A River-Level Panorama of Burgundy

By Lothar, Corinna | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), September 2, 2000 | Go to article overview

A River-Level Panorama of Burgundy


Lothar, Corinna, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


ST. JEAN DE LOSNE, France - dark barge chugged gently up and down the Seine with cargo for (or from) Paris, passing through narrow locks, pulling up to stone quays in towns along the way. The locals gawked. The barge was the Atalante, in a scene from Jean Vigo's masterful, surrealistic film "L'Atalante" (1934). The four people who shared the narrow quarters below deck ate simple meals there, accompanied by a bottle of pinard (what the Brits call "plonk," what we call "house wine").

Ah, what romance. What intrigue. And what a hard life.

The MV Chardonnay, the newest in Continental Waterways' fleet of hotel barges plying the rivers and canals of France, is no Atalante. Yet, on a cruise down the Saone River in Burgundy on the elegantly appointed barge, I thought often of the voyage of the Atalante. We, too, made it through the locks (some just barely); we docked on waterfronts with stone steps. We also attracted a gathering of curious onlookers. And we, too, shared meals and drank wine with every meal (except breakfast).

But the resemblance goes no further. Ours was a voyage with a little romance (one hopes), perhaps a little intrigue, but definitely no hard life aboard. On her almost maiden voyage, the Chardonnay glided down the river, her only cargo 35 Yale alumni and five invited travel writers, overseen by a crew of 14.

In five leisurely days, we went from St. Jean de Losne down to Lyon. Our quarters were comfortably spacious for a boat, the food was anything but simple, and the wine was no pinard.

The Chardonnay, named for Burgundy's white grape, is a large hotel barge, a reconditioned oil tanker, except you would never know that. She can accommodate about 50 passengers, in four small single cabins and the rest in minisuites consisting of a divided bedroom and sitting room. The upper-deck cabins have large, sliding-glass window-doors ; the lower-deck cabins have a porthole in each of the divided areas. Although the portholes don't open, the air conditioning works well. All the cabins are attractively furnished, and the bathrooms have terrific showers.

Meals are taken on the upper deck in a large, pleasant dining area next to the bar and a small lounge. The crew, mostly delightful young Englishwomen, does everything from cleaning cabins to waiting on tables. They are charming and helpful.

The Chardonnay sails downriver from St. Jean de Losne to Lyon one week and up the next. Passengers board on Saturday afternoons in time for a welcome drink, followed by dinner.

St. Jean de Losne is a tiny village where 150 men, women and children held out for nine days against 60,000 Austrian troops in the Thirty Years' War and were rewarded with an exemption from all taxes. St. Jean is so small that the town has no room for a cemetery; therefore, the townspeople jest, none of the inhabitants ever dies.

The Saone runs through the fields and vineyards of Burgundy from the Vosges Mountains to Lyon, where it joins the powerful Rhone to flow down to the Mediterranean Sea. The Romans used the Saone to occupy France; during the crusades, it provided access to the Mediterranean and the Holy Land. The river also served as the border between the Holy Roman Empire and the kingdom of France. Until the introduction of steamboats in 1835, barges were pulled upriver by men or horses.

Dijon, famous for its mustard and once a Roman fortress, is our first stop, although it is not on the Saone. The city also is known for its black-current liqueur (creme de cassis) and pain d'epices, similar to gingerbread.

Dijon has a charming old quarter of stone mansions, half-timbered 15th- and 16th-century houses and the imposing palace of the dukes of Burgundy. The palace, now a fine-arts museum, houses an interesting collection of Renaissance paintings, sculpture and objects from the Middle Ages.

The Chardonnay travels a few hours each day, never at night. …

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