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

Skiing in the Pyrenees

If you have ever been to the Alps, you cannot compare the skiing available nearby in the Pyrenees (try going to Andorra in that case). Within three hours from Bordeaux (or Bazas) you can get a wintery experience at either of these nearby locations.*

Gourette : A small, low altitude, affordable, family ski village created in the 1960’s with a good selection of trails 

The good + There are 39 pistes in Gourette, a snow park for trying out tricks, sledding and dog sled run (when snowfall is good), and a hot tub.

The instructors are really great with kids and introduction lessons for 3-4 year old kids with Ecole du Ski Francais start at 61 EURO for 2×2 hour courses during the weekend. An adult ski pass costs 37.50 EURO for the day. Secured parking is also very reasonable. Adult ski rental equipment from SkiSet starts at 18 EURO a day (13.50 if booked in advance online).

The restaurant selection is OK, you can get cheese fondue with morelles at La Quebotte if you book in advance. Lots of garbure (traditional Gasconne soup) and even palombe are on offer, depending where you dine. There is the Maison Casaux, a cute coffee shop with patisserie, decorated in skiing antiques and mountain bric-a-brac. 

There didn’t seem to be an particular hotel but lots of apartment rentals and chalets. There are groceries, cheese shops, bakery and a butcher by foot.

The bad – Outside of skiing, there is not much to do.

Saint Lary Soulan : A charming mountain village with slopes for families and experienced skiers, spas and thermal indoor pools.

The good + Saint Lary and its 58 pistes has a snow park and toboggan run, but so much more…so it’s a great place to go if you have people in your group who don’t want to ski.

There are lessons with ESF for beginners under 5 years, starting at 36 EURO for one 2-hour lesson. Ski passes can be booked online and start at 44 EURO for an adult day pass. Most hotels have free parking and there is plenty on the street as well.

The main town of Saint Lary has a good selection of shops and little stores to buy the gateau a la broche – a delicious cookie/cake that is cooked over an open fire and resembles a pine tree. There is a great selection of restaurants serving everything from galettes to local beef, even wine bars for socializing like Le Balthazar.

My favorite place to stay in the town is the Mercure Sensoria, they have a NUXE spa and decent restaurant attached, lovely lounge area with fire place for after skiing and are just at the bottom of the tele-cabin to the slopes. They are great with kids and offer a small play area with PlayStation and sitting area to read their books. Prices can be as low as 200 EURO a night for a family, but go up in season and tend to book fast. They also offer a pool and play area with thermal spa waters, which is also available to the public.

The bad – It is more expensive than Gourette for the basics and most everything is in the village if you don’t want to ski.

*All reviews are based on first hand experience

 

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.