Bring plenty of olive oil - then chuck it down the ship's toilet

Yes, tugboat 'Billy' is a little eccentric. But Rachel Spence wouldn't have cruised Burgundy's Yonne river in any other vessel

'Jump! Jump!" My partner yells, urging me to leap on to the canal bank. Our boat Billy has other ideas. Stubborn as a carthorse, he swings

'Jump! Jump!" My partner yells, urging me to leap on to the canal bank. Our boat Billy has other ideas. Stubborn as a carthorse, he swings

his prow over to the other side of the lock. As the water leaks out through the gates, Billy sways alarmingly while I struggle to extricate myself from the tangle of rope.

Our butter-fingers are no surprise. Only the day before, we were canal-boat virgins. On arrival at the port of Vermonton, a pretty town whose limestone houses are buried among the vine-covered hills of northern Burgundy, we sought out the offices of pleasure-boat company France Afloat.

Our guru was Steve Adam, a Kent man who runs the business with his family. As we walked past the boats tethered on the bank - from shiny white cruisers to sailing boats - it was hard to tell who was more unflappable: Steve or the millpond-still Nivernais canal, upon whose waters we were about to be let loose.

Billy might not be the grandest boat but he is certainly the cutest - think tugboat meets Victorian bathtub. Into his 20ft by 10ft frame, some ingenious boat-builder had squeezed a kitchen, seating area, shower, loo and double bed. A pocket-sized terrace at the stern permits alfresco dining.

Steve's briefing rivals an Everest Sherpa's for intensity. Among a host of dos and don'ts, the scariest was an injunction to put olive oil down the loo to stop it clogging. Driving looks easy until we realise that Billy's reflexes are tortoise-slow, and the only way to brake is go into reverse: "But then there's no steering," adds Steve cheerfully. Haunted by the woodwork teacher who enjoyed highlighting my abject failure to follow practical instructions, I whisper to J: "You drive, I'll cook."

Yet, once out on the water and through a couple of locks, all anxieties evaporate. Twenty-first-century life - cars, computers, all things electric, including mobile phone chargers - has been left behind on the Vermonton dock.

The landscape is hypnotising. Following the course of the river Yonne, and sometimes converging with it, the Nivernais canal was dug in the 19th century to assist the flourishing logging trade. As the barges ferried their precious timbers from the Morvan forests to the woodyards of Paris they wound their way through the hills and valleys of some of Burgundy's finest countryside. Today, the towpaths are deserted save for the occasional family out for a cycle ride.

We pass fields of sunflowers and vine-covered slopes laden with pinot noir and chardonnay - you'll find finer only in the Côte d'Or to the south.

The river is another world entirely. Tiny fish swim in her brown-green depths; ducks and swans skulk in the shallows; herons swoop frequently across our path; cicadas chatter in the trees. A sleek black head scythes through the water: it's an otter, the first either of us have ever seen.

With just four days at our disposal (most holidaymakers would take a week) we aim to arrive that evening in the city of Auxerre, some 15km up river. Hugely pleased with ourselves, we glide through the final lock at dusk. It's a magnificent way to enter a city which, since Roman times, has built its prosperity on the river that runs through it.

And the sight of Auxerre is worth the six-hour - and 17-lock - journey. Built on the steep hillside which overlooks the east bank of the Yonne, it is an unspoilt medieval metropolis of tall, Burgundian roofs and golden stone dominated by the majestic cathedral of St-Etienne.

The mooring point, however, looks daunting. Some 20 boats are already neatly parked and only one small, just-about-Billy-sized space is free. Remembering Steve's warning about steering backwards, J and I grin weakly. Billy, meanwhile, simply turns circles in the middle of the river.

Fortunately, if there's one thing boat people like more than driving their own boat, it's helping hopeless amateurs to drive theirs. Within seconds, people are issuing instructions from the bank. Conscious of professionals in charge, Billy obeys meekly and is soon lined up with everybody else.

Next it's a quick gallop to the shops. We go for regional specialities - snail pie, Epoisse cheese, a roasted Bresse chicken, salad, crusty bread - and an all-important bottle of local Irancy. Then we repair to Billy's terrace and watch the sunset.

In the morning we plunge into the steep, cobbled streets of Auxerre. Truly a city of the river. The historic heart is dubbed the Marine quarter and there are still streets, with names such as Rue de l'Yonne and Place du Coche d'Eau (Passenger Barge Square), lined with the half-timbered homes once lived in by rivermen. Also impressive is the cathedral, a flamboyant Gothic affair, like a miniature Chartres, with vertiginous vaulted ceilings, flimsy columns and an intricately carved façade - blame the 16th-century Huguenots for lopping off the heads of the naive stone figures on the arches. Take time also to visit the Carolingian crypts beneath the Abbey of St-Germain, where the trio of frail, ninth-century frescoes are believed to be the oldest in France.

Over the next couple of days, we potter south again, wine-tasting en route. One afternoon, we moor below the Caves du Bailly where the awesome 800-year-old galleries extend deep into the cliff and are home to about five million bottles of fizzy wine. This is Crémant de Bourgogne, made from a chardonnay grape yet as dry and delicious as champagne and half the price.

Further inland lies Saint-Bris. This hilltop village, surrounded by vineyards and cherry orchards, is famous for its own appellation sauvignon but also produces fine burgundies. We pause at the caves of the Bersan brothers, whose family has been making wine here since the 15th century. The warren of damp, dark vaults are an oenophile's paradise with mould-encrusted bottles in every alcove; oak casks containing both burgundy and Chablis, and the original grape press.

After we've tasted their sauvignon de Saint-Bris 2001 and an oak-aged cuvée spéciale 2001, M. Bersan explains how delighted he is that the town won its appellation in 2002 so that now the burgundies will also carry the name of Saint-Bris too.

As dusk falls, we moor at the tiny village of Vaux. No worries about oversleeping - the quacking of the ducks proves a most effective early-morning call. A visit to the only shop procures a fresh baguette for our breakfast. No electricity means no TV and radio noise from the other boats, just the clinking of cutlery and the smell of fresh coffee.

It's a blisteringly hot day; just beyond Vincelles Islip into the Yonne. As I stroke my way through the clean, cool water, the sun falling through the dark trees, my only companions are the boatmen and the dragonflies.

It's impossible not to be won over by the charms of the Yonne valley. Unlike the Loire, Lot and Dordogne, it's almost tourist-free - apart from the pleasure-craft crowd, of course, and even then you can cruise for hours without seeing a boat. Yet the banks of the Yonne are overlooked by treasures - from land-that-time-forgot villages, with pale-shuttered, limestone houses and minute Romanesque churches, to splendid fortified towns, such as Châtel-Censoir and Mailly-le-Château, whose medieval curtain walls are the legacy of Burgundy's days as a powerful duchy. And just half an hour's drive north lies prime Chablis country.

Good restaurants abound in Burgundy, and on our last night we treat ourselves to the full works at Vermonton's Restaurant du Parc, where the set menus ensure decent value and you choose your own bottle of wine from the cellar. Here £12.50 buys you four courses starting with a sumptuous oeufs en mourettes (eggs in red wine), and finishing with a tarte tatin.

Saying goodbye to Billy is much harder than leaving a hotel. I find myself hoping his next tenants will treat him properly. I also find that, once back on dry land, I miss the river: its sounds, sights, smells and, most of all, the sense of peace.

The Facts

Getting there

Rachel Spence cruised courtesy of France Afloat (08700 110 538; www.franceafloat.com). A week sailing the Nivernais Canal costs from £475 per boat per week. P&O Ferries (08705 202020.; www.poferries.com) operates five crossings daily between Portsmouth and Cherbourg. Exclusive travel supplements from Hoverspeed, P&O Stena Line, P&O Portsmouth and Eurotunnel are available as part of a France Afloat package holiday. Secure parking costs from £13 to £27. Bikes can be hired for £20 each. France Afloat also organises canal cruises in the Loire, Midi, Brittany, Camargue, Aquitaine and Champagne.

Being there

Domaine Bersan 7 Fils, 20 rue du Docteur Tardieux, St-Bris-le-Vineux (00 33 3 86 53 33 73). Les Caves de Bailly, St-Bris-le-Vineux (00 33 3 86 53 77 77. www.caves-bailly.com). Restaurant du Parc, RN 6 - 89270 Vermonton (00 33 3 86 81 51 51). Closed Tuesday evening and Wednesday.

Further information

Auxerre Tourist Office, 1-2, quai de la République, 89000 Auxerre (0033 3 86 52 06 19; www.ot-auxerre.fr).

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
Denny Miller in 1959 remake of Tarzan, the Ape Man
people
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl despairs during the arena auditions
tvX Factor review: Drama as Cheryl and Simon spar over girl band

News
Piers Morgan tells Scots they might not have to suffer living on the same island as him if they vote ‘No’ to Scottish Independence
news
News
i100Exclusive interview with the British analyst who helped expose Bashar al-Assad's use of Sarin gas
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Angel Di Maria celebrates his first goal for Manchester United against QPR
Football4-0 victory is team's first win under new manager Louis van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
art
News
newsIn short, yes
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script
tv'Thomas comes right up to the abyss', says the actor
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris claimed the top spot in this week's single charts
music
Sport
BoxingVideo: The incident happened in the very same ring as Tyson-Holyfield II 17 years ago
News
Groundskeeper Willie has backed Scottish independence in a new video
people
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor poses the question of whether we are every truly alone in 'Listen'
tvReview: Possibly Steven Moffat's most terrifying episode to date
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
i100
Life and Style
Cara Delevigne at the TopShop Unique show during London Fashion Week
fashion
News
The life-sized tribute to Amy Winehouse was designed by Scott Eaton and was erected at the Stables Market in Camden
peopleBut quite what the singer would have made of her new statue...
Sport
England's Andy Sullivan poses with his trophy and an astronaut after winning a trip to space
sport
News
peopleThe actress has agreed to host the Met Gala Ball - but not until 2015
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Day In a Page

    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week
    The fall of Rome? Cash-strapped Italy accused of selling its soul to the highest bidder

    The fall of Rome?

    Italy's fears that corporate-sponsored restoration projects will lead to the Disneyfication of its cultural heritage
    Glasgow girl made good

    Glasgow girl made good

    Kelly Macdonald was a waitress when she made Trainspotting. Now she’s taking Manhattan
    Sequins ahoy as Strictly Come Dancing takes to the floor once more

    Sequins ahoy as Strictly takes to the floor once more

    Judy Murray, Frankie Bridge and co paired with dance partners
    Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

    Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

    Alexander Wang pumps it up at New York Fashion Week
    The landscape of my imagination

    The landscape of my imagination

    Author Kate Mosse on the place that taught her to tell stories