What is so special about this corner of France? As soon as you see the Pyrenees, dominating the entire view to the south, you will have your answer. This great mountain barrier between France and Spain, stretching from the windswept Atlantic to the sun-baked Mediterranean, offers a mix of culture and scenery which is unmatched in Europe.
Gascony was once the name given to the whole of South West France, taking in the vast and diverse regions of the Landes, the Pays Basque and the Pyrenees. Now, however, this name is most commonly applied to the warm, rustic heartland of the region: the rolling farm country of Armagnac. It is a profoundly rural area of undulating hills, countless small lakes and wooded valleys, dotted with the yellow ochre stonework and terracotta roof tiles of the old Gascon farmhouses.
Henry Plantagenet, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Simon de Montfort, the Black Prince: these names speak of the romance of a past in which for three hundred years Gascony was part of the domain of the Kings of England, until the last English armies sailed home from Bayonne.
They say that the history of this area - the Gascon heartland of south-west France - is written in invisible ink, that for many centuries it slept beyond the confines of France and Spain, forgotten and ignored.
Yet Romans, Visigoths, Franks and war-lords from Aragon and Navarre all came and left their mark on the Gascon countryside. You can see living evidence here in the scores of castles, Abbeys and great churches and ancient walled townships - all proclaiming those "English" times when each baron fought against his neighbour and the Church struggled for political power.
You can, in particular, see history written in the bastides, those remarkable, purpose-built fortified villages, erected on hilltops and on intersections of roadways and rivers, whose buildings date back 500 years or more. Three basic plans were available, allowing three different placements of the two most important buildings, the church and the "halle couverte", that magnificently constructed covered market-square, which is a prominent feature of Gascon village life. No modern "new town" was ever more stringently planned than these mediaeval settlements.