Early on a spring morning, the air smells so sweet that even the laziest of holiday-makers might be tempted to leap out of bed and take a dawn stroll in the gentle hills of Gascony. This little-considered area of France, wedged between the Dordogne and the Pyrenees, has so far escaped the touch of mass tourism.
Gascony is the home of Armagnac, foie gras and d'Artagnan. With its rolling fields of sunflowers and poppies, endless vineyards and kilometres of empty country roads, it is a pocket of tranquil French countryside fit to calm the most jangled nerves. This is the least populated area of France, with only 28 inhabitants per square kilometre. Half the working population is employed in agriculture, compared with less than 10 per cent for France as a whole. The Gascon climate of warm summers and short winters, plus its fertile soil, have ensured that the area remains predominantly agricultural, with no large towns or industrial areas and hence no significant pollution.
Gascony, it must be said, is not exciting in a look-at-me sort of way - it's more subtle and understated than that. If the Cote d'Azure is glamorous parties, Gascony is a foot massage. The real charm lies in its serenity. Yet the background to many of its small chateaux (there are more than 500) is less than peaceful. Aquitaine, of which Gascony is a part, was fought over by the English and French for 300 years during the Middle Ages, and many of the castles and fortified villages they protected were built by English kings and warlords.
One of the most beguiling is Fources, between Nerac and Montreal. So small that it does not even feature on some maps, it consists of a ring of galleried houses, a construction unique in Gascony and unusual throughout France, as village squares are normally - well - square. There is a small castle, built over centuries, to protect the village, the oldest part of which dates back to the 12th century. The Chateau de Fources has recently been turned into a hotel whose restaurant is among the very best, and most varied, in Gascony. A particularly good time to visit the village is the last weekend in April, during the Fources flower festival. Thousands of visitors descend on the tiny village and transform it, for two brief days, into a buzzing hub of life.
At any time of year, however, visiting vegetarians should beware. The Gascon menu tends to be limited, with foie gras very much the main speciality. Animal welfare concerns about the production of foie gras, in which the geese are forcibly overfed, do not seem to have touched Gascony, which blithely sells postcards of local women, geese between the knees, ramming food through a funnel down an unfortunate birds' throats. Apart from foie gras, the local food has developed from peasant origins, so duck and boar are popular, whereas fish and seafood less common as the area is landlocked.
Veggies, though, can content themselves with the region's drink. Gascony is a big wine producer (although this pales into insignificance next to the neighbouring Bordeaux) and Armagnac is a source of great pride. Armagnac country lies within the Gers, which is the heart of Gascony. This prized spirit is mostly produced by small vineyards, which explains its relative obscurity compared to its rival brandy Cognac, but it is valued by connoisseurs for its distinctive aroma. Many of the chateaux have exhibitions of the history and method of Armagnac-making, as well as holding tastings.
Dating from the 10th century, the Chateau de Monluc in the village of St Puy, south of Condom, gives guided tours of its ancient cellars where wines and Armagnac are distilled. The building, overgrown with red ivy, is on top of a hill commanding stunning views of the valley and its vineyards - the only drawback is that because it is so captivating it tends to attract tour buses, and your visit is unlikely to be solitary. Quieter, but still enchanting, is the Renaissance Chateau de Cassaigne, west of St Puy. Like Monluc, there are tours around the property followed by tastings of their produce, which include Armagnacs flavoured with greengages, apricots and, the local speciality, plums. The alcohol-sodden plums can be served as a dessert in themselves, in sauces, or used as stuffing.
Eating, drinking, walking, perhaps even riding and canoeing - there is plenty to do in Gascony if you are so inclined. But the spirit of the place is captured by taking it easy. A stroll here, a drink there, perhaps a little siesta in between - you soon forget what it is to be in a hurry
By air: the best gateway is Toulouse. British Airways (0345 222111) flies daily from Gatwick and is selling a World Offer fare of pounds 143.40 return (including tax) until 26 March, for travel before mid-May. The lowest fare on Air France (0181-742 6600) from Heathrow is pounds 213.40.
By rail: you have to change at Paris. British Rail International (0171- 834 2345) has a Waterloo-Toulouse fare of pounds 175 return. The journey time is about nine hours. If you use the train and ferry services, the fare falls to pounds 138 but the journey time increases to 19 hours.
Recommended reading: Southwest France: Gascony & the Pyrenees, by Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls (Cadogan, pounds 10.99) is a well-focused guide to the region.
More information: French Government Tourist Office, 178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0AL (0891 244123).
More France: The travel section of the Independent's Long Weekend this coming Saturday, 15 March, includes a France special.
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