There is so much to see, that if you take a map of the region and stab it with a sharp pin, you'll almost certainly alight upon a charming bastide or castelnau. Whichever one you've picked will certainly have a mediaeval church, probably an arcaded village square and, if your random choice has been really fruitful, there'll be a covered market too. So how can you narrow your choice and avoid an exhausting trawl through five hundred or more of these Gascon gems? Well, in the South West of France the answer to most questions contains the two emotive words - food and drink, so let's reconsider this glorious mediaeval patchwork, with the emphasis on pleasure.
Auch deserves a day, or certainly morning coffee and lunch. It's the capital of the Department of the Gers, it's "high town", of Roman origins, divided from its "low town" by the course of the River Gers itself. There are way-marked walks among the most interesting old buildings of the "high town" and these will lead you to the Cathedral with its splendid choir stalls and beautiful stained glass windows, past the 16th century prison tower and down the escalier monumental. Stop on this wonderful stone stairway to admire the statue of d'Artagnan and to test your knowledge of Latin on the raised bronze letters, set into a terrace, which tell the story of Noah and his ark. Over the bridge in the "low town" there are plenty of small cafes and it's a good, if noisy, place to stop and watch the bustle, especially on Wednesday mornings, when the market will be in full spate. It's worth struggling back to the steep pedestrian backwaters of the "high town" for lunch, but climb up the pousterlles this time instead of the escalier monumental. These five tiny winding paths - steep and narrow - were built in the Middle Ages to link the "high" and "low" towns. There is no shortage of small restaurants and it should be possible to have a good lunch, including wine for about 60 francs. The tourist office, in the same square as the cathedral, is 15th century and probably one of the most photographed buildings in the Gers. From here the helpful staff will direct you to the Maison Gasconne where there is a permanent display of Gascon products to sample and to buy. If you are tempted to make a second visit to Auch it's worth remembering that the "high town" has its own market every Saturday.
If you've had enough of Auch why not drive home via Lavardens? This is a picturesque village, about twenty minutes to the North-West of Auch. A typical castelnau, the village was built to support the original castle, the feudal stronghold of the Comtes d'Armagnac. A more extravagant building was begun in the 17th century, which was never completed and it was finally sold to a co-operative in the 19th century in a state of encroaching ruin. Thanks to the hard work of a handful of impassioned enthusiasts the co-operative saved the building from further disrepair and the conservation work is well in-hand. Lavardens hosts several night markets in mid-summer and other spectacles, so it's worth looking out for the advance publicity. There are plenty of stalls selling food during the night markets, but there is also an excellent, and very attractive restaurant incorporated into the walls of the chateau; not as cheap as the little lunchtime cafes, but good value, nevertheless and with an interesting selection of local wines.
Auch is obviously the biggest of the Gersois towns, but there are several others which merit a trip, especially on market day. Mirande, - properly titled Mirande-la-Jolie- is a very busy town with a thriving market on Mondays. The town has retained some splendid memorials to the past: starting with its near-perfect 13th century orthogonal plan and including its early 15th century Cathdral and its magnificent Museum of Fine Arts. On a more modern note it hosts the Festival of Country Music every year - five days around the 14th of July. If you fancy somewhere quieter the enchanting, arcaded village of Tillac - one of the prettiest in the region - is just ten minutes away. Here you'll find some good photo opportunities and an excellent small restaurant for a typically Gascon lunch.
From Tillac it's just a short drive to Marciac and if you've missed the Country Music Festival at Mirande you may catch the Jazz in Marciac - approximately the middle fortnight in August - but with or without the Jazz the village is worth a coffee and a stroll at any time of the year. The Petite Auberge offers delicious food at a range of prices, but expect a fairly leisurely attitude towards service. If you are in the area at Jazz time the Syndicat d'Initiative is well sign posted and very helpful. The concerts in the marquee are quite expensive but the performers are always world-class. If you are not interested in the professional players you might enjoy the ambience of the main square, with its cafes, its stalls, selling everything under the sun, and its more casual Jazz sessions - groups start playing from 2 o'clock every afternoon.
Obviously Condom is a must, if only to send postcards home to prove that you've visited the town with that name. But actually it's at the centre of one of the most interesting parts of the Gers. Try to catch the bustling Wednesday market, then look at the 15th century Cathedral, the gothic cloisters - the cloisters are particularly attractive - and the "Musee de l'Armagnac". Maybe have lunch in one of the attractive little cafes, with their tables spilling into the square in front of the cathedral, or, for a perfect view of the town, have a drink on the balcony of The Condom Cocktail Club. Condom is an excellent centre, but its satellite villages are even more interesting.
Larressingle is the closest - just 10 minutes west of Condom on the D15. Partly dating from the 9th century, this is the smallest fortified village in France and is known as "La Carcassonne du Gers". As you enter the village through the narrow archway you should listen carefully - local rumour declares that the sound of horses' hooves is still clearly audible. The village has been beautifully preserved and renovated and its remaining inhabitants take immense pride in the maintenance of their flower-decked houses. Don't miss the folk museum, hidden down a succession of winding alleyways, and the tiny, charming church. Just outside the gateway, and to the left, is a small shop selling local Armagnac and floc. Opposite and to the right is a field displaying replicas of mediaeval war machines.
If the memory of lunch has receded, Larressingle can offer ice creams, soft drinks and crepes. But if you feel strong enough to continue for another ten minutes along the D15 you'll come to Montreal, one of the prettiest of the bastides - 13th century and with an absolutely perfect square, surrounded by stone-built arcades. There is the Gallo-Roman Museum in the town and nearby, at Seviac is a gallo-roman villa, with beautifully preserved mosaic floors.
Below the ramparts of Montreal the road winds away to Fources, famous for its perfect roundness and for its wonderful flower festival on the last weekend of April. This is a village that defies description. Each of the arcaded buildings which form this perfect circle, has its own distinctive charm. Each balcony outdoes its neighbour for its delightful displays of geraniums and for its exquisite patterns of Toulouse brick. Small squares are hidden, higgledy-piggledy, down narrow alleys and the sudden view of the tiny church, framed by a stone arch is quite breath taking. If you should come to Fources at lunchtime the Chateau de Fources does an excellent bistro lunch on its terrace, with an excellent and cheap Menu du Jour- a comfortable combination of good food in an attractive setting.
The remaining attraction of this area is the proliferation of Armagnac Chateaux - all willing to give tours of the cellars and generous tastings of Armagnac of all ages - it makes a wonderful present for a birthday or anniversary if the relevant year is available. Cassaigne and Busca-Maniban are two of the best known and are signposted from the D35, which runs between Condom and Vic Fezensac.
Vic Fezensac is famous for different attractions. It probably has some wonderful buildings and it probably has a marvellous church, but Vic Fezensac's real attractions are less historic - it could probably be described as the entertainment centre of the Gers. Whitsun weekend is devoted to bull-fighting and the enthusiastic crowds flood the town, with black market tickets changing hands at prohibitive prices. This is real bull-fighting and the bulls, five years old and completely unexposed to human contact, are huge, wild animals. It may not be to everybody's taste, but it's a part of life in the South West of France, influenced as it is by its proximity to Spain.
July brings Tempo Latino, the festival of the salsa, with thousands of people dancing through the night to traditional Cuban music. The whole town comes to life for this festival and nobody could fail to be moved by such mass enthusiasm.
Not as dramatic as either the bull-fights or the salsa, but very traditional and representative of Gascon life, are the night markets - two in July and two in August. Tourists and locals alike trawl the hundreds of market stalls for indispensable objects that they'll probably never use again. The stalls stretch from one end of Vic to the other and all roads are closed to traffic. Every café has tables sprawling around the square, down the side streets and in between the stalls. Every combination of duck & chips is available and the atmosphere is magical - definitely not to be missed.
Now you could do a little circuit using Eauze as your jumping-off point. Eauze has a marvellous market on Thursdays and two restaurants face each other across the market stalls. Why not have coffee in the Divan Brasserie and then have the menu du jour at the Pizzeria on the opposite side of the road? Or wander up the hill .away from the market to look at the church and the Archaeological Museum.
From Eauze come south to Lupiac, a pretty village and reputed to be the birthplace of d'Artagnan. A small village bar appears to be time-warped in a previous century.
Aignan is just a few miles away and easy to find - another bustling village, with a good, but small, Monday market. The church is mediaeval and the square is arcaded and attractive, but, like Vic Fezensac, Aignan's chief claim to fame is its ability to entertain. A tall, genial Scot and his French wife run a very popular bar/restaurant, where locals and tourists tend to congregate, whether for a drink or for one of Anique's "theme" menus - couscous, paella, whatever takes her fancy. Then, if you are lucky enough to be in the area, there is a "Sardinade" - festival of sardines - on the last Wednesday in July and a "Carcassade" - festival of duck carcasses ( yes, really ) - in August. Both these feasts are eaten off long trestle tables and there is dancing afterwards with "live" music.
On the same route and very close to Las Sabatheres is the village of Thermes d'Armagnac, famous for its tower, which houses a folk museum, and a good café which serves copious food - look out for the sign outside which announces whether or not it's open.
If you are still keen to visit markets you can head towards the north-east and the villages of Fleurance, Lectoure, St-Puy and St Clar. Fleurance is really worth a visit, especially on market day - Tuesday. It has a wonderfully ornate covered market, placed centrally in an enormous arcaded square - a great place to sit with a coffee, watching the marketing masses.
Lectoure, fifteen minutes away, is known as the "ville d'art" and is blessed with a great array of fine buildings, though not very much charm.
St Puy, wrapped decoratively around a steep hill, is just another ten minutes away. There is a pretty covered market, sheltering a small café, at the foot of the hill. The steep streets rising up from the square give fascinating glimpses, if you have the energy to struggle to the top, of assorted roofs in a confusion of shapes and an array of terra cotta shades. Right at the top, dominating the village is the Chateau of Monluc, famous for its Pousse Rapiere, an absolutely delicious Armagnac and orange liqueur, which is drunk diluted with white sparkling wine. The Chateau is open to the public and gives tastings of all its products.
St Clar is one of the most picturesque villages in the Department, with a delightfully arcaded square, a central covered market and beautiful stone buildings in the typical yellow-ochre of the Gers. But if you can spare a Thursday morning from mid-July onwards you will see it in its other guise. It is the garlic centre of the region and tons of the stuff is sold at these weekly summer markets. There is a nice little restaurant in the village if you can organise your trip to fit in with lunchtime.
Not to be omitted is the Route des Bastides et des Castelnaux, a particularly scenic ridge road which links five attractive villages. The first one, at the western end, is Beaumarches, which was built and named by the Duc de Beaumarches in the 14th century. The central square and the church are attractive and there is an annual "son et lumiere" display. The little café in the square is constantly open for lunch and dinner and some of the more expensive menus offer ostrich and kangaroo meat.
The road winds steeply between Beaumarches and the next, and most famous village - Bassoues. As you turn through the final bend the first thing you'll notice is the distant Donjon. Built in 1368, it is still beautifully preserved and is considered a masterpiece of military architecture. The view from its height of 43 metres, divided between four floors, is superb. The Donjon forms part of the ancient fortifications of the village, but right at the centre of Bassoues is another magnificent landmark - the 16th century covered market and its flanking houses with their colombage and their arcades. This must be one of the most enchanting villages in the Gers. At one end of the covered market is a small café. The tables and chairs are always outside, waiting for customers, even in winter, and the sun always seems to shine on this small corner. Go on a Sunday and potter around the tiny market - just a few stalls selling local produce, and the bakery wafting delicious smells of baking across the square - have a leisurely drink in the sunshine and then wander upstairs to have a delicious lunch, under the gaze of a table full of nodding black berets. What a treat! Outside the village, to the west, is the Basilica of St Fris and that is certainly worth a detour, even a walk, after a good lunch. The Basilica was built in the 15th century in the honour of St Fris, who was killed in the 8th century, while repulsing the invading forces. The body of the warrior saint is buried in a magnificent tomb in the crypt of the Basilica. On from Bassoues the road continues to wind through glorious country to the hilltop village of Montesquiou, The cobbled roads of the village lead to the vestiges of ramparts and the former arched gateways and a small café encourages a stop, overlooking a beautifully panoramic view. The route of the pilgrims of Compostella passes through Montesquiou and keen walkers could follow it - via some very pretty countryside - to Marciac.
Isle de Noe is the next village on the route, and possibly the least meriting of a stop - there isn't even a coffee shop.
Barran is a pretty village and if you haven't already stopped for lunch Chez Georgette is excellent for one meal. The value is really good, but locals grumble because she never changes the menu. Barran's claim to fame is the extremely rare helicoidal bell tower of the church. Opinion varies. Is it an accidental twist, due to green wood or is it a deliberate artistic effect?
Now, finally some serious drinking. There are small vineyards everywhere, but the wines of the region fall roughly into two camps: Cotes de St Mont and Madiran. The Cave on the crossroads of the D3 and the D37, on the edge of Plaisance will give you a tasting of most of the St Mont wines - the co-operative bottled wines as well as the chateau bottled wines - and they also sell it en vrac (draught) or in cubitainers.
The Madiran region is more fun for exploring, but not everybody likes these tannin-rich wines, so intensive tasting is absolutely essential. The easiest way to find the Madiran producers is to go to Riscle and then look for the D946 to St Mont. Quite soon you will see the left turn (D144) to Maumusson and this branches left again to become the D164. Once you've found this turning you'll begin to see the signs for the individual domaines. The best known and the most expensive are the twin domaines of Montus and Bouscasse, but it's worth trying several producers. The Madiran wines are red, but the same produders also make a small quantity of white, under the Pacherenc de Vic Bilh label. The dry Pacherenc is very good, but the sweet Pacherenc is absolutely delicious - excellent as an aperitif, as a pudding wine or with foie gras. The later it's bottled the better it is and the more it costs, so the October wine is good, the November is very good and the December harvest is delicious, rare and very expensive. If you like the Madiran wines you'll love the Madiran wine festival, which is held annually on the 14th and 15th of August. All the producers set up stalls, for day-long tastings and the village restaurants and cafes are open into the small hours with constant food and live music. Bonne chance.
The South West corner of France is very conveniently placed for more adventurous exploration. The Pyrenees, the Atlantic Coast and Spain are all well within the scope of an easy day trip.
The whole chain of the Pyrenees is available to the motorist with a good map and a desire to explore. But you can't see everything in the course of a lifetime, let alone in the course of a fortnight's holiday, so perhaps you'd like to consider these two options:
Gavarnie, with its magnificent cirque is a two hour drive through some magnificent scenery. The village is pretty and busy, with all sorts of little restaurants and it's a good place for buying "going home" presents. There are well-marked walks - giving times and distances - and the haul up to the cirque itself is worth the effort for the panoramic mountain views. For children or unenthusiastic walkers there is the entertaining option of hiring a mule or a pony.
If you are in the region during the last fortnight in July you may catch Gascony's answer to Glyndebourne - a musical spectacle in the mountains, set against the magnificent backdrop of the cirque. Take a picnic - avoiding anything too heavy, because of the half-hour walk - or have supper beforehand in the village. The members of the audience are handed lighted torches after the performance to illuminate their way back down the mountain and this snaking procession of flickering flames is quite remarkable.
Not quite as far away, the small village of Chiroulet , in the Vallee de Lesponne, offers something for everybody. You can walk along the valley floor, picnic by the sparklingly clear water of the newly-sprung River Adour, eat fresh trout in one of the three small restaurants - our favourite is the Hostellerie de l'Isard - or, if you're seriously energetic, spend five hours walking up to the Lac Bleu and back. The wild mountain flowers are lovely and there's something in blossom all through the summer. It's quite easy to find Chiroulet. Head south for Tarbes and then continue south to Bagnere de Bigorre - a pretty town, worth a quick stop for coffee. From here take the D935 and after about 15 minutes you'll see the sign for Lesponne and Chiroulet on your right. The road is very winding and as you ascend you'll see the typical "stepped" roof structure on the valley houses. Nowadays they are often renovated with corrugated material, but if you keep your eyes skinned you'll spot the occasional old thatched roof.
Spain is easily accessible for a day trip and if you are interested in a mixture of exploration, and shopping for cheap booze, the trip to Bossost, St Bertrand de Comminges and Vielha is a good one. Start by driving to Tarbes and then east along the motorway to Lannemazan - exit 14. From here take the N117 to Montrejeau and then turn south on the N125. The scenery as you go south is magnificent. About ten minutes after the border, and just before the actual village of Bossost you will see an unprepossessing Spanish supermarket - closed Sundays and Mondays - on your left. The draught red wine at approximately 6 francs a litre is very good and the prices of spirits, coffee, olive oil, etc are very reasonable ( approximately 40 francs a litre for perfectly acceptable gin ).
Although Bossost has quite a selection of restaurants our favourite small town for lunch is Vielha. The mountains are obviously worth some further exploration or St Bertrand de Comminges, on your return route, certainly merits a visit.
The Atlantic Coast offers a double treat, because it can only be reached by crossing the Landes, that flat, forested triangle of country, reclaimed long ago from the sea. The villages are different from Gersois villages, with less substantial buildings - no blocks of yellow-ochre stone - and strangely flimsy-looking, yet attractive, church bell towers, cantilevered from the main structure. There is such a vast choice of destinations along this coast, that only the personal preferences of the holiday maker can finally be considered.
For long sandy beaches, with plenty of scope for buckets & spades try Mimizan Plage. The simplest route is probably from Eauze, through La Bastide d'Armagnac - with its lovely café, doubling as a clock museum - and then the D626 right across the Landes to Mimizan.
For more sophisticated tastes St Jean de Luz is a little gem of scenery, shops, harbour and fish restaurants. Nearby, Biarritz and Bayonne are equally, though differently, attractive.
Hendaye is a great centre for surfing enthusiasts, although it can get very crowded in high summer. When you've had enough of battling with the waves a great treat is available at the western end of the beach. The attractive, hidden, little port is the starting point for a regular ferry service - pedestrians only - to the small Spanish harbour of Fuenterrabia. You'll find yourselves transported into a much more "foreign" feeling town, with its endless array of pavement cafes and delicious local fish. A day divided between Hendaye and Fuenterrabia could really be the high spot of your holiday, but quite a long trip for small children.
So there is much on offer in the region, but it is probably equally tempting to spend every possible moment taking advantage of the comforts of your own poolside. Only you can choose. Have a happy holiday.