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Southern Gers

How Rome’s richest man bought up the hottest properties
 

The richest man in Rome, Marcus Licinius Crassus, was the first to conquer the Celtic hill fort of Auch, in 60 B.C., when his legions dislodged a Spanish tribe known as the Auscii. The survivors were sent to work in the silver mines which were the main source of Crassus’s wealth, along with a bizarre commodity: burning houses. Crassus would buy an apparently doomed property on fire and those bordering it at a knock-down price then hurl a 500-strong army of firefighters into the buildings to stem the flames.

Crassus, played by Laurence Olivier in the famous 1960 film “Spartacus” with Kirk Douglas, was best known for putting down in 74 B.C. the slave revolt led by Spartacus, crucifying 6,000 slaves and leaving them to rot outside Rome along the Appian Way as a warning to others who might be tempted to follow. Much later, Crassus himself having been taken prisoner by the Parthians, had his head cut off and his bloody neck filled with molten liquid gold as a sign that not even his great wealth could save him.

Auch spread into the valley below as the Gallo-Roman city of Augusta Auscorum in the province of Novempopulania. When the Roman Empire collapsed, a tribe of the Visigoths, the Vascons, gave their name to a new province, Vascony, which in time became Gascony, with Auch as its archiepiscopal see. The heyday of Auch was the mid-18th century, when Antoine Megret d’Etigny was the rich and powerful intendant of the province between 1751 and 1767. His statue, sculpted by Pierre Vigan and erected in 1817, stands on a staircase bordered by proud lions and gushing fountains at the entrance to a 250m shaded esplanade. The town hall, inaugurated in 1777, has a lovely Italianate theatre decorated at d’Etigny’s personal expense.

The vast Renaissance cathedral of St Mary, begun in 1489, is more than 100m in length. It has a Renaissance façade framed with towers that took two centuries to complete. The choir, with 113 stalls fashioned in oak, are particularly striking, as is the stained glass by Arnaud de Moles, reckoned the master glassmaker of his day. The great organ of Jean de Joyeuse is believed to be the only complete example of such a 17th century instrument.

The adjacent Tower of Armagnac dating from the early 15th century and standing 40m high, was used as a prison during the Terror and again to house opponents of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte’s bloodless coup on 2 December 1851.


The future Henry IV resided in 1578 at what is called the House of Henry of Navarre, together with Catherine di Medici and Marguerite de Valois, better known as Queen Margot. A superb stone and wood staircase can be accessed from the inner courtyard.

The Museum of Auch, located in a 13th century former Dominican convent, is among the oldest in France. Its collection of Gallo-Roman antiquities is of particular interest.

Rather less ancient is the statue of the famous Musketeer Charles d’Artagnan, who was born not far away at Château Castelmore, near Lupiac. Erected in 1931, the statue dominates the valley of the Gers. It is unlikely, however, to be a true likeness as no genuine portrait of d’Artagnan survives.

Musketeer memorabilia of dubious provenance can be found in Auch’s brocante market on Halle Verdier, on the second Saturday of each month. A nearby flea market operates all year round. Traditional markets, offering a wide selection of excellent local produce, are held on Thursdays in the lower town and on Saturdays in the historic centre.

Auch’s Roman origins are echoed at Vic-Fezensac, a market town first called Besino. Clovis, the first Christian king of the Franks, chased out the Visigoths in 507 and made the town part of the bishopric of Auch. Many traces of Vic’s Aquitano-Romaine beginnings can be seen in its streets, and the rue Cassaignolles has some particularly fine houses dating from 18th century. Vic-Fezensac has a popular bullring as well as a busy Latin American music festival in July – “Tempo Latino”.

Cologne – a tiny village as far removed from the famous German city as it is possible to be – and Mauvezin are noted for their covered, shaded walkways around a central square, all too necessary to shield their citizens from the fierce summer sun. Mauvezin’s place de la Liberation is of outstanding architectural merit. These bastides or fortified settlements, built between the 10th and 13th centuries, provided the first protection for peasants from bandits that roamed the fields and the forests. They usually represented a partnership between the local religious order, often the Cistercians, the local count and the king, sharing the risks and the rewards.

Marciac’s church of Notre-Dame de l’Assomption is quite exceptional, the tallest in the Gers. Built at the beginning of the 14th century, it has an uncompromising Romano-Gothic style highly advanced for its period. The same trend towards creating Gothic cathedrals was repeated at nearby Mirande, a little town best known today for its annual country and western music festival in mid-July, when 61 concerts take place during a hectic five-day period. Marciac has a famous jazz festival in August.

Of the many exquisite villages within easy reach of Auch, Castelnau-Barbarens is among the best. Dominated by a tower dating from the 13th century, its streets form concentric circles, like ripples from a pebble. Auterive, still known by many of its older inhabitants under its Revolutionary name of Marseillan d’Astarac, lies in a beautiful spot near the river Gers. Find the old watermill behind the church, decorated superbly during the annual village fête on 1 August. Montaut’s halftimbered houses and Roman church can trace their origins to the 12th century. The Sunday morning market has many splendid bargains and is a vibrant affair.

 


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View of Auch © OT Auch

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Jazz Festival in Marciac © J. Voisin Atout France

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House with 'colombages' and typical building in Marciac
© Pierre Barthe CDT32


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Auch Cathedral
© Atout France

 

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Tour d'Armagnac and street in old quarters of Auch
©
Franceschin CDT32

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