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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
tech
News
The 67P/CG comet as seen from the Philae lander
scienceThe most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Ian McKellen as Gandalf in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies
film
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Koenig, creator of popular podcast Serial, which is to be broadcast by the BBC
tvReview: The secret to the programme's success is that it allows its audience to play detective
News
Ruby Wax has previously written about her mental health problems in her book Sane New World
people
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

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas