European Waterways’ Hotel Barge L’Impressionniste in Burgundy
I spent a week on L’Impressionniste, a 126-foot-long hotel barge, cruising the Burgundy region of France. It was late summer and the vines were full of their famous fruit. All that was needed were a few days of rain and a week or so of warm weather. Then the harvesting could begin.
I had been to France many times and knew of the slow pace of canal life — cruising at under five miles an hour, the beautiful mirror-like reflections on the still water, the photogenic flower-laden locks, and the array of French lockkeepers who seemed to be from central casting. I did not know that I was to be treated to all of that and “a moveable feast."
I had heard that guests were to be wined and dined aboard L’Impressionniste. I had read the brochure and the Internet site of European Waterways, the tour operator who owns and operates the barge. Yet this gourmet experience ended up exceeding my expectations and even my imagination, even as a food- and wine-loving northern Californian.
Unlike cruise ships or even the traditional river cruise, the hotel barge was an intimate experience. We were four couples (who happened to all be Americans), served by a crew of five. L’Impressionniste has accommodations for up to 13 passengers. Our captain, James, ran the show as an expert navigator and tour guide, and the attentive service perfectly complemented the sublime sensuality of the experience.
With each meal we were offered both a white wine and a red. Lunches were on the light side, often served buffet style with fashionable salads, pates, and cold meats. Everything was farmers-market fresh; our chef Marie was off to the local towns almost daily to gather the region’s best produce. Some afternoons we had luscious soups and a warm dish like the saffron and vegetable risotto with prawns cooked in a persillade. Even the condiments (like homemade mayonnaise for the potato salad) were special.
Dinners were the well-anticipated event of the day. Marie would come out of the kitchen, as soon as we were seated, and with her understated elegance present the meal. The thought and creativity that went into each dish became evident from the first night, when we had chilled tomato soup with goat cheese on toast followed by the most succulent confit of duck. The sauces that Marie used were light and healthy. The menu, gorgeously presented, often stressed the cuisine of the region, and ranged from a fillet of lamb, red wine, and rosemary reduction, to supreme of guinea fowl with a tarragon and raisin sauce.
Each main course was followed by a cheese course. Perhaps this should come with a warning label that would read, “To delight in the cheeses of France one has to put aside one’s guilt at enjoying cheeses.” One way to put yourself in the appropriately guiltless state is to vow to spend at least one hour each day bicycling or walking along the canal’s tow paths. A big favorite with our party was a goat cheese covered in liquor-soaked raisins — aptly named Regal de Bourgogne aux raisins — which, combined with a bread of walnuts and caraway seeds, was truly a gastronomic moment.
After all of that, there was still room for an exquisite sweet treat. Strawberry tiramisu, vanilla crème brulee, crepes suzette, and, of course, a chocolate fondant with vanilla custard, were all excellently prepared and sublimely delicious.
The barge’s “wine cellar” provided some of Burgundy’s finest red (Pinot Noir) and white (Chardonnay) wines — such as the Chambolle Musigny premier cru, the Chassagne Montrachet premier cru, and the Corton Rognet Grand Cru 1992. At the Captain’s Farewell Dinner we were treated to a memorable Michel Lenique champagne.
Man cannot live by bread alone, so culture and exercise were planned as part of each day’s activities. These, too, were often food-related. After our first day cruising from the Port of Dijon past the grazing white Charolais cattle, we returned by van to old town Dijon for the Tuesday flower and produce market. Not just a regular produce market, this sprawling extravaganza located in the center of the city’s historic district provided great bargains in clothing, antiques, and jewelry.
SCENTS OF HISTORY
During our land excursions, we had a chance to visit several of the area’s fine chateaus. Highlights worth noting included the moat-encircled 13th-century Chateau de Commarin and the castle of Chateauneuf-en-Auxois. In most cases, we had these chateaus all to ourselves. Everything was planned to give our small group as private an experience as possible. Without the sounds of other tourists and guides, I was able to appreciate the historical significance and grandeur of these moments in French history. At the Chateau de Commarin, we were introduced to a current member of the de Vogue family, whose ownership of Commarin went back 26 generations. She drove over the moat on her bicycle — quite a different impression than the legendary traverses by bejeweled horse-drawn carriages, but majestic nonetheless.
A visit to Burgundy is not complete without spending an afternoon in Beaune, its capital. Its history goes back almost two millennia. Beaune was a focal point for the Gauls and then the Romans, and it became the seat for the dukes of Burgundy during the middle ages. Its most famous structure, the 15th-century Hotel Dieu Hospice, is resplendent with its ornately-styled multicolored tile roof. I had seen similar roofs throughout the region built to a smaller scale, but this one is an artistic tour de force.
While in Beune, we had a private wine tasting at the city’s oldest winery, Maison Champy, founded in 1720. Beune has 15 kilometers of caves cut into the limestone beneath the city. Maison Champy has more than one kilometer of these caves. Strolling through the subterranean aisles stacked high with famous vintages was like passing through a treasury of fine art, but with a bit more of a Halloween cobwebbed feel. Above the caves we were treated to 2006 Clos-Vougeot Grand Cru and “OldVintage” 1994 Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru in an elegant wine-tasting setting. An elegant dining room is set amongst oak barrels and antique maps of the region. The charming wine hostess discussed each wine with an appreciation of its subtleties and in the true fashion of a sommelier suggested food pairings with each selection.
Our “moveable feast” sadly had to come to an end. We arrived on Friday evening at the canal’s summit — 1,250 feet above sea level at the town of Escomme. Not ready to leave the barge so soon, we fantasized about what it would be like to proceed through the Pouilly tunnel and descend down to the Loire Valley. Alas, that treat is not yet available to hotel barges.
After a week of cruising the Burgundy Canal with such elegance and grace, it took a while to come back down to earth. But this floating dream was also a reality: we each took away fond memories imprinted on the brain, heart, and taste buds, along with new friendships and a broadening of our sensory horizons.
FOR MORE INFORMATION on L’Impressionniste and hotel barging on the various canals of France, as well as England, contact European Waterways, TEL: (Toll-free US) 800-394-8630 or 011 44 1784 482439; FAX: 011 44 1784 483072; Email: href="mailto:sales@GoBarging.com">sales@GoBarging.com; website: www.GoBarging.com .
Chris Gant Marketing & PR Manager European Waterways Ltd. 35 Wharf Road, Wraysbury Middlesex TW19 5JQ, England UK Tel: 44 (0)1784 482 439 UK Fax: 44 (0)1784 483 072 USA Toll Free Tel: 1-800-394-8630 CANADA Toll Free Tel: 1-888-342-1917 AUSTRALIA Toll Free Tel: 1-800-771278