Explore the country of d’Artagnan, the most famous of the musketeers. Swap the horse for a bicycle and enjoy the ride through the bucolic Gascony in the south of France!
From the sky, it looks like a fan made of valleys from north to south, running from the Massif Central to the Pyrénées. Biking the Gascony region in the south of France is quite a challenge: going uphill on regular slopes amongst cereal, corn or sunflower fields and biking down fast on a steeper side naturally planted with black oak trees and Mediterranean species.
Behind a bend, another hill. Sometimes, a rather low square tower dominates the landscape: pigeon houses are vestiges of the past. Privileges of the local lords, one must have lived around there, and tasked his peasants with the unpleasant mission of enriching the soil with the precious pigeon poo.
Past the highest point, a fast and fun ride down, followed by a frown looking at the way up and already pushing hard on the pedals. Sometimes, a fortified village like the picturesque and typical 11th-century Castelnau Barbarens is a perfect excuse for a halt. Built high on the hill, it provided protection to its inhabitants and pilgrims during the dark Middle Ages, full of wars and rivalries. With the progress of Christianisation, Auch became a major stop on the way to Santiago de Compostela and many fortified villages were built along the way to the historical capital of Gascony. Today, century-old towers, gates, washes and houses can be seen, even if some feudal castles have disappeared. The atmospheric narrow medieval streets of Pessan or Lavardens offer fantastic views on the surrounding bucolic landscapes.
With the area secured, trade could flourish. Where the land is flatter, bastides mark the landscape. Built mostly between 1255 and 1323, they are well structured according to a grill-like plan like Pavie. Fairs and markets were hosted in a time when the economy of Gascony was booming.
Auch benefited greatly from such an expansion. Surrounded by hills, the Saint Mary Cathedral of Auch proudly dominates the Gers River along which the city is built. The high town was fortified to shelter it from the frequent barbarian invasions during the Middle Ages. Pousterles, the typical narrow streets of Auch, lead steeply from the Gers River up to the fortified gates of the high town and were used by inhabitants to fetch water. Today, they are a challenge for runners and bikers.
Up in town, the Saint Mary cathedral rises up from the main square majestically. Started in 1489, it took two centuries to be completed, explaining the different architectural styles from flamboyant gothic to Renaissance for its two 16-17th century towers. Not only is its architecture precious. Walking in the dark and cool cathedral, the sunlight peeps through the stunning 15th century stained-glass windows by the Gascon master Arnaut de Moles. The colourful characters echo the ones sculpted as bas-relief in dark oak trees and standing in the choir. The canons of the cathedral used to sing and pray among 1500 finely carved figures by anonymous local craftsmen. Besides the cathedral itself, the treasure of the cathedral museum gathers precious religious pieces from various churches and chapels highlighting the exceptional quality of sacred art collections of Gascony and the local craftsmanship. Many were stolen or disappeared during the French Revolution and the core of the pieces dates from the 15th to the 19th century. Delicately restored paintings, polychromatic wooden sculptures, clothes and other religious objects are beautifully presented in the 14th century Armagnac tower that used to be a jail. The 40-metre high tower is equally beautifully restored and is the perfect jewel box for these precious collections.
The streets of the old town are charming, with many terraces in the summer, and some medieval gems like the Fedel House. Dating back to the 15th century, it is typical of urban houses of the Middle Ages with its ground floor made of stones that used to house a store, and the top floors made of bricks and timber with a corbelled construction. Down a few narrow winding streets, a former Dominican Covent from the 14th century is home to the Jacobin Museum. Among others, it hosts a fabulous pre-Colombian art collection that is second only to the one of the Quai Branly Museum in Paris.
Waving our goodbyes to the statue of d’Artagnan, the most famous of the musketeers and son of Gascony who traveled across Europe to save the French kingdom during his perilous missions, we hop back on our bikes to explore more of this land:
- the much loved market of Samatan, with local producers selling their delicious seasonal and homegrown products from fruits and vegetables to poultry, prepared or alive,
- the castle of Monluc where Armagnac the local favourite brandy is crafted along with the Pousse Rapière, a bitter orange liquor mixing deliciously with champagne for an original and subtle cocktail,
- the many delicious restaurants specializing in local ducks and foie-gras,
- the impressive castle of Lavardens where a fortress was turned into a beautiful castle by the 67-year old Antoine de Roquelaure, the protector of the king Henry IV for the love of his young 18-year old wife. The austere and grandiose exterior of the castle and its elegant interior with second to none mosaics make it one of the most precious castles of Gascony.
- To plan your visit, check out the excellent Tourism Office.
- The treasure of the cathedral of Auch is open from June to September and can be visited off season upon appointment. Click here for more details about the Treasure of the Cathedral Museum.
- For details about the Jacobin Museum, refer to their website.
- To taste the Armagnac, the Pousse-Rapière and the local and excellent wines of Gascony, visit the Castle of Monluc and learn about its thrilling history.
- The castle of Lavardens hosts art exhibits.
- The proposed bike loop is best down over 2 days, or more to also visit Lavardens and Monluc. The same parkour can be enjoyed by car.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! To download the GPS track, refer to this short tutorial.