Gascons live longer than any other people in France, enjoying what is probably among the least polluted air in the whole of Europe. The départements of the Gers and the northern part of the Hautes-Pyrénées, popularly known as Gascony, have no motorways or heavy industry. This is true farming country, sparsely populated, creating field after field of wheat, barley and sunflowers from its rich, fertile soil.
The pace of life in hilly Gascony may also account for its inhabitants’ exceptional longevity. The concept of a working lunch would be viewed with total consternation by most Gascons, who regard le déjeuner as a serious matter requiring their undivided attention. It begins, almost everywhere, soon after midday, lasts several hours and more often than not involves all four key local ingredients: duck, garlic, wine and armagnac.
Restaurants in Gascony provide particularly good value for money, with four course meals, including wine, for as little as six or seven pounds a head. Foie gras, goose or duck’s liver pâté, is a delicacy in plentiful supply and Croustade à l'Armagnac is one of the tastiest pastries found anywhere. The local wines have a huge and entirely justified reputation. Among the very best are the full-blooded red wines of Madiran and Saint-Mont and the white wines of Jurançon and Pacherenc. Even the most unassuming café usually stocks vintage armagnac by the glass, and may encourage you to try its two lethal derivatives, Pousse Rapier and especially Floc de Gascogne, which is armagnac mixed with fresh grape juice.
Eating out al fresco is not only cheap but entirely feasible even as late as November. Gascony enjoys long hot summers, with more consistent sunshine and temperatures than the French Riviera. Madiran is the place to visit to buy fine wine at wholesale prices and the children can even ride mountain-bikes around the vineyards once the grapes have been harvested.
Further south, Miélan with its delightful lake offers a host of energetic activities, including sailing, wind surfing and fishing. There are canoes and pedalos for hire and the beaches of fine sand afford easy access for bathing. Marciac also has a lake but is best known for its international jazz festival held each August, two weeks of superb concerts and performances involving many of the world’s finest musicians.
The Gascon Museum at Riscle in the Adour plain gives a fascinating taste of life across the centuries in this remote part of France. The capital of the Gers, Auch, has the beautiful Cathedral of Saint-Marie, with its superb 113 carved oak choir stalls and breathtaking Arnaud de Moles stained glass windows. Children may however be more taken by the statue of Charles de Batz d’Artagnan, Gascony’s most famous citizen, who lived nearby, went to Paris to seek his fortune and in fact as well as fiction became Captain of the King’s Musketeers.