The Ariege is an oft-overlooked department of France, containing the Couserans region: nestled in the fresh mountain landscape of the Pyrenees, it has a timeless beauty and charm all of its own
The Couserans has always been a hidden corner of France: in the old days its greatest claim to fame was its bear trainers. Farming was marginal: bad harvests and famines, combined with mining closures and world war ravages, led to such vast depopulation that today the population is 90% less than the 1850s.
It is a mountainous region within the Ariege, consisting largely of eighteen valleys which converge towards St Girons. These are some of the most deserted valleys of the Pyrenees with atmospheric crumbling barns and houses and ruined terraces, There are beautiful heavily forested foothills, lush green valleys with icy streams of crystal clear waters and fresh misty mornings which gradually reveal the jagged mountains of the Pyrenees in all their magnificence. It is an area of endless possibilities for the outdoor enthusiast as well as enjoying the usual fine markets and restaurants without the crowds of some of the better known areas.
Bumbling round Biert
This little village hugs the bank of the Arac river and has an unspoilt charm. There is a small hotel, Le Gypaete Barbu (09320 Biert; four bedrooms from 34 euros) whose husband and wife team turn out straightforward and satisfying menus from 17 euros. A municipal campsite lines the river but the nearby Camping a la Ferme de l'Azaigouat (Route de Col de Saraille; camping from 6 euros/person/day) has more character with leafy campsites by a stream and roasted free range chicken nights.
Walking is a great way to explore: the tourist office at Massat (+33 5 61 96 92 76; www.ariege.com/massat) 5 km up the valley, has leaflets of walks in the area and a little book: Couserans: TopoGuide: Decouvertes en Haut-Couserans covers the region’s best walks. From Biert, it's an easy stroll along the Arac river for picnicking and swimming. After that it is all up, but one easy walk takes you to the Ker, a rocky outcrop above the village for superb views over the valley.
I like that to the traditional pastoral village of Les Goutets, 1,400m above Massat. Stone-roofed barns and huts are all that remain to show where several dozen people once lived in the summer months . Towering above is the Pic des Trois Seigneurs (2,199m) best approached from the north past the beautiful Lake d’Arbu. The views are superb, though the 6:30 circuit makes it a long day.
Cominac is a spectacularly sited village above Biert with a sweeping panorama over Mont Valier (2,838m) and picturesque barns, now largely converted, but which are notable for their ‘pas d’oiseau’ or stepped gable roofs. Once thatched, this feature helped to access and repair it, as well as providing an anchor. Accessible by car, it is the centre of many scenic walks.
Other good walks include the Cirque de Cagateille, a glacial valley (50 minutes) and Cascade d’Ars waterfall (246m), reputed to be one of the most beautiful in the Pyrenees (1:50 minutes). If you take a tent you can carry on further to find your very own sparkling lake or join the Grande Randonnee GR10, which stretches from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.
En route, there is often the pleasure of grazing on the sharp mountain blueberries or the tiny wild strawberries. Mushrooms grow widely and a keen eye can soon distinguish a cep from a girolle from a trompette de mort - all highly regarded edible fungi (though check with a local first!).
Four feet and two wheels
Other means of access include horseback with rides varying from one hour to several days (Cavalus, Le Rame, 09320 Biert; +33 5 61 96 94 81; www.cavalus.com) The black, sturdy, sure-footed Meren is the local breed. Some like taking a donkey for a walk (from 35 euros a day), the theory being that they carry the pack or the reluctant child, and though they would probably slow a good walker down, they do offer a gentler perspective on the country. ( Panoram‘ane, La Bourdasse, 09320 Aleu; +33 5 61 04 43 19; www.ariege.com/panoramane)
Cyclists like to emulate their Tour de France heroes who pass nearby every year. There are numerous local passes to practice on including the Col de la Crouzette at 1,241m which climbs 655m in just over 8 km with an exhausting gradient of 12.4%: one would be well advised to start with the easier Col de Saraille just above Biert at only 942m. Not being a cyclist to that extent, I just admire the bronzed rippling (shaved) legs!
A famous cycling stop in the valley near Biert is Les Deux Velos (Route de Massat, 09320 Biert, Ariege; half board from 50 euros a night), easily recognisable from its gate made of 2 joined bicycles; another good spot is the Auberge de l'Arac (Route de Massat, Castet d’Aleu, 09320 Ariege; with rooms from 30 euros/night; +18.50 half board and 4 gites named after the colours of the Tour jerseys from 245 euros/week)
Fishing and food
Fishing is a popular local option, both the Arac and the Salat near Biert being well regarded fly fishing rivers (www.peche-ariege.com): 2 week licences are 30 euros from the tourist office. At the Etang de Lers above Massat a day's fishing will cost 15 euros with a 10 trout limit. The lake is a popular picnic spot, but there is the 'Resto' mountain restaurant': the terrace has a great view where you can enjoy good value local cuisine (menus from 17 euros). The smoked salmon salad with melon and a lime sorbet (10 euros) sounds a bizarre combination but it actually works really well.
A less strenuous excursion would be to the large Saturday market at St Girons for mountain cheeses, sausages and honey, as well as donkey milk soap, ‘crustades’ (a large sweet puff pastry fruit filled tart) and the Chinese takeaway man who has the biggest queue of all - just try his spring rolls. I like steak frites lunch at Le Galopin (3 Rue du Pont Vieux) with its little terrace overlooking the river though you need to be early to grab a spot on it. At La Fine Bouche across the road at No 6, you will find excellent coffee and teas.
Other reliable lunch options include L'Auberge des Deux Rivieres (Pont de la Taule, 09140 Seix; double rooms from 36 euros), a lovely drive upstream from Seix, with excellent menus starting at 14 euros. Try the garlic soup, the civit (pork stew) and the apple dessert with cinnamon ice cream and caramel sauce and you will be happy. They have a lovely terrace above the river and it is also a nice place to stay.
Seix itself is an attractive little town with good local shops: I recommend Le Petrin Gourmand bakery, near the townhall (mairie). They do superb mini quiches, breads and pastries and a wonderful savoury crustade: their maigret (duck breast) and cep version is well worth the 15 euros. Stock up on goodies and spend the afternoon upstream on the river: it is as nice a spot as any.
I stumbled across the Couserans by accident 4 years ago but liked it to such an extent that I have been back every summer since. As for the bears they were reintroduced to the Pyrenees in 1996 and today there are about 20 individuals, some in the Ariege; I’ve never seen one, but maybe you’ll be lucky.