Capital of the Landes Department, Mont-de-Marsan is a medieval bastide town where the Douze and Andou Rivers meet. It was created from scratch as a walled settlement in the 1100s, and a few fortified houses and scraps of the old walls remain from this time. For hundreds of years Mont-de-Marsan flourished through trade, shipping Armagnac brandy and other regional delights down the Midouze to the Atlantic.
The riverside is still lined with stone warehouses and quays from this period. As a four-star “Ville Fleurie” Mont-de-Maran’s magic lies in its greenery, abundance of water and discreet sights that are all charged with history.
Lets explore the best things to do in Mont-de-Marsan:
1. Donjon Lacataye
Infusing the townscape with medieval romance is this tall fortified tower.
The name “Donjon” means “keep”, suggesting that this was part of a whole castle, but the building is actually two stand-alone fortified houses side by side.
From the Midou side you’ll see that one has the slender windows of a Romanesque house, while the others’ are square, showing they were built at different times.
The site would have been finished around the early 1500s, and now contains the Despiau-Wlérick sculpture museum.
On a visit you can climb up for a view from the battlements.
2. Musée Despiau-Wlérick
Inside the Donjon Lacataye is the only French museum dedicated entirely to modern figurative sculpture.
It takes the names of Charles Despiau and Robert Wlérick, two sons of Mont-de-Marsan and both celebrated sculptors: Wlérick is famous for sculpting the monument to Marshal Foch at the Place du Trocadéro in Paris in 1936. In all there are over 2,200 sculptures here, created between the end of the 19th century and 1950. Among them are three gilded bronze reliefs made for the 1937 Paris Exhibition by Henri Lagriffoul and works by André Greck and Charles Correia.
3. Parc Animalier de Nahuques
In four hectares to the east of Mont-de-Marsan is a park that kids will be wild for: Shaded by giant oak trees are animal enclosures with mostly regional species like sheep, donkeys, dwarf goats and deer.
These are joined by Corsican mouflons, emus, wallabies, black swans and more than 100 bird species at the aviary.
There’s also a playground for the littlest children, pony rides for kids up to 10 and a clutch of stands in the park selling waffles, crêpes and soft drinks.
4. Romanesque Fortified Houses
Hidden on the quiet backstreet Rue Maubec are a couple of buildings that go back to the origins of Mont-de-Marsan.
These edifices are in the same vein as the Donjon Lacataye, fortified houses that would have been attached to the city’s defensive walls.
At no. 6 is a house from the late-1100s, listed as a historic monument and with a beautiful mullioned window.
There are arrow loops in the front and if you look closely at the corbels there are openings from which rocks or hot oil could have been thrown on attackers.
There’s another 12th-century house at no. 24, less well-preserved but also meriting a couple of minutes.
5. Parc Jean-Rameau
On a loop in the Douze, the refined Parc de Rameau was opened in 1813 and has an interesting backstory.
It started out as a place to test tree and plant species from other regions of the world, but also soon became a place to walk in style.
The maritime pine was cultivated here, which helped to drain the Landes marshes and provide a buffer against the dunes on the coast.
The park is as calm and dignified as ever, with a cast iron bandstand from 1907, a fern garden, Japanese garden and hydrangea flowerbeds, all sheltered by beeches, limes and pines.
6. Sights around Town
Mont-de-Marsan has a lot of little places to fit into a walking tour, many with fascinating stories to tell.
The Neoclassical Rotunda on Boulevard de Candau was built by the French Académie d’Agriculture in 1811 and was meant to be a plant nursery, but the plans were abandoned.
Just after the confluence of the Douze and Midou is the site of a once thriving river-port transporting Armagnac, wheat, honey and more down to Bayonne up to the start of the 20th century.
Warehouses, docks and the towpath are small hints of an activity that went back to the 1100s.
And on 46 rue Armand-Dulamon is a gorgeous 18th-century mansion with a mansard roof and delicate filigree above the first floor windows.
7. Base de Loisirs du Marsan
Just off the Route de Bayonne to the southwest of Mont-de-Marsan is the town’s place to blow off steam on hot days.
In this 120-hectare outdoor space there’s a bathing lake and beach, a large fishing pond as well as facilities and equipment for any number of outdoor pursuits.
Bring youngsters to the Accrobranche Centre, which is a kind of climbing attraction with 16 courses set high in the park’s tall pines and a 700-metre zip-line that passes right above the bathing lake.
If you don’t have a car you can use the free shuttle bus that serves the park from the centre of town in the summer.
8. Musée du 34e Régiment d’Infanterie
The French Army’s 34th infantry regiment moved to Mont-de-Marsan from Tarbes in 1876 and were headquartered in the Bosquet Barracks.
Here, the Pavillon Solférino is a former guardhouse for the barracks, containing artefacts that will delight anyone with a taste for military regalia.
There are flags, uniforms and insignias as well as archive photos of strange training manoeuvres.
The museum also goes into depth about certain characters, like the Abbé Bordes, a volunteer chaplain who won the Croix de Guerre and Légion d’Honneur in the First World War.
Yet more traces of the past can discovered at the six communal washhouses dotted around the town.
Unlike in most French cities these have been preserved and are little souvenirs of a not so distant era.
The loveliest of all is the Lavoir de la Cale de l’Abreuvoir, which is from 1870 and set down where the Andou and Douze Rivers meet.
It’s a grand, semi-elliptical building with ten arches now festooned with geraniums.
Pause a moment to watch the river go by and get a photo of the rustic old mill on the opposite bank.
Walking around Mont-de-Marsan you get a sense of how useful the Douze and Andou Rivers would have been for defence in medieval times.
Their meanders create a natural barrier on the North, South and West sides of the town.
But on the unprotected east side of the old town lots of fragments of the 12th-century defensive walls are visible.
Some places to go for these are Rue Armand Dulamon, Promenade du 21 Août 1944 and the wall neighbouring the Donjon Lacataye.
There are four rectangular towers to see, and in places the walls get up to a height of ten metres.
11. Grand Moun Mall
The centre of Mont-de-Marsan is a shopaholic’s heaven, with 400 stores, many run by families.
But sometimes only a mall will do the trick, and there’s a big one just on the outskirts of the town.
Grand Moun only opened in 2014 and is a plush, stylish space with 80 high street stores including international names like C&A and H&M, and typical French stores like Yves Rocher and Intersport.
There’s a cafeteria and a cluster of bars and restaurants and the whole centre is anchored by a branch of the E.Leclerc hypermarket: Good to know if you’re staying at an holiday home in Mont-de-Marsan.
12. Fêtes de la Madeleine
Every year since 1594 the town has come together to celebrate its patron saint, Mary Magdalene.
Today the celebrations pull in almost half a million people, many wearing white uniforms inspired by San Fermín in Pamplona, but with a blue scarf instead of red.
Like Mont-de-Marsan the village of Saint-Sever a little way to the south has been visited by pilgrims for centuries.
They’re heading for Compostela in Spain on the Way of St James, and many of the religious stops on the route are UNESCO sites.
That’s the case with the Abbey of Saint-Sever, an 11th-century Romanesque former monastery.
The tympanum above the north portal, and the 77 sculpted capitals in the church are lauded as masterpieces of medieval art.
Some still have their original coat of paint, while the oldest go back as far as the Gallo-Roman era.
15. Food and Drink
You’ll eat well in Mont-de-Marsan as you’re in a French Department with more produce recognised with a French “label de qualité” than any other in France.
One of these is for poultry, and duck, geese and chickens are bred acrosss the region.
Foie gras is big in Mont-de-Marsan and can be eaten cooked, half-cooked or raw.
You can get a terrine at the market on Tuesdays and Saturdays to bring home with you.
A filling traditional dish will be confit (cured) duck served with potatoes fried in duck fat.
Mont-de-Marsan is also in the Armagnac region, where this esteemed brandy is distilled from wine and then aged in oak barrels.