Spotlight on L'Art de Vivre: From War Barge to Hotel Barge in Burgundy

L'Art de Vivre

Embark on a journey through time as we shine a spotlight on L’Art de Vivre – the oldest barge in the European Waterways fleet. From its historic beginnings as a cargo barge in the early 1900s to its transformation into a hotel barge, L’Art de Vivre has a rich history that spans over a century. Join us as we explore the elegant interiors, exquisite cuisine, and breath-taking landscapes that await it’s passengers.

A Short History of L'Art de Vivre

L’Art de Vivre started life in 1917 as one of three lighter barges built by F. Braby & Co shipbuilders in the English town of Deptford. Having been constructed at the height of the First World War, the British government quickly requisitioned the boats to help with the war effort. After they were towed to Glasgow, the engineless barges had their hulls doubled at Fr. Braby & Co’s Clyde works. This work ensured they were strong enough to be tugged onto the beaches of northern France by push boats, where they offloaded ammunition to allied forces fighting the Battle of the Somme.

After the war, the three boats returned to England, where they continued their commercial service on the River Thames. As the Port of London was being increasingly frequented by larger ships, lighter barges were often employed to load freighters lying in mid-stream. By the 1930s, L’Art de Vivre, then known only as ‘DL1’, had been fitted with a Kelvin engine. She was returned to France where she was acquired by Captain Louis Roth, who added her to his fleet of Union Company barges. By the 1940s, she had acquired the name ‘Mage’ and was a cargo barge on the River Seine, transporting heavy goods such as coal, gravel and sand.

In the late 1950s, the barge was sold once again – this time to another barge company owner, Louis Laherte. Laherte renamed the barge Narval and, having altered her stern and rear accommodation, he upgraded the engine to a more powerful Baudouin DK6. She navigated the Canal Latéral à la Garonne with Laherte’s family, before being transferred to the Canal du Midi. At this time, L’Art de Vivre had work done to reduce her length from 140ft (38m) to 100ft (30m), so that she could fit within the Midi’s shorter locks.

L'Art de Vivre Narval

Laherte was unable to continue using L’Art de Vivre as he got older, and as his sons weren’t interested in keeping her, he sold her in the 70’s. This time, she was purchased by two American journalists who renamed her Marie Brizzard. They transformed the barge into a charter passenger boat for use on the River Charente, but the venture was a failure and L’Art de Vivre was sold once again, remaining on the Charente as a passenger ferry. After a brief time, the boat was sold again.

L'Art de Vivre - Marie Brizzard

The buyer, Florian Walenski, was a direct descendant of Napoleon Bonaparte. The story goes that his grandmother was Napoleon’s Polish mistress. She met Napoleon during his time on the eastern front in the Napoleonic War, conceiving his illegitimate son, Antoine Walenski. The Walenskis had a history of barging and under Florian’s control, the family company endeavoured to attempt river tourism. Marie Brizzard was refitted for use as a hotel barge under the new name “Napoleon”.

Mark Twain II L'Art de Vivre

With little luck on the Charente, the barge was moved to the Garonne under the name “Mark Twain II”. She attracted an American clientele and navigated the waterways as a hotel barge until the mid-1990s, when the ageing barge was getting expensive to maintain. European Waterways founder, Derek Banks, was approached during this period. Florian struck a deal with Banks for European Waterways to promote and run the barge for him. After the barge was renamed Magellan and initial plans to move the barge to Portugal ended in failure, she was kept in France.

Magellan was eventually purchased by European Waterways to become a permanent member of the fleet. She was taken to Vermenton in Burgundy for a much needed refit and renamed ‘L’Art de Vivre’ as she entered her final phase of extravagance. Welcoming her first passengers as a European Waterways barge in 2000 she’s been reigning over the Canal du Nivernais with her blue livery ever since and in 2017, celebrated her centenary – what an achievement and what a lot of water under the hull since her humble beginnings in Deptford!

Hotel Barge L’Art de Vivre Today

She may be the oldest barge in the European Waterways fleet, but L’Art De Vivre’s stylish interior could fool you into thinking she was made yesterday! With space for 8 passengers and 5 crew, this compact, yet comfortable barge invites you to enjoy a six-night stay in First Class luxury. Decked-out with a traditional wooden interior and brass details, she’s warm and welcoming with a saloon skylight to brighten things further.

The cabins aboard L’Art de Vivre reveal walls half-panelled with light wood, comfortable beds laden with white linen, and large porthole windows that encourage ambient light to spill into the spaces. Beds can be arranged as two singles or as a double, to present the perfect place for you to rest your weary head after the day’s excursions. Each cabin comes complete with its own en suite bathroom, set with bright tiles, white fittings, and a powerful shower. You’ll even find an array of L’Occitaine soaps and shower gels arranged for your convenience!

L Art de Vivre dining area
L Art de Vivre double cabin

The cozy saloon has plenty of space for you and your fellow passengers to stretch out. You’ll eat meals at the large dining table, which will be set for 3 courses every lunch and dinner time. A quaint bar in the corner provides all the cocktails, liquors and whisky you desire, and wine, soft drinks and coffee are available whenever you choose.

Up on deck, take the opportunity to lavish a soak in the swirling hot water of the spa pool. Call a member of staff to wait on you with a drink, whilst you lap up the lazy hillsides and luscious countryside that rolls past on either side of the canal. Let the afternoon sunshine warm your skin as you relax with a book on the sun deck afterwards, an Aperol Spritz in your hand.

If you’re the adventurous type, then why not take a stroll alongside the barge whilst it navigates the Canal du Nivernais? For the faster-paced, borrow a bike from L’Art de Vivre and cycle along the towpath as you breathe the fresh air of the French countryside.

L Art de Vivre bar
L Art de Vivre sundeck

L’Art de Vivre on the Map – Burgundy – Lower Nivernais Canal & River Yonne

Approximately two and a half hours drive southeast of Paris, the Canal du Nivernais connects the River Yonne at Auxerre to the River Loire at Saint-Léger-des-Vignes. Stretching for 174 kilometres and rising 170 metres, it has a total of 110 locks, which are controlled by lock-keepers employed by the Voies navigables de France.

In its northerly course, the Nivernais Canal is regularly fed by the River Yonne, and by the River Aron on the southern descent. Flowing gently through the Yonne and Nièvre departments, the canal passes through many landmarks in the Burgundy countryside, including the vast, 700,000-acre regional park, the Forest of the Morvan.

One of the prettiest canal systems in France, the Canal du Nivernais was also one of the first to be reopened to pleasure traffic after a gradual reduction in commercial navigation that started in the 1970s. Today, the Canal du Nivernais is one of France’s most popular tourism destinations. Renowned for its tranquillity, beautiful hills and valleys, and pretty villages, it is one of the most iconic canals in France.

L Art de Vivre barge cruising from above

Itinerary Highlights

As you cruise upstream from Auxerre to Chevroches, you will experience changing sceneries as the navigation course swithches between the meandering River Yonne with shady weeping willows along its banks and the calm canal proper, straighter and narrower, You’ll have ample opportunity to absorb the rich heritage of the Burgundy region. Pass through historic villages like Vincelles, Lucy-Sur-Yonne and Mailly-la-Ville, to take in the quintessentially French sights of Northern Burgundy Amidst the rolling hills.

Relax and indulge in the things that interest you most as you settle in for a six-night stay on L’Art de Vivre. Explore the historic town of Auxerre with its medieval houses and three grand churches, including the thirteenth-century Cathédrale Saint-Étienne d’Auxerre on the hillside overlooking the river.

Another medieval gem that’s not to be missed is the hilltop pilgrimage town of Vézelay. With its hilltop basilica perched at the town’s highest point, it can be seen for miles across the surrounding Burgundy landscape. With its cobbled streets bearing the mark of many devout Christian pilgrims, the basilica itself is a marvel to behold. Reputedly where the remains of St Mary Magdalene are held, the town was where the Third Crusade was launched.


Venture into Northern Burgundy’s subterranean spaces with an excursion to the quarry of Aubigny. Tour the underground tunnel network from which limestone was excavated for use of some of France’s most famous buildings. From the Paris Opera House to the base of the Eiffel Tower, this stone was used to construct buildings all over the country. To continue the underground theme, guests of L’Art de Vivre are taken to the cellars of Bailly Lapierre, where Crémant de Bourgogne is crafted and stored. Not-to-miss is the talk and tasting, which will reveal everything you need to know about this lesser-known sparkling wine.

If you like wine, then you’ll certainly enjoy the private wine tasting at the prestigious Chablis winemaker’s, Domaine Laroche. Learn the story about how the monks of St Martin’s monastery started to hone their winemaking skills in the Middle Ages and see the 1000-year-old Obédiencerie, which was once formed part of the monastic complex. What would a visit to a vineyard be if there was no wine? You’ll be treated to a wine-tasting and a gourmet lunch served by a private chef in Domaine Laroche’s dining hall.

Crus and vineyards at Domaine Laroche
Domaine Laroche is considered one of the leading producers of Chablis wines

Last but certainly not least, is a visit to the elegant, turreted castle of Château de Bazoches. Counting Richard, the Lionheart amongst its illustrious visitors, the castle was owned by the Vauban family. Now open to the public with a museum telling the story of the military strategist to Louis XIV, Marquis de Vauban, this beautiful French château towers over stunning landscaped gardens. Stroll through the grounds or take in the opulence of the castle’s sumptuous interiors, as you absorb some of the best views that France has to offer.

Château de Bazoches
Château de Bazoches

Media Reviews

Don’t just take our word for it, see what the media have to say about barging on L’Art de Vivre!

In the barging season of 2022, we were visited by French travel couple, Aude Boc and Tom Texier. Slow-travelling on L’Art de Vivre, they reviewed their trip in an article featuring stunning photographs from their six-night stay. They marvelled at it being such a sustainable travel option and wrote positively of the barging experience, explaining that ‘slow travel invites us to relish every moment of a travel experience’.  Aude continued that a barge cruise:

Combines the art of taking your time with an appreciation and respect for the wonders of a place and its people, and it aims to benefit not only the traveller but also the artisans, farmers, vintners, restaurateurs, and other folks with whom the traveller interacts.

L'Art de Vivre Goats

Aude and Tom say they are forever in search of new experiences and couldn’t wait to try floating on a luxury hotel barge. Aude, a French native, writes fondly of her mother country and her amazement of seeing France as she never had before. She says that the barges tour the rivers at little more than walking pace, allowing visitors an ideal vantage point to take in the “countryside, the birds, the chateaus, and the small villages on either side of the canal”.

They appreciated the skill required by a seasoned captain to slip a “100-foot barge through narrow locks”! Another advantage was having a fleet of bicycles aboard the barge, allowing “passengers to tour the towpaths and bucolic byways of Burgundy with or without a guide”. Whether you enjoy privacy or company, a barge cruise allows you the luxury of choosing how you spend your time. With European Waterways, you can have your trip, your way!

Recalling the journey, Aude described the cruise as a “continual ballet of discoveries— cultural, culinary, and oenological”. Days were “relaxed but not monotonous”. The couple enjoyed subterranean excursions to the Underground Quarry of Aubigny and the Caves Bailly-Lapierre, where they sampled Crémant de Bourgogne. They also admired the historic locations of Château de Bazoches, Vézelay, and the cobbled streets of Auxerre with its historic cathedral. She described the food throughout the week:

“Dining was a veritable symphony of flavours representative of the local terroir, each meal completely different from the last; never before had we encountered such a diversity of wines, dishes, and cheeses.”

Dining aboard L'Art de Vivre

Overall, the soothing holiday was over far sooner than the pair had wished, leaving them with a “tranquil appreciation of natural and cultural wonders combined with relaxation and epicurean pleasures”.

If you’d like to follow in Aude and Tom’s footsteps and cruise aboard L’Art de Vivre, then speak to one of our advisors or order a brochure today.

Read the full article here.

Finesse is Perfect for:


We couldn’t offer specialist cruises without including one for wine. Burgundy is famous for exporting some of the best wines in the world, so a visit to this region wouldn’t be complete without a tasting, or two. Visits to the Bersan family’s 12th century cellars in St Bris and the Grand Cru vineyards at Puligny Montrachet both end in wine tastings. There’s also an excursion to the extraordinary Hotel Dieu Hospices de Beaune, which is host to the most exclusive annual wine auction in the world. Your wine guide will take you to the Chablis vineyards and onto either Domaine Laroche or Domaine Willian Fevre, to see wine being made using modern methods. If a wine cruise aboard L’Art de Vivre has you tipsy for more, then take a look at the full itinerary, and start imagining your dream trip to Burgundy!

Domaine Laroche in Chablis


If golf is more your scene, then have the hobbyist’s holiday of a lifetime when you charter L’Art de Vivre for up to 8 golfers. Over your six-night week, you’ll visit three impressive golf courses in the Northern Burgundy region. Play an 18-hole round at Château de Chailly golf course, which was designed by the professional golfer, Géry Watine in 1989. Visit Golf Château de Tanlay, situated in magnificent parkland in the grounds of its spectacular castle, and lean back into another 18-hole round at Domaine du Roncemay Golf & Country Club, which is set within magical forests with views of a fairy-tale château. With gourmet meals prepared for you throughout your stay and additional visits to nearby attractions and towns, this cruise itinerary is the perfect balance between culture and challenge for all abilities of golfer!


If you’re looking for a holiday that’s slightly more family-friendly, then why not book a family charter of L’Art de Vivre and substitute up to 4 excursions for visits to other more child orientated locations? Bring up to 8 members of the family and choose from adventures like ten pin bowling, laser quest and ice skating. There’s also a chance to see the Caves of Arcy-sur-Cure, known for its incredible 28,000-year-old cave paintings! Also, if your little ones are good at building sandcastles on the beach, then why not up their game, by joining in with the Medieval Construction Project at Château Guedelon? For the full list of activities, from horse riding to hot air ballooning, check out the itinerary and start planning your trip.

Guédelon, where you can see a castle constructed before your very eyes
Guédelon, where you can see a castle constructed before your very eyes

Ready to Cruise aboard L'Art de Vivre

If you’ve been inspired and would like to experience L’Art de Vivre for yourself, why not speak to a friendly member of the European Waterways team. Alternatively, order a brochure to consider all of our cruise options!

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