She minded the sheep and he hunted bears

MY ROUGH GUIDE
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The Independent Travel
Favourite Hotel

One long-time favourite is the little Auberge des Seigneurs in the old part of Vence. The place is oozing character and serves good, hearty meals, but its greateset appeal is the bedrooms named after the painters who once stayed here. It's not unusual, of course, in southern French hotels to see a Dufy landscape hanging on your bedroom wall, but what could be more romantic than throwing open the morning shutters to find an identical scene, one that Dufy, sitting at the same window, painted seventy years earlier.

Best Discovery

One hot afternoon in August I stumbled across a work-a-day market town on the edge of the rolling hills of Gascony. Instead of the usual crowd of bored teenagers hanging round a cafe, the arcaded square was full of jaunty parasols and the sunny sound of jazz. "Jazz In Marciac" has to be one of the most laid-back, low-key of France's many jazz festivals. Now 20 years old, JIM is well-enough established to attract the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Herbie Hancock and Robert Cray, as well as dozens of lesser names who play all afternoon for nothing in the square.

Best Meal

Despite all the thousands of excellent restaurants in France, the best meal on every trip is always the first picnic-lunch across the Channel. It really doesn't matter too much where it is or what the weather, though ideally, of course, the sun will be shining and the view superb, but the ingredients are critical, one plump, crusty baguette, preferably still warm from the oven; a generous selection of local charcuterie and cheeses; fruits in season - tasting of sun and long, lazy days, with just enough room left to succumb to a patisserie.

Biggest Mistake

I didn't have much choice in the matter, but trying to research the Basque coast in August was not a good idea. It wasn't just that Biarritz tourist office was knee-deep in holiday-makers with too many questions, nor that every bed was taken in St-Jean-de-Luz. No, the real killer was the weather. It was the wettest summer on record since the Flood, and the usually bustling promenades were empty and depressing. I couldn't have asked for a better excuse to take a slow coffee, sitting in the bay window of the Hotel du Palais, one of Europe's grand old hotels, watching the storms roll in off the Atlantic.

Most Mysterious

I kept hearing strange tales about the tiny, mountain-top village of Rennes-le-Chateau, so decided to see for myself. In the late 1800s Abbe Sauniere, a man of no great means, spent a fortune restoring his little church, with enough left over for a comfortable presbytery complete with orangery, fountains and a gothic tower; not surprisingly, suspicions were aroused. To this day no one knows where the money came from, but it seems the Abbe cracked the many, oddly sinister coded messages scattered round the church. Some say he found the legendary lost treasure of Solomon abandoned here by the Visigoths, or the Cathar gold, others that he was a simple grave-robber. More imaginative theories claim he unearthed a dark secret about the life of Jesus and was being paid-off by the Vatican. Whatever the truth, there's a definite chill in the air that isn't entirely due to the altitude.

Best Encounter

High up in the summer meadows of the Pyrenees above St-Gerons I met Joelle watching over some of the 2,000 sheep she had in her care. She was in her 30s, with five children to look after, home for the summer was a basic, stone-built shepherd's cottage. Once a week she and the family went shopping - one-and-a-half- hour's walk down to the car and a two-hour slog back up again, carrying food for six. Her husband was somewhere in the mountains to the east, tracking a small group of East European brown bears recently let into the Pyrenees, sleeping when they slept, following them when they decided it was time to move on.

Essential Phrase

You'll be spared a lot of wasted time with an understanding of that wonderfully vague, catch-all phrase, en principe. "The tourist office is open until five, en principe" means it usually closes at 4.30; "yes, the bus stops in Saint-Jean, en principe" means it'll rattle straight through; and if anyone assures you "there won't be any problem buying tickets on the door, en principe," forget it.

Jan Dodd did research for 'The Rough Guide to France'. Keep up with the latest developments in travel by subscribing to the free newsletter 'Rough News', published three times yearly. Write to Rough Guides, IoS offer, 1 Mercer Street, London WC2H 9QJ. A free Rough Guide to the first three subscribers each week.

FACT FILE

Transport

The nicest way of getting to France is surely on Eurostar (0345 881881) into the heart of Paris. Lowest current available fare is pounds 69 return (for mid-week travel). Otherwise Le Shuttle (0990 353535)can get you to France for pounds 89 return if you cross before 6am

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Accomodation

A double room at the Auberge des Seigneurs (Pl du Frene, Vence; tel 04.93.58.04.24, fax 04.93.24.08.01) costs around pounds 40 per night. Vence is 22km northwest of Nice.

Sightseeing

Marciac lies 50km south-west of Auch, in the Gers Departement. Jazz in Marciac runs from 7-17 August 1997.

Biarritz and St-Jean-de-Luz are both on the main railway line from Paris via Bordeaux to Hendaye on the Spanish border.

Rennes-le-Chateau sits above the Aude valley, some 20km south of Limoux. Couiza is the nearest train station, from where it's a 4km-walk uphill.

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