Life

Travel: Living the riverboat dream in beautiful Burgundy

Margaret Carragher discovers the relaxed pace of life on the River Yonne in Burgundy with a sail/drive holiday to France

River life: chill in riverside cafes, pause at ports and locks and potter about on deck
Margaret Carragher

IN THE business of holidays it’s always good to start as you mean to continue – get in the groove, so to speak. And so, with a much coveted and greatly anticipated French river-boat trip in the offing, what better way to get there than by, well, boat ­– even if 'boat' might fall somewhat short in the context of Brittany Ferries’ flagship vessel Pont Aven.

Weighing in at almost 42 tonnes, the Pont-Aven can accommodate up to 2,400 passengers and 650 cars, and sails regularly between Ireland and France. Launched in 2004, its stand-out features include a five deck-high atrium, a wraparound promenade and a massive pool and leisure complex.

Then there’s the double storey lounge bar and live entertainment hub, a casino and games room, twin surround sound cinemas, several cafes and restaurants, a spa treatment suite, extensive shopping facilities and a veritable trove of artwork, including a Gaugin.

So – no shortage of diversions to while away the 14 hour crossing; even if, for yours truly, it’s all about being rocked to sleep on an ocean wave and waking at dawn to the sight of France through the cabin porthole. Happy days.

And more to come as we drive eastwards to the port of Joigny on the River Yonne in Burgundy where our floating holiday home awaits.

Any qualms we have about being cramped for space are dispelled the moment we step aboard our Locaboat Clamecy. Named after a little medieval town bordering the nearby Nivernais canal, our delightfully retro-style vessel features a fully equipped kitchen, separate living/dining area, four spacious cabins, two shower rooms and two separate toilets.

Upstairs, the sun deck comes with ample seating for outdoor dining, and more than enough space to stretch out with sun cream, books and bevvies. And oh, the pleasure of arriving to fresh flowers and chilled Prosecco – truly, it’s the little things.

Having sailed from Cork to Roscoff through a Saturday night and driven cross country on the Sunday – a day of rest rigorously observed throughout France – we’ve come prepared with enough provisions to see us through the weekend.

Of course, we could always go to one of Joigny’s many excellent restaurants, which includes the double Michelin-starred La Cote Saint-Jacques, widely regarded as among the best in France.

Yet, when you’re moored in one of Burgundy’s prettiest ports on a sunny summer’s evening, it seems a shame not to make the most of it with an ad hoc picnic on deck.

Next morning, having stocked up at the local Lidl (they’re all over the place here, and even better value than at home) we meet up with a Locaboat operative for a lesson in how to navigate the boat. It's surprisingly easy as it turns out, even a child could do it. And then we’re off.

With a speed limit of around 9.5 kph/6 mph on rivers and 7kph/4-5 mph on canals, it seems pointless to rush. And so, having dithered endlessly over cruising options in the planning stage, we decide to just go with the flow. Which is how we end up on the evening of our first day afloat in the absolute back of beyond. And thrilled beyond measure.

Because that’s what happens when you’re chugging along an ancient, tree-lined waterway with no agenda beyond savouring the moment: you round a bend in the river and suddenly find yourself in paradise. Not a soul to be seen, just a verdant curtain of trees stretching off into the distance and the gentle rustle of leaves in the breeze.

So, having moored up in heaven and dined al fresco on Lidl’s finest, we amble off along the river bank in search of a bit of diversion – which is how we discover Gurgy.

A mere dot on the map, this miniscule hamlet punches way above its weight in the charm stakes, as evidenced by river traffic jostling for space in its port, and campervans lined bumper to bumper in its car park.

A two minute walk from the river bank over an ancient, hump-backed bridge brings us into the village centre, and a church of such staggering beauty and grandeur it almost beggars belief.

A Google search conducted over chilled Chablis in the nearby Riviere restaurant (whose shutters, like so many others here, boast that particular and utterly sublime shade of blue that only really works in this part of the world) duly reveals said church to be the work of an innovative 12th Century Master Builder, and one of five such early Gothic structures scattered seemingly willy-nilly around the rivers of Northern Burgundy. Only in France.

Next morning, we cast off and head upstream to Auxerre. With a history stretching back to Roman times and a skyline skewered by medieval towers and steeples, it’s little wonder Auxerre is listed among the exalted French Towns of Art and History.

But it’s not all about ancient churches and clock towers and crypts; with its many chic designer boutiques, quirky arts and crafts outlets and gourmet food halls, Auxerre is a retail therapy haven for all comers. It also boasts acres of manicured green spaces including the Parc de l’Arbre Sec, a delightful botanic garden adjacent to the river.

Then there’s the Natural History Museum, housed in a Louis XIII-style mansion and featuring more than 80,000 specimens, including skeletons of prehistoric bears discovered in nearby caves.

Further upstream the River Yonne merges with the historic Nivernais canal which links the Loire with the Seine, is accessible along its entire 174 km (108 mile) length to hikers and bikers, and caters exclusively to recreational craft.

Meanwhile, all around, the region’s rolling, vine-laden landscape is just waiting to be explored: so much to see, so little time.

The box-ticking tourist in me just wants to go, go, go. Cram everything in. But that seems to defeat the whole purpose of being here. Certainly the other boaters we meet – chilling out in riverside cafes and bars, idling around ports and locks, pottering about on deck – are going nowhere fast.

Maybe they’re right.

:: FACTFILE

Locaboat is one of the European leaders in self-drive boating holidays. The company operates a fleet of 380 vessels all around Europe, offering over 200 journeys departing from 27 marinas, from the Canal du Midi to Burgundy, Ireland to the Venetian lagoon.

Locaboat is renowned for its trademarked model, the Pénichette, a very comfortable canal boat with a delightful and timeless cachet. To book, visit Locaboat.com or call +33 386 917 272. Prices from €402 (£352) for a weekend.

Brittany Ferries Pont-Aven continues to offer the fastest direct ferry crossing from Ireland to France, taking just 14 hours and operating to a convenient weekend schedule. Passengers can enjoy an authentic French on board experience, unmatched cruise style standards and award-winning service and cuisine. Facilities include pool and bar areas with panoramic sea views, two cinemas, shopping malls, luxurious spa treatments and a wide range of restaurants as well as complimentary Wi-Fi in all public areas of the ship.

2019 sailings start from €132pp return, based on four sharing. Booking can be made either online at Brittanyferries.ie or by calling 00353 21427 7801.

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