OUR holidays to France always begin at the same place. Not at the hoverport at Calais, or the airport at Nice, but at a shop near Leicester Square in the centre of London. A trip to Stanfords map shop at least a month before we set off has become such an enjoyable ritual that I have come to regard it as part of the holiday itself.

You do not, of course, need to go to a specialist map shop to buy the three Michelin books (road atlas, red hotel/restaurant guide and regional green guide) that I have come to regard as essential to a gite holiday in France. What you will not find in the vast majority of bookshops, though, are the more detailed maps that can unlock the hidden treasures and pleasures of the area you are visiting.

Had it not been for our IGN carte topographique 2838 est (at 4cm to the kilometre we could even find our gite on it), I am sure we would not have discovered our favourite spot in the Gorges de la Beaume.

We were on holiday in the Cevennes, a land of mountains and rivers in the south-east corner of the Massif Central. We had heard and read plenty about the Gorges de l'Ardeche, which were only a few miles away from our gite near the town of Joyeuse, and which were our first goal. The trouble was, so had half the population of Germany and the Netherlands, not to mention a fair number of Brits and even the odd Frenchman.

It was our first holiday en famille in peak season (Katy was starting school in September) and it came as quite a shock to discover that even in a region such as the Cevennes, where rural depopulation has been a serious problem, you find traffic jams on the way to the most famous local sights in high summer.

The Gorges de l'Ardeche were a magnificent spectacle, but when you have to sit in queues of exhaust-belching cars and then jostle for position at the best viewing points, it rather takes the edge off your enjoyment. Thereafter, we spent most of our time heading west for the mountains and lesser rivers such as the Beaume and the Drobie.

The Gorges de la Beaume looked promising and the IGN map led us to a stretch of river that appeared to be only a few minutes' walk from the road but far enough away to avoid the noise of any passing traffic (not that there was much of it).

It was delightful. At its widest point the river was no more than 10 metres across and in most places only knee-deep. The water, as clear and seemingly as clean as a bottle of Evian (though we did not test that theory), tumbled over the rocks and boulders that littered the river bed and in places formed inviting pools several feet deep. The fact that the valley was so heavily wooded and the river's path so tortuous meant new landscapes greeted us around every corner.

We spent many a happy hour there: helping Katy build her version of the Thames Barrier; fishing with a net or, more ambitiously but less productively, with rod and line; swimming or messing about in our inflatable boat in the natural pools; walking alongside the river; or simply lying under the parasol in the afternoon sun after a picnic lunch of bread, cheese, fruit and river-cooled rose.

Days like that epitomise the joy of a gite holiday in rural France. You can set off in the morning knowing you will not have to worry about hotel mealtimes or leaving valuables in the tent. The days, evenings and nights are your own.

We usually go to France with friends, but this time Rosy, my wife, Katy and I went on our own. I am sure Katy would have preferred a beach holiday, although the swimming pool at our gite was good compensation. It has to be said that a sparsely populated region of craggy mountains, undulating hills, rock- strewn rivers and thickly wooded valleys does not hold great attractions for a five-year-old whose only holiday luggage is a bucket and spade and a rubber ring.

We were on our fourth holiday with VFB; after three you can join the VFB Club which, among other things, entitles you to make early bookings from the previous year's brochure. If you are going in high season, this can be invaluable.

In our experience of a number of French holiday organisations, a gite can be anything from a glorified barn to a luxury villa. One of VFB's greatest attractions is that it never seems to 'oversell'. When it described our gite as 'an immaculate property in a splendid setting', we knew we were in for something special.

The house was situated at the end of a dusty road in the vineyard-lined hills high above the main road between Aubenas and Ales. Mr Reboul, the owner, had had the house built with a view to renting out part of it. Our gite comprised a reasonable sized lounge/dining room, a compact but well-equipped kitchen, a bathroom and one large bedroom.

It was functional rather than luxurious, but the gite's greatest attraction was the garden. The house had its own water supply, via a river more than 50 metres underground, and the well-stocked garden was a green oasis in the parched surroundings. The view to the north-west, across a valley towards the Massif du Tanargue, was stunning, the sunsets breathtaking.

The water supply also fed the pool, which we shared with Mr Reboul, although we rarely saw him. He was the perfect host: discreet, but welcoming and helpful whenever we needed him.

The terrace where we had breakfast (after a quick drive to the boulangerie for bread and croissants) was so inviting that it was tempting to linger there in the mornings. We soon learnt, however, that because it was so hot by early afternoon it was best to set out on trips as early as possible. We usually returned home after lunch, spent the afternoon at the gite and ventured out again in the early evening.

Early starts always brought their rewards. We were on top of the Col de Meyrand by 9am, breathing in the fresh mountain air and looking down over the mist-shrouded valleys and across towards the mighty hump-backed Mont Lozere. At the Col de la Croix de Bauzon, where the only sound was distant cowbells, the scene was almost alpine.

The views from the Tanargue were spectacular, but nothing could beat the Corniche des Cevennes, the most beautiful stretch of road I have ever driven along. The road between St Jean-du-Gard and Florac takes you along a ridge 1,000m above sea level and offers dramatic vistas of plunging valleys and craggy peaks. The views are so clear that we felt as though we were riding along in a cable car, high above the ground.

The magnificent subterranean caves at the Aven d'Orgnac were as popular as the Gorges de l'Ardeche, but up in the mountains we could drive for miles without seeing anyone. Thnes, a humble hilltop village crowned by a beautiful Romanesque church at the end of a winding valley, was like a ghost town in its eerie silence. La Couvertoirade, a walled village on the south-western fringe of the Cevennes, really was a ghost town until a few people started moving back there a few years ago.

If there is a disappointing aspect to the Cevennes, it is the standard of the local cuisine. There is no great culinary tradition to compare with, say, Normandy or Burgundy. With the exception of one charming restaurant hidden away in the back streets of Laurac-en-Vivarais, everywhere we tried was, by French standards, unenterprising.

Still, you do not have to eat out in France to enjoy the local food. Is there a better lunch than pate de campagne, carottes rapees, celeri remoulade, salad and French bread, followed by St Nectaire cheese and cantaloup melon, washed down with a chilled bottle of pouilly-fuisse? And that was all bought at the humble local Intermarche supermarket (for once, we preferred to shop there rather than in the markets, which were impossibly crowded). France is as expensive as you want it to be; even at current exchange rates, I reckon it is still cheap at the price.

To enjoy a gite holiday such as ours, the one thing you have to be prepared to do is to spend a fair amount of time in the car. After you cross the Channel, you need a day and a half just to reach the Cevennes, unless you want to frighten the life out of yourself by hurtling down the Autoroute du Soleil at 70mph while wondering how you can still be the slowest car on the road.

And unless you want a holiday lounging by the pool or in the garden, you will have to spend some of it in the car to enjoy the region. In total, we drove more than 2,500 miles in 16 days.

This year? It's France again and another long drive, this time to Gascony in the south-west. Via Leicester Square, of course.

Paul Newman booked his holiday with VFB Holidays, Normandy House, High Street, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL50 3HW.

This year's price for the gite is pounds 1,077 for a fortnight for two adults and a child in peak season. The price includes ferry crossing and personal insurance.

Paul Newman is Sports Editor of the 'Independent'.

FACTFILE

A successful self-catering holiday depends to a large extent on choosing the right specialist travel company. The quality of French self-catering properties varies enormously: the description 'gite' can cover everything from a substantial well-appointed country house with its own swimming pool to a lean-to shed barely adequate for pigs.

The trick in locating the best property is to identify the company with the most discerning taste in houses - and that which is the most honest at describing its houses. There are people who might not mind staying in a traditional French pigsty, as long as they know that this is exactly what they will be getting.

The operator with the best record for discernment of choice and honesty in description is VFB Holidays (0242 526338) of Cheltenham, regularly named best operator in the Holiday Which? biennial survey. The company has a good stock of traditional country houses and a small number of villa- type properties (many with pools). Prices are generally reasonable: for example, two weeks in a converted chapel attached to an 18th-century chateau, with a shared pool, in the Loire, sleeping six people, costs from pounds 92 to pounds 275 per person.

By mid-May VFB would normally be filling in odd holes in its availability, but with bookings to France taking a dip this year the company has plenty of properties still on offer - even during the peak school- holiday season.

Brittany Ferries (0752 221321) has one of the biggest selection of properties throughout France with more than 1,300 gites, some with swimming pools. The company has played a leading role over the past 10 years in promoting self-catering holidays to France - its brochure is the one you can be sure of finding in most high-street travel agencies.

Prices are, on the whole, competitive: two weeks at a gite with a courtyard and lawn in the Loire Valley, sleeping four, costs from pounds 156 to pounds 270 per person in a party of four adults, including return ferry crossing with car.

The biggest supplier of self-catering accommodation in France is Gites de France (071-408 1343). It markets in the UK more than 2,500 properties. These are all genuine gites: privately owned properties, modernised with the help of French government grants and supervised by the non profit-making Federation Nationale des Gites de France. Prices range from pounds 275 to pounds 1,365 for two weeks, which includes accommodation, return ferry crossing for two adults and a car and Europ Assistance vehicle service. (To book a gite holiday, you need to be a member: this costs pounds 3 per year.)

The problem with Gites de France is ensuring quality control over its vast range of properties (altogether more than 30,000). I have stayed in some good Gites de France properties; but I have also stayed in some real stinkers.

For high-quality homes with prices to match, International Chapters (071-722 9560) is the place to look (this was the company that provided the Riviera retreat where the Duchess of York was revealingly photographed last summer).

The company has mansions, chalets and villas in the Alps and on the Riviera. On the Cote d'Azur, for example, it has a Saracen chateau in 15,000 acres with its own swimming pool and tennis court, which costs from pounds 6,720 to pounds 11,900 for two weeks.

Portsmouth-based Les Proprietaires de l'Ouest (0705 755715) chooses its properties with as much care as International Chapters, but its houses are more modestly sized and less expensive. Two weeks in a gite sleeping four to six adults costs from pounds 125 to pounds 433 per person.

For traditional country properties, many with their own pools, La France des Villages (0449 737664) is a good bet. Two weeks at a farmhouse in Bas Quercy, sleeping six, costs from pounds 275 to pounds 775, including a short sea ferry crossing for two adults and a car.

Another good source of attractive houses is Bowhill Holidays (0489 878567). Its brochure features 300 farmhouses and villas all over France. Two weeks in a cottage in the Loire, for example, costs from pounds 97 per person.

Meon Villa Holidays (0730 268411) has a good range of different sorts of properties including more than 200 gites, apartments, farmhouses and luxury villas with private pools. Most of the properties are in rural areas.

Also worth looking at is the Vacances en Campagne (07987 433) programme, which features country houses, some with pools, in most regions of France, including Corsica. Prices are pounds 299 to pounds 2,234 per week, including ferry crossing for two adults and a car.

Other self-catering specialists:

AA Motoring Holidays (0256 493878)

Air France Holidays (081-742 3377)

Allez France Holidays (0903 742345)

Aquitaine Holidays (0892 516101)

Beach Villas (0223 311113)

Blakes International Travel (0603 784141)

Bonnes Vacances (081-948 3467)

Borderline (0963 250117)

Bridgewater Travel (061 707 8547)

Brittany Direct Holidays (081-641 6060)

Clearwater Holidays (0926 450002)

Continental Villas (071-497 0444)

Corsican Places (0424 774366)

Cresta Holidays (061 926 9999)

Crystal Holidays (081-390 3335)

Destination France (081-689 9935)

Dominique's Villas (071-738 8772)

Drive France (081-395 8888)

Four Seasons (0532 564373)

French Life Holidays (0532 390077)

French Villas (081-651 1231)

Gites Plus (0392 70873)

Holiday Charente (081-813 5638)

Hoseasons Holidays (0502 500555)

Hoverspeed Holidays (081-424 2929)

Interhome (081-891 1294)

Kingsland Holidays (0752 251688)

Lagrange UK (071-371 6111)

Maison Vacances (081-540 9680)

Martin Sturge (0225 310822)

Miss France Holidays (081-452 5901)

Palmer & Parker (0494 815411)

Pieds-a-Terre (0622 688165)

Rural France Direct (0452 812294)

Sally Holidays (0732 780440)

Simply Corsica (081-747 3580)

Something Special Travel (0992 505500)

Stena Sealink Travel (0233 647033)

Sunselect Villas (061 655 3055)

Sunvista Holidays (0985 217373)

Voyages Ilena (071-924 4440)

Frank Barrett

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