European Waterways – La Belle Epoque
I was fortunate enough to be invited along on a recent European Waterways cruise along the Burgundy Canal aboard La Belle Epoque. The luxury hotel barge holds a maximum 12 passengers, but prefers to cruise with fewer to provide a truly exclusive journey for its guests.
You can read about the account of my experience cruising from Tonnere to Venary Les Laumes below and take a look at some of my photos of the barge, surrounding countryside and excursion highlights in the gallery.
Day 1 – Sunday
The great thing about cruising in Burgundy is that you don’t need to undergo the hassles of flying to get out there. Eurostar from St Pancras at 10.25am brings you into Paris at the very reasonable 1.30pm – just a little stuffed from the First Class cuisine. Then it’s a quick metro ride to Gare de Lyon – by way of a small Parisian bistro for lunch – and before you know it you’re in Montbard, being met by Rudy, the boat’s first mate. A 50-minute drive from there and you’re in Tonnerre ready to board the barge.
In all there are five crew – Stefan, the captain; Rudy, the mate; Simon, the chef; and Kayleigh and Aoife, the housekeepers – who also get to choose each evening’s cheese and teach us a little bit about it.
So after a quick glass of bubbly and a little nibble, we’re unpacking in our cosy cabins, familiarising ourselves with the sundeck and then settling down to our first four-course dinner. The culinary experience is going to be one of the most impressive parts of this canal cruise.
Scallops gratin and smoked bacon salad to start, chicken cooked in tomatoes and vinegar with wild rice for mains, two cheeses (Morbier and Langres) and then a delightful raspberry crème brûlée – mental note to buy one of those culinary blowtorches.
All in all, I can’t wait for the first proper day on the canal tomorrow.
Day 2 – Monday
First things first, and it’s time to enjoy a light breakfast of croissant – one with jam and one pain au chocolat. Other choices include cereals and fruit. Seems best to keep it simple and save space for the mega lunches and dinners.
We’d begun cruising at around 9am, so by the time we had finished eating we were at the third lock, ready to jump off and enjoy a cycle along the towpath to Tanlay where we would moor for the rest of the day. On the way we passed three locks, spotted a heron and passed a number of wheat fields, some cut and baled, others still a verdant green. I imagine each journey provides a quite different view for the crew, as the seasons provide an ever-changing landscape.
Lunch followed – leek and potato soup followed by a mushroom and Gruyere quiche, fish terrine and Greek salad. And then cheese – Lou Perac today.
Just time for another cycle around the town itself and its outskirts to burn off those yummy calories, before returning just before 3pm in time for a visit to the Chateau de Tanlay, dating back to the 16th century. This chateau is fairly unique in France for being protected by the local villagers during times of unrest, so that the furniture has survived in fine condition. It is highly impressive with its moat and outbuildings as well as the grandeur inside. On show are a number of animal heads from hunting sprees around the local area – save one moose head from Sweden – as well as a Buddha head from Thailand – one of three removed from the country, the others are in the British Museum and Berlin.
After the tour we returned to the barge, enjoyed a little light reading and then a game of pétanque – a form of boules – before getting ready for dinner. French onion soup with a Gruyere croutons, pan fried duck with fondant potato, caramelised apple and sauce cassis, cheese (Chaource and Petit Munster – divine), and then lemon tart with meringue. And much drink. So … I’ll be needing to go cycling again tomorrow by all accounts.
Day 3 – Tuesday
A similar start with breakfast at 9.30 on deck – croissants and fresh fruit – followed by a quick amble along the towpath by bike, past two locks and then back to the first to meet with the barge. We then moored at the second lock at Lezinnes.
From here we went off by minibus – comfortable and a good size – to Chablis, home of the world famous wineries. We ate at Laroche, a company that own vineyards here as well as in South Africa and Chile. With the amuse bouche – pan seared duck on a chestnut paste – and the starter – foie gras – we enjoyed a Premier Cru, the Championship league of Chablis white wines. For the main course – poached sole with mussels and veg – we enjoyed a 2001 Grand Cru, the Premiership, and simply exquisite.
Following that, livers soaked happily in fine wine, we headed to a nearby cellar for further wine tasting, checking out the 2009 vintage, first straight from the stainless steel tank holding 6,000 bottles, and then from an oak barrel, holding 300. It’s really quite striking how the flavour varies, the first being crisp and clean and the latter much fuller. Then we went on to try the bottled varieties, before deciding upon a selection to enjoy at the captain’s dinner on our last night – and purchasing one for my own dinner table back home – a Grand Cru.
Back at the barge, which had moved on to Ancy-le-Franc, and being ever so slightly unbalanced, I elected for a short rest before heading out to the Chateau d’Ancy-le-Franc. While it lacked the original furniture having been ransacked during the Revolution, the building itself was arguably more impressive than yesterday’s, and completely symmetrical – boasting a quadrant as wide as it is tall. Secret rooms lead off from the chapel, secret bookcases are found in the library, wonderful paintings – cheeky yet depicting earnest subject matter – adorn the walls, and the gardens are immaculate and a geometrist’s dream.
Returning to the barge again we played a couple of rounds of pétanque with the crew and then sat down for more fine food and wine – a beetroot salad topped with warm goat’s cheese to start, pan seared salmon with asparagus, new potatoes and hollandaise sauce for mains and then straight to dessert – wonderful pear, soaked in red wine – more! – and cinnamon. Delightful. But we couldn’t fit in the cheese…
Day 4 – Wednesday
An earlier start, but not by much, and then off into town, first to see the Lavoir of Ancy-le-Franc and then onward, 23 km to Noyers – a medieval town used as a backdrop in a number of films. No wonder it feels familiar – timber frame houses and plaster, stone towers and ramparts, a bustling market selling all sorts from cheese, fruit and fish to incense, crocs and pregnancy books.
Time for a stroll around, an iced drink and a little shopping – picking out ingredients for our dinner – and then we had to turn back to the barge. On the way – taking a different route over the hills – we came across a young deer, no more than four months old, which had been hit by another motorist. We stopped to help it, diagnosed a broken leg and flagged down another car. The local driver called her friends in the fire station. Fifteen minutes later, they arrived with blue flashing lights, ready to take care of the poor creature, or ready at least to enjoy a good pâté.
Eventually we returned to the barge, and enjoyed a light lunch – carrot and orange soup, onion quiche, charcuterie, tomato and mozzarella salad, duck pate – not deer – and three cheeses (we’d been missing it). Then we set off cruising again through glorious sunshine to Ravieres – the only difficulty being when we needed to pass the barge of another company. Happily it didn’t look nearly as comfortable.
Dinner awaits. And it was good. Tuna steak with provincial potatoes to start, lamb gigot and ratatouille for mains, cheese (Valençay and Bleu d’Auvergne) and then a crepe suzette for dessert. The wine was also tasty. We all loved the bottle of white (Haute cote de beaune blanc 2007), but noticed a difference when the second bottle came – though it was the same it was from a different year, so we’ve picked up something other than sore kidneys from the wine tasting experience!
Day 5 – Thursday
We departed Ravieres onward to Montbard – where we had originally disembarked the train. In total we managed to cover 11 locks today. It really is astounding how the barge, built in Holland, fits so precisely, without an inch to spare. Each time Rudy has to gambol to the front of the boat, ready to drop the boat fenders and tie the ropes. Then he leaps up onto the bank and gets ready to open the lock gates to move us up. Its quite a smooth process and provides the perfect moment to step gracefully from ship to shore, while the deck is momentarily at the right height. Eleven in one day must become quite tiring though. And its not surprising they need to retouch the paintwork at the end of each week.
A little cycle in the morning took us to a forge beside the canal and lunch followed – blue cheese quiche, tuna pasta salad, Caesar salad with anchovies, tomatoes stuffed with prawns and Camembert. An hour after arrival – at 4.30pm – we set off to explore the abbey at Fontenay – a most beautiful place, set among glorious gardens and founded in 1118 by St Bernard. It experienced a fairly tumultuous history, being converted into a paper mill in 1791 before being restored to its medieval glory by 1911 and becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1981.
Returning to the barge we took a final opportunity for a game of pétanque – with a pina colada. Delish. Next up was supper – Parmesan and pesto soup – a veggie broth really – and then pan fried sea bream on a bed of peppers. Cheese followed – Reblochon and Saint Maure de Tourraine, a goat cheese with a stick in it that if cut causes bad luck. Then profiteroles with hot chocolate sauce – yum.
Day 6 – Friday
We enjoyed a long cruise in the morning and chose not to venture onto the bikes, partly due to the heat and partly just to enjoy the slow meander along the canal at this gentle walking pace. So instead we sat upfront, ducking under bridges, gazing at the Charolais cows, spotting beavers and photographing herons. Until Rudy took the wheel and crashed us into the canal side … very gently though and on the trickiest of corners, unsighted by a low bridge. Still, it really highlighted the skill with which Stephane has been guiding us all week.
Later we took lunch while stopped in a lock – cucumber and smoked salmon soup, then delicious roast chicken with plenty of salt on the skin, roast peppers and cherry tomatoes, some lovely little cheeses and a pâté. All washed down with our first rosé of the trip.
By 2pm we had arrived in Venary and then set off just before 3pm to explore Flanery where the Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche movie Chocolat was filmed as well as a nearby battle site and roman ruins. Certainly an interesting place, classical French, with an intriguing church, but not as exciting as I had anticipated and oddly quiet. Noyers was more fun earlier in the week – a beautiful setting and home to a bustling market.
But we went on to another town, Semur-en-Auxois, home to 10,000 people and a truly impressive church. But that’s not the thing that first strikes you. The town itself is set on a rocky bluff and was built as a small fortress, all medieval towers, gateways, gardens and cobbled streets. A perfect spot for an enjoyable beer at a pavement café.
The captain’s dinner is being prepared as I write and the tablecloth is all decked out in flower petals, cunningly crafted napkins and sunflowers. It should be a treat. And later I might take my first dip in the jacuzzi, product testing…
Day 7 – Saturday
Dinner was indeed a treat. We enjoyed the wine we had picked out from our wine tasting day on the third day – a Grand Cru – and Simon had knocked up a new starter for us to try out – fois gras en croute with caramalised pear and spiced figs. That was followed by a beefsteak with delicious gratin potatoes, mushrooms and a béarnaise sauce. The chocolate soufflé for desert was almost as good as the crème brulée from our first night onboard too.
Some cheese later and it was off to the jacuzzi for my first and only dip. Apparently it’s not uncommon for some guests, when travelling in a large group, to be submerged every night, drink in hand. The tub itself was quite something, with a variety of moulded seats, a number of jets, and some radical mood-lighting variations.
Ordinarily I’d then have gone straight to bed, but a small marquee a short walk away happened to be staging a mini-festival, so I headed over with most of the crew – one of the first times they’ve been able to relax during a busy season – and was very pleased to offer them a few drinks as thanks for their fantastic hospitality.
This morning, slightly the worse for wear, it was a short journey back to Montbard in the air-conditioned minibus after bidding a fond farewell to La Belle Epoque and her excellent crew, led by Captain Stephane Pignard.
The journey by train was just as simple today as on coming outbound. First Class on the TGV and Eurostar is really rather comfortable – and in fact, this time, it was even cheaper than travelling Economy. And there’s just something special about leaiving your cruise, having lunch in Paris, then returning to London in time for Carmen at the Royal Opera House…