FIND YOUR FEET ... EXPLORE
The beautiful Bethmale Valley, known especially for its cheese, its clogs (still made there today) and its folklore; the village of Ayet, the lake and walks above the lake.
The lesser known valleys of Bellelongue and Biros, both very distinctive, but totally different in character from each other.
Mont Valier nature reserve, accessible from Ayer, near Castillon; from the Col de la Core, near Seix; and from the Col de Pause near Couflens.
Orlu nature reserve – lovely walking, and the possibility of getting close up and personal with marmots. Also at Orlu: the Wolf Park and the Mountain Observatory.
Plateau de Beille, near Tarascon – stunning high altitude plateau with views to die for, where you can amble for hours along almost flat paths.
Massat and its valleys and the hamlet of Goutets.
The gorgeous hamlet of Cominac and its stepped-roof stone barns.
The valley of Balaguères, and in particular the village of Balagué with its balconies. If it looks familiar it might be because you've seen the film The Return of Martin Guerre, which was filmed here.
Well known walks to the Cascade d’Ars, near the spa town of Aulus les Bains, and the Cirque de Cagateille at the end of the glorious, green Ustou valley.
GO TO TOWN
Very pretty large mountain village on the Salat river with some lovely houses and a chateau housing a centre for information about the village, the mountains and the local heritage. Point of departure for the Guzet ski station and the Ustou and upper Salat valleys.
Small bastide town dating back to medieval times, with gorgeous and much photographed main square (wooden arcades, half timbered houses, gargoyles) surrounded by cafés. The cathedral has the largest-but-one nave in Europe. Go on a Monday and you'll hit the market - very pretty.
The largest town in the department and the main commercial centre; birthplace of Gabriel Fauré and well known for its three bell towers. Well worth exploring, though you have to work at it a bit (the tourist office here is very helpful): some lovely architecture and hidden squares. The main town square is paved in red marble.
Ax les Thermes
Spa town and ski centre in the far south of the department, set in lovely mountain scenery en route to Andorra. Some pretty streets, squares and buildings, plus a sulphurous foot bath you can dunk your feet in (which is more fun than it sounds!). In July and August take the cable car and chair lift up to the ski stations and have lunch at Le Saquet, at 2000 metres altitude.
The prehistoric caves around the town of Tarascon. Niaux, the most famous, is the largest decorated cave in France still open to the public and is highly protected - only a small number of groups of limited size are permitted each day and so booking is essential, even outside the summer months. Lomberives is the biggest cave system in Europe; you can choose from over 20 different visits ranging from 1 to 7 hours. Bedeilhac: very large caves with stalagmites and amazing Magdalenian art. Grotte de la Vache is the smallest of the caves, but one that’s yielded a very large number of everyday objects; the Salle de Monique near the entrance has preserved traces of an encampment.
Parc de la Préhistoire, Tarascon: everything you ever wanted to know about the prehistoric people, caves, art and lifestyle. There are workshops, live demonstrations and a complete reproduction of the Niaux cave paintings. Allow most of the day.
Cathar castles at Montségur and Roquefixade – rather more of an activity, maybe, as both require fairly stiff climbs to get up there.
The eagles at the Chateau de Lordat – over 30 eagles and other birds of prey at close quarters, with regular flights.
The award-winning organic vineyard at Les Côteaux d’Engraviès, where every Thursday between June and September you can take a 2 hour tour with the owner, Philippe Babin.
Discover some of the many Romanesque chapels and churches – too many to list but all beautiful in their simplicity.
Walking/cycling/climbing/skiing/swimming/fishing/horseriding …. all over the place!
Les Bains de Couloubret at Ax les Thermes – a contemporary thermal spa with jacuzzis, jets, frigidarium, caldarium, vaporarium, Irish-Roman bath, hammam, saunas and two outside pools, all at between 35 and 38 degrees. A great rainy day activity!
Trekking with a donkey – Aleu or Le Port.
Trekking with a lama – near Tarascon.
AND A BIT FURTHER ON - AROUND 90 MINUTES
Andorra – shopping, if you like that sort of thing (it's all rather ugly ...) but some magnificent scenery if you get off the beaten track. Huge queues to get there in high summer as all of Toulouse goes to buy its ciggies'n'booze! Much better, we think, to go to ...
... Spain via St Béat. Enjoy a Spanish lunch in Vielha (twinned with St Girons) then drive along the lovely Aran Valley through Arties and Baqueira to the Port de la Bonaigua (2072m) from where the views over the National Park are fabulous.
Toulouse - if we had to live in a city this would be in our top three. Evocative buildings, especially on a summer evening when the brick glows deep pink; lots of interesting quarters to explore; the river (regular boat trips); excellent galleries, museums and culture; vibrant restaurant scene and café culture. Easy access via train from Foix, or Park and Ride from the metro at Basso Cambo.
Carcassonne – the cité is very touristy and - we think - over-restored; to be honest we think it's best avoided unless you actually like wall to wall souvenir shops. The basilica is charming and has some lovely stained glass, but for us it can't, sadly, make up for the rather Disneyland-like feel of the rest.
Donezan – the farthest flung bit of Ariège, so remote that it’s cut off from the rest of the department in winter by the Col de Pailhères, the summit of which is at 2001m. Rich in history (and, of course, scenery), it’s often referred to as a ‘Québec Ariégeois’. Fascinating, and one of our own very favourite areas for a walking weekend.
St Bertrand de Comminges – medieval cité with Roman origins (Lugdunum), famous for its cathedral and architecture. Remarkable setting. Very close by is the basilica of Saint-Just de Valcabrère, one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture in the Pyrenees. We're pretty sure you'll find a trip out here vastly more moving, interesting and authentic than Carcassonne ...