A Lot in laid-back Gascony
The last beautiful area of France remains almost ignored by tourists
If there is a beautiful part of France that still lays relatively undiscovered, it is surely Gascony. Time truly seems to stand still in this extraordinary green landscape, dotted with some of the best-preserved medieval houses, castles and fortifications in the world. Its neglect, given this lush countryside, delicious local cuisine, wealth of historic monuments and the thrill of having a fabulous fortified village all to yourself as you sip an outdoor aperitif on a lazy hot afternoon, is inexplicable.
The reason for the delightful lack of tourists and traffic can only be that the region (so far west that only the Pyrenees stand between Gascony and Spain) is too far-flung for Italians, north Europeans and even Parisians. But Eurostar and low-cost airlines from major UK cities to the gateway, Toulouse, have made it a lot more accessible to Brits.
Toulouse itself is a vibrant and rewarding city for those who take time to discover its slightly scattered pleasures. The magnificent 18th-century Capitole or Town Hall and the Gothic church of the Jacobins — with stained-glass, fabulous cloisters and summer concerts — are quite central. But the contemporary art museum, hidden away on the quieter side of the Garonne river in an old slaughterhouse, is not. But you can see art on display beside the river all summer, especially on a boat tour along this majestic waterway.
Even more cutting-edge than the contemporary art which permeates every facet of this student city, is the Airbus factory currently turning out the world’s largest passenger plane, the A380. Aviation buffs can book tours of the site. In fact, the city has been associated with flight since Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of The Little Prince, made pioneering sorties from here with mail in the 1920s. The Cite de l’Espace, an interactive theme park, fields a life-size replica of the Ariane rocket and simulated space flights.
A great centrally-located base at a reasonable price is the Citadines Hotel, just a minute’s walk from the excellent, buzzy restaurant le Bon Vivre.
This eaterie does a couple of splendid cod dishes, but with so much emphasis in Gascony on duck and foie gras, the observant are best-served at one of the city’s several kosher restaurants or self-catering.
Good souvenirs of the region include clothes and decorative objects coloured blue with pastel or woad, the floral extract cultivated only in this area and responsible for bringing wealth to Toulouse and its surroundings in the 16th century.
La Fleurée de Pastel is the Toulouse boutique of Denise and Henri Lambert, art dealers who have revived the pastel trade and have a workshop in Lectoure. An early capital of the Gers region of Gascony, Lectoure is also worth visiting for its clifftop setting, monuments and pretty hillside walks.
Auch later became capital of the Gers, but despite a cathedral with astonishing carved Renaissance choir stalls, it is not a place to linger. The glory of Gascony is its small towns, charming fortified villages and countryside. Altogether more intimate than Auch is the little town of Mirande, famous for the flying buttress which supports its church, an arcade-lined town square, band-stand, a great little covered market and annual country music festival.
One of the most unusual and delightful places to stay hereabouts is in one of the gites converted from stables by Maylis de Castelbajac, in the grounds ofer elegant manor house.
One is hip and colourful, full of playful designer lamps and carpets, the other tastefully done in trad design with neutral colours. The former is a personal favourite, not least because it opens up onto the fabulous grounds and offers expansive terraces, as well as total comfort for up to eight people.
It is worth self-catering in Gascony for the pleasure of buying superb produce from Mirande market.
Lovely as is the Gers, the more northerly delights of Lot et Garonne are spectacular and not to be missed.
While Marie-Claude Gracia has closed the Belle Gasconne restaurant, whose Michelin-starred cooking once drew visitors from far and wide to the tiny village of Poudenas, she rents out the beautiful five-bedroom water-mill which once housed it, and will cook the odd meal on request. This would be a phenomenal site for a house-party — and is frankly a steal at less than £250 a night, with the possibility of short stays. It makes a great base from which to explore the Chateau de Poudenas above the village and the nearby fortified villages of Larresingle and Fources.
This splendid, if slightly creepy, Chateau was built in the 13th century by Edward I, who then ruled Gascony, but it was a remodelling project 400 years later which added the fabulous suspended terraces and Italianate arcaded verandah. A magnificent Mediaeval fireplace and vaulted stables are among the finest interior architectural relics in France.
You may well feel like an Armagnac and a breath of fresh air after a visit, and it would be hard to beat lovely Larresingle, which produces this very superior brandy, for an evening aperitif. Here, within 13th-century fortifications that surround the pretty little village, are charming walks, a ruined castle and delightful, panoramic views. There are numerous cafés, and an Armagnac shop by the entrance to the village where the local hooch can be tasted and bought by the bottle.
Nearby Fources is much tinier, but utterly charming, perhaps because the entire village is contained within a circle around a huge, lazy piazza. It has a Mediaeval castle, but this is no ruin: it contains a three-star hotel which would make a pleasing base for jazz aficionadoes during the August festival in nearby Marciac. Marciac itself — where this year Herbie Hancock, Dee Dee Bridgwater, Diana Krall and Wynton Marsalis will be appearing — is the site of a a jazz museum as well as a jazz school founded by Marsalis.
Also not to be missed in the Lot is the town of Figeac, whose elegant and historic centre recalls the wealth generated in the Middle Ages by merchant families trading in silks and spices. It is particuarly evident in beautiful town houses like the Maison de Griffon, Hotel de la Monnaie and Hotel de Livernon, which have been renovated by the town’s conservation society.
Eurostar(08444 848070, www.raileurope.co.uk) serves Toulouse from £109 return. Holiday Autos hire cars at station (0871 472 5229, www.holidayautos.co.uk) from £150 per week. Studios at Citadines (0800 376 3898, www.citadines.com) from £87 for two; Moulin de La Belle Gasconne (www.dominiquesvillas.co.uk) from £1,520 per week for up to 13 people including ferry crossing for one car. Rates on demand from Maylis de Castelbajac (00 33 5 62 66 72 37). More information at www.tourisme-midi-pyrenees.com. Jazz Festival August 1-17 (www.jazzinmarciac.com).
Jewish life in Toulouse dates back to the 8th century, but the first community was annihilated in 1321.
Jews prospered in rural Gascony until 1287, when they were expelled by Edward I.
The home of a Jewish partisan army in WWII, Toulouse now supports a sizeable modern community with five synagogues, a mikveh, six kosher restaurants and at least one kosher butcher for self-caterers. Details on www.kosherdelight.com.