Yvonne Russell and Julia Grange have both fallen under the spell of Gascony. They have the inside track on why this ancient province is such a magical part of France
Take a look at any modern map of metropolitan France and you will find that it covers almost 550,000 square kilometres which are broken down into 22 regions.
Within these regions are 95 departments and, because France loves to get its bureaucracy just right, these are further broken down into arrondissements, cantons and, then, finally there are the communes.
Nowhere though will you see any mention of Gascony. Yes, the world-famous home of d’Artagnan (the most dashing of Musketeers) is gone but not forgotten. Gascony will undoubtedly be famed forever for its douceur de vivre or sweetness of life.
This soft and gentle quality of life naturally includes the most wonderful range of traditional foods and drink. Duck and foie gras rule the roost and the local wines and armagnacs play a huge role in local dishes.
However, it stretches beyond this and you also need to add unique ingredients such as medieval towns and bastide villages, which are nestled among rolling hills and stunning countryside views.
And don’t forget to add a dash of sunny weather, often juxtaposed with distant views of the snow-capped Pyr�n�es. Blend these ingredients together and you concoct an area of south-west France that has constantly attracted tourists and visitors from around the world. But if it’s not on a map, how do you find it?
Wikipedia describes it as a huge area stretching from the tip of the Gironde (north
of Bordeaux) to the Spanish border in the Hautes-Pyr�n�es. For us though, the beating heart of Gascony
is to be found in two departments – the Gers and the Hautes-Pyr�n�es.
Julia Grange moved to the Gers in 2007. She is passionate about the area where she now lives and works: “The gently-rolling Gascony countryside is mainly agricultural – predominantly maize, sunflowers and vineyards – and the way of life is much slower. It can be difficult to adjust at first, coming from a 24-hour society, to shops shutting for two hours at lunchtime!
“The area is steeped in history, and is renowned for its production of armagnac. There is an abundance of ancient bastide towns, many with breathtaking views of the Pyr�n�es.
“The area comes alive in summer, with f�tes almost every weekend from May to September, the sounds of the bandas, vide-greniers (car boot sales) where you can pick up some interesting old French knick-knacks, and major events such as the Latin-American festival at Vic Fezensac, the Country and Western festival in Mirande (both in July) and the two-week jazz festival in Marciac during the first two weeks of August.”
The power of three
When asked to name three towns in the Gers to look out for, Julia starts with Marciac. Famous for its aforementioned jazz festival, it has a beautiful, central, market square where locals congregate to chat, buy local produce and simply watch the world go by.
The second spot on Julia’s list of recommended places to visit is Larressingle, which is an ancient bastide village. It has been well preserved with homes and shops inside the protective walls that make it easy to imagine what life was like in the Middle Ages.
Finally you should add Fources to any trip you make. It is another bastide with a notable – and round! – central square.
Property is well priced in the Gers. The Notaires de France report that the average house price is just €150,000 and that in 2010/11 prices rose by more than 10% – perhaps because the area is becoming increasingly popular with international buyers.
Julia is marketing a lovingly restored former presbytery with just under an acre of land and views over the Gers countryside. On the market for €225,000, the property has three large bedrooms and a spacious, modern oak kitchen.
Sticking with the opportunity to buy your own slice of history, then why not take a look at the 19th-century ch�teau that Julia also has on her books? You will need to have a sympathetic eye as the interior does need refreshing but what an opportunity to create a truly special property. The ch�teau is being marketed for €695,000 and has 15 bedrooms, many en-suite. The estate has three hectares including stabling for one horse, covered parking for three cars and a swimming pool.
Yvonne Russell lives in the neighbouring Hautes-Pyr�n�es and is equally effusive about life in her particular slice of Gascony: “We chose to live in this wonderful department close to Trie-Sur-Ba�se. We are surrounded by breathtaking views of the Pyr�n�es mountains and beautiful Gascony countryside with fields of sunflowers in the summer. It is a largely agricultural area and one of unspoilt natural beauty.
“We never tire of the space and quality of life. In the winter, skiing in this region is excellent, with many bustling resorts including St-Lary. There are quality golf courses and good areas for walking, climbing and mountaineering. Indeed, the mountains here are a permanent fixture in the Tour de France.”
Yvonne recommends looking at some of the towns and villages around the historical town of Auch and particularly likes the pretty spa town of Bagn�res-de-Bigorre, which has some of the best-value properties in the department. You will also see many signposts for the world-famous town of Lourdes, with pilgrims visiting throughout the year.
According to Notaires de France, property prices in the Hautes-Pyr�n�es are similar to those in neighbouring Gers with an average of €145,000. Prices also rose in 2010/11 but this time by a more modest 3%.
Yvonne has a large and eclectic portfolio of properties for sale. She has chosen three that she thinks could be of particular interest.
The first is a watermill set in seven hectares of woodland which has been converted into four apartments. Located across the departmental border near L’Isle-en-Dodon, it is on the market for €715,500 and each apartment has access to woodland walks, indoor pool and sauna. Toulouse is just over an hour away.
Yvonne also recommends viewing a beautiful g�te complex that she is marketing near Marciac. On the market for just €583,000, you certainly get a great deal of property for your money. The 17th-century farm building has been converted into a main house with five g�tes and Yvonne sees it as an excellent opportunity to buy an existing business. Set in just under an acre of grounds, the large swimming pool offers views over the Pyr�n�es – great for repeat business.
Finally, you might want to consider a more contemporary property. Yvonne has just taken on a four-bedroom, edge-of-village house that is close to the bustling market town of Lannemezan. On the market for €277,000, the south-facing house enjoys stunning views over the Pyr�n�es and the photovoltaic panels cover all of the owner’s energy bills.
Taking the plunge
It would be remiss not to end this article with a flavour of what makes Gascony so special. Last year the Daily Telegraph ran a feature comparing this relatively undiscovered part of France with the better-known Dordogne department a little further north. They finished the comparison by rating the food and drink that each has to offer.
The quote that the journalist used captures the friendliness and, indeed, the very essence Gascony: “With its goose fat and gizzards, ham, foie gras and duck confit, south-west cuisine is tough on vegetarians. But it has other, even more estimable virtues – and the greatest is that it is invariably attended by conviviality. If you can leave a table around here without feeling the world is a brighter place, and conceivably weaving a bit, then, once again, I admire your strength of character.”
Better still – no less an authority than The London School of Medicine and Dentistry published an article saying that there was a connection between longevity and the local Madiran wine they produce here. Now that really should put Gascony back on the map!
Julia Grange and Yvonne Russell are both estate agents with Leggett Immobilier