For me, the soul of France resides not in Paris, nor in Provence (which is, well, provincial), but in Burgundy, the east-central region of 1.6 million people that lies at the heart of French wine and gastronomy. The local passion for great food and wine, combined with historic chateaux and pastoral landscapes, make Burgundy an irresistible package for anyone who wants to soak up rural French culture.
I toured the region last year on a canal barge with American-based French Country Waterways, which is one of several companies that offer canal cruises throughout France. For a week, our slow boat puttered through the heart of eastern Burgundy and the famed Cote d'Or, the home of some of the greatest vineyards in the world, stopping every day for remarkable meals and memorable tours.
The trip began on a Sunday, when our group of 11 passengers boarded our floating hotel, Esprit, which was docked in the pastoral village of St. Leger-sur-Dheune. Nearby, families fished and talked in the lingering dusk. Anne-Laurence Wupperman, a petite, blue-eyed Frenchwoman who spoke perfect English and would be our captain and guide for the week, had met us in Paris, and accompanied us on the super-fast TGV train for a trip to the countryside that took just an hour and a half. We would never travel anywhere near that speed again: It took the next five days to navigate through the waterways of an area that you could drive in two fast hours on the highway. It would have been faster on occasion just to walk.
Esprit was a refurbished 128-foot barge with two floors of polished wood, a sundeck, and nine staterooms, which can accommodate up to 18 passengers. The cabins were small and simple, with built-in beds and private baths with showers.
On Monday morning, after fresh breads and pastries had been delivered for breakfast, Esprit began its leisurely journey north. There are nearly 750 miles of waterways in Burgundy alone, and we puttered along only a small section of them, stopping every twenty minutes or so to navigate a hand-operated lock.
This unhurried pace was not only terrifically relaxing, but allowed for lots of peaceful reflection as villages and fields revealed themselves, and could be explored by hopping on one of the bikes that were always available to guests to take off the boat, re-boarding at the next lock.
I did precisely that on that first day. We were outside of the village of Santenay. There was a stately, stone cathedral and tile-roofed homes a short walk from the canal. But I bicycled off on my own in the other direction, down the canal path and over a bridge, through a country road, and past old stone walls until I stumbled upon a winery called La P'Tiote Cave in the village of Chassey le Camp, which displayed a welcome sign over its tasting room. I was the only visitor, and the patron poured samples of two vintages before I spotted a bottle of cremant, the sparkling wine of Burgundy that has long been a favorite of mine. I bought a bottle and rode back to the boat with my treasure in hand.
The next day, we had an exquisite lunch prepared on board of roasted guinea fowl and mushroom quiche. It was clear from the start that the ship's raison d'etre was focused on the dining room table, where we gathered three times a day to savor long, lavish meals presided over by a young and talented French chef name Cyril Bedu.
Afterwards, Anne-Laurence drove us to the Chateau de la Rochepot, a 12th-century castle with turrets and an intricately tiled roof. — On the way, she pointed out the significance of the vineyards we passed. — "On the left is Chassagne-Montrachet," she said, "and on the right is Puligny-Montrachet. These are two of the greatest wine vineyards in the world." — The wine collectors among us nodded with excitement; the vineyards were legendary for their flavorful red and white burgundies, which we drank that night at dinner.
The tour of the castle was remarkable not only because of medieval artifacts — and artwork such as a rare statuette of God cradling the Christ-child in his arms, but because the manager simply handed Anne-Laurence the keys and allowed her to lead us through the castle's ancient kitchen, chapel and guard's room. At one point, she inserted a skeleton key into a 15th-century Italian wall safe, opened it and showed us how the mechanism still worked perfectly.
Stopping that evening at the town of Chagny, we went ashore for a haute cuisine dinner at Lameloise, an elegant restaurant that dates back to the 1920s and is owned and operated by third-generation chef Jacques Lameloise. In a private dining room trimmed with blonde cabinets and a red carpet, waiters in tuxedos served a seven-course menu, with choices of appetizer, entrée and dessert, that took three-and-a-half hours and ended only when the last slice of candied orange, petits four and drop of coffee mousse had been consumed. For me, it all will long remain in my memory of great food — the appetizer of foie gras prepared three ways, the cheese cart with 15 perfectly ripened choices, the exquisite filet of roasted lamb, and even the tiny, round potato that burst with flavor.
"This is what we like to do," said Anne-Laurence. "Have a good meal with good conversation." We returned to the boat well satisfied.
On Wednesday, we visited the town of Beaune, Burgundy's political capital, and toured the ancient hospice that gave comfort to thousands of afflicted travelers dating back to medieval times. We tied up that night at the thriving city of Chalon-sur-Saône under a statue of the euphoniously named Joseph Nicephore Niepce, a pioneer in photography, and Anne-Laurence led us to her favorite chocolate shop in Burgundy for free samples.
Later in our trip, Esprit tied off at a handsome waterfront park, where we could walk into the heart of Dijon, the city of 250,000 that is famous for its prepared foods, such as Grey Poupon mustard. While the others shopped for souvenirs, I visited the Musee des Beaux Arts to admire sculptures and a collection of medieval armory, and then we all met at a café in the public square.
Back on board that night, Chef Cyril outdid himself with foie gras combined with figs and apples, escargots in pastry and duck in cognac sauce. As usual, two wines and three cheeses accompanied the meal.
It was not the only meal he prepared that week that I will not forget. One day, it was ham baked en croute and served with a red wine sauce for lunch alongside a leek quiche and three exquisite salads. On another day, there were perfectly sautéed scallops with cepes served as an appetizer for roasted veal with cognac sauce. The vintages accompanying these meals included some of the finest names in Burgundy, from a Vosnes Romanee Premier Cru that nearly made me swoon with pleasure to a 1995 white Meursault that Anne-Laurence excitedly opened for dinner one night.
"Alors, who ever said a white wine must be drunk young?" she said, her blue eyes sparkling. "This one is 11 years old, and is sensational."
Near the end of our trip, we visited the Clos de Vougeot, a 12th-century chateau with ancient wine presses fashioned from enormous wooden beams, and an inscription on the wall that may has well have been the motto for the entire week: "Jamais en vain, toujours en vin"
Never in vain, always in wine.
I'll toast to that.
If you go:
French canal boats, called paniche, tour many regions of the country and offer the same combination of good food and local atmosphere that we enjoyed on Esprit. A good resource for travelers is Barges in France. — Prices for Burgundy cruises range from $1,790 to $5,795 per person, and French Country Waterways is offering discounts of up to 30 percent for its end-of-season cruises in October.
By Jim Gullo