Gascony was never much more than a geographical expression, combining a great sprawl of territory in southwest France, and full of hot-headed locals who, like d’Artagnan, drew their swords at the slightest provocation. But the spirit of the Musketeers lives on among the rolling hills and green valleys of the département of northern Gers – quite literally. Gers is famous for its armagnac, a brandy that goes back to Gallo-Roman times, and an aperitif based on orange armagnac known as Pousse Rapierre, literally the ‘rapier thrust’. Topped up with chilled sparkling wine, its effect can be felt deep inside and too many refills may prove deadly.
Lectoure, in the northeast, is an ancient town, capital of the Roman settlement known as Novempopulania and a welcome watering-hole on the pilgrim route to Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle. Until they were brought to heel by King Louis XI in the 15th century, the Comtes d’Armagnac lorded over the countryside from their military fortress and its encircling ramparts, nearly 3km in length, which take advantage of a natural ridge. There are commanding views in almost every direction from Lectoure but especially from the top of the huge tower of the Cathedral of St-Gervais-et-de-St-Protais, at the heart of the town, and from the picture windows of the Salle des Illustres in the Hôtel de Ville. Nearby, the quaint medieval houses of the rue Fontelié lead to the 13th century Fontaine de Diane, a classic piece of Gothic sculpture.
Formerly the Bishops’ Palace, the mairie has large vaulted cellars that host the archaeological museum, some of whose exhibits, though not displayed on this site until 1972, were first catalogued in the 16th century. That makes it, after those in Rome, the oldest such museum in Europe. The rare Gallo-Roman items on display include some everyday objects illustrated with scenes of ancient bull sacrifices.
One of Lectoure’s most prestigious houses, the 18th century Hôtel de Goulard, has been lavishly restored for use as a health centre and spa. The town’s sulphur springs, with temperatures approaching 42°C., are ideal for treatment of rheumatism and osteopathic complaints.
Lectoure is famous for the flavour of its melons and in mid-August celebrates its pre-eminence by the Fête du Melon, when thousands of slices are given away in the streets. It’s also home to a famous hotel-restaurant, the Hôtel de Bastard which offers succulent and sophisticated food.
La Romieu, on the way south towards Fleurance, was another overnight stop on the Compostelle pilgrim trail. It has a particularly attractive collégiale, with outstanding decorations dating back to the 14th century. Be warned, though, the college gardien, who has the only key, likes a long lunch.
The Place de la République, Fleurance’s central square, is typical of bastide towns, with arcaded shops and houses of medieval origin. However, the vaulted market with its great stone pillars, known as La Halle, dates only from the 19th century and supports the town hall above. A statue and fountain in each corner represent one of the four seasons.
The vast, quasi-gothic Saint Laurent church is much older, founded in the 13th century. It has an octagonal belfry in the Toulouse style, and an impressive organ. Its three stained-glass windows, with echoes of the Renaissance period, were the work of Arnaud de Moles, best known for the windows of Auch cathedral.
South again, to Lavardens, with its imposing castle of feudal origin. Until their move to Lectoure, the Comtes d’Armagnac regarded Larvardens as their principal residence from the 12th to the 15th century. They were forced to dismantle the fortifications by Charles VIII after a siege in 1496. One of Henry IV’s courtiers, Antoine de Roquelaure, built the present château, which was briefly owned by the famous revolutionary orator Count Mirabeau in the 18th century. After the revolution it was divided among twelve different families and fell into disrepair. The château, now used for exhibitions, had 63,000 visitors to see the fine sculptures of Rodin’s protégé, Camille Claudel.
Northwest of Auch, Larressingle claims to be the smallest fortified village in France; its walls and charming moated château date from the late 12th century. It has a Romanesque church, a museum of life in the Middle-Ages, and a joy for children: the display of medieval siege warfare complete with working models. Known as ‘petit Carcassonne’ in high season, the village suffers from the deadliest swarm known to man: the coach party. Arrive very early, avoid the teashops and leave before lunch.
To the west, Vic-Fezensac looks like a sleepy market town but the place comes alive during its Latin American music festival and its Pentecost bullfights. For those who understandably dislike this blood sport, Vic Fezensac offers a more palatable alternative. Known as ‘courses landaises’, such spectacles use cows instead of bulls; the object is to dodge or even jump over the cow, never to kill or injure it, and members of the audience can take part.
West of Lectoure lies the town of Condom, the commercial centre of the Armagnac region. Its opulent merchants’ houses and palaces, clustered around the 16th century gothic cathedral and noted cloister of Saint Pierre, are a testimony to its affluent past.
The town’s place in history, however, is indelibly linked to the invention of the modern contraceptive and even has a museum devoted to this delicate subject. Known loosely in the UK as the condom - in French, préservatif - its 17th century provenance was attributed to some creative local shepherds making prophylactics from sheep gut. A tall tale alleged that passing English gentry found a use for them on their way to Rome and placed a regular order, which was sent from Condom to the UK by French letter, and that this was how another euphemism for the contraceptive found its way into the English language. The French aristocracy heard about the devices from their British friends and re-imported them into Paris as ‘capotes Anglaises’, English raincoats.
The real story, also of 17th century origin, is more prosaic. When the Grenadier Guards occupied part of France, their colonel insisted on contraceptives being used by his troops to reduce venereal disease. His name? Colonel Condum, and condums or condoms they became.
La Romieu © CDT32
Lectoure © CDT32
Larressingle © Dominique's Villas
Typical view © CDT32
Armagnac © CDT32
Condom © CDT32