I'd like to tell you that we first found and fell for the Ariège decades ago, but that's simply not true. The story of how we discovered this department is an odd one: we'd spent a lot of time trying to find the right house in the neighbouring department of Pyrénées-Orientales but just couldn't find what we wanted at a price we could afford. So eventually I got out the large scale maps (good old paper ones, of course!) of the whole Pyrenean chain, did a virtual journey westwards, and without travelling very far, found an area we'd never stumbled on before. Largely thanks to an inspiring geography teacher, I can lose myself in a map as the scenery unfolds in front of me, and what I discovered that day was an extraordinary green wilderness of an uncommon beauty. We quickly flew out to explore for ourselves, and the rest is history.
Since then I rarely stop talking about this amazing department (you may have noticed :) ) and I'm a card-carrying 'ambassadrice' for the departmental tourism committee. There are so many things to love about the Ariège, but here are 10 of the best.
1. Scenery Quite simply, stunning. It makes no difference whether you're in the green rolling foothills, or standing on the top of a high peak or alpine pasture, or sheltering from the hot sun in a leafy valley or by a mountain lake, or surrounded by the copper and gold of a beech forest on a misty late summer morning. I guarantee you won't be unmoved.
2. Emptiness One of the least populated departments, our biggest town has 15000 inhabitants; the smallest village just 9. Unlike much of the Hautes-Pyrénées, the ski stations are few and discreet and the mountains remain unscarred by the detritus of commercial tourism. You can walk in August and not meet another soul.
3. Sense of history From those who settled in the first prehistoric caves and buried their dead in the dolmen, to the Cathars, pursued to their deaths, right up to the twentieth century Resistance movement, there's a very real and living sense of history here that will touch anyone open to feeling it.
4. Orchids 60 different species of orchids flower here from spring through to autumn: some rare, others more common, some rather weird and wonderful. And if that's not enough there are around 3000 other varieties of wild flower too.
5. Apollo The butterfly of high peak and pasture - always a joy to stumble upon whether it's your first or your fiftieth time. If you spot a Camberwell Beauty close by as well you'll remember the day forever.
6. Vultures The giants of the bird world: we have griffons in quantity plus smaller numbers of Egyptians, and of course a handful of the famous bearded vulture - the lammergeier or bone-cracker. Once seen, never (ever) forgotten.
7. Dark skies You'll see the universe as you'll never see it in light polluted areas: the full moon will dazzle you and the Milky Way will blow your mind.
8. Green-ness Not just the landscape, but the way of life. Agriculture is small scale and largely chemical-free, food chains are short, the environment is respected and simplicity is many peoples' life choice.
9. Walking Whether you're a walking softie or a serious scrambler you'll never run out of walking possibilities. Well, not for several lifetimes, anyway.
10. The feeling that you've discovered somewhere that few others have (or will) Because that's exactly what you've done. Congratulations.
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