Imagine traveling to the most rural, least industrialized corner of southwest France with the purest air and longest-living people, isolated from main highways and train lines. Include in this picture white clouds floating in deep blue skies, rolling green hills tufted with flocks of sheep, and herds of blonde Aquitaine cows surrounded by myriad rows of vineyards that stretch to the horizon. Add a population rooted in the terrain who embody a down-to-earth enthusiasm they want to share no matter how simple the occasion, and you’ve conjured the Gers, département 32, the heart of Gascony.
Originally called Vasconia, a part of Roman Gallia Aquitania, historical Gascony spanned the width and breath of western France from the Loire River south to the Spanish Pyrenees, and from Toulouse west to the Atlantic Ocean. A powerful duchy in the Middle Ages, Gascony came under English rule in 1154 through the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry Plantagenet (Henry II), King of England, and remained English until the end of the Hundred Years’ War in 1453, when it formally became part of France. The Gers département is one of the original 83 departments created during the French Revolution, and is now part of the Occitanie region.
The Gascons, who remained culturally un-Romanized, inhabiting both sides of the Pyrenees Mountains and the Adour Valley, went through distinctively different influences: Iberian, Celtic, Roman, Basque, Frank, Muslim, and English. Yet they remained steadfastly themselves, as do the Gersois. As a people they are independent, brave, swaggering, boastful, cavalier, mercurial, friendly, courteous, unflinchingly curious, and often converse in an unintelligible melange of throaty vowels.
Charles de Batz de Castelmore, otherwise known as Count D’Artagnan, personifies the stereotypical hotheaded Gersois of the elder Alexandre Dumas’s eponymous Musketeers novels. He was born in the village of Lupiac. The surrounding area is still a hot bed of militant factions making news by dumping potatoes or manure across highways, or throwing eggs at politicians in protest.
The Gers is proud to preserve its traditions, festivals and folklore even in its smallest villages. It is home to the World Champion Snail Races in the village of Lagadère, the World Champion Melon Eating Contest in the Lectoure, and the Festival of Liars in the village of Moncrabeau. Conversely, the larger villages draw thousands, such as Marciac’s Jazz Festival, and Vic-Fezensac’s, Tempo Latino.
The Gersois feel it is profoundly acceptable to eat and drink richly everyday. There are no frills of haute cuisine, only a deep affection for the foods of their terroir, and they like it that way. Because the area is predominantly agricultural, the farmers here keep working almost year round. They come together during seasonal breaks at village fetes, sharing stories and consuming copious amounts of Armagnac, France’s oldest brandy.
The Gers has been said to have more geese than people, and while that may be true as many young Gerois have moved to big cities of Toulouse, Bordeaux, and Paris, the population is steadily regrowing, as more and more people are finding a higher quality of life living in the French countryside. Visiting the Gers may be your last chance to experience la France profonde, because what makes the department of the Gers so special is its people – they are the heart of Gascony.
Sue Aran lives in the Gers department of southwest France. She is the owner of French Country Adventures, which provides private, personally-guided, small-group, slow travel tours into Gascony, the Pays Basque, Provence and beyond. She writes a monthly blog about her life in France and is a contributor to Bonjour Paris and France Today magazines. Photo credits are hers.