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Travel & Holidays in later life


La Belle EpoqueThe hotel-barge "La Belle Epoque", operated by European Waterways, was moored at the marine quayside of Auxerre, the capital of northern Burgundy. Here was where Napoleon embarked on his journeys to Paris - down the River Yonne and into the Seine.

But Reg Butler decided, instead, to head up-river to the little town of Clamecy, through one of the richest areas of France with tranquil scenery, great wines and gourmet food.

We weren't expecting such a large and luxurious boat. It had started life as a 360-ton freight barge, working the waterways of Holland, Belgium and France. 

Measuring 126 feet long and 16 feet wide, it was converted into a 12-passenger hotel barge in 1995, and was refitted again early in 2006. The six air-conditioned cabins range from 125 to 165 sq feet including the marble-tiled bathrooms. 

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European Waterways Ltd has specialised in hotel-barge cruising since 1974, to France, Italy, Germany, Czech Republic, England, Scotland and Ireland. 

Among the other French cruises is an alternative further south in Burgundy on the Nivernais Canal aboard an 8-passenger barge; and cruises on the Loire, and in Provence, the Camargue, Bordeaux and southwest France.

For special family or group celebrations, it's possible to charter the whole boat.

European Waterways

35 Wharf Road, Wraysbury, Staines, TW19 5JQ. Tel: 01784-482439. 

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Everything on the holiday was totally inclusive - open bar, gourmet cuisine with carefully selected fine wines, and daily excursions by minibus.

The barge captain, Mick Jones, was an ex-Army man who had served in the Falklands, Northern Ireland and the first Iraq war. Living in Burgundy for the past ten years, he had an in-depth knowledge of the region. Some of the minibus excursions he conducted himself. Others were led by Pancho, a local resident originally from Chile. 

Wine tourism was the highlight in this region of Northern Burgundy. Close to Auxerre is Chablis country, where the Chardonnay grape grows to perfection on the scenic hills. 

Just north is Champagne, and the Burgundy region produces its own sparkling wine called Crémant. This champagne-type wine was freely on tap aboard the barge, as part of the open bar. We just helped ourselves.

Finishing off breakfast on the sun deckTranquillity was the theme as the barge made its leisured journey while passengers relaxed on the spacious sun deck. There were locks to negotiate along the parallel Nivernais Canal, which is rated as the most beautiful in France.

Anyone feeling energetic could stroll along to the next lock or borrow a bike from the on-board rack of a dozen. In fact occasional dates are selected for low-key walking cruises
Meanwhile the master chef Louis Dutton - originally from Yorkshire, but with many years of working in several regions of France - would be preparing the next gourmet lunch or dinner. He was normally up early every morning to buy the freshest produce, including newly-baked baguettes and croissants.

Burgundy is famed for its gastronomy, and Louis could extend it with specialties from other areas. So the cruise featured ten gastronomic meals and one ashore, with well-chosen white and red wines to match.

Every feast was something to remember. Emily Cassiday, the Cruise Hostess, was another migrant from Yorkshire, and very knowledgeable about food and drink. Each wine was presented with full details about its origins, cultivation methods, history and why it was chosen. 

Likewise each dish was described, including different cheeses every day, with Louis often adding some comments. Every main meal was the equal of any 4-star French hotel that boasts of its restaurant.

What else besides wallow in food and drink?

The minibus sightseeing trips were flexible. Burgundy is packed with historic sites, as befits such a rich area which the Romans favoured and which flourished under the Great Dukes of Burgundy.

Auxerre is crammed with superb 16th-century half-timbering in the riverside area which was formerly home to the boatmen. The town centre is equally interesting, wrapped around an ancient Clock Tower built on Roman foundations.

Something different: southwest of Auxerre craftsmen are building a 12th-century fortified castle called Guédelon, using only medieval techniques. The project was started in 1997, and will take 25 years to complete. 

You can watch stonemasons, carpenters, blacksmiths, rope makers and other workers using the tools and skills of the Middle Ages.

Another afternoon we visited something equally traditional - the holding of a village fair and informal market. It gave us a good close-up view of French life.

The 13th-century Gothic gable added to the Romanesque basilica at Vezelay Historically, the hilltop Unesco world heritage town of Vézelay was the prime destination. Vineyards around Vézelay date from Roman times. Monks founded an abbey in the 9th century. The basilica, housing the miracle-working relics of Mary Magdelane, became a major place of pilgrimage.

From here the 2nd and 3rd Crusades were launched. For many centuries Vézelay has also been the departure point for regular pilgrimages across France and northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela. 

Five miles away is the 12th-century Chateau de Bazoches, where Richard the Lionheart stayed before joining the 3rd Crusade. 

In Half-timbering at Clamecy, where the cruise ended. 1675 it was bought by Marshall de Vauban, the most famous French general and strategist. From here Vauban directed his military engineers to work out most of the plans and studies for 300 fortified towns and constructions throughout France. 

With all entrances paid, this was the most all-inclusive holiday of a lifetime. It was seven days of being totally pampered, for blissful memories of relaxation and great cuisine amid the unspoilt scenery of this corner of France.


Where else to go in France

ANNECY - French coach touring by TGV train

BRITTANY COAST - St Malo and the Emerald Coast

CHAMPAGNE TRAIL starting at Troyes

LOIRE VALLEY - The Garden of France

MENTON - where lemon trees bloom year-round

NICE - exploring the Riviera

PARIS - Open season for loving

PARIS - See it dressed up for Christmas

"Books to read - click on cover pictures" or click on the links below

Burgundy Jura Green Guide (Michelin Green Guides) - A superb detailed guide to the entire region, guaranteed to stimulate a desire to return again and again. Easily the best choice in the market.

Wines of Burgundy (Mitchell Beazley Wine Guides S.) - The most up-to-date survey of the 600 listed producers of the fine Burgundy wines, written by two experts in the field.

Burgundy Insight Guide (Insight Guides S.) - Offers a good pre-travel view of Burgundian history and culture, with excellent descriptive coverage of the places worth visiting, enhanced by good photos and maps.

Burgundy Jura Green Guide (Michelin Green Guides) - A 469-page coverage in pocket format of the region and its multitude of attractions. 

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