A story about a Frenchman, 3 Poms & an Australian
Let me start this (not too) salty tale with a story about a Frenchman, 3 Poms and an Australian. To set the scene; I’d just done two week’s training on a new class of tug in Bremerhaven in the north of Germany and with flying home to Vic and another cold Tasmanian winter coming on I decided that bringing Vic to me was a much smarter option. We rendezvoused in Paris and spent the mandatory three days of tours, scantily clad dancing girls (Moulin Rouge style), wearing out the soles of my dockys and enjoying a significant amount of Parisian food and wine.
After the hustle and bustle of competing with the other million odd tourists in Paris at the time, all trying to climb to the top of the Eiffel tower on the same day we were, the water beaconed and we headed off for some tranquility on the canals of Burgundy. For some years we’d been talking about spending a week or two casually cruising through the French countryside, punctuating the trip at regular intervals with indulgences in French provincial food and local wines. I had intended to hire a ‘Pinochet’, a very pretty looking craft, from the charter company ‘Loca boat’, but had been talked into using competitor ‘Le boat’ at the last minute by Margie, our Tasmania RACT travel agent, who also just happened to be a mate of Vic’s. Not one to argue with the girls, fortunately as it turned out on this occasion, I had acquiesced to Margie's’ superior knowledge.
After five hours, two trains and a briefing on the boat’s particular idiosyncrasies, delivered by a very animated Frog who didn’t take too much convincing that I knew which end was ‘le bow’ we cast off into the country side and our first ever lock just around the corner. Here comes the first Englishman (remember, this is a story about three Poms etc). As we headed into the lock, lights flashing and bells ringing and all the other nonsense they go on with, we pulled up alongside a largish converted barge with Captain Le Pom, resplendent at the wheel and issuing instructions all round. “Oh well”, I thought, after three weeks of interpreting German and French at least he speaks English like us and I actually made the mistake of mentioning the fact to him. The haughty response, which was delivered in that downward nose looking tone that seems to me to be the only thing the Poms have actually perfected… he responded with “Oh well, at least a version of English, I suppose.” He then proceeded to pontificate about how canals were entirely different to sea going vessels and I should take heed of his superior knowledge. Pommy W..ker I thought as we steamed out of the lock.
The next few days saw us enjoying a litany of beautiful medieval villages populated by charming French folk all nestled in delightful, lush country side. The section of the Saone river/canal system we were traveling is around 200 kilometres long (they talk in kilometres not nautical miles inland). Our track was adorned with 40 odd villages, some complete with castles and towers, nearly all sporting spectacular old churches and most with a little bar or brasserie, where a beer, local wine and only occasionally a G and T can be had for a couple of euros.
A few days into the passage we tied up behind a ‘Pinochet’ and wandered ashore to explore a French castle built on a nearby hilltop back in the Middle Ages. On our return to the water’s edge the sad lament from our neighbors was given by the second Pom in my story who, in contrast to the first one I’d come across, was not a bad bloke. He told how, in spite of being guaranteed that his ‘Pinochet’ was fully fueled and watered, it had run dry two days after casting off. It reminded me vaguely of a Bass Strait passage a few years back, but of course, that’s another story.
After numerous phone calls to ‘Loca Boat’, apparently our charter boat crowd ‘Le Boat’, came to their aid, all very professional, courteous and helpful. The Pom was extremely unimpressed with the mob they had chartered from and wouldn’t be using them again. All very interesting I thought, still preferring the ascetics of the Pinochet to our own charter boat.
Over the next couple of days we delighted in various French wines and foods, cruising around the countryside in search of that elusive top class cuisine you can only find hidden away in the odd 500 year old chateau. Rigny was written up in the guide books as being that place, the jewel in the crown being a restored Chateau overlooking the little French village and holding a 3 star restaurant rating. “Finally”, I thought, a meal to equal the one we had at Jamie Oliver’s in Sydney a couple of years ago.
By this time I’d been travelling for over three weeks and washing clothes had been a little sporadic to say the least. In any event on our walk to the restaurant Vic dared to suggest that they might not let me in wearing shorts and a pair of dockys wrapped around my explorer work socks, pretty picture though it was. I proceeded to tell her about the very expensive Potts Point restaurant I’d eaten in, similarly attired, 25 years ago on Christmas eve just before a Hobart race , where the maître d’ advised that if we could afford the prices, dress was largely irrelevant. Naturally, Vic had trouble controlling her laughter when the maître d’ of the Chateau de Rigny, after looking me up and down, sadly advised with his delightful Burgundy accent that they didn’t serve shorts on his menu.
Well Vic was all for a feed at the local brasserie but, I wasn’t to be done out of this meal. I’d been looking forward to eating here since casting off days before. So ensued a 20 minute walk back to the boat and the subsequent return on our bikes, with Vic attired in some sort of slinky black get up and yours truly hiding my explorers under a slightly smelly pair of long pants. We managed to get a table up against a wall, out of the main thoroughfare. Not one to let Vic (‘or the maître d’) have the last laugh I decided to have some fun of my own. In due course and after five courses of the most exquisite dinner I’ve enjoyed in a few years, I sent for the boss. When he turned up at the table I told him that I wrote the occasional sailing travel story for an Australian sailing magazine and my current article was about provincial French restaurants on the Burgundy canals. Further, he was going to get star billing. The sound of his jaw hitting the floor resounded like the local bell tower going off and when he had finally recovered enough to sheepishly ask how ‘Monsieur’ would deal in the article with having been thrown out of the restaurant earlier it was all I could do to maintain the plot.
While only marginally managing to keep a straight face I assured him that the meal was of such a standard that these little hiccups couldn’t be allowed to get in the way of telling my exclusive readership about the chateau’s magnificent culinary delights. So, you have to picture this. The restaurant is laid out in the fully restored ballroom of a magnificent chateau, complete with 20 foot high ceiling, resplendent with black tie waiters, white linen table cloths, polished floors and more decorum than you could poke a spinnaker pole at.
A minute after the poor bloke left our table bound for the galley, the most raucous laughter you’ve ever heard flooded out from that end of the house, putting paid to the last of the restaurant’s dignity, at least for the night. Obviously the chef and his mates in the galley got the joke and decorum, be damned. All in all, it was a fabulous meal and I wouldn’t put it beyond the realms of possibility that we might fly all the way back to France just to eat there one more time (if they’ll let me in). As the chef and the maître ‘d at Chateau de Rigny amply demonstrated, the French have a strongly developed sense of humor. It was one of the most fun and memorable nights we’ve ever had.
The next day, we cruised into a marina basin that doubled, in part, as a ‘Loca Boat’ depot and I decided to check out a Pinochet up close. As we motored towards the totally vacant dock, intending to stop for a few minutes and possibly arrange our next charter with Loca Boat, the third Pom in this story came racing along the marina yelling and gesticulating that we couldn’t possibly park a ‘Le Boat’ boat on their marina. After a few minutes of trying unsuccessfully to explain that we wanted to give them our business, I finally decided that this bloke was a moron and told him and the rest of the people within earshot that this was indeed the case.
In due course, we turned our backs on the marina, the Pommy Bastard, and ‘Loca boat’ deciding never again to attempt to darken their companionway and to give our friends and readers the same recommendation.
Putting the idiosyncrasies of foreigners in France to one side, getting lost on the French canals is one of the most delightful ways of spending a week that I can imagine. It is almost impossible to get into any serious (boating) trouble, the people of the French countryside are delightful and the ability to be able to set your own pace combined to make for a most memorable holiday, far from the madding crowd.
Le Boat have an Australian office and can be accessed at www.leboat.com.au and I wouldn’t bother with the other mob.