In the southwest of France, nestled in the Midi- Pyrenees is The Ariege Department, one of France’s least populated and unspoilt regions.
Reasons to Visit Ariege Pyrenees
The perfect French road trip destination, the region is awash with natural beauty, history and fairytale-inspiring medieval villages. Ariege also boasts some of Europe’s most impressive subterranean rivers and cave systems which still bear paintings from a prehistoric past. It is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places to visit in Southern France.
Stunning landscapes rise to meet the magnificent Pyrenees mountains making the region a perfect destination for hiking, skiing and climbing.
Add to this a very agreeable climate and superb local cuisine, a legacy of fiercely protected traditions, and you may want to stay forever.
If you are planning a holiday to the Midi-Pyrenees in the southwest of France, here is a small taste of why the Ariege region should not be missed.
Foix – The Capital of Ariege
Chateaux de Foix – Foix Castle
What better place to start than in the capital of the Ariege, Foix. You can see the main attraction of Foix long before you reach the town itself; the magnificently restored Chateaux de Foix. Built before the seventh-century; the fortress dominates the town from high on the hill and is the jewel in the Foix crown.
Once home to one of the great barons of 14th century France, Count Gaston Phoebus, the castle with it’s three prominent towers is an indication of the power the counts of Foix must have yielded in the day.
Chateaux de Foix is one of the last remaining intact castles in the Ariege, a perfect starting point for exploring other Cathar Castles in the region.
Wander through the castle and visit the chamber of Henry IV who later became King of France in the 16th century. From the towers, you will be rewarded with magnificent views over the surrounding countryside and the Pyrenees peaks in the distance.
Medieval Town of Foix
Spread below the fortress steps; the original medieval town weaves a beautiful web of tiny streets to be explored filled with traditional restaurants and boulangerie’s, guest houses and boutique stores.
The Old Town also has a lovely display of half-timbered houses dating from the 16th and 17th centuries.
Out on the town square, you will find a mix of traditional and modern with plenty of pubs, cafes and a lively scene that makes Foix a town you will want to revisit.
Where is Foix
Foix is approx 85 km south of Toulouse, just over an hours drive. 100 km north of Andorra, under 2 hours driving.
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Camon – One of the Most Beautiful Villages in France
Sometimes known as “Little Carcassone” the fortified village of Camon is listed as one of the most beautiful villages in France.
The village grew from the Benedictine abbey which dates back to the 10th century. The abbey has been a private residence since the French revolution, and now, part of the ancient building is a beautiful hotel and restaurant. L’Abbaye Chateau De Camon has been voted one of the top 5 castle hotels in France.
Tours of the abbey can be taken only by arrangement with the Camon tourist office in the centre of town.
Where is Camon
Camon is a 15-minute drive from Mirepoix (13 km) or a 45-minute drive from Foix ( 48km).
570 hectares of clear turquoise water set against the Pyrenees mountains, Lake Montbel, is the perfect place to chill out.
There are a number of organised beaches offering supervised swimming during the peak summer months, restaurants and bars, a sailing school and plenty of water sports activities.
Walking and Hiking at Lake Montbel
Mostly undeveloped, Lake Montbel is also an excellent spot for hiking and walking. There are plenty of marked walks all around the lake where you can find a quiet place for picnics or fishing.
Where is Lake Montbel
Lake Montbel is a 30-minute drive from Mirepoix (26 km) or 1 hr drive from Foix ( 48km).
Although probably more impressive from a distance, the ruins of the Chateau de Lagarde are still worth a visit up close.
Lagarde was initially built as a medieval fortress in the 10th century. Over time, it was expanded as a renaissance palace, eventually becoming a classical home, a factory, and even a storehouse.
Partially destroyed during the French Revolution it did not take long for the grand chateau to become a ruin. Although in ruins, the chateau still cuts a dramatic silhouette when viewed from down in the valley.
While the structure is no longer stable enough to allow visitors inside the fortified walls, the pretty medieval town of Lagarde is worth a stroll through.
Take the Lagarde Walking Route
Starting from the town of Lagarde, outside the castle walls, there are some very scenic walks, part of the GR 7 walking routes that run through Spain, Andorra, and France.
A circular walk will take you from the village, through spectacular countryside, with, of course, the Pyrenees always in sight, returning again to Lagarde from the other side.
Pack a picnic as there are many beautiful places to stop and enjoy the Ariege countryside.
Planning a Walking Holiday in the Pyrenees? Read our Walking Holiday & Hiking Packing Guide Before You Go.
Where is Lagarde:
Lake Montbel is a 10-minute drive from Mirepoix (9 km) or 43-minute drive from Foix ( 43km).
Mirepoix is one of the prettiest and best examples of a medieval town in the Ariege. As you have seen already, that’s saying something. The bustling little market town is nothing short of a delight.
On a Monday morning, you will find the weekly outdoor market in the central square. Every food lover’s dream, stalls overflow with French gastronomic delights.
You will find incredible local produce and regional delicacies such as the regions famed foie gras and confit de canard, saucisson, and locally made cheeses.
Visit Saint Maurice Cathedral in the centre of town. The second largest single-naved church in Europe, the gothic style cathedral is a classified Historic Monument.
Relax in one of the many cafes in the Place des Couverts and enjoy the atmosphere of the beautiful medieval town. Or, indulge in some regional cuisine from any of the towns wonderful restaurants. Mirepoix is the perfect place to position yourself for exploring Ariege and the Midi-Pyrenees.
Where is Mirepoix:
Mirepoix is a 50-minute drive from Carcassonne (47 km) or 40-minute drive from Foix ( 36 km).
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The tiny village of Vals may only have a population of less than 100, but it packs a punch when it comes to religious architecture of the middle ages.
The church of Sainte Marie is especially interesting as it’s three levels have been partially carved from the rocks. A small, hidden cleft in the rock reveals a stairway leading to the church’s entrance.
Once inside you will be treated to beautiful eleventh-century Romanesque frescoes depicting the life of Christ. The church also has a terrace offering spectacular views of the Ariege Pyrenees.
Hiking Around Vals
Vals is another great starting point for the GR 7 tracks. Perfect for some lovely day hikes or a picnic.
Where is Vals
Vals is a 15-minute drive from Mirepoix (13 km) or 30-minute drive from Foix ( 25 km).
Discover More of the Ariege
These eight beautiful destinations in the Ariege maybe highlights but are only a small sample of what this beautiful region has to offer. Here are just a few more reasons to visit Ariege.
Take a boat journey 60 meters underground to explore Rivière souterraine de Labouiche, a series of subterranean rivers and caves.
Palaces and Castles
Visit Château de Gudanes to see firsthand the restoration of what was once a thirteenth-century fortress, then a fifteenth-century castle, and an eighteenth-century palatial castle.
Much of the Ariege territory has been a Regional Park since 2009, so is an ideal destination for the outdoor enthusiast. Ariege is the perfect destination for hiking, mountain biking, skiing, fishing and whitewater sports.
The Ariege region boats –
- Over 5000 kilometres of marked trails.
- 300 kilometres of rivers
- Ten ski resorts.
Once you have done all of that, there is still an endless number of beautiful French towns to explore and then there’s the rest of the Midi-Pyrenees.
How to Get to Ariege and the Midi Pyrenees
Flights to Midi Pyrenees
Despite the Ariege being so rural, it is very well connected by air. Toulouse (Blagnac) and Carcassonne airports are both only 1 – 1.5 hrs depending where in the Ariege you are going.
However, at the moment the most popular way to reach the Ariege Department and the Midi-Pyrenees is from the city of Toulouse as there are currently more flights and low-cost airlines servicing this airport.
Tarbes-Lourdes is also less than two hours away although has limited flight schedules.
Trains to Ariege
- There is a train station in the Ariege capital of Foix. However, it may be more convenient to travel to Toulouse. From Toulouse, you can collect a hire car directly from the station.
- There are regular trains from Paris as well as evening sleeper trains. Sleeper trains leave at approx 22.00 hrs and 23.00, which is perfect for those who want to spend an entire day in Paris.
- The train will take 4.5 – 6.5 hrs, depending on the service.
Tip for Train Travel in France
Train reservations usually open 90 days in advance of travel and often offer excellent deals on tickets if you book early.
If taking a sleeper train, ladies travelling alone should look for the “Solo Lady” option, which offers a space for women who wish to travel peacefully at night. The service is free.
Check Oui.sncf for the latest train deals and schedules.