By Stephanie Sack, Barge Lady Marketing Guru
Stephanie Sack, the Barge Lady’s newest addition as their Marketing Guru, is the daughter and sister to Barge Ladies Ellen Sack and Caroline Sack Klein, respectively. Although she had been in France some twenty years earlier with both Ellen and Caroline, Stephanie recently arrived in Paris as a total newbie to the barging experience. In October 2014, she hopped on board a Barge Lady favorite, Luciole, and set off on her first barge adventure in Northern Burgundy. It’s safe to to say her debut barge cruise on the Luciole was a smashing success!
Saturday: L’adventure commences! My arrival in Paris officially began upon check in to the Hotel de la Fleurie, located in the thriving district of St Germain. My “petit chambre” was an attic room, which suited me perfectly. Paris and its many charms beckoned, and I jumped into the 6th arrondissement to the Luxembourg Gardens, pictured below, the former private grounds of the Luxembourg Palace, built in 1612. Now an expansive public park in the heart of Paris, the beautiful Gardens were bustling with activity and excitement on a perfect fall day. I came across a lovely gazebo with a small orchestra playing a range of classic and contemporary jazz, what fun! Everyone was enjoying themselves and the music in the autumn sunshine — a perfect start to my travels in France!
Sunday: Sunday morning revealed another Parisian adventure, a self-guided tour of the Academie National de Musique, more commonly known as the Opera de Paris. At one point I had a decent mezzo-soprano. Luckily for the other visitors, I remained notably silent on this visit to the opera house! An opulent structure opened to the public in 1875, the building is decorated with detailed frescoes, seen below, as well as elaborate multicolored marble friezes and lavish statuary. The Opera de Pairs was the setting of Gaston Leroux’s book Phantom of the Opera and played host to Maria Callas several times throughout her iconic opera career. As I walked through the building, I could feel the historical import of the many people and performances who passed through its grand halls and even grander auditorium. What a treat to see this amazing symbol of France’s past and present!
Off to the Luciole, allons-y! I met my fellow guests at the Hotel Mansart, a stylish and value-priced hotel just off the elegant Place Vendome. Anna, the Luciole tour guide, made official introductions, and I could tell this was a lively bunch — within minutes of meeting, we were all joking and laughing, talking about where were from and our past travels. The group was a mix of ages, nationalities, and relationships, but I felt like one of the gang right away. Upon arrival at The Luciole, we were greeted by the crew with Kir Royales, my favorite cocktail, and decadent canapes compliments of Chef Mark. The dashing captain, Francisco, welcomed us with an overview of the trip, and George and Noemi, quite possibly the cutest crew members in all of France, prepped the salon for our first onboard meal. After settling into our cabins, dinner was served in the salon, and our delectable starter of silky pan-friend scallops with florets of cauliflower, and the dessert of caramelized bread with roasted fig set the tone for the many gourmet meals to come. Behold these culinary delights below:
Monday: A relaxed breakfast awaited us in the salon, and the group enjoyed museli, yogurt, fruit, and what appeared to be an limitless supply of extremely decadent baked goods such as chocolate-drizzled croissants and jam-filled pasties. The, we were off to our first excursion, a guided tour of Chateau de Bazoches, a privately-owned chateau that was once the personal home of Sebastian Le Prestre de Vauban, a brilliant military tactician who successfully consulted Louis XIV on how best to fortify the borders of France in the 1670’s and 1680’s. Now in the hands of Vauban’s descendants and a major attraction in the region, the castle is in pristine condition, full of beautifully preserved furniture, as seen below, as well as books and artwork. Anna, the Luciole’s tour guide, gave a engrossing talk about Vauban, Bazoches, and the history of France leading up to the Revolution. After the outing, we headed back to the Luciole for a light lunch of smoked salmon, goat cheese and pecan salad, and a velvety roasted pumpkin soup that was absolutely divine. After that, the group relaxed for the next few hours, taking in the mild fall day on the deck, jumping off the barge at locks for walks or bike rides, or cuddling up on the salon’s couch with a good book. Once docked for the night, seven thirty came…the dinner bell was rung…and the gastronomic games began again! A sugar smoked duck appetizer whetted the palate, while the pan-fried sea bass and lemon-crushed potato mash was nothing short of inspired. The paired wines, a red and white, were the perfect companion to the meal, and the chocolate-mango dessert was so astonishing everyone begged Chef Mark for the recipe. Full and happy, we retired to our cabins for a luxurious night of peaceful, pleasant rest.
Tuesday: Not content to see just one barge, I spent Tuesday visiting the Randle, another barge in the Northern Burgundy area. Barge Randle was built in 2001 and purchased by Captain Tim Harrold in 2005. His background in sailing, construction and restoration of ancient buildings enabled him to recognize the quality of this petite ‘bijou” barge. With its classic décor, it looks a bit different than anything in barging. Captain Tim, seen with me below, is a trusted guide to the architecture, towns, wine, cuisine and natural world of Burgundy. He is very interested in customizing each cruise in a very low key way, and is a lot of fun to be with! I was immediately welcomed by Captain Tim by helping him raise a lock! Cranked by hand, the small bridge lifted up, and we were on our way along the Yonne River Valley. (I was actually excited and relieved I did not break, harm, or otherwise ruin this lock.)
Upstairs is the deck and the wheelhouse, which also functions as a second living room. It was a blast to watch Captain Tim take the boat through no less than five locks, and on this perfect fall day I spent quite a bit of time relaxing on one of the deck chairs, enjoying the fantastic views of the countryside. Down below was a small lounge and open kitchen in which Chef Gael makes all her goodies. I sat with her for awhile on the comfy couch and watched her prepare the beginnings of a lovely lunch. Our midday meal taken around the roomy wheelhouse table featured a savory smoked fish paired with a potato pancake, flaky crust flatbreads with sundried tomatoes and artichoke hearts, and thinly sliced proscuitto. The just-out-of-the-oven flatbread, pictured above, was so fresh and flavorful I couldn’t help but ask for seconds! It was a real delight to meet Captain Tim and Chef Gael, and I certainly hope to see them and the Randle, pictured below, the next time I am in France.
Wednesday: Back at the Luciole, pictured below, the excitement of our week in Northern Burgundy continued with a fascinating outing to Noyers, a small village with unclear origins, but established around the time of Julius Caesar. A current UNESCO World Heritage site, Noyers is a preserved Medieval village lined with cobblestone streets and half-timbered houses, and these intriguing remnants of French history reside side by side the small businesses, lively produce market as pictured below, and busy residents of the town today. The village’s center featured a gift shop full of handcrafted curios and artisan objects, while a small potter tucked away in the town’s winding streets offered hand-thrown pieces of pottery decorated with whimsical designs. I could not resist exploring the quiet avenues and serene vistas of Noyers, imagining what it was like to live there during the 12th century, or even in times of war.
Back on the Luciole for the afternoon, the glorious weather inspired a boat-wide decision to ride bikes or stroll along the towpath, and everyone enjoyed the natural scenery of Northern Burgundy, especially the breathtaking expanse of blue skies, majestic rock formations, and adorable lock houses. To keep our strength up, we dined on Chef Mark’s lunch of mixed vegetable stew, feta and tomato salad, and the most delectable mussels with the most flavorful sauce of wine and shallots. After this remarkable afternoon, we eagerly anticipated dinner, and the duo of salmon with pearl barley and beets was well worth the wait! The crew made sure that evening’s wines were flowing, and the desert of a chocolate brownie topped with caramel and vanilla yogurt convinced me that life indeed had meaning. A nightcap on the deck ended with everyone admiring the constellations, as the night sky was so clear and deep that we could see the Milky Way. Magnifique!
Thursday: The most revered name in white wine is Chablis, and off we went to the Chablis vineyards for a private tour and tasting with Sebastian, the brother-in-law of to the owner of the winery, who seriously could not be any cuter, and is seen with me in the image below. Grown exclusively from Chardonnay grapes, Chablis is known for its carefully curated process, and is often cited for the purity of its aroma and taste. During the tour, which included a huge room full of different types of aging barrels, Sebastian was friendly and funny, making the esoteric world of land, sunshine, and grapes come alive with fascinating details and insider knowledge. The tasting, which featured five types of Chablis, included an organic selection from their “biodynamic” varietal, and was easily my favorite, thanks to its fruity notes and zesty acidity. The other guests on the Luciole, pictured below, also enjoyed tasting these famous wines!
Once back at the Luciole full of the world’s most prestigious white wine, the group feasted on Chef Mark’s lunch of wild roasted carrots, argula and salami salad, and best of all, escargot! Popped with just the right amount of butter and garlic, this delectable French foodstuff was quickly consumed by al, although I did manage to take the picture below prior to consumption. During the afternoon, the group heard rumors about dinner…rumor about a delicious lamb dinner…rumors about Chef Mark’s absolutely amazing lamb dinner…and the rumors proved true! After a leisurely afternoon of more bike rides and strolls, we feasted on a gorgeous entree of slow brazed lamb shank and new potatoes and asparagus, as well as a crab cake appetizer, cheese platter, and, as you can see here, a roasted fruit dish topped off with caramel ice cream. After literally applauding Chef Mark’s well-received efforts, we retired to our cabins for a night of quiet relaxation.
Friday: Cruising all morning along a larger stretch of the Nivernais, we arrived in Auxerre, our final mooring for the trip. Auxerre, a mid-sized town with a gorgeous new harbor, proved to be the perfect place to end our trip. A tour from Anna of the glorious Basilica of St. Etienne revealed a connection with St Joan of Arc, as she stopped in to pray — in 1429! The centuries of European history resonated with a tangible gravitas as we reverently walked through this relic of kingdoms past. After we walked through the Basilica, the group explored the small shopping district of Auxerre, complete with a darling floral shop, a tea room, and a boutique chocolatier full of handmade sugar-laded goodies! Our last dinner on the Luciole was the Captain’s Dinner, a festive occasion with Captain Francisco, pictured with me below, and Tour Guide Anna joining us for this special meal. Even the table setting was especially pretty, strewn with fresh flower petals against a crisp white tablecloth, as you can see in the picture below. The pan-fried foie gras with fig puree and soaked cherries proved to be the most decadent of starters, while the filet of Charolais beef with mustard mashed potatoes, roasted tomatoes, and wild mushroom was the perfect entree for this convivial dinner. Our nightly cheese platter was festooned with three cheeses, the red and white was perfectly paired, and the dessert of red wine poached pear with pear mousse was the last, lovely bite of Chef Mark’s utterly brilliant cuisine. Toasts, thank-yous, and laughter filled the air, and we all agreed that the week spent on the Luciole was one of best vacations all of of has ever had.
Saturday: After a quick breakfast, the group headed back to Paris and said our good-byes. A Saturday night to myself in Paris. What’s a gal to do? Attend a full-on chorus and orchestral performance of Mozart’s Requiem at Eglise de la Madeleine, THAT’S WHAT! I arrived at the Madeleine a bit early to people-watch, and was treated to an enthusiastic crowd of local cultural consumers. The concert was two hours of glorious music, one hour with an orchestra and another with a 100-strong chorus behind a smashing quartet. The soprano’s voice in the church’s space was nothing short of celestial…the most fitting finale to a fabulous week in France!