Key points about this information item A guide to Ariege, Midi-PyreneesInformation Description:
Geography and Climate
Set in the heart of the Pyrenees, bordering Spain and Andorra, Ariege is dominated by the mountains which form the border between France and Spain, the highest peaks of which are visible from Toulouse. It is one of the most unspoilt regions of France with a wild but beautiful countryside and a very sunny climate.
Created on 4th March 1790 from the counties of Foix and Couserans during the French revolution, it was one of the original 83 departments. The regional capital is Foix, a medieval town with a 10th century castle, with other major towns at Pamiers, St-Girons and Mirepoix. The department was the scene of many bloody battles, particularly during the crusade to crush the Cathars and many towns and villages have a story to tell, particularly Montsegur.
With such a mountainous terrain, the climate can vary enormously. The southern area of the department is affected by the Mediterranean while as you move further north there is a continental type climate seeing large temperature changes between day and night. In the foothills, average winter temperatures remain above freezing and the summers can be very hot. In the higher areas, expect temperatures slightly lower and cold in the winter with plenty of snow.
The Ariege is a stunning area of France to visit, with such a low population density it has remained unchanged and unspoilt. There is a vast range of outdoor activities to try, a history stretching back to prehistoric man and many pretty towns and villages to visit.
The regional capital Foix has a 10th century castle perched on a rocky mound that guards the town and gives wonderful views of the scenery. At Montsegur, the remains of the castle can be visited and the terrible history it holds of the Cathars time there. St Lizier is a picturesque medieval town and the cathedral has a magnificent cloister while the caves of Niaux contain pre-historic wall paintings. The cave at Labouiche has a 3 km underground boat trip and Mas d'Azil is an area thought to have been occupied as far back as 17,800 BC.
Mirepoix was also a Cathar stronghold until it was destroyed and was then rebuilt as a bastide in 1279. St-Girons has one of the best Saturday markets in the region for craft stalls and also worth visiting is the spa town of Ax les Thermes which has a cable car up to the ski resort at Ax Bonascre. There are many small unspoilt villages in the valleys close to the border with Spain.
Away from the culture, there are endless opportunities to explore the mountains. With hundreds of miles of marked paths, it is easily possible to scale some of the 3000 metre peaks in the area. There are a wide variety of flora and fauna to appreciate and plenty of wildlife to look out for. Aside from the birds of prey that are always circling overhead, look out for Isards, Marmots and the extremely rare bears.
For outdoor enthusiasts, you are spoilt for choice; in the winter, there are eight separate ski resorts offering alpine and cross-country as well as snow-shoeing and tobogganing. In the summer, think of an outdoor activity and you more than likely find it here; mountain biking, horse riding, canoeing, canyoning, hill walking, the list goes on. Access to the higher regions is excellent, with good roads and many cable cars.
For road cyclists, there are many miles of quiet road and a number of mountain climbs regularly used by the Tour de France.
In keeping with its agricultural background, the gastronomy of the region is rustic and simple. The most recognisably Ariegoise dishes are Azinat, a local stew and mounjetado, which is an Ariege version of cassoulet. Cheese is produced locally, notably Bethmale, Bamalous and Moulis which are mild, pale and semi-soft.
There are currently no wines produced in the department, although some vineyards are being replanted, so if trying to stay local, try a Madiran, Fronton or Minervois. For dessert, try a fruit filled croustade or millas, a cornmeal based confection that is usually browned in butter and served sprinkled with sugar.
The main economic drivers of the region are agriculture and mining although the influence of tourism is ever increasing. For these reasons it is not a wealthy region and the younger generation are drawn to the job opportunities in Toulouse.
Flying to the Ariege department is easy, with an International airport at Toulouse only one hour from Foix. Two hours to the east is Carcassonne airport, which has flights to a number of UK destinations. An hour and thirty minutes to the west is Tarbes airport, which mostly handles charter flights for Lourdes and just a little further is Pau with Ryanair flying to the UK.
Once in the Midi-Pyrenees however, getting around the Ariege department is difficult without a car, unless you are planning to cycle, as public transport is very sparse. A car is essential if you want to see much of Ariege as there are so many small villages spread around.
For trains, there is a service from Toulouse that calls at Foix, then Ax les Thermes and then carries on over the border in to Spain and eventually Barcelona.
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