Cruising the Burgundy Canal in La Belle Epoque

French barge travels the countryside in Old World luxury

He came from the family that invented the hot air balloon – but history remembers him because he turned a famous, ancient French monastery into a paper mill.

“He” is Elie de Mongolfier, and the monastery is the UNESCO-honoured Abbaye de Fontenay, in the Burgundy area south of Paris, one of the historical highlights on this European Waterways’ luxury hotel barge canal cruise.

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In 1118 Saint Bernard founded the abbey, home to 200 monks who espoused complete self-sufficiency and solitude. Ahead of their times, they diverted a river to power giant hydraulic tilt hammers to beat and fashion iron.

Then came the French Revolution and the state sold the abbey, now with barely a dozen monks, to Mongolfier.

But former glory returned after 1906 when banker Edouard Ayard bought the abbey from his father-in-law, Raymond de Montgolfier, to “extract Fontenay from its industrial slime” and the restored results – the impressively massive buildings with an expansive garden – are indeed worth a visit.

I guess you could call me a history hesitant traveller. So it’s a treat when a tour includes places like Fontenay which reduce some of that hesitancy.

We floated through 34 locks going down 63 kilometres of the canal between Veneray les Laumes and Tanlay, challenging our pilot, Julian, as he guided the 38.67m barge through each 40m gate-to-gate lock and with only 5cm of space between us and the lock side-walls.

But back to the sights and sites. One afternoon we visited Alesia, famous as the site of a decisive battle in 52 BC between Julius Caesar for the Romans and Vercingetorix for the Gauls (think Asterix)…although there was some controversy over whether this was indeed the actual site.

As mentioned, I have a limited attention span when it comes to relics and ruins. But this large wooden cylindrical MuseoParc interpretation centre did an excellent multimedia job of transporting my fellow travellers and me back to the times leading up to the battle (wherever it was held), explaining the two campaigns which led to a Roman victory.

We then drove up a nearby hill to see the 6.6-metre sheet copper statue of Vercingetorix with a face resembling (surprise, surprise) Napoleon III, who commissioned the statue.

Final stop for the day: Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, where the movie Chocolat was filmed but which today has a greater claim to fame though les Anis de Flavigny, a candy-maker dating back to 1591. We sampled the wide variety of flavours in addition to the original anise.

Another day dawned windy, which meant no hot air ballooning, much to the relief of Sue, who was celebrating a late 70s birthday on the trip. Instead, there was plenty of time to visit a small, local market as we wandered around medieval Noyers-sur-Serein.

Local knowledge kicked in here as barge captain Jolanda stopped by a house to take a key from the mailbox to unlock a gate, allowing us to climb up to a viewpoint on the ruins of the town ramparts. Then it was time for coffees and beers all around at a café by the market.

The next morning brought showers, but good timing allowed us to stay dry during our indoor visit to Chateau d’Ancy-le-Franc, with France’s largest collection of Renaissance murals. The rain lifted just in time for us to stroll through the nearby local market.

Whatever the weather, several of us made good use both of the mountain bikes to ride along the towpath, and also of the hot tub on the forward deck of the barge, with its hydromassage jets and regular “Can I bring you anything?” offers from crew members Lola or Carlo.

Yes, this was true sightseeing luxury:

Being water massaged in a hot tub, a cup or glass of our favourite beverage in hand, while the scenery drifted slowly by…Burgundy’s famous white Charolais cattle, hay in distinctive round bales, unharvested grain fields, bikers on the towpaths, locks to go down, bridges to go under.

Perhaps we had favourite beverages in mind when we visited the family-run Domaine Alain Geoffroy outlet in Chablis to learn about and taste six wines ranging from a $16 Petit Chablis to the top-of-the-line $55 Grand Cru Chablis.

Equally intriguing (at least to me) was the amazing variety of corkscrews, which made up more than half of Geoffroy’s prized Corkscrew and Vineyard Museum’s entire collection of 7,953 wine-related instruments and equipment.

“Three of the corkscrews were made by convicts in Cayenne, French Guiana, in sculpted corozo nut featuring grotesque heads,” says Geoffroy. Other corkscrews dated back to the 1800s, including a selection of novelty phallic items called Les Pisseux.

We also did justice to other French wines – sampling 22 of them and 19 cheeses during our gourmet meals over the six days.

 

IF YOU GO:Prices in 2018 for a six-night cruise aboard hotel barge La Belle Epoque start at US$5,150 per person in a twin/double cabin, including all meals, wines, an open bar, excursions and local transfers. Full barge charters are also available for families and groups. europeanwaterways.com. Toll Free: 1-877-574-3404.

News money columnist Mike Grenby is a travel writer who teaches journalism at Bond University on Australia’s Gold Coast – mgrenby@bond.edu.au.

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