Village Life: Bassoues

With its distinctive 14th-century skyscraper and a restaurant that attracts locals from miles around, the tiny village of Bassoues in the Gers is hard to miss. Amanda Hodgkinson enjoys the view

With its distinctive 14th-century skyscraper and a restaurant that attracts locals from miles around, the tiny village of Bassoues in the Gers is hard to miss. Amanda Hodgkinson enjoys the view...

Rural southwest France is known for its gently undulating landscapes, its ancient crumbling stone farmhouses, its s�choirs (tobacco drying barns) and sunflower fields. It is definitely not known for its skyscrapers. The exception then, must be the village of Bassoues, which has its own formidable 141-feet-tall stone tower with six-feet-thick walls and a view of the surrounding countryside that is positively aerial.

Bassoues is a tiny commune located in the heart of the Gers and a stone’s throw from Lupiac, ancestral home to the real D’Artagnan made famous by Alexander Dumas’ novel The Three Musketeers. Driving through this historic landscape, you see Bassoues’ tower long before you arrive in the village itself. The donjon, or watchtower, is a stunning example of 14th-century military architecture. This imposing building was constructed to protect Bassoues castle and the bastide village at its feet. Today the tower stands exactly as it did when it was finished in 1371, while the castle has long been reduced to a romantic ruin. Happily, the beautiful medieval village has been well protected by its ancient watchtower and is still a thriving homestead with around 384 inhabitants.

Although famed for its looming donjon, the village is also known locally for its excellent restaurant located under the central market square’s arches. In fact, every lunchtime the village population almost doubles as neighbouring villagers flock to eat there; more than 600 meals are served every day. Sitting at a table enjoying a four-course meal (including wine for €11), I meet Aur�lien Gentier-Math�, a master saddler from northern Brittany who has made this vibrant village his permanent home.

“I came here by accident,” he admits over a glass of ros�. “But I wouldn’t think of living anywhere else now.” Aur�lien is a smooth-faced, young-looking 34-year-old and one of only 20 master saddlers in France, making made-to-measure saddlery for professional event riders in France, Australia, the UK, South Africa and America. He began his career with horses in his teens, as a show jumper and jockey. During his twenties, he found it a struggle to keep his weight down for racing and decided to find another way of working in the equestrian world. It was then that he trained with the National Stud (Haras National) to be a saddler. Today he is the President of the Syndicate of Harness Makers of France and employs two full-time workers and a secretary in his busy workshops in Bassoues. “I came down here not knowing the southwest,” he tells me. “An agricultural lyc�e nearby was looking for somebody to teach saddlery and harness-making, and contacted me. I jumped at the idea of setting up my own courses and I liked the idea of moving further south.”

Aur�lien and his wife found a place to rent and Aur�lien worked hard, setting up the saddlery and harness-making course at the local lyc�e. “In the first year, one of my students won the Best Apprentice in France award. By then I realised that I didn’t want to leave the Gers. This region is totally unspoilt and I love the gentle pace of life. My parents have now moved down here from Brittany and my wife and I are expecting our first child later this year. A Gersois baby!”

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Determined to stay following the success of his work at the lyc�e, Aur�lien decided to set up his own saddlery. It was then that he first discovered Bassoues. “I was looking for premises. I met the mayor of Bassoues who offered me workshops in the village. My business, AGM Sellier, is going from strength to strength, and I owe a great deal of my success to the mayor and the community – the whole village helped me install my saddlery here.”

Aur�lien makes up to 150 handmade saddles per year and is an active member of the local equestrian community. In the Gers the emphasis is on long-distance riding which Aur�lien enjoys. However he’s the first to admit that in a region as big as this, a car is still the best way to get around.

“There’s so much here,” he explains. “Just up the road from us we have Marciac, where an international jazz festival is held every year. There are festivals all year round in the villages.”

The Gers is filled with medieval villages, largely unchanged by the centuries. There are three main types of historic village found in the Gers. Sauveterres were small communities, clustered around a church that offered protection to the villagers in return for labour in the church’s fields and vineyards. Castelnaux were settlements around a castle, usually on rocky outcrops in elevated positions, while bastide settlements – such as Bassoues – were fortified towns where trading took place and thus contained an important covered market square in the centre.

Although tiny, Bassoues was an important medieval trading post and the market square was originally created as a commercial centre, complete with tavern. While the village now has no need for a defensive tower, it still has plenty of shops in its tiny centre.

Aur�lien and his wife live just outside the village, but they love to learn the history of their adopted home. The Mairie organises a guided tour tracing medieval village boundaries, the bastide walls and the castle remains that the tower once used to guard.

When you climb the last of the 197 stone steps and leave the darkness of the stairway for bright sunshine, the huge battlement and its views of the Gers will take your breath away. Like all ancient places, Bassoues has its own legends and looking out at the view from the tower is an ideal place to consider the legend of Saint Fris who, in 732, was struck by an arrow in battle, just outside the village. His horse carried him away to the banks of a nearby stream where he died. Two hundred years later, a local herdsman found a sarcophagus, which contained the remains of Saint Fris and a sparkling fountain sprung up. News of the miracle spread and people came from miles around. Even the most powerful oxen were not strong enough to move the sarcophagus, their harnesses snapping under the strain. But when the herdsman from Bassoues harnessed his cow to it, he pulled it away with ease. No doubt, back then, like today, they had an expert harness-maker in the village.FRANCOFILEGetting thereFor more information about getting there, turn to the holiday planner on page 86.

Where to eatBar-Restaurant du Centre VivierA restaurant under the arches in the centre of the village.Tel: (Fr) 5 62 70 90 44

Where to stayLa Refuge de la TourPlace du Donjon32320 BassouesTel: (Fr) 5 62 70 95 81www.refugedelatour.comA charming chambre d’h�te at the foot of the historic donjon.

Pierre et Vacances le Hameau du LacTel: (Fr) 1 58 21 55 84www.pv-holidays.comApartments and holiday houses to rent on the banks of the lake at nearby Marciac.

What to doDomaine de Bil�32320 BassouesTel: (Fr) 5 62 70 93 59www.domaine-de-bile.comBuy local armagnac and floc (a regional speciality) from the Della Vedove family.

ADDITIONAL?INFORMATIONThe tower is open all year round. For details of opening hours and guided visits and for more information on the village, see www.bassoues.net

AGM Saddlery has its own website and welcomes visitors. www.agm-sellier.com