There are no towns of any great size in this region of wildernesses and unspoilt beauty and Foix, capital of Ariege, is small for a French provincial capital. A pleasant town of narrow streets and sixteenth and seventeenth century half-timbered houses and fountains, Foix’s old quarter nestles where the Rivers Argent and Ariege meet, 82km south of Toulouse. Enjoy a stroll in its medieval setting and sip a coffee or a glass of wine in the town square. Wherever you look, the skyline is dominated by the 3 towers of Chateau des Comtes de Foix set high on a rocky cliff against a backdrop of the Pyrenees. This medieval castle remains intact, unique amongst the ruined Cathar strongholds perched on incredible heights, which dot the surrounding countryside.
The eastern part of Ariege was ruled by the feudal nobles of Foix from the eleventh - fifteenth centuries. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the counts considered themselves equal to, rather than subjects of, the then kings of France. Staunch defenders of Catharism, the counts continually rebuffed the assaults of French nobleman Simon de Montfort, only finally surrendering their stronghold in 1229.Views are certainly worth the climb. You can learn more at the castle’s archaeological and military museum, open daily but closed Mon and Tues from Nov - April. Tel: (00 33) 5 61 65 56 05.
Morning markets take place on Tuesdays and Fridays. Foix makes a great centre for those wanting to explore the Ariege Valley in summer and for skiers in winter. It’s also a good starting point for touring the region’s cultural and historic sites. Take time to visit the River Labouiche nearby - the longest navigable underground river in Europe - for a fascinating underground boat ride. Trips are from April to mid-November.
The ruined fortress of Montsegur atop its rocky pinnacle makes a fittingly sad monument to the final days of the highly principled Cathars in their fight against king and pope and the rich excesses of thirteenth century Catholicism. Refugees here protected by the lord of Montsegur finally surrendered after a 10 month siege in 1244. Freedom was promised to all who would renounce their faith. Those who did not - 200 men, women and children - were burned alive. If you make the steep 30/45 minute climb from the village at the base of the rock you’ll pass the Prats des Cramats field where their martyrdom took place. The terraced village itself is small, with a few inns, cafes and local shops catering for visitors. Montsegur also has a little church and a museum (open high season) which tells the Cathars’ story. There are speculations about lost Cathar treasure and links to the Holy Grail although nothing has been proven. Ironically, Montsegur fortress was totally destroyed after 1244 and then rebuilt, so the ruins seen today are from a later date. The castle is open all year apart from Christmas and January at a variety of times. It is sometimes closed in bad weather. Contact Montsegur Tourist Office to check on times and weather conditions. Tel: (00 33) 5 61 03 03 03.
Unusually, the fortified hill-top town of St-Lizier on the River Salat has 2 cathedrals. The beautiful pink Gothic bell-tower of Cathedrale St-Lizier makes a stunning sight against its mountain surroundings. Inside the cathedral are faded Romanesque frescoes and an impressive 2-storey twelfth century cloister. Notre-Dame-de-Sede, in the upper town, in the grounds of the bishop’s palace (Palais des Eveques ) is undergoing renovations but you can learn of traditions in the Bethmale Valley in the Museum of Ariege here and there are great views over St-Lizier from the ramparts close by. This historic town of cobbled streets and half-timbered houses was once regional capital of the 18 valleys which made up the ancient Pays Couserans with a history dating back to Gallo-Roman times. St-Lizier is a stopping place on the way to Santiago de Compostela, a pretty place which draws visitors in summer especially during the festival of religious arts at the end of May and chamber music festival held in Cathedrale de St-Lizier from late July to mid-August.
The wild and remote Eastern Pyrenees and Languedoc became the thirteenth century refuge of a religious sect known as the Cathars (from the Greek word for’ pure’) who believed medieval Catholicism was becoming increasingly decadent. They were regarded as heretics by king and pope and were oppressed and pursued into impenetrable high places (known as ‘pogs’ from the Occitan for mountain or peak). Castles were built on these peaks originally for defence against rivals and bandits and to guard routes through the Pyrenees.
Drive through the mountains or get on your walking boots to follow marked Cathar trails and visit the castles. The 250km Sentier Cathare -Cathar Way - is well marked with red and yellow signs in 20km stages which can cover wild and rocky terrain. From Foix in Ariege the route travels east through the Pays de Sault uplands to Quillan in Aude and beyond into Languedoc.
First recorded in 1002, Foix is the only remaining intact Cathar castle in Ariege and a good place to begin. Besieged in the thirteenth century Albigensian Crusades, Foix Castle became the seat of power for governors of Ariege in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, later became a prison (the names of prisoners of war can be seen carved on its walls) and is now a museum. 19km east of Foix, Roqufixade citadel stands on a natural rock wall where you can explore freely above its thirteenth century Bastide town. Ironically, the eleventh century castle was later destroyed by Louis XIII in 1632. Glimpse the rock pinnacle of Montsegur from Roqufixade’s ruined walls, where tragedy overtook believers who refused to renounce their faith in 1244 and which massacre marked the Cathars’ final suppression. Bernard d’Alion, lord of the eleventh century Usson fortress at Rouze on the Aude border, professed to support Simon de Montfort during the Albigensian Crusades, whilst sending arms to defend Montsegur. He was later burned at the stake in Perpignan for heresy. The castle was used for a time as a stone quarry after the French Revolution. Tel: (00 33) 4 68 20 43 92 for opening dates and times. The stables have been converted into a heritage museum giving a taste of life in the Donezan. This picturesque area of mountains and forests in the far eastern tip of the department is often called the Quebec of Ariege.
Ariege has more pre-historic caves than any other French department and the area around Tarascon contains most of the important caves of the region. All the family will find the Park of Pre-history at Tarascon a fascinating place. Besides replicas of art in caves no longer open to the public, outside there’s an opportunity to see how running water over rocks actually creates caves. Look at the sort of shelters our pre-historic ancestors would have made and see examples of fire making and flint knapping. Open Apr to Oct. Tel: (00 33) 5 61 05 88 37.
One of the rare decorated caves still open to the public is in the vast network at Grotte de Niaux where human footprints have been discovered. Be sure not to miss some of the finest cave paintings in Europe worked by our ancestors 13,000 years ago, depicting horses, ibex, stag and bison. The viewing chamber is an 800m walk along a subterranean river bed and visits to the salon noir are strictly limited to maintain a constant temperature of 12ºC. Reservations are essential and you may need to book several days in advance in high season. Tel: (00 33) 5 61 05 88 37.
Lower down the valley at Alliat, the smaller cave of La Vache is rich in finds including reindeer harpoons. Open afternoons Apr - June and Sept, and every day during July and August with a guided tour in English at 1pm.
Bedeilhac north west of Tarascon is a massive cave teeming with stalagmites. Cave paintings created 15,000 years ago show animals from the Paleolithic Age. Tel: (00 33) 5 61 05 95 06 for information.
A little train will take you on a tour of the caves at la Grotte de Lombrives. The network contains Europe’s largest cave at 117m, known as La Cathedrale. For details tel: (00 33) 5 61 05 98 40.
Some of the first evidence of human habitation was discovered in north west Ariege in a cave near Le Mas-d’Azil. Bones, tools and other artifacts point to pre-historic people living 20,000 years ago. Both Cathars and later Protestants have sought sanctuary in this wonderful cave. Indeed Protestant reformer Calvin is said to have preached here in the sixteenth century. Guided tours daily and the village museum can give you more information. Tourist Office tel: (00 33) 5 61 69 97 22.