...Gascony means relaxing, enjoying the good life and that wonderful feeling of well-being...
Gascony is the beautiful, unspoilt and completely rural area of South West France, close to the Pyrenees Mountains and stretching all the way between the cities of Bordeaux and Toulouse. The historic Dukedom of Gascony is now mainly within the modern 'département' of 'Le Gers' but for 300 years in mediaeval times was part of the English Angevin empire.
Gascony today is completely rural. Farms are typically small, family affairs, many run organically with mixed production and nature-conservation is a habit. There are masses of wild flowers, fine old oak woods, hidden lakes, bees, butterflies, exotic birds, deer and wild boar. There is a flourishing village market somewhere nearby every day of the week, with delicious seasonal fruits and vegetables, superb garlic, wild honey and a vast range of locally produced meats, breads, and cheeses. Gascony produces a rich variety of authentic country wines and liqueurs. In addition to the good local every-day drinking wines of the Cotes de Gascogne, there are the superior AOC wines of Madiran, Buzet and Saint-Mont. As well as the delicate, pale, smooth Armagnacs, there is a delicious Armagnac-based aperitif 'Floc de Gascogne'.
Gascony is different from the better known regions of France such as the Cote d'Azure, Provence or the Dordogne. Gascony is famous for its 'douceur de vivre' (sweetness of life). Gascony has very low population density, welcoming local people, very little traffic, unspoilt countryside, wonderful star-lit night skies and on a clear day you can see the majestic snow-capped Pyrenees marching across the Southern horizon.
Gascony is one of France's best-kept secrets, similar to Tuscany, with rolling hills and wooded valleys, hot summer sun and rivers flowing from the Pyrenees to the Atlantic. The land is covered with vineyards, sunflowers and Cypress trees; there are fine mediaeval churches, iconic 'pigeonniers', famous 'bastide' villages and imposing fortified castles. Gascony is a romantic country steeped in history, where summer can stretch warm and sunny from April until October, with May/June and September/October often providing the best weather of the year. There is very little noise and virtually no air or light pollution - creating a clear, luminous quality of light much appreciated by painters and photographers.
Driving in Gascony is a pleasure, bicycling and horse-riding are popular and walking a real joy. In summer, every village has its own vibrant festival. There are ancient towns and villages to visit, full of architectural gems, many associated with the pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela. For two thousand years, pilgrims have walked across Europe, through Gascony and then into North West Spain, along the routes of the 'coquille', or scallop shell.
Like their predecessors, today's visitors to Gascony will both enjoy, and contribute to, that unique sense of 'bien-être' (well-being) that affects everyone who lives in or visits this wonderful, little-known part of 'La Belle France'.
Gascony's historic cities
Auch is the historical capital of Gascony and takes its name from the Aquitanian tribe that inhabited the area at the time of the Roman conquest in the 50s BC. Auch is known today for its Renaissance Cathédrale Sainte-Marie which stands prominently on a hill in the middle of the medieval town of narrow winding streets, small shops and appealing restaurants. There is also a statue of d'Artagnan, made famous in the book The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, whose character was based on the real life person, Charles de Batz, Comte d'Artagnan, born nearby in the Château de Castelmore.
Bordeaux, originally part of Gascony, is now the capital of the modern Aquitaine region, which takes its name from the old Duchy of Aquitaine, which before the 100 Years War belonged to England. The historic part of the city, including the sea port, is on the UNESCO World Heritage List as "an outstanding urban and architectural ensemble" of the 18th century, giving Bordeaux its nickname of "La perle d'Aquitaine". Wine has been produced in the Bordeaux area since ancient times but it was during the 300 years of Angevin/English occupation that the foundations were laid for making Gascon and Bordeaux wines and Armagnacs the famous drinks we know today. Bordeaux is still recognized as one of the centres of world wine-making.
Montauban, like Toulouse, is built mainly of a reddish brick, and stands on the right bank of the River Tarn. Montauban is the second oldest of the bastides of SW France. In 1570, it became one of the four Huguenot strongholds that formed a small independent Protestant republic.
One of the main sights is the remarkable early C14th brick bridge across the River Tarn. It is a pink structure over 205 metres (224 yards) in length, in a good state of preservation. The Musée Ingres (C17th) stands at the east end of the bridge. It is the largest collection of Ingres paintings in the world and houses most of the work of the celebrated painter, whose birth in Montauban is commemorated by an elaborate monument.
We list here just four of the many historic market towns of Gascony.
Condom is an old, richly built town with a fine C13th Cathedral, sited where one of the main pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela crosses the River Baise at its highest navigable point. Condom is one of the centres of wine and Armagnac production and it still has its river port where barges used to be loaded with barrels to take them down the rivers Baise and Garonne to Bordeaux, for export all around Europe.
There has been a hill-top settlement at Lectoure since pre-Roman times. Like Condom, it lies on one of the pilgrim routes. Today’s market town is architecturally very attractive with the old C18th hospital (now used as a centre by a number of small antiques and ‘brocante’ traders) a particular attraction. The Friday morning market is excellent and there are a number of good cafés, bistros and restaurants. On the edge of town there is a fascinating workshop/shop called ‘Bleu de Lectoure’ which makes and sells clothes and fabric dyed with the famous blue ‘woad’.
Fleurance was founded as a ‘bastide’ in 1274 and is today a flourishing market town, with one of the largest local markets every Tuesday morning and a smaller market on Saturday mornings. The old market hall burned down but its C19th replacement is a very fine building. Fleuracne takes its name (in effect ‘stole’ its name) from Florence in Italy. Inhabitants of Fleurance are known as ‘Florentins’ (men) or Florentines (women).
Founded in 1275, Mauvezin is another bastide town, with a very large and fine C14th market hall. Today, the central ‘place’ and this hall host Mauvezin’s Monday morning market. Historically, Mauvezin was on the front-line between Gascony and the County of Toulouse, and also played a significant part in the French religious wars of C16th, when it was ‘rescued’ from its Catholic hinterland by the Protestant Henri of Navarre, who became the renowned ‘Good King’ Henri IV of France.
There are hundreds of fascinating and very attractive medieval villages in the departement of Le Gers and in wider Gascony, many of them bastides and castelnaux. A visit to any (or many!) of these is a wonderful complement to your holiday, whether to enjoy the architectural beauty, the local market, the café or restaurant, or just the timeless atmosphere of these historic places.
The Bastide idea was originally conceived by Henry II, King of England and Duke of Aquitaine and Gascony, and was based on the principles of Roman town-planning. Individual feudal landlords followed Henry’s formula whereby the landlord (King, Bishop, Count, etc) built the main infrastructure of a central market place (with market hall and church), which was surrounded by commercial buildings fronted by covered arcades. Beyond the market place there was often a rectilinear grid layout of streets (with rudimentary drains) and a modular system of house plots, each with a vegetable garden. The founding landlords often used surprisingly sophisticated commercial, marketing and taxation strategies to promote their new developments!
Some of these villages are featured in the gallery of photographs below, such as Auvillar, Cologne, Forces, Gramont, La Romieu, Larresingle, Lavardens, Maubec, Monfort, Moissac, Rouillac, Sarrant, Solomiac, St Clar, St Puy and Terraube.