The Ariege is situated just north of the Spanish border, above the tiny country of Andorra, in the region of the Midi-Pyrénées. It is central to the Pyrenees and its landscape is wild but easily accessible for those who enjoy outdoor pursuits such as walking, camping, fishing and climbing are popular activities in the summer - skiing is main focus in the ski resorts in winter.
The Ariege enjoys many natural sites, cultural and historic places of importance. The mountains, prehistoric caves, cathar castles and churches, medieval villages and its varied landscape will inspire you!
Why you should visit Ariège for your next holiday in France
The River Ariège gives its name to this sparsely populated department. It winds it way from the north through Pamiers and the capital Foix down to Ax-les-Thermes. If you like the challenge of water sports the department of Ariège has a wealth of torrents and rivers on which to practice canoeing, kayaking and rafting as well as hotdogging, white water swimming and kayak polo. Numerous events, competitions and selections for the national championships take place.
Seasons play a great part on the environment, trout streams course through the valleys, but move on to the upper slopes in summer and the land becomes bleak, rocky and uncomfortably hot. In winter the snow comes early and lies late and many of the villages are ski centres.
In the mountainous regions you may spot bears and wild sheep. Though more often that than not you will see a cyclist or two - the Ariege usually plays host to a portion of the 'Tour de France'. Because of the rugged landscape it is not difficult to see why the isolated areas served as a refuge in the past for fleeing Cathars and the French resistance.
Winter and summer holiday's are both catered for here in Ariège. Skiing for all ages in the winter and in the summer there is swimming, tennis, walking, climbing, cycling, of course the water sports, but also taking a scenic drive and simply picnicking.
The ski resort of Ax-les-Thermes specialises in treatments for rheumatism. The area is famous for its natural hot spring water and baths. Therapeutic thermal treatments are available at the neighbouring town of d'Ussat les Bain.
What to see and do in the Ariège
There are ten ski stations scattered across the mountains of the Ariège, offering something for skiers of all ages and abilities, from the beginner to lovers of extreme skiing. As well as this wide choice of downhill pistes, you can also visit the biggest cross-country ski station in the Pyrenees, at Plateau de Beille, which offers excellent snow conditions well into spring. In this mountainous area, the Ariège has many torrents and rivers ideal for canoeing, kayaking and rafting.
Those who enjoy the popular activity of horse riding will find riding centres within range of Le Pic Vert. Here you will find a special breed of horse, the Ariegeois Mérens, they are blessed with a gentle temperament which is ideal for trekking in the undulating paths of this region.
Cycling and mountain biking are extremely popular. Special tracks have been created for all levels of mountain biking and for the dedicated cyclist there are many steep mountain ascents with just as many flat valley rides amid equally stunning scenery.
The pure waters of the Ariège, from the upland mountain streams and high altitude lakes to the fast-flowing rivers further down in the valleys, provide perfect conditions for fishing.
Walkers of all fitness levels can enjoy the beautiful scenery and wildlife of the Ariège. Guided walks are a good idea as experts can interpret sights and sounds adding another dimension to any walk. On a cautionary note, please do not bring a dog with you into the higher altitudes in the summer as they may disturb the sheep, cows and horses that graze in the high mountain pastures. Some natural reserves forbid dogs altogether.
There are hundreds of kilometres of caverns to explore, caving and potholing are therefore very popular, and catered for at a number of locally sited centres, as is rock climbing with more than 1800 climbing routes in the department. Canyoning is another increasingly popular pursuit as well as hiking, swimming, climbing and abseiling with ropes.
Why not discover the delights of one of the numerous weekly markets across the Ariège. You can sample locally produced organic cheeses, sausages, breads and the like. Often the larger towns also hold twice-monthly fairs, which also encompassing arts, crafts, clothes and much more.
Places to visit
- Forest de Belesta - take in the stillness of the Forest de Belesta, considered to be one of the most beautiful forests in the Pyrenees
- Cascade d'Arse - this is the second highest waterfall in the Pyrenees and is a stunning sight. It is only accessible by foot and a round trip will take around 4 hours - a good one to visit on a day-off from cycling!
- Golf de l'Ariège - 40-50 km from Massat. Excellent golf course with fabulous views.
- Montsegur - visit the last stronghold of the Cathars who were captured and burnt alive for refusing to convert to Catholicism.
- St-Lizier - the Cathedrale St-Lizier is worth visiting for its Romanesque frescoes but the village's second Cathedral de la Sede has superb views of hills and snow-capped mountains
- Parc de l'Art Préhistorique - approximately 30km from Massat. Large activity park centered around the prehistoric ages.
How to get to Ariège
Flights vary according to departure and destination airports, here are a couple of route suggestions from London:
London Heathrow -Toulouse-Blagnac, London Heathrow - Perpignan-Rivesaltes
Eurostar has made the journey easy from London, St Pancras International to Paris, Gare du Nord is just 2 hours 15 minutes.
From Paris (Gare Montparnasse) there are TGV trains to Toulouse. A SNCF train service operates between Toulouse and Foix; a regular service links Foix and Ax-les-Thermes. For St-Girons, an SNCF train links Toulouse with Boussens, from where a bus service runs to St-Girons, Foix and the valleys.
Bus services run in summer between Foix and Ax-les-Thermes and into some of the main valleys.
Arrive at Calais (Eurotunnel) and head for the Paris peripherique, then the A10, A71 and follow the A20 which changes to the N20 at Toulouse, this leads through Foix, Tarascon-sur-Ariège and Ax-les-Thermes; minor roads branch off to the Vicdessos and other valleys. St-Girons is centrally located in the Couserans on D117 from Foix. The journey to Foix will take approximately 10 hours.