The department now known as the Ariège was once an independent country with a proud identity. Located on France’s southern border next to Spain and Andorra it is one of the least populated, most unspoiled regions of France. Tucked away in the valleys and foothills of the Pyrenees, the Ariège has always served as a refuge: for prehistoric man who sheltered in the many caves, for the Cathars hiding from the Catholic Church, and for resistance fighters, downed pilots or escaped prisoners who eluded the Nazis to escape over the mountains into Spain during WW2. Today, this beautiful and little-known area of France still provides that much needed refuge for all of us looking for a permanent or holiday retreat from the hectic pace of modern life.
The landscape is wild and unspoiled but easily accessible, ranging from the soft rolling hills of the Couserans to the high mountain valleys and peaks bordering Spain, much of which is now a protected National Park. There are many interesting local villages and towns and colourful markets full of fresh produce often brought down early in the morning from the mountains; the market in Saint Girons on a Saturday morning is so exceptional that it attracts people from all over France. The beautiful architecture of the region and ancient Romanesque churches which dot the area are worth a visit in their own right and everywhere you look there is the magnificent backdrop of snow-capped mountains. This is a region where there is still scope to explore an area of untouched natural beauty and the surroundings really do offer something for everyone.
Although much of the Ariège is within an hour of Toulouse, this region still has some of the best value property in the whole of France with prices slightly higher around St Croix Volvestre, Betchat, le Mas d’Azil and Foix where there is easier access to Toulouse and slightly lower towards the mountains around Oust and Massat, Castillon en Couserans and Aulus les Bains near the ski resort of Guzet Neige.
The small, quiet country towns of the Ariège are full of character with a rich history. Many are just as they always were; you won’t find big, countrywide chain stores, only quirky boutiques and interesting small businesses, charming cafés, hidden squares and beautiful views of the surrounding countryside at the end of most streets. These are authentic towns generally uninfluenced by tourism and the outside world; an uncomplicated past reflected in the simplicity of the buildings and the colourful markets, overflowing with local produce, much of it organic and harvested the same day.
This is real France just waiting to be discovered.