CERCY-LA-TOUR, France — A barge trip through Burgundy is like sailing through 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.
It was autumn, there were few boats on the canal and the blue chicory was in bloom.
The pace is slow on the Canal du Nivernais. It is not a commercial canal crowded with working barges; only pleasure boats ply the water 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 Cezanne.
Four of us took bags of books we intended to read during our week's trip 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 galley when we felt like it, showered, and slept in comfortable bunk beds, linens all provided.
Tow paths paralleling the canal on either side connected with country roads. We explored them on bikes rented from the barge company and carried on the deck. The bikes were small, with balloon tires, wonderfully easy to pedal along the flat tow paths or up gentle hills to view rolling farmlands.
The white Charolais and Nivernais cattle grazing in front of small chateaux 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; you are not confined to the space of the barge, but can moor anywhere along the canal anytime you want to stretch your legs, explore the countryside or have a meal.
We chose a self-drive barge because of its flexibility and because it was less expensive than other options and quite roomy. Self-drive cruisers also 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.
In the Countryside
Of the many canals in France 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.
By the turn of the century the market for timber was gone. The canal was in great disrepair and about to be condemned. Along came P. P. Zivy, a great sailing enthusiast. Zivy 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.
My husband and I speak a type of French understood by very few Frenchmen, so were greatly relieved when we arrived at the boat yard to hear the manager reply to our "Bon jour" with a "Hello there!"
The rental company 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.
Barging Like Driving
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 bollard on the side of the lock that 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 lock side, rope in hand, when going down the canal.
All of the lock keepers on the Canal du Nivernais are women wearing house dresses. On English canals men with beards and captains' hats stroll out from the plain little lock houses where they live, but here in France domesticity reigns.