The caves of the Ariège, first frequented by the Magdalenian civilisation around 14,000 years ago are internationally recognised as having some of the finest examples of paleolithic paintings and artifacts anywhere in the world. Four main sites are clustered around Tarascon-sur-Ariège, with the Grotte de Niaux being the most celebrated. A torch lit guided visit to the cave penetrates almost 1 km into the vast galleries to reveal the famous drawings of Bison and horses. One can only imagine the emotions and motivations of those who came here to leave their mark.
The Grotte de Bédeilhac in our village tells a similar story. The artwork is perhaps not as powerful as that of Niaux but it comes in a wider variety of styles including mud reliefs and modelled stalagmites. The cave itself is a wonder to behold and was used as an aircraft factory in the second world war by the French, and then by the Germans during the occupation.
In contrast to the caves at Bédeilhac and Niaux which are thought perhaps to have been places of worship and ceremony only, the Grotte de la Vache close to Niaux has revealed remains of 10,000 years of habitation from around 12,000 BC up to the bronze age. A huge array of artifacts has been excavated and are on display, making for a fascinating walk through history.
For a truly immersive experience the Park de la Prehistoire is a great day out with plenty to learn and plenty of fun for the kids with a range of outdoor activities and workshops as well as a kids play area and restaurant.
The history of the Cathars is one of Knights and Lords, Castles, Crusades, Inquisitions and Martyrdom with a good few burnings at the stake thrown in for good measure. The ruined castle at Montsegur was the site of the final defeat of the Cathars in 1244 after a siege of almost a year. The castle is well worth a visit for its position and the sense of history, although less so for the castle itself, little of which remains in its original form.
The castle at Roquefixade is similarly ruined but is well worth the 20 minute climb purely for the views. The Ariègeoises take great pride in their Cathar heritage and there are many tourist attractions celebrating the history.
Tarascon-sur-Ariège, our nearest town, about 5 minutes away is a good sized town with several supermarkets and a number of restaurants and bars. Occupying a basin at the convergence of 5 valleys and with the river Ariège flowing through, the wooded peaks surrounding the town give it a real mountain feel. The old town has remnants of the medieval walls and towers and is well worth a visit. Market day is Saturday with the usual array of regional produce on offer. A popular agricultural fair is held twice a year timed to coincide with the ‘Transhumance’ (moving of the flocks to pasture), and the annual music festival is always popular.
Foix, about 20 minutes drive north of Tarascon, is the departmental capital of the Ariège and has plenty to do and see. The biggest attraction is the hilltop château with its three conspicuous towers from different eras giving stunning views across the valley.
The old town has been well preserved with houses dating from the 14th century overhanging the cobbled streets. There are plenty of restaurants, cafés and bars and lively markets are held on Wednesdays and Fridays.
Other must see towns include the ancient bastide town of Mirepoix home to one of the finest surviving arcaded market squares in France. Houses surrounding the square date back to the thirteenth century with intricate wood carvings on the exposed timbers supporting the buildings.
Carcassonne is around an hour away and is well worth a visit to see the The UNESCO world heritage site the ‘Cité de Carcassonne’, a restored medieval hilltop fortress. Carcassone is also home to a number of other tourist attractions as well as shops and restaurants.
For a somewhat less cultured experience Duty Free shopping in Andorra is only and hour or so away with bargains a plenty to be had. Just be sure to check the duty free limits as the border police frequently search vehicles returning to France.
Le chalet, a few minutes drive or a 20 minute walk, provides simple french cuisine and is popular with our guests. Friday is usually ‘Moules Frites’ night and barbecues are common in the summer. Seating is mostly outside and the atmosphere is informal and friendly.
Other local restaurants of note include the Moulin de Langoust in Gourbit and La Table de la Ramade in Rabat les 3 Seigneurs, both offering regional home cooked food.
Tarascon sur Ariège has a number of good restaurants and take-aways offering a range of food with several pizzerias as well as riverside restaurants offering local specialities. A highlight is the restaurant at the recently restored Manoir d’Agnes (Tarascon’s only 3 star hotel). The service and atmosphere are a little more formal but far from stuffy and the food is original and high quality at reasonable prices.
Foix also provides some excellent options for eating and drinking.