What a grand title for a barge! Luckily the lady lived up to her name and our expectations, which she did actually exceed in every way.
A barge, even a big one, presents the very real prospect of tight accommodations, iffy facilities and, still worse, the likelihood of mediocre food cooked by a well-meaning hobbyist chef on a gas burner at the back end of the boat. La Belle Epoque was surprising, charming, delicious, luxurious and relaxing, and those dreads soon evaporated.
We were met at our appointed hotel in Paris – the receptionist was expecting us, and took charge of our luggage so we were able to have a few hours in warm, sunny Paris. Just time enough for a meal of steak-frites and a glass of something red and reviving, surrounded by locals. The holiday had started and we hadn’t even seen our vessel.
Our minibus arrived, and not one of those U-Drive efforts hired for the day, either. A smart blue 9-seater in the European Waterways livery with the company emblem on the door. (In fact this bus was to follow us along the route, and ferry us to various places of interest.) A smiling couple introduced themselves to us and the other passengers, and loaded the luggage. We were off.
A couple of hours of dozing found us alongside a beautifully painted and substantial Dutch barge. This particular boat was built in the 1930s to carry cargo around the European rivers and canals in an era when they still offered the fastest and most reliable travel options. La Belle Epoque had been sympathetically converted to a floating hotel but it still retains some features which made Dutch craftsmanship so valued.
The trip started with a warm welcome from the assembled crew and a glass of chilled champagne. Canapés were nibbled before we were escorted to our cabins. The Belle Epoque has 6 guest cabins boasting modern en-suite facilities, single or huge double bed, crisp linens, brass portholes, dark wood, mineral water aplenty, turn-down service every night, and even a chocolate on the pillow. In short – bijou floating comfort.
There is ample space in the saloon which acted as both lounge and dining room.
Two long sweeps of banquette tempted voyagers to linger over apero and savouries in the evenings before dinner or to unwind with a best-seller before a stroll along the towpath: one can walk through idyllic French countryside between locks. La Belle Epoque moves at a good walking pace so not much chance that you’ll miss the boat. For anyone needing more speedy travel than Shanks’s pony, there are bikes which allow for a mini Tour de France into nearby historic villages before meeting the boat a few locks further on.
But it’s not all about taking naps in dappled sunshine, hiking by the canal or cycling through Burgundy. There are also guided excursions every day. There might be a walk to a nearby chateau, a visit to a village market, perhaps a wine tasting break …well, this is Burgundy and a famed wine-producing region after all!
Our first meal set the scene for the whole trip. This was, surprisingly, not advertised as a culinary-themed adventure although we had hoped for some interesting dishes. Chef Selby presented French food to the highest standard. On our first evening we enjoyed crayfish timbales wrapped in cucumber, duck with orange sauce, pears poached in red wine and all expertly paired with both red and white wines.
He progressively ticked off all the classics – beef from the pale Charolais cattle, coq au vin, frogs legs …and then there were the cheeses! There were several of these after every meal. Chef Selby chose regional cheeses, soft cheeses, blue cheeses and hard cheeses. All from France and showing their diversity.
Our daily guided excursions took us to such beautiful villages as Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, where the film ‘Chocolat’ was set; Alesia, where the last battle between the Gauls and Romans took place in 52 B.C. (and a visit to the museum); the exquisite World Heritage UNESCO site of Abbaye de Fontenay founded by St Bernard in 1118, which is unmissable; the 16th century Château d’Ancy-le-Franc with the biggest collection of Renaissance murals; and the vineyards and town of Chablis, dating back to Roman times.
France is popular for barge cruises, but all cruises are not created equal. Whilst it’s true that this was my first experience of such a holiday, I would have to say that European Waterways, on La Belle Epoque, have thought of everything. It’s a floating hotel with almost-individual attention from the staff. There might not be room for an Olympic pool on deck but there is a hot tub.
No, there isn’t a bespoke library but there is a selection of books on the food and drink of the region, and one might notice a copy of Rick Stein’s French Odyssey. That’s no surprise as that book is associated with the eponymous TV series that was partly shot on a European Waterways boat.
La Belle Epoque is polished, both metaphorically and actually. If this is an example of the whole fleet then European Waterways deserve to be proud. I wholeheartedly recommend this trip to any food, wine and history lover …or lovers of doing nothing while the scenery drifts serenely by.
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018