Text Vicki Haddock, featurenet.co.za Photographs Cycling for Softies, Gallo/Great Stock, featurenet.co.za, gite.com, leboat.com A sunburst shoots through the stained glass of a medieval church, and the prism strikes me in its spotlight. Facing the sanctuary, I burst into song, my voice reverberating off stone slabs that have stood sentry since the 13th century. I’m giving a solo performance inside the Romanesque church of St Sigismund, inside one of the most hallowed bastides in all of France. Thankfully, nobody else can hear it. That’s the beauty of this region the locals know as Gascony: you so often have amazing places all to yourself. I return whenever I feel the need to experience la France profonde – a part of the country that feels untrampled, untrafficked, unspoiled and authentically French. Encircled by better-known regions – the Dordogne to the north, Languedoc to the east, the Pyrénées to the south and Bordeaux to the west – Gascony is billed as ‘the most discrete province in France’. In fact, most maps lack any delineation of ‘Gascony’. It exists in collective French memory as a pre-Revolutionary part of southwestern France that was later split into two new regions: the Midi-Pyrénées and Aquitane. It is gentle farm country filled with peace and quiet, geese and cows, a string of bastides (heavily fortified medieval villages) and places where you can touch the essence of the country. People here still proudly describe themselves as Gascon to the core, in the tradition of the real Musketeers Aramis, Athos and Porthos – farmers’ sons who chased adventure in the king’s guard and inspired Dumas’ fiction. But while the Gascons regard their land and their lineage as something to brag about, they display an unhurried joie de vivre. Surveys have found the people of Agen to be the most content in all of France. ‘We live here in the land of milk and honey,’ explains resident Agnès Sarion, clad in a burnt-orange blazer and requisite scarf as she shops among the stalls at Nerac’s weekly street market. The secret to Gascon life, she explains, is to live slowly and fully: ‘On prend le temps de prendre le temps – we take time to take time.’ Even the rustic food here takes its own sweet time. Meats and root vegetables are simmered for hours or even days into ratatouille and cassoulet. The local golden nectar is Armagnac, more prized here than cognac, so that only 60 per cent of it leaves Gascony and almost all of that remains in France. (A good bottle will set you back about R960.) Kate Hill pours a more affordable local speciality: the sweet apéritif called floc (Armagnac and grape juice). She is the owner of the 18th-century canal-side pigeonnier – a quaint stone farm building once used to collect fertiliser for the surrounding farms – near Agen where my family is based for our Gascon sojourn. On warm evenings we lounge on the terrace watching the moon shimmer over the canal. On cool evenings we toast ourselves before a stone cooking fireplace that runs the length of the ancient kitchen. In the daytime, we ramble along sunflower- and poplar-lined roads with not a car in sight, roads so spectacular that they would have been clogged with traffic in Provence. We privately inspect mosaics and baths among the ruins of an excavated fourth-century Roman palace in Séviac, an archeological find that tour groups would have swarmed over in Rome. We explore the residence of the first Bourbon king, and France’s favourite: not the ostentatious Versailles of prissy Louis XIV, but the Nerac château of Henri IV. A swashbuckling outdoorsman and serial womaniser, Henri used to joke, in his thick Gascon accent, that he surely would have been hanged as a thief had he not been born a king. Today, Nerac thrives along the river Baise. The locals share the enthusiasm Voltaire, Balzac and Charles de Gaulle expressed for Henri IV, the king who came from among them and promised a chicken in every pot on Sunday. They still refer to him simply as ‘Our Henri’. In Larressingle, my kids scuttle down into the drained moat that encircles the village and race its entire length unobserved. They load catapults and man battering rams at the mock siege camp outside the ramparts, imagining the struggle to survive the Hundred Years‘ War. Together we traverse Larressingle’s Pont Levis into the tiniest bastide in France, a miniature version of the medieval Disneyland a couple of hours’ drive east in Carcassonne. And they wait outside St Sigismund’s, allowing me to sing in blissful solitude. Gascony can be explored by car, bike or boat, as ribbons of rivers and roads pass by Les Plus Beaux Villages, the 100 towns the French government has declared particularly beautiful – Montréal-du-Gers, Auvillar and postcard-perfect Fourcès, with its circular town square, ancient clock tower and 15th-century castle. Between the ramparts of these villages lie only fields, orchards and vineyards, Armagnac-tasting rooms, and a smattering of crumbling châteaux and weathered pigeonniers. In summer, the gnarled trees and vines stretching across the landscape clutch their fruits, the cherries, grapes and especially the plums destined to become the famed prunes d’Agen. In autumn, the fields are packed with squash and pumpkins, the plane trees turn saffron and crows congregate to pick over the withering cornstalks. One morning we drive two hours north and 25 000 years back in time, to the prehistoric Grotte de Pech-Merle, just across the Dordogne River at Gascony’s border with the Dordogne region. Descending into the depths of its underground chambers, we marvel at the paintings of woolly mammoths and spotted horses, and the stencils of human hands. Our group is small, a fraction of the crowds who pay to see a mere replica at Lascaux. Our imaginations time-travel forward to the Gallo-Roman era when we explore Séviac. The remains of this sumptuous garden villa – its thermal baths warmed with a system of underground pipes for central heating, its marble columns shooting into the sky, and its intricately coloured mosaics glistening under tiled pavilions – were unearthed just a few decades ago. Archaeologists still haven’t established who first owned the place. But my favourite Gascon discovery lies within an 18th-century tannery at the edge of Lectoure, where designers Henri and Denise Lambert have lovingly resuscitated the dormant practice of woadplant dyeing at Bleu De Lectoure. Renaissance artisans created this ‘royal blue’ for the French monarchy by harvesting vast acres of woad, crushing the plants’ leaves into a pulp, hand-moulding them into balls to dry in the sun, and fermenting them in the urine of beer-swilling soldiers before ultimately dispatching them to the king’s royal dyers! (It was too expensive for anyone outside the royal family.) Eventually the unstoppable flow of indigo and synthetic colouring drove woad dyeing to extinction. ‘See for yourself why woad blue carried such mystique ... why people believed it was witchcraft,’ Denise urges as she hands me a strip of white cotton. I dip my cloth into a sloshing vat of canaryyellow brew, then cautiously extract it. As if by magic, air turns the yellowed cloth into the most stunning blue I have ever seen. Today our woad-dyed cloths remain our family’s most treasured souvenirs of our visit to la France profonde – and a reminder that surprising bursts of beauty come to those who take the time to take the time. WHERE TO STAY Vicki found the rustic two-bedroom home she stayed in on gite.com. Options on the site include Au Gaÿ, an exquisite 15th-century property (sleeps eight) near Nerac; Casteyre, a restored 18th-century stone farmhouse (sleeps eight) near Lectoure; and Berdoulet, another restored stone farmhouse (sleeps six) near Auvillar. Recommended hotels with good restaurants specialising in local cuisine include Hôtel de Bastard, a converted mansion in Lectoure (hotel-de-bastard.com); and Château de Fourcès, a Renaissance castle by the river in picturesque Fourcès (chateau-fources.com). WHERE TO EAT
- La Table d’Armandie, Agen. A sleek, newish restaurant that’s popular with locals and chefs for its juxtaposition of gourmet fare and rugby: a large screen next to the elegant tables projects matches.
- Bar Crêperie du Château, Larressingle. Tucked inside the tiny town’s fortifications, this place has a terrace and fireplace and inexpensive lunches.
- Restaurant Bernard Daubin (known as Chez Simone), in Montréaldu-Gers. A highly recommended family restaurant known for Gascon specialities and a huge, artfully displayed selection of wine and Armagnac.
- Le Puits Saint Jacques, at Pujaudran, to the west of Toulouse, (lepuitssaintjacques.fr)
- La Table des Cordeliers, housed in a chapel in Condom (latabledescordeliers.com)
- Fly in to Paris and catch the super-speedy TGV train to the Gascon gateway Agen (a direct journey will take four hours at R1 608/ person, first class). If you fly in to Toulouse, there are approximately eight direct trains daily that will get you to Agen in around an hour (approximately R386/ person, first class). Book through World Travel, 011-628-2319, worldtravel.co.za.
- If you’re flying in to London, you could hire a car there and get to Agen in just over 11 hours -- visit viamichelin.co.uk for directions.