Preparing for our yearly pilgrimage to join my Mum and David on their canal boat in France, our fourth in as many years, our girls could hardly contain their excitement. Summer on the boat is such a delight for us all. Madeline and Cameron have become brilliant travelers and need to be as we travel to meet the boat by plane, train and taxi to St Jean de Losgne, 45 minutes outside Dijon on the river Soane in France.Life onboard a canal boat moored in the shade of trees is pretty simple, we swim, ride bikes to the store every few days and walk along the path into town for baguettes each morning. Lunches are of cheese, bread, salami’s and wine cooled in the river.
Five canals meet at the Soane. It’s the take off spot for many tourists doing ‘live aboards’ on boats heading along the waterways to the South of France.
On arrival, the first ritual for the girls is to attach their “rope swing”. Mac shins up a tree close to the boat, tying the rope around a sturdy branch. Madeline and Cameron spend every moment they can swinging from it, hurling themselves noisily into the river.
Temperatures soar, it’s far too hot to cook on a steel boat with no air con, so we barbeque every night, drink wine (the adults!) and play games until sundown at 10.30pm when Mac and I would jump off the boat into the river to cool down before bed.
Mac loved relaxing on the boat, his biggest daily challenge was deciding how to break up an 8 hour day of reading his book!
We meet wonderful people on the river too. Mum and Dave have many friends, both French and English. It’s amazing how we all communicate – even with very bad French (that’s me) or no English (them)!
Wine and food quickly break down any barriers as we embrace the French love affair for eating and drinking! The French have perfected the lifestyle and have all time in the world for their friends, old and new!
An hilarious evening was spent with Mum‘s French friends who came prepared with notebook of English phrases! After a fab dinner we moved to their boat for champagne and cherries marinated in “Fabric de Maison”! At the mention of these cherries I knew we were in trouble! Mum had warned me about this homemade alcohol which can be rather like fire water (last night I had a go at making it — a jar filled with cherries and rum left to sit for months to get the full effect. I‘ll report back when we open it!). Later the guitar and harmonica came out. French and English alike chorused an hilariously bad rendition of Hotel California filling up the still night air.
Another day moored close to a campsite, we re-discovered old friends, Jean Michel and Clare, who run the café there. They greeted us with hugs and kisses on both cheeks! We were delighted to see them too. Jean Michel is an amazing chef, previously working in Vienna, Austria. From then on my morning routine included a visit to his kitchen to see what he was creating for the evening menu. He often invited me in to taste something delicious. We had fab meals there, most memorable were smoked eel, whole sea bass stuffed then baked with salt and a delish rabbit dish. Yum. His ice cream has to be the creamiest most divine tasting ever!
One lazy afternoon we stopped by for a beer and met Jean Michel’s brother, Christian. Managing to communicate in my pidgin French I found he lived nearby in the Jura Mountains. Coincidentally Mac and I had a trip planned there for the following week! Christian quickly suggested that we visit him as he had American friends staying who he thought we‘d like. We exchanged phone numbers, excited at seeing the area from a local point of view.
A week later Mac and I left the kids with Grandma and Grandave and headed for the Jura Mountains about 1.5 hours away. Famous for Jura wines, fabulous sausages and cheeses including Morbier and Comte (our fav) the Jura‘s, broken up into region of lakes, are nestled up against the French Swiss border.
Salins-les-Bains, a Spa town famous for its thermal baths was our first stop. Very fashionable in Victorian times when guests would take the waters for months at a time, this charming Spa is still included in the French health system with patients sent here to help recover from illness!
Leaving the healing waters, we drove to the large walled city of Besancon built on a loop of the River Doubs. A remarkable example of 17th century military architecture, this regal city’s fortifications afford a stunning panoramic view of the roofs of the city. The highlight of our trip was a visit to the Saint Jean Cathedral, home to its magnificent Astronomical Clock made of 30,000 pieces built between 1858 and 1860. The 57 faces include depictions and workings of calendars, the movement of the planets, eclipses and tides. Mac was intrigued though I could not wrap my head around its machinations!
Our second day was a whirlwind of sights, people and delicious food. We drove through beautiful wine country and stopped in a town called Arbois where Louis Pasteur spent much of his childhood.
That night we slept in an ancient Benedictine Abbey founded in the 6th century at Château Chalon in the heart of the Jura vineyard region. We felt transported to another time surrounded by the ancient walls and tranquil rooms where monks had lived out their lives. Set on a hilltop, the village of Château Chalon has glorious views of the vines renowned for Jura’s “ Yellow Wine”. Beautiful wine-growers houses and a church dating to the 10th century added to its charm.
Next day following Christian’s directions, we meet up with him, his wife Marie and their American friends at a local church . Christian had prepared an alfresco wine tasting for us paring Comte cheese, walnuts and the fantastic ‘Yellow Wine‘ which is aged for 6 years and 3 months to achieve its luscious best.
Close by is Château D’Arlay- an 18th century castle, as many French told us, one of the few castles still privately owned , passed down through generations. The charming Count and Countess hosted our wine tasting there. They told us they are very proud of their vineyards which supply to a select number of restaurants in New York City. Sadly we heard too of the hefty inheritance tax in France, which means that unless one of their children makes some serious money they will have to sell the château after their parents deaths. Drinking wine in the afternoon with this lovely couple, that outcome seemed a very sad ending for an historic family legacy. Doing our bit we bought some wine after a private tour of the château before bidding them adieu.
We ended the day at a private airfield where Christian and Marie, together with a wonderful group of friends, own a hangar and five bi-planes, flying these WW11 vintage aircraft most evenings in the Summer.
Mac and I were both passengers in circa 1947 bi-planes. We took off side by side and Mac got some amazing shots of Jean Francoise and Olivieax our pilots. I felt very ‘Amelia Earhart’ in my flying hat. Wow, we were both blown away! Flying in the open air was an experience of a lifetime!
Landing, we saw more people arriving and two huge tables had been pulled out and set up as only the French can. A barbeque was wheeled out and some serious food was served as the sun set on a truly magic day with wonderful new friends who so generously shared their passion with us! Much later Christian leads us back to our B&B in Château Chalons.
Next morning we wake to the gorgeous view and breakfast, surrounded by timeless vistas, vines and glorious mountain air. Later we did a light hike then picnicked in a fantastic gorge in Baume-Les-Messieurs purported to be the most beautiful village in France.
It was Bastille day so we celebrated dining alfresco in the Abbey gardens amongst vegetables and flowers the talented French chef used to create his delicious masterpieces. We gazed out over the gorge sipping our wine and devouring his wonderful food as the sunset, before heading into town for the ‘Feu de artifice’ the Bastille Day fireworks spectacular. We both agreed this brilliant display that lit up the sky seemed a fitting finale to our Jura Mountain adventure where the truly unexpected had given us a set of memories we’ll never forget.