After stepping on board Horizon II yesterday, we enjoyed a delicious dinner and a good night’s sleep. The next morning, while at breakfast, we heard the barge’s engine begin a gentle hum. Horizon II slowly pulled away from the river bank and began chugging along the Burgundy Canal. We were underway.
During the next five days, we would barge from Tanlay to Port de Venarey Les Laumes, covering a distance — now hold on to your hats — of slightly more than 30 miles. You could bicycle that distance in a few hours; walk it in a couple of days while stopping to fish for your dinner, and yet we would spend five days getting to our destination.
Get the picture? Life on the barge is slow and ultra-relaxed.
Barging is about disconnecting. I’ve already mentioned there was no television on the barge. And while Horizon II does offer internet access, which operates through a 3G modem connected to a single laptop that guests are welcome to use free of charge, hardly anyone bothered. Along sections of the canal, there was no signal anyway.
We would pass through five locks on our first day. Each offered an opportunity to step off the vessel to walk (or bicycle) to the next lock, often only about a half-a-mile upstream. We could, if we wished, walk to locks farther upstream and reboard there. There was no worry about missing the barge. I saw a couple of joggers on the banks who left our barge in the dust. Horizon II outpaced nothing — deliberately.
When the barge was inside the lock, the lock-keeper manually shut the rear gate. The lock filled with water rushing downstream, and in about 20 minutes, nature’s hydraulics had lifted Horizon II perhaps 10 feet to 15 feet above the water level behind us. After the lock filled, the lock-keeper opened the front gate, and we chugged forward.
Passing through the locks weekly, the crew came to know the lock-keepers. Each lock gave them an opportunity to catch up. Some of the lock-keepers lived in small houses beside the locks, not a bad life living in the heart of Burgundy.
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Spanning more than 240 kilometers, the canal is manmade. The idea was to build a waterway so that cargo vessels could navigate from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean via the rivers Yonne and Seine to the rivers Saône and Rhône. The 209 locks along the canal allow the barges to pass over the hills of central Burgundy.
We spent all morning barging through locks and gorgeous countryside. It was an idyllic spring day, birds chirping, the many shades of green sprouting from trees and the earth, wildflowers blooming and endless fields of yellow rape, which Matthew informed us was part of the cabbage family and used to produce canola oil.
As fresh as the French landscape was the lunch on board. Horizon II was able to provision locally. After all, the locks made it easy to make a run to the supermarket or the local market. Several ocean cruise lines have “shopping with the chefs” programs, where passengers visit the market with the chef to purchase a few items that will be prepared as part of a meal. On Horizon II, every day was like a visit to the market. On our first day out, in fact, Matthew brought on board plums, produce and vegetables when the barge pulled up to a lock. Another day, Amina stopped at the local cheese merchant in her hometown to pick up cheeses that you just would not find that easily, if at all, back home.
Following lunch, we disembarked Horizon II for an afternoon visit to Chablis. The drive to the town that produces the eponymous wine was particularly scenic, as we passed the yellow fields of rape and quaint villages. We drove into the vineyards of Chablis for an overview of the town. Along the way Matthew pointed out the smaller plots that produced Grand Crus and Premier Crus.
While I thought Burgundy produced only red wines, I learned that the region produces primarily Pinot Noir and Chablis, and of course, we would get to sample plenty of the fine wines that come for these vineyards.
After visiting the vineyards, we pulled into Domaine Servin for a wine tasting and to learn something about wine production in Burgundy. It was a fun and educational excursion, and it set the tone for dinner back on board later that night, featuring, of course, even more fine French wines.
An avid traveler and an award-winning journalist, Ralph Grizzle produces articles, video and photos that are inspiring and informative, personal and passionate. A journalism graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Ralph has specialized in travel writing for more than two decades. To read more cruise and port reviews by Ralph Grizzle, visit his website at www.avidcruiser.com