Once home to the French royal family, this pretty riverside town in Lot-et-Garonne has plenty to appeal to the modern visitor too
The heat of the late summer day is temporarily forgotten as I sit outside the Chalet de la Garenne, sipping a chilled peach iced tea. Meandering some 2.5km along one bank of the River Baïse, the Parc Royal de la Garenne was created by Antoine de Bourbon, King of Navarre and father of Henri IV and was later enlarged by La Reine Margot.
The park’s leafy paths may not now be graced by the exotic birds that once resided here, but they do offer some much-needed shade. I cross the ornate metal footbridge to walk back along the other bank and reflect on how firmly rooted in French royal history this modest seeming town actually is.
In the 14th century, Nérac was the capital of the Albret region, named after the powerful Albret family who married into the royal family in the 12th century. Climbing the steps that lead from the riverside to the château, the town’s history is plain to see. The elegant château, finished during the Renaissance, is a fraction of the size it was in its heyday but remains to tell its story of wealth and power.
With its origins as a Gallo-Roman settlement (a surviving section of mosaic from a villa sits close to the entrance to the Parc Royal de la Garenne) and long royal history, it feels slightly unexpected that Nérac is a vibrant modern town too, with restaurants, cafés, shops and a little cinema, as well as the enormously popular Lud’O Parc water park. It almost feels like a town of two halves, this bustling atmosphere seemingly at odds with the sleepy riverside, but it’s one of the things that contributes to Nérac’s appeal and ongoing prosperity.
Crossing the Place du Général de Gaulle to the modestly sized but immaculately groomed (as you would expect) Hôtel de Ville, I soon find myself back in narrower streets. Some cobbled, many crowded with bright window boxes, they trend downhill until once more I am back at the riverside, this time at the Pont-Vieux.
Clustered with chic galleries and welcoming restaurants with outdoor terraces, the old tannery area is picture perfect, boats bobbing gently and cobbled streets leading uphill towards the town’s smaller second church, the Église Notre-Dame.
The views from what is known as Petit Nérac over to the main town are a delight, taking in the river’s green length with its locks, as well as the Tour de Brazalem and the twin towers of the face of the larger Église Saint-Nicolas de Nérac.
Passing smartly kept homes, I happen upon a game of pétanque, the gravel square crunching with each impact of the metal boules. I leave the game behind as I make for the water once more in search of a different type of boules. Earlier on I spotted a glacier-restaurant – Le Vert Galant – with a shady terrace overlooking the river. I will admit to having been intrigued by the notion of camembert ice cream, but instead I choose a boule of a local classic – prune and armagnac. I’m definitely in no hurry to leave this pretty royal town with its lazy green river.
In the area
Having access to a car makes the highlights of this area infinitely more accessible. Only half an hour’s drive away from Nérac is the prefecture of the département and renowned prune capital – Agen – offering all the shopping and refinements you would probably expect. The attractive city is easily walked and has restaurants, theatres, a fine arts museum and a lovely stroll along the River Garonne.
The city’s annual Prune Show with music and food themed around the squishy sweet fruit takes place at the end of every August. For the more rurally inclined, Lot-et-Garonne boasts numerous bastide towns to visit just a short distance from Nérac. The small town of Vianne downstream on the River Baïse boasts picturesque town walls and towers as well as a fascinating local glassblower’s atelier, while the bastides of Lamontjoie and Francescas are just a short jaunt away too.
A little further afield to the north are the three plus beaux villages of Pujols-le-Haut, Monflanquin and Villeréal. The area is also replete with artisanal food producers and vineyards, many offering tastings. Further down the River Baïse, just a 20-minute drive from Nérac over the border into Gers, is the historic town of Condom in the heart of Armagnac country.
Both Toulouse and Bordeaux airports are a 1.5 hour drive from Nérac and offer plentiful car hire options. EasyJet and Ryanair fly to both airports and British Airways operates a service to Toulouse.
Where to stay
Hotel Henri IV
Located in the more bustling part of town, a short walk from the shops, the Château-Musée Henri IV and the tourist office, this comfortable three-star hotel which was once a 19th-century relay station for coaches, has 17 rooms. Doubles from €68, buffet breakfast €11.
Where to eat
Le Bistro de la Cave
Tucked away in a narrow street, this small colourfully tiled family-run restaurant is one of those real hidden treasures. Focussing on local produce, the menu uses whatever happens to be good that day, but expect south-western classics such as duck and foie gras among other delicious options. Gluten-free options are available and there’s also a wine shop showcasing local varieties to take away. Menus from €16.90. Only open lunchtimes, Mon-Sat.
Where to visit
The Château-Musée Henri IV is an impressive 15th-century building and offers an insight into this historic area (€4 admission), while the Chemin de Fer Touristique du Pays de l’Albret whiles away a couple of hours as it chugs its scenic way between Nérac and nearby Mézin for €14 return.
Families, or simply those who appreciate water parks as a way to escape the ferocity of the summer heat, will love Lud’O Parc with its numerous outdoor swimming pools and slides.
You might also like