a sight to behold; in ancient times, they would have been as impressive as space rockets. The whole experience immerses you in its colourful history whilst the central courtyard is a feast for the eyes
• Surely everyone loves the intimacy of Burgundy’s capital; Beaune, it is the sort of place that thoughts of buying a pied-a-terre come to mind. The market has an amazing range of organic cheeses and truffles that everyone seemed to weigh-up and then put down, a few antique shops alongside a couple of galleries with the brocantes selling rustic items from farms and other sources. Even in very narrow, historic back streets, there are vignerons proudly proclaiming their names heritage on their premises.
• On each trip away from the barge, our tour guide Dylan, was a mine of information about each place we visited. Importantly, he could gauge our level of interest. At the 15th century Hospice de Beaune where inevitably there were rather a lot of medical instruments, to our relief he concentrated on the history and wine connections. The Hospice is even more spectacular than shown in photographs, the rooves were a joy to see; the patients must have been up-lifted by their colours and intricate patterns.
The balance of total relaxation and any level of activity both mentally and physically can be enjoyed in deep luxury on the barge, it opens up a romantic world where there are no pressures; everything has been included in the cruise price. That is not to forget imbibing in a range of superb wines largely produced in Burgundy.
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