Southwest France is chock-full of crumbling abbeys, medieval villages, and Gothic churches that blush gold in the sunlight – you just have to know where to look.
Setting out from the pink city of Toulouse, this road trip itinerary takes in 10 centuries of compelling architecture with ample time for rich Gers cuisine along the way.
Day 1: admire the sacred sights of Toulouse
Start at the spires of La Ville Rose (The Pink City). A profusion of pink marble and rosy bricks have given Toulouse an unforgettable skyline, and one of its standouts is the Romanesque Basilique St-Sernin.
The octagonal bell-tower of this 11th-century masterpiece became the blueprint for churches built in the surrounding Gers region. Step into the church and stroll around the ambulatory, beneath the watchful gaze of marble cherubs, before descending into the vaulted crypt. Numerous holy relics here cemented the basilica’s importance as a stop on the French Way of St James pilgrimage route.
Swing east along Rue du Périgord for a detour to Les Halles Victor Hugo. This food market brims with dried sausage, cheeses, and ripe-to-bursting tomatoes. The best produce is cooked up at restaurants on its upper level.
Belly full, head south out of the market along Rue du Rempart Villeneuve before walking west along Rue Lafayette. Soon enough you’ll spy Place du Capitole, home to Toulouse’s 18th-century city hall. Continue west and duck south down Rue Lakanal, which leads to the Couvent des Jacobins. This grand complex with peach-coloured cloisters is the heart of the region’s religious life, and celebrated its eighth centenary in 2015.
Striking a balance between elegance, centrality and value, rooms at Hotel Albert 1er have crimson drapes, crisp white sheets, and lean-out-and-sigh balconies.
Day 2: step through history in Auch
Leave vibrant Toulouse in your rear-view mirror and drive west towards the placid town of Auch. It’s an easy 80km journey along the N124, passing meadows strewn with hay bales.
The town’s centrepiece is the Cathédrale Ste-Marie. This twin-towered masterpiece took two centuries to build, so its architectural flourishes range from Gothic to Renaissance. Most impressive is its choir. Saints and philosophers are carved in wood and a set of 18 stained-glass windows dating to the 15th century sparkle above. Reward your introspective visit to the cathedral by ambling north to Rue Dessoles, where you can enjoy inventive duck dishes and local cheese at La Table d’Oste.
Just southeast of the cathedral (follow Rue Laborde to Place Salinis) is the Escalier Monumental. A mighty 234 steps flow down this Baroque outdoor staircase, bypassing medieval to modern landmarks along the way. As you walk down, admire the Tour d’Armagnac, a former seat of power for the counts who held sway here in the 14th century. Also note a statue of semi-mythical musketeer D’Artagnan and contemporary sculpture by Catalan artist Jaume Plensa.
Auch’s most glamorous place to stay is the Hôtel de France, a 300-year-old hotel mere moments from the cathedral, replete with stained glass windows and wrought-iron railings.
Day 3: steep yourself in medieval history near Valence-sur-Baïse
Take the northbound D390 from Auch for 33 tree-lined kilometres until you reach tiny Valence-sur-Baïse, with Abbaye de Flaran at its northern edge. Built in the 12th century, this stately Cistercian abbey has seen numerous attacks, suffering enormous damage during the bitter Hundred Years’ War between England and France. Now faithfully rebuilt, the cloisters of this sandstone sanctuary enclose a serene courtyard.
Next, drive north out of Valence-sur-Baïse along the D142 before joining the D278 towards Laressingle, France’s smallest fortified town. With its rectangular turrets, Laressingle looks almost like a castle in Lego. March over the stone bridge and through its single archway, and picture yourself firing arrows from the town walls. Alternatively, test your trebuchet skills at the Cité des Machines du Moyen Age, a gaming zone themed around medieval warfare.
Barely 500m north of Laressingle, surrounded by acres of rose-draped gardens, Lacassagne has stylish rooms and lounges with fireplaces, within a country manor filled with antiques.
Day 4: see Gothic splendour in Condom
The prosaic origins of Condom’s name – a contraction of ‘Condatomagus’, a market town between two rivers – haven’t stopped visitors taking selfies with the road signs. But despite its name, this town of cobbled lanes and timeworn shopfronts will leave you impressed.
Its centrepiece is the Cathédrale St-Pierre, a flamboyant Gothic edifice with attached cloisters. One of the last buildings to be crafted in Gothic style in the Gers region, this 15th-century building boasts a 40m tower and glittering stained-glass windows. Within, bone-coloured arches and intricate tracery complete the effect.
Streets flowing from the cathedral square feature hôtels particuliers (stately townhouses) from the 18th century. They’re easy to spot by their decorative balustrades, ornamental windows and the occasional family crest carved in stone; find several privately-owned homes along main drag Avenue de Gaulle.
Not all the historic buildings are off-limits to visitors. On Rue Jules Ferry, behind the cathedral, stands the Musée de l’Armagnac, within a 17th-century former outbuilding of Condom’s Episcopal Palace. The museum is a temple to the region’s beloved brandy, which continues to be lovingly distilled from wine in oaken barrels at countless chateaux in the countryside. Armagnac tastings are offered at the museum, and you might want to pick up a bottle or three.
Le Continental’s rooms are tastefully furnished in faux-vintage style, plus there’s a spa and sauna. Crucially, the restaurant serves excellent local fare, including duck flambéed in Armagnac brandy.
Day 5: conquer the fortified town of Montauban
Drive east out of Condom along the D7, a 100km journey that passes in a blur of birch trees and wide open farmland. The feeling of calm ends abruptly in the knot of roads around Montauban, but push through the traffic to discover one of the region’s most admirable bastides (fortified new towns).
With arcades and stocky protective walls, Montauban’s bastide barely seems to have changed since medieval times. So successful were the defensive walls that the town famously held off invaders for a full 86 days during a 17th-century siege.
The rumble of cannons has long been silenced, and Montauban’s old town is now a jolly place where delicatessens brim with homemade preserves and brasseries dish up heavy plates of duck confit. At its heart is Place Nationale, enclosed by brick archways that now frame cafes and bars.
Stroll along Rue Malcousinat, from the square’s southwest corner, before turning right on Rue de la République (both streets are flanked by magnificent brick mansions) and you’ll reach Église Saint-Jacques. This russet 13th-century church has a striking octagonal bell-tower, reminiscent of St-Sernin in Toulouse – to where you’ll soon return. Lament the end of your trip at nearby L’Atelier du Goût (3 rue Armand Cambon) over generous platters of charcuterie and comforting fruit crumbles.
Stay the night within the 18th-century walls of Hotel du Commerce, whose chandeliers and velvet lounge chairs will bring your journey to a suitably regal finish.