A Luxurious Barge Cruise Is the Best Way to See France
Glance fleetingly at France on a map and you see a neat hexagon bordered by seas. But look more closely and you’ll notice within its frontiers an extraordinary network of navigable rivers that flow down gentle gradients through center from the Alps and Pyrenees.
Commercial barge traffic along those rivers—and along canals built between the 13th and the 20th centuries to amplify trade—was instrumental to the development of France as we know it today. And yet this most signal feature of the most visited country on earth has long been underappreciated.
Barge cruising on repurposed flat-bottomed workhorses has humble roots; it was begun by British expats some 50 years ago as a hippie extravagance with wildly unregulated standards, but it’s arguably the most effective way to rediscover the country. And now it’s becoming not only chic, for its retro “authenticity” and slow, civilized pace, but unabashedly luxurious. Especially as done by Belmond.
The 250-ton Pivione
I embarked this past June on one of the first sailings of the Pivoine, one of Belmond’s two new barges. The Pivoine has only four cabins (think floating house party); a masterfully attentive staff of six (a downright sinful ratio), including a full-time chef and a guide; and a bespoke itinerary of stops and excursions (trips are completely customized and can be three or six nights). Best of all, we’d be sailing on the river Marne, through Champagne.
Embarkation is an hour’s drive from Paris. The Marne, an eastern tributary of the Seine, looks as it did when Cézanne, Corot, and Pissarro painted it: a ribbon of silky green bordered on both banks by a thicket of trees beyond which you can glimpse fields, vineyards, and villages. A rainbow arches over the river. (“The rain is prettier in France,” a friend declares.) Swans swim by.
The luxurious seating area onboard the Pivione
“It’s like watching a fire at night,” another friend comments from her deck chair. “Nothing at all happens, but it’s mesmerizing.”
The onboard indolence is restorative. Chef Adam White offers exquisite three-course meals (and premeal kitchen demos on request). Tastings of local cheeses are a feature of every lunch and dinner, which are served family-style at either the indoor or outdoor dining table. “Every day we will go more pungent,” says Rachel Spence, one of the Pivoine’s two hostesses, as she explains the character and provenance of Camembert, Brie, Chaource, Roquefort, Valençay, Epoisses. Like petals on a peony (pivoine in French), we feel France unfolding lusciously before us.
Bikes are strapped to the roof of the 250-ton Pivoine’s cabin; two of us jog along the old towpaths (barges used to be pulled by horses—and humans) to work off the grandes bouffes. We are ferried by van to sights far and near, including the magnificent château of Vaux-Le-Vicomte, a model for Versailles completed in 1661 by Nicolas Fouquet, Louis XIV’s powerful and ambitious finance minister. (Fouquet’s motto, inscribed on the façade, reads, provocatively, “Quo non ascendet?”: Whither will he not ascend?) Long story short, it did not end well for Fouquet: The Sun King prudently imprisoned him for life.
A bedroom on the Pivione
We visit the American cemetery at Belleau Wood. More than 4,000 American soldiers died here in the summer of 1918 in the Second Battle of the Marne, stopping the German advance on Paris. It marked the first time an American army had fought in a European war, forged the reputation of an indomitable American military, and signaled the start of the American Century, now ending, during which the U.S. would become the reliable guarantor of security in Western Europe.
At the Abbey of Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers, we hear the story of the enterprising Benedectine monk Pierre Pérignon, who arrived in 1668 and set about perfecting the production of sparkling wine to make it fit not only for the king but for God. “Look, my brothers!” he exclaimed when he had nailed it (so the story goes). “I am drinking stars!”
Which is pretty much how we feel. The dinner table each night is a sea of glasses. We have private cellar tours and tastings (the Belmond cruise way). At the Pannier estate the charming Elina Lesniak gives us a master class in champagne making: the two fermentations, the prise de mousse, the disgorgement. Nicole Snozzi, from Laurent-Perrier, comes to us, bearing three choice bottles.
“This Prestige Cuvée,” she states, “needs good company. It does not accept horrible people.”
In the Moët & Chandon tasting room, on Avenue de Champagne in Epernay—ground zero—Andrea Marx sums up the elixir we are sipping: “It’s ultimately about emotion, isn’t it?”
As I sit on deck on our last evening, in the pearly dusk of the French countryside at Dizy, I ponder Andrea’s gnomic sentiment, and the words of the voluptuous French song “C’est Si Bon” (“It’s So Good”) come to mind.
This story appears in the September 2018 issue of Town & Country.
This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.