Let the TGV train whisk you from Paris to Agen in five hours. You arrive in the heart of Gascony, one of the least touched areas of France. The gently rolling Gers and the Lot-et-Garonne - Stendhal's ‘French Tuscany’ - are known as the orchard of France. Apples, pears, cherries grow in abundance, the prune d’Ente is used to make the pruneau d’Agen. Vineyards roll for miles, harvested for the wines of Buzet and the brandies of armagnac and floc. Long poplar-lined roads are traffic-free, geese are fattened, cows munch, and nobody feels guilty dreaming of foie gras. This is the swashbuckling land of The Three Musketeers and – in real history - of the Hundred Years War, whose legacy is a glorious string of hilltop bastides. Life is lived slowly in the Gers. It is ‘la France profonde’.
Gascony (in regional terms, the Midi Pyrenees and the Aquitaine) has one of the most varied landscapes of France. To the north of the Gers is the Dordogne, to the west is Les Landes: a vast Atlantic-pounded coast, bracingly long beaches, gorgeous dunes. The coastline, beloved of campers and families, lacks the pizzazz of the Cote d’Azur - but European surfing started on the Cote Basque, and Biarritz is a surfers’ paradise. Bask in Basqueness on the borders of Spain, where the signs are in French and Euskara. From St Jean de Luz, the loveliest old port town on the Atlantic, it’s a gentle day trip into the hinterland; its landscape is seductive, its backdrop is the Pyrenees.
Launch into those Pyrenean mountains and vast circular valleys – or ‘cirques’ - from central Pau, served by frequent trains on the Bayonne-Toulouse line. On the very border of Spain, the wildlife-rich Parc National des Pyrenees is protected from ski resorts and mountain restaurants, so get your thrills from rugged canyons, teeming torrents and hundreds of lakes. The Hautes Pyrenees is an outdoors-lover’s dream.