A mouth-watering meander along the waterways of Burgundy with European Waterways

Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov famously used a bell to develop the concept of classical conditioning with his salivating dogs. We would have been model scientific subjects for him, because it took only a couple of days aboard the hotel barge Finesse for our appetites to be whetted by the sound of Chef Mike Crowson chopping, mixing, whisking and gently rattling pots and pans.

Finesse - European WaterwaysFood is major part in any trip to France, and on our six-day journey it proved to be a constant. Akin to a floating restaurant, Finesse is the latest hotel barge to join the European Waterways fleet and we joined one of the maiden voyages through southern Burgundy. In addition to being a new vessel on a new route for the company, other innovations include the demonstration galley in the main open-plan saloon, and every day brought a tantalising insight into what lay ahead at lunch and dinner.

It was much more interesting than having the resident chef tucked away behind the scenes, and by the end of the week we really appreciated the thought and effort Mike put into our meals – doubly testified by the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ as he arrived at the table with the end result, to say nothing  of my gently expanding waistline.

But what’s a holiday without good food, wine and company? And on Finesse all three are served up in equal measure.

Finesse - European WaterwaysCarrying just eight passengers in four incredibly spacious cabins, Finesse is already being booked by groups of families and friends that charter an entire cruise. But if you set out not knowing your fellow passengers, as we did, by the end of the week you’ll be barging buddies, bonded by all kinds of unique shared experiences.

The 128ft vessel began life in 1950 as a freight barge, carrying grain and other goods. After being spotted languishing in a sad and sorry state in a Belgian shipyard, Finesse has been completely transformed. A classic looking blue and white barge on the outside, the new owners have made a pleasing break with tradition by shunning a dark traditional wood and brass look in favour of a surprisingly bright and contemporary interior.

Finesse cabinWith some of the largest cabins in the European Waterway’s fleet, and boasting large hotel-style beds, fluffy robes and bathrooms with an enormous shower and double basins, Finesse admirably lives up to its new role. The lounge area has panoramic windows and skylights with squishy settees and chairs, a dining table, small bar with stools and, of course, the all-important galley. Outside there’s a table for al fresco meals, a hot tub and bikes that can be taken ashore on request.

We met our fellow shipmates – Brits, Americans and Aussies – in Lyon and a couple of hours later caught our first glimpse of Finesse in St-Jean-de-Losne, with a near mirror image reflection of the gleaming hull and two anchors reflected in the water close to where the Canal du Bourgogne meets the River Saone. The scene was set as the Captain and crew greeted us with the first of many glasses of Champagne sipped over the ensuing leisurely week.

Finesse saloonHotel barging is completely different from other types of river cruising, be it the mainstream European vessels carrying up to 200 passengers or navigating a self-hire narrowboat or pleasure craft. Barges can access narrow waterways and canals inaccessible to larger vessels and, with just eight passengers being looked after by five crew members, it’s a really personal experience with the ambience of a house party afloat.

It’s not a budget break, but unlike ocean ships you won’t rack up eye-watering bar, excursion and speciality restaurant bills. Everything is included in the fare, from the daily escorted trips with welcome cocktail and nibbles on return to the open bar, and the croissants and pastries fresh from the local village bakery at breakfast to the three-course lunches and four-course dinners, each accompanied by different French wines.

Finesse dining and saloonMeals can be tailored to suit specific requirements, such as vegetarian, and at the beginning of the week Mike chatted to us about any likes, dislikes or special requests and tailored the week’s menu accordingly. Given the gastronomic and liquid larder on our ever-changing doorstep, regional food and drink played a starring role.

Appetisers included light-as-a-feather French cheese soufflés, asparagus with hollandaise sauce, and pea soup with feta, followed by duck with cauliflower and kale, quiche Lorraine and, of course boeuf Bourguignon. Afterwards there might be honey crème brûlée, lemon tart with basil and lime sorbet, or vanilla panna cotta with summer berries. The trio of dinner cheeses, which grew stronger as the week went on, would be eloquently introduced by Ang or Catrin, Finesse’s two charming hostesses.

Captain Joe Sait - Emerald WaterwaysOften we’d be eating while Captain Joe ably steered us through the narrow locks on the Canal du Centre that followed the early stretch of the cruise on the open River Saone. The timeless landscape shifted from sunflower filled fields to farmland populated by the distinctive white Charolais cattle and the vineyard-clad slopes that produce the region’s famous-name Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays.

Each day heralded a different excursion led by the fifth crew member Anthony. One day we visited Beaune, capital of the Burgundy wine region. After picking up some souvenirs in the market we toured Hotel Dieu, the former hospice with its ornate tiled roof, preserved wards for the rich and poor and vast polyptych altarpiece of the Last Judgement, graphically pointing the way to heaven or hell.

One afternoon there was a visit to 14th century Chateau de Germolles, one of the best-preserved residences of the Dukes of Burgundy, and another day we tasted wine at 17th century Chateau de Chamirey, which has been in the same family for five generations. Lunch at a Michelin-star restaurant was also included in the itinerary.

Finesse spa poolOn free mornings and afternoons we’d hop off at locks to cycle or stroll along the canal path, the former always slightly more wobbly after lunch. As Finesse moves at a walking pace, it was always easy to get back onboard.

Ending in St-Julien-sur-Dheune, Joe marked our meandering route on a souvenir map we all got to keep. We might have only travelled 70 miles or so, but this gentle journey was not about how far we had covered but what we had done in that time. On the last night we toasted new-found friends with another glass of bubbly and reflected on the delightful culinary and cultural voyage.

More information

Prices for a six-night cruise on Finesse are from £3,950 per person sharing a twin/double cabin, including all meals, wines, an open bar, excursions and local transfers.  Full barge charters are also available for families and groups. For more information call European Waterways on 01753 598555 or visit www.gobarging.com.

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Jeannine Williamson

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