land of troubadours & musketeers...
Historic Gascony (Gascogne in French) was part of what used to be ancient 'Occitan', where the pre-French language of ‘Oc’ was spoken, hence ‘Languedoc’, a geographical name still in use. The word ‘Occitanie’ has recently been reintroduced as the name of the newly created ‘super-region’ covering most of the lands that used to be ruled by the Counts of Toulouse.
‘Gascon’ is a dialect of Oc, still spoken in Gascony today by country people and still taught in some local schools in Gascony. The language of Oc/Gascon has Latin roots and is also related to Catalan. The only city in Gascony, Auch, is close to the birthplace of d'Artagnan, hero of the book (and many films) of 'The Three Musketeers'. The geographical identity of Gascony became equivalent to the lands owned in feudal times by the Dukes of Gascony, later also the Dukes of Aquitaine.
The modern, post-Revolution, département of ‘Le Gers’ (named after the river that flows through Auch) covers most of the central area of what was the Duchy of Gascony and is often referred to today as ‘Gers-en-Gascogne’. Le Gers has a land area of about 6250 square kilometres which is similar to Devon in England. However, Devon has a population of over 800,000 whereas Le Gers has under 200,000.
The lands of Gascony formed the core territory of Roman Gallia-Aquitania. By the 2nd century AD, this Province had extended to include much of western Roman Gaul, as far north as the Loire. Thus, the name of the Aquitani came to be transferred to the territory of central-western France later known as the Duchy of Aquitaine, located to the North and West of Gascony. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, it seems that a Gallo-Roman culture continued to thrive in Gascony, until the independent Dukedom of Gascony was consolidated around 850AD. This Gallo-Roman culture maintained many of the traditions and skills of ancient Rome, including the production of wine and garlic, and the practise of art and music! These traditions of civilised life continued in the Duchy of Gascony and it could be said that in this sense ‘civilisation’ flourished in Gascony during the many centuries of the ‘Dark Ages’ in Northern Europe.
The Duchy of Gascony remained independent until the House of Poitiers (Dukes of Aquitaine) took control in around 1050, becoming Dukes of Aquitaine and Gascony. This line continued until in 1152, when the last independent Duchess, Eleanor of Aquitaine (and Gascony), married the Angevin Prince of Wales and future Henry II of England.
Eleanor of Aquitaine, as feudal owner of about a third of modern France, was immensely wealthy; she was also very intelligent and attractive, strong-willed, and well-educated. Through her marriages she became Queen of first France and then of England. She was a great patron of the arts and instrumental in turning her court at Poitiers, then frequented by the most famous troubadours of the time, into a centre of poetry and a model of courtly life and manners.
For the next 300 years a large part of France, including Gascony, was controlled by the (Angevin/Plantagenet) Kings of England. During this period Edward I ('Longshanks') of England, and his great-grandson, Edward The Black Prince’, actively used the title 'Duke of Gascony'. When The 100 Years War ended in 1453 with the defeat of England by France at the Battle of Castillon near Bordeaux, the Dukedom of Gascony ceased to exist, and Gascony joined the gradual consolidation of the regions of France into a single nation, ruled from Paris, with French (originally the Langue d’Oil of the North, as distinct from the Langue d’Oc of the South) as the common language.
Having said this, Gascony has always seemed a long way from Paris and is still proudly independent and 'Gascon' in its ways. Gascons often regard Parisiens as more ‘foreign’ than the English. It is said that even at the time of the French Revolution, the 'guillotine' had become quite blunt by the time it arrived in Gascony!
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. Fleurance 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 to the right, such as Auvillar, Cologne, Forces, Gramont, La Romieu, Larresingle, Lavardens, Maubec, Monfort, Moissac, Rouillac, Sarrant, Solomiac, St Clar, St Puy and Terraube.