Aboard Renaissance: Briare

Market at Briare
Market at Briare

ABOARD RENAISSANCE-The weather gods seemed to be exacting their due as we woke in Briare to gray skies that threatened rain.

Carol and I checked out the market behind the church of Saint Etienne and found just about everything one could possibly need to sustain life – vegetables, fruits, meats, fish, cheese, bread, milk, plants, medicinal herbs, clothing from underwear to shoes, furniture, beds, mattresses, even a suite of purple pots for cooking.

Few villages or small towns can support a Chinese restaurant but on market day, one comes to them in a food truck.

Church of Saint Etienne in Briare.
Church of Saint Etienne in Briare.

We quickly took a look inside the church, a turn-of-the-18th-century structure that bears its Art Nouveau sensibility and expressive tile work appropriate for the center of that art.

We hurried back; our “parking permit” expired at 10:30 a.m. Renaissance pulled away at 10:20 a.m.

Despite the drear day, we all were on deck for a date with greatness, namely Gustave Eiffel’s masterful pont du canal, literally, bridge canal.

For years sand was dredged commercially from the Loire but the river was often too shallow for the barges to move it along the old canal that included a river crossing.

Waiting to enter Eiffel’s Pont canal.
Waiting to enter Eiffel’s Pont canal.

Eiffel’s solution, re-route the canal and send part of it over the river like a bridge. Ten thousand tons of solid steel and six years of construction later the seemingly impossible task was accomplished in 1896.

We waited, chatting with locals out for a walk, as another barge came through from the opposite direction. Then it was our turn. It’s a strange feeling to be cruising above a river and one I will always reassure.

Cruising in a canal over a river.
Cruising in a canal over a river.

By 12:35 p.m. we moored at Chatillon-sur-Loire. It was the end of our cruise but not of its pleasure: lunch, the vineyards of Sancerre, the Captain’s farewell dinner, sleep and breakfast were yet to come.

Our destination this afternoon was the Henri Bourgeois Winery, set in Chavignol, a tiny village squeezed into the “valley” across from the hillsides where monks had first planted vines centuries ago.

All owners of this land live in the village and their holdings are inherited by sons who continue tending the family’s heritage. It is land that cannot be bought.

The soil – 70 percent chalky clay, 20-25 percent flinty and 5 percent from ancient seashells – produces some exceptional wines. Perhaps the most exceptional are the three vintages being made from a 435-year-old tree in the churchyard that was toppled by a storm. Barrels were made from its wood and 40 of those are still waiting for this year’s red.

The drive through this countryside of tradition, winding roads, tipsily slanting houses, vineyards, fruit trees and yes, more brilliant yellow rapeseed was a fascinating view of a France that hasn’t and won’t change its values.

Family vineyards in Chavignol.
Family vineyards in Chavignol.

Tonight we all dressed in our finery and valued the crew who has made this such a remarkable week. Photographs, toasts, Champagne, a Puligny Montrachet premier cru and a Charmes chambertin Grand Cru accompanied a light bacon and pea soup, Tournedos Rossini with potato roti, wilted spinach and poached mushrooms and chocolate fondant.

When the last bite had been consumed, the crew once again gathered with us around the table and bar for digestifs, more photos, many selfies and much laughter.

We were too replete – almost – with satisfaction to envy the eight lucky passengers who would be taking our places for the reverse version of our barging through a little piece of paradise.
April 24 Judy Wells

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