A barge trip through Burgundy is like sailing into the luminous paradise of an Impressionist painting:
Sunlight filters through the poplar trees edging the canal and dapples the clay-green water with pointillist dots of gold. Lush fields by Monet roll like ocean swells under a vast blue sky.
The pace is slow on the Canal du Nivernais. This is not a commercial canal crowded with working barges; only pleasure boats ply the waters and there is never a problem finding a place to moor. In fact, there is nothing more difficult to navigate than around a bend or under a bridge where the sudden beauty of a red-roofed village brings sighs of pleasure and thoughts of Ce'zanne.
The four of us took bags of books we intended to read during our week's trip last summer along this canal in central France. But instead we couldn't take our eyes off the countryside we were slowly gliding through. Our barge was our floating home. We lounged on deck, cooked on the gas stove in the well-equipped, spacious galley when we felt like it, showered and slept in comfortable bunk beds -- linens all provided.
Towpaths paralleling the canal on either side connected with country roads. We explored them on bikes rented from the barge company and carried on deck. The bikes were small, with balloon tires, wonderfully easy to pedal along the flat towpaths or up gentle hills to view rolling farmlands. The white Charolais and Nivernais cattle grazing in front of small cha teaus reminded us of medieval scenes. With such splendid agricultural domains, it was easy to see why the dukes of Burgundy were so rich and the region renowned for its gastronomy.
A barge trip in France works for people of all ages and all tastes, primarily because of the flexibility you have if you drive the boat yourself. You have the luxury of answering to no timetables except your own inner tickings; and you are not confined to the space of the barge, but can moor anywhere along the canal anytime you want to stretch your legs or explore the countryside or have a meal.
We opted for a self-drive barge because of its flexibility and because it was less expensive than other options and quite roomy. Self-drive cruisers are moderately priced also and have sleeker lines. There is a wide selection of crafts in either category. Luxurious hotel barges, where a crew cooks, serves and caters to your every need, are more expensive.
There are many canals in France, but we chose the Nivernais because it is reputedly one of the most beautiful and is easily accessible from Paris -- about four hours by train or an easy drive by car to Cercy-la-Tour just south of Auxerre. At the same time it is, as the French say, "off road" -- deep in the countryside, away from tourist centers.
The canal was cut in the 18th century, mainly to float timber from the Morvan forests to the Loire river basin and then to Paris, where it was in great demand for building. Begun in 1783, the canal was not completed until 1842. By the turn of the century the market for timber was gone. The canal was in great disrepair and about to be condemned. Then along came P.P. Zivy, a great sailing enthusiast. He fell in love with the canal landscape and devoted himself to saving the waterway for boaters. We raised our glasses in gratitude to P.P. Zivy.
Since my husband and I speak a type of French understood by very few Frenchmen, we were greatly relieved when we arrived at the boatyard to hear the manager reply to our "Bonjour" with a "Hello there." The rental agency we used is run by Englishmen; their demonstration of how to operate the barge presented no difficulties in communication. And it's really very easy.
You drive a barge with a steering wheel the way you do a car. There is a hand throttle for acceleration and a gear for forward or reverse. The only trick to remember is that a barge is very slow to respond to the movement of its propeller or rudder when you change speeds or directions. Even when you cut the power to glide into a lock, the momentum of a 38-by-11-foot steel boat in the nearly frictionless water carries you forward with a good deal of force. We were thankful for that steel hull when we banged into the locks, as all beginners do.
The lock keeper gives a Gallic shrug at your ineptitude and points to the ballard on the side of the lock you should tie up to. The most nimble in the party hops off the boat and races up the lock stairs to catch the rope thrown up from the barge (when you are climbing to higher elevations going up the canal) or jauntily steps from the deck to the lockside, rope in hand, when going down the canal.
All of the lock keepers on the Canal du Nivernais are women wearing housedresses. On English canals men with beards and captain's hats stroll out from the plain little lock houses where they live. But here in France domesticity reigns. Rosy-cheeked, Renoir-like children run out to stare at the boats. Cats stretch in the sun, chickens scratch, geese waddle about and dogs trot busily up and down the lockside. Next to her square stucco house, with the date it was built over the door, the lock keeper hangs her wash to dry and cultivates her produce garden. While the water rises in the lock, she smilingly sells you her luscious sun-ripened fruits and vegetables.
It's customary to help lock keepers wind the locks open and closed. And like everywhere else in France, the lunch hour is sacrosanct on the canal. The locks are closed from noon until 1 o'clock. This is when you moor under the shade of a tree and picnic on pate' and cheese or go below to fry pommes frites in the barge galley. Or, if you are near a village, you can indulge in an incomparable Burgundian meal.
The cruise company, which provides excellent navigational maps of the canal so you know where every lock, bridge and village is, also lists restaurants and rates them according to its own star system. The Auberge d'Isenay, not far from Cercy-la-Tour, where we ate dinner the first night, was our favorite for atmosphere and excellence. Our four-course meal with wine, for which we chose entrees of trout meuniere and quail with raisins, came to about $12 each.
That first night one of us had to make a telephone call to England. We were directed from the auberge at the top of the hill, on our bikes, down a dark country road. Past an old stone barn there was a single vapor streetlight shining on a new telephone booth. And the telephone worked. Almost as surprising was our experience of walking into a little bank in the village of Cha tillon-en-Bazois and obtaining cash with our American credit cards more quickly and easily than we had been able to in Paris.
On the fourth day, we reached the lake at Baye, where several concessionaires rent rowboats and wind surfers. But promptly at noon, the boaters and surfers came in off the water, the concessions -- even the snack bar -- closed and everyone disappeared to partake of a proper lunch. It is a good time for a swim in the lake, which we chose to do.
Here at Baye the canal enters a series of long one-way tunnels through the mountains. To enter them, passage time must be reserved ahead with a lock keeper.
Instead we returned as we had come. We felt as familiar now with the countryside as if we had walked through it. Yet those of us who liked to mess about with boats were happy. So were those who preferred to loll in the sun and look. And we all were filled with bliss by the discovery that the sensuous, slow-moving world of the Impressionists has not entirely disappeared -- at least from Burgundy.