Fleurance Things to Do
While I have been a bit scathing about Fleurance and its lack of attractions - and even grumbles about my preference for Armagnac over the Lomagne, there are many very attractive and very special corners of the Lomagne, not least in the countryside around Fleurance. I would particularly recommend picking up a copy of the Fleurance leaflet from any Midi-Pyrenees tourist information office, as this highlights more than 50 small villages, castles, hamlets and other attractions all around: the old villages of Le Sauvetat (just a few kilometres west of Fleurance) and Terraube (a little further north) alone easily make up for the lack of character in Fleurance itself.
In most countries and places, churches aren't really my thing, but here in Gascony they seem to be the anchor that held and still holds a very conservative, rural society together. Most towns and most villages still have one of each of the three main buildings of the nobility (castle), religion (church) and commerce (market) and there are few places, even in rural France where this is still true.
The church was built during three periods, from the 14th to the 16th Centuries, and much use was made of multicoloured stones and bricks thoughout – a rare technique. It has three naves and is in the basilica style, with no transept and in its early days, was built with successive steps down the slope to the choir and the altar. Then in the 14th Century this unusual construction was changed, but its legacy can still be seen at the base of the pillars of the nave. Near the entrance, the pillars ‘start’ above ground level, and those closer to the choir are buried.
The highlight of this church, though, are the three stained glass windows in the choir, despite some rather clumsy restoration in the late 19th Century. The windows were made by Arnaud de Moles, who also made the better known windows in the cathedral at Auch.
A small footnote to the church is the veneration of Notre-Dame de Fleurance in an archway on the left. The story is told in full in a large book, but it appears that during the hardest times for Fleurance – the Hundred Years War and the French Revolution – many miracles were attributed to her. Further along, closer to the entrance, is a particularly romantic statue of Saint Jude, with attractive windows in the archway alongside.
The second reason for visiting Fleurance other than to admire the market-place is to spend a little time in one of the nicest churches in the region - and there are many beautiful churches in the Gers! It si also one of the largest – being 70 metres long.
In a square to the north-east of the market place, the facade is attractive but not particularly inspiring, although it is dominated by an elegant octagonal bell tower. It is the interior that is remarkable, not because it is ornately decorated or even because of any special spiritual meaning, but just because it combines some awesomely beautiful stained glass windows with a very simple yet very dramatic construction. In a way, despite no mention of it in any of the books, there seems to be a unique Gascon style to many churches in the region and this church epitomises that simple, elegant style. Through history, gascony and the Gers has been a rural backwater - even today few tourists have heard of a single place or town in the entire departement. As a result of its relative isolation, few of the churches have been modernised or reconstructed during the last 500 years so leaving a legacy of Romanesque and Gothic churches (and it is perhaps fitting that the very last Gothic cathedral built in France is in the departemental capital, Auch). Other than the cathedral at Auch, no churches in Gascony are grand: most are simple, elegant and look pretty much the way they did when they were first constructed.
Having eaten five or six times in Fleurance, we have never been impressed and have yet to find a decent restaurant or café in the town. Our theory is that we only ever visit on market-day when everywhere is very busy, patience and tolerance is short and they run out of things on the menu quickly. Also, there seem to be less cafes and restaurants than elsewhere, so putting more strain on the trade.
The Bar du Centre is at the northern end of the market-place and is the mid-range choice place, always packed, always sprawling down the covered arcade. Getting a table for more than two at a time is almost impossible at lunchtime.
On the east side is the Euskalduna Bar, an overtly Basque place that doesn’t serve one shred of anything basque but frequently runs out of everything on their woeful fast-food menu. Service here is always poor and you feel like you are getting in the way of their lifestyle. Not recommended.
At the south end of the square – always quieter than the west side – is the upmarket choice, but the name escapes me. A few friends recommend this, but we have mixed feelings. Again, all a bit rushed and we have felt unwanted and unloved.
I notice that, unusually, the Guide du Routard doesn’t even mention anywhere in Fleurance, suggesting that the nearest decent restaurant is “nearby” (??!!) at Taybosc.