Barge holidays have come a long way from the days of narrow beds and questionable sanitation, as Annabelle Bladon found out on board Orient Express’ luxurious Amaryllis in Burgundy
When presented with the idea of a barge holiday, my first thoughts were of a floating caravan, beds so narrow that you fall out when you roll over and unsatisfactory sanitation systems. But as soon as I set eyes on Amaryllis, one of Afloat in France’s five péniche hôtels and part of the Orient-Express portfolio, I see that I could not have been more wrong.
A 40-metre working barge, converted and decorated by some of the most respected boat designers in France and Italy, Amaryllis carries up to eight guests in unrivalled luxury as it cruises the waterways of Burgundy in eastern France. I am joining the barge for three days on the Canal du Centre, deep in the heart of wine country.
I embark in the early evening, welcomed with a Champagne reception and introductions from the friendly crew. Despite the lavish decor and impeccable service, the atmosphere is relaxed; during a quick introductory chat we are advised, in the event of an emergency, to “just pop up to the deck for a glass of Champagne and we’ll sort it right out”.
My cabin is vast, beautifully furnished with a mixture of contemporary and antique furniture, complete with en-suite marble bathroom. And with capacity for 24-odd tonnes of water on board, there’s no need to worry about filling the bath to the very brim.
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While we explore the boat, our Chilean chef Marcello gets to work preparing dinner – Charolais beef. We are welcome to poke our heads around the kitchen door and investigate the culinary delights in store, and Marcello is more than happy to take requests and cater for any likes or dislikes.
The theme is French cuisine with an inventive twist; our starter tonight is a sumptuous dish of foie gras, goat’s cheese and grilled mango, paired with Sauternes. Michael, our knowledgeable Scottish guide who has lived in Burgundy for 14 years, is on hand to take us through the selection of wines. So knowledgeable, in fact, that he manages to give us a condensed introduction to Burgundy’s appellations and estates before we have even started our main course.
An introduction is also given to the selection of cheeses on offer every evening, from local Burgundian Epôisses to well-known classics such as Roquefort and Reblechon. Just as I am finishing my chocolate mousse with Grand Marnier jelly and chocolate and red peppercorn irregular, Marcello comes to check we have enjoyed ourselves. He doesn’t realise we ladies are swooning over more than just the mousse.
The next morning, we rise to a breakfast of fresh fruit and croissants, and some very unwelcome news: a storm has cut off electricity to the area, including the canal’s locks. Aware of the leisurely pace at which rural France moves, particularly on a Monday, I am not hopeful that we will be on the move any time soon. But not to worry, Michael will take us on an excursion in Amaryllis’s own spacious mini-bus while the electricians get to work.
We begin by venturing into Paray-Le-Monial, home of the Sacré-Coeur, a beautiful Romanesque basilica built on the site of a 10th-century monastery. Michael relays the fascinating history of the town, a site of pilgrimage since 1873, with boundless enthusiasm.
Back on the bus, we pass through soft rolling hills dotted with white cattle and ancient farmhouses, the vineyard-laden slopes of the Côte d’Or in the distance. On our way to the historic walled city of Beaune, the wine capital of Burgundy, we stop for a glorious lunch. A chance to dine out locally is always offered as part of your voyage, guide on hand to translate the menu.
Among the pretty winding streets of gourmet food shops, wine cellars and boutiques, the main attraction in Beaune is the Hôtel-Dieu, part of the charitable institution the Hospices de Beaune. Built in the 15th century as a hospital for the poor and needy, it is now a museum and an exceptionally well-preserved example of Flamboyant Gothic architecture. Michael takes us around, never failing to astound with his colourful narrative of the institution’s unique contribution to Burgundian wine-making.
The interior courtyard provides a spectacular view of the polychrome glazed-tile roof, but the most breathtaking exhibit is a Rogier van der Weyden painting, The Last Judgement, a reminder of what happens to those who are not pure of spirit.
Just as we are leaving, we receive good news: the canal has reopened! We head back to the barge for a late afternoon cruise, but we find the weather has again taken a turn for the worse. So while the Pilot and the Matelot happily don waterproofs and guide us deftly on our way, we relax in the salon with a glass of something cold, watching the world go by at a leisurely pace to the gentle pitter-patter of rain on the panoramic windows.
This is the perfect way to view the green countryside, rain or shine, passing crumbling cottages and trees bursting with mistletoe, the peace interrupted only by the occasional excitement of squeezing through a narrow lock, with not an inch to spare on either side.
Although the locks on this canal are now mechanised, they are still manned, and they close in the evenings. Still, while I’m munching on a canapé of grilled oyster wrapped in smoked bacon, I can’t help but notice a quiet discussion and bottle of Pinot Noir make its way into the lock-keeper’s hands, before we continue to bob on our way.
I awake in the morning to glorious sunshine, one guest having already been for a jog along the towpath before breakfast. That afternoon, we make our way to the riverside town of Tournus for a spot of shopping and a look at the early 11th-century abbey, where we are lucky to hear one of the oldest organs in Burgundy. Quiet enough to stop andhave a listen without getting hustled along by the crowds, we take in the soaring nave, bathed in light, before climbing a spiral staircase from the dark narthex to the atmospheric chapel above, which not only served as a spiritual sanctuary but as a place of refuge during the middle ages.
The beauty of this form of travel is the flexibility. Perfect for families and groups of friends alike, your route and activities can be tailored to your personal requirements. Wine connoisseurs might fancy a Grands Crus Cruise, and the needs of golfers, cyclists and art enthusiasts alike can be accommodated. But should you wish never to leave the luxury of the barge, there’s no need.
Back at the boat, there is a slight chill in the air, but the evening sun is streaming across the deck and we decide to take our cocktails to the heated pool. Although on this occasion it feels more like a hot bath, it is surprisingly large once you’re in. The crew joins us for aperitifs before our final dinner, featuring a memorable vanilla mash accompaniment to pan-seared duck breast. As I retire to the comfort of my king-size bed, I decide that this floating hotel is the perfect escape.
I will be going home refreshed and rested, a little more educated on the subjects of wine and architecture, and just a few pounds heavier.