You can take the slow lane all the way down this river

The busy Canal du Midi isn't the only place to take a river cruise. Sarah Donnelly boards a solar-powered boat for a new tour of the Lot

There's a commotion on deck. A muffled voice booms over a speaker. Footsteps rumble down the corridor and then splooosh – the sound of a body hitting the water.

For the past 24 hours we have been creeping noiselessly down the Lot River in a solar-powered floating hotel, designed by our captain, Dominique Renouf. She launched her Lot cruise this summer, having decamped from the overcrowded Canal du Midi in search of peace. And she has certainly found it here – all morning, the beating of herons' wings and the occasional cry of some mournful water creature are all that have broken the silence.

I push aside the thin pane of glass between me and the action, and lean out of the window. Outside are the people with whom I will share my existence for the next three days. Philippe, the chef, casually rests on the handrail, smoking a cigar. Two British students, Emily and Raoul, watch their friend Adam battle the current. Dominique gazes from the hull at the object of this rescue – her blue-and-white striped parasol – awaiting retrieval.

Adam climbs back on board. The parasol is safe and calm is restored. We continue on to Casseneuil, where we moor up for the night. Heat has crept into every corner of the afternoon, and it seems the whole town has taken to the water. Canoes criss-cross the river; children look for frogs among the lily pads and teenagers launch themselves off a bridge.

In a hired pedalo, I make a noisy and ungainly entrance into a narrow tributary. I pass the stub of a ruin surrounded by neat lawns, pondering why they call this town Little Venice. My question is answered when I turn a corner to find a row of disintegrating timber-framed houses overhanging the river. They tower above me, and vines creep up their wooden pillars, like the river's green arms dragging them under. Their crumbling stucco fascias reveal red brickwork, and the lower-storey doorways are nothing but gaping black holes. I try to pass, but the low river becomes a reedy soup, and I have to turn back.

After dinner, Philippe and Dominique accompany me in search of a waterfall, which I am assured is impressive. Philippe takes the lead. He is lean and brisk and, apart from the slacks and trainers, bears a striking resemblance to Crocodile Dundee. He fosters a hearty cynicism towards the world and everything in it, including the English, given their role in the Hundred Years War. He leads us over fences, down brambly banks, over a bridge and to a dead end.

When we eventually find the spot, the sky is darkening. Dominique slaps a hand to her brow. Nothing but a dry, absurdly waterfall-shaped line of rock greets us. Green and grey streaks suggest the course of the flow, like the ghost of the vanished torrent. "Voilà, the waterfall!" says Philippe, lighting a cigar. We all laugh, and turn back.

The next day we stop briefly at Temple-sur-Lot. Claude Monet bought his famous water lilies here, and at the lily farm the rattle of frogs drowns out even the cicadas.

The river pushes us on, and at every village, weeping willows bow as we pass. The half-sunken wreck of a barge drifts by. It seems strange to think that only 35 miles away, the Dordogne cuts its cheerful path through campsites and ice-cream cafés. Here, life falls into a kind of slow motion but it is the languorous hours between destinations that truly mark out the days. The atmosphere is communal and homely. Dominique abhors the concept of luxury. "Here's the spa," she jokes, pointing to a puddle.

But the food is outstanding. As I'm a vegetarian with a cheese allergy, the phrase "meals included" usually terrifies, but Philippe leaps on the challenge. Eventually, he lets slip that he once worked in a top Parisian restaurant. At meals we all sit together.

The students, studying French at Warwick, are helping out on the boat in exchange for board. They are full of energy and engage warmly in conversation. When I become too tired to follow French, they rescue me. In the evenings, Dominique talks about the building of the boat. She was a psychiatric nurse, and when she conceived the idea of constructing a six-cabin, 30m barge powered by the sun, most thought her insane. The awards she has won have proved them wrong.

My final stop is Castelmoron, which on approach is hidden by the looming grey towers of a hydroelectric dam. Beyond the lock, a high-arched suspension bridge appears. When we stop, I run up it to get a better view of the town hall. I am reminded of the Thames at Richmond, and thoughts of home – emails and missed calls – shatter the peace. I try to shake them off, but it's no good.

The spell is broken. Beneath me, the boat's solar panels drink in the sunlight that will fuel our retreat back into the valley, while I must reluctantly turn again to the chaos of real life.

Compact Facts

How to get there

A week's cruise on Le Kevin with Naviratous (00 33 4 68 46 37 98; naviratous2.com) costs €700 per person, with children aged over six paying half price. Cruises operate from April until the end of September, departing Villeneuve-sur-Lot, a half-hour drive from Bergerac.

News
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
News
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
news
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
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
  • Get to the point
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

    Recruitment Genius: Bid / Tender Writing Executive

    £24000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executives / Marketing Communications Consultants

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a number of Marketi...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

    £20000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established business ...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own