One of the most delightful travel ventures in Burgundy is to float on a graceful vessel along the Burgundy canal. This waterway excursion may include short trips (around 3 hours) or for travelers inclined to uncover a sumptuous spell, exclusive hotel-barges are a splendid way to experience a canal cruise for a week or so while visiting many sites and charming villages along the way. The cruise docks at multiple quays along the canal and visitors can explore the region via bicycle tours or hiking expeditions through distinctive areas. Professional guided tours on comfortable air-conditioned vans are also an option which can be easily arranged.
Historically some of the canal’s construction’s preparations began around 1605. However, it was Louis XV who signed a decree for the canal’s official construction in 1773. Upon completion around 1882, the Burgundy canal was considered to be an engineering achievement with its 242 km (150 mi) of length and virtually 190 locks. The canal converges the Yonne and Saône valleys following a spectacular stretch towards Burgundy’ boundaries through a 3300m tunnel. This marvelous river exploit will generate incredible views of Burgundy’s glistening vineyards, historical sites and communities, and wonderful outdoor markets on weekends.
My river cruise experience included visits to lovely places such as the beautiful Ancy-le-Franc château. In the 16th century, Antoine III de Clermont chose the renowned Italian architect, Sebastiano Serlio, to design and build this fetching structure. The château sits on the canal’s embankment and presents a magnificent collection of Renaissance murals and paintings by Flemish and local French artists from the 16th and 17th centuries. Continuing along the canal, we stopped and cycled to another incredible place: Abbaye de Fontenay. Its historical background has an element of the divine: at age 23, Bernard de Claivaux, a wealthy aristocrat, decided to abandon the “world” and join the monastic life of the Cistercians. He was a strict follower of the Benedictine Rules which comprised of an atmosphere of prayer, hard work and studies, community living, economic self-sufficiency and a spirit of moderation. In 1118, he founded the Fontenay Abbey with a group of Cistercian monks. The abbey is the ultimate architecture legacy of Cistercian originality. Built in Romanesque style with understated warm sandstone, the structure allows for ample natural light to saturate its buildings thus fostering a sense of serenity and beauty. A visitor may leisurely walk through its immaculate landscape gardens nestled over 1,200 hectares. The abbey nurtures such an inspirational atmosphere that a variety of film productions have use this location as a backdrop including the award winning “Cyrano de Bergerac,” with Gérard Depardieu.
Our water-based holidays continued. After our next docking, we climbed into a minibus for a visit to a medieval gem: Flavigny-sur-Ozerain. Stepping through its massive city gates, we arrived into a serene chocolate-box medieval city-center with narrow winding streets. Around 52 BC, a Roman soldier Flavinius received from Caesar a stretch of land situated on a hill as reward for the victory over the Gaul. Thus, the area was named name Flaviniacum and later Flavigny. In addition, the Romans also brought with them an excellent supplement to the local flora: aniseeds. Anise (Pimpinella anisum), also called aniseed, is a flowering plant in the Apiaceae (parsley) family. The Romans believed that tea made from its flower was a powerful elixir for their troops in the treatment of colds and influenza. For years, the factory of the famous “Les Anis de Flavigny, un bien bon bonbon” (candy-drop mints), housed at an ancient abbey in town, produces these wonderful mints sold in elegant boxes or painted tin containers. It is said that when a strong West wind overtakes the factory, the entire village smells as fragrant as the scent from the anise plant. The village is scenic with ancient architectural design, gates and fortifications, and ancient shops. The church in the center of town, Saint Geneste, is a marvelous site including its carved artwork. Proximate to the church is the store front for the film “Chocolat” with Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp filmed mostly in Flavigny and surrounding areas.
From the Burgundy Canal, gazing towards rolling green fields speckled with white steers, one cannot help to notice a small village sitting on top of an inconspicuous hill: Châteauneuf-en-Auxois. As we ascended into its gate, we were welcome by an imposing 15th century fortress: the Château de Châteauneuf-en-Auxois with a tall round keep. Around the 12th century, this village began to flourish. A stroll through its curving streets is like striding into a storybook especially since most houses date back to the 12th – 15th centuries. An assortment of crafts shops and window panes bursting with colorful and fragrant flowers adorned the village. On the trail, we promenaded further into the edge of town to discover a congregation of trees and a cross overlooking a spectacular view of the valley and the intertwining Burgundy canal below. Breathtaking!
Our next stop included a morning in Semur-en-Auxois. This fortified village is bordered by the river Armaçon. Its medieval centre-ville (town center) remains virtually unspoiled after hundreds of years and the area is a prime location for panoramic photography. After Semur-en-Auxois, we visited the village of Époisses where one of my favorite cheeses of Burgundy originates: the Époisses, king of cheeses! That evening on our boat we shared our discoveries and cheeses while the captain introduced: Kir Royale. Blackcurrants, one of the main ingredients in this drink, were brought from northern Europe and Asia to be cultivated in Burgundy’s monasteries. There, the monks used this fruit to prepare traditional remedies to alleviate sore-throats and fever. In 1836, Auguste Denis Lagoute had the idea to start a liqueur factory using blackcurrants since the plant thrived in the region. Eventually, he and his partner developed the Crème de Cassis: blackcurrant berries soaked in clear alcohol and later, its juice is sweetened with a sugar glacé. This new liqueur progressed to another creation, the blanc-cassis, as white wine was added to its blend. Blanc-cassis became quite famous in the mid-1900s when Canon Felix Kir, WWII pioneer resistance fighter and deputy mayor of Dijon allowed this trendy apéritif to be named after him, Le Kir. Felix Kir further popularized this drink by serving it to visiting foreign and local dignitaries on multiple official and social events. The Kir Royale is made with Crème of Cassis plus champagne and served in champagne flute glasses. This drink also rose to fame in the novels of mystery writer Agatha Christie. Her fictional character Hercule Poirot favored this delectable aperitif on various occasions.
One of our last adventures was rising at dawn to experience the thrill of a hot air balloon ride. Floating and moving with the wind, our hot-air balloon flew over: the resplendent vineyard rows of Chablis; the stunning medieval village of Vezelay resting peacefully on a hill; glazed tile roofs; smaller quaint villages and nature reserves. We also followed from above parts of the marvelous watercourses of the canal, its locks and rivers which were simply awe-inspiring. I have to say that the canal cruise was an excellent way to travel and marvel at the remarkable beauty of Burgundy!