The Pyrenean foothills of Ariege are steeped in thousands of years of history, from the ancient cave drawings at Niaux to Cathar castles and the rich architectural and cultural heritage of Saint Lizier. This wild and beautiful area is one of the most traditional in France, a place where transhumance (leading livestock up to the high pastures for summer) is still practiced by shepherds.
Ariege’s capital is the delightfully medieval Foix. The old town is full of narrow cobbled streets, half timbered houses and pretty squares providing a typically French setting. Standing tall on its rocky outcrop, Foix Castle stands proud and fearless dominating not only the town below but the mountains stretching beyond.
Visitors will be enchanted by pretty Ariegois villages dotted around the green, wooded valleys of Massat and impressed by the rugged grandeur when walking in the 22,000 acre Mont Valier nature reserve. Why not pay a visit to the fascinating village of St-Martin d’Oydes, with its striking medieval circular architecture; Tony Blair and his family have spent several summer holidays in a chateau in the village. But it’s not just spectacular landscapes and layers of history on offer in Ariege, this Mid-Pyrenean department has year-round activities which attract both French and international visitors.
March is the start of the fishing season, which runs through to September and in April the first rafts and canoes appear on the rivers swollen with snowmelt. May is the best time to see the exuberance of wild flowers and orchids on display, whilst the summer months are perfect for walking, horseriding or mountain biking along the peaceful forest trails. Donezan, for example, provides ideal terrain for mountain biking and hiking with over 100km of graded routes through forests rich in plant and wildlife. Many trails are practicable all year round providing pleasant summer walks and winter snowshoe excursions. You can also go pony trekking through the Pailhères pass or on the inspiring Vauban Way and keen cyclists can take on the challenge of the col de Pailheres and col de Jau passes.
Winter sports enthusiasts are very well catered for in Ariege, with 10 ski stations and the largest cross-country ski area in the Pyrenees, the Plateau de Beille. Ax les 3 Domaines is the largest of the stations, with 75km of pistes providing varied terrain between 1400 and 2400 metres for all standards of skier and boarder; nearby Ax-les-Thermes provides those soothing spa waters after a hard day on the snow. Guzet, Les Monts d’Olmes and Mijanes all offer compact family skiing with 40km, 18.5km and 9km of pistes respectively.