The Trouble with Gascony

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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.

Duras

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.

Lodging

 

  • Hostellerie des Ducs 1-5 blvd. Jean-Brisseau, 011-33/5-53-83-74-58, hostellerieducs-duras.com, from $70
  • Food

     

  • Le Daiquiri 1 ave. Maurice DuBois, 011-33/5-53-79-30-64
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  • Café de la Paix 15 place du Marché, 011-33/5-53-83-72-83
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  • Don Camillo 5 rue Paul Persil, 011-33/5-53-83-76-00, aperitif $3, closed Tuesdays
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  • Ferme AubergeGauvry Rimons, 011-33/5-56-71-83-96, prix fixe from $18
  • Activities

     

  • Château de Duras 011-33/5-53-83-77-32, chateau-de-duras.com, $6
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  • Musée-Conservatoire du Parchemin 011-33/5-53-20-75-55, museeduparchemin.com, $7.25
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  • Domaine de Durand St. Jean de Duras, 011-33/5-53-89-02-23, domainededurand.com
  • Shopping

     

  • Saveurs du Terroir 1 place Jean Bousquet, 011-33/5-53-83-72-84
  • Resources

     

  • Office de Tourisme 14 blvd. Jean-Brisseau, 011-33/5-53-93-71-18, paysdeduras.com
  • Bazas

    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.

    The town is clustered around a large central square, edged with elegant 16th- and 17th-century town houses under which runs an arcade. Two of the loveliest buildings are the Dutch-style Maison de l'Astronome and the Hôtel d'Andraut, the latter constructed during the reign of Louis XIV. But most impressive is the cathedral, a glorious jumble of Gothic, Renaissance, and neoclassical styles that presides over the main square. A lively farmers' market gathers outside every Saturday morning, where you can pick up delicious saucisson (dried sausage) and crispy apple tarts called croustades--ask the vendor to sprinkle yours with Armagnac, a close cousin of Cognac. Say bonjour to Jé Jé, an apple-cheeked vendor of fresh flowers and produce who sets up his stall just in front of the cathedral, and to the fishmonger, known for his jokes.

    After noodling around the arcade shops--Le Diable Boiteux sells bric-a-brac and used books--take a break at the main café, Le Bistro St-Jean, or around the corner at Café Indigo. The latter is the better lunch option, with contemporary decor and food (sautéed foie gras with mango is a standout). Houn-Barrade, a couple miles away, is run by local farmers who serve hearty regional specialties like blanquette de chevrette (venison). If you're up for a 15-minute drive in the country, the Auberge de Cazalis has an excellent three-course prix fixe for $13, available at both lunch and dinner.

    Dousud, a farmhouse converted into an idyllic B&B, is home to a diminutive but beautiful pool, a fishing pond, and 23 acres of rolling countryside. Borrow a bike, rent a horse, or just put on your walking shoes and explore. Each of the five cheerful rooms has a private entrance and a terrace; cook your own meals in the communal kitchenette, or join other lodgers for the table d'hôte--a scrumptious dinner cooked by the hosts ($19 extra). A more high-end option on the outskirts is the Domaine de Fompeyre, with lush grounds, two swimming pools, a spa, and a tennis court.

    Bazas is a convenient base for visiting three castles, each less than a 15-minute drive away. Villandraut, home of the first French pope, is a moody medieval ruin, while Cazeneuve, onetime residence of randy King Henry IV and his rebellious wife, Queen Margot, is a splendid Renaissance château. Most intriguing is Roquetaillade, a 14th- century fortified castle with crenellated towers and a drawbridge.

    Lodging

     

  • Dousud Bernos-Beaulac, 011-33/5-56-25-43-23, dousud.fr, $74
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  • Domaine de Fompeyre 011-33/5-56-25-98-00, domainedefompeyre.fr, $87
  • Food

     

  • Le Bistro St-Jean 42 place de la Cathédrale, 011-33/5-56-25-18-53, prix fixe from $12
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  • Café Indigo 25 rue Fondespan, 011-33/5-56-25-25-52, prix fixe lunch $14, dinner $32
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  • Houn-Barrade Route D932, Cudos, 011-33/5-56-25-44-55, prix fixe from $17
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  • Auberge de Cazalis 6 le Bourg, Cazalis, 011-33/5-56-65-33-96
  • Shopping

     

  • Le Diable Boiteux 43 place de la Cathédrale, 011-33/5-56-65-12-03
  • Resources

     

  • Office de Tourisme 1 place de la Cathédrale, 011-33/5-56-25-25-84, ville-bazas.fr
  • Nérac

    Henry IV knew how to live. When things got hot in Paris for the future Protestant king, he fled to the family castle in Nérac and created a court-in-exile as flamboyant as the one back at the Louvre. Some of the most famous thinkers and writers of the French Renaissance hung out here, and the castle was abuzz with diplomats and courtesans. If you're going into exile, why not choose an exquisite town in a superb region with some of the country's best food and wine?

    The walking tour on the free tourist-office map makes for a handy overview of the town's delights: narrow streets lined with half-timbered houses, open-air cafés on the banks of the pea-green Baïse (bay-EEZ) River, views from the heights of the Petit Nérac quarter, and of course, the elegant archways of the 16th-century château. There's only one wing left of Henry's castle--the French Revolution was rough on anything sporting a coat of arms--but it's impressive. Twisted columns ending in ornately carved capitals extend the length of the upper exterior gallery; downstairs, a series of terraces descends to the river's edge. Inside is a museum dedicated primarily to Henry and his illustrious family, the Albrets, with some added archaeological displays.

    For such a small town, there are a lot of restaurants. The two cutest are on the riverbank: Auberge du Pont Vieux and Les Terrasses du Petit Nérac; both also rent rooms. The Auberge, managed by a young English and Dutch couple, Michael and Caroline Hubbard, has three pretty rooms with balconies facing the river. The four rooms at Les Terrasses are less inspired, and only two have river views. Back on the other side of the castle, La Cheminée serves good regional cuisine, including a $12 prix fixe for dinner or lunch.

    Or consider renting a houseboat upriver, from Aquitaine Navigation in the town of Buzet, and then drifting your way to Nérac and beyond. Another option is to join an hour-long guided cruise on Le Prince Henry (which also rents boats). At the very least, leave some time for a stroll along the willow-covered banks of the Baïse in the Parc de la Garenne, created for Queen Margot. Fountains babble, sunlight filters through the trees, and you half expect to see a nymph skittering through the underbrush.

    Lodging

     

  • Auberge du Pont Vieux 19 rue Sèderie, 011-33/5-53-97-51-04, $53
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  • Les Terrasses du Petit Nérac 7 rue Sèderie, 011-33/5-53-97-02-91, $64
  • Food

     

  • La Cheminée 28 allées du Centre, 011-33/5-53-65-18-88
  • Activities

     

  • Château-Musée Henri IV rue Henri IV, 011-33/5-53-65-21-11, $5
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  • Aquitaine Navigation 011-33/5-53-84-72-50
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  • Le Prince Henry Capitainerie du Port, 011-33/5-53-65-66-66, hour cruise $9
  • Resources

     

  • Office de Tourisme 7 ave. Mondenard, 011-33/5-53-65-27-75, ville-nerac.fr
  • Cadillac

    In the 17th century, a certain Antoine Laumet decided to hop a ship to North America and masquerade as an aristocrat, renaming himself Antoine Laumet de la Mothe Cadillac, essentially Lord of Cadillac. The self-declared noble went on to found the city of Detroit, and eventually had a car named after him. The Cadillac connection, fuzzy at best, is enough to convince French Caddy owners to make a pilgrimage every August, to a festival in this delightful bastide in the Entre-Deux-Mers region. Balades en Cadillac is a bizarre spectacle of vintage Caddies cruising past 16th-century town houses and medieval ramparts. But you don't need a Cadillac to justify a visit. The elegant square with its 19th-century covered market, the mighty castle brooding over the village, and the delicious dessert wines made nearby are reasons enough to dawdle.

    Though the last two centuries haven't been kind to the interiors of the Château de Cadillac, its dramatic history makes exploring it worthwhile. A ducal pleasure palace during the reign of Henry IV, it was turned into a grim women's prison after the French Revolution. A series of royal apartments on the ground floor have been restored to give a sense of what it was like in the good old days; the rest has been left bare except for the displays about prison life. (Request a brochure in English.) The vast halls are also used for temporary photography exhibits.

    Restaurants and cafés are sprinkled near the Place de la République, where the majestic covered market hosts food vendors on Saturday mornings (and an antiques fair during the first weekend of October). Le Grilloir du Château specializes in grilled meats and fish. Down the street loom the city walls, pierced by two impressive entryways, or portes. Just past the crenellated Porte de la Mer is Cadillac's only hotel, the Hotel Restaurant Detrée, which has simple rooms and a traditional restaurant. (Note: It closes every year from October 15 to November 15.) A more refined dining alternative is near the banks of the Garonne River, where L'Entrée Jardin dazzles with dishes such as chicken and fresh foie gras in a puff pastry, with sweet Cadillac wine sherbet. Like Le Grilloir, it offers a $13 weekday lunch. On the way out of town, stop by Maison des Vins, a cooperative of local vineyards, inside La Closière, an 18th-century Carthusian monastery. (Don't get excited: The building is plain.) You can taste and buy wine, as well as gather information about visiting area tasting rooms. Then take just about any country road you see--you'll feel as though you've been dropped into a coffee-table book on the splendors of French landscapes.

    Lodging

     

  • Detrée 22 ave. du Pont, 011-33/5-56-62-65-38, $48
  • Food

     

  • Le Grilloir du Château 7 rue de la Porte de la Mer, 011-33/5-56-62-83-39
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  • L'Entrée Jardin 27 ave. du Pont, 011-33/5-56-76-96-96
  • Activities

     

  • Balades en Cadillac 011-33/5-57-98-18-90 Château de Cadillac 011-33/5-56-62-69-58, monum.fr
  • Shopping

     

  • Maison des Vins 011-33/5-57-98-19-20
  • Resources

     

  • Office de Tourisme 9 place de la Libération, 011-33/5-56-62-12-92
  • Fourcès

    Overwhelmingly rural, the Gers region is mostly known for Armagnac and chickens, though savvy Brits are starting to buy up country homes at a rapid clip. Amid a gentle sea of rolling hills and tidy vineyards, Fourcès (for-CESS) is one of the nicest of the ancient villages and abbeys sprinkled around the area. It's unusually shaped, with a circular town "square" rimmed with half-timbered and stone houses. In the center is a disk of grass and flowers shaded by enormous plane trees. A few paces down a cobbled side street bring glimpses of Renaissance-era dwellings, hidden gardens, and willows weeping ever so poetically over the Auzoue River. A few more steps and you've passed through the medieval Tour de l'Horloge, out the city walls, and into a flower-filled garden. From there you can circle the perimeter of town and admire the countryside on a pebbled path.

    The only thing missing from this idyllic picture is a castle, and as it happens there is a small one, which has been turned into a hotel. Rooms at the Château de Fourcès are on the expensive side but you can't beat the ambience: exposed stone walls and beamed ceilings in the restaurant and lounge; luminous rooms with pleasant, but not particularly exciting, decor; and a lovely pool. For cheaper lodgings, consider a B&B or a rental--some of those cute stone houses rent out by the week. The only other restaurant besides the upscale one at the hotel is L'Auberge, a pleasant café with a large terrace on the town circle. Shops are scarce, but there's a wonderful brocante (secondhand/antiques store) under the arcades, Galerie d'Antiquité-Brocante. Across the circle, Georgette Estrade sells braids of aromatic white garlic--a specialty of the area--out of her home. For vintage Armagnac, call at Jean Sommabére's house, also under the arcades. Look for a brass plaque with vieux armagnac next to his doorbell.

    The tiny walled city of Larressingle, the Cistercian abbey at Flaran, and the 16th-century cloister at Condom are within 10 miles. The tourist office organizes visits to farms and distilleries, or you can get a list of producers and go tasting on your own.

    Lodging

     

  • Château de Fourcès 011-33/5-62-29-49-53, chateau-fources.com, from $163
  • Food

     

  • L'Auberge 011-33/5-62-29-40-10, lunch menu $16
  • Shopping

     

  • Galerie d'Antiquité-Brocante 011-33/5-62-29-50-91
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  • Georgette Estrade 011-33/5-62-29-44-90, garlic braid $6
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  • Jean Sommabére 011-33/5-62-29-40-59, 20-oz. bottle of Armagnac $49
  • Resources

     

  • Syndicat d'Initiative 011-33/5-62-29-50-96, fources.fr
  • Advice for whichever town you choose

    Country restaurants tend to fill up quickly with regulars, so it's wise to call ahead for reservations. Though hotels are few and far between in these parts, there are generally plenty of B&Bs, as well as vacation rentals. Contact local tourist offices for a complete list. (Some have links on their websites.) You should also try the Gîtes de France, a fabulous network of quality B&Bs and cottages; its website, gites-de-france.fr, supplies lots of information and photographs. Just about every major town has an open-air market, or marché, a great source of delicious goodies. To find out where and when they set up shop, inquire at the tourist office. Be sure to ask about events, which are an effortless way to interact with locals. Besides the August automotive festival, Cadillac also has an antiques fair in October. In Bazas, the Fête de la Palombe--celebrating the wood-pigeon hunt--is held every September; Fourcès hosts an antiques fair in October.

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