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Burgundy: Wine, barging and beyond

BY RICK STEVES Published: May 1, 2012
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p/> Drivers enjoy motoring on Burgundy's lovely tree-lined roads, and bikers are happy here, too. Except for the rare farm vehicle, service roads are the domain of two-wheelers pedaling among the scenic villages.

An even more peaceful way to see Burgundy is by barge. Like much of France, Burgundy is laced with canals dug in the early industrial age. Two hundred years ago, these canals provided the cheapest way to transport cargo.

With the help of locks, you could actually ship your goods clear across France, from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. Today, trucks and trains do the heavy hauling, and the canals are for relaxed barging.

In the country famous for super-fast TGV trains, this popular mode of travel has two speeds: slow and stop. Full-service barges can be hired with a captain and crew who do the navigating, cooking, and guiding.

Boats have fine staterooms with all the comforts you'd expect in a good hotel. You'll invariably be eating and drinking some of the best that Burgundy has to offer: boeuf bourguignon, coq au vin, escargots, and the celebrated local wine.

The French, who invented our modern concept of a vacation, are on to something good with barging. Whether on a luxury barge or a captain-it-yourself boat, the basic barging experience is the same: a lazy, intimate glide by pastoral yards and green fields.

Barges come with bikes, and the pace is slow enough to allow for excursions. But what could be more enjoyable than sitting back in a deck chair and letting the sights come to you?

The Burgundy canal is 145 miles long, with 209 locks. Your barge ride is punctuated by a lock every mile or so. By rising from lock to lock, boats can gently "climb," step by step, over the rolling terrain. Each lock is a treat.

Attendants who live in the historic lock houses are friendly and always ready to help out. Some locks are automated, while others involve a little old-fashioned elbow grease to ease the barge through.

In this calm and cultivated region, nature is as sophisticated as the people, and traditions are strong. If you're looking for quintessential French culture, you'll find it in Burgundy.

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.