Last Updated on 12/09/22 by quiltripping
Before there were planes, trains and automobiles, France developed a vast network of canals that were used to transport goods from one part of the country to another. These canals connected to the major rivers and also to the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. The canal network made it easy to move all manner of goods from one part of the country to the other and in particular, allowed Parisians to easily taste the delicacies from all corners of their realm.
Today, the canals and their many locks are used primarily for recreation. European Waterways expertly manages a fleet of 12 luxury barges that ply the many canals of France on a variety of itineraries. I had already experienced a wonderful cruise along the Burgundy Canal on the La Belle Epoque and was quite familiar with this unique way of touring France’s less visited countryside.
I was really looking forward to another barge cruise, this time in the Loire valley on the Renaissance, European Waterways’ flagship vessel. Our cruise would take us through the heart of the Loire Valley on the Canal de Briare, one of France’s oldest canals which was built in the early 1600’s.
She may have been a beast of burden in her previous life, but in her current incarnation, the Renaissance was now beautifully appointed and modern. And as the flagship for European Waterways, she and her crew certainly set a high bar in all aspects.
My Loire Valley barge cruise
Sunday – Day 1 on the Renaissance – Montargis to Amilly
Hadrian, the captain of the Renaissance barge, picked us up at the Westminster Hotel in Paris around 2:30 and drove us about an hour and a half to the small city of Montargis where our barge was waiting. Here, the crew greeted us with warm smiles, champagne, and a tray of delicious canapés- a wonderful beginning to what I knew would be a wonderful week.
While the crew prepped the barge to start our first afternoon of slow cruising, I explored what would be my floating home for the next 6 days. The barge can accommodate up to eight passengers – however, on this cruise there were only 4 guests total, the same as the number of crew on board.
Besides captain Hadrian, we had chef Hannah whose delicious culinary creations kept us really well fed all week. Hostess Inma saw to all of our smallest needs and kept our cabins spotless. And Brian was the captain’s right hand on deck and also our guide for the various excursions.
While the crew moved our luggage, Inma introduced us to the various spaces on the barge’s two decks. The top deck held the public spaces, both inside and outside. The indoor living area had a bright and airy feel with lots of natural light that was reflected by the light colored walls and floor. The space was elegantly appointed with a red leather couch, comfy chairs and a coffee table with plenty of reading material and vases of fresh flowers.
The dining area included a large round table that could seat 8 people and a bar with plenty of top shelf drink options or sodas, juices, and coffee, depending on your preference. The space felt both elegant and comfy at the same time.
The outside deck had another table and chairs for dining al fresco under a overhanging roof, 4 lounge chairs, and the ultimate luxury, a hot tub. My favorite details though were the planter boxes hanging from the railings, filled with fragrant herbs and blooming annuals.
The lower deck of the barge held the four guest staterooms which were also bright and quite spacious. The rooms can be set up with one king sized bed or two twin beds based on your preference. There were also two chairs, a dresser, and a large wardrobe – more than enough storage space for a week’s worth of clothes for two people.
The en suite bathroom was also roomy – bigger than what I have experienced in some European hotels. It was outfitted with L’Occitane toiletries, bathrobes and slippers, and my favorite, a heated towel rack. And best of all, the shower was big enough for my very tall husband.
Other cabin details included an AC which was a nice option since the port holes cannot always be opened to get cooler air. The outlets also had USB ports which made it easier to charge cell phones. And there was a TV and DVD player for those looking for other distractions. We also had bottled water (plain and sparkling in recyclable glass bottles) which was replenished each day.
While I didn’t spend a lot of time in the cabin, it was certainly roomy so two people did not trip over each other. And best of all, the ceiling was high enough so that my 6 foot 7 inch husband could easily stand up straight without hitting his head.
Once we were on board, Captain Hadrian didn’t waste any time getting our cruising started. The barge moved slowly along the canal as we passed under the many bridges in Montargis. The town is nicknamed “Little Venice of the Gatinais” because of its 131 bridges that cross the Canal de Briare and the River Loing.
It didn’t take long for me to feel my body and spirit adjust to the slow pace of the moving barge. As the wooded scenery passed slowly by, I could feel my heart rate and my breathing slow down to the pace of the boat and a sense of calm and peace quickly prevailed. I knew that for the next week, I had no more worries and all my needs and wants would be expertly taken care of.
It was time to just enjoy the journey.
For the next few hours, we moved slowly down the canal, passed through our first locks and all too soon, reached our mooring point at Amilly. There was just time for a quick walk before sunset and our exceptional dinner – the first of many.
First course: Smoked salmon mousse
Second course: Margret canard with reductant sauce
Cheese course: Chabichou, morbier and forme d’ambert
Desert: Roasted peaches with white chocolate and raspberry ripple ice cream
Wines by Mercury and Margaux
Monday – Day 2 on the Renaissance – Amilly to Montbouy
My second day on the Renaissance dawned bright and sunny. Breakfast included a cooked to order dish, but I was quite content with a fresh and crispy croissant and freshly squeezed orange juice out on the deck.
This morning was another leisurely cruise along the canal with time to walk or bike along the towpath. Biking for a mile or two and then catching the boat at one of the locks was easy. The trail was flat and peaceful with an occasional biker passing by and offering a friendly “bonjour”. I hoped that my biking worked off a few of the calories from that day’s meals, but I think it was just wishful thinking.
Lunch was enjoyably al fresco as we continued cruising.
First course: French onion soup
Second course: Quiche lorraine with potatoe salad
Desert: White chocolate cheesecake
Wines by Ladoix and Mercury
Excursion to Cheteau de la Boussiére
In the afternoon we had a taste of our first excursion – literally. A short drive took us to the Chateau de La Boussiére where we started with a cooking demo in the castle’s conservatory by our own Chef Hannah. She showed us how easy it was to make a versatile and fragrant Sauce Diane with mushrooms, onions, cream, and brandy. Of course, this included a sampling of the finished product.
For the next few hours, we explored the chateau and its grounds with our excellent guide Bryan. If a French castle ever looked like it belonged in a fairy tale, this one certainly did.
The first fortification was built here in the 12th century within a Gallo-Roman pond, but the version we saw today was a result of a 16the century rebuild followed by a 19th century restoration. The chateau is nicknamed “The Fisherman’s Castle” for its extensive collections of historic fishing paraphernalia.
It was a pleasure to tour the beautifully restored public rooms with their period furniture and décor. I found kitchen especially interesting with the huge 17th century fireplace and also the humongous iron stove from the 19th century with its many individual baking compartments. With my high tech kitchen appliances, I can’t imagine cooking in this kitchen for 40-50 people each day.
My favorite part of the castle visit though was the beautiful French style kitchen garden. These gardens were first designed by the same landscape designer that developed the Versaille gardens.
The 4 acre garden was put in place to feed about 50 people and has the typical French formality. Six large rectangles are outlined with low boxwood hedges and flowering perennials and roses, while inside each rectangle an orderly geometric planting of vegetables, herbs and fruits provides the necessary foodstuffs for the estate.
Today, this vast garden is still lovingly cared for and nourished daily by the Countess de Chasseval. In fact we chanced to meet her as she was weeding, deadheading and picking raspberries and strawberries in her beloved garden. The Chasseval family have owned this estate since the French Revolution, and while her adult children bring the business of owning a historic castle into the 21st century, the countess is content to bike to the gardens each day and tend to her much loved plantings.
From the castle, a short drive took us back “home” to our boat in Montbouy where refreshing cocktails and another gourmet dinner awaited.
First course: Seabream tartare
Second course: Salmon with hollandaise and white asparagus
Cheese course: Couonnede de touraine, tomme de savoie, blue de chevre
Desert: Tarte au citron
Wines: Savigny le beaune, Moulin au vent
Tuesday – Day 3 on the Renaissance – Montbouy to Rogny Les Sept Ecluses
Excursion to Montargis
Our day started with a morning exploration of the lovely town of Montargis, often referred to as “Venice of the Gatinais” because of its many picturesque canals crossed by 131 bridges.
Bryan started our tour with the Montargis Castle which stands atop a hill dominating the town. Two of the 14th century towers and some of the defensive walls are still visible even though the French revolution destroyed much of the medieval architecture. The reconstructed buildings now house a school.
From the old we continued downhill to the somewhat newer 15th century Town Hall with its beautiful rose gardens, and then on to the Church of Sainte Madeleine with its airy, high ceilings supported by walls of exquisite stained glass windows.
The highlight of our Montargis tour though was a private chocolate tasting at the confectionary house of Mazet. The oldest confection in France was developed here in 1636, a perfect melding of toasted almond and caramel called a Praslines. The secret recipe for Mazet’s trademark treat is still used today.
Our private tasting took us through the history of Mazet delicacies. We started with the Praslines and then moved on to various other chocolate and nut candies developed over the years. The experience finished with a delicate choux pastry filled with a Praslines infused filling and topped with crushed Praslines – the combination was the most delicious flavor explosion I have ever tasted.
Our morning in Montargis ended with a little time to explore the town and its photogenic, flower filled canals and half timbered houses on our own. All these beautiful flower displays have given Montargis a “Ville Fleurie” award. Much like Michelin stars, this award recognizes towns that beautify their public spaces with plants.
We were back on the barge in time for more tasty lunch dishes accompanied by a fine rosé wine.
First course: Ham and melon salad
Second course: Cod with ratatouille and mixed greens
Wine: Rose Aspras
As we enjoyed lunch, Captain Hadrian set off down the Briare Canal for another afternoon of slow cruising. It was tempting to take a nap on deck and let the gentle movement of the barge lull me to sleep. But since this part of the canal had another good, long stretch of towpath, I chose to expend a little more energy and work off some of that morning’s calories with another bike ride.
It didn’t seem long before we reached our “port” for the night at Rogny Les Sept Ecluses. Before dinner there was time to discover the “sept ecluses” or the “seven locks” that were part of the original Briare canal built in 1642. In the late 1800’s, a set of newer and more efficient locks were put in place and the old locks were designated a National Historic Monument.
Dinner was once again a wonderful feast. The onion and goat cheese tart was one of my favorite dishes of the week and the coq au vin (chicken in wine sauce) was divine. Chef Hannah shares her coq au van recipe here.
First course: Red onion and goat cheese tart
Second course: Coq au vin
Cheese course: Chevre caeur de berry, beauforl L blue d’auvergne
Desert: Fondant au chocolat
Wines: Beaune bastion, Pernand vergelesses
Wednesday – Day 4 on the Renaissance – Rogny Les Sept Ecluses to La Gazonne
This morning dawned wet and rainy, but I had no worries. The Renaissance supplied plenty of large umbrellas for our use and the transfer van was parked only a few feet from the barge, so I did not get in the least bit wet as we heading to another unique destination.
Excursion to Chateau de Rosa Bonheur
Today’s excursion took us to the home and studio of artist Rosa Bonheur. Rosa was internationally renowned, and the best know female artist in the mid 19th century, though time has dulled history’s memory of her. Today, her talent is getting rediscovered, and our tour of the Chateau de Rosa Bonheur showed us why.
Rosa was born in 1822 into an artistic family. Her father was a landscape and portrait painter and started her artistic training. Her brother Auguste and sister Juliette also became painters and her sister Isidore was a talented sculptor.
Rosa was particularly drawn to animals, and she spent her life learning their anatomy in detail so she could draw and paint them realistically. Her most famous work is The Horse Fair, a huge canvas finished in 1855 (96 inches x 200 inches, hanging at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) realistically depicts horses being sold at a horse market in Paris.
She regularly went to a horse market for a year and a half to study and draw draft horses, and those sketches served as the basis for her painting. With the money she earned from selling “The Horse Fair” she was able to purchase Chateau de By which became her home and studio for the next 40 years until her death in 1899.
We learned all about Rosa and her pioneering lifestyle as we stood surrounded by her light filled studio. This space, mostly untouched since she worked here more than 100 years ago, was filled with a collection of items that represent her life and loves. A larger than life painting of her dominated one corner and added to the feeling that she never left her beloved studio.
The museum also had a lovely tea room serving delicacies prepared by a talented young chef. For our small group however, a special luncheon was prepared and served in Rosa Boheur’s private salon. Fine linens, delicate china, and sparkling silverware were a fitting canvas for the colorful and incredibly delicious dishes we were served. It truly was art on a plate for all the senses.
Apperitif: Coupe de Champagne – Maison Mennetrier
Starter: Carpacio de Betterave (colorful beet salad)
Main course: Mignon de Porc aux girolles (pork tenderloin wtih mushrooms)
Dessert : Rocher de Dames ( meringue with cream and berries)
By the time we headed back to the barge in the early afternoon, the rain clouds were dissipating. Our lovely hostess Inma was waiting for us with another refreshing (non-alcoholic) drink, and, just in case we were hungry, some light snacks.
Our afternoon cruise started with a close up view of the historic seven locks. Then we went through the new series of locks.
At this point in the Briare Canal we had reached the high point of the canal and now we were starting to go downhill. During the first part of the cruise, we entered a lock which was then filled with water, raising us up to the next level. Now, we entered a lock already filled with water, which was then emptied, lowering us down to the level of the canal.
This afternoon’s cruise was a short one and it didn’t take long to reach our scenic stop for the night at La Gazonne. Here, the canal passes through a series of small lakes and our berth for the night was surrounded by water and a wooded shoreline. It was a beautiful and peaceful spot to relax for the evening and enjoy another wonderful French meal.
First course: Leek mimosa
Second course: Bouillabaisse
Cheese course: Lagres and ossau iraty
Desert: Poached pineapple with coconut ice cream
Wines: Riesling, Pinot noir
Thursday – Day 5 on the Renaissance – La Gazonne to Briare
After the somewhat busy day the day before, it was nice to have a leisurely morning lie-in and a late breakfast. Chef Hannah offered a daily cooked to order dish for breakfast, but I was always quite content with a fresh, crispy croissant, fresh squeezed orange juice and a cup of tea. After all, another delicious lunch was only a few hours away.
The morning’s leisurely cruise took us to the town of Briare, for which the canal is named. I continued to be amazed at the skill with which Captain Hadrian piloted us through each lock. He usually had only a few inches to spare on each side, yet he always managed to guide us straight and true into the middle of the lock, an amazing feat considering he was steering from the back of the barge.
Today’s delicious lunch was al fresco again as we enjoyed both the meal and the quiet countryside sliding by.
First course: Gazpacho
Second course: Filet mignon (of pork) with morrel risotto
Wine: Alchimie, Alaric
Excursion to Perriere Winery an the town of Sancerre
This afternoon’s excursion was so very divinely French. A short drive took us to the La Perriére Winery in the Sancerre wine producing region of the Loire Valley. This was a perfect picture book winery with all the elements you would see in a glossy magazine add.
The winery sits inside a vast natural stone cave set inside a large hill. On the hillside above the cave are 80 acres of perfectly maintained grapevines. Each manicured row marches uniformly down the hill while high atop the adjacent hill, the picturesque medieval town of Sancerre holds court over its namesake wine producing region.
Our guide Ava took us through each part of the cave and each step of the winemaking process. Domaine La Perriére produces mostly classic Sancerre wines from Sauvignon Blanc grapes along with some reds and roses from Pino Noir grapes. The whites are processed and aged solely in large steel tanks. The reds however undergo a final maturation in oak casks which are stored deep in the heart of the cave, a space that has been used for this purpose for centuries.
The winery tour ended with a tasting of a few of La Perriére’s vintages. This tasting was an interesting study in the effect of terroir on the flavors of the final product. The soils in which the winery’s grapes grow have different underlying characteristics – some areas have more flinty clay while others have more lime. I could taste the different underlying minerality in the wine that was made in the same way but where the grapes were exposed to the different terroir conditions.
From the winery, we drove to the town of Sancerre and explored its quaint streets and views over the valley with our barge guide Bryan. In 2021 Sancerre was voted “France’s favorite village” and as we explored this quaint town with him it was easy to see why.
Sancerre’s 13th century character was still visible in the narrow, winding streets and its many preserved medieval buildings. From the heights of the town, the surrounding landscape was a peaceful patchwork of vineyards and farmland. And as is befitting a town that has given its name to a specific wine appellation, there were plenty of tasting rooms to try the local vintages.
The Briare Aqueduct
Back at the barge there was still time before dinner to discover the beautiful Briare aqueduct. At this point in its journey, the Loire River was quite wide and shallow at some points. The aqueduct is a long bridge with a channel of water built over the Loire River that allows the barges to pass easily over the river.
The aqueduct was built in the 1890’s, with the masonry abutments engineered by Gustav Eiffel who built the Eiffel Tower in Paris. This almost half mile long aqueduct held the title of longest aqueduct for a little over 100 years.
The facts however to do nothing to describe the delicate beauty of this long steel structure. It may have to be strong enough to support both the water and the boats that cross over it, but along with function there is also form. Whimsical dragons decorate the large light posts at each entrance to the aqueduct. The design of the steel framework, the railings and the light posts hint at the Art Nouveau style that was just coming into vogue at the time this bridge was built.
The day ended with yet one more wonderful meal
First course: Sole chablisienne
Second course: Loin of rabbit with whole grain mustard sauce
Cheese course: Pouligny st pierre, chorouce, bleu de causses
Desert: Spiced poached pear
Wines: Condrieu, Chateauneuf du papa
Friday – Day 6 on the Renaissance – Briare to Chatillon su Loire
Our last full day on the Renaissance barge was already here – but oh what a wonderful day it was. The morning started with a shopping trip at the local market in the town of Briare with our chef Hannah. We were shopping for items for both lunch and dinner.
I love French markets. Not only do they have fresh, colorful produce, but there were cheese mongers, butchers’ stalls and baked good vendors. Hannah took time to explain the different delicacies that we were looking at and asked for our input on what we wanted to try.
Before heading back to the barge, we stopped by the beautiful Eglise Saint- Etienne de Briare. The church was decorated with delicate mosaics both inside and out.
Crossing the Briare Aqueduct
Once we were back on board the Renaissance, Captain Hadrian started up the engines and headed us toward the Briare Aqueduct. We went slowly so that we could savor both the crossing and the glass of champagne that Inma offered us to toast this experience.
Once again, Hadrian showed his skill in piloting the barge as we passed through aqueduct – he had only a few inches clearance on each side, yet he made it all look effortless.
As we continued the cruise to our final stop for the week, we enjoyed another al fresco lunch. Hannah put together a colorful and super tasty buffet of all the delicious items we had purchased at the Briare market that morning. This was authentic French charcuterie at its best.
First course: Market buffet
Cheese: Crottin chavignol, dome de vezelay
Wine: Sancerre white and red
Excursion to Chateau de Ratilly
That afternoon’s excursion took us on a tour of the Chateau de Ratilly, a castle that looked like it had not changed since it was built in the 13th century. With its intact towers, drawbridge and surrounding moat it looked exactly like a storybook castle out of my imagination.
Over the centuries, the chateau had many owners and managed to stay mostly true to its original design. In 1951, artists Jeanne and Norbert Pierlot purchase the chateau with the dream of turning it into a pottery workshop and an artistic instruction and exhibition space. Their dream succeeded and thrived and today, these ancient stone walls are a backdrop for all manner of creative events, including art exhibitions, musical performances, and art film screenings.
Our tour took us all around the castle, both inside and out. Part of the building is still used for making ceramics, and we also had a pottery demonstration by one of the resident artists.
Back on board the barge the crew awaited us with a lovely surprise – a wonderful musical performance by the B’Yo Jazz Trio. For an hour we listened to jazz classics, sung in both English and French, while sipping wine and nibbling snacks.
To cap off this last day and this memorable cruise, Hannah outdid herself for our special farewell Captain’s Dinner with outstanding presentation and flavors. We finished the evening with convivial conversations aided by all this wonderful food and wine.
First course: Cheese souffle
Second course: Fillet of Charolais beef with spinach, celeriac puree, mange tout, fondant potatoes and port sauce
Cheese course: Valdancay, comte, roquefort
Desert: Chocolate delice
Wines: Chablis Grand Cru, Charmes Chambertin Grand Cru
Saturday – Saying good bye to the Renaissance
Is it possible for a week to go by slowly and quickly at the same time? Each day was an experience of immersive slow travel at its best, yet the whole week went by much too quickly.
This morning we had to say goodbye to the crew, who by now felt more like family. A quick 90 minute drive took us back to Paris where my husband and I continued our adventures to Strasbourg and the Alsace region of France.
Even though this was my second European Waterways cruise and I knew what to expect, I was still blown away by the level of quality and the attention to detail that I experienced. The food, the wine, the excursions, the barge environment, the attentive service – it was all perfect.
Thank you Hadrian, Hannah, Inma, and Bryan for once again making my European Waterways barge cruise one of my most memorable travel experiences – ever!
I hope this in depth review has inspired you to give barge cruising a try.
If you want to learn more about my barge cruise experiences, check out my podcast interview on Big Blend Radio and the corresponding you tube and magazine article:
You can also read more on my blog post for European Waterways:
And olso my post for GettinOnTravel.com:
Please note that my week on the Renaissance was hosted by European Waterways. All opinions and content are my own.
Thanks for visiting.
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Cruising the Burgundy Canal on European Waterways’ La Belle Epoque: My France Canal Cruise – Quiet Luxury in the French countryside
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