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Savouring Burgundy on a hotel barge

September 10, 2014
Charming macaroon seller in Vezelay

Charming macaroon seller in Vezelay

Luciole with captains old and new

Luciole with captains old and new

France is not to be hurried, so the Luciole fits the bill, ambling along the Nivernais Canal in Burgundy at a rate marginally faster than an escargot. As such the Luciole makes the perfect platform to soak up Burgundy’s charm, food and wine.
In a week the Luciole, which means Firefly in French, covers just 45 kms, either Auxerre to Clamecy or vice versa, passing through 35 locks. So nor is this a voyage to far-flung places, but the canal is 200 years old and retains great character.
What’s more, this stubby little hotel barge, known in France as a peniche, will go down in history as a true pioneer, its story beginning in 1966 when a charismatic Englishman called Richard Parsons launched cruising on France’s delightful waterways. In these days the vessel was known as Palinurus, Parson’s company was Continental Waterways and its logo was an inspired piece of artwork showing a chubby chef chasing an escargot.
A combination of blissful scenery, superb cuisine and lashings of Parsons’ well chosen “fruity wines” wine wowed the 22 passengers, Word spread, and gradually other vessels were introduced on rivers as well, some carrying up to 50. It was not all plain sailing however, and when one vessel cruising in Alsace got stuck in reverse gear in peak season, the captain’s only option was to spend a month going backwards.
Changing times saw a new owner for the Palinurus, which was renamed Luciole, stretched and redesigned with more comfortable, all-suite accommodation, for just 14.
But its most popular itinerary was retained – the enchanting Nivernais Canal, not just one of the prettiest stretches of water in France, but enhanced by the Yonne River, a Seine tributary, which occasionally joins the canal and splits off again, and at other times runs parallel.
The towpaths, once the preserve of mules which pulled barges, are now popular with cyclists and walkers, with whom we exchange breezy “bonjours!” and waves. Luciole carries good bikes and passengers frequently ride between the locks, or just go for a walk.
One or the other is essential for eating well is a big feature of a Luciole cruise.
What I admired about breakfast was its availability anytime, and always served with bread from a local boulangerie. None of the usual 8 to 10 window after which you starve. On Luciole it runs till lunchtime, when Mark, the young Scots chef, produces fresh and tasty meals with local cheeses and wines.
Dinners, thankfully served in small portions, were equally well received, and once again with more varieties of France’s 300 cheeses, and excellent wines such as Chablis and Morgon. As one bloke from London said, I feel I am eating for England.
There is also an open bar with some fine bottles to be found on close inspection, such as a Calvados which became my nightly digestif.
And so we slept soundly, if not tight, usually in a quiet spot beside a field of Charolais cattle or a hillside of vines.
Days had a simple routine. Either we navigated or toured, my ideal being a visit in the morning allowing for a good lunch and a siesta, followed by sitting on the deck watching France go by.
Outings began with Luciole’s faithful bus setting course to a winery for a tour then a tasting of several Chablis wines, while on the second day backtracked to Auxerre, where we had boarded but on a Sunday when everything was closed.
Auxerre, overlooked by a cathedral dating back to medieval times, is popular with families who do much as we do on hire boats, but they have to make their own beds. We encounter them daily, mostly from Le Boat, invariably in a very good natured way, but as a passenger boat we had priority, and at 37 metres, took up all the space in every lock.
Third day the target was the chateaux home at Bazoches of Vauban, the great 17th military engineer whose specialty was fortresses, both how to design and attack them. In the French Revolution his remains were scattered, but when his heart was found Napoleon had it placed in Les Invalides.
Vezelay and its soaring 12th C abbey was a feast for our cameras, although my picture of the week was a pretty girl selling macaroons from the window of a house on artisan row leading up to the church.
She would have fitted in well on the Luciole, whose crew was talented, willing and always smiling, even when the nightly dinner parties called for wine pouring such as sought by Mad Men’s Roger Sterling, he of the memorable instruction to a barman: “Don’t let me see the bottom of that glass.”

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