Pootling around Burgundy on a traditional French canal barge, with the water smooth and the wine slipping down well, is a green and pleasant way to holiday
It suddenly dawned on me as I steered the canal boat around the waterways of Burgundy that I could cause some serious damage. Twelve tons of metal and steel is no toy bateau after all.
But this is a penichette, a traditional French canal barge that pooters along at a top speed of 15 miles an hour and makes a perfect introduction to boating for novices like me. As a lifelong aficionado of city breaks and sunbathing, I’d never even considered the idea of a boating holiday, much less fancied one. I mean, weren’t they the preserve of obsessives who read too many yachting magazines and spent their weekends hurtling round the Solent in force 10 gales?
Well, no. Judging by the traffic, they’re also in vogue with families and, like us, groups of friends, who just want to kick back and relax. And not a sou'wester in sight.
This particular penichette had a sundeck up top, plenty of room to manoeuvre inside, a well-stocked fridge and four en-suite bedrooms (the boats sleep up to 12 if you’re prepared to bunk up) so you don’t have to worry about washing your hair in a bucket. Even negotiating the locks is a doddle after an hour or two’s tuition from an expert boathand before you’re let loose at the helm.
Not for nothing is Burgundy known as the reservoir of France. It has more than 12,000 kilometres of rivers and 1,200 of canals, and has some of the best carp and trout fishing in the country, if you’re into fishing. I’m not, but three days in early September spent navigating the waterways of the Cote Chalonnaise, sampling sumptuous Burgundy wines (the vineyards in the region date back to the Romans) and boeuf Bourguignon along the way, definitely beat a miserable, blustery weekend in Yorkshire.
Starting at the boat base in St Leger sur Dheune, we set sail the next day for Santenay, a pretty little town with marshmallow pink houses, a fountain in the middle of the square and the lovely Restaurant le Terroir (listed as Bib Gourmand in the Michelin Guide), which serves up a simple chicken salad with such aplomb you could be forgiven for thinking you’re dining at the Ritz.
In fact, Burgundy is full of good, reasonably priced restaurants. Take Le Vendangerot, for example, a cosy, rustic hotel restaurant in Rully, where the coq au vin in white wine and pavé de porc are superb, and the famous Rully wines are available by the glass. Or L’Amiral in St Leger, whose menu du terroir costs just €25 for three delicious home-cooked courses.
After lunch, there’s more exhertion in the form of wine-tasting at the caves (cellars) of Domaine Mestre Pere et Fils, where a bottle of lighty, fruity Santenay rouge will set you back just €11.
A “parking ticket” issued for not tethering the boat properly (thanks to a kindly fellow sailor, it wasn’t left to float away) doesn’t dent our enthusiasm. Judging by the clapping and whooping from the crowd of bikers we sail past later that day, it may even have secured our all-female crew’s reputation as the local entertainment. Either that, or just women drivers.
If your carbon footprint is something that concerns you, the boat's green credentials include solar panels, low noise and efficient waste-water holding tanks that don't release dirty water back into the canal. And it’s just a couple of hours from Paris to Le Creusot, 10 miles from base camp, so you can take the Eurostar instead of flying.