Enjoy Wine, Castles, and the French Countryside on a Canal Cruise Through Burgundy
The women and children who once worked the barges along the canals of France would probably sigh with wonder to hear that this form of travel is now a luxury activity. Those lacking horses or mules were sent down the towpath with canvas strips across their chests to pull the shallow boats, piled high with commercial goods, using muscle and willpower. Sometimes the men joined them, but usually, they stayed aboard to steer.
That was more than a century ago, and things have changed. How they have changed! On the Belmond Amaryllis, a private-charter barge with four en suite cabins, a living room, and a small but perfectly formed heated swimming pool on deck, we rolled along effortlessly, thanks to a very quiet combustion engine. The trip was so smooth that the gently steaming pool water never so much as splashed.
Belmond, which owns and operates several other luxury barges in France, usually sends a car to meet guests at the airport, but my husband, Craig, and I had left London months before to ride out the pandemic in France. We split our time between the two locations, as my stepchildren are enrolled in French schools—which meant they were able to join us for our first evening aboard.
On a late summer evening, our guide, Jonathan Forscini, picked us up at our home in the Burgundy village of Vitteaux and drove us south over wooded hills and through toasted fields toward the medieval town of Beaune. After a while, the slopes began to sprout rows of vines. I glimpsed the hill of Corton, a legendary name to wine lovers, and craned to see the vines of the celebrated Corton and Corton-Charlemagne grands crus before the roadside trees intervened. The children couldn't wait to reach the pool, and I felt the same about the chance to dive into this world-famous wine region.
At Seurre, the six staff members of the Amaryllis were lined up to welcome us, including Richard Fletcher, our pilot; Neil Churchill, the chef; and Beverly Brennan, our host. For this week they were at our service, and we were encouraged to treat the barge as our home—a luxurious form of isolation that was particularly welcome in the middle of a pandemic, as was the L'Occitane verbena hand sanitizer and the pile of disposable masks placed discreetly in our room. (The staff wore masks and stayed nearby but never too close; for us passengers, wearing masks was discretionary.) The living room was styled in a gentler version of Louis XVI—lots of wood, gilt lamps, and sofas upholstered in shades of taupe. Canapés, champagne, and sodas were waiting.
On the deck, the pool shone turquoise against the darkening canal. France's first major man-made waterway was the Briare Canal, which joined the Seine and Loire rivers in 1642. (Construction had been delayed by the assassination of the king in 1610.) Many others followed, but the Burgundy Canal, completed in 1832, was one of the most important: a vital conduit between the Seine, the river of Paris, and the great Rhône, which flows through Lyon to the Mediterranean; it connects northern France to the south. All sorts of goods were conveyed via these marvels of engineering, but one of the most important was wine.
I've taken cruises where the waist-expanding dinners were at odds with the need to squeeze through the inch of space around the bed, but the cabins on the Amaryllis had room for wardrobes and desks. The beds were high enough to suit a French monarch: I could imagine looking regally down on my courtiers, before demanding help to reach the floor. That's about the only service Beverly and her team didn't provide, but it was worth the scramble up and down to lie in bed, gazing out of windows flush with the water, with a duck's-eye view of Burgundy skimming past.
The children weren't interested in Burgundy. Once done with the pool, their focus was dinner. The canapés had piqued their expectations: "I can tell the chef is going to be really good," Nora, aged 11, whispered to me, and she was right. At a table strewn with faceted beads that caught the candlelight and made it flicker onto the bucolic mural, pea velouté with mascarpone and drizzled truffle oil was followed by cod wrapped in delicately flavored pancetta, topped with a tangle of herbs and radishes. The nightly cheese selection was mostly Burgundian, always French. Much of it probably contravenes U.S. pasteurization rules, so this would be an American's chance to really indulge. Individual crème brûlées, decorated with strawberries, were delicious but the size of a plate. I was the only person not to finish mine.
Food was sourced locally every other day. Given that the boat traveled only in the mornings, at less than three miles an hour, that meant really local. One of France's greatest joys is the boulangerie. There are so many bakeries that most French people keep a map of the best ones in their heads, and the Amaryllis staff, who used a different one each time we stopped, clearly did, too.
Jonathan, a career bargeman who even met his wife on the boats, laughed when I remarked that he seemed continually to be running off to market. "You think you're signing up to be a guide," he said. "But the job is 60 percent food shopping!"
Our first full day began sadly, with a farewell to the girls. Swanning around on a luxury barge was all very well, but school was due to start that week. Craig and I took our melancholy across the river Saône into St.-Jean-de-Losne, a sweet village that has seen its fair share of trouble. In the 17th century, it was besieged by the Imperial army, led by drunken general Matthias Gallas; the villagers fended them off with the help of the river, which obligingly flooded and washed away the enemy's encampment. It was surprising how many times these waterways flowed into the stories I heard, but perhaps it shouldn't have been. In landlocked Burgundy, they were once the essence of life.
Beyond the imposing riverside church, with its stone arches and classic Burgundian roof of multicolored tiles, we stopped at a rickety 15th-century house that is now a pleasingly peculiar museum. The Musée de la Batellerie, or Canal Transport Museum, is a little paradise for barge geeks, with models of boats through the decades, including a fishing barge that used to ride the river from village to village selling its live catch along the way, and a metal diving suit, complete with bubble helmet and lead-capped boots, for underwater boat repairs.
"It weighs about 220 pounds—you couldn't get out of the water alone," the docent told me. We tend to believe that faster is better, but the information that a barge can carry about 425 tons made me wonder whether we aren't missing something. That's more than 10 times a standard truck's load.
The Amaryllis stayed put in the afternoons, but we didn't. "Next stop, Romanée-Conti!" Jonathan cried cheerily, naming the most prestigious estate in Burgundy as he ushered us and a trio of bikes into the van. This was our starting point for a tour of Burgundy's top vineyards, the grands crus. Every Belmond boat trip is carefully tailored to suit the guests' interests. I love cycling in Burgundy, not because I'm sporty—quite the contrary. There are no steep bike paths in this area, because those hills aren't just breathtakingly pretty; they are some of the most valuable farmland in the world. Vines like poor, stony soils: the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes that grow on the flatter, more fertile land are much less valuable. So guess where they put the cyclists?
We pedaled past the lower extremities of Clos de Vougeot, a world-famous vineyard whose 125 acres are enclosed by a stone wall; past vines worth thousands of euros per bottle growing next to vines worth hundreds, although no amateur on a bicycle could tell the difference. Harvesting had begun.
At Chambolle-Musigny we spotted a grape fight, the young harvesters pelting one another with expensive missiles. We paused to admire the patchwork of vines cascading scenically down the slope from the hilltop village of Morey-St.-Denis, then sped on to Gevrey-Chambertin, where something better awaited: a chance to taste the wines.
Christine Drouhin was welcoming but tired. With her husband, Philippe, she manages Domaine Drouhin-Laroze, and during harvest, she personally makes the workers three meals a day—with wine, naturally. "We were born into this tradition," she told us. "We sell our wines at a certain price, so we can feed our workers, and we do." Her choice is clearly a popular one: the same people return each year. "Our oldest harvester is 81! He's the first to arrive each morning. There he is at 7 a.m., drinking his coffee." We had passed Drouhin's daughter, Caroline, picking with the team; her son, Nicolas, was in the winery, overseeing the arrival of the grapes. Walking through the grounds, she gestured to her old house, where Caroline now lives with her own children, one of whom, a tiny girl, toddled past us. "The next generation of winemakers!" her grandmother cried. If she turns out to be right, that child will become the seventh generation; by now, almost half the family's land is grand cru.
Christine opened three 2015's for us to try: En Champs, from grapes that grow next to premier cru land; an especially delicious premier cru, Au Closeau; and Clos de Bèze, a Chambertin grand cru. But we didn't fret unduly over the quality designations. One of the delights of this trip was the excellence of the wine, each night at dinner and, ahem, at lunchtime. Never mind studying the impossibly complicated geography. The best way to appreciate Burgundy is to drink good Burgundy, at all levels, from village to grand cru. And with Jonathan's help (he was also our sommelier), we certainly did that.
We returned to the barge just in time for the apéro: the pre-dinner drink that, in my view, is the best part of any good day. Beverly served a plate of gougères, the Burgundian cheese puffs, accompanied by a bottle of Christine and Philippe's Chardonnay, and we relaxed as the sun sank toward the emerald water.
We awoke the next day to the engines revving, and the vexed question of whether to stay aboard or walk alongside, keeping pace with our floating home from lock to lock. Lunch would be a picnic, said Jonathan, and I had vague visions of rugs spread on the grass, paper plates, and flies in my wine.
Not exactly. The Château de Longecourt is an enormous, turreted castle, built in 1475. Stuccoed for a grand wedding in the 18th century, it now has a peeling exterior that doesn't detract from its imposing charm. On the bridge over the moat, lunch was spread across linen-covered tables, and Beverly waited with a chilled bottle of champagne. This fantasy of castle life was only slightly punctured when we spotted a man in his sixties, casually debonair in a T-shirt and jeans, leaning from the kitchen window, throwing scraps to the swans and enormous fish.
Although his family has owned the château for hundreds of years. Roland, the Count of St.-Seine, does everything "from polishing the brass to cutting the topiary," he informed us as we toured airy rooms stuffed with treasures. (How many bedrooms? "I'm not sure. Twenty? Thirty? It's really not so big.") We finished with a peek at the delightful cartoons (anti-Hitler jibes; cheeky, well-drawn mice) graffitied on the barn walls by American airmen billeted there during World War II.
This wasn't our only encounter with Occupied France. In Beaune, in the vast underground cellars where Maison Joseph Drouhin and others store millions of bottles of its wine, we were shown the space that Maurice Drouhin, who presided over the estate during the war, disguised with an artificial wall, so the thirsty Nazis wouldn't find his best cuvées. There is no connection between the Drouhin and Drouhin-Laroze wineries, but the confusion is very Burgundian, where everyone seems to have one of a handful of surnames.
Beaune is beautiful: a town of creamy stone amid the vineyards, still encircled by the walls that protected it from aggressors for centuries. There are good restaurants and bars, old churches, and, of course, wineries. But Beaune also shelters one of the most extraordinary paintings I've ever seen, within a building that would still be worth the price of entry without it. The Hospices de Beaune was founded by Nicolas Rolin and his wife in 1443, when he belatedly realized that a career as the Duke of Burgundy's chancellor might not be the best route to a blissful afterlife.
The hospital is now elsewhere, but the building is amazing, a Gothic marvel with sumptuous decorations glorifying those wealthy benefactors and a roof gaudy with Burgundian glazed tiles. In a specially darkened room, Rogier van der Weyden's Last Judgment would give the most dedicated unbeliever pause: a gigantic, glowing, multi-paneled painting where, beneath the saints, ordinary people slink off to hell or trip lightly toward heaven. Theoretically, the giant electronic magnifying glass is out of action due to the pandemic. But we waited for the room to empty and then the attendant obliged, sending it gliding across the panels to illuminate their incredible detail.
August slipped into September, and at some point, I stopped the usual obsessive flicking on my phone and turned my full attention outward, to where the grass-bordered towpath unscrolled beneath trembling leaves and the sunshine glinted off the slow-moving water. I paddled in the pool as we went through a lock, marveling at Richard's ability, from the back of a 128-foot barge, to guide the nose exactly into place, with just a few inches to spare on either side, while Aaron Belaga, a crew member, hovered, waiting to lasso a bollard with his rope. And I enjoyed the quiet drama of the darkened interiors brightening as the lock attendant winched open the sluices, the water levels rose, the mooring rope tightened, and we levitated toward ground level.
The bikes never again left the hold, but we weren't entirely lazy. There were pool dips, and forest-fringed towpath strolls, and a private lakeside yoga session on the smooth lawn of the Abbaye de la Bussière, a hotel that still looks like the 12th-century Cistercian abbey it once was. And we hiked around and through the hilltop village of Châteauneuf-en-Auxois, admiring the picturesque Ouche Valley that unfolded below us. Still, eating and drinking took priority.
We'd even ventured off-barge, to William Frachot, a Michelin two-starred restaurant in Dijon, where we tried witty, modern takes on classic Burgundian dishes, such as a garlic mousse shielding a snail, a puréed version of a gougère, and roast chicken with Dijon carrots served in the smallest saucepan I've ever seen. (A word on snails: the American food writer Waverley Root noted that his compatriots "consider the eating of snails a curious custom," but Burgundy snails are the ideal sop for garlicky butter, and served with Burgundian wine, they represent a form of poetic justice. Having grown plump on the leaves of grapes, they are consumed with the juice of their former dinner as accompaniment.)
But really, we were perfectly happy on the Amaryllis. Neil never repeated himself; only the quantities of his delicious food were predictable. The poolside lunches were glorious; lobster accompanied by an excellent Meursault was a particular highlight. Our final dinner was a tour de force: oysters, dressed crab with Indian spices, duck with Burgundy truffle, and an incredible tower of profiteroles to finish. Jonathan also outdid himself, serving a Clos des Mouches, one of Maison Drouhin's great white wines, named for the bees, or "honey flies" (mouches à miel), that love the grapes, and a superb Corton grand cru.
As a farewell present, I'd asked Jonathan to show us something we would never find alone. He obliged, taking us, via Dijon's bustling food market, into the unglamorous grounds of a psychiatric hospital, where a tiny building shields an extraordinary sculpture. The Well of Moses was carved by Dutch artist Claus Sluter at the end of the 14th century, when Burgundy was a duchy at least as powerful as the neighboring kingdom of France and this now-central hospital was a monastery outside the city. Its location wasn't the greatest oddity, though: thanks to an early mistranslation of qaran, the Hebrew word for radiant, as qeren, or horned, Moses has distinct horns bulging from his forehead. It was a suitably eccentric end to a trip full of novelties. And beneath Moses, filling the well, ran the Ouche River: our last faint contact with a Burgundian waterway, as we returned reluctantly to life on land.
Booking a Canal Cruise
The Amaryllis is one of seven fully-staffed private barges that make up the Belmond Afloat in France fleet. Rates for a six-night cruise for eight guests begin at $47,578 (or $5,947 per guest), all-inclusive. Round-trip transfers from Paris to the barge are provided. The Amaryllis runs between March and October.
A version of this story first appeared in the February 2021 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline High Water Mark.