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Exploring the Burgundy Canal aboard European Waterways’ La Belle Epoque

Exploring the Burgundy Canal aboard European Waterways’ La Belle Epoque

La Belle Epoque (2)

Cruising along a canal in France was an ideal way to see the countryside and experience a land rich in history, culture, food and wine. The France you find in Burgundy feels far removed from the bustle of Paris. When I boarded European Waterways’ La Belle Époque, (converted from working barge into luxury hotel) in Tanlay, France last spring, I discovered a tranquil countryside, free-flowing French wines, exquisite cheeses, tiny hamlets and a much-needed respite from the mad rush of life. Come along as we wander through the French countryside.

Day 1: Welcome aboard Le Belle Epoque
I joined a friend in Paris and, after two days exploring the city, shopping and dining, we met up with our European Waterways tour guide at a hotel in central Paris. We, along with a British couple and a mother-daughter couple from the U.S., climbed into the comfortable van for a 2-hour ride to France’s Burgundy region.
La Belle Époque holds 12 passengers, so I was thrilled to discover we were the only six passengers for this particular cruise. We made our way past city and settled in to admire the French countryside, fresh and in new bloom in early May.
As we drove into the picturesque town of Tanlay, we spotted our home for the next few days anchored in the canal. We received an all-star welcome onto La Belle Époque as all the crew members lined up to greet us and help us on board.
The young French Captain – Rudy – greeted us in the saloon (adjacent to the dining room) with a smile and glass of champagne. Together, we cheered our new-found friends, our home for the coming week and a successful journey along the way. After a quick tour of the boat, we made our way to our staterooms for a quick nap before dinner.
The Staterooms
La Belle Époque was a logging barge built in 1930 to carry wood to Amsterdam. She was refitted as a hotel barge in 1995. Our staterooms were all quite comfortable. I had one of the two smaller rooms, with two twins, but I found it perfect for a single person. (It might have been a tight fit to share.) I had room for my bag on one bed and slept comfortably on the other. There’s a small closet and intimate bathroom with shower. There were plenty of plugs for charging my phone and iPad.
If you need a bit more room, the barge includes two Junior Suites (one with a double bed and one with two singles that can be combined into a double) and two Staterooms that let you configure them with two singles or one double. One suite has 7-foot ceilings while all other staterooms have 6’2”-tall ceilings.
Activities on board
During our tour, we discovered that there are a variety of activities on board to help fill our days – as if the gorgeous scenery weren’t enough. There are touring bikes (which you can use to ride alongside the boat or into the small towns), Jacuzzi hot tub on the deck, deck chairs, CDs and player in the dining room/saloon, board games, books and binoculars.
The first evening
After a quick nap in my room, I awoke to the most delicious smells wafting through the cabin. I dressed up a little for dinner and made my way upstairs. I was to discover that meals are always an experience on board La Belle Époque – with gourmet cuisine prepared by the on-board chef, red and white wines described in detail by the captain, an assortment of local breads that changed each day and local cheeses from around the region (click here for more on the great French cheeses I enjoyed during the trip). I adored all the attention to detail. For example, the creamy butter, topped with a sprinkle of sea salt, became my favorite condiment on the table.
The first day, we enjoyed a farm-fresh chicken with potatoes and some of the freshest asparagus ever (it was in season during our visit). Cheeses served were a Beaufort and Bleu d’Auvergne. The wines were exquisite every evening, although I did have a couple of favorites. Our first evening, the red was a 2008 Pernand-Vergelesse Premier Cru, Domaine Chanson. The white offering was a 2008 Montagny Premier Cru, Bouchard Père & Fils.
After a comfortable meal, we watched the sun set from the deck and enjoyed after-dinner drinks in the saloon. If you needed anything, it was always a simple request away. Someone from the staff stayed close by to serve us, but we never felt as if someone was hovering nearby. The subtle bob of the barge rocked me to sleep that night, as I eagerly anticipated the next day’s cruise. Tomorrow, off to Lezinne and a castle with a moat.
Day 2: Heading toward Lezinne
I awoke after my first night on board La Belle Époque to the sounds of the barge preparing to depart. I heard the distant sound of the captain giving direction to his crew and the gentle whip of water against the sides. I felt like a child as the barge set out on its slow trek along the canal. As the French countryside slipped past, the smell of fresh-brewed coffee pulled me from my bed.
Morning on board
Breakfast is served every morning from 7:30 to 9:30, encouraging guests to enjoy a leisurely start to the day. I made my way upstairs and discovered a couple of other passengers already enjoying their meal. After ordering what I discovered to be the best cappuccino I’ve had anywhere, I enjoyed a beautiful croissant with locally-made marmalade, more of that salted butter, some of the best yogurt in the world (I love French yogurt and am saddened we have nothing even close to it in the US) and a plate of fresh fruit.
The casual amble along the canal that morning was a memory I’ll hold forever. We passed fields covered in yellow saffron blooms while white Charolaise cattle dotted the hillsides. Every now and then some ancient stone building stood testimony to the agelessness of this European waterway.
Each little lock held some treasure – funky decorations, centuries-old homes, an assortment of locals, a knick-knack or two for sale and always the requisite dog. It became such a fun treat to snap photos as we moved through the locks or watch the dogs clamoring for scraps from the chef. One special moment was moving through the lock as a father showed his young son the boat. Although they spoke French and I couldn’t understand the conversation, I could imagine the discussion as this little toddler watched in awe as the lock slowly filled with water until the gate opened, letting us slip out the other side. His wide-eyed amazement at the process made me appreciate my trip even more.
Lunch on board
We spent the morning in a variety of spots – sitting on deck reading and listening to music, hiking along the banks and biking the trail alongside the canal. I must admit that I had a hard time settling down and simply relaxing. I seemed to move from spot to spot and I was guilty of checking my email several times during the day.
As the lunch hour neared and we sat down inside (the weather had turned a bit drizzly outside) to a feast of beef with spicy zucchini and sweet onions, Neufchatel cheese and chevre au Piment d’Espelette, we pulled into the scenic little village of Lezinne. Our lunch wine featured a red and white option again (we each had a glass of both) – 2008 Rully, Bouchard Père & Fils and 2009 Santenay Bouchard Père & Fils. I sipped my wine and watched as the captain carefully pulled us alongside the shore. I was already itching for the first excursion.
Excursion to Le Chateau d’Tanlay
There was no rush to finish our meal, but we eventually set out in the van with our guide for the first off-boat excursion. We headed back a few minutes to the town of Tanlay (ironically, where we’d been docked the evening before) and paid a visit to the Renaissance-era Castle of Tanlay, or Le Chateau d’Tanlay.
Construction began on the castle in 1535 A.D. After passing to a new owner in 1642, a central wing was built, along with a moat and stables. In 1704, the castle passed to Marquis de Tanlay and that same family owns it today, still occupying much of the property.
There was something so uniquely French about exploring the château, visiting rooms built in the Renaissance, but catching a glimpse of the modern children’s swing set in the midst of formal gardens. There are guided tours offered several times daily that give you a peek inside royal lifestyles – bridging the gap between the Renaissance world and today.
After touring the castle, we all ambled back at our own pace to the drop-off point, where we then headed back to our home-away-from-home, still anchored in Lezinne.
Dinner on board
We returned to the barge late afternoon, with just enough time to rest before dinner. Dinner started with warm goat cheese, salad and cider vinaigrette. Pork fillet was paired with morel mushrooms. Two more beautiful cheeses – Brillat Savarin and Petit Munster – were served with local breads. The chef then offered a crème brulee for dessert. I couldn’t very well say no, could I?
Once again, our wines were exquisite examples of why French wines – and particularly those from Burgundy – still top the lists of the world’s best wines. Our white selection was a 2010 Pouilly-Fuisse, Bastion de L’Oratoire Chanson and the red was a 2010 Volnay Premier Cru, Bouchard Père & Fils.
After dinner, I took a little walk around the village of Lezinne before returning to La Belle Époque and a nightcap, excited to see what beautiful sights – and great food and wine – the next day would bring. Follow along tomorrow as we continue our trek on the Burgundy canal.
Day 3: Off to Chablis
My third day on board European Waterways’ La Belle Époque was such a fun combination of relaxation and sightseeing. As the barge moved slowly through the various locks to Ancy le Franc, we biked alongside the canal and enjoyed the gorgeous French spring sunshine. It was a short cruising day, so just before lunch we docked at Ancy le Franc and climbed into the van for a ride to the famous wine town of Chablis.
Visit to Chablis
The town of Chablis, in the northwest part of the Burgundy region, is picturesque with vineyard-covered hills, small boutiques, little specialty shops, a broad selection of restaurants and some luxurious hotels. After a quick lunch in one of the cafés, we headed to Laroche Wine Bar at 10 rue Auxerroise. The wine bar for Domaine Michel Laroche is a great spot to sample Chablis wines. For just €10 , you can sample three wines.
After our wine tasting, we wandered behind the tasting room through narrow passageways to the Obediencery – a 9th century monastery for monks of the Order of Saint Martin from Tours. This gorgeous building holds much of the stock for Laroche Vineyards and you can even see the 13th century oak press.
Evening on board the barge
After a day of sightseeing in Chablis, we returned to the barge for a quick change of clothing before meeting up again in the saloon. Our stewardess served us traditional British Pimms on the deck before the chef called us in for dinner.
Dinner was centered around the white wine we passengers picked out as a group during our Chablis tasting – 2008 Chablis Grand Cru, Domaine Laroche. We enjoyed beef carpaccio and duck with butternut squash puree. Our second wine, the red one, was Savigny-Lès-Beaune, Premier Cru “Les Peuillets,” Bouchard Aîné & Fils. The cheeses offered were St. Maure de Touraine and Brique Jussac. The Sainte Maure de Touraine is a log-shaped goat’s milk cheese with a long stick through the middle. According to tradition, it’s bad luck if anyone cuts through the stick while eating the cheese, so we were all careful to ensure good luck for the remainder of the trip.
After dinner, we sipped on the rest of our wine and talked about all the beautiful places to see in the world, but each of us felt incredibly lucky to be sitting under the stars in the French countryside that Spring evening.
Day 4: Exploring medieval France
The fourth day on board European Waterways’ La Belle Époque was a busy one, but one of my favorites. We started the day off with an exquisite brunch served outside on the sun deck. There is something magical about moving slowly along in the water, eating farm-fresh food and sipping French wine. We had a choice of Eggs Benedict, Eggs Florentine or Eggs Royal (I chose Benedict and Florentine). We had radishes with salted butter, fresh local breads (also with that incredible salted butter) and fruit. The chef offered us two wines: a bright Rosé Epineuil and a red Beaune du Château, Domaine Bouchard Père & Fils. Of course, I tried both, but really enjoyed the rosé. There’s nothing quite as nice as a chilled French rosé on a warm day.
Visit to a medieval city
Immediately after brunch, we headed out with the captain to the medieval village of Noyers sur Serein. A short drive brought us to a picturesque village with half-timbered houses, cobbled streets and still-intact ramparts. It is like something right out of a fairy tale. We were in time for the market, and tagged along with the captain as he ordered up items for the barge, including local fish, fresh-baked breads, cheese and wine. I was in my version of heaven, smelling all that fresh-baked bread and sampling cheese.
We had just enough time left over to explore the shops around the village square and sip an espresso in a sidewalk café. As I sat there, I closed my eyes and imagined that I lived in the little village and could walk down to the town square every day for fresh bread and cheese. I knew I’d lost my heart to the French countryside. As we headed back to the barge, I felt a sense of belonging and peace that I’d not felt in a long time.
Touring a Renaissance palace
After a quick rest, we headed out late afternoon for Chateau d’Ancy le Franc. This 16th-century Renaissance palace, built by an Italian architect, also has elaborate formal gardens. The interior is filled with lavish decorations and an exceptional collection of murals. You can get a guided tour daily (except Monday) from mid-April through September. It always amazes me in Europe that these centuries-old palaces can be situated in some tiny village, still an active part of the community. Chateau d’Ancy le Franc is a perfect example of how the old and new mingle so beautifully.
Evening on board
After such a perfect day exploring the French countryside, it seemed only fitting to begin the evening a little early with a Champagne toast. The captain joined us for a toast with Champagne Michel Lenique a Pierry. Then, we once again made our way to the table for another gourmet offering. We started with a smoky lentil soup with crème fraiche, which somehow tasted even better than it smelled. As the smoky goodness of the soup settled in, we enjoyed a veal filet, then a cheese course of Soumaintrain and Camembert. The chef followed that with Crepes Suzette and banana flambé, prepared in the dining room. I’m not a banana fan, so the chef served me crepes topped with juicy red strawberries and fresh cream. It was heaven on a plate.
We enjoyed our red wine from brunch along with a bottle of white – a 2009 Saint-Aubin Premier Cru Les Pitengerets, Bastion de l’Oratoire Chanson. After such a long, active day, it was an early evening and I fell asleep to the sound of water gently lapping at the sides of the barge. The trip was half over and I never wanted it to come to an end.
Day 5: Visiting the Abbey
We began our fifth day on board European Waterways’ La Belle Époque with a slow meander along the canal toward Montbard. It was one of the most scenic days on the barge, with more fields of Charolaise cattle, numerous little hamlets and the Forge de Buffon along the way. The forge, built in 1768 by Georges-Louis LeClerc, Count of Buffon, was the world’s most modern at the time and even included housing for his workers. You can take a self-guided tour of the forge grounds today.
I spent much of the morning walking along the path as the barge slowly picked up the rear. Somehow, I didn’t seem to miss the modern world and found plenty to fill my day.
Eating the market finds
This day offered some of my favorite meals, cheese and wines of the entire trip. It was great fun to taste the foods we had picked out the previous day at the market. Lunch featured the fish the captain picked up – Dourade – on ratatouille with a sundried tomato beurre blanc. Our cheeses for lunch were both quite unique – a pyramid-shaped Vezelay Valencay and three little crottin du chavignol the captain had picked up from the market. Each day, the wines got more refined and the two lunch wines were exceptional. Our white was a St. Veran Bouchard Père & Fils and the red was a 2010 Givry, Bastion de l’Oratoire Chanson.
Visit to a World Heritage Sight
Although a nap was calling to me after lunch, I didn’t want to miss the afternoon’s excursion to Abbayé de Fontenay (Fontenay Abbey), a UNESCO World Heritage sight founded by St. Bernard in 1118. The abbey is one of the world’s oldest Cistercian abbeys, founded for monks who wanted to return to a strict observance of the Benedictine Rule of the 6th century. The abbey has an amazing series of drains, which were necessary to build such a structure in the once water-logged land.
The abbey housed more than 200 monks at a time between the 12th and 15th centuries, but was home to only a handful of monks by the time of the French Revolution. In the 1800s, owner Elie de Montgolfier (inventor of the hot-air balloon) turned the property into a paper mill. His son-in-law, Edouard Aynard, bought it in 1906 and restored the abbey to its former glory. The Aynard family still owns the property, which was named a World Heritage sight in 1981.
We toured the grounds and I was overwhelmed by the sense of peace. It was May, so blooms were just coming out and grass was that rich bright green of early spring in Europe. The focal point at the sight is the Abbey Church, consecrated by Pope Eugène III in 1147. We wandered the grounds and browsed the rather large gift shop before heading back to our barge still docked in Montbard.
Evening in Montbard
I was exhausted after a day of exploring, so before dinner drinks on the deck were a great way to relax. Dinner featured salad with goat cheese and sundried tomatoes followed by lamb filet in rosemary and black olive jus. Our cheeses this night were two of my favorites. Both were from cow’s milk with smooth, creamy textures. The first, Chaource, is similar to brie and comes from the Champagne region. The second, Epoisses de Bourgogne is a creamy cheese from the nearby village of Epoisses. Our wines, which continued to get better with each successive meal, included a white 2004 Chablis Grand Cru Vaudesir, Domaine Billaud-Simon and the red Pommard Château de la Charrière.
Day 6: Looking for Chocolat
Our final day of cruising on European Waterways’ La Belle Époque, was a gorgeous Spring day under brilliant blue skies. We moved slowly past tiny villages and into the town of Venarey les Laumes. I was sad to know we were near the end of our journey and wouldn’t be cruising again. While I’d had to search for ways to fill my spare time the first couple of days, I was now embracing those moments of quiet and solitude as the world slipped past. I found myself wanting more time now that I had relaxed and embraced this casual pace.
Final lunch on board
The week had started out with cool, rainy days, but we ended the journey under bright sunshine. Our last lunch, served on the sun deck, was ideal for the chilled white wine the captain had chosen for us – a 2010 Sancerre “Les Baronnes,” Henri-Bourgeois. Along with the wine, we enjoyed chicken with fresh pesto and green salad with pink shallot dressing. Our cheeses were Chabichou du Poitou and – my favorite of the trip – Reblochon. Reblochon is a cow’s milk cheese from the French Alps with a soft outer rind and creamy center. Our red wine was “Les Cloîtres” Bourgognes Hautes-Côtes de Nuits, Bouchard Aîné & Fils.
Searching for Chocolat
After lunch we once again piled into the van, this time for a trip to the medieval village of Flavigny sur Ozerain. This beautiful village, with its rock buildings, narrow alleys and cobbled streets has a renowned history. Not only was it the setting for Johnny Depp’s movie Chocolat, but it was a burial place during the Iron Age, a camp for Julius Caesar in 52 BC and was occupied by the English in the 100 Year War.
As you wander the town – allow a couple of hours to see it all – you’ll discover a Benedictine monastery and examples of traditional medieval architecture. I enjoyed ice cream from a little shop near the 13th-century St. Genoest Church, where we watched the locals coming and going, nobody in any real hurry.
We wound our way back toward the barge via gorgeous French countryside. We stopped for a bit of shopping in Semur-en-Auxios, a beautiful medieval town with an assortment of boutiques, restaurants, cafés and antique shops. It’s a quaint walled town with towers and ramparts that leave you feeling as if you’ve stepped back in history. The city is built above the Armançon River and a stroll around the city is a peaceful way to end a day out.
Captain’s farewell dinner
Our final night on board La Belle Époque was a celebration. We started with before-dinner drinks then the captain joined us for a celebratory meal. The dinner was filled French flavors: French onion soup, frog’s legs and a cassoulet of Boeuf Bourgogne. As promised, the cheese and wines were the best of the entire trip. For our cheese course, we had a Roquefort along with a Comté and Morbiere, both French cow’s milk cheeses. Comté is only made from milk of Montbeliarde cattle. Morbiere is a semi-soft cow’s milk cheese known for a thin layer of tasteless ash that cuts through the middle of the cheese. Our white wine was a 2010 Pouilly-Fumé, Henri-Bourrgeois, while the red was a Charmes-Chambertin Grand Cru, Camu Père & Fils. The chef finished spoiling us with a luscious chocolate torte. A perfect end to a perfect day.
Saying goodbye
I slept soundly my last night on board La Belle Époque, but hated knowing my trip was over. It was such a grand adventure of tastes, smells and sights from Burgundy. I’d met people who had quickly become friends and seen a part of France that made me fall in love with such simple yet pure tastes. The French countryside and love of their food and wine touched something inside me. I had truly felt at peace this week. We were a quiet group heading back to Paris the following morning – but one I’m sure was just a few pounds heavier.

Susan Lanier-Graham is a freelance food, wine and travel writer who has more than 25 years’ experience in the travel industry. Susan is the owner of WanderWithWonder.com and has authored more than 75 books and hundreds of magazine articles.


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