Le Gers, Gascony
Updated: Apr 11, 2022
If you had asked me several years ago when I was living in my flat in Salford Quays, close to the hustle and bustle of England's second city, Manchester (Scousers and Brummies will dispute this) whether I could have been happy living surrounded only by fields in deep, rural France, I probably would have laughed at you. Perhaps it's being a parent that changes your needs in life but so far, le Gers in Gascony is proving to be rich in many ways. Find out more here about our experience of Southwest France and how we came to end up in Plaisance.
I just liked the name - Plaisance - it sounded pleasant.
We took two trips around the South of France before we came to Plaisance du Gers. We started in la Charente, tried la Dordogne, all the way down the Mediterranean coast across the Aude valley in line with the Pyrenees and eventually to the Atlantic Coast and then slightly back inland. This is where you find le Gers, a part of what the English might know as an area called Gascony, also referred to as France's Tuscany. It is the southwest corner of France, famous for wine, rugby and foie gras. From our garden and to the South you can see the Pyrenees and therefore the gateway to Spain; to the west is the Atlantic Coast with the ritz of Biarritz and the unspoiled pine forests of les Landes. And all around us are endless 'collines' (hills) and fields and forests, cows and geese. Below is a picture of our not too distant neighbours in Plaisance - les blondes d'Aquitaine.
By the time we got to Plaisance, I was starting to think maybe France wasn't going to be the place we'd move to after all. We hadn't seen a house we liked, the Mediterranean side was too expensive, the Aude Valley had felt too remote, the Dordogne was beautiful but felt too far from the sea (being an islander, I think there is an inner need to be near water?), the Charente was warm and quaint but too quiet... nowhere felt quite right. Our final three days of our crazy road trip were to be spent in a beautiful gîte in a place called Aignan. The Gascon cottage of colombage was perched on the very top of a hill and there were incredible views from every angle, a lake with the stork who visited daily and la chaîne des Pyrenees all along the Horizon. When we arrived I said to Phill (my partner in madness), we have to go and check out Plaisance. I'd seen a lot of houses for sale there and I just liked the name - Plaisance - it sounded pleasant. We drove round there and parked by les Arènes de Plaisance, an old bull ring that is now mostly used for events and festivals. For me, it felt Spanish, and I loved that we were just over an hour's drive away from Spain - something that still feels so magical about the European continent, that ability to see another country in the distance and know that we can just drive straight across the broken-down border and into another land, language and life. Such a privilege and joy. Beyond the bull ring, there was a river, and a fishing lake, and rugby pitches, football pitches, kayak/ rowing club, judo club, two main squares for shops and a cinema built into what seemed like an old barn. There was a swimming pool, a mini water park, mini golf, a campsite, a few restaurants, a supermarket, a pizza shop (Phill can't live without pizza), the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker - you get the idea. It had everything a family would need and activities to keep the kids outside and active. It was also shabby looking, seemed part deserted in places (most French villages seem to look this way a lot of the time), there obviously wasn't any kind of showiness or monetary wealth, and there clearly wasn't a rocking nightlife. As I said, as a single city girl starting out in her career, it wasn't the place to be. But for a mum looking for a healthier lifestyle and more of a hippy-like existence, it was just the place. And it felt welcoming somehow. Passers-by mouthed 'Bonjour' and people looked up and at you, not down to the ground in misery. There was a simplicity and honesty about the place that I immediately liked.
He bought the house. I bought the trees.
J'ai acheté les arbres
Ma voisine (my neighbour) spends half of her year in Plaisance and half of her year in the Amazon of Brazil. She has lived in lots of different places and her garage is full of treasures of Amazonian driftwood, Djibouti bugs, African ornaments and artwork she did with the schoolkids she taught when she was a teacher. Everywhere you look in her home there is something of interest and most certainly with a story tucked inside. Her mum is in her nineties and has lived in Plaisance all her life - a true Plaisantine. She has stories of the old Plaisance, when horses trotted along Rue des Pyrenees, when Adeline Laurent (the old owner of our house) bought her first car (first in the village), to when the Nazis marched through and occupied the larger maisons de maître, and the year the river burst its banks and the water reached the cross over the road from us. The reason I tell you about my neighbour, who really has helped us settle in here, is because she told me about the time when she and her ex-husband bought a house but she claimed she had 'acheté les arbres' (bought the trees). I too bought the trees. Phill loved 'la jolie maison' (the pretty house) because it was simple, a traditional Gascon two-up two-down with colombage walls inside, the barns at the back had later been converted into rooms, all square and straight lines - a decorator's dream. It had un chai - the place where the wine is made and stored and where four huge wine vats still stand today along with the press. Two vines also remain and wind their way up the side of the sandstone house. My neighbour told me of the days she used to help pick the grapes and take her shoes and socks off to squash the grapes beneath her feet in the barrels that are also still there hiding in the dark corner of the barn. In the barn attached to the house the cows were kept and their drinking troughs are still there against the wall, as are the contraptions they used so the cows could help plough the fields. In le grenier up high, they stored the hay and the cereals - and later on the old singer sewing machine we uncovered and lots of other old furniture of times gone by. 'La grange' is the big barn where we have a big old oak table for eating outside in summer - the space is a work in progress. And the chai is now Phill's 'atelier' (workshop) - or his Mancave as he lovingly calls it. I suspect he may move in there permanently during the warmer months. Outside the house is a cluster of enormous trees, including two that seem to be sequoia - not even our neighbours are entirely sure. In any case, they are incredible and I could look up at them all day long. Beyond them, through a gap in the bramble bushes framing our parcel of land, I can see the Pyrenees. And to the left of the scene is a plantation of trees. Trees, trees and trees. J'ai acheté les arbres (I bought the trees).
Time is not money
Since moving here I have asked two of the young local lads how they have felt being here in le Gers as teenagers. I asked them with the expectation that they would say, oh it gets a bit boring sometimes, there isn't much to do. Hell, as teenagers we used to complain about that even in Manchester. But their response was completely the opposite. They explained how they like the open spaces; they were happy having sports to play outside, especially rugby which is bigger than football here in the Southwest; the food was good; but most importantly, they liked that the people were 'chaleureux' (warm and welcoming). Now this, for me, is the single greatest thing of le Gers. The people. Les Gersois. My French friends, you may know that in England we are conditioned from a young age to believe 'the French' are rude, arrogant, will only speak French and only like everything French. I am here to confirm that I am yet to meet such a person. In fact, whenever someone came up with this stereotype, they obviously didn't go to le Gers (well, they also can't have spoken to 67 million people to declare this to be the case for all). But from the farmer who came to flatten our overgrown garden, to our neighbour who drove me all over the department on the admin trail, to the parents of our kids' friend who came to fix the Quad and the fireplace, and the jolly post lady who makes us laugh every day, Gilberte with the geese who never lets us leave without giving us something, the Headmistress who invited us to her home and gave us two chicks (which escaped and got killed - don't tell the kids; we will try again when ready), to the market sellers who always throw in a little extra and free cherries sneaked to the kids, to the lady on the school gate who has a beaming smile each and every morning and helps Phill with his French, to the teachers who have welcomed the children and practised a little of their English with them too, to the other children who treat Stefanie and Joe like rockstars and hug them with care and compassion, to the young people we pass in the street who smile and say 'Bonjour', and the old bloke in the square who always stops for a chat. Even the guy at the tip told me 'Bienvenue à l'Europe' - I think there was a bit of a joke in there too, since our talk prior to that had centred around the current state of affairs in Britain. In any case, the man at the tip along with each individual we have so far interacted with, have wholeheartedly welcomed us to Plaisance and wished us well in our new life. If I had to sum up the people of Plaisance and the surrounding areas, 'chaleureux' would definitely be one of the words I would use but something else that we constantly comment on here is time. People here have time. And they are happy to give you their time. Nothing asked. No money involved. No pay backs needed. They give. And they give the thing that many people just don't seem to have anymore. Time. That doesn't mean they don't work. The people we know work. And sometimes they work long hours. Sometimes, as seems part and parcel of the capitalist economy, they work three jobs. But they make the time to eat. They make the time to spend with family. And they make the time to help when someone needs it. Again, it's not showy and it's not in your face. It's very quiet, it's very unassuming and understated but it's there, a sense of community. Time is not money. Time is the greatest gift you can give. If this is the one thing my children learn from le Gers and its people, then moving here will certainly have been worth it.
In Armagnac, the Romans introduced the vine, the Arabs, the alambic and the Celts, the barrel. Armagnac is born from the meeting of these three cultures.
So, what is Gascony famous for? Well, first of all for its wine. It was the first region to develop 'vin de pays' (wine of the countryside), a classification up from the 'vin de table' (table wine). Around us, you never have to drive for long before you hit another field of vines, stretching out in the sunshine and soaking up the hot summer days. Another local delicacy is 'foie gras' (quite literally, fatty liver that comes from ducks). Locals place their signs on the roadside to let you know they sell it. At this point I should probably tell you that our diet at home is pretty much vegetarian and Phill doesn't really drink! This prompted our shocked neighbours to jokingly (and perhaps a bit truthfully too) declare we could only ever be tourists here then - 'Pas de viande, pas de vin, ce n'est pas possible' (No meat, no wine, it's not possible). We are also in the vicinity of the first terroirs d'Armagnac (earth/ soil of Armagnac). The first recording of Armagnac is said to date back to 1310 and is seen as France's oldest 'eau-de-vie' - literally translated as 'water of life' but meaning brandy made from the juice of fruit (Armagnac, 2019). As stated on the website referenced, Armagnac came about through the meeting of three cultures - the Romans brought the vines, the Arabs brought the Alambic (the container used to distil liquids), and the Celts brought the barrel. Indeed, Gascony over the years has been a melting pot of cultures. It might not be the metropolis melting pot of Paris but it has been home to the Celts, the Gascons, the Aquitanians, oftentimes linked to the Basques, and home also to the English for three whole centuries (Eurasiatik.Eu, 2019). Eleanor of Aquitaine married King Henry II of England in 1152 which saw the region under English control for hundreds of years (Simply Gascony, 2015) until the 100 years war when the English fought and finally lost control of the region. Perhaps this is why English people seem so drawn to this place? I find English people every Thursday when I go to the local market or in the English aisle of the supermarket picking up Bisto gravy, Marmite and Branston pickle. As an English person, I can confirm that there was a certain sense of homeliness and familiarity when I came here. This was where Richard the Lionheart fought against thieves who were robbing from pilgrims on the road to Santiago de Compostela, which begins not far from here. It was also home to another famous warrior by the name of d'Artagnan, the fourth musketeer. Find out more about d'Artagnan in the video below where a lovely girl wearing heart sunglasses has very kindly spoken very slowly in French and provided English subtitles - good for those who are learning 'la langue' (the language).
Here I say a huge 'merci beaucoup' (thank you very much) to les Gersois who have thus far welcomed us into their community and made us feel a little less lost on our French adventure. From 'les Anglais' (the English) we hope you know how appreciated you are. I leave you with a short video with images of le Gers, the land of wine, warriors, warmth and plentiful plates.
Armagnac (2019). 700 years of history (and indulgence!). Available at: http://www.armagnac.fr/700-years-of-history
Eurasiatik.EU. (2019). Gascon People. Available at: http://eurasiatik.eu/2015/04/26/gascon-people/
Simply Gascony (2015). About Gascony. Available at http://www.simply-gascony.co.uk/about_gascony.html