Its all downhill from here, more or less. We’ve been climbing since Paris, meaning that on rivers we’ve been traveling upstream against the current and in canals we’ve been entering the locks at the low water side and getting lifted up, then exiting at the high water end. We’ve climbed a water stairway from Paris up to the high point – on the waterways at least – of Burgundy. We reached the peak a week ago at Pouilly-en-Axois, the entry point to the 3.5 kilometer Pouilly Tunnel. As the hills got steeper, the locks got closer together. In our last three days of climbing we passed through 45 locks. One day – a day with 30 locks – we traveled just nine kilometers in nine hours. It keeps your attention, with the next lock literally within sight of the previous one, but it is fun, and satisfying, exercising our newly learned skills. We’ve passed through our 350th lock of the summer already.
But now we’re on the other side of the tunnel, which was a subterranean waterway in which the ceiling is so low we had to dismantle the boat’s wheelhouse and lay it flat on deck to fit through, a passage made all the more interesting when the lock tender who checked out our boat before we entered the tunnel casually mentioned that, oh, by the way, the lights don’t work today. But, as with everything else here, it was an adventure and we survived. We even survived the bats. (Hmmm, more annoying French creatures; bats sauteed in olive oil, perhaps with garlic?)
And now its all downhill. We are going down, gloriously down, the other side of the slope, gliding into locks filled to the brim and calmly being dropped down fifteen feet or so at a step. Down locking is quiet and mellow as the water drains from the lock, slowly lowering the boat. Uplocking is fast and furious, stationary white water rafting, as thousands of gallons of water cascade into the lock, creating currents and swirls as it pours past the boat and ricochets off the rear gates, then swirls forward to crash into the additional torrents entering from the front of the lock. We have 55 locks to descend to arrive at the big city of Dijon, where we meet the grandkids in a week.
We’re traveling slowly – not that we have much choice with a canal speed limit of 6 kilometers – that’s 3.6 miles an hour – and a lock to navigate every twenty minutes or so. With a few exceptions – such as the 900-year-old castle out the front windows – all we see are farms after farms after farms.
Villages are interspersed, but are usually nothing more than a church and three houses, with cows – the white Charolais cattle of Burgundy – grazing in front of the houses. Obviously at one time these villages must have been larger, simply to support such magnificent churches.
We have gone for day after day without fresh bread, the precise human rights deprivation, you may recall from French history, that triggered the French Revolution (Marie Antoinette, remember, responded to moans of the peasants that they had no bread with her famous reference to eating cake instead). We’d been warned about this side of the slope being tres tres rural, as opposed to the other slope, which was merely tres rural. There are few places to buy provisions. We resorted to eating frozen bread.
The sunflowers ease our struggle. Burgundy wine country lies ahead of us. For the past few days we’ve motored through sunflower country. On both sides of the boat are sunflower fields as far as we can see. Over the past week they’ve blossomed, eerily blossomed, sprouting yellow heads by the millions. If sunflowers were Martians, we’d be heading for the hills. We speculate that they will be used to make sunflower oil. There can’t be that large a market for those miniscule plastic sacks of salted sunflower seeds. And the world supply of vases could not hold all the stalks we see at any given moment.
We have a week before the grandkids – and their parental units, to utilize a Coneheadian term – arrive and Dijon is just a few days travel away. We’re tied to our metal stakes on the banks of the canal, shaded by the row of poplar trees that line the tow path. A million or so sunflowers are outside the window, backed by a just-plowed field, its red earth soil reaching down the valley in the distance. We’re in the midst of a French heat wave, not the most comfortable place to be inside what is essentially an iron shoe box. The barge bakes in the sun and we spread various canvas shades, awnings and umbrellas over as much as we can, waiting until noon, when the tree shade covers us. And we’re running low on everything except cheese (inside the refrigerator a Roquefortian miasma swirls, not altogether unpleasant, but making for interesting and none-too-subtle flavors permeating just about everything else we eat, except the shell-protected eggs.)
We decide to ride our bikes down the towpath and find a market. Our 1992 canal guidebook tells us comfortingly that when Bill Clinton was first running for President, a village 12 kilometers down the canal had a “small grocery.” Perhaps it is still there. Right, and perhaps it has a swimming pool filled with cool water and friendly dolphins. We mount our bikes – the cleverest purchase we’ve made in France – and pedal down the canal tow path (which sounds better in French: chemin de haulage). Canal towpaths make fine bikeways, as the Bourgogne Regional Tourist Authority reminds us, incongruously, at every canal lock, with brightly colored signs extolling the joys of pedaling from village to village at speeds so rapid as to snap your head back so you stare at the clouds as you take your first stroke on the pedals, at least compared with the barge, which, when you shove the throttle forward makes all sorts of impressive engine noises, shoots funnels of diesel fumes from the exhaust and, like the coyote in Roadrunner cartoons, takes thirty seconds of all this fuss before beginning to almost imperceptibly inch forward.
But the tourist board has it right about biking along the canal. The tow path, on which horses – and, sometimes, barge wives – used to drag canal boats, runs just a few feet from the water’s edge. On this canal the paths are well maintained, hard packed stone and sometimes even blacktop. Because of the intrinsic nature of canals – water remains absolutely level from lock to lock – the tow paths are flat. Only at the locks is there either a small up or a small down, for fifty feet or so. This is followed by more of absolutely flat and level until the next lock. It makes for simple and painless cycling. An hour’s cycling takes us as far as a day’s barging. We’ll often ride ahead to check out overnight mooring areas.
Well, our promised grocery store must have expired just about the time Clinton left office. We couldn’t find the market. We couldn’t find the village in which the market was supposed to be located. This was far from a tragedy. We’ve come to expect that every disappointment on the canals simply opens the door to a new surprise.
In one cluster of houses in which the market also did not exist, which we’d searched on our way down the canal before pedaling onward, we’d seen three tables on the sidewalk in front of a menu board. On the ride back to the boat we heard a clock chime twelve times (followed, since this is France, by another church clock chiming twelve times ten minutes later, and another, faintly in the distance, fifteen minutes after that). In a country in which tractor trailer trucks pull off the highway at noon because, of course, it is time for lunch, in which the lock gates won’t open between 12:00 and 13:00 (French for noon and 1:00 p.m.), we could not expect our bicycles to function during that interregnum. We stopped at l’ Etape (“the Stop,” appropriately enough). Yet again, we had a French restaurant experience.
The three sidewalk tables were in the sun so we sat inside, watching the Olympic torch being rowed down the Thames, probably because the London streets were so clogged it would likely have flamed out before reaching the stadium. French television adores such British pageantry although the stunning French television correspondents struggle to control their smirks. (The Queen’s sixtieth jubilee was a challenge too far for French TV sophistication to meet.) All eyes were on the TV. The restaurant was staffed, in its entirety, by a hard-working young woman. Her husband-boyfriend-father-employee, somebody, must have inhabited the kitchen, but we never saw him. As with many small restaurants, the chef decided what we would eat that day, a selection called the “menu.” That word has somewhat different meanings in France and the United States. We think of the “menu” as everything a restaurant has to offer, the full diverse selection. It sort of means the same thing in France, sort of. The “menu” is the only thing offered that day.You get one of each: first course, second course, dessert (or cheese). Coffee is extra but who would not have coffee after a meal. Each day’s menu includes an “entree,” which is not what Americans consider to be an “entree” – the main course – but in France is what comes first, as in the “entry” to the meal. The French “entree” is the American “appetizer.” The “menu de jour” includes an “entree.” The chef decides what the day’s entree will be. That is your only choice. After the entree comes the “plate,” the main course. At l ‘Etape today there was one “plate,” a pork roast, “roti porc.” Take it or leave it. Want lunch there today, that was the menu.
It was fantastic. The entree was a selection of pates, made that morning in the kitchen, grated carrots in oil, potato salad doused with creme fraise (the certain road to riches would be to become the North American creme fraise czar, everything, shoes included, tastes better smothered in creme fraise). Pickles, olives.
The roti porc (what we’d spell as “pork”) led us to violate our general inclination against French pork (not for religious reasons but more because while we see beef herds grazing in the fields and chickens in the yards, we’ve yet to actually see any French pigs, leading to a suspicion that hogs don’t live wild and crazy lives here). And along with the bowl of porc was a kettle of the best pomme frits we’ve had here, quarters of potatoes with firmly roasted skins, sprinkled in herbs and not a spot of grease on them.
This was a meal in which every item, smallest to largest, had been prepared today at the restaurant by messieur in the kitchen, nothing prepackaged. It had been cooked with care, with thought, with skill. It was not fast food or junk food or standardized food constructed from a chain restaurant’s food preparation manual. We compared it with a story related last week about a British bargee’s experience at a Texas steakhouse in which he ordered his steak “medium” and was told they were out of medium, all the steaks were pre-grilled.
To top it off, the hostess brought us two ice cream cones, the only item that had not been made in house that day.
The point of this food discussion is not to extol French cuisine; everybody knows French food is excellent. And there are some things France stumbles with. Properly managing a continental, multi-national economic and political union, for example, comes to mind. But there are other things, matters that actually impact citizens’ lives directly, at which the French walk through with comfort and grace. Food is certainly one of them. Today’s lunch was at a restaurant that for all appearances was a two-person operation, in a village so small it lacked a grocery or a boulangerie. How much business could it do in a day? Yet what it did it did with class, with care, with skill, with excellence. How rare it is to encounter that at home.
Lunch was today’s cadeau de France, a gift from France. We never found the grocery store and we’ll have to excavate our freezer for dinner, but we spent our two hour lunch watching the Olympic torch and working our way through the entire menu at l ‘Etape. It was a pleasant and civilized conclusion to the heat wave.
But we had to correct one misunderstanding. On the way out the door, not quite looking forward to the pedal back to the boat after such a lunch, we spotted a small sign in the window. We’d been wrong about the day’s menu being all that was available. Messieur le chef also made pizza.