A bucolic landscape of fertile farmland, celebrated vineyards and poplar-lined roads, Gascony promises tranquillity and nature in abundance. While time here seems to take a slower pace, adventurers will be gratified by the prime surf spots along the spectacular coast and the adrenaline-fuelled activities on offer in the Pyrenees.
The area of Gascony is no longer defined by regional boundaries; it is an historic territory which lies mainly within the modern French department of Gers, encompassing Bordeaux to the north, Landes to the west and the Pyrenees to the south, stopping just short of Toulouse to the east.
The landscape resembles an embroidered patchwork of viridian and emerald, which, when examined closely, reveals hidden lakes, ancient woods, fields of delicate wild flowers, myriad small family farms and somnolent villages.
Much less populated than a lot of France, its potential as a holiday destination has yet to reach the attention of the masses in the same way as Provence or the Dordogne, making it a joy for those who choose to visit.
Read on to discover the secrets of this beautiful area.
Wine and spirits
The wines of Gascony are considered some of the best in the south west of France, so it’s only fitting that you should taste a few while you’re there. The wines of the Côtes de Gascogne are the most well known; they are mostly white wines which are fruity and dry. Besides sampling the wares of the numerous vineyards, try a few of the more distinctive tipples produced in Gascony:
Made from distilled wine, Armagnac is produced in the region of the same name, mainly by independent distilleries. The resulting spirits taste subtly different from each other, so if you’re thinking of bringing some home, it’s a good idea to try several before settling on your favourite.
Floc is an aperitif which is made from grape juice fortified with Armagnac and kept in a cellar for 10 months before going through an approval process to be sold under the appellation Floc de Gascogne.
Madiran is a rich red wine which is very dark and known as the healthiest of red wines thanks to its high levels of procyanidins, so no need to feel guilty as you drink it!
If there’s one thing you can guarantee in Gascony, it’s that you’ll never go hungry. Delicious delicacies are served up everywhere, from anonymous rural restaurants to acclaimed fine-dining establishments.
Food in Gascony is rich; duck fat is a staple for cooking and dishes are hearty and wholesome, with pork, ham, sausage, duck and veal. Below are some of the gastronomic delights you can look forward to on your Gascony holiday.
Confit de canard
Made from duck legs which are cured in salt and cooked in their own fat, duck confit is one of Gascony’s most popular delicacies and a key ingredient in cassoulet.
A delicious dish combining confit de canard, sausages and beans, cassoulet was once a staple meal for peasants and remains a hearty winter warmer.
A rich duck liver paté which is controversial due to the force-feeding process required to produce it, foie gras divides opinions but remains big business.
A dry-cured sausage of seasoned pork meat which can be combined with cheeses, garlic, dried fruit or nuts, olives or pepper.
A little pastry which is flavoured with rum and vanilla and has a concealed custard centre. The outside is thick and caremelised and it is made in a fluted mold.
Noir Gascon pork
Used in charcuterie and as a salted meat, the pork from the black pigs of Gascony is said to be full of flavour and of an exceptional quality.
Prunes à l’Armagnac
Most of France’s prunes are cultivated near Agen, which is just over the Gascony border. A Gascony delicacy sees them cooked and soaked in Armagnac and served up after dinner, although they seem to be combined with anything to produce a fabulous range of dishes.
Porcini mushrooms and cepes can be found in the wild in Gascony. They are delicious in cooked dishes.
The fertile land around the rivers of Gascony are prime territory for orchards which produce plums, apples, peaches, nectarines and kiwis.
The coast of Gascony provides several delicacies, including eel elvers (a thin, worm-like fish), peppery furrow shells (a type of mollusc in a shell), oysters, lampreys (a long, blood-sucking fish) and shad.
Places to visit
Gascony is dotted with many captivating towns, villages and the occasional vibrant city. Many of the smaller towns and villages are bastides: fortified settlements which were originally built under Raymond VII of Toulouse, supported by lords and landowners as they made taxation easier and more profitable. Nowadays, these bastide towns make scenic stops for your holiday itinerary, sleepy enclaves where you can while away a few hours with an obligatory stop at a café in a square for lunch.
Here are some of our favourite places to visit in Gascony.
The capital of Gers, Auch is an attractive city, particularly its medieval centre which is graced by an elegant Renaissance-style cathedral. Don’t miss the Escalier Monumental (Great Staircase) which has over 200 steps - and your reward for climbing them? An impressive view over the Gers valley and beyond to the Pyrenees. Enjoy wandering around the city at your own pace, and when you feel like escaping the hustle and bustle you can take your meanderings to the riverside (at the foot of the Escalier Monumental) and stroll along its banks.
When you’ve got past chuckling at its name, you’ll find Condom to be a scenic market town, with key sights being the Cathedral of Saint-Pierre and pretty medieval streets. It’s a good spot to try the local drink, Armagnac, which is a significant export for the town.
Larressingle is the smallest fortified village in France and was the former home of the Bishops of Condom. Walk over a small bridge to enter its foreboding stone walls and you’ll find a charming collection of buildings, including a small church, castle and houses, many of which are now shops in the summer. To feel like you’re truly stepping back in time, pay a visit to the Pilgrim’s Halt Museum which shows life in the Middle Ages with staged rooms and waxwork characters dressed in period clothes.
Another bastide town, Fourcès is arranged in a circle around a shady square which would have once housed a castle. The half-timbered buildings are exquisite and you can’t help get the feeling that life passes a little slower here. If you’re lucky enough that your visit coincides with the annual flower festival in April, you’ll be in for a treat!
Enjoying an elevated position above the Gers river, Lectoure offers beautiful countryside views and some interesting buildings along the length of its main street. Stop to marvel at its cathedral at one end and walk along, taking in the sights to the other end where the chateau of the Counts of Armangnac has been converted into an antique shopping centre. Lectoure also boasts a thermal spa, perfect for a rejuvenating treatment after a day of sightseeing.
This village, as well as several others cited in this section, has earnt the accolade of one of the most beautiful in France. Montréal-du-Gers is again, a bastide village with a peaceful café-lined central square and shady arcades.
Set on the Saleys River, Salies-de-Béarn is a photogenic village whose underground salt-water source has helped it become recognised as a spa village. Besides treating yourself to a salt-based therapy, there are many other pursuits to be enjoyed here, from kayaking on the nearby rivers of Gave de Pau or Gave d’Oloron, to eating your way from one inviting café to the next.
Another one of France’s most beautiful villages, Sarrant is set around a central church and exhibits some beautiful medieval houses and buildings and sights, including a small garden which features plants specific to the era.
If there’s one thing you’ll need when you visit this charming fortified village, it’s your camera. The Place Royal, the central square, couldn’t be more picturesque, lined with arcaded houses adorned with climbing flowers and exquisite examples of half-timbered architecture.
Other picturesque towns and villages to add to your itinerary are Fleurance, Nérac, Bazas, Eauze, Saint-Antoine, Mont d’Astarac, Lavardens, Valence-sur-Baise and Vic Fezensac.
Adventures on the coast
With such a rich variety on offer for visitors inland, the coast of Gascony can sometimes be passed by, but with its own gems to share, there’s every reason to add the coast to your itinerary.
Dune du Pilat
Europe’s tallest sand dune is a spectacle to behold, a colossal ridge of sand which separates the azure waters of the Atlantic Ocean from the forests behind.
Arcachon Bay is an inland sea which is renowned for its oysters. Pretty villages surround the bay, including L'Herbe, Piraillan or Le Canon and are the perfect place to sample the freshest bounty of the sea. The main towns in the bay are Arcachon, Le Cap-Ferret and Andernos-les-Bains. Besides admiring the bay from land, there are kayaks and powered boats such as pinnaces, on board which you can discover the stilted houses of l’Ile au Oiseau (Bird Island) and the oyster parks.
While you’re in the area, a trip to the Zoo du Bassin d’Arcachon is a must for animal lovers. A sprawling wildlife park with over 800 animals, it’s sure to provide a day to remember.
Beginning at Mimizan Plage and stretching south as far as the eye can see lies a sweeping stretch of golden sand, an oasis for water sports lovers of all kinds.
Right on the edge of Gascony (according to some maps), Biarritz is an elegant resort and the surf capital of France. If you’re not captivated by the promise of some of the best waves in Europe, the charismatic city is sure to capture your heart. With excellent restaurants, numerous sports facilities, thalassotherapy spas and 16 golf courses within a 100km radius, the city has something to charm everyone.
An epic man-made forest, Landes is not only a peaceful destination for visitors, but also a hive of activity for industries such as forestry, joinery and paper making. To the north, the forest shelters the acclaimed Medoc wine regions from the winds coming off the sea, with vineyard tours and tastings bringing you to the epicentre of its production.
The forest itself can be explored on foot or by bike, the dappled woodland providing welcome respite from the summer sun. The Ecomuseum of La Grande Lande Marquèze is worth a visit to find out about the history of the region and its various industries.
We’ve covered countryside and coast, so now it’s the turn of Gascony’s mountainous region to take the spotlight. Gascony encompasses part of the Pyrenees up to the border with Spain, a distinctive landscape which offers yet more variety.
Nestled into the foothills of the Pyrenees, the large town of Lourdes is a significant pilgrimage site for Catholics due to the belief that the Virgin Mary appeared before the 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous in 1858. The site of this miracle, The Grotto of Massabielle, is visited by millions of pilgrims each year, hoping for their ailments to be cured. Even for non-Catholics, the town is an interesting place to visit, with shops selling religious-themed souvenirs contrasting with historical sites which include a hilltop castle.
Framed by beautiful mountains, Pau is distinct in that it has experienced British influence since the Victorian times, with vestiges including the wooded gardens of Beamont Palace Park and the stunning examples of horticulture surrounding the resplendent villas. Explore the cobbled streets on foot, admiring the 17th and 18th century architecture and pausing to appreciate the glorious mountain views from the Boulevard des Pyrénées.
The Pyrenees National Park
Awe-inspiring natural landmarks, incredible views and a plethora of wildlife await in this beautiful national park. Explore on two feet or two wheels, or hop on board the Train d’Artouste to rumble along the dizzying narrow-gauge railway from La Sagette to Lake Artouste, taking in the views without the effort.
Pic du Midi
Journey up to this magnificent summit by cable car and you’ll find yourself rewarded by tremendous views over the mountain tops. There’s a small museum, restaurant and observatory up there, but be advised that children under three are not permitted to visit due to the atmospheric pressure.
The Pyrenees are the Alps more affordable cousin. The largest resort here is Barèges and La Mongie (Tourmalet) while the highest is Superbagnères. The higher you go, the better the reliability of the snow, but nowadays there are some areas which have snow-making machines to keep you skiing even if the snow’s not falling.
Besides skiing in the summer, the landscape of they Pyrenees lends itself to a plethora of outdoor experiences, including walking, mountain biking, rafting, canoeing and paragliding for the really adventurous!
Country Music Festival, Mirande
Bringing the Wild West to Gascony, this well-attended annual festival in July unites country music with Harley Davidsons, cowboys and American cars.
Jazz in Marciac
With 200,000 visitors, Jazz in Marciac is a major festival in the jazz world. Playing host to many internationally famous musicians, there are nightly concerts in a giant marquee as well as galleries, craft shops and delicious food. It is held over two or three weeks in late July to early August.
Armagnac Festival, Labastide d’Armagnac
Taking place over the last weekend of October to celebrate Gascony’s much-loved tipple, Armagnac en Fête features tastings, demonstrations, cookery classes and chefs at work.
Tempo Latino, Vic Fezensac
You’ll be forgiven for thinking you’ve stepped out of France and into Latin America at this vibrant and welcoming festival. With music Latin music including salsa, jazz, hip hop and Afro-Cuban, Tempo Latino features artists from all corners of Latin America and beyond.
Bandas à Condom
Bringing together brass, woodwind and percussion musicians over the second weekend in May, Bandas à Condom has been running for four decades. Tens of thousands of festival goers line the streets, united in their love for band music and having a good time.
Many towns and villages host wine festivals throughout the year, from the Fête des Vins de Madiran in August to the Fête des Vendanges in Jurançon in December. We recommend you enquire locally during your stay to discover what’s on near you.
The romantic, laid-back atmosphere of Gascony makes it an incredible location for a country wedding. With rich, delectable food served up by French chefs, quality wine from local vineyards and some of the most stunning rural venues imaginable, the region naturally has all the elements necessary for the most memorable of weddings.
If you’re planning your big day and want to wow your guests with a stunning venue and on-site accommodation to match, take a look at Big Domain’s selection of wedding venues in Gascony.
The Three Musketeers
It would be remiss to sail through this guide without mentioning the famous tale of The Three Musketeers! D’Artagnan, the most famous of the musketeers, was dreamt up by author Alexandre Dumas based on the real-life Charles de Batz de Castelmore who was born in the small village of Lupiac and became captain of the Musketeers of the Guard. D’Artagnan is actually the fourth musketeer who joins Aramis, Athos and Porthos to fight for the French king Louis XIII.
References to d’Artagnan are plentiful in Gascony, and fans of the book can visit the village of Lupiac where there is a museum dedicated to him and a summer festival when villagers wear period dress and organise games, competitions and performances, all in celebration of their favourite musketeer.
Your group holiday in Gascony
With so much to explore, from somnolent villages to international music festivals, Gascony has all the ingredients for the perfect group holiday. Take a look at our stunning large villas in Gascony and find the perfect base for your special celebration or big family getaway.