In the heart of Gascony, far from the hustle of metropolises like Bordeaux or Paris, lies a region that until now has largely escaped the transformation by large-scale tourism to which the rest of France has succumbed. Not a single motorway crosses its territory and only a single dead-end railway line connects the extensive French network to the region’s capital Auch. It is through this capital that flows the slow and narrow river which gives the department its name: The Gers.
But it is exactly this remoteness that has preserved the region. While you can see the Pyrenees Mountains from afar in a majestic panorama, it has hardly any relief, let alone snowy slopes. Its landscape folds into low meandering hills, like a fabric that has been stretched and released all of a sudden and curled up again. And in that landscape lies the very key to the two largest assets of the Gers: History, and that other concept, for which no English translation comes close enough to embody its true meaning: Terroir. Technically, terroir is a complex combination of geography, soil and natural environment. In the Gers, the landscape translates into pastures, wheat and sunflowers as far as the eye can reach and an enormous amount of ducks and geese. The soil is excellent for vineyards, which not only produce the most exquisite wine but are also responsible for perhaps the most famous export product of the Gers: Armagnac. But there is more to it than mere technicalities. There is a love for food. Good food. And while this might be true for most of France, it is even more so for the Gers, where it has been elevated into an art. No wonder then that is was the theatre of the One Hundred Year War between England and France. Who wouldn’t want to fight over such a piece of land? That long struggle between two countries has left its traces in the landscape. Fortresses, fortified villages and castles adorn every hilltop, and the region has more of them than any other region in France. History in the Gers is very much alive. And quite recently, part of that history has given the region a new push.
Charles de Batz de Castelmore, born in 1611, was the son of a ennobled merchant family in the sleepy village of Lupiac in south of the Gers. History would probably have forgotten all about him if he hadn’t gone to Paris at an early age to join the army. After several exciting achievements in espionage, Charles became a high-ranked officer in the national guard and, eventually, commander of the Musketeers under Louis XIV. After spending a few years as governor of Lille, where he had a big row with Vauban about the exterior and interior decoration of the citadel, he went back into battle to fight the Dutch near Maastricht in 1672. There, he was killed by a stray bullet and buried in an unknown location. If some of this sounds familiar, then his full title, Charles de Batz de Castelmore-Comte d’Artagnan,will probably ring a bell.
Why yes, the swashbuckling witty hero of Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers was real. But Dumas didn’t really care to check the background story. Instead, he based his protagonist on a book by Gatien de Courtilz de Sandras, Les mémoires de M. d’Artagnan. Now, de Sandras wasn’t really interested in telling the detailed story of d’Artagnan either. His novels were more of a pamphlet against the ruling order, and adding some (fictional) suspense to the tale to amuse the reader was a common tool at the time. Dumas probably knew about the fictional elements in Sandras’ book, but nevertheless used them to write three books. And the rest is history. Throughout the centuries, the young boy from the small village in the Gers has conquered the world in dozens of film adaptations, comic books, games, manga and hundreds of other derived products.
So in 1998 Lupiac decided to honour its illustrious inhabitant by opening a museum in a chapel just outside the village square. The museum tells the story of d’Artagnan in greater detail, and shows how the man became a legend. And while the village is very well hidden in the gersois countryside, thousands of d’Artagnan aficionados and tourists find their way to Lupiac each year to honour old Charles. The success of the museum has convinced the local community that d’Artagnan, despite being an international symbol, really belongs to them in very much the same way as Robin Hood belongs to Nottinghamshire.
In 2012, the village of Lupiac decided to organize a festival for the 400 year anniversary of Charles de Batz’ birth. The first of its kind, the festival sent a very strong message: that d’Artagnan is an inherent part of Gascony. And so it began. The sleepy village was cast back into the 17th Century. For several months, all 350 inhabitants of Lupiac devoted part of their time to transform the village, and themselves, into a living replica of d’Artagnan’s era. Flags were painted, costumes were made (by hand!) for every inhabitant, and local craftsmen were asked to present their products from Gascony in a artisan market.
To liven up the festival, a fencing group was called in from Paris to play scenes from The Three Musketeers and to engage visitors into the re-enactment.
The festival, appropriately named “d’Artagnan chez d’Artagnan” was a huge success. A few thousand people attended, of which many discovered the real d’Artagnan for the very first time.
What followed was even more interesting. Shortly after the festival in Lupiac, the city of Auch held a topical seminar day entitled “What can d’Artagnan do for Gascony?”. Around the same time, Condom (a small town in the North of the Gers) held a small poster exhibition on d’Artagnan. Something had changed. Officially, those events were not related, but it is clear that the region is warming to its newly rediscovered local hero. How it will play out this card is not really clear for now. But what’s certain is that the swashbuckling hero, both real and fictional, has the potential to become a much larger symbol for the Gers and for Gascony than he is today.
Those who want to experience it in person are kindly invited to the second d’Artagnan Festival in Lupiac on the 11th of august 2013.
Some useful links:
The World of d’Artagnan – THE source of information on the real and fictional hero, and on Cloak and Dagger in general.
Musée d’Artagnan de Lupiac on Facebook
Charles de Batz on Facebook
Monde d’Artagnan on Twitter
Tourisme Gers on Twitter