The Trouble with Gascony
In the southwest corner of France, there's nothing to do but take a leisurely drive--maybe you'll find an old chateau. The food is too rich, a lot of foie gras and duck confit. No one speaks English, aside from a few Brits buying real estate. In other words, it's perfect. Margie Rynn spotlights five favorite towns.
Writer Marguerite Duras took her nom de plume from her tranquil ancestral hometown, located on a hilltop overlooking the fertile Dropt Valley and guarded by a formidable castle. People come to cycle in the gorgeous countryside, to sip the local wine (Côtes de Duras), to shop at the market on Monday mornings, and to meet at the outdoor cafés. For contemplating the view, your best bet is Le Daiquiri, which in nice weather sets tables across the street on a grassy ledge that looks out on the valley. For a view of the castle, try the Café de la Paix on the Place du Marché. Don Camillo, a pizzeria/restaurant, serves drinks on its shady terrace. The only other eating option is the Hostellerie des Ducs, which prepares excellent, albeit expensive, gourmet fare. It's also the town's sole hotel--the clean, comfortable rooms are furnished in an unfortunate modern style, but the kind management softens the blow.
There's not nothing to do. The Château de Duras, which once housed the powerful dukes of Duras, is open to the public. It's most impressive from the outside, however, as centuries of neglect have stripped it of virtually all furniture and decoration.
A more fulfilling visit is the Musée-Conservatoire du Parchemin et de l'Enluminure, a re-creation of a medieval scriptorium, where workers make illuminated manuscripts. And prune fans will be in heaven--the celebrated pruneaux d'Agen are grown in the valley, and there are many opportunities to buy and eat them. (The chocolate-covered ones are especially terrific.) Saveurs du Terroir, across from the castle, sells an array of prune products, as well as area wines. Eating and drinking are major local pastimes, and the quest for gourmet treats is a great excuse to explore the countryside. From the town of Rimons (nine miles away) a narrow lane takes you to the Ferme Auberge Gauvry, a farm/restaurant where the menu features duck in myriad incarnations: confit, magret, brochettes, foie gras, and so on.
Orderly, grid-based bastide towns, testaments to medieval urban planning, are everywhere around here; the closest, Monségur, sports a beautiful iron-and-glass covered market in the main square. Out toward the bastide of Sauveterre lies France's smallest town, Castelmoron d'Albret. Built around one circular street, it can be visited in a matter of minutes. If you're really feeling particularly lazy--and rich--the nearby vineyard Domaine de Durand offers a 90-minute balloon trip, which includes a light meal, for $278. Be sure to reserve at least three days in advance.
Known primarily for its superior breed of cow, Bazas doesn't draw guidebook raves or tour buses. Their loss. The town's cobbled streets and airy public spaces encourage aimless wandering, while shops and monuments provide plenty to do. Historic buildings abound, quiet gardens beckon--and when you're tired of visiting, you can always eat. Bazas offers several delectable restaurants, as well as shops with local products like foie gras, duck confit, Sauternes wine, and of course, marvelous cuts of boeuf de Bazas.
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