French Magazine takes a tour around this department
Département 32 isn’t the most well known of French destinations, and even in France it is probably not known for much more than playing host to the world championship snail races at Lagardère and as being the biggest garlic producer in France. A land of undulating hills and home to d’Artagnan and the Musketeers, Gers could be lifted straight out of pages of an Alexandre Dumas novel. With its ancient sleepy villages and bastides, Gers is where people live a perfect rural existence on hearty local produce.
Providing a good base for exploring the northern area of Gers is Condom. It has endured its fair share of ridicule, courtesy of the British, many of whom, unbelievably, avoid the town for the sake of the name alone. With a population of just 8,000, this is the tiny, pretty capital of the Armagnac region. Its main attraction is the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre, with the delightful Musée de l’Armagnac housed alongside, in the converted bishops’ stables. Buffeted between the English and French throughout the Middle Ages, the town greatly expanded in the 18th century, largely due to a roaring trade in Armagnac shipped along the Baïse river. (It is still a popular stopoff today with tourists on the waterways.)
A number of local attractions litter the area immediately around Condom. Ten kilometres to the west lies Larressingle, the most petite example in France of a medieval fortified village. From here, it’s a short ride to Montréal du Gers, another formidable example of the renowned bastides in a region that boasts over a hundred, the biggest concentration in France. A few kilometres further west, the beautifully impressive 4th-century Gallo-Roman villa, Séviac, is a highlight, with its remarkably intact mosaic frescoes, some of which feature the all-important vines.
The vines have played a significant part of the region’s agricultural history and are also responsible for the Armagnac (sometimes known as the ‘French paradox’), conveniently reputed to be the reason behind the inhabitants’ longevity. A fierce rival to its better-known cousin Cognac, Armagnac is distilled at a much lower strength, with no added sugar, which, in layman’s terms, translates into it having a smoother palate. Armagnac itself originates from the Counts of Armagnac, who, on falling on the wrong side of Louis XI of France, were forced to relinquish their estates.
Everywhere that produces Armagnac also produces another local speciality, Floc de Cascogne, a mix of Armagnac with grape juice and traditionally served up as an aperitif. There are few regions where you can fall into as many châteaux for a tipple or two as in Gers. Some vineyards worth noting however, include those at the magnificent 13th-century Château de Cassaigne, worthy of a visit even without the temptation of a free glass of wine or Floc in a comfortable armchair.
The Madiran vineyard, whose red wine has been employed in the local churches for communion for centuries, gathered a reputation with the pilgrims passing through en route to Santiago. These vines also produce Pacherenc, a memorable white. Others bottlings worth hunting out are the Côtes-de-Gascogne vins de pays and the Buzet and Côtes-de-Saint-Mont appellation wines. The 16th-century Château de Monluc is home to fine wines and also the birthplace of Pousse Rapière, an Armagnac-based liqueur laced with orange.
It is not only châteaux signs you will see lining the roads here. Passing fields of ducks and geese, there are countless ‘vente directe’ signs urging you to turn off the road for products sold straight from the farm. This naturally includes foie gras, the luxurious, if controversial, star of worldwide cuisine. Duck foie gras is generally considered to be richer in flavour over the subtler goose version. They are not, however, the only creatures to be overfed and watered in the region, as the passion and focus the locals assert on their food and drink, never mind its rustic richness, is guaranteed to leave any visitor’s stomach more than suitably satiated.
South of here lies Auch, which has been a chief town in the area for centuries. It has a population of only 24,000 but is nevertheless the largest town in this region by far. A farming and commercial centre, perched on a hill in this otherwise gently undulating landscape, its magnificent gothic Cathédrale de Sainte-Marie dwarfs the surrounding pousterles (narrow streets). From the front of the cathedral, descend the 232 stone stairs and you will come face to face with a grand statue of d’Artagnan. The character of Dumas’s fourth musketeer was based on the life of a local man, Charles de Batz, whose bravery and chivalry inspired the author.
The nature of the Gers département means there are almost too many scattered hamlets dotted around its countryside to mention, but one that must not be overlooked is Eauze. This delightful little centre for Armagnac trade holds a market on Thursdays under a roof formed by tying together the overhanging branches of the trees in the marketplace. Equally pretty Marciac, in the southwest of the region, is a lively 13th-century bastide village with a glorious 14th-century church, and it is home to one of the most important jazz festivals in France. Travel a few miles further south and Tillac is yet another oustandingly beautiful medieval gem, with its main arcaded street of partially timbered buildings.
Whether you are touring the Armagnac estates, or travelling in the footsteps of d’Artagnan, the profoundly rural Gers, a département where geese must outnumber inhabitants, will, with its rolling hills and soft light, lift you out of the rat race and the 21st century and give you a taste of relaxation.
Ryanair and Easyjet to nearby Biarritz, while British Airways flies to Toulouse.
Brittany Ferries offers a 24-hour cruise from Plymouth to Santander over the border in Northern Spain.
TGV trains leave Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris. Contact Rail Europe for more details and bookings.
To discover the history of the local food and drink, try the Musée de l’Armagnac in Condom or Montréal du Gers’ Foie Gras Museum (+33 5 53 41 23 24). The Spa Thermal de Castera-Verduzan offers various water treatments, while the impressive Château de Cassaigne is worth a detour. Click here for information on the Marciac Jazz Festival.
At the crossroads between the Mediterranean and Atlantic, the Gers region enjoys early springs, hot summers and mild winters.