A Medieval Village, Wine and Armagnac Adventure
July 10th – July 19th, 2018
Gascony is situated halfway between the Dordogne River valley and the Pyrénées Mountains, on the same latitude as the Italian Riviera. It’s a region full of stone bridges, half-forgotten abbeys, hilltop villages, and ancient traditions. Gascon natives are garrulous, sociable and charitable, with a reputation for carefree bravado and a belief that it is profoundly acceptable to eat and drink richly everyday. The heart of this terrain lies in the Gers départment, the hidden treasure of Gascony.
The Gers is the land of plenty, the least industrialized, most rural area in France; an agricultural Eden of wheat, corn, grains, grapes and sunflowers that produce an earthy gastronomy. There is no typical French haute cuisine in this heartland, only abundance as evidenced in the cornucopia of heirloom vegetables, aromatic cheeses, pink garlic, wild mushrooms, succulent melons, duck confit, and foie gras exemplifying rustic farm to table authenticity. And, because this landscape is relatively unknown except to insiders, it’s not an area overrun by tourists.
During the month of July white clouds languish in blue skies above rows of sunflowers and vines that stretch to the horizon. This is the perfect place for someone who wants to experience a taste of what is fast becoming the new Bordeaux, as noted recently by Condé Nast Magazine and The New York Times. We’ll visit local, family-run wineries such as Pellehaut, Uby, Villa Dria, Joïe, Madiran, and the Armagnac distilleries of Chateaux Cassaigne and Monluc, and the Domaines of Ognoas and Saoubis. Not sold in the United States, Madiran wines have the highest level of anti-oxidants in southern France. For those interested you’ll have the opportunity to learn the fine points of local varietals, vintages and appellations from oenologist, Tom Fiorina, for a better understanding of how winemaking and armagnac distilling is central to this region’s way of life.
We will also visit some of the unique medieval bastides, fortified villages, such as Fourcès, one of very few bastides laid out in the shape of a circle, and Larresingle, the smallest medieval village in France. In between visiting these utterly charming villages we will stop at some of the areas finest restaurants.
Following your arrival at Blagnac Airport in Toulouse I will drive to your accommodations in the Gers, the charming Hôtel Castel-Pierre adorning the hilltop village of Lagraulet. Once settled, a Pousse Rapière welcome and a light dinner will be provided for you in the early evening. Pousse Rapière, push the rapier, is the signature aperitif of Gascony. It is an orange flavored Armagnac, France’s oldest brandy, and sparkling wine cocktail that will enter your digestive tract so smoothly you won’t know how you wound up on the sofa shedding copious tears of joy.
Barbotan-lesThermes dates back to ancient Roman times when it was known for its healing mineral and mud baths, which exist today in more modern surroundings. Visitors walk the long promenade of Barbotan-les-Thermes during the colorful Wednesday market. Here one can taste delicious samples of Basque cheeses, Armagnac-soaked prunes and succulent melons. We will drink coffee and nibble delicate amuses bouches, appetizers, on the secluded patio of the 5 star La Bastide Hotel & Spa, then wander down into the throng for a delicious country meal of confit de canard, Toulouse sausage or fresh Arcachon Bay oysters.
Éauze is the capital of the Armagnac region and offers one of the liveliest and biggest agricultural markets in the Gers. The market takes place along the ring of the old town under the plane-tree canopied, Place d’Armagnac. The only ancient Roman treasure in France preserved in its entirety – gold coins, jewelry and statues – is housed at the Musée de Archéologie across from the Hotel de Ville. We will wander through the market and sit under the shade of umbrellas just outside the Cathedral St. Luperc in the village square. Our lunch will be served on the intimate terrace of the Henri IV Restaurant. After dining we might take an historic walking tour of the village, visit the wineries, Villa Dria and Domaine de Pajot, a solely organic vintner.
Once the capital of the Gers, the village of Lectoure has a patrician air about it, visible in the old grandeur of its lovely stone buildings. Once inhabited by the Counts of Armagnac, the hilltop village of Lectoure has a wonderful Friday farmers’ market. Lectoure is known for growing one-third of all of the garlic in France and the sweetest-tasting cantaloupe melons in the area.
We might tour the recently redesigned Musée Lapidaire and view an unusual collection of Gallo-Roman tauroboles, funeral monuments in the form of altars decorated with bulls’ heads, dedicated the to the Goddess of Asia, Cybele. We will have lunch at the Atelier Gourmand restaurant, then ogle the hundreds of antiques on display the Village des Brocanteurs, stopping on the way to sample handmade chocolates at Maison Baudequin.
Today we will venture into the Aquitaine region, the southern edge of the Lot-et-Garonne départment, to the utterly charming village of Nérac which lies on both sides of the Baïse River. The saturday market here draws people from near and far. Nerac was the home of King Henri IV of France of the Albret dynasty. The remains of his impressive chateau are a museum located in the center of the village, surrounded by beautiful examples of colombage, regionally distinct, half-timbered, buildings. Arriving early, we will sample delicious pastries and coffee on the corner terrace of the best patisserie in town, then either set off on a leisurely stroll through the market stalls or cross the river to the Parc Royal de la Garenne, once a royal hunting ground and the inspirational setting for Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Lost. After lunch we will have a private guided tour of Château Le Fréchou, a stunningly well-kept example of medieval and renaissance architecture.
For adventurous early risers, we will go to a vide-grenier or two, French country antique & flea market. Alternatively, there will be the opportunity to stay at your hotel, to rest stroll the village, wander the surrounding countryside or simply read to your heart’s content. For lunch we will drive to the village of Larresingle and have lunch at the Auberge de Larresingle, just below this almost completely intact, 13th century fortified village.
We will dip into the Landes départment to meander through the tiny lanes and hidden gardens of the autrefois, of another time, village of Labastide d’Armagnac. This village has changed very little since it was established in 1291. It was King Henri IV’s inspiration for the Place des Vosges in Paris, thus its central square of exquisite proportions is sure to please the eye. We will have lunch here under the cool arcade surrounding the village square.
After lunch we will tour the 12th century Domaine d’Ognoas which has the oldest working still in Gascony. Every year, this wood-fired still heats some 800 hectolitres of wine which, once distilled, provide150 hectolitres of Armagnac that will then be aged for at least 10 years and no more than 40 years in the estate’s oak barrels.
Once we cross over the Auzoue River by way of a 15th century stone bridge, we will enter Fourcès, considered one of the most beautiful villages in France. It is a perfect ensemble of medieval houses with sheltered arcades below. The central castle was demolished long ago during the Hundred Years’ War, but in its place stands a tranquil assemblage of plane trees, geraniums and begonias. The original château with its tall, fortified walls is now a hotel and restaurant.
The villages’ tour d’horloge, clock tower, dates from the 13th century and is remarkably preserved. We will have lunch either in Fourcès or one of the surrounding villages then tour the Pellehaut winery and château.
Named after Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoléon III, the tranquil village of Eugénie-les-Bains is France’s top slimming village and thermal spa known for its cuisine minceur, weight loss cuisine, and luxury beauty treatments. We will wander their charming farmers’ market, then have a gourmet lunch Les Prés d’Eugénie’s outdoor café, the inspiration of Michelin renowned chef, Michel Guérard.
On our return we will either choose to stop at the Domaine de Joÿ winery or Domaine de Saoubis, the only biologique, organic, Armagnac distillery in the area.
After our last breakfast together we will depart for Blagnac airport in Toulouse.
Fortified Gascony – $3,995.00 per person, double occupancy. Book before December 31, 2017 and save $500. per person. This is a small group tour for no more than 6 people.Visit the Savoir Faire page for more details.