Story and Photos by Jacqueline Harmon Butler.
“Madame, would you like another glass of Champagne?” “Oh yes,” I replied with a smile, holding out my Champagne flute in one hand and taking another of the delicious tidbits being passed around with the other. We were welcomed aboard the Renaissance Barge on the Loire River Canal by Captain Hadrien Famy and introduced to his crew of four which consisted of two hostesses, Dani and Nicole, chef Brenda and tour guide/assistant James. I had just arrived on the Renaissance which was moored on a canal running alongside the famous Loire River in the Burgundy region of France. Crew member James picked up my friend Carol and me in Paris, along with four other members of our group. He loaded us and our baggage into a big Mercedes Benz minibus. We were excited and looking forward to our week-long barge cruise along a canal following the upper Loire River in Western Burgundy between Chatillon-sur-Loire and Montargis. There would be eight passengers hailing from San Francisco, England, Florida and New Jersey, three married couples along with Carol and me.
The Renaissance has been beautifully transformed from a grain hauling working barge into an elegant floating masterpiece. Accommodations are luxurious and each of the four cabins are beautifully decorated, air-conditioned, with comfortable beds, a TV and portholes that could be opened — though not while the barge is in motion. The adjoining bathrooms were supplied with fragrant soaps, shampoos and lotions along with fluffy bathrobes, and soft luxurious towels. All that and heated towel racks too!
The barge has a huge partially covered deck with a large round table and chairs. A hot tub stands near the bow and bicycles await on the back of the boat. Exploring the deck, I admired baskets of colorful flowers hanging along the railings and several large pots containing flowering hibiscus plants and two small olive trees blooming beside the hot tub. I was surprised to notice one of the olive trees had a few tiny olives growing on it! The hot tub looked inviting and I asked if it was always warm. “Oh yes, we keep it quite warm and available whenever you want to take a soak,” replied James. “I can’t wait” I replied and Carol and I agreed that we would try it out later that evening.
Inside, the salon and dining areas were decorated with comfy chairs, sofas, a stereo system, and at one end, a round dining table and chairs. At the small corner bar/liquor cabinet, I noticed a wide assortment of hard liquor, wine, (including my favorite Menatou Salon), beer, sparkling water and soft drinks. It’s an open bar so guests can help themselves whenever they want. There was an espresso machine on top of the wooden bar and a small refrigerator below. Bookcases lined one wall and offered a variety of books, games, puzzles, maps and information about the barge.
A delicious dinner, including a delicate pâté with spinach wrapped in bacon, scalloped potatoes, a salad of fresh local greens and a 2007 Santenay Premier Cru-La Comme, was served inside the salon as we got acquainted with our fellow travelers. The next morning we were greeted with fresh squeezed orange juice, hot coffee or tea and a tempting assortment of buttery croissants, pain au chocolate, glazed pastries and eggs cooked to order.
Our morning destination was a cruise through the Loire countryside and a visit to the Chateau de Fontainebleau. The medieval castle/palace served as a residence for the French monarchs from Louis VII to Napoleon III, and is now a national museum and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s the only imperial chateau continuously inhabited for seven centuries. Over the years, each royal family would add its own individual touch when in residence, resulting in today’s eclectic collection of styles. I think one would almost need a golf cart to get around the sprawling place. Many of the rooms had massive fireplaces and I’m sure it must have been miserably cold living there in the winter months.
Returning to the barge, we relaxed with cocktails and later dined on fresh scallops with a bottle of Cave de Tain Hermitage Grand Classique wine. The wine was fresh and crisp and an excellent pairing with the scallops.
Tuesday morning, we visited the lovely Chateau de Sully-sur-Loire. It originally belonged to Georges de la Trémoille who in 1429 infuriated Joan d’Arc by encouraging the Dauphin Charles to devote himself to idle hunting in the forests around Sully. I found it interesting that in 1430 Joan d’Arc was imprisoned there for a short time after her failure to liberate Paris. Then in the 18th century Voltaire spent time at the Chateau while exiled from Paris.
The entire Chateau has been lovingly restored and I could almost imagine myself living there. One of the bedrooms was especially inviting. A fancy dress was draped across a chair, waiting for me to try on.
But what really captured my imagination was a small ornate silver framed mirror placed upon a marble topped chest. I thought it was perfect to arrange my hair or apply makeup. Oh yes, I thought I would be very happy living in that room — alas, only in fair weather. Later we cruised to our mooring spot at the little village of Rogny-les-Sept Ecluses, near the famous 350-year-old seven locks.
The Briare Canal and its main work, the seven locks (or sept écluses), were part of a huge project by Henry IV to join the Mediterranean Sea to the English Channel through a network of canals and rivers. Construction for both the locks and the Briare Canal began in 1604, and required more than 12,000 workers. Material theft was a real problem at the time so more than 6,000 soldiers came to monitor the construction site. I couldn’t help wondering where all those people were housed. Today the little town is peaceful and quiet but it must have been a real challenge living there during the construction. I couldn’t imagine what the site must have looked like during that time. Where did people cook, eat and sleep? And what did they do about lavatories?
The locks and the adjacent canal were finally opened for navigation in 1642. They were the first of their kind to be built in France and ultimately, a system of canals and locks linked all of France with the Atlantic Ocean, the English Channel and the Mediterranean Sea. The locks were modernized in 1822 but finally closed in 1887 after new ones were built. They were designated a national historical monument in 1983. That afternoon, we drove into town and visited a weekly farmer’s market where we picked up a variety of delicious products ordered by our chef. As we wandered through the market, we tasted samples from the stalls displaying salamis, cheeses, olives, succulent vine ripened tomatoes, watermelon, figs and peaches. Later with the weather still warm and beautiful, we enjoyed our afternoon cocktails and appetizers on the deck as we watched a flock of swans swimming nearby. Much later, after dinner, I ventured into the hot tub, which had softly colored lights and piped in music. The temperature was perfect. I could feel my body slowly relaxing in the luxurious setting.
Wednesday, we visited the famed Gien Faience Pottery factory where we watched artisans painting beautiful patterns on assorted plates, bowls and cups. It was difficult to pick out a favorite. We ended our tour in their retail shop and I wanted to purchase a variety of products. However, lack of space in my luggage prevented me from buying an exquisite rose festooned teapot.
That evening we dined at the Michelin starred Auberge des Templiers in the Les Bezards Restaurant. The Auberge is located in Boismorand in the Sologne, a woodland region south of the river Loire. The Auberge, situated on a country road, was once a stopping place for the Templiers, who were a Catholic military order founded in 1119 and active from about 1129 to 1312. The hotel is surrounded by flowering trees and beautiful gardens.
The food was beautifully created and totally delicious. I began with an appetizer of duck Foie Gras of Vendée with citrus jelly and special Reims’ Champagne vinegar. Yum! This was served with a chilled bottle of Thomas LaBelle 2016 Sancerre. It was delicious!
For my main course, I enjoyed the Grilled Filet of Charolaise Beef with a Wasabi Shitzuoka. I’m a big fan of Carolais Beef, which is native to the Burgundy region of France and is one of the oldest beef cattle breeds in the world. I chose a “Rothschild Soufflé” with bourbon vanilla ice cream for dessert. It was a perfect ending to a wonderful meal.
Thursday, we slowly progressed to Briare and visited the Chateau de la Bussiere. Although it’s privately owned, we could wander through the building and its magnificent surrounding gardens where a weekend wedding was being set up. Romantic as it may be to think about living in one of these grand old buildings, they are made almost entirely of stone. While cool during the hot summer months, they would be dreadfully cold in winter. The giant fireplaces could not possibly warm the rooms no matter how big a fire was created.
The next morning, Friday, we wandered around the stalls of the outdoor market in Briare where we sampled a variety of fruits, vegetables, cheeses, dried meats. There were a few French fashion stalls and we had fun looking over the shoes, slippers, undies and clothing.
Back on board we progressed to the famous Gustave Eiffel’s beautiful aqueduct and crossed the Loire River. It was amazing to be floating on a bridge over a river! We visited the renowned winery Domaine Henri Bougeois in Chavignol, Sancerre for a private tour and tasting. I especially enjoyed their 2014 Sancerre Les Baronnes. It was very dark and rich, tasting of fresh fruit with a lingering hint of oak. The harvest had just been completed in the surrounding vineyards and the vines were turning a rich gold and amber.
That evening we celebrated our last night with the Captain’s Farewell Dinner on board. With cocktails and escargots, we enjoyed the music of a keyboard and drum combo. Carol joined in with them singing a sexy rendition of “The Girl from Ipanema.” Our dinner was highlighted with a beautiful grilled filet of beef with scallops accented by a Passagne-Montrachet Morgeot and a Charles-Chamertin Grand Cru. The dessert was a poached pear dressed in melted chocolate and fresh strawberries and blue berries. Delicious!
As we said goodbye on Saturday morning, we exchanged e-mail addresses and promised to stay in touch.
It was an incredibly wonderful week, filled with luxurious accommodations, gourmet meals, exceptional wines, interesting visits to surrounding places. I totally relaxed and forgot about the stresses of life back home. I felt like a kitten in a basket being totally taken care of.
Reading the European Waterways new catalogue, I’m dreaming of another barge cruise…maybe in Italy or Ireland. “Madame, would you like another glass of Champagne” …oh yes…