When you drive through the remote, southwestern French countryside of the Gers, AKA Gascony, down narrow plane tree-lined allées and past villages shrouded in mystery, you get the sense that the area looks much as it did during the time of d’Artagnan, one of its most renowned heroes. It might surprise you to discover that he was not just a fictionalized character from the Alexandre Dumas novels. He was a real person and his real name was Charles Ogier de Batz-Castelmore d’Artagnan. Known to be a valiant soldier, D’Artagnan rose to the rank of captain-lieutenant in the prestigious French Musketeers. He was second in command to the “Sun King” himself, Louis XIV, who was by title, captain of the Musketeers.
Who was D’Artagnan?
D’Artagnan was born in 1611, son of Bertrand de Batz and Françoise de Montesquiou d’Artagnan. In his twenties d’Artagnan traveled to Paris and became one of the Musketeers of the Guard, a military branch of the Maison du Roi (the King’s Household). He lived a life of daring and espionage, reporting to Cardinal Mazarin and with a key role in the imprisonment of French finance minister Nicolas Fouquet of Vaux-le-Vicomte. In 1655 d’Artagnan became captain of the Musketeers and in 1667 he was assigned the role of governor of Lille. Longing to return to the exciting life he once knew, King Louis XIV returned him to the field of battle during the Franco-Dutch War, where d’Artagnan was killed in 1673 at the siege of Maastricht.
What to see in the land of D’Artagnan
Pays d’Artagnan holds interesting sites for history fans and a driving tour includes some must-see stops. Starting from the sunny city of Toulouse, drive along its périphérique to the N-124 road and head west towards Auch, the unofficial capital of the Gers. Here was the home the home of one of France’s favorite sons. As you leave the buzz of Toulouse behind, admire the white clouds that float on deep blue skies. Sigh at the velvet green rolling fields stretch to the horizon as like a breath of fresh air—you have entered Le Gers. It’s nickamed the Tuscany of France, la France profonde. It’s a place where most French people dream of retiring to. This department in the Midi-Pyrénées region is the most rural and least industrialized in France, isolated from main highways and train lines. The Gersois have the longest life spans in all of France.
Stop in Auch, to view a bronze statue of d’Artagnan. From Toulouse, you’ll reach Auch in less than a 45-minute drive. It is a pleasant city perched above the Gers River. It has no market economy to speak of except farming and government. And it has the same population mix as it did in the 14th century. Cathédral Ste. Marie d’Auch at Place de la République was the last to be built in France. Its 18 Renaissance-era stained glass windows by Toulousain artist Arnaud de Molès rival the most beautiful in the world. You’ll find the bronze statue of d’Artagnan located at the base of the cathedral’s monumental 370-step stairway.
Leaving Auch, especially in July and August, vast fields of sunflowers stretch to the horizon. Carry on along the N-124 to the west. You’ll pass through the pretty village of Vic-Fezensac. Here a festival is held each July and full-blown Tempo Latino Latin music fills the village with rhythmic red-hot salsa. Fall under its spell and enjoy the legendary wild dancing in the streets to all hours of the morning.
Lupiac, birthplace of D’Artagnan
As you exit Vic-Fezensac take the D-37 south toward the village of Lupiac to visit the Musée d’Artagnan, dedicated to d’Artagnan’s life and legend. The museum is located in the Chapelle Saint Jacques, built by d’Artagnan’s uncle. On warm days, head to Lac de Lupiac, a large leisure lake with a fine sandy beach good for swimming, fishing, canoeing, and kayaking. There’s also a bar serving drinks, food and entertainment throughout the summer.
A little further south is d’Artagnan’s birthplace, the Chateau de Castelmore (now privately owned). From here, continue to Aignan, one of the loveliest villages in the Gers and the original seat of the Counts of Armagnac. Aignan was sacked and burned by the Black Prince, the eldest son of King Edward III of England, in 1355. Fortunately the 12th century church and arcaded square were spared and remain to this day. Aignan holds two vide-greniers (flea markets) during the summer—one of the best kept secrets of the area. Browse the stalls for silver and lace or relax at an outside café over a cup of delicious organic coffee and a freshly baked croissant.
Le Gers is the home of Armagnac—a distinctive type of brandy or eau de vie. It’s handmade from a blending of the region’s Armagnac grapes in local distilleries. Throw caution to the wind and stop for a tasting of the elixir of the gods. In the past it was claimed that it’s qualities included curing many ills and warding off snakes! Armagnac is the oldest eau-de-vie distilled from grapes in the world. Rumor has it that one of the local producers stores his Armagnac in four great oak barrels named Athos, Porthos, Aramis and d’Artagnan. If you’re lucky enough to find this particular distillery raise a glass to the famed d’Artagnan, “One for all and all for one!”
A votre santé.
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 into Gascony, the Pays Basque, Tarn and beyond…