LaFrance - Midi Pyrenees
|Introduction & History||
|What to do|
|Map & Getting there||Wild life/plants|
|Where to go/see||Further information|
The Gers is the central department of Gascony in the Midi-Pyrenees, located just north of the central Pyrenees and since Napoleon times has been named after the Gers river which runs north-south through the department. It is largely agricultural and is the least densely populated department in France.
The Gers is sometimes referred to as the French Tuscany because of its gently rolling hills and old villages, including many "bastides" or fortified towns. Gers is separated from the Pyrénées by Comminges and Bigorre and the scenery is of rolling hills and glacier formed flat valleys with views of the Pyrénées from the southern hills.
The towns and villages tend to be small and far apart and the local economy is mainly agricultural - vineyards, cereals, cattle, and of course, ducks and geese for the famous Gascony preserves, pâtés and particularly foie gras.
The Gers is one of the least densely populated départments in France and there is no heavy industry or autoroutes so consequently it has some of the cleanest air in all of Europe. It is therefore no surprise that Gascons live longer than any other people in France.
Auch is the capital (prefecture) of the Gers and it’s the largest town with around 20,000 inhabitants.
The impressive cathedral of St-Marie holds two of the regions finest art works: the Arnaud de Moles stained glass windows and the 113 carved oak choir stalls. Auch is a vibrant centre of commerce and has numerous good cafes and restaurants.
Condom in the north of the Gers is a sous-prefecture and capital of the Tenareze Armagnac region. It is a beautiful town centred around the Cathedral of St-Pierre and although its name is often a source of amusement to English speakers it is believed to be derived from two Latin words "condate" and "dum", meaning confluence and hill respectively.
The climate in Gers is warm and the winters are mild, snowfall being extremely rare, and the temperature rarely falls below freezing. Summers are warm but there is the likelihood of electrical storms. Nurtured by the warm southern sun, the land is rich and fertile, the gently undulating hills covered with fields of corn and sunflowers, as well as the vineyards of the Armagnac producers.
The history of the Gers is marked by periods of turbulence and of prosperity. It has been part of France since the conquest of Clovis in the fifth century although it had a brief period of independence under Duke Gaifre who attempted to form a separate Gascon state.
It was reformed under the English in the mid 12th century after Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry of Anjou, who subsequently became Henry II of England in 1154. Aquitaine then became the object of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), in which the French eventually defeated the English and reclaimed the kingdom. This was followed in the 16th and 17th centuries by the intermittent Wars of Religion between the Catholics and the Protestant Huguenots.
It is this history that has shaped the region’s many medieval villages.
The Gers boasts an astonishing 146 castles, one of the largest and most imposing of which is that of Lavardens, built on a limestone outcrop.
One third of modern-day Gersois villages are original medieval bastides. These fortified villages have grid-patterned streets and central arcaded market places and were established at many strategic points all over south-west France in the Middle Ages. In Gers, some of these new villages took the names of prestigious cities, hence Montréal-du-Gers, Fleurance, Cologne and Barcelonne-du-Gers but many suffered great damage in the later wars.
Earlier types of settlement that can still be seen include sauveterres which were small communities established by the Church offering protection in return for some form of service. The first sauveterre to be built in the Gers was Saint-Mont in 1040. Another type of settlement that appeared between the 11th and 13th centuries was the castelnau, built around a fortress or castle, and usually on a hill or rocky outcrop. Together with the bastides, they all create an interesting skyline.
There are many ancient dovecotes to be found plus a few water and windmills which were once considered a symbol of wealth and power. At the height of the Gers prosperity there were purported to be 934 working mills.
The pilgrims’ route to
The section of the route through the Gers between Lectoure and Condom has been cited as of particular historical and cultural interest by UNESCO, which classed it as a World Heritage Site in 1998, along with other parts of the route. The constant flow of pilgrims - which peaked in the Middle Ages at 2 million per year - brought wealth to the region, as it did to all the regions through which the route passed. Three monuments that should be visited along the route are Auch cathedral, with its unique stained glass windows and intricately carved stalls, the monastery at La Romieu, and the Artigue bridge, built specifically for the pilgrimage.
Northern route: Le Chemin du Puy (GR65) -
153 km long, passing through Lectoure, Condom, Eauze and Nogaro.
What to Eat
The cuisine of the south-west is deliciously rich and earthy. Despite the high fat content of the region’s traditional dishes, the cuisine is widely recognised as contributing to a long life expectancy among Gersois. Poultry - chicken, turkey and guinea fowl, but particularly goose and duck - features in many regional dishes. In centuries past, most households would rear a handfulof birds. Nothing would ever go to waste.
The liver – fois gras - was, and still is, one of the most prized parts, either cooked or simply marinated and eaten raw, while the fat often served as a substitute for butter. The breast–magret in the Gers but maigret elsewhere in France - is delicious when grilled. Alternatively, the breast and legs are covered in salt and left for some time before being oven cooked and then preserved in their own fat, making the flesh as soft as butter. This rich and flavoursome dish is known as confit.
Other ingredients to be found locally are also incorporated into local recipes: walnuts (either whole or as oil), garlic, wild mushrooms and truffles.
What to Drink
The Gers produces some wine, the Madiran appellation, originally a wine used at Mass whose popularity grew due to the steady flow of pilgrims, and Côtes de Saint-Mont. However, the region is best known for its brandy. Armagnac was first ‘invented’ at the beginning of the 14th century in a part of Gascony of the same name.
The colourless eau de vie is aged in oak casks for between four and twenty years, during which time it acquires its colour and distinctive taste. The longer it is left to mature, the more amber-coloured and the less alcoholic it becomes. Documents found in the Vatican library attribute forty virtues to this famous Gersois export, including the curing of headaches, redness of eyes, and hepatitis, as well as the sharpening of the mind and the soothing of toothache.
Armagnac differs from Cognac, which is scorned locally as a cheap imitation of the real thing, in that it is distilled just once, rather than twice as in the case of the latter. Looking at a map, the area in which Armagnac is produced resembles a vine leaf, which is taken by some as sign that Armagnac was always meant for great things! Another local drink is Floc de Gascogne, a blend of wine and young Armagnac, usually served as an apéritif.
Cheap flights from all over the UK mean a variety of airports to choose from to suit your location. The Gers is ideally linked by an excellent network of rail and road from Toulouse, Carcassone, Pau and Perpignan airports.
Auch: The two main things to see in Auch are the Cathedral of Saint Marie (with beautiful carved choir stalls) and the staircase to the river with the statue of d'Artagnan half way down. Good market by the river on a Wednesday. Also Museums, Art Galleries, Shops and an 18 hole golf course just outside the town.
Condom - The capital of the Tenareze district, Condom is a favourite town of ours with great shops and a market on Wednesday. The Cathedral is beautiful inside and the Armagnac museum is well worth a visit.
It is a port on the river Baise and boat trips are available daily in the season.
La Romieu: An ancient ecclesiastical town with an imposing 14th century collegiate church. The main street has many hidden stone cats! Nearby, there is a famous arboretum.
Lavardens: A beautiful chateau set high on a hill, which has guided visits and frequent art exhibitions. There are night markets on Wednesdays during July and August. Their website www.chateaulavardens.com has information on their programme of events.
Larressingle: A 13th century fortified village, the smallest in France (the so-called Carcassonne of the Gers). The museum shows reconstructions of life in the Middle Ages and the Park Museum house medieval machines of war.
Lectoure: A Gallo-Roman city, famous for its melons, with many interesting buildings to see and several museums. It is on the St-Jacques-de-Compostella footpath. It has a thermal fitness centre.
Fources: The only circular walled bastide town in the Gers with a lovely castle nearby.
Valence-sur-Baise: A 12th century bastide village and river port. Nearby is the Abbaye de Flaran, a magnificent 12th century Cistercian abbey. There are three beautiful chateaux quite nearby; Busca-Maniban, Cassaigne and Montluc, the last of which in St. Puy is famous as the home of the lethal local aperitif known as Pousse Rapiere.
Marciac: A 13th century Gascon bastide town, famous for its terrific International Jazz Festival held here every August. Nearby are the fortified villages of Tillac and Monlezun.
Bassoues: Another pretty bastide village, with a 43metre high keep, a masterpiece of Gascon military art.
Montesequiou: A fortified village on the Route de Bastides through the Gers.
Mirande: The lovely square in this bastide town has a Country and Western festival each July. The cathedral is considered to be a Gothic masterpiece. There is also a museum of fine arts and decorative arts.
Montreal (incl Seviac): A 13th century Gascon bastide village. There is a Gallo-Roman museum with guided visits. Nearby is Seviac, a 4th century Gallo-Roman villa, which has been extensively excavated during recent years.
Saint Clar: A unique bastide town with two 13th century squares with arches. Famous garlic market selling white garlic from Lomagne.
Golf: There is a beautiful, wooded 18 hole course at Eauze, which is the best in the area. There is also a lovely 9 hole course at Fleurance and another (hilly) 18 hole course at Auch (superb restaurant). Further afield (about 1 hrs drive) is Mont de Marsan- a fabulous course and not expensive during the week. Log on to www.golf-montdemarsan.org for more details.
Tennis: Courts are available at Gondrin, Eauze, Condom, Valence and Castera Verduzan.
Cycling: The Gers is ideal cycling country with many of the places listed being easily accessible by bicycle.
Horse Riding: Les Ecuries D’Armagnac near Valance-sur-Baïse offer riding lessons or hacks with an English guide, trips into the mountains, gastronomic excursions and much more. http://artemip.free.fr/artemip/gers.htm#Armagnac has information on bookings and prices.
Sking: Resorts in the Pyrenees are within 2 and a half hours drive.
Boat Trips: From Condom, you can travel to Valence each afternoon, with a special lunch excursion on Sundays in the season.
Wine Tasting: Many of the local producers welcome visitors and will both show you around and provide you with tastings of their products. Sample great wines from some of the best known local wine-growing areas (Tariquet, Buzet, Madiran, St. Mont and Monluc).
Cathedral, Museums, and Art Galleries: Auch and Condom provide the setting for most of the sites within the immediate area. Further afield are Toulouse, Agen and Lourdes.
Abbaye de Flaran: Flaran is famous within France for its architecture. Art Exhibitions are often held there.
Jazz at Marciac: During August the Jazz festival takes place, one of the best of its kind in the world with many internationally acclaimed artists (eg: Oscar Peterson, Winton Marsalis) appearing regularly.
Motor Racing at Nogaro: There are several meetings at the circuit every season. The Formula 3 events at Easter and in September are the highlights check for information at www.citaenet.com/nogaro
The Gers edges onto the Pyrenees National Park. 75 of all the 107 species of mammals in France live in the Pyrenees and the National Park is a refuge for many endangered species such as the Pyrenean Chamois, the marmot and the bear.
The situation of the bear is now crucial, there being only six left, the youngest of which was born in 1998.
For the bird watcher the variety is enthralling. The capercaillie, ptarmigan, black woodpecker can be spotted as well as various birds of prey such as the peregrine falcon, a variety of vultures as well as the golden eagle.
The land is rich in vegetation with many alpine flowers, wild orchids, valerian and iris all sheltered by beech, fir, scots pines, birches and rowan.
www.parc-pyrenees.com is an excellent site for walking and news of wildlife in the area.