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Barging in France

Written by Denny Custer.

Excuse me for barging in, but if you have a hankering for barging in France, read on!

For 15 years or so, Karen and I have thought about the French barging experience. Questions have been: which barge, which route, which company, and what time of year? There are so many choices. Ultimately, we just picked one that appeared good, the Abercrombie and Kent (A&K) barge, Lafayette. We went for six days and nights, August 12-18. It was a superior experience, one we enthusiastically recommend.

This trip features the Cote d’ Or (Gold Coast) and operates on the Canal du Centre, the river Saone and the Canel de Bourgogne, all in the Burgundy region of France. One would take it to relax and enjoy the scenery, to enjoy the French cuisine, or to experience the joys of, and learn about, the wines from this region-or all of the above.

Our group ( the barge for 22 people was sold out, but six were “no shows” so we cruised with 16) gathered at the Hotel Regina in Paris and proceeded by TGV train to Dijon. Then there was an hour and a half bus ride to the barge. We had a champagne reception, got acquainted with the barge and crew, and received a general overview of the week ahead. We could look forward to a lot of time cruising, which meant either relaxing on board (usually on the front deck, from which you could choose to either be sheltered from the sun or enjoy it); or we could walk or ride alongside (bikes were provided by the barge crew) on the tow path between locks, as we wished.

Each day, there was a bus tour of two or three hours, visiting chateaus, tasting wine, touring towns, shopping in Dijon. Each side trip was most worthwhile.

The food and drink routine is excellent. Breakfast is ready on an informal eat-when-you-are-ready-basis for an hour or so. At lunch and dinner, one white wine and one red wine are served to all, and a background story is given for each. There is a similar presentation with three or four cheeses. These are all different, each meal. So one doesn’t have to remember, A&K provides a description in written form as well as a copy of all the menus for the week.

Our French cook Benoit ensured that the food was excellent and presented as only the French can – all week long. I should add that in our package, all of the drinks, whether wine, beer, soft drinks or mixed drinks, were included in the price and essentially available from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Never did any of the group overindulge, although, with the snacking foods and regular meals, one could almost hear the pounds go on!

All 16 guests and the crew were good friends by the end of the first meal. Our group, and I understand that other groups are similar, was made up of “seasoned” travelers. Incidentally, the crew, with two exceptions, were all English or Scottish.

On first morn, we began to cruise. The initial leg is really the beautiful tranquil pastoral scene that the brochures proclaim. We left the barge mid-morning for a bus trip outing to the nearby Chateau of Marguerite, a most interesting visit capped by the first of many wine tasting events (of Cayot wines), in the Chateau Cave (pronounced cahv).

Our driver guide for the week was Nigel. A Brit who has fallen in love with this section of France and now lives there permanently. Nigel was outstanding; his knowledge of the wines and of all of our visitation spots was very complete. In the afternoon, we stopped at the famous wine producing village of Santenay and had an hour to visit the small town.

The next morning we took the bus to the Chateau of Rully, where Countess d’Aviau de Ternay gave us a tour of her home. This is a special tour just for the A&K tours, and most interesting. In the afternoon we locked into the river Saone, and the group spent three hours playing Trivial Pursuit out on the front deck. Unfortunately it was the British version, which made most of the questions very very frustrating, but a great time was had by all. We tied up that evening in Chalon sur Saone and enjoyed free time to explore the city.

Our trip by bus the following morning was to Beaune, the center for all of the Burgundy wine trade. We toured a famous 15th century charity hospital, the Hotel Dieu and the picturesque village, returning to cruise for the afternoon. We moored at Seurre, behind another barge flying the American flag. So I went on board to see if there were really Americans present, and in the process I found Gail Walsh from Williamston, whom I had met about ten years ago…and now again here in France…what a small world!

The next morning was spent with delightful walking and biking along the barge as it passed through many locks. In the afternoon we bussed into Dijon and thoroughly enjoyed a tour of Old Town. We had an opportunity to do some shopping and, of course, we brought home several of the Dijon Mustards.

Our last field trip was to Cote de Nuits to visit the Chateau of Clos Vougeot, a medieval monastic winery and where all of the Grand Poobahs of the wine world hold court. Absolutely fascinating. After a wine tasting, we were taken to an excellent shop in which to purchase wine. It was an opportunity most of us had been waiting for. W also visited the site of the most expensive vineyard in all the world -its output sells for $1,000 a bottle.

Our final night was in a pleasant lagoon in Dijon. Another A&K boat was nearby and snoopy ol’ Den had to investigate. Turns out a grandmother was on board, celebrating her 80th birthday. Her present, to 20 of her family members, was to charter the barge and take them on a week-long cruise (her treat)-my kind of grandmother! She was a very neat lady!

One last “Captain’s Party” farewell dinner, and then we went our separate ways in the morning. We created a full listing of our group, with e-mails, and already a parade of notes with pictures has begun. What fun!

In summary, we were totally satisfied with the barge, the route, and A&K. The trips begin in March and run until November. I would definitely recommend going in August, as we did. The temperatures were perfect, and we had sunny days every day. While there may be some pretty fall colors or spring blossoms to enjoy, use of the very pleasant front deck might be less enjoyable with cooler temperatures. And yes, since you asked, we will try other A&K barges on other routes!