Further afield

The South West offers quite a remarkable variety of landscapes and types of vacations. Less built than its rival in the south-east, it is still possible to enjoy the absolute calm, immense forests or a particularly wild and unspoiled coastline. From the Gers to the Basque Country, down to the beaches of Biarritz, Gastronomy holds a special place.

Turn left out of the gates and at the cross at the bottom of the road turn left again and carry on past the village fishing pond to the main road and turn right. You will reach Marciac, famous for its summer jazz festival, a beautiful bastide town with an arcaded main square that is home to various bars and restaurants. One of our favourites is Cafe Zik, its large wooden deck overlooking the lake, just outside the town. Opposite it sits La Peniche, a huge riverboat marooned on the lake (how did it get there?) which offers less sophisticated, traditional Gascon fare.

This is the land of duck, and foie gras and duck breast, cassoulet and confit de canard are staples. The white wines of the region are little known and delicious. Originally always sweet, the vins secs are now much more popular. Gascon wine can be cheap but still drinkable, slightly fruity but with a refreshing zing from the Manseng grape. The more sophisticated (but still not expensive) varieties are Pacherenc du Vic Bilh, Jurancon and the various wines made by the St Mont Cooperative, which are really very good.

The tradition is to drink sweet white (doux or moelleux) with foie gras or as an apero.  The high tannin content of the Tannat grape upon which many of the Madiran reds are based dictates that these wines are best consumed once they have matured somewhat. The more expensive can be delicious, strong, beefy reds. On summer Sundays, Chateau Viella nearby stages exquisite tasting feasts, with a different wine with each course. Le patron, M Bertolussi, will take you through the vines beforehand to educate you about the local wines and pop up between courses to introduce each new bottle. An astonishingly delicious sweet red wine accompanies the chocolate pud.

Around Madiran, about twenty minutes away, many small wine houses open their doors to visitors to view the caves and taste their wines.

For really sophisticated dining Le Rive Droite is a restaurant gastronomique', once patronised by Victor Hugo and Georges Sand, in Villecomtal-sur-Arros, a fifteen-minute drive away. 

In Maubourguet, once the headquarters of the Duke of Wellington, a twelve-minute drive in the opposite direction, there are many bars and eateries under the canopy of the huge plane trees that shade the main street. The most adventurous menu with sea-fresh fish dish specialities is at Le Hotel de France under the direction of the Portuguese owner and his French wife.

Perhaps one of our favourite venues is 'the garage'. It is a small store-cum petrol pump in Ladeveze-Riviere on the way to Plaisance-du-Gers, twelve to fifteen minutes away. At the back of the store is a small room with two or three tables, where the patron cooks. Arrive at lunchtime, and you will join local farmers to be served whatever is on the menu – four delicious, hearty Gascon courses and a pitcher of wine and a coffee for 11 euros...

A beautiful village where the eating is of secondary importance is Bassoues, just beyond Marciac. The restaurant tables outside, nestle amongst the half-timbered houses adjacent to the medieval market building, which unusually straddles the main street. At the end of the street rises a vast tower, a relict of the endless conflicts of the region. An amazing panorama of the surrounding countryside and the mountains beyond awaits those who have the puff to climb to the top.

Various markets are held in each of the nearby towns on different days. Our usual, and one of the biggest, is the Saturday market at Vic-en-Bigorre, about fifteen to twenty minutes drive across the plains. The huge 19th-century covered market is alive with animals, vendors and Gascons of every size. Delicious cheeses, a wonderful variety of meats and breads, vegetables and fruit, honey, olives and wines are sold inside. Outside, a variety of stallholders proffer goods catering for every taste and inclination.

For skiing in winter and breathtaking walks in summer, the mountains are an hour and a half's drive due south. Less than two hours, and you are at the Spanish border. Biarritz and the Atlantic beaches are an hour and a half along the motorway to the south west. Carcassonne is a similar distance in the other direction.