In southwestern France’s Gers department, Auch is a city that will steal your heart the moment you see the old Episcopal quarter, raised impossibly high above the Gers River.
The Haute-Ville as it’s called, is so steep that in medieval times special stairways were built to help its citizens get down to the river safely.
These are called “Pousterles” and are unique to Auch, with five remaining for you to trundle up.
Auch’s cathedral is absolutely indispensable, and replete with Renaissance masterpieces.
After that there are museums and medieval sights to mill around, and Amragnac distilleries, bastide towns to tempt you close by.
Lets explore the best things to do in Auch:
1. Auch Cathedral
With UNESCO status as a stop on the road to the pilgrimage site in Compostela, Auch’s glorious Cathedral is a beacon for miles around.
It’s a fusion of Gothic and Renaissance, having been constructed at the transition of these eras in the 15th and 16th centuries, and there’s a wealth of ornamentation to dazzle you.
The 113 stalls in the choir were carved from hard oak with bewildering complexity in the 16th century.
You need to take as long as possible to do this work justice, and to be able to identify more than 1,500 motifs in the canopy.
The windows in the choir are also phenomenal, and encapsulate that blend of Gothic and Renaissance.
They’re often declared the most beautiful from this period in France.
2. Tour d’Armagnac
This 40-metre tower is an unmistakable fixture in the townscape.
The Tour d’Armagnac was constructed in the 1300s and attached to the Episcopal Palace next to the cathedral.
The tower was meant to be a prison and a symbol of the might of the Bishop of Auch, but because of a lack of offenders it was turned into a warehouse for religious archives.
That was until the Reign of Terror in the Revolution, when the tower became a prison once more and remained so up to 1860. These cells have been preserved inside, and there’s a monumental spiral stairway winding up the interior.
3. Musée du Trésor de la Cathédrale
The ground floor of the Tour d’Armagnac has recently been converted into the treasury museum for the neighbouring cathedral.
There are over 200 paintings, polychrome sculptures, carved stones and items of gold, which are much more than just devotional objects and possess universal artistic value.
The museum is also an interpretation centre for the cathedral and Episcopal Palace, set up with videos and interactive displays with facts about the history of the complex and its restoration.
4. Monumental Staircase
A very noble way of entering the Haute-Ville, Auch’s Escalier Monumental was a 19th-century project to connect the two parts of the city in a more dignified manner than the old tunnel-like stairways that were here before.
This was no small job and took several years up to 1863: There are three terraces with gardens and fountains, linked by 374 steps, delivering you from the riverbank right up to the Tour d’Armagnac.
The stairway has a neo-Renaissance style, with balustrades edging the terraces, and a statue of Charles de Batz-Castelmore d’Artagnan, a real 17th-century musketeer who inspired Alexandre Dumas’ novels and lived in Auch.
5. Musée des Jacobins
Hidden in the warren of old town streets is a brilliant museum that has the second-largest hoard of pre-Columbian art in all of France.
There’s gold, textiles and ceramics from Peru and Mexico before the Spanish arrived.
But the pinnacle is a little more recent: The Mass of St Gregory is a mosaic made from feathers in Mexico City in 1539, and so the oldest piece of Christian art composed in the Americas.
Away from Latin America there’s art and artefacts including a 1st-century bust of Trajan, polychrome medieval sculptures of the Virgin and Child, and applied art like faïence and musical instruments.
In medieval times Auch’s challenging topography gave rise to long, straight stairways leading up to the Haute-Ville.
These are known as “Pousterles” and there are five in all.
They allowed people living atop the hill get down to the river quickly, and today all except the Vieille Pousterle have kept their original stairway.
None of them are light walks, but you have to see them for their noble stone houses that press in from the sides, and to sense what a medieval resident of Auch had to go through each day just to get water!
7. Promenade Claude-Desbons
The right bank of the Gers is quieter than the left, and a four-kilometre band of parkland hugs the riverfront for the entire length of the city.
There are trees and lawns, and lots of places to sit and contemplate the cathedral and Tour d’Armagnac, which bank up dramatically on the opposite side.
If you don’t want to skip your morning jog, this is the place to take it, and yuo should carry on north you get to Parc du Couloumé.
This is five hectares of English-style park, abounding with trees and aligned to give you more inspiring views of the Haute-Ville.
8. Maison à Colombages
Facing the cathedral on Place de la République is one of the most striking buildings in the city.
It’s a four-storey half-timbered house, with a corbelled stone base supporting the rickety levels above.
When you get closer you’ll see that the wooden sections are filled in with red bricks, and the timbers have an odd variety of patterns.
The building has stood here since the 1400s and now hosts Auch’s Tourist Office, so you’ll have every reason to go inside.
9. Marché Traditionelle
The Gers region has a reputation for gourmet cuisine, and is particularly known for foie gras, which is in season from around November to March.
Every Thursday and Saturday morning in Auch, there’s a typical market at the foot of the cathedral.
Almost everything sold here is local, so there’s no better way to get to know what is produced in this region that is at a transition between the Mediterranean climate and the cooler Oceanic influences of the west coast.
There’s wine, preserves, cheese, charcuterie, pastries and fruits and vegetables, all sold in a cheerful atmosphere.
10. Château de Lavardens
This resplendent house above its namesake village was a fief of the Counts of Armagnac when it was built in the 1100s.
But over the years it fell into ruin, before a rebuild was conducted in the 17th century.
A lot of what you see is from that time, except an outbreak of plague in the village forced the builders to flee in 1653 and the upper sections were never finished.
There’s still a lot to see inside, like a “whispering room” where the acoustics allow whispers to be heard from corner to corner.
The château has been put to use as an exhibition hall, with a sweet little cafe in one of its outbuildings next door.
Touring the small towns and villages near Auch you’ll notice that most have a grid layout in the centre.
This is telltale sign of a bastide town, built in a rush for strategic purposes when England and France were fighting for control of Gascony in the 13th and 14th centuries.
Fleurance is one such place and is arranged around an arcaded central square with statues on each corner representing a different season.
Make time to see the Church of Saint-Laurent, which has 15th-century stained glass by Arnaud de Moles, the same master glassmaker who composed with windows in Auch Cathedral.
12. Outdoor Escapades
The Gers Department is a quiet corner of southwestern France with sunflower fields, clumps of woodland and sleepy bastides.
The country lanes and low traffic make the countryside great for exploring on two wheels, while the tourist office can give you maps for a host of local walks.
There’s a whole catalogue to choose from and curious sights to discover like ruined castles in Roquefort and a 13th-century bridge in Pavie.
Also in Pavie, a kilometre or two down the road, is Accrobranche, the sort of outdoor adventure park that is a trademark of rural French destinations.
On ten different courses there are rope swings, monkey bridges and a 200-metre zip-line.
13. Abbaye de Flaran
The cream of the local daytrips is only half an hour northwest of Auch on the road to Condom.
It’s a Cistercian Abbey founded in 1151 and is counted among the most intact medieval monasteries in the southwest of France.
A dizzying array of buildings have been preserved, like the Romanesque church, cloister, chapter house, kitchen, sacristy, calefactory (where they would come to warm up) and refectory.
Even the kitchen garden survives, and has been planted with aromatic herbs and medicinal plants.
If you need more persuading to come, there’s also a revolving art exhibition of works loaned by the Simonow Collection, and has pieces by Renoir, Rodin and Gainsborough.
14. Wine Tourism
Armagnac brandy is distilled in the Gers Department, starting just a couple of kilometres north and northwest of the city.
As opposed to Cognac, which is dominated by big brands, Armagnac is made mostly by small family operations.
And you have a few where you can behind the scenes, at Domaine de Laubnesse, Armagnac Samalens and Domaine de Charron for example.
And if you’re up for a local wine-tasting experience the Domaine de Herrebouc is just west of Auch, producing Côtes de Gascogne wines organically at a gorgeous Gascon château.
If you want something authentic to take home, you can get cans and jars of terrine de canard, rillettes au foie de canard and canard aux pruneaux (prunes), all made near Auch.
On a different tack, many desserts in the region are flavoured with Floc de Gascogne, a fortified sweet wine made with Armagnac and wine juice.
This lends a local twist to classics like crème brûlée.