A Visit to the Historic Capital of Gascony

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

Visiting Bazas

UPDATED Jan 2020

There are so many lovely towns to visit within an hour of Bordeaux. One of the most authentic and unspoiled French countryside towns might be Bazas. Its arcaded town square, beautiful Saturday morning markets and unique festivals are only a few of the reasons to visit. Come for a taste of what French life was, and has been, for centuries.

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Lovely Spring Morning on Cathedral Square

How to Get There:

The closest airport is Bordeaux BOD which is serviced by AirFrance, Vueling, Easyjet, RyanAir and Volotea among others. A bus can take you to Bordeaux Saint-Jean Gare for 8 EURO one way and departs every 30 minutes and tickets can be purchased online, inadvance with http://www.30direct.com.

The closest train station is Langon (Nouvelle-Aquitaine) which has regular service from Bordeaux Saint-Jean Gare. The round-trip fare is around 18 EURO for adults. There are car rental companies within walking distance to the train station.

There is limited bus service which makes arriving by car the only way to visit Bazas and is the main reason it has retained its authentic French countryside charm.

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What to See : There are tours of Bazas village, Saint-Jean the Baptiste Cathedral, the ancient hospital apothecary, summer underground visits and even theatricla tours for children through the Bazadais Tourism Office, in French. There is a small archeological museum underneath the mairie which can be visited during high season on Thursday or Saturday, or with a guided tour. This traces the growth of the village and area from prehistoric times, with displayed artifacts collected over the centuries of habitation. Hours vary depending on season / +33 5 56 25 25 84 / Place de la Cathedrale, 33430 Bazas

The Cathedral and town itself is considered a UNESCO heritage site due to its placement on the Saint-Jacques Compostelle Trail. The building suffered through the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution, with many of it’s riches stolen or destroyed. One can still appreciate its significance by strolling through the aisles or by watching one of the local concerts from the pews.

For a bit of nature, take a walk along La Breche, a path along the outside wall of the cathedral with a pastural view of the town. Or, rent a bike with Les Cycles du Bazadais to tour the town and surrounding area as there are plenty of bike paths. Half day starting at 10 EURO / +33 (0)5 56 25 48 26 / 5 allées St Sauveur, 33430 BAZAS

Private tours of the town and food tours visiting the local farms can be booked through Aquitaine Travel Guide, contact directly for pricing and times / aquitaineguide@gmail.com / +33 (0)6 33 91 37 90

Chateau Cazeneuve 15 minutes drive from Bazas, in Cazeneuve, this chateau was started in the 13th century. The residence of Henri IV and Queen Margot has amazing gardens on its grounds for picnics and an enchanting walk to the queens grotto. Tours in French only / 11,50 EURO adults / check website for hours / +33 (0)5 56 25 48 16

Chateau Roquetaillade 15 minutes drive from Bazas, in Mazeres, is a chateau started during the 100 years war with a rather unique style. They also have a beautiful heard of Bazadais on their property and a farming museum (open in summer). Tours in French or English on demand / 9.50 EURO adults / Winter hours are Sunday only with more tours during high season / +33 (0)5 56 76 14 16

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Queens Grotto at Cazeneuve

Where to Stay : While Bazas works as a day-trip from Bordeaux, there is plenty to see and it’s worth an overnight stay.

Le Sorbet, is a bed and breakfast in the hills just 5min walk to Bazas. Their stunning French countryside bedroom with balconied bathroom is a relaxing countryside escape with a garden view over the cathedral. 90 EURO for double occupancy / +33 (0)6 32 31 74 64 / 3 Sorbet, 33430 Bazas 

Le Clos de la Cathedrale opened in 2019, the larger bed and breakfast has elegant rooms in an old mansion with garden, in the center of town near the cathedral. 86 EURO for double occupancy with breakfast / Book online / 9 Rue de la Taillade, 33430 Bazas

Domaine de Fompeyre*** is a larger hotel, about 15 minutes walk into town, with a great view of Bazas and covered, heated pool. They also have a restaurant and substantial parking. Rooms start around 70 EURO a night for double occupancy / +33 (0)5 56 25 98 00 / reservation@domaine-de-fompeyre.com / Route de Mont de Marsan, 33430 Bazas 

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No matter where you eat, you’ll want to try some Boeuf Bazadais! (pictured at Caro&Co)

What to Eat : There are a great selection of restaurants for this small town, all with their own unique charm and great lunch menus. However, don’t miss this opportunity to taste some of the Boeuf Bazadais*.

Boeuf Pop! offers up a great burger with fois gras and works with local farmers to serve locally sourced meats and cheeses with lunches under 30 EURO. Ask for a terrace seat in summer. Reservations recommended by calling / +33 (0)9 83 72 28 28 / 30 Place de la Cathedrale, 33430 Bazas

Caro&Co works with local farmers and has a light touch with their food, incorporating a lot of seasonal vegetables and beautiful plating and a lunch menu around 18 EURO. Nice garden area for dining in summer. Reservations recommended by calling / +33 (0)5 56 65 24 58 / 38 Place de la Cathedrale, 33430 Bazas

Hugo Delices does classical French and some international plates with a French touch and lunch menus at 16 EURO. Small, so request indoor dining in winter. Reservations recommended by calling / +33 5 56 25 54 34 / 23 Place de la Cathedrale, 33430 Bazas

Indigo has great classics like sweetbreads with truffle sauce but also incorporates hints of SE Asia in many dishes and lunch menu at 16 EURO. Nice for date night. Reservations can be made with LaFourchette well in advance / +33 (0)5 56 25 25 52 / 25 Rue Fondespan, 33430 Bazas

Le Maquignon has an open grill to sear your Bazadais steak to perfection, a cold buffet and a lunch menu at 14 EURO. Good for groups and they have a covered terrace out back for summer months. +33 (0)5 56 65 58 73 / 4 Cours du Marechal Foch, 33430 Bazas

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La Breche Antiques Hunting

Where to Shop : Not all the shopping is found on the pedestrian street of Rue Fondespan and antiques lovers will want to come Saturday when all of the antiques stores are open.

Antiques of all varieties and pricing can be found in Bazas. The charming Jean-Luc Creiche on 8 Rue Bragous has a collection of tableware, light fixtures and furnishings of all price ranges and will search for whatever you need. Un Air de Curiosities specializes in fine French countryside antiques in a romantic shop under the arcades at 43 Place de la Cathedrale. When you look to the Cathedral, notice a small road leading to the right called Rue Theophile Servieres and you will discover Antiquites La Breche which is like going into your grandmothers garage and realizing she collected unique antiques during her travels.

Fine foods and fresh produce can be found at the idyllic green grocer Serge Baradat on Rue Fondespan who sells fois gras products from Palmagri in nearby Auros. The Concerverie Lamigeon under the arcades at 26 Place de la Cathedrale has been making excellent pate since the 1940s, like porc pate with Sauternes wine and pate of boar or deer.

If you are looking for a nice memento of your visit in Bazas, look no further than the Bazas Tourism Office with mugs, aprons, books and other items for sale. The tableware and caviste Tradition, on Rue Fondespan, has charming plates with the Bazadais cattle or palombes on them to take home, amongst other specialties.

When to Visit : Outside of festivals the town is great to visit most days, except Monday when everything tends to be closed. Oddly, for a small town, on Sunday mornings and early afternoon there are shops and restaurants open. Saturday, however, might be the most charming day to come and enjoy the market, shops and dining. During festivals and market days, the parking in the main square is closed. Try finding a spot on Avenue Anatole de Monzie (near the rugby stadium) and take the 5 minute walk into town.

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Fete de Boeuf Gras 2019

20 February, 2020 – for the Boeuf Gras Festival, get there early as this town of 5,000 people swells to 20,000 to celebrate epiphany and the cattle bearing their name. Bazadais cattle were originally brought over by the Moors during the 400AD invasion. A smaller breed, they were used for pulling carts and work but in 1980’s were brought back from near extinction and have found their place as one of the finest beef products for their marbled, fatty flesh. Bazadais have been celebrated since 1283 with parades, demonstrations and stands serving any style of beef. Restaurants also have special menus this day,  but you’ll need to book at least two weeks in advance.

24 June 2020Festival of Saint Jean, to coincide around the summer solstice, is an evening parade (arrive early for a good view) and fire spectacle with people jumping through bonfires by the end. The entire town turns into outdoor bars, live music and restauration during multiple days. It can get messy in the late hours but the day time is fun, there is even a carnival for the kids by the library.

TBA September/October 2020Fete de la Palombe, a celebration of the hunting season. Specifically, the wild pigeons. Come learn about this unique hunting method and hear bird calling coemptions, witness the blessing of the pigeons in the cathedral, horn concerts and meet the brotherhoods celebrating the palombe and other regional delicacies.

Saint Jean Festival

Fete de Saint Jean

 *Restaurants in alphabetical order and not exhaustive. Boeuf Bazadais represents a race and could have been raised and slaughtered anywhere in the country. If the restaurant is serving Boeuf de Bazas, this is an animal raised and slaughtered in the area but could be a Blonde d’Aquitaine, Bazadais or other race.

Water to Cool Off During the Gironde Summer

 

If the end of June is any indicator, this summer is going to be a hot one! Here are some of our favorite places to swim during these sweltering days (click name for maps and links in articles for more information) Lather on the sunblock before heading out! :

Arcachon – About 45 minutes from Bordeaux, although traffic in high season and on weekends can double that. Parking happens to be free on Wednesdays, but it’s a great place to go any day of the week. Arrive early in the day (Place de Verdun is a quick and easy walk to the many beaches). Bring your beach umbrella and pack a picnic, or have lunch at any number of the restaurants in town. Most restaurants do not have the best hot meals, but a fresh seafood platter with local oysters and shrimp will certainly hit the spot! Dogs are not allowed so best to leave them at home.

Bazas – Should you find yourself in the SE of Gironde, this charming town with UNESCO protected cathedral, arcaded town square and many wonderful chef-owned restaurants specializing in regional cuisine with local products, is well worth a visit. Plus, the newly opened public pool with its large water slide is a hit with the kids! There are also two kiddie pools, one for the under three and one with waist-high water for older kids. Two euro fee for adults and kids under five are free. Hours in July and August are 1100-1300 / 1500-1900 with closure on Sunday. Small snack bar with drinks and ice cream, lockers require a one euro coin.

BiscarrosseLow lying lake water that is only up to your knees, which is great for small children as you don’t need to worry about waves and tides. This area is popular with families and has areas for your furry friends as well. Pack a picnic and be prepared to look for parking in high season, but at least it’s free! There are water sports and there is plenty of camping available nearby and hotels.

Cap Ferret – only a 30-minute ferry ride from Arcachon (although you can access from the North by car) you will want to rent or bring a bicycle with you to get to the quietest beaches. Off season is great and you can almost have the whole beach to yourself outside of July and August. There are infinite oyster shacks to have a lunch with a view of the Bassin. Ferries hours may vary, so be sure to check, but generally are on the hour from Arcachon, and on the half hour back (with a pause between 1200-1400). No need to book ferries in advance as you should find places even at the height of the season. Tickets are 15 euro round trip and leave from the Jetee Thieres in Arcachon.

Casteljeloux – Famous for its spas and thermal water, this town just outside of Gironde in Lot-et-Garonne has the Lac de Clarens, a man-made lake. With sandy shores to build sand castles, boat rentals, golfing and a casino (!). Not a lot of shade, so you’ll want to bring an umbrella but there is a restaurant and you can picnic. Outside of season, it is free, however, during July-August, there is a fee of 2.50 for adults.

Hostens – Close to Louchat and Le Barp, Lac de Lamothe is another man-made lake with paddle boat rentals, hiking trails, camping and a snack bar with panini, ice creams and drinks. Lots of shade from the pine trees on the outer edge, but bring your umbrella if you want to be closer to the water. Free entrance and parking with space for dogs offseason.

Lac d’Espiet is an old quarry with beautiful, clear water about 20 minutes from Saint Emilion. They also have a lakeside restaurant, water sports, and kids water recreation area. There is sand on the shore, but some parts are a bit rocky in the water so water shoes might be nicer to those with delicate feet. Some shade is available from the nearby pines and there isn’t too much space to set up an umbrella. Adults are five euro entrance, kids under 3 free. Parking is free, but you are not allowed to bring a picnic (I have seen people kicked out for bringing food in, however…). Dogs are not welcome on bathing beaches.