The Albret is a very charming and unspoiled, if unspectacular, area of rolling farmland and beautiful small villages ranged over the northern Gers and into the southern Lot-et-Garonne, and extending into the eastern fringes of the great Landes Forest which sweeps down to the Atlantic. It was, however, once the seat of powerful French feudal families allied with the rulers of Navarre in northern Spain, fighting on both sides of the ongoing conflict with the English, and finally giving rise to the family of mighty Bourbon kings of France and Europe. Without the dramatic scenery of the Dordogne or the Pyrenees to grab your attention, the bucolic Albret requires a closer look to yield up its charms and interest, but its stones are steeped in history, and, like Essex, its fields are often soaked in ancient blood.
Begin with Nérac, the heart of the Albret, an ancient Gallo-Roman settlement astride the river Baïse. Nérac was for centuries the hub for transporting local goods - wine, flour, cork - via the Garonne and the Lot Rivers to the rest of France and beyond. Now the Baïse serves the world of pleasure boating, with private yachts and river cruises dodging the small hire boats (no license or experience necessary – take care going through the locks!). Nérac was home to Henri IV, formerly Henri de Navarre, and son of Jeanne d’Albret and Antoine de Bourbon – the beginning of a dynasty. Having been married in Paris, and just managing to escape the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, Henri and his queen Margot installed themselves in their château, surrounded by courtiers and the intellectuals of the day, and generally immersing themselves in the various courtly pursuits: hunting, hawking, plays, music, the joys of the table. Their favourite pastime however must have been walks through the Parc de la Garenne, landscaped by Henri’s grandfather and now the oldest heritage site in the region. It is a beautiful 3km walk through ancient oak trees along the banks of the Baïse. Nérac also boasts a fine traditional local market on Saturdays, a picturesque 16th century bridge flung high over the river, and a quaint tourist train taking you 13km south to Mézin (for a visit to an interesting cork museum) through delightful countryside and farmland.
Andiran, just down the road from Nérac, features a 12th century church and a château once occupied and probably trashed by the English; it was rebuilt in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Also remarkable is the 3-arch stone bridge from 1628 on the road between Nérac and Mézin. Bruch, at the mouth of the Auvignon, has ruins of two imposing 13th century stone towers and a number of 15th and 16th century houses. Calignac goes back to Roman times, and of its 11th century feudal castle now only vestiges remain. The surrounding countryside was once dominated by at least five private châteaux owned by wealthy families of Nérac during the hey-day of Henri IV.
Espiens dates from around the turn of the millenium; the name implies “sentinel”; it must have been a watchtower fortress, and belonged to the Galard, a noble 11th century family. Nearby is the Manoir d’Arconques, dating from the 12th century, and near Galaup Creek, where in 1562 the famous “Battle of Monluc Troops” took place, in which 500 Nérac Protestants were killed by the forces of Blaise de Monluc. Even the tiny hamlet of Fréchou, south of Nérac, has made its contribution to the shaping of French history: a lord of Fréchou, François de Montpezat, was a member of The Forty-Five, a group of semi-noble thugs fiercely loyal to Henri III, and later to Henri of Navarre. They assassinated the Duc de Guise and his brother, the Cardinal de Guise, at the Château de Blois in 1588, thereby ensuring their man could grab the throne. The colourful exploits of Dumas’ heroes are probably based on these swashbucklers.
Barbaste has a 10-arched Romanesque bridge alongside the imposing 13th century Moulin Henri IV, with its 4 crenallated towers. It would have served as a mill, a fortification safeguarding the amassed wealth of the region, and a watchtower surveying the passing river traffic. Nowadays it provides a dramatic backdrop for Bastille Day “son-et-lumière” performances. Nearby Vianne was founded in 1284 as an act of paréage between Edward I of England and the reigning l’Isle-Jourdain (who named the town after his aunt). The town battlements are mostly still intact, with four square towers which would have been atop portcullises and protected by a moat, and five round towers (of which two remain). A fine example of Romanesque architecture, the Church of St-Christophe, as it was renamed in the 14th century, is set against the town wall at the northern end. Vianne is now known for its glassworks, and hosts a lively marché nocturne in the summer.
Francescas was founded in1286 by Edward I of England, as the two crowns vied for sovereignty in the region. The Maison de Le Hire is a picturesque medieval house built against the ancient town walls, and is named after Etienne de Vignolles (1390-1443), a fanatical cohort of Joan of Arc, and so-called because of his irascible and violent temperament, “Hire” being an antique form of the word for anger. This marvellous gentleman is known for his devout supplication on the field of battle (it was going badly): “God, do today for Le Hire what You would want Le Hire to do for You, if You were Le Hire and Le Hire were You.” Got that, God? A fine restaurant, the Relais de Le Hire, is set in an 18th century house within a lovely flowering park, and offers more peaceful and delectable solutions to life’s conflicts.
Probably one of the more unprepossessing locations in the Albret, Moncaut is a tiny village of 400 inhabitants, without even a boulangerie to its name - you could live here ten years without suspecting its past distinctions. However, it is first mentioned in 1064 in a Cluniac document, and boasts two interesting churches: the 12th century St-Pardoux in the village, and Fontarède in a small hamlet nearby, built on the ruins of a Roman temple and named a Historic Monument in 1958. Moncaut was home to some interesting 18th century local pottery styles, which for some reason were lost in history (there are examples in the Agen Musée des Beaux-Arts). Nearby Montagnac-sur-Auvignon enjoys panoramic views over the Albret countryside; its 13th century church of Notre-Dame was rebuilt in the 17th century and its steeple destroyed by lightning in 1782. The Château of St-Loup, now a historical monument and a hotel, was rebuilt in the19th century, and has Roman vestiges including a wall and part of a mosaic. In the Church of St-Loup an ancient sarcophagus was found: the story was that if you stuck your head in a hole in it you would be cured of migraine, St-Loup being the patron saint of headaches.
Overlooking the confluence of the Baïse, Garonne, and Lot Rivers, as well as the A62, is the Château of Buzet-sur-Baïse, pillaged by the English in the 13th century, and unfortunately not open to visitors. Buzet’s prosperity is not only based on its good access to the water routes including the Canal Lateral de la Garonne, but also on the local production of its own very good vintages of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc, which were raised to AOC status in 1973.
Finally, on the southern edge of the Albret is Moncrabeau, a quaint small village known since the 17th century as the birthplace of many quaint tall tales: its Academy of Liars and Grimaces has been stretching the truth, and its members’ mugs, in alarming fashion for centuries, and runs an annual festival dedicated to exercising “le bel art de mentir finement, sans porter préjudice à autre qu'à la vérité, dont ils font profession d'être des ennemis jurés" (the noble art of lying delicately without prejudicing anything but the truth which the members officially consider to be a sworn enemy). A word of warning: don't try to get your head around a Google Translate version of one of their stories; it could cause injury. Academy of Liars and Grimaces 05 53 65 46 91.
Moulin Henri IV, Barbaste
Château Henri IV, Nérac
One of the 4 towers, Vianne
St-Christophe churche, Vianne
13th century church, Bruch
Photos © Dominique's Villas