This year I took the leap back into tourism with a chance to work for European Waterways on their canal barges. I started in March aboard l’Impressionniste, a ‘peniche’ (very specific French word for Dutch style barge made into a floating hotel) which cruises the Burgundy Canal.
France has many canals. They were originally created to connect the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, by connecting rivers via canal. Allowing a boat to travel, in a rather zig zag route, from one coastline to another. Albeit very slowly.
I actually wrote about these canals before the idea of working on them was even a glimmer. (Read here: Explore French Canals). And considering coincidences, I also found my first home based on a coincidence with the Canal du Centre. (Read: Canals and Coincidence)
Burgundy, I believe, has the largest canal network in France with the Nivernais, Centre, Loing, Briare, Roanne, and of course the Burgundy Canal. The latter is the longest of the canals in Bourgogne (French for Burgundy).
The Burgundy Canal
A few geeky details… the Burgundy Canal is 242 km long / 150 miles. It connects the Yonne river to the Saone river. And it goes through 189 locks. That’s a lot. If you figure it takes a boat between 15 and 30 minutes to go through a lock, well, you do the math. It takes a long time to totally traverse this canal.
What I like about this canal, besides the scenery of course, is that it goes both up hill and down. After all, that is what locks are for, to move a boat uphill or down hill ultimately. The high point is at Pouilly-en-Auxois, where the canal passes through a 3.3km / 2 mile long tunnel. So to the west of this quaint village the canal heads uphill to the tunnel, climbing the locks. Whilst on the east side it heads down hill from it.
And the barge?
The barges on the canals are typically Dutch transport barges that have been converted to floating hotels. No two are alike. They vary in length as well, but the maximum for the canals is 39 meters, as the length of a lock is only 40 meters.
There are a few companies that offer canal boat cruises, particularly in Bourgogne. European Waterways, as mentioned above. French Waterways, who offer canal and river options. And Elegant Waterways, whose barges only cruise the Burgundy Canal. There are Burgundy canal barges as well that are privately owned, but offer cruises, such as the Colibri (4 passengers) and Magnolia (6 passengers). So no lack of choice.
A few are designed to take only a minimum of passengers, say 2 or 4, but predominantly they are geared towards 8 passengers, with a few able to sleep up to 12. L’Impressionniste, the boat I worked on, was one of these larger accommodating barges.
I was assigned on to l’Impressionniste and came to see her for the first time in March. She had wintered over in Vandenesse-en-Auxois, a cute small stone town with a gorgeous view of Chateauneuf-en-Auxois, the castle on the hill.
She’s a classic barge, both in history and modernisation. Comfortable luxury is how I would classify her. And I like to think our crew added to that feeling. Partly as we were 6 crew to a maximum of 12 guests. A 1 to 2 ratio is pretty darned luxurious to my mind.
What’s it really like?
So what’s it like to cruise on a barge? The best way I can describe it is a ‘true holiday’. The pace of the barge dictates that nothing happens fast. Typically a day is split in two, half excursion, half cruise. The cruise would meander along the canal, entering and exiting locks almost every kilometer. Guests could get off and walk or cycle. The speed of the boat is about walking pace. But the locks slow it down so it is easy to catch up with if one stops to smell the flowers along the way.
Many guests took to this slow pace and also enjoyed reading, or playing board games, or simply watching the scenery go past. (A few found the pace too slow and had a hard time settling into the simplicity of the cruise. So not for the fast paced at heart.) Barge cruising is very much a holiday you do not need another holiday from.
After a multi course lunch with wine it was up to me to engage the sometimes sleepy guests. In my van(s) I would take them to visit castles, markets or wineries. Yes, more wine might be tasted. It is Burgundy after all, famous for its wines. And honestly, it is okay to spit it out at a tasting. Really. But surprise, surprise, people rarely do. But then that is why it’s nice to have a guide who is also designated driver.
And below deck?
Of course there were a number of guests that were curious about life behind the scenes. Especially those that has seen the TV series ‘Below Deck’. The truth lies between the TV show and the trip the passengers enjoy.
Guests never got to see our quarters, and quite frankly that is a good thing. The luxury stopped at the wheel house. But it was not uncomfortable. Just not luxurious. It was small, very small. But we rarely spent time there, except to sleep. And it was nice to have a room to myself that allowed me some modicum of privacy for a time.
When I started this job I asked a number of times for a picture or description of my cabin. It was never provided. I think it was felt that it would put me off. And maybe for some it would. But I wanted to know so I could figure out how my stuff would fit. To answer the question : It is rectangular, with a single bed, the length of the cabin, and a corridor alongside it. Various shelves hold my knitting, books and writing letters supplies. If you are tall, do not apply for a job on a barge.
The closing of a chapter
And so the season is finished. We said goodbye to our last guests on the final weekend of October. We immediately got underway then to cruise our girl back to Vandenesse-en-Auxois for her winter mooring. It was all hands to deck as we closed up the boat, scrubbing, wrapping, labelling, sanding, varnishing, and eating the last vestiges of food onboard. To say we got down to bread and water is an understatement.
We will gather next week as a company to meet each other, swap stories, remember a few moments of chaos fondly and then disperse to the next chapters in our lives. It would be easy to focus on the bad aspects, but I prefer to look towards the good. The community that surrounds the canals is truly special. I have enjoyed its bilingualism, the improvement of my French, the fact that my mental stamina has increased tenfold. And, most essentially, all the good friends I have made in these past 30+ weeks.