Gascony was England’s first colony, its influence reflected in the historically rich fortified villages, ancient cathedrals, grand chateaux and beautiful gardens which dot the region. Today, old Gascony, the land of swashbuckling Musketeers and dapper Counts, virtually coincides with the Gers, department 32, one of the original 83 departments created during the French Revolution.
The Gers is far enough off the beaten path to retain its identity, yet established enough to cater to travellers. Located south of the main autoroute linking Bordeaux to Toulouse, the Gers offers an intimate portrait of French rural life without the distraction of crowds. The landscape is characterized by green river valleys, bucolic farmland, and undulating hills of vineyards and sunflowers that stretch to the horizon. The only pauses in the department’s tranquillity are the many summer festivals and year-round farmers’ markets.
The Via Aquitania, one of the important Roman highways that traversed France from Bordeaux to Narbonne, had a station at Eauze. Originally the capital of a Celtic tribe called the Elusatii, it became a significant village after Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul. There are three exceptional examples of Gallo-Roman architecture in and around this village. The Musée du Trésor displaying some 28,000 coins, and 50 magnificent pieces of jewellery from the 3rd century. The Domus de Cieutat, an archeological excavation at the residence of an aristocrat during the 3rd century. And the Villa de Séviac, an excavation below the village of Montréal-du-Gers displays large parts of a Gallo-Roman villa with stunning mosaic floors, and remains of a thermal spa complex. www.elusa.fr
Between 1256 and 1325 over 300 bastides (fortified villages) were built in fifteen departments in southwest France. The Gers has over a dozen beautiful examples. Laid out according to a geometric plan, a central square was always included. Often there was a covered market hall and arcaded shops. These villages were organized around three essential elements of peasant life: the cemetery, church and the castle. Each village has retained its own architectural identity, from the round, fortified village of Fourcès, to the arcaded villages of Tillac and St. Clar.
The Gers is authentically farm to table. It’s a culinary heartland comprising a cornucopia of free-range poultry, goose and duck foie gras, confit, paté, pink and white garlic, earthy mushrooms, tender asparagus, ripe tomatoes, sweet plums, and succulent melons. The Gersois believe good food, carefully prepared, is not a luxury, but a common daily priority. In a department where food is profoundly revered, it’s easy to find a delicious meal every day of the week, though usually between noon and two. Mealtimes are charmingly sacrosanct.
The Gers has been home to viticulture for almost 2,000 years. No longer lost in the shadow of Bordeaux, it is fast becoming a hot spot, producing some of the finest white, red, and rosé craft wines in France. Small, independent domaines such as Pellehaut, Chirolet, and Uby, as well as the larger domaines of Côtes de Gascogne, Tariquet, St. Mont, and the very distinctive Pacherenc-du-Vic-Bilh, and Madiran AOCs are now producing award winning appellations. Madiran, the most tannic wine in France, is particularly unique due to its high levels of resveratrol, a powerful antioxidant.
France’s oldest brandy has been produced in the Gers since the 14th century. The first evidence of its use dates back to the year 1310/ Then Maître Vital Dufour, prior of Eauze and Saint Mont, extolled the 40 virtues of Aygue Ardente. Its grapes are grown in three distinct areas: Haut-Armagnac, Ténarèze and Bas-Armagnac. Each domaine has its own unique recipe in contrast to its industrialized, twice distilled cousin, Cognac.
Armagnac is distilled once. No additives are permitted at any stage from grape to bottle. It is the most natural, and elegant brandy in France. The spectrum of producers range from the Domaine de Laberdolive touted by Michelin-starred restaurants, to Domaine de Saoubis, one of the few Armagnac producers that is completely organic and biodynamic.
Floc de Gascogne
This seductive aperitif, which means “bouquet of flowers” in Occitan was officially launched as Floc de Gascogne in 1954. It is a fruity, red or white liqueur composed of two-thirds grape juice and one-third young Armagnac. Once the grapes have been harvested and pressed, the unfermented grape juice is added to Armagnac distilled the previous year on the same property. Eighty percent of Floc de Gascogne AOC is produced in the Gers.
The Gers department, considered the heart of Gascony, is characterized by its tranquil landscape and agreeable microclimate. The hills are topped with medieval villages. The valleys are criss-crossed by rivers and streams. Wooded copses, folded into the landscape, often conceal a multitude of birds and wildlife. Rows of golden-yellow sunflowers stretch to the horizon in July.
With few towns or villages to interrupt a leisurely walk or ride, the countryside is Elysian. There are also a several cultivated gardens worth seeing. The Jardins de Coursiana botanical garden and arboretum covers 6 hectares, located in the lovely village of La Romieu. Palmerie de Sarthou in Bétous, is an 8-hectare oasis of botanical splendor. It has a conservatory orchard, children’s treasure hunt, Gascon farm, nursery, and integrated trails. www.jardinsdecoursiana.com; www.palmeraiesarthou.com
Almost every village in the Gers has a weekly farmers’ market, some of which have been ongoing for 700 years. Market days are typically held under a medieval covered marketplace or the shade of entwined plane trees. One can buy everything from farm fresh produce, delectable cheeses, and roasted chickens, to flowers, table clothes, shoes, and crockery by the kilo. There is literally something for everybody. Most market days begin at 8 and finish by noon. In some villages you can still hear the lunch siren sound, an old custom designed to call together farm workers out in the fields. During the summer months there are also night markets, a convivial social occasion for locals and tourists alike. The town of Samatan (photo above) is where you’ll find one of the biggest and best markets.
Every village in the Gers has a festival whether it’s a gathering in the village foyer or an outright street party. There is no doubt that the Gerois love a good party. The 13th century village of Marciac hosts one of the biggest jazz festivals in Europe. Les Territoires du Jazz, takes place each August, a fortnight dedicated to jazz. The village on Vic-Fezensac hosts Tempo Latino at the end of July.
The village of Condom hosts Bandas every second weekend of May with 35 bands and 2000 musicians (brass and percussion), accompanied by street dancing. In arenas throughout the summer the Course Landaise is welcomed. It is one of the 4 traditional forms of bullfighting, but there is no killing of the bull, it’s a purely acrobatic showcase.
There are some beautiful examples of religious architecture in the Gers. One of these, is the austere, yet elegant, Abbaye de Flaran, nestled below the hilltop village of Valence-sur-Baïse. The abbey was founded by the Cistercians in 1151. The complex, includes a medicinal garden and a small museum dedicated to Saint Jacques-de-Compostelle. In the former monks’ dormitory there is a display of artworks by Cézanne, Renoir, Matisse, Picasso, Monet, Braque, from the “Simonow” collection. There are also temporary exhibitions of ancient or contemporary art, classical music concerts and many other activities throughout the year. www.tourisme-condom.com
Churches in the Gers were often built in the southern Gothic style, which emerged in France in 1140, and was dominant until the mid-16th century. They share three major characteristics: ribbed vaults, flying buttresses and strained glass with at least one rose window. Although most of these churches are technically called cathedrals, they are essentially basic houses of worship because they are no longer run by bishops. Most churches in the department were either damaged or destroyed during the Wars of Religion and the French Revolution. The smaller, picturesque churches that dot the countryside are always closed, but sometimes you can ask for a key at the mayor’s office. Cathedrals and small churches were an integral part of village life in the countryside.
There are more than 95 castles including towers, dungeons, and dovecotes (pigeonniers) in the Gers. Many chateaux are little more than ruins, while others are private homes. Some of them are open to the public, and are definitely worth a tour.
Chateau de Terraube is a typically Gascon castle built around 1272 for the de Galard family, Merovingian dukes of Gascony. There is a date over the doorway confirms this. The de Galards have owned the castle ever since. It was enlarged in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. Stone decorations include animals, people, gargoyles and coats of arms, including those of the Galards, on a chimney.
The chateau has been listed as a historic monument since 1947. It is open to the public during cultural events. There is an antique fair held on the chateau grounds in September. It’s a good place to look for silverware, jewellery, furniture, carpets, books, linen, paintings, and porcelain.
Chateau de Cassaigne is comprised of two castles, each privately owned. The buildings date from the 13th, 15th and 18th centuries. Worth noting are the façades and roofs, including those of the common buildings, the moat and bridge, the 18th century dining room and its chimney and the ground floor kitchen in the north wing. The Château de Cassaigne has been listed as a historic monument since 1987. www.chateaudecassaigne.com
Chateau de Lavardens is a massive structure that dates from 1620 onwards. It was built based around an earlier castle from the 13th century, which was dismantled in 1496 by Charles VIII following a siege. It is open to the public and holds art exhibits and cultural activities year round.
D’Artagnan was not just a fictionalized character from Alexandre Dumas the elder’s novels! He was a real person by the name of Charles Ogier de Batz-Castelmore D’Artagnan. A valiant soldier, he became Captain of the Musketeers, and was answerable only to the Sun King, himself, Louis XIV.
D’Artagnan was born in the ancient village of Lupiac in 1611, son of Bertrand de Batz and Françoise de Montesquiou d’Artagnan. In the 1630’s he travelled to Paris and became one of the Musketeers, living a life of daring and espionage. In 1655 he became Captain of the Musketeers and in 1667 he was promoted to governor of Lille. Longing to return to the exciting life he once knew, Louis IV ordered him to the field of battle during the Franco-Dutch war. He died there, at the siege of Maastricht in 1673.
In the center of Lupiac you’ll find the Musée D’Artagnan housed in the Chapelle Notre Dame. If the weather is warm you might want to take very short drive to Lac de Lupiac. It’s a beautifully kept 32 acre swimming, fishing, canoeing, and kayaking lake with a Gidget Goes Hawaiian Bar serving drinks, food and entertainment all summer long. www.lupiac.fr
Find more info at: www.guide-du-gers.com/en
Sue Aran lives in the Gers department of southwest France where she runs French Country Adventures, which provides private, personally-guided, small-group food & wine adventures in the Gers/Gascony, the Pays Basque, Tarn and beyond…