A WALKING holiday is good for the soul. And when the reward at the end of each walking day is a gourmet French meal, it is also good for the waistline.
France is one of Europe's most popular walking destinations.
Our nine-day walk with Headwater Holidays, the Dordogne Gastronomic Walk, took us along one of the most beautiful river regions of southern central France, the Perigord.
It has formidable and flamboyant castles and chateaux, ancient churches, cave fortresses and many wonderful villages.
Perigord has one of the world's most concentrated evidences of prehistoric times.
In the valleys, along ochre limestone cliffs towering above its rivers, man created art tens of thousands of years ago.
By the end of nine days we had covered around 80km, walking every second day and covering up to 20km a day.
We had seen a goodly sample of this art and walked in and around numerous of the many grand castles that dot this country.
We walked tracks and narrow roads; through cornfields, past barns where tobacco hung drying, past countless walnut trees, and grey stone farm buildings with moss-covered stone roofs.
We slowed to the pace of our surroundings, seeing things we'd miss from a car or coach.
We soaked up the smells of cattle and new-mown hay. We left behind the traffic sounds and heard church bells signal the time of day in quaint villages.
We were part of that slice of ordinary life - a delicious experience to be savoured.
And at the end of a day there was a distinct swelling of pride at our achievement, not to mention having had some healthy exercise. Then we could indulge some of France's best cuisine without guilt. Ah, the food … this is a region famed for its pate de foie gras (duck liver), truffles and walnut cake.
It is also a major region producing walnuts. It's no place for a calorie-controlled diet for the food is rich, nourishing and based on farm produce. We tasted the pate, goose, duck and partridge, as well as the renowned apple cake. And then there was the local, rare, black diamond truffle.
All teamed with some great local wines, of course. It would be rude not to indulge just a little!
Our journey began with a fast, comfortable and economic Eurail Pass train ride from Paris. In less than three hours we were in the Perigord.
Our first day began at Sarlat, a wonderful medieval jewel town which has been restored and protected. It is one of Perigord's most visited towns. We headed out for our first 20km day over and through wooded forests and fields to Montford, and its castle and spectacular views over a loop in the Dordogne river.
All the fortified castles in the region have stories to tell about rival medieval armies taking and losing them. The castle town of Beynac was our first overnight destination.
The town sits below a dramatic limestone crag overhanging the Dordogne and rises in stages from the riverbank.
Next day we headed for Les Jardin de Marqueyssac - the garden of Marqueyssac, just three kilometres from our hotel.
A national historical monument, it is a classic 19th-century garden. On a spur, it overlooks the Dordogne Valley with its chalky cliffs.
Walk the gardens and you get a fantastic view of the valley. A feature is a huge mosaic of manicured pruned boxwood - pruned by hand because a machine tool would bruise the leaves.
We then discovered Les Eyzies, an archaeologist's heaven. Painted caves and rock shelters abound.
Even if you have only a passing interest in pre-history, you'll need time to visit the Musee National de Prehistore in the town.
It covers prehistoric man from 300,000 to 5000 years B.C.
Headwater tours are graded from easy to difficult. Our walking tour was graded moderate.
We did our walk at the end of Europe's summer. The majority of tourists had gone and the locals returned from summer vacations.Fast facts
Cathay Pacific has a daily service to Paris via Hong Kong from the mainland capitals and six times weekly from Cairns.
Adventure World offers the Headwater Holidays eight-night Dordogne Gastronomic Walking Tour, from $2747 per person, with departures every two days from May 11 until September 24, 2009.
For details contact Adventure World on 1300 363 055 or visit www.adventureworld.com.au
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