Thanks to its wonderful warm climate, rich history and cultural diversity, Gascony is home to many beautiful villages and towns, each with their own distinctive character and unique past. We’ve rounded up some of the best market towns in Gascony that are must-sees when in this glorious area of South West France:
Condom is an old, richly built town with a fine 13th century 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 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. Condom is a charming and welcoming town, and also home to an impressive statue featuring one of Gascony’s most famous historical figures: D’Artagnan, with his ‘Three Musketeers’ friends, Athos, Porthos and Aramis. Wednesday is market day in Condom.
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 appealing with the old 18th century 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 lots of good cafés, bistros and restaurants. On the edge of the town there is a fascinating workshop/shop called ‘Bleu de Lectoure’ which makes and sells clothes and fabric dyed with the famous blue ‘woad’, a beautiful and unique blue/grey colour extracted from a yellow-leaved plant of the cabbage family.
A fortified and medieval Renaissance town, Nérac is the capital of the Albret region. Sitting on the banks of the Baïse and bursting with picturesque charm, this town is perfect for those who enjoy a meandering riverside walk and simply soaking up the distinctive atmosphere of this historic town with its Gothic bridge and delightful old houses. Other must-see places of interest include Rue Séderie for its pretty half-timbered facades, the Renaissance town house Maison de Sully and the elegant Henry IV château and museum. The Saturday morning market in this town is particularly well-renowned for its delicious local produce, brought to public attention by none other than celebrity chef Rick Stein.
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 19th century replacement is a very fine and distinguished building. Fleurance takes its name from Florence in Italy, with inhabitants of Fleurance similarly known as ‘Florentins’ (men) or Florentines (women).
Montréal du Gers
Although very small with few inhabitants, this fortified ‘bastide’ town has a beautiful central square, walkways and medieval half-timbered houses – well worth a visit – where the Friday market is held. You can also discover the nearby Gallo-Roman villa of Séviac, just down the road. Once a whole luxurious rural palace, it’s believed to have been one of the biggest residences in southwest Gaul in its time and is now famous for its outstanding mosaics collection and vast thermal baths.
Founded in 1275, Mauvezin is another bastide town, with a very large and fine 14th century 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 16th century, when it was ‘rescued’ from its Catholic hinterland by the Protestant Henri of Navarre, who became the renowned ‘Good King’ Henri IV of France.
Note about ‘Bastides’
Many of the most attractive market towns and villages found in Gascony today were ‘bastides’. This term means that they were developed as ‘new towns’ in the late 12th, 13th and early 14thcenturies, as centres for economic stimulation and mutual protection: many were fortified in those turbulent times. The ‘bastide’ concept came from Henry II, King of England and Duke of Gascony. The architecture is based on the principles of Roman town-planning.
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