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Coasting Through the Côte d'Or: Burgundy Cruise

On an indulgent barge cruise through Burgundy, writer Benjamin Wallace meets winemakers, monks, one remarkable dowager and a few very lucky lockkeepers.

We are chugging toward Dijon at an escargot's pace of 35 miles a week when it happens. There we are, tucking into a lunch of cold Charolais beef smothered in garlic-anchovy sauce, green salad with quail eggs, haricots verts with artichokes, a tomato�puff pastry tart, panettone with blueberries and fresh mint—among many other things—when wham, the prow of our barge swings into the side of the canal and a splash of water sloshes out of the foredeck hot tub. The boat has rubbed up against a patch of mud. Cedric, our profoundly tan French helmsman rushes aft to check on us. The collision was a love tap, but we tease him and stash the event in short-term memory, within easy reach to further abuse the poor guy. Then we get back to business—the serious business of a ripe Camembert, a so-fresh-it's-wet goat cheese and a subtly blue Fourme d'Ambert, all demanding to be consumed with the well-selected, highly drinkable red and white Burgundies on our table (a 2002 La Chapelle Notre-Dame Domaine Dubreuil-Fontaine and a 1999 Les Caves des Hautes Côtes, respectively). This is high drama on the Canal de Bourgogne.

We are journeying east aboard the Prospérité, a 128-foot barge that formerly plied the rivers and canals of Holland and Belgium carrying commercial freight; five years ago, a pair of English and American investors with experience running boutique hotels bought the barge and renovated it; now it's a luxury cruiser with four spacious staterooms below and a living room, dining room and open kitchen upstairs. This year, the high-end outfitter Abercrombie & Kent, which arranged my trip, has added the Prospérité to the portfolio of barges it books.

Although the Canal de Bourgogne stretches 150 miles through so-called deep France, our trip will span only a short squiggle in the Côte d'Or, starting at the tiny village of Vandenesse-en-Auxois, visiting the winemaking town of Nuits-St.-Georges and the famed Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, and ending at the regional capital best known for its mustard. But it's a lovely squiggle, hilly and bucolic, a welcome shift from the flatness of Bordeaux, where I have been spending time researching a book on American wine connoisseurship from Thomas Jefferson to the present. Though a barge trip is the classic and perhaps ideal way to experience Burgundy, it's a first for me—and I'm lucky that my inaugural trip is on this posh boat.

This year, almost all the weeks in the Prospérité 's 29-week season were chartered by groups (at $32,000 per). I am traveling with two American couples. With a crew of five—two British, two French and one Australian—there is a one-to-one crew-to-passenger ratio.

The open kitchen doesn't see much action, although it's designed to be used for cooking demos at guests' request. The chef, Jane Martin, an Englishwoman who has been cooking on barges for 21 years, sometimes uses it for prep, but she does most of her work in a smaller galley kitchen. The symbolism is still valid: This is a barge where food and wine are front and center.

The gastronomic focus is clear from the moment we embark. After my fellow passengers and I are driven 170 miles from Paris in a Mercedes van by Réjane, the lovely girlfriend of our English captain, Spencer Hayes, we are greeted on the barge with glasses of Jean-Marie Février Champagne and trays of hors d'oeuvres—foie-gras toast points, smoked salmon, bacon-wrapped prunes—which we share with the crew.

Then we head downstairs to settle in. At 270 square feet each, the staterooms are, in the words of one passenger, "bigger than our hotel room in Paris." The air is crisp (each room has its own temperature controls), there's a vase of fresh flowers on the dresser and a CD player sits on a side table. I kick back on the bed and play with the control that, Craftmatic-style, allows me to raise and lower the head and foot. The room also accommodates two armchairs and a desk, and the generously sized bathroom features a separate (Villeroy & Boch) tub and shower, a heating rod draped with plush Carré Blanc towels and a cupboard full of pony bottles of Evian.

Soon enough, cocktail hour commences upstairs, followed by dinner: mushrooms (three kinds) on puff pastry, a nice hunk of monkfish wrapped in a local variant of prosciutto, three cheeses, a dessert of macerated strawberries, and coffee. We have been drinking both red and white wine (Burgundy, bien sûr, including an absolutely delicious 2001 premier cru Santenay-Maladière from Prieur-Brunet), and now it's someone's birthday, so we must toast with more Février Champagne as well. Then it's time for bed; turndown service includes—we are on a barge, after all—fabric screens placed on our portholes.

Our days unfold with a decidedly languid rhythm: cruise, stop to go through a lock, cruise again. Since the 35 miles we'll be traveling and the nearly 500 feet we'll be dropping will be spread over seven days and 46 locks, it's possible to hop off the barge at one lock, run, walk or bicycle (the barge carries eight mountain bikes) on the towpath for a few hours, then catch up with, or wait for, the barge. Europe's centuries-old canal system is remarkably intact—it is still possible to barge along canals and rivers from southwestern France to Russia without changing boats—but few commercial vessels have worked the Canal de Bourgogne in more than two decades, and life along its banks is easygoing. There isn't enough traffic to justify having a lockkeeper for every lock (on the days we are traveling, there are hardly any other barges in the same section of canal), so one lockkeeper might open three locks in a row for us...nice work if you can get it.

Theoretically, when we're not touring wineries or sleeping off our meals, we could hot-air balloon or play golf—Spencer would be more than happy to arrange it—but our group contents itself with walking, running, cycling, reading, kicking back in the hot tub with vin blanc and coming to realize the ridiculous number of famed foodstuffs that originate in this area. We pass near Epoisses—home of the oozing, eponymous, stinky cheese—and within close range are creamy herds of grazing Charolais cattle. To the east is Vosne-Romanée, seat of legendary Pinot Noirs, including La Tâche and Romanée-Conti. (Our visit to the latter was somewhat anticlimactic: Given the cultish fervor for the DRC, as acolytes call it, I was expecting to see barbed wire, sniper towers and mystical hallucinations caused by some ineffable force lurking in the sacred terroir; instead we saw a square patch of unremarkable-seeming vines that looked like any other.)

The canal itself runs near, though not through, wine country. Even though we can hear the road, it almost never intrudes. Many of the otherwise quaint homes (stone, stucco, red-tiled roofs) along the banks have satellite dishes, but the feel is somehow still very rural. The canal is bordered with lavender and poplars, and freshly mown hay perfumes the air. Life here shares the metabolism of the slimy creatures sunning themselves on the towpath. Snails, perhaps, merely awaiting infusion in a warm bath of hazelnut butter? Alas, they are just slugs—creatures not to be eaten, but rather to be feared as what we are in danger of becoming. When I see them during a towpath jog, I quicken my pace.

Spencer takes us on daily field trips (delivered by unseen hand, the car appears at each of our new moorings). On Monday, we visit a 13th-century château that once belonged to counselors to the Dukes of Burgundy, who ruled an area of Europe that encompassed not only much of France but also all of the Benelux countries. Another day, we go to the Hôtel Dieu, the medieval charity hospital that is now a historic monument but remains the site of the annual auction that is the most important event on Burgundy's wine calendar, since the bid levels tend to establish pricing for each vintage. That night, we have our one dinner off the barge, at a Michelin one-star called Le Jardin des Remparts in Beaune. The modern but cozy space is the labor of love of a young couple (Roland Chanliaud is the chef and Emmanuelle Chanliaud runs the front of the house) and features food that ranges from interesting (pears caramelized with morels and paired with chicory ice cream) to truly delicious (bergamot-scented lamb). We drink Montagny premier cru white from Louis Latour, followed by an Auxey-Duresses red, and finish the meal with cheeses from a groaning trolley.

Another day, in the wine town of Nuits-St.-Georges, we visit the Comtesse Michel de Loisy, a dowager who at 88 should be the United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for Old People. After taking us through the wine cellars of her friends, the Burgundy family Faiveley, who bought most of her vineyards, the Comtesse forces us to consume gougères and Kir Royales made with her own sparkling wine while regaling us with tales of hiding bottles from the Nazis.

On another excursion, we drive to Clos de Vougeot, one of the largest vineyards on the Côte d'Or; it's owned by some 80 different proprietors (Burgundy is notorious for the complexity of its ownership structure), but before the French Revolution it belonged to the monks of Cîteaux. Vougeot, with its sloping vineyards, is in the heart of the Côte, and in its main winery building there's a gigantic wooden winepress that dates to the Middle Ages. Even the ascetic souls who worked it, subject to the austerities of the Cistercian rule, reportedly had a daily allowance of a half bottle of wine each. Now, at the nearby Abbaye de Cîteaux, they must be satisfied with merely producing their cow's-milk cheese, which is named for the abbey.

The morning of our last full day, we drive into Dijon to check out the market with its profusion of farm produce (baby radishes, etc.) and animals that, refreshingly, have not been shorn of those features that identify them as animals. The poulets de Bresse (yet another product of Burgundy) still wear their coxcombs, and the rabbits still have eyes; the pigs are headless, but that's only because the heads are sold separately.

Our captain, Spencer, keeps things interesting right until the end. One night, after dinner, he surprises us with a shipboard visit by a 21-year-old chanteuse from Dijon who belts out Edith Piaf, Whitney Houston and such until nearly all of us, passengers and crew, are off our chairs and dancing. Another night, indulging our spoiled demands, he breaks out a 1980 Château Guiraud Sauternes from his private stash.

Our final evening, the five of us sit down and compose a few limericks (one making fun of poor Cedric, of course) to enter in the guest book. Spencer has inconspicuously been taking pictures all week, and now he gives us a slide show on the TV. When we sit down to eat, our bread plates hold scrolls bound with gold thread: the menus for the week. Tonight, the wines are extra special—a 1996 Corton-Bressandes from Domaine Nudant and a 2001 Chablis Bougros from Colombier, both grand crus—and dessert is a pineapple Pavlova. After dinner, we share a final Champagne toast with the crew, who I'm told always start the season thrilled to be eating such delicious food, but after three weeks invariably start dieting. Their experience suggests that there can be too much of a good thing, but my experience suggests that a week's worth of the good life on a luxurious barge is definitely not it.

Benjamin Wallace is an editor-at-large at Philadelphia magazine. He is writing a book about rare-wine collectors.

Published October 2005
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