By Simona Palenga
On a sunny Saturday morning, we left earlier than usual by our typical family outing standards and drove south east for about two hours, avoiding toll roads as we could, to drive by sleepy villages along secondary ways.
Our first destination was the historical capital of Gascony, Auch, (French pronunciation: [oʃ]): it’s always been a joke reading the name on road signs, pretending getting hurt. The name stems from the Aquitaine peoples who once lived there, called Auchi.
To my great surprise, apart from the stunning blue sky of a perfect and unusually warm winter day, the city of Auch is lovely, a gem not so rare in the French south-west. It is only a brief detour from the Bordeaux-Toulouse axe, in the Gers department.
When we walked towards the center, the market (held Thursday and Saturday) was in its wrap-up phase. The Cathedral Sainte-Marie dominates the main square and the Auch Tourist Office is smartly placed by its side, in a 4-story building, whose top floor is used to look at the square from a higher point of view. It’s colorful and has indoor swings, a playground for visitors of all ages / 3 Place de la Republique, 32003 Auch City / +33 5 62 05 22 89
We walked out with a map with a suggested itinerary not to miss the most important sites and for our children were given tablets for them to participate in an interactive treasure hunt with a thematic reward at the end.
Auch Monumental staircase is imposing with its over 300 steps connecting the low city with the high one and it’s worth climbing. Along the steps there is a statue of Charles de Batz-Castelmore D’Artagnan (who was a famous musketeer for Louis XIV and was the inspiration for one of the three Muskateers characters) in nearby Château de Castelmore. There is also a bronze sculpture quoting passages from the Biblical Flood myth to commemorate the devastating floods of summer 1977.
Along the narrow and steep streets of the center there are nice timber-framed buildings, a house where Henry II spent a night, and The Musee des Jacobins (also known as Musee des Ameriques) hosting the second most important collection of pre-Colombian artefacts in France.
Before the end of the day, we drove an hour to spend the night in an Airbnb in Montauban, which is known for, among many other things, its reddish brick buildings, its rugby glory, and for briefly hiding Leonardo’s Mona Lisa during World War 2. We closed the day with a sunset walk across the Tarn River and a generous plate of local cassoulet – a local dish of beans and meats like pork sausage, pork belly and duck confit (there are many varieties), named after the dish it is baked in, the cassole. Mardi Michels (author of In The French Kitchen With Kids) has a great post on cooking the regional dish.
In the morning, we walked around discovering the Montaubon Cathedrale, the pretty national square and the gardens and the Ingres Museum which houses artwork of the Neoclassical painter, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres / 13 rue de l’Hôtel-de-Ville Montauban / +33 (0)5 63 22 12 91
The reason why we took this weekend road trip was for me to finally visit the Romanesque Abbey in Moissac which I had learnt about while visiting the Grande-Sauve Abbey, near Bordeaux.
We arrived Moissac on a foggy Sunday morning, drove around in circle a couple of times, in search for a parking as we didn’t know the market attracts hundreds of visitors and is very big considering the season.
We left the car along the canal that connects the Atlantic Ocean to Toulouse and goes on to become the Canal du Midi, till Sète on the Mediterranean Sea, and walked towards the center.
We ate in La Terrace du Cloitre the only restaurant we found open on a Sunday, by the entrance of the abbey, quickly enough to be at the guided tour of the early afternoon.
I like the tranquil atmosphere abbeys convey: the geometry of their corridors, the symmetry of the columns, the stubbornness of ruins still standing despite revolutions, wars and the simple passage of centuries. I like how the tradition of these places aimed at self-sufficiency and inner peace.
Moissac, as the cathedrals in Auch and Montauban, is part of the St. James Pilgrimage path (also known as Camino de Santiago), a UNESCO world heritage site for humanity since 1998.
Our guide to the abbey and nearby church, knew every brick, every column capital, every bas-relief and anticipated all our questions with information revealing what everyday life used to be like over the span of 14 centuries, since its creation around 650. 1-2 hour Guided tours are available on weekends November-March and daily April-October. Visiting hours vary by season, check website before arriving.
WHERE TO EAT :
Le Darolles / modern French cuisine / Open daily for lunch and dinner / 4 Place de la Liberation, 32000 Auch City / +33 (0)5 62 05 00 51
L’Estanquet / where to try the regional dish of cassoulet / 16 rue du General Sarrail, 82000 Montauban / Open lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday / +33 (0)5 63 66 12 74
La Terrasse du Cloître / Open daily / 5 Place Durand de Bredon, 82200 Moissac / +33 (0)7 82 82 83 63