For people who love to travel and are looking for out of the ordinary, slow travel experiences, Gascony is the land that time forgot, an idyllic, historical region unaffected by time.
Gascony was originally called Vasconia, a part of Roman Gallia Aquitania, spanning the width and breath of western France from the Loire River south to the Spanish Pyrenees, and from Toulouse west to the Atlantic Ocean. Its capital was once Bordeaux. Today Gascony is currently divided between the region of Nouvelle-Aquitaine (departments of Landes, Pyrénées-Atlantiques, the French side of the Pays Basque, southwestern Gironde, southern Lot-et-Garonne), and the region of Occitanie (departments of Gers, Hautes-Pyrénées, southwestern Tarn-et-Garonne, and western Haute-Garonne). Each region has its own ancient history, colorful landscapes, and unique traditions. A powerful duchy in the Middle Ages, Gascony came under English rule in 1154 through the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to Henry Plantagenet (Henry II) King of England, and remained English until the end of the Hundred Years’ War in 1453, when it formally became part of France.
26 REASONS TO FALL IN LOVE WITH GASCONY
Armagnac is the oldest French brandy you’ve most likely never heard of, unless you’re a connoisseur. Introduced in 1411, it precedes Cognac by some 200 years. From grape to bottle, no additives are permitted at any stage of production, making it the most natural brandy in France. Armagnac grapes are grown in three distinct areas: Haut Armagnac, Ténerèze and Bas Armagnac, then aged in Monlézun black oak barrels from the forests of the Gers, Landes and Lot-et-Garonne departments. This lusty yet elegant brandy is distilled only once, making it distinctive from Cognac, which is distilled twice and has water added to it before bottling.
Berets as we know it today actually comes from Gascony, more specifically the Béarn region high in the Pyrénées. In old Gascon, “bérret” ,was the word for cap. Originally, a local craft made from wool or felt, it was the headdress of the high mountain guides and Béarnais shepherds of the Pyrénées. The first factory began producing them commercially in the 19th century in the village of Oloron-Sainte-Marie nestled in the Pyrénées-Atlantic department. The small “tail” which protrudes in the center, the cabilhòt or cabilhou was the end of the threads resulting from hand knitting. If a cabilhou is missing from a beret, bad luck will come to the wearer. Gascon bérets are typically larger and worn flatter than the more commonly recognized Basque béret.
Cyrano de Bergerac was written in 1897 by Edmond Rostand. The play is a fictionalization following the broad outlines of the life of the real Cyrano, a dashing officer of the Gascon Cadets. The Cadets were a French regiment under King Louis XIII, recruited from the youngest sons of the aristocratic families of Gascony. The word cadet comes from the old Gascon dialect of Occitan, capdèth, meaning chief or captain. Bergerac is a town located on both sides of the Dordogne River, with a statue of Cyrano in one of its many pretty squares.
D’Artagnan was not just the fictionalized character from Alexandre Dumas’ novels, but a real person by the name of Charles Ogier de Batz-Castelmore D’Artagnan. He was a valiant soldier who became Captain of the Musketeers and was answerable only to the Sun King himself, Louis XIV. D’Artagnan was born in Lupiac, a village in the Gers, in 1611. The Chateau de Castelmore, D’Artagnan’s home (now privately owned, and hopefully soon-to-be a historic site), is a few kilometers outside the village proper. In the 1630s D’Artagnan moved to Paris, where he lived a life of daring and espionage. He died at the siege of Maastricht in 1673. The Musée D’Artagnan, housed in the Chapelle Notre Dame in Lupiac, is dedicated to his life and legend.
Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204), Queen of both France and England, was one of the most powerful and influential figures of the Middle Ages,.She inherited a vast estate at the age of 15 from her father Guillaume the 10th, Duke of Aquitaine. Aquitaine passed to France in 1137 when Eleanor married Louis VII of France, but their marriage was annulled in 1152. When Eleanor’s new husband, Henry Plantagenet, became King Henry II of England in 1154, the area became an English possession and is considered by historians as the first colony of England. Eleanor had 2 daughters with King Louis VII and 8 sons with King Henry II, one of whom was the infamous war hero and crusader, Richard the Lionheart.
Floc de Gascogne is a local aperitif made only in Gascony. Produced since the 16th century, it comes from an old peasant recipe of 2//3 grape juice and 1/3 Armagnac, and is available in both red and white varieties. The name Floc de Gascogne has been commercially used since 1954, coined by Henri Lamor, a winemaker from Cravencères, a village in the Gers. The word “floc” comes from the Occitan language and means ‘bouquet of flowers”. Floc de Gascogne is made in a large part of the Gers, Landes and Lot-et-Garonne.
Garlic from the Gers and Tarn-et-Garonne departments dates back to the 13th century when it was brought to France by nomadic merchants from Asia. A legend states that one trader had no money to pay for his dinner at a restaurant in the village of Lautrec in the Tarn department, so he settled up with pink garlic cloves instead. The innkeeper planted the cloves and Lautrec is now the centre of pink garlic cultivation. There are said to be more than 600 cultivated sub-varieties of garlic, and in the southwest the 3 principal types are pink, violet and white. It is grown in the areas around the towns of Saint-Clar, Beaumont-de-Lomagne, Mazamet, Cadours, Castres, Lautrec and Albi. Garlic from Gascony accounts for 63% of all the garlic grown in France.
Henri IV, KIng of France, was a man of courage and foresight who, more than 400 years ago, saved his country from pious quarrels, and taught the French to enjoy life rather than slaughter each other over religious abstractions. Instead of paying for wars to be fought, he paid for them not to be fought. He understood the conditions of the common people, whom he had a real affection for, and tried to improve their lives. His fiat, a poule au pot, a chicken in every pot, is still recalled today.
Irouléguy is a small Basque village in Lower Navarre in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques department. Its delicious wines are grown in one of the smallest vineyards in France, the only one in the French Basque country. The history of the vineyard is linked to the pilgrimage to Saint Jacques-de- Compostelle. Monks from the monastery of Roncesvalles, planted vines around the old Saint-Vincent church in the village of Irouléguy for a wine intended for pilgrims. After the signing of the Treaty of the Pyrenees (1659),which formalized peace between Spain and France, the monks left their vineyard to the inhabitants of the village who continued production. After the phylloxera wine epidemic, and WWI, a group of farmers created the cooperative cellar of Saint-Étienne-de-Baïgorry, and continued producing their wine, eventually earning Irouléguy its prized AOC classification in 1970.
Jurançon is an area west of Pau. Its landscape consist of narrow valleys and breathtaking views. Jurançon was one of King Henri IV’s favorite wines, grown along the hillsides on the southern banks of the Gave de Pau covering 1,000 hectares. It is still considered the wine of Kings and served at important events. There are 2 AOC Jurançon wines, the Jurançon sec (dry) and the Jurançon molleux (sweet).
Kakouetta Gorge is a little less than four kilometers in length, but this stunning site has been developed for a kilometer and a half of public access. The visit can only be done at low water, generally from July 1 to the end of September. Their depth reaches thirty to three hundred and fifty meters. In some places only a few meters separate the two sides of the gorge.. A twenty-meter waterfall and a cave are at the end of the route. The gorge offers a beautiful landscape for nature lovers. Mosses, lichens, and ferns are so abundant that the area resembles tropical microclimate.
Lourdes is a city nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains, in the department of the Haute-Pyrenees. For 159 years, millions of the faithful from all over the world have flocked to Lourdes, where, it is said, the sick can be healed miraculously. Known worldwide as a Catholic pilgrimage site, each year, millions of people visit the Massabielle cave where, in 1858, the Virgin Mary was thought to appear to a young, local girl, Bernadette. There are 52 hectares of property and 22 places of worship that comprise the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes.
Madiran is Gascony’s singular AOC wine district. It’s 11th century Benedictine abbey developed its own wine making tradition. The magic in Madiran wine is resveratrol. Resveratrol is part of the defense mechanism in grapevines, which fights against fungus and other diseases. Resveratrol is proven to be anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, blood-sugar lowering and other beneficial cardiovascular effects. Madiran wines have the highest concentration of this type of a natural plant antibiotic.The are many domaine visit opportunities.
Nérac was built on a Gallo-Roman villa along both banks of the Baïse River, The village prospered as the favorite summer residence of King Henri IV, the most beloved king of France. It is the land of the Albret family, one of the most powerful in Aquitaine: Jeanne d’Albret was the mother of Henri IV. The remains of his impressive chateau, are now a museum. Nérac has fine examples of colombage, regionally distinct, half-timbered buildings, as well as the Parc Royal de la Garenne, once a royal hunting ground, and the inspirational setting for Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Lost. It’s Saturday market is the best in the Lot-et-Garonne department.
Ossau-Iraty cheese was first introduced to Southwest France by the Moors in the 8th century. This award-winning cheese was originally produced by the shepherds of the region. It is made from unpasteurized sheep’s milk from Manech and Basco-Bearnaise ewes and aged a minimum of 90 days in Pyrenean caves. The sheep are herded into the mountains in spring to nourish themselves on high altitude pasture. Ossau-Iraty is a gentle cheese with a slightly nutty flavor. The Southwest has contributed many great goat cheeses to the world.
Pousse Rapière is a liquor made from well guarded recipes containing a base of 24% eau de vie, steeped and flavored with orange peel, lemon peel, vanilla and sugar. Pousse Rapier translates to “Push the Sword” and is often thought to have the same effect when imbibed neat. The Monluc family from the village of St. Puy in the Gers, maintains they developed the regional drink, but my Gascon neighbor has an old family recipe worth its weight in gold.
Quiteria was a young virgin of noble Visigoth blood, who preferred to die rather than deny her faith. According to a medieval manuscript from the 12th century, she was decapitated around 477. Legend says she carried her head in her hands to the pagan sanctuary of Mas d’Aire (now a fountain) above the church which bears her name. The St. Quitterie church was active from the 12th-18th century for pilgrims on the Saintt Jacque-des-Compostelle route to Spain. Its crypt was originally built over a Roman temple to the god Mars, venerated because of the presence of a “magical” source dedicated to Quiteria. Tours can be arranged by calling the church directly.
Ravel, Maurice, was a 19th and early 20th century French composer of classical music. His best known works are Bolero and Daphne and Chloé. Ravel was born in the Basque town of Ciboure, France, just across the bridge from the fishing village of St. Jean de Luz, 18 kilometers from the Spanish border.
Séviac is one of the largest Gallo-Roman archeological sites in Gascony, covering over 2 hectares, is located below the village of Montréal du Gers. Excavations uncovered a classic villa dating from the 2nd century, complete with a thermal bath complex, and beautiful, multi-colored mosaics. There are also remains of a Merovigian baptistry and sanctuary dating from the 6th century.
Terraube is a medieval village that once belonged entirely to Hector de Galard, a renowned warrior during the Hundred Year’s War. His face is represented as the Jack of Diamonds in the French pack of playing cards. In France all face cards are representations of historical figures. Terraube has an infamous well, reputed to be the opening salvo in the Wars of Religion, after all of the local Protestant men were stuffed down it never to be seen again. During the spring and early summer, fields of Lectoure’s cantaloupe melons surround the village.
Urrugne, a charming Basque village, is fortunate to stretch from the ocean along the beautiful Basque Corniche to the first mountains of the Pyrenees. The village has managed to preserve its traditions and its architecture. From the village, a winding road leads to the pilgrimage church of Notre Dame-des-Socorri and the Parc Floral Florenia, covering 45 acres with over 30,000 trees and millions of flowers.
Villa Arnega is located in the Pays Basque village of Cambo-les-Bains, Villa Arnega was the home to Edmund Rostand, dramatist of the play, Cyrano de Bergerac. The house displays mementos from his life in Paris at the turn of the 20th century, and a splendid, 18th century style French garden.
Woad is a plant in the mustard family native to parts of Asia and Europe, whose leaves have been used since antiquity to produce a “pastel” blue dye. Pastel dye was the only source of blue available until the late 16th century. Blue dyed fabrics became a luxury and many fortunes were made in its cultivation and production, particularly in and around the towns of Toulouse and Albi. When trade routes to the Indies opened up, indigo dye extracted from another species of plant, was imported. Both Pastel and Indigo industries declined with the invention of synthetic blue dye.
Xaintrailles is located on the old Roman road of the Ténarèze (linking Bordeaux to the central Pyrenees), the village is the cradle of Poton de Xaintrailles, companion of Joan of Arc who drove the English out of Aquitaine and was Marshal of France. He left the village the 12th century castle, which was later converted into a manor, and is open to the public for guided tours.
Yquem is a mythical wine estate. In the Middle Ages, the chateau and surrounding vineyards belonged to the King of England, then passed to the Duke of Aquitaine when this area became part of France. Located south of Bordeaux, near the charming, historic village of Bazas, on the highest hill in the famed Sauterne region, this magnificent building offers both charm, refinement, and beauty in an exceptional landscape.
Zut alors! I could not find a place, person or word associated with Gascony that begins with a “z”, hence zut alors, which translates, appropriately, to “damn then”!
| Sue Aran lives in the Gers department of southwest France. She is the owner of French Country Adventures, which provides private, personally-guided, small-group, slow travel tours into Gascony, the Pays Basque, Provence and beyond. She writes a monthly blog about her life in France and is a contributor to Bonjour Paris and France Today magazines.|
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