Vive La France!
I live in Europe, and at this time of year, when I see flags of red, white and blue flying, it is more likely an indication of France’s celebration of independence than the U.S. And as a wine lover, I really can’t complain. As much as I love my American homeland, I never tire of the endless opportunities afforded to me, living in central Europe, and I must admit I really do love visiting France.
Within 90 minutes, I can be in the verdant Alsatian vineyards that produce aromatic Gewurztraminer and Riesling. And over spring break, I was equally impressed that within hours, our family was boarding our own personal canal boat in Burgundy where we moseyed along the Canal du Nivernais much like when lush Burgundy wines slowly made their way up this very same canal to be sold in Paris.
I first read about the many canals through France several years ago in a book titled A Year Off. David Elliott Cohen’s family had sold all their belongings to travel the world, and for at least a month of that time, they chose to live on a French canal boat lazily floating along the gentle waters there during the day to then tie up the boat each night and venture into villages for locally produced sausages, cheeses, breads and produce, absorbing every bit of the local color and culture. It sounded idyllic, and I could easily picture their jaunty bicycle rides into town, foraging for the wine and supplies for that night’s meal.
So when I learned that my own family plus most of my best friend’s family could enjoy that same sort of experience, we jumped at the chance to rent a boat that easily housed eight. We too could spend our own few lazy days in the Burgundy region near Chablis, moving between Migennes and Auxerre.
A pastoral beginning
It was in our starting city of Migennes that we had our first real meal of the excursion. The car ride to Migennes, the grocery shopping to ensure our kitchens were well-stocked, the lesson in how to operate the boat and manage it at the many locks we were to encounter, and just loading bikes, clothes, the dog and kids onto the boat ended up taking far longer than we expected. We didn’t depart the dock until right before the lock operator was about to close for the day. And once through our first lock, we soon saw the restaurant the lock operator had recommended, so we stopped for dinner and discovered that this lesser-traveled part of Burgundy had many new wines to share.
It was in this cozy little bistro that we got our first sip of Pinot Noir from a little village, Irancy. It was nearby and we would be there in a day or so, so how could we resist this funny named wine on the menu? Our curiosity was rewarded, and we became even more determined to explore Irancy further in our canal voyage.
Locks, locks everywhere
The downside of a canal trip is that as soon as one settles in, enjoying the lull of birdsong, the smell of fresh flowers in passing gardens, and the sun’s warm rays on your face, you hear someone say, “Lock up ahead!” Most everyone on the boat gets up to go to their assigned ropes and help tie up the boat for the raising and lowering of canal water that is necessary to move boats along. Sometimes, we would encounter wonderful treats such as a lock operator who sold a friend’s locally produced wine or a park that was too inviting not to stop. Other times, we would meet up with a bit of misadventure, such as when our loyal dog jumped into the water just as the lock was about to close. A few shouts later to direct her to swim to shore and she was soon wagging her wet, stinky tail again next to her master and waiting to get back on the boat with him.
We had high expectations when we got near Irancy because of that wine on the first night, so we moored in Vincelottes, meandering through its own fest and flea market that day, and planning on riding our bikes the few kilometers to Irancy the next morning. My husband and I had thought we were so smart in buying inexpensive folding bikes prior to the trip only to find out that five-gear bikes really rode as if they had but one gear, making a 45-minute uphill ride into Irancy feel quite endless. Thankfully, even in a bit of a drizzle, the ride still seemed scenic, and we were rewarded, tasting an interesting assortment of red, white and rosé wines and clearly with unique flavors to this part of Burgundy. Accustomed to boaters like ourselves, the winemakers quickly offered to drive our newly purchased cases of wine to our temporary boat “homes,” so we were lucky that our bike ride back was downhill and we could still get there quickly enough to meet them in time for the delivery.
Because our canal trip occurred in the cooler days of spring, we yearned for a little more heat than one might in the summer, so it seemed like the perfect conclusion to our vacation on our last night to dock in a more remote area where we had noticed an established fire ring, perfect for a campfire. One son had foolishly tried to startle the dog on our boat earlier in the day and was quite eager to dry his wet clothes there, from falling into the mucky canal water himself. We were just as happy to grill delicious French sausages and eat my friend’s potato gratin known as Jansson’s Temptation, as we sipped seemingly perfect Chablis and listened to our sons’ varying guitar music.
Overall, our canal trip showed a picturesque part of France that felt far less touristy than a trip to Paris or Provence. The boats, at their fastest, traveled slowly enough our boys could ride bikes on the path alongside it and beat us to the next lock, but that seemed just fine in these circumstances. From the heady Pinot Noir that we drank with our Marguez sausage-laden couscous to the games of Risk and charades, it all felt like a wholesome retreat from electronics and our normally hectic lives to times gone by and an appreciation for all that is good in life and perhaps…all that was and is so very French.
– Ivy F. Kupec