A FLOATING FETE OF FOOD, FRIENDSHIP & FRANCOPHILE FUN
by Renata Polt
A l'aise comme un punaise dans un tapis.
Somehow, "snug as a bug in a rug" doesn't translate well into French. Still, that's how I feel in my cabin aboard the Litote: raised bed with storage underneath, little desk with little desk lamp, closet, knotty-pine paneled walls, checkered curtains and Provencal-style comforter, compact head with shower and toilet. What more could I want?
The problem is, I don't know how long I'll be able to fit into that cute little cabin if tonight's dinner is any indication. Cream of watercress soup; veal with herb sauce, pasta, and tomato, three kinds of cheeses; and a killer dessert of meringue, ice cream, and raspberry sauce. With suitable wines, bien sūr. It's not for nothing that a friend referred to these French barge trips as "float and bloat."
Twelve of us are on the cruise along the Canal de Bourgogne-the Burgundy Canal. One couple is in their forties; everyone else is in the fifties and on up into the seventies. Sarah-Jane Barradaile, the barge's British guide, tells me this demographic is typical: barge cruising allows travelers just as much-or as little-activity as they wish.
A jet-lag-induced nap causes me to miss the first couple of locks we go through, but there'll be more-the canal has a total of 212. When I get up, we are anchored in the village of Les Granges sous Grignon. A walk is in order. Flaming Virginia Creeper (it's October) brightens the stone walls of farmhouses, many with extensive courtyards, some with small barns where the cows wait for milking. A 17th-century chateau hides behind vine-covered walls. Asters brighten the yards. After an unseasonably warm day, the evening is cool and pleasant.
We're here to travel, eat, and relax. The boat, 38 by 5.5 meters in size, the standard size for canal barges, was constructed as a working barge in 1928 and originally named Jocrise. Remodeled in 1979, it has served as a pleasure boat ever since. Its current name means "understatement." The present owners are Continental Waterways, a French/English company that operates eight such boats on various French canals.
France is crisscrossed by canals, some built as early as the 17th century. Back in 1680, a canal connecting the Seine and Saone rivers was already a gleam in various people's eyes. But construction of the 155-mile-long Burgundy Canal did not actually begin until 1774-or maybe 1784-and continued well into the 19th century. That was when newly flourishing railroads, which more or less paralleled the canal's route, took away much of its business. Nonetheless, the canal continued in commercial use until after World War II, with horses still pulling the barges. Since the 1960s, the canal has served primarily for pleasure craft like ours.
The drill is this: Eat breakfast (juice, croissants, and other baked goods, cereals if you like, eggs if you like, coffee); at one of the many locks, get out while the boat is dropping to shore level and walk along the towpath to the next lock or the one after that or the one after that-or take one of the boat's rackety bikes and ride along. Or, like T.J. and Lisa, a Texas couple in their seventies-Lisa has had a recent knee replacement and walks with a cane-stay on board, watch the villages and lines of poplar trees, maybe have a Bloody Mary. In either the morning or afternoon, everyone piles into the company bus for an excursion with guide Sarah-Jane.
One day we visit the Abbey of Fontenay, a few minutes outside Montbard, where the boat is anchored for the afternoon. In the autumnal light, the 12th-century Cistercian abbey, now privately owned and a UNESCO World Heritage site, looks like a scene from another world-or from a movie set (in fact, it's been used as a setting for several films). The abbey consists of a group of buildings erected during the 12th through 17th centuries, surrounded by geometric gardens and fountains. Golden light floods the Romanesque chapel; a small, elegant museum exhibits fragments of sculpture. Tourists are blessedly few; but then, it's October.
Another day we make the short drive to Semur-en-Auxois, a fortified medieval village on a hill. The town's crowning glory is Notre Dame Collegial Church, built mostly in the 13th century. With its thin walls and high, slender pillars, the church is like a miniature Chartres Cathedral. Some of the side chapels are exuberantly painted; the effect is like folk art.
Noyers sur Sereine is another medieval town we visit, its cobbled streets of half-timbered houses surrounded by ramparts with 16 round towers. From the ramparts you can look down at the Sereine River, which hugs the village along three of its sides. A site for many Parisians' second homes, Noyers also attracts its share of tourists, as attested to by several antiques stores.
Having sampled medieval villages, we also sample a chateau and-naturellement!-some wine.
The Chateau de Tanlay, built during the 16th and 17th centuries, has been in the possession of the same family for 300 years. The current owner, Count Jehan de la Chauviniere, inhabits a portion of the chateau; the rest is open for (paying) visitors. There's also a golf course.
Tanlay is what most of us think a chateau ought to be: moat, round turrets, cold rooms, Louis Whatever furnishings. M. le Gay, the guide, takes us around (with Sarah-Jane translating), pointing out rather more details about each 18th-century copy of a famous painting than we need; standing on those hard floors is tiring. But the vision of the chateau, its domed cupolas reflected in the moat, is part of what a trip to France is all about.
And then there's the wine-tasting. For the most part, we've been cruising a portion of Burgundy that does not produce wine; however, a short side trip takes us to Chablis, where the Chardonnay grapes are pressed into the white wine unique to the region. (California wines labeled "chablis" aren't, really.) In M. Gerard Tremblay's modern winery, we're told about the process of making the wines, and we're given five Chablis to taste: the Petit Chablis, a younger, less expensive wine; Chablis; two kinds of Chablis Premier Cru from two different slopes; and Chablis Grand Cru, the peak of M. Tremblay's production.
Have I mentioned the meals? Our chef, a temperamental Dutch woman named Viola, introduces the lunch menu daily: at least one warm dish (filled crepes, quiche, and the like) and several salads. Dinner consists of a first course (soup, crepes, quiche), main course (medallions of sole with shellfish, pork fillet with sauerkraut, etc.), dessert (crepes Suzette, chocolate cake with creme Anglais...). Both lunch and dinner also include three cheeses after the main course, always lovingly described by one of the kitchen helpers: "This St. Nectaire from the Haute Savoie is made of cows' milk. The cows are required to graze above a certain elevation..." "This is a Longe from Champagne, one of the ancient monastic cheeses which is still handmade. Sometimes you can see the monks' handprints on the top."
And to work off all those calories, most of us again walk or bike. Nellie and Don, another couple in their seventies, lead the pack on the bikes, followed by the couple in their forties and several others of us in our fifties and sixties. Alice, a widow, and Sam, a widower (de we have the makings of a match here?) mostly walk along the towpath. T.J. and Lisa continue to hold the fort aboard the barge.
Suddenly the week is over. Twelve strangers who have shared superb meals, muddy bike rides, and many intimacies will abruptly be parted. Nellie and Don are going on to Switzerland. Alice continues to Spain. Several are going home. I'm off to the south of France, then back to Paris.
In my cozy cabin on the last night, I contemplate the eating patterns I'll have to adapt to once I'm home. On the inside of my cabin door there's a full-length mirror-one amenity of the quarters I could happily have done without.
But I wouldn't have wanted to do without those meals.
About the author: Renata Polt is a film critic and freelance writer living in Berkeley, California. Her articles have appeared in Travel & Leisure, Modern Maturity, American Health, and many other publications.
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