It’s not the typical way to see France, but a trip on a barge on one of its river canals is for sure the best way to explore the heart of the country and avoid crowds of tourists. That’s what I had in mind when I booked a one-week trip on Barge Luciole, which cruises up and down the Nivernais Canal of the River Yonne, in the Burgundy region.
Starting in the picturesque medieval town of Clamecy and travelling north towards Auxerre, the barge passes by sleepy villages, vineyards and castles. I had heard that the service aboard is excellent, and that the barge’s crew – the English couple who owns it, a cook, a wine sommelier and a cheese specialist – make sure everything is first-class, including four-course dinners with the finest French wines. What interested me more, though, was learning that there are also daily excursions on the barge’s own bus, to explore places around the canal. I couldn’t wait to be a guest.
The Nivernais Canal links the river Loire with the river Seine, approximately following the course of the river Yonne. It’s 108 miles long and has 112 locks; construction started in 1784, initially to aid the floating of timber rafts from the forests of the Morvan National Park to Paris, via the towns of Clamecy and Auxerre. The Nivernais quickly became an important communication route, carrying timber, building-stone, grain and wine out of the region, and bringing in much-needed coal. It contributed significantly to the economic development of the region of Burgundy, of which the small town of Clamecy is the main center.
The Nivernais Canal’s commercial importance faded with the arrival of the railroads, but today it attracts tourists sailing on chartered and restaurant boats – or hotel barges like the Luciole. Curiously, this type of tourism has grown under the leadership of the British, the first to see the economic potential of the many old barges that were deteriorating on the canals. About 80% of the tourists these days are from Northern Europe.
Unfortunately, due to the time my New York flight arrived in Paris, I missed the first part of the tour schedule, a Sunday cocktail reception at the elegant Hotel Mansart in Paris, to be introduced to the barge’s crew.
Instead, I joined the Luciole at Clamecy, after a short train ride from Paris. The barge’s manager was waiting for me at the station and took me in a van to the river, where a group of friendly-looking English tourists were already enjoying their cocktails on the Luciole.
Barge Luciole is 114 feet long and 17 feet wide. It has two decks, and the en-suite cabins are located in the lower part. The saloon on the upper deck has large windows, allowing full views of the countryside. The sundeck is raised, to provide a vantage point on which to sit and watch Burgundy pass by. The Luciole is a ‘boutique’ barge, as it only accommodates 12 passengers in 8 cabins. It has now been cruising the Nivernais canal for 50 years, and it has earned the reputation of being one of the best in the region.
As soon as I was settled in my small but charming suite, the barge started to move (it cruises slowly for 6 hours every day). The Nivernais canal is narrow, and from my window I could see that the sides of the vessel almost touched the land. I had never traveled like that before and everything was new and exciting.
I later learned the Luciole’s history. It started its life on the French canals in 1922 as a mule-drawn freight vessel carrying coal. Later equipped with an engine, she carried a heavier cargo of up to 180 tons. In 1966 she was bought by an entrepreneur and taken to the French port of Dunkirk, where she was converted to become the first ‘hotel-barge.’ American author Emily Kimbrough was an earlier guest and published Floating Island, an affectionate account of her experience. Acquired by the company Inland Voyages Limited in 1985, the barge was renamed ‘Luciole’, which means firefly in French. In 2010 the Luciole was ‘stretched’ in a Paris shipyard, when it got sliced in two and gained a new 17 foot section for greater comfort of its guests.
The current family-owned business was founded by John Liley, following a detailed exploration of waterways in Europe that began in the 1960s. At the time, John was the editor of a leading British yachting magazine; he had also published books on traveling, among them ‘France – the Quiet Way,’ an exploration of the entire French river system. Those early journeys inspired him to select the Nivernais canal for his barge business, and in 1976 he did so with a vessel called ‘Secunda,’ a forerunner to the Luciole.
John’s wife, Penny, is responsible for the warm decoration and the elegance of the meals. Trained as a chef, she cooked for schoolmasters at the renowned British school Eton College, as well as for Formula 1 drivers, before joining the business with her husband. Among the guests on my trip were her mother Jane and stepfather Alistair, a couple I enjoyed talking to during the cocktail hour. Alistair was a British World War II veteran who became my partner on bicycle rides alongside the canal (the barge provides bicycles).
We had a fun wine tasting in Chablis, attended a busy street market day in Noyers and visited the Château de Bazoches, a private residence opened to public visits. In the medieval walled-in town of Vézelay the main attraction was the breathtaking Basilica of Saint Marie Madeleine, where her relics are supposed to be buried (the best-seller book The Davinci Code mentions it), and where everyday, at noon, the monks sing Gregorian chants in Latin.
After a few days that seemed to fly by too fast, we arrived at our final destination, Auxerre. A medieval French town with rich history, Auxerre has one of the most dramatic cathedrals in France, a monument to faith built on a hill. After walking its narrow alleyways with the group – by now feeling like old friends – we were taken to the barge’s van for our trip back to Paris.
It was sad to say goodbye to such a nice group of people, but my memories of those days will live forever. Jane and I wrote to each other for some time, but then I lost track of her. But that barge trip remains to this day one of my favorite adventures. Fortunately, the Luciole is still running.