For a wheelchair user, a French canal barge was perfect — well, almost

By Anne Spiselman

Special to AllThingsCruise

Cruising never has appealed to me, but recently I began thinking it would be a good way to cope with the challenges of being a wheelchair user. I had polio as a child, and though I can walk a few blocks, moderate paralysis in my legs and arms makes my small-wheeled chair–often called a “companion chair” because a companion has to push it– invaluable for sightseeing.

A cruise would minimize the uncertainties and unpleasant surprises that can make travel especially daunting for anyone with mobility limitations, or so I thought. But I also wanted to enjoy a real sense of place at a leisurely pace, so a standard cruise ship–a floating hotel–was out of the question. Even a riverboat–a floating boutique hotel–struck me as too big, and anyway, few of them are fully wheelchair-accessible.

After some research, I found what sounded like the ideal trip: a week-long Burgundy Canal barge cruise on La Reine Pedauque (“the goose-footed queen“). A converted cargo boat with just four cabins, La Reine was billed as having an accessible gangway, a wheelchair lift to the lower deck, an accessible cabin, and even an accessible minivan for daily onshore excursions as it snailed through 45 locks on the curving route from Dijon through the Ouche valley to Vandenesse. The bonus was that the cruise focused on food and wine, subjects I love and often write about.

As it turned out, the early May voyage wasn’t exactly ideal (what is?), but the pleasures outweighed the inconveniences, among them a flawed notion of accessibility. The first hint was in the pre-cruise information packet: It described Royal Suite 2 as “perfect for tall people, passengers with mobility problems and wheelchair users.” Not only are many of the amenities for tall people — higher closet rods, sinks, etc.– the opposite of those needed by wheelchair users, as a short person (5 feet), I was worried, wheelchair or no.

In truth, Royal Suite 2 was virtually the same as Royal Suite 1, except you didn’t have to go through the boat’s porthole-type doors to get to it. The room was maneuverable by wheelchair only if the twin beds were at right angles rather than pushed together as a double, and while the bed and closet rod weren’t too high, the bathroom presented serious problems. There were no grab bars for the toilet or shower (though I‘m told some have since been installed), and the small handle-less shower stall had a lip. I couldn’t roll up to the vanity sink, and even if I could have, it would have been almost chin-high. The ability to walk was essential for me, and although the staff reported that there have been quite a few guests confined to wheelchairs, they tend to travel with helpers.

Assistance was required to use the lift

Using the lift attached to the steep staircase’s railing required assistance, mostly because there was too little space to angle my wheelchair onto it easily. And anyone taller than I am would have to duck his/her head on the way down to avoid hitting it. On the other hand, the public rooms (except for the bathroom) and gangway were reasonably accessible, and if I wanted to get off the barge at a lock — as other guests did to go bike-riding or walking around the little villages — two crew members just lifted my wheelchair over the side (something they probably couldn’t do with a really heavy person). As for the minivan, it had a steep fold-down ramp (rather than a motorized lift) and very secure tie-down, though attaching the chains took a long time, and at the back of the bus, I felt isolated from my fellow passengers.

They were an Australian couple celebrating their 40th anniversary, a Canadian journalist and his photographer wife, and my companion Fred. Six crew members tended to our every wish (or almost), and our days quickly fell into a relaxed pattern dictated partly by the chilly, rainy weather. Mornings were spent on the boat, and the main entertainment between the buffet breakfasts and three-course lunches was watching the lockkeepers manually operate the locks and admiring the dogs and decorations at some of the lock houses. After lunch, usually around 3:30 p.m., we’d go ashore on an excursion, then return in time for a four-course dinner starting at 7:30 p.m. or so.

The first and last nights’ dinners began with a ritual at the always-open bar: 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 sparking wine.) Our Cruise Director, Kamel, showed us how and also explained the red and white wines served with each meal. On a visit to the “cave” at Chateau de Chassagne, a country house hotel owned by the same people as La Reine, he gave us a useful lecture on the wine regions in Burgundy, the grape varieties (mostly chardonnay and pinot noir), the appelations, and how to read a wine label.

The highlight was the cheeses served every evening

The food was less Burgundian and more generic French than I would have liked. Highlights included warm white and green asparagus in a light vinaigrette, king prawns on a bed of greens, 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 were first rate, but the biggest hit was the “Tour de France of Cheese,” a trio of cheeses each night for a total of 18. The crème de la crème was 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).

The only time the sky cleared — miraculously — was for three of our excursions.

The first afternoon Kamel took us into Dijon for a walking tour (or, in my case, a cobblestone-bumpy rolling tour) of attractions ranging from the gargoyles on the façade of the church of Notre-Dame to historic mansions like the Hotel Vogüé. The covered Les Halles food market was closed by the time we got there, so I was glad Fred and I spent a day in town before the cruise visiting it and the Musée des Beaux-Arts (in one wing of the Palais des Ducs et des Etats de Bourgogne), which has a fine collection of medieval paintings and the tombs of Philippe-le-Hardi and Jean-sans-Peur, the first two of the four celebrated Dukes of Burgundy.

The last day we drove through vineyards and up winding roads to the once-strategically-important Chateauneuf-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.

Our busiest outing was to the wine center, Beaune

Our busiest outing was to Beaune, the famous wine center. 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 along the way. After a short drive to Le Cellier Volnaysien (a few entrance steps) in Volnay for a lunch of Burgundian specialties — snails in parsley butter, coq au vin, pear and cassis sorbets — we returned and went to the Hôtel-Dieu, Hospices de Beaune.

Known for its magnificent multicolored Burgundian-tile roof, the Hôtel-Dieu was a hospital for the poor built in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin, chancellor to the Duke of Burgundy Philippe-le-Bon, and initially intended to relieve the suffering caused by the Hundred Years’ War (and, presumably, to earn Rolin a place in heaven). It has been adapted for wheelchairs, so that once a big door was opened (an alternative to the regular entrance), I was able get around with only a few forays into the cobblestone courtyard. Smooth floors made the Great Hall of the Poor with its ornate oak-paneled vaulted ceiling very roll-able, and an elevator took me up to see Roger Van der Weyden’s famous polyptych of “The Last Judgment” that once graced the hall’s chapel but now shares a special room with splendid tapestries. Wide doors and ramps also provided access to the quaint laboratory, pharmacy, kitchen, and other exhibits.

One of the most striking sights for me was in a small chamber for the not-quite-so-poor: There a mannequin nun-nurse in a period habit tended to a patient in a primitive wheelchair — a plain wood chair on tiny casters. The statues were hokey, but as I regarded the man from my modern chair, I was struck by how difficult his life must have been and how enjoyable mine is.

If you go:

For information on barge cruises in France and elsewhere, contact European Waterways Ltd., www.gobarging.com. The six-night Burgundy canal cruise on La Reine Pedauque runs April through October and costs $4,300 per person, all inclusive.

Transportation:

* American Airlines phones passengers who request wheelchair assistance a few days in advance to find out exactly what help they need. There was no problem stowing my wheelchair in a cabin closet. Even if you have your own chair, request airport assistance: The attendant typically will speed you through security, immigration, and customs. You may, however, have to wait at check-in or on the plane for help to arrive, as we did at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, although not at Paris Charles de Gaulle (this time).

*  Paris to Dijon. Most trains depart from the Gare de Lyon in Paris. Les Cars Air France (www.cars-airfrance-pro.com) offers bus service every 15 minutes from the airport to the station for 16,50 euros. Our bus had a wheechair symbol on the side but no indication of how to use the service and the driver offered no help.

If you buy a France Rail Pass (www.raileurope.com), you also have to book seats on Gare de Lyon-Dijon trains. Unfortunately, you can’t book seats in the handicapped car through Rail Europe; to do that, you have to book through the French site www.sncf.com, and then you have to pick up the tickets in France. However, if you book through Rail Europe, you can send your seat information to Access Plus, accesplus@sncf.com, to request help getting on and off the train. Car #1 typically is the accessible car, though on TGV 6718 from Dijon to Paris, there was no tie-down and the bathroom wasn’t big enough to accommodate a wheelchair.

* Paris to CDG. Besides Les Cars Air France from a few locations, the RoissyBus (www.ratp.info) from the Place de l’Opera every 15 minutes is an affordable alternative to a taxi. It costs 9,10 euros and is wheelchair accessible.

Where to Stay:

* In Dijon, the historic Hotel Sofitel Dijon La Cloche (www.hotel-lacloche.com), on Place Darcy has an accessible entrance through the garden in back but no sign in front to let you know. Our so-called accessible room, #301, was tiny and not accessible in any way: We could barely get my small-wheeled chair through the door. We moved to the recently renovated, garret-roofed Puligny Room on the 5th floor, which was bigger, done in 50s-retro style, and had a separate shower stall (though not a roll-in one). One of the best meals of the trip was dinner at Le Jardin de la Cloche, including silky house-made foie gras terrine and plump snails-in-the-shell with parsley butter.

* In Paris (where you’ll want to spend at least a day or two), hotel accessibility can mean anything from a door wide enough to fit through to all the right stuff. Our best room by far was #264 in the new wing at the Hotel Le Bristol (www.lebristolparis.com), which had plenty of space to maneuver around the king-size bed and a roll-in shower (with an optional separate seat) in the spacious Carrara marble bathroom.

A final note, having a wheelchair in Paris is a boon because national museums are free for wheelchair users and those pushing them — and you get to bypass all the lines, which tend to be long.

 

 

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