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Gers, A District in Southwest France
New Orleans Times Picayune's TRAVEL Section 3/06/05
"THE HEART OF GASCONY"
Soft rain falls steadily on the cobblestone street just beyond the dining room window cleansing this ancient building from where I write, pattering off drainpipes like a spoon on wine glasses: it is the only sound, save an occasional thump from the bedroom overhead where my wife, Stella, is finishing some last minute packing. It is our final day here in the small village of St. Clar in southwest France, in the district of La Gers. This is farming country with small towns and villages, large fortified chateaus atop hills glowering across fertile valleys at other fortified chateaus; this is the land of the Gascones.
A few years ago, we left several of my small paintings in a gallery in the town of Agen, located about forty kilometers north of St. Clar. We have returned to gather certain pieces and take them to my daughter’s “Crescent Gallery” in New Orleans.
Our good friends Jean Claude and Christiene retired to St Clar, their birthplace, a year ago. Thus, it was the perfect opportunity to spend several days in this beautiful and storied land. Jean Claude arranged for us to rent this lovely little house and has been a tour guide “extraordinaire”.
The English founded St. Clar in 1289 as a Bastide. Bastides are small towns created by the English and French throughout the region from the 12th to the 14th centuries to repopulate a land ravaged by war. Started from scratch, all feature a grid layout made of regular plots surrounding a central square boarded by arcades. The square became the market place, center of most of the communities’ economy. St. Clar is unusual in that it has two arcaded squares, one of which contains a fine wooden covered market building dating from the 13th century. These Bastides are only a few miles apart and are one of the most fascinating features of Gers: with much in common, they are nonetheless all different. As it is throughout France, food and wine are the most popular source of identity for La Gers. Garlic, fois-gras (most anything made from geese), an aperitif floc-de-gascon and the brandy Armenac are some of its signature products. Stella wanted to purchase some exceptional fois-gras, so last night our friend Jean Claude, who lives in St. Clar, drove us about 15 miles to the tiny village of Goudeville, also a Bastide: here he had a friend who he said made the very best.
We left about six P.M.; it was already pitch black; only an occasional twinkle of lights from a village or the faint, yellow glow from a farmhouse helped define the landscape. Owls flashed across the beams of our headlights like jet fighters causing Stella to remark that there were more owls than cars on the road. Soon we passed through an arch in the wall surrounding Goudeville, two vapor lights created a surreal atmosphere: all structures were made of stone, windows shuttered, chimneys belching smoke into cold air – silence prevailed.
The person who makes this delicacy we sought is named Monique and is the wife of the mayor. A slight, attractive woman with dark hair, she led across the street to a small building. Inside, neatly arranged on shelves are stack after stack of cans and jars of fois-gras, confit, pâte (?) and other local specialties. With seven bottles of wine to take home, it was necessary that we exercise great restraint with our selection. Unable to control myself at the sight, I suggested that we ditch our superfluous items such as clothing but Stella dismissed this idea with a stern look.
Monique invited us inside to prepare our bill, a blazing fire added atmosphere to the warmth of her tidy home. As sober as it was outside, it was cheerful and bright in here. As we sipped a glass of floc-de-gascon, her husband, Max the Mayor, came and immediately joined us. He was warm and friendly just as everyone we have met had been, happy to talk and meet someone from Louisiana. These are people of substance and character, proud of who they are and their culture. As we opened the door to leave, Max gave Stella a cluster of garlic, a specialty of Goudeville; it still hangs in our kitchen.
Later Jean Claude and his wife, Christiene, feted us with a bon voyage dinner party in their home featuring magrit de canard: perfectly cooked, it melted in our mouths. Served on their wedding china, each course was accompanied by the proper wine, ending with a 1940 Armenac.
On our first day here, Jean Claude came to give us a tour of St. Clar; a native of the village, I think he knows all 900 souls living here. It had turned cold during the night; wind gusted down the narrow streets. Although all are made from local stone, each façade surrounding the market place is different. In bright sunshine, such facades can be almost white to pale yellow, shadows cutting like a knife across uneven surfaces. When gloomy or it is raining, the walls become rich browns, sienna’s and ochre’s. The ground level under the arcades contain various shops, offices and the tourist bureau, the upper floors are living quarters. A young woman working in the boulangerie waves as we pass, the fragrance of pastry and fresh bread permeates the air. Normally farmers from the surrounding area come one or two days a week to sell their produce, today only an elderly couple stands huddled together next to their vegetables.
Built atop a hill as are most bastides, and enclosed behind a rampart, during the middle ages all gates were closed and locked for protection. At the end of one of the streets was part of the original surrounding wall, the valley beyond was beautiful with splashes of yellow and orange from trees which had retained some of their autumn vestments. Walking down the street, our footsteps echoed off a double row of ancient stone buildings which loomed above; the odor of wood burning in fireplaces reminded me of our winters in Folsom, LA. Beyond the wall, a road vanished into a copse of trees: on this road, Jean Claude watched German troops pass when he was a young boy.
Officially called La Gers, its better known as Gascony. The region encompasses most of Novempoporlania, the nine peoples, or tribes, which comprised the original Roman colony in the southwest. It became Aquitania, also known as Armenac; that it was thoroughly populated by Romans is evidenced by the large number of Gallo-Roman archeological discoveries as well as a plethora of towers sprouting up on hills throughout the district. After Rome withdrew, two centuries of chaos followed. Eventually the Vascones, Armenacs, and the Romanized population as well as German invaders merged and the region became known as Gascony. In 1152, Gascony passed with the rest of Eleanor of Aquitanes dowry to the Plantagetet king, Henry II. France emerged the victor after the 100 years war allowing the counts of Armenac to assume dominance only to have their lands seized by the French king, Louis XI in 1472.
It is said the Gascones display a certain flair, an element of self-confidence above average, and why not when one comes from such a beautiful place.
A few days later we drove southwest to Fleurance, a town of 6500. All french people like to shop at open markets and Jean Claude said Fleurance has the largest Market in Gers. Also founded as a bastide in 1272, Fleurance is a large sprawling village with modern outskirts. The market is located in the center, or old part of town around a Gothic church, XIII-XIV centuries; it features an unusual octagonal tower and beautiful stained glass windows. The people are out in force, with plastic or clothe bags dangling from arms or hands they go up and down both sides of the isles searching for what they need at a good price. Stella wanted to buy a few things for our Thanksgiving dinner party that night and joined the fray. The vendors were set up under brightly colored umbrellas or open tents; the old church’s somber walls towering above the kinetic activity created a striking contrast. It was fascinating to watch the faces of the people, the aged were especially expressive. Men with their caskettes or berets sitting snuggly on their heads, joshed with friends gesticulating with one hand while clutching a sack in the other. The ladies were also in a good mood but much more serious about their shopping. The camaraderie that ran throughout was extraordinary, the shaking of hands, doffing of hats, kissing of cheeks, it was like a giant block party but without the alcohol, which would no doubt come later.
Once we departed the market area, the streets returned to silence with few people in sight. The weight of history that had been barely discernable descended again until it cloaked the town like a dense fog.
Thumping on the stairs indicates Stella is descending with her suitcase; depositing it in the kitchen, she flops on the sofa behind me. The rain continues, water gliding over the drains like a small creek. The building across the narrow street appears a mirage through white, lace curtains. Paris seems as distant as New York, Louisiana exists only in books or film; it’s another wet and chilly day but I love it: the ambiance is delicious.
One of the most important towns in the whole of La Gers is Lectour, site of a Gallo-Roman village since the 1st century. Enclosed by its still intact walls, it was the seat of the counts of Armenac and the main commercial center of the region for centuries. Prior to the Romans there had been some sort of settlement here since Druid times; indeed the fountain of Diana, a Celtic religious site can still be seen, as can other stone sacrificial sites. Throughout the town and surrounding area, pieces of Roman buildings remain, testimony to the importance attached to this place 2000 years ago.
The day was cold but bright and sunny as we climbed a hill to the center of town. A small park with chestnut trees offered spectacular views, the rugged Pyrenees Mountains clearly visible many miles to the south. Next to the park stands a tone Gothic cathedral constructed in the 13th century, then virtually reconstructed in 1488 and 1540. The church was built over a Roman temple, which replaced an important Celtic religious site. At one time, this area was home to the Lactorate tribe, another of the original 9 peoples or Aquitania. The final ruling Armenac, count Jean V, was killed and the town seized by royal troops in 1473 ending his tyrannical rule.
Returning to St. Clar, we drove on one the many roman roads still used in La Gers. Double rows of trees bordered the road well into the distance, yellow, orange, and sienna leaves glittering like running lights. Fields on the slopes were a variation of browns as farmers turned the soil for their next crop. On strips of green, tan and white, cows grazed contentedly knowing heaven was on earth in Gers. In summer, sunflowers climb these hills and sweep into the valleys in a panoramic presentation.
We are tired but exhilarated by our visit, this is a land where history is so dense one cannot travel 2 or 3 miles without encountering a place where an important event took place. It is peaceful, serene, and utterly beautiful: yet over these hills and valleys since recorded history, marched hordes of invading vandals and armies numbering untold thousands. Towns and villages were burned and sacked for political or religious reasons; it’s as if a 2000 year labor was necessary to give birth to this magical place we see today.
There is the toot of the car horn, Jean Claude and Christiene are here. Knowing we must get started on our drive to Chartres, then Paris, we embrace in the middle of the street promising to return soon: I shall miss my good friends. As the sound of the motor fades away, we are left with each other, drizzling rain and silence. It’s now December, Christmas decorations have already gone up in the villages and towns throughout La Gers. The scent of fresh pastry struggles through the rain into my nostrils, my taste buds tremble. Perhaps we should get a half dozen croissants for the road.
You will need a car and a good map to see La Gers properly. We flew into Toulouse And rented a car there, later returning it in Paris. Stella made all the arrangements from home, which usually results in a better deal. One can fly into Paris and drive south, we have also done this; French drivers can be difficult but manageable, expect about a 6 or 7 hour drive unless you drive as fast as the Germans. The TGV train from Paris to Toulouse or Agen is another option.
WHAT TO SEE
La Gers is filled with wonderful places to visit, here are a few suggestions besides what has been described in the article: AUCH: the Romans in 50BC conquered the old capitol of Gascony. There had been a settlement atop the hill long before populated by the Ausci tribe, victims of Romes conquest. Sacked by the Moslims in the 8th century, laid siege by the English, Armenacs and French, the town regained life in the early 18th century. A stone staircase named the “Escalier Monumental” climbs from the river Gers to the place Salinas in the center of the old town. The 15th – 16th century Cathedral of St. Mary rises on the Place de la Republic with its twin towers. Many medieval and renaissance buildings border narrow streets which wind throughout the old town. Auch is a good-sized town, so bear that in mind when planning a visit.
Comite Departmental Du Tourisme Et Des Loisirs 3 Boulevard Roquelaure B.P. 106 – 32002 Auch Cedex 02 Tel : 05 62 05 95 95 Fax : 05 62 05 02 16 E-Mail : email@example.com
La Romieu: Situated on the St. Jaques de Compostelle pilgrim way, it is a lovely old village of stone cottages, a twin towered church and a beautiful Gothic cloister. The church was constructed in the 14th century and is well worth a visit. The cloister has all four sides of its interior arcade and leads to the church. Ruins of a medieval chateau with a square tower next to the church were part of the Cardinals palace. Stone images of cats are seen throughout the village, tribute to a 14th century legend. The town at that time hated cats and killed all in the village, all but 6 that were saved by a girl named Angelina who hid them in her attic. Soon, rats overran the town, the people became desperate. Angelina released her cats and soon the problem was solved. A bust of Angelina, half girl, half cat, juts from a façade on the village square. Office de Tourisme Tel-Fax: 05 62 28 86 33
CHATEAU DE LAVARDENS: A small hilltop village, the original castle on this site was designed as a military stronghold by the Counts of Armenac. In 1496, the Kings soldiers laid siege to the castle and left it in ruins. In 1620, for the love of his young wife, Antoine de Roquelaure, undertook the rebuilding of the castle. Unfortunately, in 1653, an epidemic of the plague devastated the village, all the work stopped and the castle has never been completed. The castle is open 7 days a week, except from January 15th to February 15th. Fax: 05 62 58 10 62 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
LARRESSINGLE: A tiny fortified village, it is a tribute to the troubled times of medieval Gascony, a country ravaged by political strife and French and English discord. Without sustained, stable government, the Gascon barons were left to run their own affairs. In this climate of permanent hostility, each center of power, regardless of size, was responsible for its own defense. Thus, in the 12th century a circular rampart, about 300 yards long and 2 acres in diameter, squeezed the church, houses and narrow streets within its confines, hoping to achieve security. There is a restaurant within the walls and a Creperie-Bar du Chateau with a wonderful fireplace. Tel: 05 62 65 34 45
ABBEY DE FLARAN: Founded in 1151, it has been ravaged by the 100 years wars and fires but is still considered one of the best-preserved abbeys in southwest France. The 12th century Cistercian church, 14th century chapter house and an 18th century refectory remain in tact. The monastic buildings, with their walled gardens and grounds, situated in the center of parkland, form a perfect example of a Cistercian monastery of the 12th century, modified down to the 18th century. On one of the pilgrimage roads to St. Jaque, it exudes quiet, peace and tranquility amid a grove of poplar trees. Tel: 05 62 28 50 19 Fax: 05 62 28 97 76
WHERE TO EAT
My friend, Jean Claude, a gourmet and native of La Gers, made these recommendations. In St. Clar: Restaurant "Le Rizon” Tel: 05 62 66 40 21 In Fleurande: Restaurants La Tour du Fleurance Tel : 05 62 06 05 62; Capelli, Tel : 05 62 06 11 88; La Temps des Cerises, Tel : 05 62 06 68 05 Jean Claude considers this one especially good, typical local cuisine. In Lectour, La Gasconne Tel: 05 62 68 77 57
NOTE: The Cassoulet is an excellent entre or plate as the French say. It is a specialty of La Gers and southwest France. Cassoulet takes a long time to prepare; made from white beans, goose confit, knuckle of pork, ham rind sausage, seasoned well with herbs, it is a must. Start out with fois-gras as an appetizer.
For more information, sights to see, hotels, restaurants etc., contact: Comite Regional du Tourisme, 54 Boulevard de l’Embouchure – BP2166 31022 Toulouse Cedex 2 Tel : 05 61 13 55 48 Fax : 05 61 47 17 16 Email : email@example.com
For information how to rent a house (gites) in St. Clar or Surroundings, contact: Office de Tourisme. Place de la Mairie 32380 – St. Clar, France Tel: 06 62 66 34 45 Fax: 05 62 66 31 69 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
WHERE TO STAY
These locations are within driving range of St. Clar. FLEURANCE: Hotel Le Fleurance – Restaurant Route d’Agen 32500 Fleurance – 23 Rooms Tel : 05-62-14-85 Fax : 05-62-64-05-12
LECTOUR : Hotel du Bastard – Restaurant Rue Lagrange – 29 Rooms 32700 Lectour Tel : 05-62-68-82-44 Fax : 05-62-68-76-81
FOURCES : Château de Fources – Restaurant Chateau Hotel Independent – 15 Rooms 32250 Fources Tel : 05-62-29-49-53 Fax : 05-62-29-50-59
AUCH: Hotel de France – Restaurant Place de la Liberation – BP 124 32008 Auch Cedex – 29 Rooms Tel : 05-62-61-71-84 Fax : 05-62-71-81
Rolland Golden (C)
© 2006 Rolland Golden
Contact: Lucille Golden at email@example.com