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

Bazas

This town is easy to drive past, and off the typical tourist map, as there are no trains or public transportation to take you here from Bordeaux. Which is probably how everyone locally would like it to stay…a historical gem in the countryside. It’s location, just on the outskirts of Graves and before heading into the stark Landes was why it was once considered the last bit of civilization.

Walking into town is most idealic on Rue Fondespan, with it’s cobbled street and small businesses. This opens into the large Place de la Cathedrale, with Cathédrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Bazas (a UNESCO site) which was sadly vandalized during the Protestant reformation. The structure itself is still breathtaking and the small Jardin du Chapitre to the right is a lovely place to stroll and look over the valley below.

The town square is surrounded by arcaded buildings, some dating back to the 14th century. Take a walk down any of the side streets to see wooden timbered facades, ornate stonework and secret courtyards. To see Bazas on a Saturday morning, filled with stalls of vegetable, meats and local product vendors is like stepping back into time. It has to be one of the most beautiful markets in the area.

The Bazas Tourist Office is incredibly helpful and offers weekly tours on the history of Bazas or the ancient city hospital Apothecary. These tours need to be booked in advance and are only offered in French at this time. Please fill out the form below for someone to translate the tours for free.

 

For a town of under 5,000 people, there are a large number of really wonderful places to eat and you’ll likely never have a bad meal. All will over the famous boeuf Bazadais, a large breed of cattle which are raised upwards of seven years, living on grass in large pastures before slaughter. There is the yearly Fete des Boeufs Gras which can draw 10,000 visitors into town to watch these cattle parade down the streets, with flower decorations and local dancers in historic costume.

Bazas also holds a wonderful animation for the Fete de Saint Jean in June and the Fete de la Palombe in the autumn for hunting season. The energy of the town and the pride the Bazadais have for their history is clearly evident.

 

GUIDE

SEE

Cathedral Saint Jean – There is a mass in French on Sundays at 1030am, but you are welcome to visit and walk around anytime as the church remains open. There are occasional concerts inside as well as the Secrets of Bazas Tour which is at 1030am on Tuesdays starting April 16th for 5 Euro. Check the Bazas Tourism Office for events www.tourisme-sud-gironde.com

Apothecary of Hospital de Bazas – Attached to the old hospital, built in the 18th century and in use until only 50 years ago, the Apothecary is one of the best preserved in France. While not open to the public on a general basis, there are tours offered through the Bazas Tourism Office at 1 Place de la Cathedral. Contact to inquire on dates and times. Phone +33 (0)5 56 25 25 84 / www.tourisme-sud-gironde.com

Antiques Shops – there are many all over town, but Saturday is the best day to stop by as they will all be open. The owners are fun to talk with and discuss items histories, and while prices are usually good compared to big cities, if something seems too much, you can try to negotiate pricing. Hours vary.

 

STAY

Airbnb offers great options in town starting around 40 Euro a night, including our home…so why not stay with us?

Domaine de Fompeyre – 10 minutes by foot from town square, up on a hill overlooking the town, is this classical hotel with a restaurant and pool. Parking on site. Prices are very reasonable, starting around 65 Euro a night. 1 Fompeyre – Phone +33 (0)5 56 25 98 00 / reservation@domaine-de-fompeyre.com / http://domaine-de-fompeyre.com/

 

RESTAURANTS

Most are only open for lunch during the week and offer great menus starting at 14 Euros, but all will over a nice cut of Bazadais beef! Best to book in advance for weekends or evenings.

Caro&Co – South African female chef and co-owner with her French husband, this couple have a fabulous restaurant using local and seasonal products from nearby farms and shops. Plates are beautiful and often have lots of colorful vegetables, not seen in many French restaurants! 38 Place de la Cathedral – Open daily for lunch, dinner on Friday and Saturday, closed Wednesday and Sunday – Phone +33 (0)5 56 65 24 58 / www.restaurantcaroandco.fr

Boeuf Pop! – Friendly meat-centric restaurant popular with locals. They have a great terrace onto the Cathedral Square for taking in the spring sunshine. Local Bazadias beef, sheep and pork with duck fat fries…also have an amazing burger with local cheese and caramelized onions! 30 Place de la Cathedral – Open for lunch Monday – Saturday and dinner Friday/Saturday – +33 (0)5 56 65 77 56 / https://www.facebook.com/Leboeufpop

Indigo – Chef owned restaurant serving unique dishes with local ingredients and a SE Asian twist. Great valued lunch menu at 14 Euro. Perfect for a date night. Also own Café Noosa on Cathedral Square, which has a light salad lunch menu and is a great place to grab a coffee or ‘gouter’ (sweek snack). 25 Rue Fondespan – Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday – Saturday – Phone +33 (0)5 56 25 25 52 / https://www.thefork.com/restaurant/indigo/44162

 

BUY

Lamigeon – Pate and canned goods store in Bazas which has been making local products for nearly 80 years. You can find all sorts – wild boar, deer, fois gras and classic pate de campagne. If you are traveling back into the USA, I have made it through with canned products from there with no problem. Unique, reasonably priced gifts to give to family and friends, or to bring as a thank you for staying with someone! Open Wednesday-Saturday, from 10am-1230pm and 3pm-7pm – Phone +33 (0)5 56 65 58 49 / alainlamigeon@orange.fr / http://www.lamigeon.fr/

Saint Macaire

SAINT MACAIRE

Aquitaine is a region of a thousand villages so choosing which one to visit is never easy (even for those of us living here!). In the summer months, there are so many fun events that you’ll always feel like you’re missing something. In the winter, while many shops may be closed and some feel like a ghost town, visiting during those cold months is a great way to explore and discover a village in solitude and at your own pace. Plan ahead by contacting the Saint Macaire tourist office at least a week in advance and you can still get a guided tour (only in French, however).

Saint Macaire has an amazing, festive medieval fair in the summer – with crafts, gastronomy, beverages, and costume (even fireworks at night!). The old ramparts, private homes and village center, ‘Place de Mercadiou’, all display their beautiful architecture and history. The village is equally stunning in the winter; when you can admire the cobbled streets and stone-framed windows or bask in awe of the ethereal dome of the Saint-Sauveur church.

Visit the local artisan store and art gallery of Simone et les Mauhargats to find postcards, prints, bags and other creative crafts made by hand. The gallery on the upper level recenty had Maud Langlois of Bordeaux whose etching I was given and absolutely love!

During the summer months, the restaurant L’Abricotier is a wonderful place to sit outside under the trees and enjoy some really great local cuisine with quality products and lots of ambiance. For a quick, inexpensive meal where you can eat like a local, try La Belle Laurette. It’s bar style service, no frills but the price is right and it’s tasty. Wherever you decide to eat, don’t miss an opportunity to have a glass of Saint Macaire wine (sadly, the rare Saint Macaire grape isn’t grown in the region anymore).

GUIDE

SEE

Saint-Sauveur Church – 12th-century church with artwork gracing its interior and splendid painted apse – Hours may vary depending on church services – 9 Place de l’Église Saint Macaire

Simone et Les Mauhargatshttps://www.simoneetlesmauhargats.com/ – Friendly art gallery and artisan collective with something to please anyone, on any budget. Events as well, such as art classes or coffee meetups – 19 rue Carnot Saint Macaire – Open daily from 10am – 630pm with lunch break, and Wednesday / Sunday from 12pm – 6pm – Phone +33 (0)9 67 01 24 33 or simoneetlesmauhargats@gmail.com

RESTAURANTS

L’Abricotierhttp://www.restaurant-labricotier.com/ – charming, well-priced restaurant with great produce and service; in summer you can enjoy sitting under the pergola or under the large trees – 2 rue Bergoeing Saint Macaire – Open Tuesday – Sunday for lunch and dinner – Reservations via phone +33 (0)5 56 76 83 63 / restaurant.abricotier@wanadoo.fr or you can also make reservations through LaFourchette

La Belle Lurette – lhttp://www.bar-labellelurette.com – locals, no thrills restaurant with good 12 Euro weekday lunch menu (I had 1/2 duck breast and fries); events and bands playing year round, check the website for more information -2 Place du Général de Gaulle – Open for lunch-only all week and dinner Saturdays – Reservations via phone +33 (0)5 56 63 02 42 or LaForuchette 

 

Saint Emilion

SAINT EMILION

As an American, one of the best-known wines in the Bordeaux region are the reds of Saint Emilion. Honestly, once you are in the Bordeaux region it seems funny that we should be so aware of these reds, seeing they are generally from small, family-owned vineyards and produced in minute quantities compared to those of Medoc (for example). The drive is easy and beautiful from Bordeaux and it’s worth arriving by car so that you can take advantage of the visits available at the many chateaus nearby.

There are times of year one might wish to avoid visiting, say the month of January when everything is closed…or the height of tourist season in July and August when the town is swarming. However, even in the month of February when restaurants and cavists are only just reopening, you will find plenty to see and do without crowds.

Saint Emilion is a stunning village with the UNESCO heritage denotation, which feeds its notoriety. It is small, easy to walk around in a day (without heels) and charming. The winding, cobbled streets, only add to the allure. Once named Ausonius, the name changed to Saint Emilion after the saint decided to call it home for a good portion of his life. If there is one tour you should take, outside of the vineyards, it’s the monolithic church tour which takes about an hour and costs 9 euro. You will learn a great deal of history, architecture, and folklore.

What is tricky about most wines in the Bordeaux region is that they vary in taste from house to house, based on differential grape blends, materials used during aging, and the very unique distinction of terroir (environmental factors such as soil and climate). Around Saint Emilion you find lots of gravel, sand, limestone, and clay which can add different mineral or earthiness to the grapes.  Merlot is the main grape variety, but you will see the subtle richness this grape gives to local wines versus the typical Australian or American wine.

If you can, take a hotel and enjoy tasting the many wines and discussing the viniculture with the shopkeepers. Many shops are owned by a certain chateau and are great at promoting their wines, but are equally keen on helping you discover your own favorite. My recent visit brought me to Australian cavist Craig Stanford of Bordeaux Classique who introduced us to the 2012 Tour de Seme from Chateau Milens. This was a great example of what I find to be the perfect, classic, light and red-fruity wine from the Saint Emilion AOC.

Besides wine, Saint Emilion is also famous for their light, airy macaron cookies (not to be confused with the Bordelaise macaron which is the classic, colorful ‘sandwich’ filled with jams or creams). The local version is generally sold attached to a piece of paper, with the original recipe from the 17th century being used at Macarons Ferlion. You can read more about the history of the Saint Emilion macaron on the Eat Live Write Travel Blog.

Restaurants can be a little hard; worrying about bad food might be on the back of your mind. In general, the food will be good, no matter where you eat. Many of the finer (Michelin) restaurants will require a deposit to avoid no-shows. If you have allergies or aversions, please let the restaurants know in advance. Feel free to contact me for recommendations.

GUIDE

VISIT

Monolitic Church – impressive crypts, chapel and early Christian church built into the limestone with a visit to the hermitage of Saint Emilion. One hour, only in French (save for the summer tours) but they do offer a paper handout in English to help you through the visit – http://www.saint-emilion-tourisme.com/uk/3-what-to-do/20-underground/438-underground-saint-emilion.html – Hours vary; buy your tickets at the Saint Emilion tourist office who can also give you a list of the chateau open that day for visits.

Bordeaux Classique Wine Shop – filled with Bordeaux wines of all budgets, and other French wines. Friendly, English speaking cavists, worldwide shipping and degustations available – http://www.bordeaux-classique.com/ – Open 9am – 8pm every day – 15, rue de la Porte Bouqueyre – Phone +33 (0)5 57 74 49 49 or email bordeauxclassique@bordeauxclassique.com

 Macarons Ferlion – small confectionery selling ‘the original’ Saint Emilion macarons – http://www.macarons-saint-emilion.fr/Accueil.html  – Open (hours vary slightly by season) every day from 8am – 730pm – Phone +33 (0)5 57 24 72 33 and email contact@macarons-saint-emilion.com

Sauternes

SAUTERNES

Of all the local towns, the one my daughter knows best, is Sauternes. It’s not for the wine, but for their swing set in the playground (we don’t have swings here in Bazas).

Sauternes is one of my favorite little villages as well.  It’s rather idyllic with well maintained, provincial homes and rows of lovely grapevines streaming the slight hills, changing color with the seasons. There are great restaurants and a wonderful wine collective called the Maison du Sauternes where you can go a sample almost any version of the sweet Sauternes that was ever made for free (Chateau Y’quem is one exception, however it also costs around 70 euro to visit the chateau so no big surprise!).

You need not spend more than an hour walking around the town, but you could easily spend a morning here, visiting the chateau nearby (Chateau Filot is right next door, with its charming owner and decadent wines you can taste in the chai), perusing the book of wine at the Maison du Sauternes and then a classic, rich Southwestern lunch of duck breast and fois gras at the Auberge les Vignes.

If you’re lucky enough to be here in the autumn, you might just get to see the ‘noble rot’ which makes these wines so sweet and unique. It is a fungus that grows on the grapes due to the humidity and micro-climate created by the lands location between the Ciron and Garonne Rivers. The grapes shrivel and the juices condense, making them sweeter. The incredible guide (who speaks perfect English) at Château Clos Haut-Peyraguey gave a wonderful tour where we were able to sample the shriveled Semillon grapes (if you like!).

There is also a local tourism office just across the street from Le Saprien if you want to get advice on what else to see in the area. Always keep an eye out for events like the Portes Ouverts where the chateau offer tastes of their new vintages with arts, food and music or the Fete du Vin de Sauternes held in late May/early June every year.

GUIDE 

SEE

Maison du Sauterneshttp://www.maisondusauternes.com/ – great place to get information on all of the local wines, degustation and visits for local vineyards – hours vary by season so be sure to check their website – open 7/7 from 9am-7pm (summer) – Phone +33 (0)5 56 76 69 83 or email contact@maisondusauternes.com

Visit any of the amazing chateau around Sauternes by asking at Maison du Sauternes, calling the individual chateau or using any of the available websites listing wineries. Most chateau are free, or request a nominal fee for a visit plus tasting. Some of my favorites are mentioned in the blog.

 

RESTAURANTS

Auberge les Vignes https://www.aubergelesvignes.fr/le-restaurant/ –  great service, kid friendly, great value with local products and local clientele, nice fireplace in winter. 23 Rue Principale – open Tuesday-Sunday (lunch only) – Reserve via phone +33 (0)5 56 76 60 06 or email aubergelesvignes@orange.fr

Le Saprienhttp://www.restaurant-le-saprien.fr/ – best in warm weather when you can sit on the terrace and look at the vines, can have an uppity vibe, with good value set-lunch menu. 14 Rue Principale – open Tuesday-Sunday (lunch only) – Reserve via http://www.lafourchette.com or click link on website. +33 (0)5 56 76 60 87.

Chateau Trillonhttp://chateau-trillon.fr/z/index.php – little outside of central Sauternes, friendly service with family style food, good value. Chateau Trillon Cap Lanne – open – Reserve via phone +33 (0)6 84 79 22 71 or email contact@chateau-trillon.fr