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A pretty blonde in skimpy red shorts was fast catching up with the boat, riding her scooter along the tow path.
‘That’s the lock keeper,’ explained crew member Tiffany, ‘she has to work three or four locks. Not so many keepers these days, it’s more of a summer job for students.’ We watched in wonder as she reached for the windlass but Simon was calling: ‘yoga, anyone?’
* * *
We promptly returned to our mats, breathing, relaxing in less than perfect lotus positions, before focussing on the golden reflection of a tree. The sun had risen over the hill and we emerged as fresh as the dawn from our half-hour session. Glancing at the lovely white orchid on the breakfast table, we felt fully justified tucking into croissants and pain de campagne, honey and jam, fresh fruit and more. Le Premier offers yoga and stretching exercises on alternate days but on this luxury cruise nothing is compulsory.
My favourite activity was sitting on deck, ‘better than the QE 2’, said a guest, ‘no need to rush to reserve a steamer’. Heading north west from Dijon, we sailed for five days, past the glistening Lake Kir and sunflower fields, wooded hills, old wash houses, red-roofed villages nestling in the greenery and bales of hay scattered across the land. Church bells chimed in the distance, fish jumped out of the water and now and then, huge clouds of butterflies drifted along the banks. The white Charolais cattle watched us go past without batting an eyelid.
* * *
‘Look out, bridge coming.’
‘Little Richard’, the deck hand, took down the parasols and we ducked just in case but smooth and quiet as ever, Le Premier sailed through with no effort at all, though no doubt the captain knew otherwise. We squeezed over a mini aqueduct spanning the river Ouche and bubbled with excitement at every lock, each one so different from the last.
Ecluse de la Charme was a guinguette, with green and white chequered cloths beckoning under the awning, Grand Pré had old agricultural tools hanging on the white walls, others were draped in ivy and there were daisies, poppies, marigolds, buddleia and hollyhocks and potted geraniums at the water’s edge. Sometimes you could buy ice cream, honey or wine from the keeper.
* * *
Straight as an arrow or meandering lazily like a river, the canal was shaded most of the time, a cool emerald green barely disturbed by a sprinkling of converted barges and a single yacht met mid-week.
There’s no rush on the Premier which moves at walking speed so you can hop off at any lock to cycle or stroll along the tow path, set off to explore a village if you wish, and rejoin the boat further on. Ducks and herons hide in the reeds and we spotted a rare hoopoe, luminous dragonflies, hawks, hummingbird moths, hares scampering in the fields and one night at dusk, a couple of deer grazing in a water meadow.
We did not go through the long Pouilly tunnel –this would mean dismantling the wheel house - but peeping into the entrance was spine-chilling enough. ‘Only one boat at a time,’ explained Simon, ‘it could take up to an hour and a half to get through but it used to take ten. There’s no tow path and men had to pull a fully laden barge with hand grips and poles. It was dug by English and Spanish prisoners.’
* * *
One afternoon, just for a change, we visited a goat’s cheese farm up in the hills, with geese scampering noisily in the yard but not a tourist in sight. It was rich in flavours and smells, 100% authentic as our hosts Paule and Pierre revealed their secrets and tempted us to taste cheeses at different stages of maturation. How could we resist a purchase or two? Never mind about packing, we’d think about that later.
Back on the barge, beauty therapist Laura was all set with a range of treatments and our only problem was deciding which one to choose. Having your nails tidied and hands massaged on deck, as you watched ripples on the water or tree tops rustling in a gust of wind, was far removed from the conventional salon experience. It was so liberating, fresh air and all, that it seemed to boost everyone’s appetite for fine food.
* * *
Luckily, meals aboard the Premier are superb, ‘satisfying but never overwhelming,’ we agreed, ‘and so beautifully presented’. Goat’s cheese wrapped in bacon, asparagus and quail’s eggs, aubergine lasagne, Epoisse cheese, Napoleon’s favourite, fruit Grand Marnier in papillottes, and then there was the wine, carefully selected from the Burgundy cellars, including a selection of Premier Cru.
There would be more wine tasting at the Domaine Comte Senard, in the village of Alexe-Corton which produces both reds and whites but our ‘grape experience’ was to soar to new heights in the vinotherapy session. Fortunately, the options were explained, from Pinot Noir for a deep cleansing facial to an invigorating Grand Cru massage with polished vine stem, or a gentle Premier Cru with fresh grapes on face and neck. I chose the gentle treatment then fell asleep in the hot tub.
Burgundy canal cruise, France
(c) Solange Hando
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