Annaliza Davis unveils the cultural and historical treasures of France’s southwest, which can offer buyers everything from pretty market towns to picturesque countryside
Picture an area of France where you’ll not only find fabulous coastlines and rolling farmland but which also has ski resorts, within easy reach, temperate weather – not too hot or cold – and a wide range of appealing properties to suit all pockets. You may not know its name, but Gascony spans the southwest of France and is one of l’Hexagone’s best-kept secrets…
Gascony isn’t an official region, rather a cultural and historical area encompassing most of southwest France. Looking at a map, it begins about two-thirds down, between La Rochelle and Bordeaux, descends to Bayonne and then cuts inland, towards Toulouse. The Gascony area covers the départements of Landes, the Gers and Hautes-Pyrénées plus parts of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, Lot-et-Garonne, Tarn-et-Garonne, Haute-Garonne and Ariège. You’re sure to have seen pictures of the area’s glorious, sunflower-filled scenery without necessarily knowing its name.
SETTING THE SCENE
There’s no easy way to sum up Gascony as it’s so diverse, and that begins with its geography. This part of France encompasses ski resorts, surf spots, heritage towns and rural expanses. Gascony’s inland areas are sparsely populated, with well-spaced villages and family farms, then there are small fortified ‘bastide’ towns perched on hilltops, riverside cottages, vast vineyards and their attendant châteaux, and university cities.
Gascony includes the city of Pau (84,798 inhabitants), which boasts an airport, plenty of greenery, mountains on all sides and an impressive château, not to mention a golf club dating back to 1856, should you wish to perfect your swing. Next largest is Tarbes (48,166), with its university, strong military background and an enviable location, just an hour from the Pyrénées and two from the south Atlantic coast. Then, halfway between Toulouse and Bordeaux, there’s Agen (34,344), which is famous for its prunes and passion for rugby. Finally, there’s the ancient cathedral city of Auch (21,960), boasting a wealth of beautiful architecture and surrounded by vineyards.
In terms of getting around, there’s Pau Pyrénées Airport, then those at Toulouse, Bordeaux, Carcassonne, Bergerac and even Biarritz, which deliver you to different parts of Gascony, often via low-cost airlines. There are around 20 trains a day between Paris and Toulouse, plus good links throughout the area, and main/toll roads connect the cities.
As it’s an area in southwest France, you’d expect colour and vibrancy, and Gascony doesn’t disappoint. It’s a bold region with a strong heart, which applies to its warm welcome, robust dishes and full-blooded red wines alike.
Gascony is agricultural, so you can easily find yourself 40km from the nearest large supermarket, so bear that in mind when viewing properties. On the other hand, there are generally clear roads, very little pollution, low crime rates and a sense of community that feels appealingly old-fashioned. In 2014, The Telegraph published a list of the world’s top places where you can live ‘the good life’, and Gers in Gascony won second place!
GASCONY FOOD & DRINK
This is an area that’s famed for good living, and its specialities include foie gras and peasant dishes featuring duck and boar, free-range chicken and hearty casseroles. However, vegetarians may find eating out in Gascony a challenge but, thankfully, as with most of France, this situation is slowly changing.
Gascony is also renowned for pruneaux d’Agen (Agen prunes), which are plucked from plum trees that are said to have been grown in the 1200s by Benedictine monks. Prunes are often incorporated into savoury dishes or eaten with local fromages, such as Roquefort, a creamy blue cheese made from sheep’s milk.
Within the Gers, in the heart of Gascony, you’ll also find the home of the local brandy, Armagnac, which is enjoyed both as a drink and is also widely used by the area’s professional chefs and home cooks alike, to infuse and flavour desserts.
La Bastide d’Armagnac: A Medieval Jewel
Situated close to Gascony’s border with the Gers, La Bastide d’Armagnac is a fine example of the ‘bastide’ towns that pepper the area. These Medieval towns were designed in a chequerboard layout and organised around a central, arcaded square, where the hive of day-to-day activity can still be found. La Bastide d’Armagnac’s 13th-century main square plays host to a weekly market and an annual festival celebrating the famous local spirit.
THE CLIMATE: A HAPPY BALANCE
For many, Gascony offers the perfect mix of weather, namely short winters, mild springs and warm summers which are less stifling than those further south. Overall, the area enjoys a temperate climate, which explains the bountiful crops of fruit and flowers that come from its fertile soil. Naturally, it’s more temperate near the coast than amid the mountains but, generally, Gascony is a place of lingering summers and mild winters, with snow only close to the Pyrénées. In the right location, you could even find yourself enjoying Christmas lunch on the patio!
WHAT ABOUT THE ECONOMY?
Around half of those working in Gascony are employed in some form of agriculture – that level’s five times the national average – and the area’s food and wine industry also offer a certain amount of employment. It’s a truly agricultural area with very little industry and, consequently, there’s practically no pollution beyond the cities.
There are office-based job opportunities in such cities as Auch, but you’ll need a strong CV and fluent French to win a position. If you’re setting up your own business, the Gers Chamber of Commerce has established a bilingual network called Soho Solo (www.soho-solo-gers.com), which can put you in touch with other self-employed professionals and English-language resources.
As a newcomer, your safest bet is to be a qualified tradesperson or to work in tourism and hospitality but, again, for either of these the better your French, the more opportunities you’ll have.
PROPERTIES: AN OVERVIEW
Gascony’s agricultural economy means that there are countless farmhouses, but the Gers boasts more châteaux than any other area of France.
As always, your first priority when house-hunting in Gascony will be to clarify your needs. Do you intend to live there year-round or just come for holidays? That will determine the location, not only in terms of the area’s climate, but also whether you need easy access to airports and cities with work opportunities, or if you’re content settling in a more rural spot.
In turn, those decisions will help you to define the type of property that you need: a smaller place with no garden to maintain, or one with spare rooms, and perhaps outbuildings to create an accommodation business?
The good news is that this area offers a more than sufficient range of properties, so once you’ve defined your requirements, you’re sure to find what you’re after.
What are the main property types?
Gascony half-timbered house
Maison de Maître
BUY TO LET & HOLIDAY HOMES
If you’re looking for ways of investing in Gascon property, your options depend on the location. A university city, such as Tarbes or Pau, will have properties that you could rent out to students, or the more rural areas boast plenty of options suitable for a B&B business or gîte. Again, the choice depends on whether you want to live there year-round.
If you’re considering a permanent move and need your property to generate income, location becomes doubly important. An out-of-the-way farmhouse with a gîte may prove harder to attract potential guests, as opposed to a village house with a couple of extra bedrooms.
Finally, any tourist-related business also needs to consider what else will draw visitors to the area, whether it’s nearby events and city life, the Medieval architecture of Lectoure and Condom, or open countryside for rambling.