Take to the road in Gascony and discover some of its charms. From medieval villages, quirky museums and the most intoxicating gastronomy …
The Gers – Gascony
The Gers, or Gascony some call it, is one of the most rural regions in all of France. You’ll find it in southwest France, just west of Toulouse. But, it’s a world apart from the buzzing, colourful metropolis.
A 25 minute drive from Toulouse airport will bring you to L’Isle Jordain, a great little town on the edge of a region that on a map looks decidedly green. There are no big cities here. No high speed rail services either, though you can take the train from Toulouse to Auch, the capital of Gers.
There are no motorways in Gers. Not one.
And there’s no mass tourism.
The Gers is the real France you thought didn’t exist anymore. Bucolic, beautiful and bubbling with bonhomie.
Road trip Gers
In the Gers, it’s easy to feel like you’ve stepped back in time to a gentler place. You won’t come across coach loads of tourists. And you won’t find traffic jams. What you will find are roads which take you through sweeping panoramas, undulating fields of sunflowers, corn and rapeseed. Vineyards lazing under the sun alongside lush grazing pastures dotted with wildflowers. Hedgerows stuffed with hawthorne, broom and honeysuckle hug fields and forests. Pretty villages are seemingly on every corner. And bars are full of friendly folk, happy to share their little corner of paradise.
Though the Gers is not France’s most sparsely populated district (Lozère if you want to know), it is the most agricultural. The Gers has more of its land under cultivation than any other French district. Humans in the Gers are hugely outnumbered by livestock, especially ducks, apparently 28:1.
Ask any local what’s important to people in the Gers. They’ll all tell you – family, friendship and good food. And they really mean it.
It’s a brilliant place for a road trip whether you’re driving or cycling around the Gers. And you’ll need your own wheels, because there’s not a lot of public transport.
L’Isle Jordain – bells, books and a bubbly market town
I started my Gascon jaunt in L’Isle Jordain, journeying by train via Paris to Toulouse (4 hours). I met my friend Lucy who’d just flown in from the UK (2 hours). We picked up a hire car and drove to L’Isle Jourdain. Just 30 minutes away and a whole different vibe from the big city.
It was Friday night and, as we booked into the charming L’Echappée Belle Hotel, the concierge warned us to move our car to the free car park on the corner rather than leave it in front of the hotel. Next day was market day and there would be a stall selling vegetables where we had parked.
Back in the hotel restaurant, feeling reassured our hire car wouldn’t be used to display cabbages, the server tempted us to a Pousse Rapière cocktail – my first introduction to Armagnac, the famous liqueur of Gascony. One part Armagnac à l’Orange to 6 parts sparkling wine: it’s heaven in a glass and so moreish I feel bad telling you about it. The food cooked by Chef Thierry Lair at the restaurant is superb. If I lived in this town, you wouldn’t be able to keep me out of here!
Early next morning after a good night’s sleep we wandered a few minutes out of the main street in the town to discover lakes right on the doorstep that were teeming with birds. As the sun broke through the early morning mist and a symphony of bird song filled the air, it felt like the land that time forgot.
The old pilgrim route from Bordeaux to Jerusalem and the river Save wander through this 13th century bastide. There’s a classic church which has a 15th century clocktower and the remains of two arcaded markets. The market at L’Isle Jordain is like the most French, authentic and delicious market you can ever imagine. Stall after stall of local produce, odd shaped vegetables, fresh baked bread, artisanal beers, cheeses and… Pastis Gascon, an apple tart which makes your taste buds sing. Don’t take my word for it, check out the recipe which is simple but seriously, seriously sensational.
Maison Claude Augé
Claude Augé (1854 – 1924), was the director of Larousse encyclopaedias and educational books and he had a holiday home in the town. Preserved just as it was in his day, Maison Claude Auge has wonderful stained glass windows and is filled with Larousse memorabilia – books, encyclopaedias, post cards and photos.
From the first floor terraced windows of Maison Claude Augé, you look onto the Musée Campanaire, a unique museum dedicated to all things bell. There are huge bells from churches, Indonesian temple bells, Japanese, Roman, and Russian bells. But you don’t just look here, you play. It doesn’t matter if you’re not a trained bell ringer, and frankly I’m not sure they get that many in judging from what I heard when I was there. The staff are happy for you to practise with special bell hammers and even a bell pulley system like an organ of the type you find in churches and cathedrals. It’s certainly different but utterly fascinating.
Auch, the capital city of the Gers, where the musketeer D’Artagnan is honoured. He was made famous by Alexander Dumas in The Three Musketeers, immortalised on film and still a symbol of loyalty, military prowess and honour. You’ll find his statue on the Grand Escaliers, the monumental limestone staircase which links the lower and upper towns.
At the top of the stairs is the great Gothic and Renaissance Cathedral of Notre-Dame. An important stop on the Route of St James, it was the last point before the Pyrénées for pilgrims making their way to Spain.
An extraordinary Cathedral
Building began in the Gothic style in 1489 and continued until 1678 by which time more of a Renaissance style took over. The stained glass windows created in the 1500s are extraordinary. Designed by Arnaut de Moles (born around 1465), these are not your average religious windows but feature unusual topics such as the Greek Sybilles who are shown presenting the coming of Christ – and even more unusually there are naked bodies galore. The colours are pure and fresh, vibrant as the day they were made with glass from Paris, transported by horse and cart, each pane of glass sealed in wax to prevent breakage.
Unusually there are two organs in the cathedral, the original enormous organ was built in 1694. A smaller organ takes centre stage. Donated by Napoleon III as thanks for the Archbishop being his wife’s confessor in Paris. The locals say it’s hard to say no to the gift of an emperor even though they prefer the original.
Never finished, there are no saints on the facade of the church, but head into the choir for a sight you’re unlikely to see in any other church. The originally reserved for religious members only room full of carved wooden images featuring amongst the many saints, some rather nubile young women, a man with a bare bottom and other rather worldly sights. It was, says our guide, “because the monks who worked here, wanted to keep it real, to understand their flock, not idealise life but accept it for what it was…” It is an incredible piece of work and worth the couple of euros entry fee to see it.
A land of officially beautiful villages
There are no less than 6 Plus Beaux Villages in this 60-mile wide department. It’s not big, but it is incredibly beautiful, peppered with perfectly preserved and pristine medieval towns including lovely Larressingle. It’s the smallest fortified village in France. With a circumference of just 270m it’s nicknamed the “little Carcassonne”. And Fources, a stunning medieval town with the only round square in France.
Chocabloc with castles
And there are castles galore. We visited the Chateau de Lavardens, in Lavardens, another Plus Beaux Village, which we spied from the bottom of a hill. It was like a magical mirage, mellow stone and terracotta-roofed, ageless beauty teetering high above us. It originally belonged to the counts of Armagnac and was built in the 12th century and updated in the 17th century. The stunning rooms have wonderful tiled floors and stone walls, grand fireplaces and magnificent views over the surrounding countryside. There are regular temporary exhibitions including at Christmas a massive santons display – little figurines that the French just love ranging from Saints to celebrities.
We popped to the Cistercian Abbaye de Flaran nearby with its gorgeous 14th century cloisters, now a cultural centre with an impressive calligraphy collection.
And if you go here, you must leave time to visit the restaurant at the Ferme de Flaran next door, the most delicious food and friendly staff, they don’t just serve you food here, they really care. Our server got upset when I didn’t eat absolutely everything on the plate but honestly, it was a big lunch and I needed to leave room for the dessert!
And then head to the town of Condom with its charming historic centre.
Gascon-omy – extraordinary cuisine, wines and Armagnac
Food is a big part of what makes a visit to the Gers so special. Specialities include foie gras, duck dishes, seriously delicious apple pie that’s specific to the region, Armagnac and wines.
Read about Armagnac and how it’s celebrated in Gascony
Weekly village markets are a wonderful introduction to the gastronomy of the area. Try the Thursday morning market at Éauze or the lovely covered market in Mirande on Monday mornings, which is equally lively.
But the big one is at Samatan. I’m not sure you’ll ever find another market where one minute a nun is telling you how delicious her honey is and making clicking noises with her tongue to emphasise it’s special qualities and the next minute you’re caught up in a massive crowd waiting for a whistle to blow which is the signal to run through the doors of an enormous building to buy from local producers selling duck and geese at the carcasses market. It’s not for the faint-hearted but it’s authentic and it’s the way things have been done here for years. The market opened in 1373.
The town also has a quirky foie gras museum. Beware – it’s only for those who are true fans as there are stuffed animals on show.
There are bistros, cafés and restaurants in every town and farmhouse restaurants dotted throughout the countryside.
When you go to the Gers, prepare to be surprised. To fall in love with its beauty and its friendly folk. To be irresistibly tempted by the gastronomy. You’ll be fed and watered like royals and fall head over heels for this secret and totally enchanting part of France which the locals call God’s country…
How to get there: From Toulouse where there is an airport and TGV station for fast trains to Paris (from 5.5 hours), it’s just an hour-and-a-half drive to Auch, the region’s main city. Auch has a well-staffed tourism office (3, place de la République; auch-tourisme.com) that sells “TopoGuides” to the Gers.
Where to stay: Chateau Bellevue in Cazubon, close to Eauze, will have you feeling rather regal. Beautifully decorated rooms which shuttered windows overlooking a stunning park and countryside.
In Auch, the hoteldefrance-auch.com offers a range of reasonably priced rooms. Its informal restaurant has a small terrace overlooking Auch’s main square and serves many of the region’s greatest hits cooked by the owner’s chef father. The hotel also has a grande salle, where fancier (and much pricier) dishes are served. Chef Vincent Cassasus is renowned for being one of the best in the region
The stylish L’Echappee Belle Hotel in L’Isle Jourdain has a sleek, updated feel. It has a superb restaurant serving a lighter version of Gascon and traditional French dishes.
Take a detour with French Country Adventures: Tours from half day, full day or several days offering a huge range of themes to allow you to experience the best of Gers. From Armagnac tours to watercolour workshops, pastry classes, antiquing and more.
Find out more about all the places mentioned in the article at Gers Tourism website: www.tourisme-gers.com