The areas that make up Ariège
The 18 valleys that make up the western third of Ariège are historically and culturally part of Gascony, while the rest of the departement more closely has closer ties to the Languedoc region.
The Couserans is a land of mountains, foothills, prairies, lakes, waterfalls and forests and is entirely contained within the Parc Naturel Régional (Region Natural Park) of the Ariège Pyrenees.
The town of St-Lizier is celebrated for its Roman art and architecture. Its neighbor, St Girons, is the capital of and gateway to the Couserans.
The Garbet river valley has a unique link to the USA through the bears that used to populate the mountains. Dominated by Mont Valier, exceptionally verdant and slightly less developed touristically than the rest of Ariège, the landscape is extremely varied: from the rolling, agricultural farmland of the Volvestre through the forests and mountain pastures around Castillon, Massat and the upper Salat river to the wild, unspoiled Mont Valier reserve where isards roam. All the mountain sports and outdoor activities mentioned in this site can be done here and all the major tourist attractions in Ariège (prehistoric caves, Cathar castles...) are less than an hour away.
Midway between St Girons and Foix is a lovely area of green, rolling foothills and woodlands called the Séronais of which La Bastide de Sérou is the principal town. An 18-hole golf course draws residents of other areas of the department and beyond, as does the Centre National du Cheval de Mérens, representing the rustic black horse that is native to Ariège. For family outings there is a Reptile Museum (La Ferme des Reptiles) and the subterranean river at Labouiche (the longest navigable one in Europe open to the public) on which you can have a guided tour in a boat.
The Gates of Ariège (the plains and foothills)
The Lèze and Arize river valleys:
If you take the scenic route from Toulouse the tranquil Lèze River valley is your first introduction to Ariège. Stop at the medieval hilltop village of Carla-Bayle for a sweeping view of the countryside and the mountains. The birthplace of the protestant philosopher Pierre Bayle, it is also home to many artists and craftspeople. This area is a good base for visitors who want to divide their time between the the charms of Toulouse (30-45 minutes away) and the pleasures of the mountains (45 - 60 minutes). Also good stopping point if you've just arrived by air and don't want to drive too far the first day.
Further south on the Arize River is Le Mas d'Azil, site of one of the most famous prehistoric caves in the world. Discoveries there led to identification of the Azilian era. Interesting Museum of Prehistory.
The town also figured prominently in the wars of religion, becoming one of the principal protestant strongholds of the Midi. Calvin himself came to preach and lived there for a period. In 1625 1000 Protestants withstood a siege by a royal army numbering 14 000.
Pamiers and the lower Ariège river valley:
The area around the lower Ariege river consists of gentle hills and the plain that extends to Toulouse. It's a nice area to explore by bicycle, with many quiet backroads and small villages. Even with a population of only about 13 000 Pamiers is the largest town in Ariège (which has a population of about 140 000 and a surface area of 490 000 hectares, or nearly a million acres).
Other points of interest include the 13th century bastide town of Mazères, the eucaluptus forest of St. Quirc and the museum of the former internment camp at Le Vernet, which held up to 12 000 prisoners of many nationalities during World War II.
A varient of Saint James' Way passes through the Ariège foothills; a pilgrim can walk from Carcassonne to St Jean -pied-de-port via Mirepoix, Pamiers and the
Foix and the High Ariège
The departmental capital is dominated by the Foix Castle, once the home of Count Gaston Phoebus, one of the great barons of 14th century France. It is the one intact castle remaining in Ariège and well worth a visit, as well as a good starting point for visits to other Cathar castles. In Montgaillard a few kms out of town is a large indoor and outdoor museum devoted to the traditional occupations of the Ariégeois over the centuries. The heart of the complex is a functioning forge, a replica of the Catalan-style forges that were once emblematic of the region. The vast plateau of the Prat d'Albis high above the city is a popular destination for mountain bikers, paragliders, walkers and picnics. In the summer months it has a very pastoral ambience with cows grazing the high pastures.
This is the favorite destination of those interested in prehistory as most of the important caves of the region are located near Tarascon, including the caves of Niaux, Bédeihlac, Lombrives and La Vache. The Parc de la Préhistoire features replicas of cave art no longer open to public viewing as well as of drawings from the Salon Noir in the Niaux cave.
The Ax valleys
Ax-les-Thermes is the largest thermal spa in Ariège with 60 natural springs of temperatures varying between 17 and 77 degrees (C). It specialises in the treatment of rhumatism and problems of the respiratory tract. Visitors to Ax can soak their feet in a hot spring-fed basin in the town centre.
Ax-Bonascre is Ariège's largest downhill ski station. The cross-country ski station at the Plateau de Beille (nearest village: Les Cabannes) is the largest in the Pyrenees.
On the road leading to Andorra you'll find the village of Luzenac, famous for its open air talc quarry, the largest in the world, which can be toured between April and October.
Walkers and nature lovers will want to explore the Orlu nature reserve.
This lightly populated far southeastern tip of Ariege is heavily forested and surrounded by peaks of 2300 to 2880 m in altitude. Not surprisingly it's an area rich in plant and wildlife, and popular with hikers. In winter head for the ski station at Mijanes.
The Pays d'Olmes - Cathar Pyrenees - Mirepoix
This far eastern corner of the département is particularly rich in historically and architechturally important sites, including the cathar castle at Montségur (in photo). There are several interesting museums, including a museum of textiles (an important local industry) and horn combs ("peignes de corne"--horn comb fabrication was established by returning Protestant exiles in the 18th century).
The Montbel lake is the largest in Ariège and is a popular spot for fishing. For winter sports the ski station is Les Monts d'Olmes.
Mirepoix is a classic medieval bastide town, its encircling walls pierced by several arched entryways and its streets of half-timbered houses converging on a large central square. The surrounding countryside and that of the Pays d'Olmes is the heart of cathar Ariège: before its conquest by Simon de Montfort in 1209, this land was divided among several lords who embraced catharism. The original settlement of Mirepoix lay next to the Hers River. It was swept away in a great flood in 1279 and the present town rebuilt well away from the river.
At nearby Vals, the Carolingian church is carved out of the rockface.