It had been another rewarding morning cycling Burgundy’s Yonne province on quiet farmland and forest roads and exploring six captivating villages along the river. Now, as we sat at a lock awaiting our floating home, La Belle Époque
, we rated the morning a perfect "10" and chatted about our discoveries.
In the smallest village, Pousseaux, population 100, a local farmer had driven a large tractor down the single street to plow a nearby field. In the largest village, medieval Surgy, population 450, we had toured the picturesquely flowered streets with half-timbered houses and visited the flamboyant style church with its unique hexagonal spire. When we pedaled past a field of golden sunflowers, we felt as if we'd entered a Van Gogh painting.
Soon La Belle Époque rounded the bend and headed into the lock. We climbed aboard the comfortable barge and caught up on the explorations of the other ten guests while we dined over a sumptuous lunch of salmon, vegetables, and three distinct cheeses. We all agreed this was a morning to remember and toasted it with fine Burgundy wine.
The afternoon was filled with more discoveries. We were driven by van for a guided tour of 12th-century Bazoches Chateau, with a stop along the way to view the 2,000-year-old Roman bridge over sparkling Cure River — just another ideal day in the Yonne province of Burgundy, heart of France.
Originally built in the early 1900s to haul logs to Paris from Burgundy’s Morvan forests, La Belle Époque, 126’ long by 16’ wide, just barely fits the region’s canal locks. She has been retrofitted exquisitely for her cruise barge role, with six comfortable double guest cabins, salon/dining room, and spacious outdoor decks.
Our bilingual crew spared no effort for a first-rate guest experience. Neal, captain and pilot, informed us of each day’s itinerary and options, ensuring that we could debark or embark independently. Lynn, the tour hostess and guide, led interesting daily afternoon tours to wineries, chateaus, villages, and other sites a few miles from the canal. Darren, the first mate and general deck hand was always there to help, including loading or unloading the barge’s mountain bikes. Jane and Helen, our capable housekeeping staff, doubled as excellent table servers and commentators on the menus. Jean Sebastian, chef de cuisine, offered up incomparable meals with incredible interpretations of the best dishes from France’s five major culinary regions where he had studied and practiced his art.
Unbelievable it was! Each meal was uniquely exquisite. An example dinner menu read: Bourgogne Epinevil, Domaine l’Abbaye du Petit Ournay (local sauvignon blanc wine, a new one for each meal), Bourgogne Cote d’Auxerre, Bersan (local pinot noir wine, a new one for each meal), croustille de crabe aux legumes vinaigrette de betteraves (Crab pastry with vegetables in sugar-beet vinaigrette), filet de canard ci l’orange (duck filet with orange), les fromages - Langres, Picodor, St. Agor (yes, tasty cheese plate with three new selections at each meal), gateau du chocolat (chocolate cake par excellence). With such a great week of culinary delights, we were thankful to have the beautiful countryside begging to be explored on foot or bike for burning off the tasty calories.
Barging Basics 101
It wasn’t long before we fell into the La Belle Époque’s "barge routine." In our five days of floating the Yonne River’s Canal du Nivernais, we averaged seven locks and eight miles of travel per day. Captain Neal would start motoring around 9 a.m. Guests were welcome to leave the barge on foot or mountain bike at any of the locks, with the understanding they were to rejoin the barge at a lock further en route. A maintained pathway, an old towpath, bordered the canal for easy travel. The barge required fifteen minutes to pass through a lock, allowing time to explore on shore or lounge aboard.
A guided half-day van tour left each day, usually after lunch, for an interesting historical site or village. During the afternoon the barge would continue on its route before docking for the night at around 3 or 4 p.m. The tour van returned to the barge soon thereafter, leaving plenty of time for guests to relax and enjoy a cocktail before a delicious dinner.
Each lock (écluse) was an experience in its own right, as the lock keeper lived there in a small stone house with his family. Conversations with a couple of the lock keepers revealed that they could handle a load of fifty barges per day during the busier summer months, but they were much happier with our October traffic level of twenty barges per day.
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