Burgundy by Barge: An Unconventional Way to Enjoy a Classic Wine Region

Burgundy Barge
Photo by Grand Victoria Cruises

Barge cruising through on a barge through Burgundy is nothing like any other cruise. It’s the Holy Grail of slow, peaceful travel for very small groups. On the canal there are no crowds, there’s plenty of freedom to explore, and it’s likely that the duck swimming alongside is moving at a faster clip.

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The Burgundy Canal is a cultural masterpiece, yet car-bound visitors might not even know it exists. Draped on either side by rich vegetation, bucolic farmland and walkable tow paths, it preserves generations of history in its stone bridges and mechanical locks.

The canal was built to connect the River Yonne and the River SaĂ´ne, to transport local products (including wine) from Dijon to Paris. Now it carries nothing but travelers, in barges refurbished into luxury mini-hotels or boats owned or chartered by independent cruisers.

Each of the nearly 200 locks along the 150-mile canal has a keeper’s house—though many are no longer occupied, they are still maintained by the French government and are sometimes used as holiday getaway homes. Without tourism, this slice of French culture would be a relic, forgotten to more modern forms of transport and travel.

Fall foliage along burgundy canal
Hotel Barge L’Impressionniste | Photo by European Waterways

“We literally creep along the canals at little more than walking pace,” says Derek Banks, founder of European Waterways, a luxury barge outfitter that’s been cruising since 1974. For travelers thirsty for immersion with ease, this is the ideal way to approach the rural countryside of one of the world’s finest wine regions in the company of wildlife, native plants, grazing cows and the occasional grandfather-and-grandson fishing team.

Barging with an operator often includes locally sourced cuisine and wine to match, in a well-appointed space that holds a small number of people who enjoy their own sleeping cabins but share common areas. Stops are made at locks, where passengers can easily disembark to bike, walk or explore villages. It can take around a week to travel a few dozen kilometers, so outfitters arrange trips to spots that are not directly along the canal—historic châteaux, medieval sites, family wineries, the Route des Grands Crus, local markets and towns such as Dijon and Beaune.

These icons are some Burgundy’s main appeal, but it’s the small details that become more evident from the barge. A wayward sheep dog that’s escaped his farmer might jump in for a swim, or a family on horseback might watch from a bridge as the barge slips gracefully underneath. Rare wildflowers, birds and animals share the countryside. The colors and textures of the season come alive, and a spring drizzle or evening sunset is more dynamic when reflected by a ribbon of streaming water.

These tiny signs of French culture would be missed from a car or train.

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Traveling by barge also allows for immersion in the daily French life as well as a slice of Burgundian history. Most barge chefs source cheese, bread, veggies and meats from the villages on or near the canal; many outfitters bring people to lesser-known spots that rely on visitors willing to step out of the typical Burgundy travel hit list and discover micro-producers. “Visiting local markets—and spending money—helps the stall holders after a tough couple of years,” says Banks.

Go Slow with These Outfitters

European Waterways (Operator)

With a long history and multi-vessel fleet moving through Burgundy, guests have a choice of barges, routes and experiences.

Great for: foodies and wine lovers who want to meet like-minded travelers.

Grand Victoria Cruises (Private Charter)

Reserve the entire barge directly with the operator, exclusively for private charters that can adapt to meet individual interests.

Great for: family and friend-group travelers in search of an elevated getaway.

Barge Lady Cruises (Agent)

This Chicago-based team has experience with a variety of barging options and will help guests choose from private and group operators.

Great for: people who want to compare barging options and get travel advice.

 

This article originally appeared in the November 2022 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

Published on October 17, 2022
Topics: Travel