St Pee sur Nivelle (Nouvelle Aquitaine), France September 2022

On our way back into Spain we stopped overnight in Saint Pee sur Nivelle in the French basque country (Pays de Labourd); just 8 kms from Ascain which place we very much enjoyed last year notwithstanding the restrictions then imposed on us by covid. This area is famous for it’s ossau-iraty cheese, an ivory coloured semi hard cheese made from unpasteurised ewe’s milk and I love it. We’ll be taking some of that back to the UK with us.

Saint Pee is an unusual place in that it is not concentrated around a single town centre. It has a centre of sorts (stretched out along the D918 for the most part) but the town appears to comprise several different communes spread over quite an area. This made for fair a bit of walking when I set out to explore the place; not least because there are a lot of hiking trails in the area and I couldn’t resist checking out one or two of them. There’s a nice walk along by the River Nivelle; another around the Lake of St Pee and; at least two more up and around the Hills of Ibarron. I didn’t do them all.

The ‘centre’ (if it can be called a centre) comprised a few shops, two or three restaurants or cafe bars (one particular cafe bar was selling a selection of locally produced artisan beers – I tried just one and it was good) and some pretty half timbered houses all coloured in the basque style.

The most interesting building however is the Eglise St Pierre. This unusual and imposing church has a pleasing interior – a stone floor made from old tombstones, an impressive church organ, a large intricately carved wooden altarpiece and a wonderful three story wooden gallery so typical of the area. Certainly, the gallery reminded me of the church in Ascain.

… with it’s exquisitly carved altarpiece.

This is another of those areas which suffered horribly from witch-hunts in the early 17th century. Certainly, the basque country both in France and Spain was the focus of the witch-hunts between 1609 and 1614 which saw an estimated 3,000 people put to death. Salazar de Frias, operating out of Logrono, was one of the leading inquisitors in Spain at this time while Pierre de Lancre led the hunts in this part of France.

Ossau Iraty cheese

Currently well behind with this blog. we were in Saint Pee in September. It is now 23 October – apologies

Cassaigne (Occitaine), France September 2022

With just 200 inhabitants, Cassaigne is the smallest of the three villages we visited during our stay in Eauze. In reality it is now little more than a hamlet.

Built by the Bishops of Condom the original 13th century Chateau de Cassaigne was remodelled over a period of time and by the turn of the 16th century a pretty little village, complete with church, had formed around it.

During the French Revolution the State confiscated the property from the church and it was auctioned off. For many years thereafter it remained in private hands until in 2003 the wine cooperative Plaimont purchased the 30 acre Cassaigne estate. Nowadays, 20% of the estates vines are used to produce Armagnac and the other 80% goes towards the production of red, white and rose Cotes de Gascogne wines.

Plaimont operate wine tasting sessions from the chateau but we didn’t have time for that. We simply sampled some of the cooperative’s produce and then purchased a few bottles of their white wine for drinking back in the UK. I also bought a three bottle sampler selection of the chateau’s Armagnac. I’ll try those on my own one cold winter evening in Brighton.

After a short walk around the outside of the chateau primarily to get a closer look at the Fallow Deer enclosure, we made our way back to Eauze for dinner at the Michelin rated restaurant La Vie en Rise.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t go out of my way to visit Cassaigne but it could perhaps be taken in on the back of a visit to nearby Condom, a quiet rural medieval market town with a fairly impressive cathedral.

Larressingle (Occitaine), France September 2022

From our base in Eauze, we took the Van out to visit three local villages. The first to be visited was Montreal sur Gers (see previous post). We then drove a few kilometres further east to the medieval fortress village of Larressingle, also known as the Little Carcassonne of Gers.

Larressingle is also a ‘Plus Beau Village de France’ and fully deserving of the title. It is also something of a tourist attraction being the most visited destination in the Gers (and on the Chemin de Puy to Santiago) but it was almost empty as we arrived. It is a small village almost completely surrounded by 300 metres of heavy fortified walls (that are for the most part in excellent condition) and it is full of charm.

There is only one entrance into the village, across an old moat and through a double arched stone bridge. Inside the fortress walls is a church and a range of medieval houses, most of which are set with their backs to the castle walls and are now home to craft shops and cafes and the local tourist office. It is beautiful.

Having walked all around the inside and the outside of the village we paused for a light lunch – a local artisan beer and a local pizza with goat’s cheese. Very tasty.

Montreal du Gers (Occitaine), France September 2022

While staying in Eauze we took time to visit some of the surrounding villages, starting with Montreal du Gers, a “Plus Beau Village de France” just 10 miles or so to the north east of Eauze.

Sitting on the banks of the Auzoue River, Montreal du Gers is an old bastide town dating back to 1255. It is organised around a small central square of arcades and the gothic collegiate church of Notre Dame (sometimes referred to as the Church of Saint Philippe et Saint Jacques). Unfortunately, we didn’t see the central square in it’s best light. It is used as the town car park and during our visit was packed with cars. It was a pity because if ever a square needed to be pedestrianised it is this one.

We paused in Montreal du Gers long enough to enjoy the small market on the square and walk a slow circuit of the place before moving on to another much smaller but more impressive village to the east, Larressingle. Overall, I didn’t rate Montreal du Gers. It certainly doesn’t have the charm one would ordinarily expect of a “Plus Beau Village de France”.

Notwithstanding the above, just outside Montreal du Gers is the small hamlet of Seviac and the remains of a 2nd century Roman villa, the ‘Villa Seviac’. This villa was a large and luxurious residence discovered by a local farmer in 1864 although it was neither explored nor excavated until the 1970’s. It is now a museum. Little is left of the villa’s original walls but many of it’s mosaics have been restored to their original splendour and they rank amongst the best of their kind in France.

NB We visited Montreal du Gers mid September 2022 but this blog was not completed and posted until 22 October – apologies.

Eauze (Occitaine), France September 2022

And so to Eauze and an altogether nicer part of France. Eauze is only a small town (4,000 people) but it is recognised as the capital of the Armagnac area. Moreover it is surrounded by a clutch of interesting villages, a number of which are included in the list of ‘Les Plus Beaux Villages de France’ and it has a reasonably priced Michelin Restaurant (La Vie en Rose). We knew immediately that Eauze was going to be good and so we booked into the municipal campsite for a few days with a view to using it as a base from which to explore both Eauze and various local villages (Montreal du Gers, Larressingle, Cassaigne). The campsite was quiet (it would close for winter the following week) but it has a pool, a pleasant and very popular restaurant (Restaurant au Moulin de Pouy) and is just a short walk from a large Leclerc supermarket and the town centre itself.

Initially named Elusa in Roman times, Eauze is a town of some considerable historical significance (especially during France’s Religious Wars). It was home to Henri III of Navarre (who was subsequently crowned Henri IV of France) and his wife Marguerite de Valois (who was sister to no less than three French Kings – Francis II, Charles IX and Henri III – and popularised by Alexandre Dumas in his historical novel ‘La Reine Margot’). I recall watching the 1994 film version of Dumas’ book which starred Isabelle Adjani in the title role.

Eauze may be small but around it’s main square (which, unusual in rural France, has a bar that stayed open until one o’clock in the morning) there is a decent sized medieval quarter of narrow streets simply teeming with character.

Also on the main square is a former cathedral, now a church, dedicated to Saint Luperc. Luperc (sometimes known as Luperculus) was a Bishop when the town was controlled by the Romans. He was martyred by the Romans during the reign of Emporer Trajan (3rd Century?). The original 15th/16th century church was destroyed by Cardinal Richelieu during the final days of France’s Religious Wars and the current building was built during the 18th century on the site of the older church. It is a tall but narrow Gothic building which, while not all that impressive from the outside, is quite distinctive on the inside. It is unusually light and airy and the apse contains a series of impressive paintings depicting the life of Jesus Christ and some beautiful long colourful stained glass windows.

One of the highlights of our visit to Eauze was a meal at La Vie en Rose, a Michelin listed restaurant which clearly deserves a star. It highlights local cuisine at very reasonable prices. A budget menu of the day was avalable but we went a la carte. I started with a really refreshing Salade de Saint Jacques a l’orange et aux avocats and followed it with the chef’s speciality, an earthy main of Papillotes de Saint Jacques au Foie Gras. The accompanying wine was a local Tariquet Amplitude recommended by the chef. I’m writing this blog some weeks after we left Eauze and, shame on me, I cannot remember Vanya’s main (she didn’t bother with a starter) but I recall her having a great looking dessert, a Marquise au Chocolat Creme Caramel, which she described as “simply divine”. I finished with a very good Armagnac but, in hindsight, I wish I too had taken a dessert. The ‘La Croustade’ looked fantastic.

We had our dogs with us when we visited La Vie En Rose and so ate outside.
Papillotes de Saint Jacques au Foie Gras. They were cooked and served in aluminium.

One other feature of Eauze which I found particularly impressive was the local street art (most of which seemed to have been created by the one artist).

La Teste de Buch (Nouvelle Aquitaine), France September 2022

This is not an area of France that I was ever keen on and, after seeing it, Vanya was surprisingly quick to agree with me. The fact is that after living and working in so many different parts of the Middle East and seeing so many deserts, the Great Dune of Pilat (this area’s most popular feature) was never going to excite us.

We were parked up on the coast at Camping Municipale de Verdalle, somewhere between Le Teste de Buche and Gujan Mestra. Unusually, Vanya joined me on my first exploratory walk eastwards, to and around Gujan Mestra, but she soon regretted it. There is absolutely nothing there of any interest. Even the local ‘Oyster House’ proved to be little more than a ramshackle industrial unit.

My second exploratory trip, on my own this time, took me some distance in the opposite direction to the ‘Porte de la Teste’ but once again the walk did little for me (except that I found a reasonable beach bar, Chez Maman, not far from the campsite which would do for the evening). The whole area is famous for it’s oysters farms but, honestly, it seems to be more of a cottage industry here and the only half decent oyster bar on the way to Porte de la Teste (at Porte de la Hume) was closed. Otherwise, I discovered nothing other than mudflats.

We were both looking forward to moving on to Eauze in Occitaine (Occitanie in French) but at least the beach bar I scouted out earlier in the day did prove a success.

Ciboure (Nouvelle Aquitaine), France Sept 2022

We returned to France primarily to stock up on Cremant for Vanya and Ossau-Iraty (French Basque ewe’s milk cheese) for me but also to avoid the wet weather approaching the north of Spain. Unfortunately, the better weather over the next days is up near Bordeaux which is one of my least favourite parts of France but, when needs must.

We broke the journey to Bordeaux in Ciboure (Ziburu in Basque) just across the border from Spain. Ciboure is a small fishing port just a short walk around the bay from the town of Saint Jean de Luz. It has been a fishing port since the Middle Ages and up until the mid 1960’s was the number one sardine fishing port in France but it is now given over mostly to tourism.

Looking south across the bay towards Ciboure

The most impressive building in the town itself is the 14th century church dedicated to Saint Vincent (it’s another typically Basque Church) but it is an old fort built at the command of Louis XIII in 1627 and subsequently remodelled by Vauban which dominates the harbour area. Unfortunately, the inside of the fort is no longer open to the general public.

We only stayed the one night in Ciboure, taking an evening meal at one of the many fish restaurants on the harbour side. They served the smallest moules mariniere we have ever seen and they weren’t that tasty but the view over the bay with it’s numerous battelekus (colourful Basque fishing boats some 5 to 6 metres long) was spectacular.

The harbour area

Not a lot else to say about Ciboure except that it was the birthplace of composer Maurice Ravel and that the artist Henri Matisse also lived there.

The next day we drove on to La Teste de Buch.

Saint Gaudens (Occitaine), France August 2022

Camped up in Montrejeu and I somehow broke the Van’s fly screen. There’s no way you can spend Summer in a van in the south of France or Spain (our next port of call) without a fly screen so; we drove to the nearest (larger) town of Saint Gaudens to find the French equivalent of B&Q – Mr Bricolage.

Saint Gaudens is not the prettiest town in France but we arrived on a market day and we love local markets. So with the fly screen temporarily sorted via the purchase of a Moustiquaire Magnetique (just 12 euros), we wandered around the market; Vanya sourced a supply of ‘cbd’ in a local shop and; best of all we sat at the edge of the market and nursed a coffee and watched the world go by for a while.

Oh, and there’s one more thing worth knowing about Saint Gaudens. Dominique Bouchait, one of the great French cheese masters, is based in Montrejeau and, while his cheese factory is in his home town (alongside Camping Paradis), he has an impressive store in Saint Gaudens (Les Fromagers du Mont Royal).

It was a lazy four days in Montrjeu.

Montrejeau (Occitaine), France August 2022

I last visited in Montrejeau in July 2019 (during Tour 2) but I never kept a blog that Tour, choosing instead to simply post brief details on Facebook. I recall I wasn’t very complimentary about the town in my FB entry. That was perhaps unfair because I didn’t get a good look at Montrejeau. My focus then was more towards the excellent camp site I stayed at (Camping du Paradis) and my trip to ‘le plus beau village’ of Saint Bertrand de Comminges where a medieval festival was under way. That was a great day but, it is time to put the record straight about Montrejeux.

Once again I chose to stay at Camping du Paradis and once again it was brilliant (nice pitch, facilities and people) although it is now three times more expensive than it was in July 2019. No matter, it was good enough for us to stay 4 days.

As for Montrejeau it’s a small town with no more than 3,000 people but, it has a couple of real plus points and it has some history. On balance I was a little unfair about the place and while Montrejeau is unlikely to set the world alight in my lifetime, it is a reasonable base from which to explore the Haute-Garonne.

So what did I see this time that I never saw before? Well, for a starter I missed the town’s main street. Instead I made my way from the campsite down along the Boulevard Bertrand de Lassusand then onto and over the town bridge to Saint Bertrand de Comminges. I returned the same way and as such missed the Marie (the town hall), the war memorial (it’s really quite unique), the Eglise de St Jean Baptiste (beautiful plain inside) and L’hotel de Lassus (the town’s most impressive mansion).

The church, L’Eglise de St Jean Baptiste, has an unusual octagonal shape tower but is otherwise unimpressive, until you get inside. The arched dark wooden roof and the roughly hewn cream coloured stone walls complement each other wonderfully well and the church isn’t full of garish furniture that might detract from what amounts to a beautifully simple interior. I like it.

L’Hotel de Lassus is not, nor ever was, a hotel. It’s a mansion (many French mansions are referred to as l’hotels), dating from the late 18th century and it belonged to the same Lassus family whose progeny subsequently built the 1892 Chateau de Valmirande. Nowadays it is used as a reception hall and there is a small space museum inside it.

Chateau Valmirande

One other attraction I sought out during this more recent visit to Montrjeau is it’s leisure centre and lake. The lake was developed out of a former gravel pit and extends over thirty hectares. To one side of the lake is a ‘Blue Flag’ water park complete with water slides and a bouncy obstacle course (I had to restrain Vanya from the obstacle course on the water) and the other side of the lake is for fishing.

So, Montréjeau does have more to it than I first thought after my visit in 2019.

I mentioned too that it has some history. Well, it was the scene of one of the last battles between Republicans and Royalists during the French Revolution. In the summer of 1799, anti-revolutionary insurrection broke out in the area which threatened even the city of Toulouse. The Paris Directory quickly sent an army to the area and the rebels were crushed at Montrejeau in August 1799.

Moureze (Occitaine), France August 2022

The next day, I was more than a little surprised that Vanya remained keen to visit the Cirque de Moureze, especially after she had seen the photos taken by our dinner companions of the previous evening. This simply wasn’t her thing but, then again, she has surprised me in the past and, hey, life is for living. It never occured to me that she wasn’t wearing her glasses the night before and couldn’t actually see the photos she was being shown.

And so we made the short drive to the tiny village of Moureze. We paid our 5 Euros to park in the car park by the visitor centre at the edge of the village, grabbed the dogs and set off on one of the shorter trails through the Cirque de Moureze…

We were in the 300 hectare park which is the Cirque de Moureze for about an hour and I certainly enjoyed our time there. The views are sensational. There are a number of well marked trails through the park which are of between one and three hours duration and they take you through a strange and spectacular landscape full of ‘Dolomites’. Dolomites are large limestone rocks which have been weathered by wind and water erosion over thousands of years into tall columns and all kinds of weird shapes. Put simply,the softer limestone is washed away to leave the harder rock sculptures, some of which are up to 500 metres high, and they make for great scrambling.

Looking back over the village of Moureze
Looking forward to some of the scrambles

We retraced our steps to the village and found a small cafe bar. Moureze is a peaceful little village centred around the 12th century Gothic church of Sainte Marie. There is the ruin of a castle at the top of a rock above the village but I couldn’t get to it. I think that access is across private land. The village has a couple of cafe bars (one has crepes on it’s menu), a couple of small craft shops, an antique shop and an interesting little cemetery which has been designated a Commonwealth War Cemetery because it is the last resting place of a young Captain Peter Seymour Fowler who was murdered by the German SS in August 1944.

We enjoyed our drink, had a quick wander around the village and then returned to the Van. We had a long drive ahead of us to Montrejeau where I stayed almost 5 years ago.