So you’ve arrived for your hard-earned week’s holiday; you’ve never been to the Ariège before, you haven’t especially come to walk or to go birdwatching or to cycle and have no particular agenda. What would be a good way to spend your time here?
There’s so much here you could discover that we sometimes find that people don’t know where to start … and by the time they’ve got the lie of the land, it’s time to go home! So we’ve put our thinking caps on to come up with a suggested itinerary for a week in the Ariège, designed to give you a flavour of different areas and aspects of our department. It’s a mixture of full-on exploring and more laid-back chilling. We’ve included five days out here; we find that most people who are staying for a week like to have a day ‘at home’ during their stay, or do something local and undemanding (like visit the Premonstratensian abbey in Rimont Village, Combelongue, open afternoons from July to September).
Sometimes, your journeys will take you along some of our mountain roads. Don’t be at all worried about that – Ariège roads are very good and very safe, and you’re not going to find yourself driving with sheer drops on one side. They tend to follow valleys or ridges, then rise up to cross a col – so you can expect lovely views from the top without any of the scary edges that you might have experienced driving in, say, the Alps.
DAY ONE: EXPLORING ST LIZIER AND ST GIRONS
Just 15 minutes from L'Atelier d'Artiste, St Girons is the ‘capital’ of our local region, the Couserans, and the third largest town in the Ariège with a population of around 7000 people; St Lizier sits on the hill above it and is a small medieval cité. If you’re here on a Saturday, you absolutely should start your day at St Girons market – the liveliest and most interesting in the department. If not, start by wandering around the old streets by the river, perhaps stopping for a coffee at Le Galopin, with its terrace that hangs over the water. In the old town centre, you’ll find a number of small shops with some wonderfully old-fashioned and unreconstructed shopfronts. When you’re ready, drive up to St Lizier; wander the medieval streets of the old centre, and explore the Gallic-Roman ramparts that date all the way back to the 4th century. Visit the Romanesque cathedral in the central square; the frescos here are beautifully conserved and amongst the oldest in the Pyrenees (11th century) and the cloisters are beautiful too. Pop into the tourist office and book a visit to the Old Pharmacy next to the church: it's a perfectly conserved apothecary dating from 1764 and is quite fascinating! Have a simple lunch under the shaded arcades of the central square at 11, Place des Arcades, a lovely café/salon de thé/restaurant.
After lunch, wander across to Le Palais des Evêques (Bishops' Palace). Start by visiting St Lizier's second cathedral, Notre Dame de la Sède, where astonishing paintings and frescos dating back to the 15th century have only recently been discovered (and now sensitively restored) following renovation work in this whole area. It's now considered to be one of the most beautiful religious buildings in the region and is sometimes referred to as the 'Little Sistine chapel'! Afterwards, spend a couple of hours in the Bishops' Palace itself; the departmental museum is here, and there are lovely gardens. If you fancy a walk, take the easy stroll to the neighbouring village of Montjoie-en-Couserans to see the early Romanesque fortified church and enjoy some lovely views in the process.
DAY TWO: THE SLOW ROAD TO FOIX
Today you’ll travel along some of the loveliest roads in the Ariège to Foix, our departmental capital. The road runs along a ridge at the top of the Massif d’Arize, the range of hills just to the south of L'Atelier d'Artiste. Known as the ‘Route Verte’, it will take you to Foix via several cols and the valley of the Arget before descending into the woodland and pasture of the Barguillère valley. The map on the next page is marked up with the whole route. The views are everything here, so pick a day where there isn’t too much low cloud. Drive through our village, Rimont, to the main D117 road and turn left; keep your wits about you though as you’re going to turn right shortly, by a garage (D18B, signposted Col de Crouzette). Continue winding up this road until you reach the Col de Rilles, keep left and continue on towards the Col de Crouzette and then to
The Sommet de Portel (1485m) Leave your car on the grassy verge and climb on foot, up to the summit at the foundations of an old look-out : superb view over the peaks of the Haut Couserans. A few minutes’ walk downhill will take you to the spring of Coula, a lovely spot for a quiet rest or a picnic. When you’re ready, continue driving to
The Tour Lafont (Col de Péguère, 1375m) A short walk will take you to the tower; there’s a magnificent panorama right across the central Pyrénées, from the Pic de Fontfrède to the Pic de Cagire. Then drive on to
The Col des Marrous (990m) It’s more wooded here but you’ll still enjoy extensive views over the valley of the Arget and the Arize forest. You can have lunch or a drink in the gorgeous garden of the Auberge des Myrtilles – recommended!
From here, follow the roads through Brassac and Ganac into Foix where there are lots of restaurants for lunch if you like. After some time spent pottering round the streets of the historic quarter of Foix and visiting the château, return to Maison Grillou via the narrow lanes that link the pretty foothill villages of Serres sur Arget, Alzen, Nescus and Larbont.
DAY THREE: A GENTLE, GETTING WET KIND OF DAY
We figure you’ve earned a bit of R&R by now so today we’re going to suggest that you take it slightly easier. This is the ‘good weather’ version of the day – if it’s not so good we’ll suggest some variations at the end.
Start your day by driving to Le Mas d’Azil, a large village just 15 minutes from L'Atelier d'Artiste. If it’s Wednesday, so much the better: it’s market day, and it’s a good one – fun to wander around, and then to sit over a coffee people-watching. On another day of the week, start your day instead with a leisurely coffee at La Maison de la Grotte, on the grassy meadows at the entrance to the prehistoric caves. Then buy yourself a picnic, from the market, maybe. The boulangerie in the village is one of the best for miles, and there are two small supermarkets as well as some smaller shops for supplies if it isn’t market day.
When you’re ready to move on, drive to the Lac de Mondély: to get there, continue northwards on the road you took from home, and just before the bridge and the campsite, take the right fork, continue through the village of Gabre then look for the small right turn signed for the lac. It’ll take you around 20 minutes altogether. This is a lovely lake set in the hills; there are lots of trees for shade, grassy and sandy beach areas, and a small bar-buvette for cold beer and ice cream. There are various picnic tables too. If you enjoy swimming you'll love it here as you can spend hours in the water, and once you've left the main beach area behind you won't see a soul. After your picnic you can amble around the path that circuits the lake, or just spread yourself out with a book for the afternoon.
If the weather isn’t so good, have lunch in Le Mas d’Azil instead, possibly at Le Kiwi which is one of the Ariège’s most interesting restaurants (good value, too). The owner-chef is half-British so you’ll have no language problems! Afterwards, you may choose to visit the prehistoric caves and the little pre-history museum in the village, or walk up to the nearest dolmen, or even head off to Xploria, on the way out of Le Mas d'Azil towards Sabarat: in the 3 hectare forest of Castagnès, where dinosaur fossils were found 20 years ago, you can explore evolution and the origin of life on earth, from the beginnings of the universe to the present day. A visit here can be as serious (or not) as you want it to be: serious scientists are behind its creation, but it's set up in such a way that grown ups and children alike can enjoy and learn from it.
DAY FOUR: GOING BACK IN TIME
Today we suggest that you visit one (or more) of the famous prehistoric caves around Tarascon sur Ariège, 45 minutes’ drive from L'Atelier d'Artiste. 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 advance booking is essential, even outside the summer months. You can do this on line ; there are two English language tours in summer, usually just before 10am and again at around noon. It’s very likely that within the next few years this cave will be closed to visitors to prevent any further damage to the unique cave paintings, so we strongly recommend this as your first choice. You won’t be disappointed. You’ll be taken on a guided tour, carrying a light; wear sensible shoes (you may be turned away if you arrive in flip-flops!) and beware - however hot it is outside, you'll need to take warm clothing with you - the temperatures inside the caves usually hover between 12 and 15 degrees.
The nearby Lomberives is the biggest cave system in Europe; you can choose from over 20 different visits ranging from 1 to 7 hours. At Bedeilhac there are 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.
Afterwards, you could visit the extensive Parc de la Préhistoire in Tarascon to get all the background, or chill out at Les Bains de Couloubret in Ax les Thermes (15 minutes’ drive) - 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.
DAY FIVE: THE SLOW ROAD AROUND THE HAUT COUSERANS
This day will take you out and about into the mountains, on good roads. Allow yourself plenty of time as it’s a stunning drive, and you’ll want to stop lots of times to explore, stroll or take photos. All in all, you’ll travel around 100 kilometres; it’s a great introduction to the landscape, the valleys and the heritage of the Haut Couserans region – the very essence of the Ariège. The map on the next page is marked up with the whole route; we’ve chosen this particular route because we think it offers the best variety of scenery, but you can extend it or cut it short as you wish.
From the village of Rimont, turn left onto the main D117 as if you’re going to Foix, then turn right by the garage onto the D18B, signposted Col de Crouzette (as on day two). Then follow the route in an anti-clockwise direction.
A few highlights: Biert: a peaceful village situated at an altitude of 600 metres on the banks of the river Arac.
Cominac: park the car and wander among the barns with their stepped roofs, so characteristic of this region. Gorgeous. Fantastic views too.
Vic d’Oust: there’s a lovely Romanesque church here.
Seix (pronounced Sex): typical large mountain village with attractive architecture, on the banks of the Salat – a great place to stop for lunch.
Col de la Core: this will be the height of your day (in more ways than one!). Allow yourself time to stop here – there are panoramic views and a few surprises!
Etang (lake) de Bethmale: after you’ve spent some time at this lovely and very photogenic lake, you can take an easy stroll on a wide forest track up to the Cirque de Campuls for more lovely views.
Bethmale valley: When you leave the lake, you’ll travel along the Bethmale, known for its pointed clogs, its mountain cheese and its folklore. It’s well worth stopping off at one or more of the villages in the valley - Arrien-en-Bethmale, for example – to see their characteristic mountain architecture. Les Bordes sur Lez and Audressein: both villages have lovely Romanesque churches.
This is the background of the Bottom Area shown below. It'll display correctly on published site.
If you don't want background for the bottom area, simply hover over the bottom of this image to delete it. The background of the bottom area will be a solid dark color.