Ariège: a hidden gem in southern France

by Rosemary.Free

Spending time in this beautiful, tranquil corner of France is guaranteed to soothe away 20th-century stress

Ariège is one of the least populated and most unspoiled parts of southern France and is the perfect destination for those looking to get back to nature. Nestled in the Midi-Pyrénées, the countryside is green and mountainous and the towns small but prosperous.
 
Whatever time of year you visit Ariège, there are myriad activities to choose from, including walking, cycling and skiing. Accommodation is also plentiful, with french campsites ranging from municipal and farm sites to private campgrounds with pools and chalets, and gîtes d'étapes offering dormitories or private rooms and an evening meal.
 
Exploring the countryside
Cycling is a big sport in Ariège and the outcome of the annual Tour de France is often decided on the mountainous roads of the region. For the faint-hearted and less fit, however, it is enough to follow the race route – marked with graffiti egging on the riders – in a car. Alternatively, you can cycle along one of the numerous river valley routes or hire bicycles from a bike hire company that will take you up a hill allowing you to ride back down along trails and forest roads.
 
The range of walking options is equally diverse, from walks between villages lasting just a few hours to high-mountain hikes lasting several days. One particularly challenging walk is Le Chemin de Liberté that follows one of the escape routes over the central Pyrenees into northern Spain used during the Second World War. For those on a more spiritual quest, one of the three principal pilgrims’ routes to Santiago de Compostela in Spain crosses Ariège from Mirepoix in the east to Col de Portet d’Aspet in the west.
 
Whatever you choose you will be rewarded with stunning views across to snow-covered mountain peaks and will get the chance to see herds of semi-wild black Méren horses grazing in their summer pastures.
 
Caves and castles
Another option in the heat of the summer is to head underground. Ariège has the biggest concentration of caves (grottes) in France. This includes La Grotte de Lombrives at Ussat-les-Bains, Europe’s largest cave, and La Grotte de Niaux, where you can see 12,000-year-old wall drawings of bison, horses and mountain goats. Visits are restricted however, so it is necessary to reserve a tour in advance. It is also well worth taking a tour of Europe’s longest underground navigable river, the rivière souterraine de Labouiche, where you will see groups of stalactites and stalagmites in the form of an elephant, waterfall and Buddha.
 
Back above ground, the nearby town of Foix with its historic castle offers a good introduction to the history of the Cathar movement. Built on an imposing rock with three crenellated towers, the Chateau des Comtes de Foix appears almost too big for the small town. Its stature obviously rubbed off on its former occupants who played an important role in defending Catharism, the spiritual movement that developed during the 11th to 13th centuries in reaction to the corruption of the church.
 
At nearby Monsegur, you can visit a real symbol of the Cathar resistance. Dramatically perched atop a sugarloaf mountain, Monsegur Castle was the headquarters of the Cathar Church until the forces of the Pope and French monarchy crushed the movement. A siege of the fortress castle in 1244 culminated in more than 200 Cathars choosing to be burned to death rather than renounce their faith.
 
Back in Foix, where the cobbled streets are lined with medieval half-timbered, blue-shuttered houses, life has moved on slowly. It is the perfect place to browse for bric-a-brac or to pick up some local produce such as honey, soft mild cheese, jam or foie gras from one of the farmers' or artisans’ markets. Alternatively, you can get something to eat at one of its many restaurants offering traditional dishes, pizzas or crepes.
 
Winter sports
If you are visiting Ariège in winter, the small spa town of Ax-les-Thermes is close to the region’s largest downhill resort at Ax 3 Domaines and there are plenty of B&Bs or gîtes offering accommodation.
 
For cross-country skiing, the Plateau de Beille has 65km of trails. After a hard day’s skiing you can relax in the thermal waters of Ax-les-Thermes, which are reported to be particularly beneficial for those suffering from rheumatism or ear, nose and throat problems. Other spa resorts can be found at Aulus-les-Bains, where the water is good for those with metabolic problems such as obesity, and at Ussat-les-Bains, where you can get relief for stress, anxiety and insomnia. Alternatively, you can just lie back and relax... 

Recommendations

Where to eat
Le Phoebus restaurant in Ariège overlooks the river and the castle. Specialities include foie gras, roasted pigeon and tomato and raspberry sorbet.
 
L'Auberge d'Antan in St Girons offers traditional dishes cooked over a wood fire. Specialities include Pyrenean snails cooked in a spicy sauce and roasted duck foie gras with baked apple.
 
Where to stay
Camping du Pouech is a municipal campsite in Massat. It has grassy, tree-shaded spaces for tents and large, flat pitches for caravans and campers. In addition, it is possible to rent a fully-equipped tipi for a week.
 
Camping Les 4 Saisons is a holiday complex in the village of Oust, with camping, mobile homes, gîtes and a hotel. In summer it is possible to go walking, horse riding, mountain biking, kayaking, fishing or paragliding close to the campsite, while in winter there is a shuttle between Les 4 Saisons and the ski station of Guzet-Neige 20 km away.
 
La Ferme du Cayre offers B&B accommodation (with the option of a packed lunch and evening meal) in a renovated 19th-century sheepfold in a small mountain village 10km from Ax-les-Thermes.
 
La Résidence des Balcons d'Oriège is located in the centre of Ax-les-Thermes, just 100m from the ski lifts and 30m from the thermal spa. There are five apartments sleeping between four and eight people.
 

Getting there

Ryanair has flights from several UK airports to Perpignan and Carcassonne, and  easyJet flies to Toulouse from Bristol and London Gatwick.

 
France Car offers car hire from Perpignan, Carcassonne and Toulouse airports.

Rosemary.Free

After working for several years in newspapers in England and Scotland, Rosemary Free embarked on a new adventure when she moved Catalunya, in the north of Spain, with her partner and two young children. Before starting her journalism career, she also lived in Israel as part of a gap year, in the USA as an exchange student and in Japan where she taught English for three years. She now works as a freelance journalist writing articles about travel and culture for magazines and newspapers in the UK and Spain. Favourite places: Rosemary's favourite country is Scotland, with Edinburgh being one of her top three favourite cities, along with Paris and Rome. She enjoys exploring the undiscovered parts of northern Spain and southern France and for a completely different type of holiday recommends a visit to Japan or Thailand.