'Let’s drink to life never getting worse than this,' says Carlos de Sousa as we raise a toast with a glass of Burgundy’s sparkling Crémant de Bourgogne. It is barely breakfast time and half an hour earlier we’d been floating above the French countryside against the patchwork quilt backdrop of the region’s famous vineyards, farms and towns resembling model villages, with pinpoint figures of few early risers and dog walkers waving as we drifted past.
We glance nervously around the newly-mown hay field as Carlos explains the tradition of drinking fizz after a balloon flight is not something new and dates back to the pioneering flights of the 1780s. Pilots set off with a bottle of Champagne to enjoy during the flight, but instead of drinking it they ended up handing over bottles to prove they were human after fearful peasants mistook balloons for demons and attacked them with pitchforks. Later they became a peace offering to irate farmers that didn’t approve of balloons touching down on their land. Carlos says he always carries a second bottle just in case.
Luckily it’s never been needed. Earlier we’d seen for ourselves that half the fun of balloon flights is you never know exactly where you’re going. Pilots can alter the height of the balloons and turn them around, but they can’t be steered precisely and the final course is down to the wind. Then it’s a case of pilots controlling the altitude and aiming for a good spot to land. That said, we were in safe hands with Carlos as he originally started ballooning in the Portuguese Army and has since clocked up hundreds of flying hours on balloons in Spain, Turkey and Kenya before becoming Burgundy base manager for the France Montgolfieres Balloon Company.
Calming any pre-flight nerves with a blend of confidence-instilling professionalism and humour, the resulting one-hour flight was one of the highlights, in every sense, of a decadent week in Burgundy aboard European Waterways’ brand new hotel barge Finesse.
It’s amazing what some TLC can do. Found languishing in a sorry state in a Belgian shipyard, the 128ft vessel that set sail in the 1950s as the freight barge Chilosa, has been given a stunning facelift to transform it into one of the most stylish vessels to sashay down the Saone River and Canal du Centre between St-Jean-de-Losne and St-Julien-sur-Dheune.
Behind the traditional blue and white paintwork of the restored hull is a boutique vessel decked out in a chic, contemporary style with a light airy saloon and show kitchen, large 265 square feet cabins that would put some hotel rooms to shame, and an al fresco dining and deck area complete with a hot tub that’s the perfect spot to sip a restorative glass of bubbly at the end of a hard day’s lounging or sightseeing.
Carrying just eight passengers, the six-night cruises can be booked by individual passengers or chartered for groups of family or friends. Ably led by Captain Joe Sait at the helm and with a personal chef Mike Crowson, charming hostesses Ang Jones and Catrin Leighton and tour guide cum driver and deck hand Anthony Thompson, it’s a very happy ship - irrespective of the daily cocktail that arrives on the dot of our return from excursions, different Burgundian wines with lunch and dinner and a bottomless open bar.
In total we only travelled around 110km, and much of that was conducted at walking pace after Joe manoeuvred Finesse into the Canal du Centre and we started edging our way through locks, culminating with eight on the final day. However, the gentle pace is part of the stress-busting charm of a barge cruise. We hopped on and off to stroll between the locks and take a peek at the day to day life of the small villages and towns along the way, much of it centred around the omnipresent bakeries that supplied the buttery, just-out-of-the-oven croissants, pain au chocolat and mouth-watering pastries on the breakfast table each day.
While food and drink is an irresistible part of any French holiday it is a focal point of a cruise on Finesse. Each morning Mike would set to work preparing the day’s lunch and dinner menus - a feast for all the senses as we watched him cook, listened to his culinary anecdotes and tips, inhaled tantalising aromas and finally savoured the end result. He’s happy to organise cooking demos and one morning we gathered around to learn the secrets of making perfect soufflés and pick up great ideas for entertaining.
Dishes such as crab risotto, beef bourguignon (naturally), three different cheeses with every dinner, and lemon tart with basil and lime sorbet, were a constant delight.
Each night we headed to our respective cabins with their deep-pile carpets, teak floored bathroom with double sink, oversized walk-in shower and cosy robes to slip into the arms of Morpheus in the blissful beds made up with classy Percale bed linen.
Some mornings we made a token attempt to work off calories and set off along the tow paths on the bikes carried on board. As we cycled pass sunflower fields and pretty canal-side gardens we sometimes caught a glimpse of a heron diving in the mirror-like water or a semi-aquatic coypu scuttling along the bank before swimming away.
Days brought different included excursions, such as a trip to Beaune, capital of the Burgundy wine region. We browsed around the street market before touring the former hospital with its ornate tiled roof, impressive stained-glass interiors and old apothecary of dusty bottles filled with dubious cure-alls such as ‘dragon’s blood’ and crayfish eyes. On other days there were chateau tours, wine tastings and lunch at a Michelin star restaurant (which we all agreed was underwhelming compared with Mike’s exquisite dishes). There’s also the chance to book additional excursions, such as the balloon trip.
In a car it would have taken less than two hours to drive the distance we covered in a week, but our luxurious slow journey through Burgundy by barge, bicycle and balloon provided memories that would be cherished for a very long time to come.
Luxury Links: www.gobarging.com , www.france-balloons.com
Jeannine Williamson 1/11/16