Barge trip report
This November my friend Marian and I took the barge cruise in France with Ewaterways. Ewaterways is the company which manages Barges and River Boats in Europe. The trip we took on November 10-16 (last of the season, lower price) was originally scheduled on River Boat Anacoluthe, 50 passengers, on Seine and Sayone River. However, after September 11 events there was not enough people for 50 people boat and Ewaterways switched to barge cruise on Burgundy canals. They acquired new barge, also called Ewaterways. It is actually different type of vacation than the riverboat and we were upset but eventually we gave it a try and we were not disappointed.
Saturday, November 10.
We arrived to Paris, early morning at CDG airport from nonstop flight from JFK. Not too many travelers in the airport and on the flight. Because of that, check-in was relatively quick. There was security check-in and later on another random search of carry-ons and passengers at the gate. We were waived through and I noticed that if the ticket says “CLR” that probably exempts you from gate search. Because of security search, the plane was late one hour but other than that, uneventful. We took taxi to Regina hotel where we were supposed to be picked up by Ewaterways staff at 3pm so we had plenty of time. The porter took our bags, marked our names, and we were free to explore Paris. There were 4 other barge groups scheduled at that day. Unfortunately it was very cold and I did not sleep well on the plane. We did not do much. We walked a bit (Tulleries Gardens, Palais Royale), had some coffee and croissant for breakfast and later needed to warm up with an onion soup. Otherwise, Regina is in great location, on Rue de Rivoli across Louvre and great place to explore Paris. Generally, if you have time, it is recommended to spend few nights before cruise on location and explore city, so transition would be easier. It turned out to be a long day.
At hotel, around 1-2 pm more travelers arrived. We’ve met few other groups as they went to their other barge destination. Our Ewaterways rep, Rebecca did not know our itinerary, she only knew that it will be Burgundy trip. There was also confusion with return transfers since some people booked earlier flight (original cruise was on Seine River near Paris) and the voucher promised return trip to Regina Hotel. Ewaterways Rep was not aware of return transfers. At least we started to bond together in our uncertainty and misery! Rebecca was taking count of people. One couple last name Cummings was missing so she went to look for them. (Cummingses are not coming?). We’ve got acquainted with other members of the group - well-traveled group 17 people.
At 3pm, we boarded the bus. Another Waterways rep Tracey took us to the Gare De Lyon train station to take TGV train to Dijon. There was a traffic, the driver explained, police were on strike (why traffic?). There was a brief commentary of sights we were passing by. Tracey also gave us some info on Gare De Lyon architecture. There is a restaurant on the second floor with wonderful frescoes, we looked at them but did not have time to eat. Tracey again took care of our luggage, put us on the train, gave one group ticket, showed us the seats. She said Patrice will meet us in Dijon. She also warned us that Dijon is only first stop and then TGV goes to Switzerland so we should not miss our stop. We decided to take turns sleeping. J . TGV is very comfortable high-speed train and gets you to Burgundy in 2 hours. We’ve asked a couple next to us “Are you Mr. & Mrs. Cummings?”, which they answered: “No, but we are coming! ” They were going to Zurich, last stop. They probably liked our group! We chatted a bit on the train, rested, until we arrived to Dijon. We woke up the rest of the group and got off. There was one gentleman waiting for us, he introduced himself, as promised, he was Patrice, who would be our guide for the rest of the trip. We immediately liked him, he was very personal, great sense of humor. Things started looking up! We even found Cummingses who did made the train and Norma and Paul Cummings turned out to be very nice people and made good friends.
Marian just in case supervised unloading of the luggage because porters try to unload only 10 suitcase for 17 people (!), but we’ve got all bags eventually. Patrice took us to his bus and we went to the barge. He told us a lot about area – Ouche Valley, but unfortunately, it was dark (ever took a tour in the dark?), more laugh, and we got to the barge. The crew met us with cocktails ready. Maryka, the barge manager, introduced the crew. All of them are British, except chef Fabian and Patrice who were French. I guess we were hungry at that point, so chef Fabian received more applause and he looked embarrassed, very nice young man. He did cook superb meals.
We were taken to our rooms to unpack and refresh and were told to come for dinner at 8pm (one hour later). We found out that barge cabins do not lock either from inside or outside! So leave your valuables at home. There is no safe onboard, the safe could be an improvement. But we did not have any problems. Later on it was very relaxing do not have to worry about key. However, if you have concerns, you might think about leaving expensive staff at home, and maybe bring a small purse for documents and money should you want to carry them all the time.
We were impressed with dinner (see menu, got acquainted more with each other. Out little group of 17 had some couples, the rest were friends traveling together, two sisters, one single traveler, in ages ranging from 39 to 87! We had a lot’s of fun and bonded very well. The barge has open bar policy, all drinks are included in the price as well, so people still were congregating in the bar (barge term – saloon) after dinner. I went to sleep early.
We were told that the barge is located at a small village Vandenesse-en-Auxois, but Maryka said, we would not find it on the map. I had a separate twin cabin which was small but very efficient and comfortable, even for two people. See more under Cabin.
Sunday, November 11.
Next morning, I woke up earlier then everybody else (still jet lag), and went to the saloon and on the deck to check out where we are. The beautiful scenery opened up – some farm with medieval buildings, sheeps, cows. It was cold, but sunny. I opened deck door for local delivery man bringing pastries which looked and smelled delicious – baguettes, croissants and other yummy staff. I had some coffee, brought also coffee to Marian and we went downstairs for breakfast.
After breakfast Patrice came in and took us for the first excursion to the elegant 12c Chateau de Commarin . It is still private home. It houses beautiful furnishing and a unique collection of Renaissance heraldic tapestries. On the way, we passed a donkey. Patrice said, this donkey is famous because he was in the movie “Chocolat”. After Chateaux Commarin, we visited the medieval village of Chateauneuf en Auxois, it has wonderful little streets with nooks and crannies to explore. There were few stores to shop. After that, back to the barge for lunch. After delicicous lunch, we left to cruise to the village of Pont d’Ouche. Nigel, the pilot explained that we can get on and off at every lock, so we were excited and ready for exercise. Almost everybody got out and we walked and biked. Most of the people biked, but only Marian continued to bike every day. We enjoyed beautiful scenery, good laugh. We took pictures at few bridges of barge and from the barge. We found a pay phone in a village and called home. (Hi honey, I am having a wonderful time but I do not know where we are! Ouche Valley somewhere…. ). Too bad that November daylight hours are short and by 6pm we were ready for drinks and dinner.
Monday, November 12.
Cruised in the morning, crossing the river Ouche, the scenery is beautiful. We pass small aqueduct, down the river valley with wooded slopes. Many people walk this morning. Even 87- year old Dora takes one walk with us. We see pastures with white furry cows - different looking, horses, sheeps. There are brooks with trout. We venture to few villages. Final destination today is quiet village of La Boussire. We watch lockkeepers as they open the locks. La Buissere has the Abbey, a few hundred yards from our mooring. Originally a monastery founded by the Cistercians in the 12th C, the Abbey became a private property after the revolution. Donated by its owners to the bishopric of Dijon early this century, it’s beautifully tended buildings and grounds now serve as a center for retreats and are open to public.
After lunch Patrice came in and we are off to the famous wine-producing village of Mersault in the cote de Beaune. The chateau here was originally built by Benedictine monks in the fifteenth century. Today it is the center of a vast domaine which owns vineyards in some of the famous villages of the wine slopes of Beaune. We visit winery, impressive medieval cellars for wine tasting. Back to the barge, most people sleeping after wine tasting.
Tuesday, November 13.
Market day in Dijon, capital of Burgundy! It is about an hour ride. In the morning Patrice comes in and announces bad news – the plane crashed in New York bound to Santo Domingo. Good news – we took Kabul and Taliban left. We are saddened by yet another tragedy back in home. For almost 4 days we did not think about the war and terrorism. We did not have newspapers and TV. We concluded that life still is going on and we were happy that we went on the trip.
After a guided tour of the historic center, including the Ducal Palace, we have few hours to shop at the picturesque covered market, the largest in Burgundy. We buy souvenirs, mustard, of course. Back to Ewaterways to cruise to the little village of Gissey. We moor near Gallo-Roman period bridge, and find roman period bath. Our captain Nigel said he lives in this village.
We took a picture of a dog which looks like my dog. Nigel said this is the mayor’s dog.
We had our usual cocktails before dinner. I like Cassis with white wine. Tonight for dinner we had an excellent seared tuna. Some people did not like it and tuna was replaced by omelettes for some, others like me had doubles! In the evening, Patrice came back with his 8 year old son Valentine. Valentine played guitar, American music, French songs. They even showed us some circus tricks. A lot’s of laugh and applause. What a nice, enjoyable evening. Again, if you are into Las Vegas style revues, I remind that this trip is not for you. Very much relaxed pace.
Wednesday, November 14.
We cruise this morning down the valley of the Ouche, passing through villages of Sainte Marie and Pont de Pany. In the afternoon, Patrice is driving us to the Hautes Cotes (the upper slopes of the wine producing region) to Beaune. We tour this delightful medieval town and the world famous Hotel Dieu, charity hospital, which was built in the mid-fifteenth century and it is a masterpiece of late-medieval architecture. We explore the center of town afterwards, Romanesque church of Notre Dame, plenty of shops. We return this afternoon back to barge to the village of Fleurey sur Ouche.
After yet another delicious dinner, impromptu party developed. We danced in the small saloon and the party even spilled out on the deck. Good thing that the barge was moored in a remote area!
Thursday, November 15.
We cast off early and cruise through the village of Velar and Plombiers, and then past a long artificial lake, Lac Kir, named like the local aperitif after their creator Felix Kir, former mayor of Dijon and churchman. Marian is enjoying the bike ride today, chatting with us back and forth on the barge. Some parts of the path are asphalt and we even see rollerbladers there. We arrive to the port of Dijon which is the busiest port we’ve stayed this week. We even pass some construction sites. And the locks are automated! Anyway, unlike large cruise ships port, the port of Dijon is a peaceful, very well laid out and is located in the park-like setting. Plus, it is 15 minutes walk to the center of Dijon so we can finish with our shopping. There are three other barges at the port.
Our last excursion of the trip is to Chateaux of Clos Vougeot, medieval monastic winery. Although we did not taste wine there, the location and architecture is very interesting. It is present day headquarters of the Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin (The brotherhood of the Knights of Wine Tasting) . We visit display of old wine presses, where the wine making process is described.
Tonight, there is a gala dinner. Beautiful table set up with napkins folded as a flower bowl for ladies, shirts for gentlemen. The staff presents dinner and cheeses, there is laugh, songs, guitar playing. The highlight of the dinner is the birthday’s cake (chef’s surprise) and we sing happy birthday to Marian. We also dance and listened to music after dinner, exchange emails and cards, and we wonder how a week ago we did not know each other at all! We thank the crew for their help and wonderful service. Patrice announced that tomorrow in the morning we will be picked up at 9am for a “Private tour of TGV train”.
Friday, November 16.
After breakfast, we bid farewell to the crew, more pictures, Patrice drove us in the circle three time for better look of Ewaterways and the crew and we were off to the train station. He made sure we got on the train and waved us goodbye. Two hours later in Paris, Gare de Lyon, Rebecca from Ewaterways met us and helped us with porters and directed us to other locations. Some of us were going back to hotel Regina, they took a taxi. Other continued to Normandy to the spa. Marian and I took Air France bus to airport and in few hours later we were on the way home. Again, plane was only quarter full, but it let us space to stretch on 3 seats each!
We made home safely with good memories of the trip.
What is a barge cruise? It is an experience and not for everyone. For experienced, sophisticated travelers who already been to the country (this time, France) and want to revisit less traveled places at slower pace, it will be a great experience. It is a niche cruise (if you can call this cruise), for people who appreciate great French food, wine and cheeses. You sail with less passengers, amenities and activities than on a regular cruise. Barge has bicycles so passengers can bike or walk or jog, or roaming around the villages and then re-board the barge at the next lock. The barge does not move very fast, 2 miles per hour. Some parts of the tow path are even suitable for rollerblade. This activity takes half a day, other half a day is spent by touring on the mini-van or bus (depending on how many people) with your guide. We visited chateuaex, winery, little Burgundy villages and two larger medieval towns Beaune and Dijon.
The price is all-inclusive of transfers on TGV train from Paris to Dijon, accommodations on the barge, gourmet meals, drinks (wines with lunch and dinner plus open bar), sightseeing. You only need to pay tip at the end.
Ewaterways acquired a barge which used to be L’abercrombie and renamed it Ewaterways (not very creative name, I can say). Ewaterways is 22 people barge with 11 cabins. There are 4 double cabins, 7 twins, two located on upper deck. All cabins are not large as on riverboats but very efficient and extremely comfortable. All cabins are with windows or portholes and private bathrooms. The water pressure was excellent and there were no problems with toilette as sometimes it happens on cruise and barge trips. Enough shelves and closet space, the bed also has drawers. Contrary some previous reports I’ve read, there was not mold anywhere, Ewaterways was superbly maintained and recently renovated (used to be L’abercrombie). All cabins have individual control heating and air conditioners. The temperature was comfortable after I’ve learned to figure our heating in my cabin. There are plenty of room for clothes, but the cruise is casual and only one last night is it s a bit dressy (not required), so no need for a lot’s of fancy clothes. Another interesting feature that the cabins are not locked either from inside or outside and there are no safe. So do not bring jewelry. We were concerned in beginning but it was not a problem at all. The water is drinkable, we were told, but bottled Evian water was provided in the cabin.
The barge also had a dining room for 22 people, a bar area which was called saloon where most people congregated most of the time and an open deck. But it was cold in November and we did not spend much time on the deck, only when it was sunny. But I imagine it is very popular in summer.
Barge vs other cruises
Barges foat on manmade canals, that have no current, covering just 30-50 miles per week. They move so slowly that passengers can step off the barge at the lock, walk or bike into town and catch up again with a barge. You cannot do this on river or ocean cruise.Generally, barges accommodate from 4 to 24 passengers, this makes them ideal for families or friends who want to occupy the entire vessel. The cuisine and the local wines are of high quality but not for hamburger-steak-beer crowd. Entertainment in the evening is minimal if non-existent.
River cruises, on the other hand, sail at faster speed and can visit more cities or countries per week and usually stay on more crowded ports. A river cruises would have more amenities, larger cabins, big decks and some of them have Jacuzzi or swimming pool.
So, what vessel is right for you?
If you hyper-kinetic, you would not probably like the barge cruise. If you want to be in different location every day, the barge is not right for you. Barging is really a slower pace with in-depth view of countryside. It is a gentle, quiet pace – “stop and smell the flowers”. Yet, you will go every day to see the sites, and when you come back, the exquisite meals are waiting for you. You explore at your pace little villages, paths, countryside. You get as much exercise or be lazy as you want to be.
On our trip there were 17 Americans, mix of couples, friends traveling together and one single traveler. The ages were from 39 to 87 and it was an excellent mix of people, the group got along very well together and we bonded really fast.
Instead of whirling through 15 countries in 10 days, barge travelers want to savor a small part of Europe from the deck of a small vessel floating on its inland waterways – the canals and rivers that criss-cross the continent. Barges float in UK, France, Ireland and Holland.
The Crew and the Service
There was a crew of 7 people – a barge manager, a guide, captain, pilot, chef and two housekeeping ladies who were taking care of cabins and also served the meals. The barge is better described as a floating country inn. It is French product, run by British Crew, made for Americans. Only guide and chef were French. All of them were great, eager to accommodate the passengers, and even participated in our improptu parties. As I said before, you make your own entertainment.
We were lucky with tour guide Patrice who stayed with us all the time, from meeting us on Dijon train station on arrival and dropping us off there last morning for trip to Paris. All of the staff were very professional yet loose. They worked very well together, helping each other with duties. The barge and the cabins were impeccably clean. The cabins were cleaned
The bed made few times per day with the towels and washcloths replaced, the bath was cleaned and a two bottles with Evian water supplied.
Last night Marian had birthday and the crew arranged the birthday cake which was beautiful, the celebration was lovely. Nigel the pilot was taking care of bicycles on and off the boat, chattered with passengers on the way and informed us on locks as we’ve passed by.
Food and Wine.
This is the highlight of the trip. Meals were spectacular, beautifully presented, and delicious. They do ask you in advance and on arrival if there are special dietary requirements or preferences. This is important to tell it since the meals do not have menus. You have to eat what you are given but it was good! Few meals were not like but less sophisticated palates J but there are 4 course dinners and you are will not leave hungry.
For example, once we were served seared tuna and half of the people did not eat rare tuna. The chef fixed omelette on request. Other times appetizers – escargos and foie gras were not popular with few people. Everything else was more or less familiar. Click here tosee the menu. Being gourmet eaters, myself and another passengers got double portions! For dinner, there is no extra helpings unless you finish whatever your neighbor does not like and we became very good on exchanging plates. Most dishes like lamb, onion soup, soufflé, crème brulee and chocolate mousse were everybody’s favorite.
If you are meat and potatoes eater and like large portions you probably would be disappointed.
For breakfast, local bakery delivered early in the morning fresh croissants, pastries, baguettes. They were delicious and very large. In addition, cereals, muesli, juices, homemade preserves, yogurt were available. Breakfast is buffet style, extended continental. However, limited eggs orders were taken as an exception but not the rule but it probably is not practical to provide eggs for everybody since the chef is starting working in the (small) kitchen on lunch. As you probably know, French do not eat eggs for breakfast. No meats were available for breakfast as well.
Lunch was buffet style, with 2 wines served, one either fish or meat or quiche and 3 salads. Buffet is served by staff with explanation of wines and chef describes the menu. You can help yourself for seconds if you wish. Desert for lunch always been cheese and only once chocolate mousse. (My chocolate mousse was almost stolen by tablemates but I was quick to find perpetator!)
Cheeses were described as well. Dinner was a 4 course meal. Before meal, the staff explained wines, and dishes. It was usually appetizer, main course, cheese and dessert. The cheeses were not that average American palate is used to and they were with distinctive cheesy smell as you feel when you enter French cheese store. Cheeses are made from unpasterised milk so some people would not venture eat it. To me, we often try to find these cheeses in USA and it was treat for me to have them every day.
There were cocktails before dinner first night with delicious small pastries as well. Otherwise, chips, nuts, cookies, were available every day for our pre-dinner drinks.
My favorite dishes were foie gras, French onion soup for appetizer. French onion soup in Nouvelle cuisine is not like cheesy bistro soup, just few croutons and shreds of cheese, with a dash of vermouth. For dessert, chocolate mousse and crème brulee were exceptional. Click here to see the menu
I also enjoyed typical burgundy dish – poached eggs is wine sauce with bits of bacon, but it probably would do as a main lunch course, it was too much of a meal for appetizer. Most vegetable salads, unlike American mixed salads, consisted from the main vegetable ingredient, accented with nuts or raisins, and in different vinaigrette. Dijon mustard of course was used in most dressings with different flavor vinegars. For main course, rare tuna was excellent, duck breast as well was the best. As for drink, I do not drink anything except wine, but I became quite a fond of kir (black currant liquior with white wine or champagne). I preferred it with white wine. Kir was born in Burgundy, so it a staple of this region, along with wines and mustard.
Very enjoyable vacation, easy pace, excellent food and wine. We had visit the most beautiful region of Europe and savored it. Small group of people, you make your own entertainment, great conversation late at night. I would definitely come back with my husband since it it very romantic especially in warmer month. I would like to explore other places. Provance/Cote D'Azur, Holland or Ireland are next on my list.
I was concerned that the barge would be to slow of me, but it turned out just right. For travelers who like to tour larger cities with intense sightseeing, more crowds, nightlife, action, I would advice against it. My other concern was that we are independent travelers and never take bus tours. Even on cruise, we venture on our own in ports or with private guide. When we cruise, we prefer expedition cruises. However, I found out that I've enjoyed the trip. We had a small group (and other barges are even smaller in size), and found the trip very personal.
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