A must-see in France: the department Ariège, midi-Pyrenees
May 18, 2016
An area that is shaped by it's hills and mountains with crystal clear rivers running like veins through the valleys. A landscape with a huge variety of vegetation, lush greenery, numerous amount of birds and large birds of prey circling in the air. Where you can find beautiful old stone houses in medieval villages and enjoy the stunning views with white mountaintops in the back. That is Ariège, in the southwestern of France.
It is a region with hippies and friendly people from all different kind of nationalities, where you can hike, bike, raft, paraglide, ride on horseback, practise rock climbing, visit the typical French markets, pick up hitchhikers, go for skiing in winter and where you can find many woman driving the old diesel vans around. These are just a few words to describe this amazing department of France and I have only explored a small part of it.
Ariège is one of the least populated and most unspoiled regions of France where the locals enjoy keeping traditions alive, especially old farming techniques. The capital is Foix, an ancient medieval town with a fortress. On the westside of Foix, you find Parc Naturel Régional des Pyrénées Ariégeoises which covers around 40% of Ariège. The park reaches all the way to the borders with Spain and Andorra and has mountain peaks over 3.000 metres high. The area of Couserans is where I have lived in the past months. The main town is Saint Girons, a beautiful place with a great Saturday market. Next to it you will find Saint-Lizier which has a rich history stretching back to pre Gallo-Roman times. To the south you end up in little medieval villages, most of them situated next to the river in the valleys and some of them more high up the hills with awesome views.
I had never been in this part of France before and I didn't know a thing about it. Without any research or pre-exploration we ended up living in Castillon-en-Couserans as housesitters. Originally we would go to Portugal but somehow we ended up here and I am really glad we did. I fell in love with it and after we left our housesitting assignment, we didn't want to leave just yet. Only 5 km down the road, in a village called Alas, we found an awesome place to stay for another month.
It wasn't just the stunning nature that charmed me; also the people did. They are open minded and helpful. The area is alive with people from all ages and nationalities. There are many foreigners that moved here but not too many. The local traditions and culture isn't lost at all. The advantage of having foreigners around is that the French people do not mind that your French isn't the best. They used to it. Although English is still a problem in France; everybody is willing to help you and they will try to understand and communicate with you anyway.
After living in Ariège for two months and being so charmed by it, I expected that this region would be very touristic during high season. That it would be flooded here in July and August. But some locals ensured me that it isn't that busy in summer. For those who work in tourism, it is even hard to keep their business running. How the hell is this region of France not widely known? I know that France is a popular holiday destination, it is even the number one holiday destination for the Dutch people. In summertime all the local markets in the Provence, Cote d'Azur and many other regions are completely flooded. Campings are fully booked for the entire summer and you will find Dutch license plates on every parking lot. So why is this region not yet conquered by the Dutch during summer? Why isn't every inch of this beautiful region yet explored by tourists? I have absolutely no clue... But all I can say: thank good lord there is still a region in France that you can spend your summer vacation without having to fight for your spot!
So: visit the small medieval villages, the Saturday market in Saint Girons, walk through the magnificent old centre of Saint Lizier, take a dive into one of the many rivers or fresh water lakes, witness the stunning Lac de Bethmale, rent a bike or mingle with hippies in Massat. There are also many hike paths to explore: go hiking for multiple days and sleep in one of the refuges or lodges or chambres d'hôtes next to the tracks. Check out the amazing picnic spot in front of Maison du Valier on the foot of Mount Valier or the one at the end of road D704A in Bonac-Irazein. There are so many beautiful spots to discover!
I guess I do not have the words to describe the beauty of this part of the Midi-Pyrenees, maybe some of these pictures say enough: