Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 17, 2017
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Burgundy by barge

Drift through France’s most beautiful wine country on a converted working boat

After we told our 12-year-old granddaughter that we were planning a canal trip in France, and that we would be able to walk along the towpath at the same speed as the

barge, she asked: “Why would anyone want to go that slowly?”

But travelling through Burgundy at an escargot’s pace has its advantages. At a top speed of about six kilometres an hour, you can hop off at any lock and walk to the next one before the barge gets there. Or take off by bike to explore nearby villages and catch up with your floating hotel a few locks away.

Meals become leisurely affairs, with nary a ripple in your wine glass, as the barge glides through some of the loveliest countryside in France. People stop to watch as the barge eases into yet another lock, and white Charolais cattle pause to stare, blissfully unaware that they could be the boeuf bourguignon for future passengers.

If ever there was a case of “it’s about the journey, not the destination,” this is it.

While construction of the Burgundy Canal began in 1765, it took almost another 70 years to complete it. Finally, in December 1832, a barge crossed the summit of the canal, by way of a three-kilometre tunnel, connecting the Seine River in the north to the Rhône River in the south. The canal changed the destiny of scores of villages along its 250-kilometre length and, in its heyday, hundreds of barges transported everything from wood to wine between northern France and the Mediterranean. Today, commercial traffic still plies the Seine and Rhône, but the Burgundy Canal is solely used for pleasure craft.

Our own barge, “La Litote,” was built in 1926 to carry wheat. Last used as a freight carrier during the German occupation of France in World War II, it was converted into a hotel-barge in 1978 and renovated in 1998. With a capacity of 20 passengers and a crew of seven, the Litote is 38 metres long and just wide enough to slip into the canal locks — there are 20 centimetres of clearance on either side.


Small-Town France

We rendezvous-ed with our fellow passengers in Dijon and travelled by coach for the 50-minute trip to the village of Vandenesse-en-Auxois, where the Litote was moored amidst a cluster of other craft. The more I saw other barges during the week, the more I admired the lines of ours. With its black hull accented with blue trim and a white superstructure divided by a small open sun deck, her heritage was obvious: a solid working craft that had been sensitively converted — unlike some barges we encountered that looked unnatural in their new role. Litote also sported hanging baskets of geraniums and planters of petunias, and any passenger who felt inclined could borrow a pair of scissors to do a spot of on-board gardening.

Early next morning, I walked into the silent village of Vandenesse. Neat brown houses adorned with hollyhocks and hydrangeas clustered around the church, as swallows swept and dived around its tower. I was surprised to see, even in this tiny village, a Commonwealth War Graves sign at the church entrance — although I couldn’t find the grave.

A tractor started up and headed for the fields, but the village, like others we were to pass through, appeared almost deserted; most younger people have left for jobs in the city. Apart from someone selling wine to passing barges, the only remaining businesses I could see were a gift shop and a hairdresser. Bags for bread delivery, that essential of French life, hung from doorknobs, as the local bakery had long since closed. This, for some reason, made me think of heading back to the barge for croissants and coffee.

During breakfast we got under way for the first time and almost immediately entered the first of the 45 locks we would traverse over the course of the week. Each lock has its own operator’s house, or maison d’écluse. One or two simple house designs are repeated along the length of the canal and lock-keepers are clearly free to add their own personal touches. Some houses have well-tended flower gardens, others have brightly painted shutters — one has Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs arrayed along the bank.

Several houses seemed unoccupied, as nowadays a single keeper looks after three or more locks. As a barge leaves one lock, operators hop on motor scooters to open the next one. There’s talk of increasing the involvement of local villages in the operation of the Burgundy Canal, but at present it’s all smoothly administered by the Voies Navigables de France (VNF).


A Hop, Skip and a Jump

The beauty of having short distances between locks is the opportunity it gives for walking and biking. As a barge rises or falls in a lock, it’s easy to step off — and with the time it takes for a lock to fill and empty, even the slowest walker has no trouble making it to the next lock in time to re-board. The shortest distance between locks is about half a kilometre; the longest slightly less than two kilometres.

The first day seemed a good time to try one of the on-board bikes. They were definitely not Tour de France material, and mine had a gear change lever with a mind of its own. Nonetheless, I was off down the towpath with a line of poplars marching in unison ahead of me. Fields bright with buttercups shone after a rain shower, and thickly wooded hills rose on each side of the valley of the River Ouche that flowed several metres below the level of the canal.

Sunday in Burgundy is traditionally a time for family lunches, and the streets of the first village I entered were very quiet. But a few young families were walking along the towpath, and the dogs were friendly. The people were friendly as well.

We were amazed at the everyday politeness of those we encountered in our travels in France: young people giving up seats on the Paris Métro, a businesswoman helping with luggage on the TGV train, and a man paying for and giving us the appropriate ticket from a parking vending machine when we were trying to figure out how much we should be paying.

I biked as far as Pont d’Ouche, a broad, placid basin where several others boats were already moored. We were scheduled to berth here for the night, so I waited for Litote to catch up. Seeing an “English Spoken” sign outside Chez Bryony on the water’s edge, I walked over for a cold drink. Bryony Cadbury turned out to be an English woman who told me “I got lost here 18 years ago, and I don’t want to be found.” She seemed to do a good seasonal business serving snacks and drinks to passing boats and motorists and runs a second-hand bookstore above the shop.


Vineyards and Cloisters

Each day included excursions to nearby places of interest, including the vineyards of Mersault for wine tasting and the château of Clos de Vougeot, a monastic winery dating back to medieval times. The château was rebuilt in 1950 after it exploded in World War II when used as a German munitions depot. Since then it has been the home of the Confrèrie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, a brotherhood that gets together several times a year to enjoy wine and good times at ritualized banquets.

In Beaune, the wine capital of Burgundy, we visited the flamboyant Hôtel-Dieu, a jewel of medieval architecture founded as a hospital for the poor by the Duke of Burgundy in 1443. Once through an unassuming entrance in a long grey wall, a courtyard opens onto a dazzling array of gables and galleries. The roofs are completely covered with coloured glazed tiles in geometric patterns.

The heart of the Hôtel-Dieu is the Great Hall of the Poor, its sides lined with red-curtained bed alcoves. Meals were served from pewter vessels at long tables in the middle of the room. At the far end of the hall, a chapel, symbolizing the dual religious and medical practices of the institution, enabled patients to take part in the liturgy from their beds. The Sisters of Charity operated a hospital facility here as late as 1971.

One night we moored at the village of Bussière. A few years ago, villagers protested when it was learned that les maudits anglais (damned English) were planning to buy the 12th-century Cistercian Abbaye de la Bussière. After all, this was a French historical monument, n’est ce pas?

However, the owners, who also own Amberley Castle in England, (see Doctor’s Review, May 2005) completed a sensitive restoration, and the abbey is now a Relais & Châteaux luxury hotel — where the young French chef has just been awarded his first Michelin star.


A Floating Feast

It almost goes without saying that on a small vessel, with a dozen or so people in close quarters for a week, success depends on the food. Early each morning, a crew member set off in search of fresh baguettes and croissants, and after the first day we had an almost Pavlovian reaction to the tinkling of the lunch and dinner bell.

At lunchtime, Chef Hervé emerged from the galley to present his creations: perhaps ham on the bone in a pastry crust with a Chablis sauce, or salmon cooked with a salt crust and served with a Dijonaise sauce. Dinner might start with a cheese soufflé (on our last evening it was foie gras) followed by boeuf Bourguignon or a filet of sea bream.

Always, an endless variety of cheeses accompanied by the stories attached to them: a cow’s milk cheese from the damp pastures of southern Champagne; a goat’s milk cheese from the Sancerrois; or Époisses, a brandy-washed cow’s milk cheese from central Burgundy.

And, of course, Burgundy wines. We enjoyed 22 different ones over the course of the week; two at lunch and another two at dinner. Often we would take a glass out to the little flower-bordered sundeck to watch the world go, oh so slowly, by.

There’s something utterly delightful about spending a week like this. Passengers on a bus or train pass impersonally through the landscape. But on a slow moving barge, passengers become part of the landscape: chatting with people at the locks, walking and cycling alongside the barge, fussing over the friendly dog of a lock keeper and soaking up the details of their surroundings in a manner we often don’t have time for any more.

So we only covered 55 kilometres in a week. So what?

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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