In a small room of the Hôtel-Dieu, Hospices de Beaune, the hospital for the poor built in 1443 by Duke of Burgundy Philippe-le-Bon’s Chancellor Nicolas Rolin, a mennequin nun-nurse in a period habit tends to a patient in a primitive wheelchair—a plain wood chair on tiny casters.
As I regarded him from my modern “companion” chair—with a fold-down back and small wheels, because it’s designed to be pushed by one’s travelling companion—I wondered how he ever could have gotten across the building’s cobbled courtyard beneath the magnificient multicolored Burgundian tile roof.
Fortunately, the Hôtel-Dieu, which initially was intended to relieve the suffering caused by the Hundred Years’ War (and, presumably, earn Rolin a place in heaven), has been adapted for wheelers. Once a big door was opened (an alternative to the regular entrance), I could get around with only a few forays onto the cobblestones. Smooth floors made the Great Hall of the Poor with its ornate oak-paneled vaulted ceiling a breeze, and an elevator whisked me up to see Roger Van der Weyden’s famous polyptych of “The Last Judgment” and some splendid tapestries. Wide doors and ramps also provided access to the quaint laboratory, pharmacy, kitchen, and other exhibits.
The Hôtel-Dieu was a high point of a day in Beaune included on the itinerary of a Burgundy Canal barge cruise I took in early May. I chose the boat, the 120-foot-long La Reine Pédauque (“the goose-footed queen”), because of its accessibility; the bonus was that the cruise focused on food and wine.
The week-long trip in the company of a couple from Australia, another journalist and his wife from Canada, my friend Fred, and six crew numbers also proved to be an adventure in the unexpected—starting with the weather, which was chilly and rainy enough to preclude sunning on the deck as the barge snailed through 45 locks on the curving route from Dijon through the Ouche valley to Vandenesse.
The only times the sky cleared—miraculously—was for our excursions to Dijon, Beaune, and Châteauneuf-en-Auxois, a picturesque medieval hilltop village crowned by a castle started in 1132. The narrow lanes here were comparatively smooth, if a bit steep—and lined with pretty stone cottages, some of them artists’ studios—but the castle’s gravel courtyard and many steps made it inaccessible.
As is often the case, challenges for wheelchair users were everywhere. La Reine has an accessible gangway, two mini buses with wheelchair ramps and secure tie-down, and a self-operated wheelchair lift attached to the railing of the staircase down to the four cabins, but angling my chair onto this lift was difficult, and anyone taller than 5 feet would have to duck his/her head on the way down to avoid hitting it.
One cabin, Royal Suite 2, is called accessible, but that’s mainly because you don’t have to go through the boat’s porthole-type doors to get to it. Otherwise it’s the mirror image of Royal Suite 1, maneuverable by wheelchair only if the twin beds are arranged at right angles rather than pushed together as a double. The bathroom presented the biggest problems: There were no bars (though I’m told some have now been installed), I couldn’t roll up to the vanity sink, and the small shower stall had a lip. For me, being able to walk was essential, and although there have been quite a few wheelchair-bound guests, they’ve traveled with someone to help them.
Outside of the cabin, the crew’s can-do spirit compensated for potential obstacles. While other passengers easily disembarked for walks or bike rides at one lock and got back on at the next, two crew members simply lifted me in my wheelchair off the boat if the towpath was good enough for a roll. When we arrived at Châteauneuf too late for the entire tour, Cruise Director Kamel arranged for a revisit the next day. At our request, the return from Beaune included a detour for a drive around the 12th-century Cistercian Abbaye de la Bussière, beautifully set in a park and now a Relais & Château property.
The outing to Beaune, the region’s wine center, was our busiest day. It began with a morning wine tasting at the Marché aux Vins, where we followed the row of candlelit barrels through the cellars (rendered inaccessible by deep gravel) and up to the main hall (accessible), sampling sixteen Burgundian wines, ending with the best red, a Corton Grand Cru. Next we had a leisurely lunch of Burgundian specialties at Le Cellier Volnaysien (a few entrance steps) in the village of Volnay. Robust coq au vin, served family-style with a platter of terrific roasted potatoes, was the highlight, and the sweet-tart pairing of pear and cassis sorbets was a refreshing finish.
Back in Beaune, we visited the Hôtel-Dieu, then had a free hour. Fred and I considered a ride around town on the mini train but opted instead to go see the stunning 1501 tapestries depicting the Life of the Virgin at the Collegiate Church of Nôtre-Dame.
Most days fell into a more relaxed pattern, with mornings spent on the boat—between buffet breakfasts and three-course lunches. Watching the lockkeepers manually operate the locks was the main entertainment, along with admiring the dogs and decorations at some of the lock houses, such as the garden display of gnomes at Lock 39. The boat’s small library had only a few books on the region, alas; we found a few French CDs, and almost no one bothered to watch the flat-screen tv.
The first afternoon’s excursion was a walking tour (or, in my case, cobblestone-bumpy rolling tour) of Dijon. Attractions ranged from the gargoyles on the façade of the church of Nôtre-Dame to historic mansions like the Hotel de Vogüé, but I was glad we’d had a day in town before the cruise started. (See my “A Wheeler’s Day in Dijon” post). The second afternoon we went to the Château la Chassagne, the country house hotel owned by the same people as La Reine and currently closed for renovations. Kamel conducted a wine tasting in a separate barn-like “cave” with lots of barrels, candles, and antique implements. Outfitted with black aprons and tastevins—those shallow silver cups sommeliers wear (to judge the color and clarity of red wines)—we learned about the wine regions in Burgundy, the grape varieties (mostly chardonnay and pinot noir), the appelations, and how to read a wine label.
This knowledge was put to good use at the lunches and four-course dinners prepared by Chef Frederic Barnet, who was from Spain and had only been with La Reine a few weeks. Each meal included a white and a red wine, and the first and last nights’ dinners also began with a ritual at the always-open bar: instruction from Kamel on slashing the tops off bottles of Crémant de Bourgogne, the local sparkler, with a saber prior to combining it with crème de cassis (black currant liquor) to make Kir Royal. (A regular kir uses a dry white wine made with the aligoté grape rather than sparkling wine.)
I’d expected the food to be more Burgundian, but except for a fine rendition of boeuf bourguignon—the recipe was from the mother of another crew member—it leaned towards generic French. The chef had a heavy hand with the salt and a tendency to cook meats more than requested, but there was much to enjoy. Some of my favorites were warm white and green asparagus in a light vinaigrette, king prawns on a bed of greens, thyme-scented veal fillet with wild mushrooms in cream sauce, and the grand finale’s thick steak (from white Charolais cattle we saw every day) with duck foie gras, gratin potatoes, mushrooms, and haricots verts. Desserts also ranked high, though the rich tortes were appreciated less after such heavy meals than the fresh berries and sorbets.
The biggest hit was the “Tour de France of Cheese.” Kamel carefully chose three different cheeses each night and went around the table making up a plate for each of us. When his pick for the best Camembert met with a general “ho-hum” one night, the next he had three Camemberts for us to try, as well as the planned trio. The cheeses that would send me back in a heartbeat (though not for the faint of heart) were the Dijon area’s unpasteurized cow’s milk Epoisses and its cousin, Aisy Cendré, coated with ash originally to hide it from the Nazis (or so it’s said).
For information on barge cruises in France and elsewhere, contact European Waterways Ltd. The six-night Burgundy canal cruise on La Reine Pédauque runs April through October.
This trip was taken with assistance from American Airlines, European Waterways Ltd., Rail Europe, and Hotel Sofitel Dijon La Cloche.
All photos by Fred Swanson.
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