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She Barges the French Nivernais Canal


Evelyn Hannon

When JourneyWoman goes off to research the site's GirlTalk travel guides, I'm often on the road for long stretches of time that are very hectic. My days are go, go, go in order to cram as much fact-finding in as possible. I use public transportation, eat on the run and sleep in a different hotel each night. It is far from an indulgent experience.

That's why I try to schedule one 'spoil-me-silly' travel treat midway through my journey so that I can relax completely and recharge my batteries. This summer I chose a barge holiday in Burgundy, France aboard "La Belle Epoque" cruising the Yonne River and Nivernais canal. While the word "barge" might suggest a rustic, cramped experience, let me dispel that idea up front. This is a state-of-the-art luxury hotel barge that sleeps twelve passengers and five crew members. It quickly exceeded all my 'pamper-me' expectations.

Let the pampering begin...

My pal Marilyn joined me in Paris and together we taxied to the Hôtel Ampère (Avenue de Villiers) that serves as the meeting point for all passengers. That was the last thinking task we had to perform for the week. By early afternoon we had been introduced to the other guests, gallantly relieved of our luggage, and whisked by roomy mini van to the medieval town of Auxerre, starting point of our river cruise and sightseeing experience.

Approaching the shore of the Yonne River, we could see La Belle Epoque moored opposite one of the town's small squares. Brightly painted in red, white and blue and looking in tip-top shape, our decidedly chic vessel stood out easily from the other more mundane river barges. Large flower boxes bursting with blooms lined all the railings while casually arranged wooden tables and blue striped sun chairs beckoned invitingly from the two-level deck. A large rack held the bicycles we'd use to explore the towns and footpaths on our week's itinerary.

Lovely goodies and chilled champagne...

The complete staff was outside to welcome us, inviting their new charges to sit and enjoy copious, piping hot appetizers and chilled glasses of champagne. That first warm welcome and friendly attitude would repeat itself continuously over the next seven days. A large basket of fresh fruit was always available; the open bar crammed with wines, sodas, juices and bottled water. Guests' requests were taken care of immediately. This crew made it exceedingly clear that they were there to help us enjoy our stay to the fullest.

By the time we made our way inside our luggage was already stowed in the proper suites. We replenished our sunscreen, grabbed cameras, and went off to explore the charming town of Auxerre with its splendid church, half-timbered buildings and interesting shopping opportunities. We had only one responsibility -- to get back to the barge in time to enjoy our first sumptuous dinner aboard.

Our comfy barge-hotel room...

Marilyn and I shared a wood-paneled junior cabin with two single beds adjacent to each other. Our belongings were stored in a big drawer under the beds while pants, skirts and hiking jackets fit nicely into a shared small cupboard. Our modern, immaculately clean marble bathroom with shower was en suite. Fluffy blue towels (as many as we needed) and bath products sporting the upscale L'Occitaine brand were a perfect touch of elegance. Of course, with so much to do we spent little time in our room however when we did we never felt cramped.

Choose your own pace...

A barging holiday can be as active or inactive as you wish. Each day La Belle Epoque continued it's unhurried journey through the locks of the Nivernais canal meandering from one tiny town in Burgundy to the next. The boat moved so slowly that guests could hop on and off, walking solo alongside the barge or biking ahead to explore a tow path or bustling country market.

Going through the manually operated locks was an unhurried process. Barges lined up for their turn and often we were left waiting as the lockkeeper went off for lunch. That sometimes put our barge behind schedule but we enjoyed every minute of the delay. It gave us time to laze on the deck, reading, chatting, taking photos and studying the distinct character of each lockkeeper and the small, stone cottages that served as their headquarters.

There were gorgeous summer flowers on display everywhere -- a riot of pinks, reds and whites -- in baskets, informal beds and huge ceramic pots. An enterprising female lockkeeper offered a stand of local products -- jams, T-shirts, honey -- that we jokingly nicknamed, 'The Lock Boutique', another older couple showed off a statue of a comely stone mermaid while one gent (who looked an awful lot like Santa Claus in shorts) worked with the help of his cavorting, twin sons. It took the combined strength of those two young boys, but they made operating their lock pure play and we took pleasure in watching them have fun. The sun shone, the sky was bright blue and we were happily becoming acquainted with a tiny, charming corner of rural France.  

More on glorious food, fun and informality...





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