With at least 1800 climbing routes in Ariege, it is a little-known must for all levels of climbers with grades of climb from F3a - F8c. Ariege offers plenty of sunshine and a choice of granite or limestone. There are artificial walls for beginners at sites for advanced climbers like Sinsat, the Dent d’Orlu and Bedeilhac. Horizon Vertical based at Saint-Girons offers courses run by professionals from a half day to 5 days for all levels. Tel: (00 33) 5 61 96 08 22 or (00 33) 5 61 04 71 42.
Montagne Passion ( tel: (00 33) 5 61 96 08 22) has developed the aqua walk a type of supervised canyoning for children without any difficulties or ropes.
Ariege offers plenty of opportunity for family skiing at a cost which won’t break the budget. The Alps may have the glamour, but the smaller friendly resorts of the Pyrenees offer great opportunities for experienced skiers as well as children and beginners amongst beautiful mountains known for their hiking and cross-country skiing trails. Find downhill skiing in Ariege around the pretty village of Les Monts d’Olmes only half an hour from Carcassonne. It covers 350 hectares with 18.5km of pistes and 80 snow cannon. The spa resort of Ax-les-Thermes close to Ascou-Pailheres (20km of pistes) now has 90km of ski-runs over the domains of Bonsacre, Saquet and Campel. Ax offers relaxing baths at the end of the day for skiers and has snow cannons, high speed chair lift and a new black run. Guzet Neige provides 10 red and 6 black runs for proficient skiers within 40km of pistes. Mijanes in Donezan has both downhill and cross-country skiing and there’s more cross-country skiing from Plateau de Beille, Domaine du Chioula, Etang de Lers and La Tour Lafont. Snowshoeing is growing in popularity in Ariege and conditions remain good into spring. You can find local information on where to hire equipment, guides and trails. The ski slopes of Andorra are only an hour away, with the bonus of duty free shopping.
40% of Ariege is in the new protected Pyrenees Ariegeoises Regional Park and the whole department of verdant valleys, rivers, lakes and peaks makes wonderful walking country with opportunities to see rare wild flowers, birds and animals. Ask at Tourist Offices about local hiking trails or walk the Ariege part of the GR10 long distance trail (866km in total) which links the Atlantic Ocean with the Mediterranean through the Pyrenean Mountains travelling roughly parallel to the Spanish border. The way is marked with red and white signs and the route can be found in guide books of the French Hiking Federation and on regional maps. Unlike the High Pyrenean Route, the GR10 does not include actual mountain top climbing, although there is plenty of ascending and descending. Dress sensibly and do check for settled weather conditions as the terrain can be dangerous in storms or fog. 140km of the GR 78 pilgrim route from Corbieres to Santiago de Compostela crosses Ariege in the high valleys via Mirepoix, Pamiers, Le Mas-d’Azil and the Episcopal town of St-Lizier and on through the Couserans to the Col de Portet d’Aspet. It can be walked in 20km sections. Travellers with an altogether different mission in mind used the Chemin de la Liberte (freedom path) as an escape route to Spain during WWII. At the time, a whole network of mountain routes was used by the Resistance and stranded English and American airmen to outwit the pursuing Germans. This strenuous hike was made an official way-marked trail in 1994 and begins at Saint-Girons travelling up over the mountains.
Thanks to the geology of the Pyrenees where hot water seeps up through fault lines in the mountains collecting minerals as it travels, Ariege has a wealth of naturally occurring thermal springs each with their own beneficial properties. Soldiers from the crusades washed their wounds in the spa waters of Ax-les-Thermes where 60 springs range in temperature from 17 to 77ºC. Today, it’s skiers who soothe their aching limbs and those suffering from rheumatism and respiratory tract problems come seeking benefits. You can test the waters by dipping your toes in the hot paddling pool in the centre of town. Springs at the spa complex at Aulus-les-Bains close to the ski resort of Guzet Neige, are also said to help respiratory problems as well as metabolic illnesses, diabetes and obesity. But if you’re suffering from any type of stress, insomnia or Parkinson’s disease, Ussat-les-Bains could be the spa to make for. Many spas also offer massage, saunas and facials as well as medicinal treatments. Contact local Tourist Offices for more detailed information.
Ariegehas 2500km waterways plus 60 lakes, with exceptional fishing venues ranging from fast flowing rivers to high altitude lakes. The area has top class trout streams and wild brown trout are plentiful at high altitude. Try the traditional method of mountain fishing known as ‘toc’ said to be good for tree-lined banks where casting is impossible. A thread passes through a hollow rod and over your finger to sense the bite. Most fishermen in Ariege fish for food but there is a no kill stretch of the River Ariege near Luzenac for sportsmen. Tourist Offices and the Fishing Federation of Ariege in Foix - tel: (00 33) 5 34 09 31 09 - can give you information on tourist permits, private fishing places for beginners where you can barbecue your catch and more. They also have a website in French with useful information www.peche-ariege.com The season lasts from early March to mid-Sept and remember your will need a photo for your permit.
Ariegehas 2500km of watercourses and 400 are classified as suitable for white water rafting. Fast flowing torrents are regular venues for competitions and rivers are at their fiercest in early spring when the melt waters arrive. The River Salat around Giron is a favourite spot for kayaking and there are opportunities for kayak polo at Saverdun, slaloms and exploration. See the website of the Comite Departemental de Canoe Kayak de l’Ariege for details on classification of rivers and the main centres at Foix, Seix, Saverdun and La Bastide sur l’Hers, plus clubs and events. www.ck-ariege.com
Extreme sports can be dangerous and require the correct equipment, qualified instruction and supervision. Find local contacts at Tourist Offices or adventure sports centres like Horizon Vertical in Saint-Girons, tel: (00 33) 5 61 96 06 22 or Montagnes Passion in Ax-les-Thermes - tel: (00 33) 5 61 64 31 51.
With 300km of bridleways, horse trekking is a fantastic way to see the Ariege countryside and Pyrenean foothills. Your mount could be a black, gentle, sure-footed native horse from the high Ariege valleys named after the village of Merens and looking very similar to horses in those cave paintings, or perhaps a rustic Castillonais - chestnut brown with a black mane and full tail. The region has many riding centres dotted around offering lessons and guided trips from a few hours to a week like the centre at Boutou in Massat, tel: (00 33) 5 61 96 98 77 or les Ecuries du Biros, 30 minutes from Saint Girons, tel: (00 33) 5 61 66 63 34. Local Tourist Offices will have details.
Talc or, to give it its geological name, hydrated magnesium silicate, is both the softest mineral on Earth and also water repellent - which is why babies are so fond of it. The processing plant is much in evidence at Luzenac, 9km from Ax. This important mineral which has been in use in cosmetics from Egypt to China for thousands of years, also smoothes the way for the manufacture of hundreds of modern everyday products from roofing to fertilisers. Guided visits to the open-cast mine, first created on the slopes of Soularac Peak in 1905, can be arranged at Luzenac Tourist Office. The talc is transported by bucket and cable car from its gleaming white man-made amphitheatre to the valley below across a beautiful mountain landscape.