Travel: Dreamtime on the Dordogne: Simon Vickers and his family bought a wooden boat and floated off downstream for a fortnight of peace and quiet

Everyone said, 'C'est impossible,' about our dream of descending the Dordogne in a gabarot, the traditional wooden boat used on the river since time immemorial. The Dordogne was too fast, the rapids too dangerous and the boat too heavy. Besides which, no one made gabarots any more.

Undeterred, two days later my wife and I had tracked down a tiny boatyard reeking of wood shavings and creosote at Mareuil, the only workshop on the river still crafting traditional gabarots by hand from oak, chestnut and alder.

We had never taken our children on a boating holiday before. But the Dordogne seemed ideal for beginners: it is slow-moving in summer and motorboats are prohibited on all but a tiny stretch. We could not rent a gabarot so we bought one, complete with paddles and wooden bailer. The Fr2,200 ( pounds 275) looked a modest investment when we knew we could sell the boat back to the workshop for about Fr1,500 at the end of the trip.

At Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne we tied down the watertight drum containing our belongings, slipped our sleek 15ft craft into the water and gingerly pushed away from the bank. As we did so, nine hours of noisy quarrelling in the back of the car abruptly died away, its place taken by the quiet gurgle of water lapping against the sides of the boat. Our children sat hushed in the prow, eagerly watching out for tufted grebe, the iridescent flash of a passing kingfisher and turning silently to point out a grey heron standing motionless on the riverbank.

Although at first it seemed alarmingly low in the water, the gabarot was remarkably stable. There was plenty of room for our camping equipment and pots and pans in the stern, as well as bottles of wine, a fishing rod and a picnic hamper.

We all wore lifejackets, even when the surface of the Dordogne was as calm as a millpond: buckling on a lifejacket should be as automatic on the water as wearing a safety belt is in a car. The danger, we were told, was less of drowning than of falling overboard and knocking oneself unconscious on a rock. 'At least with a lifejacket on you'll float and we can fish you out of the water,' a fireman assured us jovially in a bar at Beaulieu.

Steering a gabarot is something of an art, but my wife and I soon handed the paddles to our children, aged 13 and 14, who quickly mastered the technique and took us smoothly downstream with all the skill and pride of professional boatmen. Only once or twice did we have to leap for the paddles when the boat began to drift sideways down some rapids. On the whole, though, ours was a stately and dignified descent of the river.

In the afternoons we would look out for an official campsite or a little grassy clearing beside the river where we could pitch our tent unobserved. Whether carrying tents ashore, collecting branches for a campfire or checking that our gabarot was securely moored for the night, our children were always active and enthusiastic, determined we should not get bored with the whole thing.

At the end of the day, unaccustomed to such quantities of fresh air and tired out by the exercise of paddling, we were in our tents by nine o'clock and asleep five minutes later. Nights passed uneventfully except for the call of an owl, the croak of a frog or the splash of a fish in the river.

When we woke in the morning we generally made our way downstream to the next village for a breakfast of freshly baked croissants and cafes au lait. Being on the river for an hour before breakfast, with the mist rising through the poplars in the early morning sun, was an experience not to be missed.

Our arrival by boat at a village never failed to cause a stir. For some we were 'les anglais sportifs', for others part of the new wave of English laying claim to the old Plantagenet domains of Aquitaine. Old riverhands crowded round to tap the hull of our gabarot, impressed by her craftsmanship, and to tell us stories about the old way of life on the river. News of our progress seemed to precede us downstream and twice in a bar we found a round of drinks had been bought for us. At La Roque-Gageac an English tourist, who had seen our approach from his hotel, appeared breathless on the quay, camcorder in hand, and began interviewing us as we came ashore.

Every few miles we came across either a riverside village with small family-run hotels or a delightful shady campsite. Finding accommodation was never a problem. The difficulty was in deciding where to stay: everywhere looked so inviting. Of the many delightful hotels, our favourite was Les Falaises at Gluges, an old Perigourdin auberge nestling beneath overhanging cliffs streaked black and gold. While my wife and I sat cradling huge bowls of coffee on the terrace overlooking the river, our children explored the cliffs honeycombed with caves and ancient troglodytic dwellings.

We tied up to visit the blood-red fortress of Castelnau, the stalactite-filled caves of Lacave and the elegant Chateau de la Treyne, dating back to the Renaissance and once the home of the black American cabaret singer Josephine Baker. One day we abandoned our boat to walk over the hills to Les-Eyzies, home to the earliest prehistoric finds in Europe. On the way back we found the king of mushrooms, boletus edulis, in dense chestnut woods and cooked an omelette aux cepes worthy of a Michelin star.

The most beautiful part of the Dordogne lay between Souillac and the dreamlike village of Limeuil, where every house was a jewel of golden stone. Each bend in the river revealed another medieval chateau perched precipitously on a rock above the water: Beynac, Fayrac, Fenelon, Montfort. As our children were determined to visit them all, my wife and I took it in turns to sunbathe beside the boat while the other one climbed dutifully up the steep hillsides. The most rewarding was the Chateau de Castelnaud (not to be confused with Castelnau), with its reconstructions of the great weapons of medieval warfare - huge stone-slinging devices made from wood, leather and stone.

One of the great advantages of heading downstream was that the river did all the work. While our children piloted us effortlessly, my wife lay back and read her book in the sunshine and I idly toyed with our fishing rod, trailing a red plastic maggot behind the boat. One day I reeled in a 10in brown trout, much to my family's astonishment. Minutes later our son caught a second and we fried them over the campfire with butter and wild chives.

Travelling by gabarot also opened doors for us, being a starting point for many conversations about the history of the river and the region. The Dordogne, we learnt, had once been a thriving waterway, busy with flat-bottomed gabares bringing wood from the Auvergne and wine from the middle Dordogne downstream to the barrel makers and wine merchants of Libourne and Bordeaux. Virtually every village still has its cobbled quay. Abandoned after the railway put an end to the river traffic in the 1890s, these overgrown quays were ideal places for tranquil lunchtime picnics and leisurely siestas.

Undeterred by Arctic temperatures, our children swam in the sheltered pools of the Dordogne and occasionally beside the boat as we drifted downstream. The closest we came to disaster was when our son scrambled back in over the side one day and came within an inch of capsizing the boat.

When the locals in a bar in Ste-Foy-la- Grande discovered we had arrived from Beaulieu by gabarot, a man was sent to fetch the mayor. A rotund, jovial, red- faced man, the author of two books on the river traffic of the Dordogne, he abandoned his office to give us a personal guided tour of his beloved river museum. Our journey was, he assured us, 'une belle aventure'.

Further downstream we came to the vineyards of St Emilion and Bordeaux and visited the great Chateau de Monbazillac for a free degustation of the finest of all French dessert wines. Still further down was Montaigne's chateau and Castillon-la-Bataille, the site of the defeat in 1453 of the English army in the last great engagement of the Hundred Years War. Arriving at these sites by boat or on foot brought them to life: our holiday was a history, geography, natural history and French lesson combined with a dash of adventure training.

When we walked up to visit a village or chateau we left everything in the boat except our valuables, and in two weeks had only one minor theft: a few tins of tuna, some cheese and two bottles of St Emilion. Tent, sleeping bags, lifejackets and clothes had not been touched. It was, we reckoned, a quintessentially French theft.

On the water we had the best of both worlds: all the beauty of the riverside villages and car-free bliss. After two weeks we were tanned, healthy and fit, and the sound of children quarrelling was but a distant memory. By the time we reached our final destination at Libourne we had only one desire: to do the whole thing all over again.

(Photograph omitted)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
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
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor - OTE £20,000 Uncapped

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Guru Careers: Membership Administrator

    £23K: Guru Careers: We're seeking an experienced Membership Administrator, to ...

    Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

    £32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

    Day In a Page

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor