The destination of our trip is department of Ariege. The department lies about 100km south of Toulouse near the border of Spain and Andorra. To the East of the Ariege lies valley of Tet, (we visited it last year), to the West – Bagneres-de-Bigorre and Pic du Midi.
We start our journey on 7th September 2010 on a Ryanair flight to Brussels Charleroy airport. There we learn that our next flight to Perpignan is canceled due to the strike of the Airport control service. Ryanair kindly proposes change the flight to one 4 days later. We decide to go by train instead. To get one we have to go to Brussels by airport shuttle first. Here we get tickets to Lyon. TGV gets us there in 4 hours. The train to Perpignan was scheduled only the other day, so we decided to go to Montpelier instead. We arrive there at 11pm to find plenty of hotels in the city center – all of them with a plate Complet (fully booked) on the front door. To get an accommodation we have to take taxi an drive through the night and thunderstorm to Les Balladens located near the airport. We are there at midnight.
Day 1. Fanjeaux, Saint-Pierre-de-Riviere
We get our car (Fiat Panda) at Herz near Montpellier train terminal and take the freeway to Beziers, then a beautiful mountain road to Saint-Chinian, Saint-Pons-de-Thomieres, Lespinassiere, then by Carcassonne roundabout to Fanjeaux.
We take a break there to stroll through the village. On the top of the hill stands a beautiful church. At the moment there was an exhibition of ritual costumes from the 14th century.
Leaving Fanjeaux we proceed to Mirepoix, Lavelanet and then to the place of next accommodation on the main street of Saint-Pierre-de-Riviere village.
Day 2. Foix
We had delicious white peaches at breakfast. As our waitress pointed out – Ariege has the weather and everything to grow peaches you do not find anywhere else. The story was supported with another pair of the marvelous fruits.
Having finished the breakfast we drive to Foix. The main place of interest there is the medieval stronghold of Foix that dominates the roots of the old town from the hilltop in the city center. The former stronghold of Counts of Foix now houses the Ariege departmental museum which exhibits medieval everyday objects, weapons and armor.
On a way to the castle we enter the cathedral – it has two organs inside. The castle has three towers – the round tower is built a couple of centuries later as the rest of the castle. We join here an guided tour. The armor exhibition was really good. We liked in particular the head armor for the horse.
After the short stroll through the old town of Foix we proceed to Vicdessos valley – to tourist information centre in Auzat to get the keys of our apartment. Near the Foix we detour to look at the Pont du Diable. The legend tells that the architect had a contract with the devil. The devil has promised to help build the bridge in exchange to the first soul that will cross the bridge. The bridge has been built during the night but nobody have used it. Until somebody had a bright idea to let a cat cross the bridge. The devil was in a rage, have lost the balance and have fallen down into abyss.
It turned out that the keys we get in Auzat are of the town hall of Illier et Laramade village. The last three km to the Illier we drive uphill very narrow serpentine road. Entering the narrow (only one) village street we get to our home for the next two weeks. The two story house as it looked like from the front turned out to be three story in fact. The architecture of the mountain villages has it’s peculiarities.
Day 3. Pic des Trois Seigneurs
Track to Pic des Trois Seigneurs starts near Port de Lers pass. The right parking place is couple of km before the pass but we manage to miss it. So we take another one right on the pass.
The weather is perfect. Sunny and yet not very hot. The path is flat and easy at the beginning then gradually get’s steeper and rocky. On the way to summit we pass lake Arbu (Etang d’Arbu). On the summit some local hiker shows the Montcalm summit – one of the Ariege’s highest (a bit over 3000m) and popular. It is covered in snow – a rare phenomenon for the first decade of September.
We descend by another path over the mountain ridges. Legs are trembling when we are back to our car – the last section of the track was very long and steep.
On a way back to Illier we stop by the waterfall (the stream comes from the lake Arbu) and taste delicious blackberries.
Day 4. Lake Soucarrane
Getting up at seven a.m. A gorgeous sunny weather. We take off to lake Soulcem and leave the care in parking place Ori de Carla at the end of the lake.
We start to ascend in the shadow of the hill – it’s chilly and windy. After a half hour climb we get into sunshine – it gets warmer and soon it is rather hot. We are not alone – a couple of other groups are around (not a surprise for Saturday). We see black horses, flocks of sheeps and herds. It is sort of crowdy by the lake (Etang de la Soucarrane) – a nice place to have a picnic. We join others for the while and then follow to lake Roumazet and back to the parking place.
Day 5. Pic d’Endron
Gettin up at 6.30am. Still sunny. On the way to Gaulier ski resort (the starting point of our track) we notice pheasants close to the road. It’s a pity the camera is in the car boot – while Ilze gets it the pheasants have gone.
The track follows the ski run then turns right and goes uphill to Pic de Sarrasi summit. Next we have to ascend by the mountain ridge. The path is rather steep and goes through rocks and stones. A pair of vultures circle above our heads (waiting for the take?).
There is a wall to hide from the window on the top of the Pic d’Endron. We enjoy the gorgeous views to the mountains and lakes around. Then we go by the mountain ridges to Pic du Bresoul and further down to the car.
Day 6. Cascade d’Ars, lake Guzet
I’s rainy and the mountains are covered by clouds. We decide to go to the neighboring valley – across two passes (Port de Lers and Col d’Agne) and through the fog to Aulus les Bains.
We leave the car in the road bend near Aulus les Bains and move on by the mountain road to Cascade d’Ars. The road transforms gradually to the mountain path. The wood-grouse stands close to the path and does not mind our presence.
The waterfall is visible from the path now and then. There are several of them in fact. The last one is spectaculous – the water falls from considerable height. We climb up to the top of the waterfall (1500m high) and get close to the place were the river falls down into abyss.
Next we proceed by the forest path to the lake Guzet. The lake is surrounded by forest and we did not manage at once to find the way to it. The path we found is steep and slippery still we get to the lake. It is charming indeed – different as other Pyrenees lakes we have seen (they normally go with meadows and rocks).
The way down is a long journey. The last stage of the track goes through long ago deserted village by a long ancient road laid out with stones covered in moss. The road is located near the stream Riviere de Fouilett.
On the way back we get on the way of the herd. The cows have impressive horns. The horns are straight and directed sidewards. We feel relieved when they are gone and the only damage they have done is the bent off rear view mirror.
Day 7. Lakes Picot
The clouds have gone and it’s sunny again. We drive to the closer end of the Soulcem lake and stop by the dam.
The path goes flat by the hill-side for a km or so. Then turns right and goes steeply up to the first lake Picot (Etang du Picot). Up to the first lake we are in the shadow of the mountain, the sun appears only after. The second, third and the fourth lake Picot follows one by one higher and higher up the path. We follow the path above the 4th lake to the pass. We had to use a couple of short via ferratas to get there.
We descend by another path. The path goes through rocks and we get lost a couple of times.
Driving back we get in the middle of the sheep flock. Fortunately they don’t have large and sharp horns.
Day 8. St. Giron, St. Lizier
We drive to St. Giron through Tarascon and further 60km to the West. There we stroll through the paved in pink marble (local production) streets of the old town. The River Salat that runs through the town is crossed by numerous bridges. The most beautiful is the old one (Pont-Vieux).
Next we proceed to the neighboring St. Lizier – the ancient Gallo-roman town with 20 centuries of history. The town is dominated by the bishops palace-stronghold built on the hilltop. Unfortunately a restoration goes on there hence we can take a look from the outside only.
When descending back to the old town we get for a while a company in form of large Pyreneen dog. When we are down in the town center the dog is already there – standing in the pool of the town fountain. As we find out later the pool is full of fish.
After a short stroll through the old town we decide to have a lunch in a street cafe near the fountain – 11 Place d’Eglise. The cafe has impressive tea collection and I have to select accurately to avoid offending the host.
Day 9. Lake and pass Baxouillade
Our destination for today is the Orlu Nature reserve. A popular tourist attraction here is a wolf reserve in Forge d’Orlu. We decide in favor of mountains though and drive by a narrow mountain road 5km beyond Forge d’Orlu. A parking place is at the end of the road.
We start to ascend by a forest road, then we turn to NW and keep ascending by the long steep path through the forest full of hornbeams. Although the weather is not particularly hot and it starts to drizzle, we perspire more than in a sauna.
The first lake Baxouillade (Etang de Baxouillade) appears just after the end of the forest. Further on the way to the second lake Baxouillade we meet five lovely marmots. We follow further to the Baxouillade pass (2276m above see level). Roc Blanc is here above us – still we understand we have no time to get there. So we enjoy the view and start a way back. While descending we enjoy the view on the famous Dent d’Orlu – the mountain that looks like a huge fang. Here we notice an interesting road sign. It is made from bones of cows.
The way downhill through the forest of hornbeams is much easier then the way uphill. Still we are outworn when back in parking place.
On a way back we make a stop in Ax-les-Termes. The church there has a wooden ceilings and contemporary stained glass.
Day 10. Village track
It’s foggy and we decide to explore the neighboring villages. We select a track from our hiking guide: Illier – Orus – Sentenac – Vicdessos – Aronac – Illier. Mountains are hidden by fog and we can’t see the hills on the opposite side of the valley. The hillside is full of blackberries – they are delicious no matter if there is a fog or not.
The path goes uphill initially (from 900m of Illier to 1060m at the highest point). Then it goes down to Vicdessos. The last stage from Aronac to Illier the path ascends back to Illier. This last one appears to us a little tiresome…
The villages are small and lovely – narrow streets, old houses (some of them dated back to 19th century). A lot of houses are uninhabited and need repair. Each village has a town hall, a church, a phone booth and a mailbox.
Later at night we drive to Tarascon. The center is on a rise. Beautiful views to the town from the old tower standing here.
Day 11. Pamiers, Montsegur
Still foggy. We decide to go North to search for a better weather. The destination is Pamiers – a town to the north from Foix.
We drive highway to Toulouse and miss the correct exit. It points to Pamiers South which makes us think there should be another one to the center. Still there is not – and we arrive in Pamiers from the North side after a short detour.
The officials of the tourist information office of Pamiers does not welcome my English. Thank God Ilze knows French therefore we get the map and a couple of useful booklets. Following the map we visit a couple of churches, a park and a marketplace. One can by, in particularly, a hay in the marketplace. And one can enjoy the performance of local musicians.
Having done with Pamiers we proceed to one of the most famous Cathar fortresses– Montsegur. The impressive fortress stands high on the top of the hill. We follow the steep path to take a closer look. The path is full of tourists – we wander how it looks here in the high season.
Later we visit a museum down in Montsegur village. We return in Illier in the dark of the night.
Day 12. Lake Montestaure
When waking up in the morning I see stars through the window – means today will be a sunny weather.
We drive to parking place Artigues – here starts several tracks, to Montcalm in particular. Our destination is lake Montestaure.
We start to go by the steep forest path. It is cold because we are in the shadow of the hill – dew drops in the grass are frozen.
Out of the forest we cross the bridge and enter the next valley and ascend further up to the lake. We proceed further to the Montestaure pass, but did not manage to reach it. The path is not clearly visible, we try to get higher by the hillside full of rolling stones but fail and have to go back.
Day 13. Pic Fourcat, Lordat
Sunny. We start to ascend in pass Col de Tracadou (1200m). The track is perfect – not very steep road that turns into path closer to the summit. After a hour walk we leave the forest and follow up by the grassy mountain ridge. The view is gorgeous all the time as we go – to the mountains, to Tarascon-sur-Ariege and Foix. The view of the Foix castle is the best. We spend a hour on the Fourcat summit to enjoy the views of mountains, Foix, Lavelanet and fortress of Roquefixade.
We are back in the parking place at 1pm having spent 2 hours walk to the summit, one back and one hour on the top.
After a short rest we drive to Mercus village then by Tarascon-sur-Ariege we take Ax-les-Thermes road to Lordat. We wish to explore the fortress of Lordat. Not a surprise – the fortress is on the top of the hill. To get there we drive uphill to the Lordat village. Then proceed on foot to the fortress were we arrive to catch the last sights of the performance with vultures. Eagles, vultures, owls and other creatures live there in cages or on lace. Ilze takes a shots of a particularly lovely vulture
Day 15. Pic de Girantes
Sunny. We start a walk from Saleix village first by the road then by a wide path through a forest. The path runs through deserted, ruined houses, covered in moss. Long ago there was a village. After a while the path leaves a forest and goes through meadows up to Saleix pass. Further on the steep path ascends to Pic de Girantes alias Mont Ceint (2088m). We leave there a message in a notebook kept in a bottle. We read what other hikers have written – somebody have been here during the war at age 14, and next time – at the age of 84.
The view from the summit is excellent – to the surrounding mountains Mont Valier, Pic de Troix Segneurs. A flock of sheep join as (not to enjoy the view actually). In a while on a way down we see a sheep with a newborn lamb.
When down we stroll through the Saleix – two donkeys perfectly fit into village idyll. We drive then to Vicdessos and explore the old town, then further to nearby Suc village.
Day 16. Miglos stronghold, Pas de Ours
We go to Vicdessos to return the keys of our apartment. To our surprise we find a message on the door that the office is on strike. Fortunately – only till the noon, so we can get rid of the keys in afternoon in Auzat office. This does not fit with our plans but we decide to change them and to visit places around we did not seen yet. First we drive to Miglos fortress. We decide walk to the fortress from Junac et Capulet village that stands just below the fortress. The way is longer as we have planned still we soon are at the fortress. To be accurate – what has been left from once impressive Miglos fortress.
On a way down we taste delicious grapes that grow near the road. Then have a look at Junac village and drive to Auzat where we have an excellent lunch at the garden cafe.
We return the keys and drive to Pas de Ours (bears pass) viewpoint. It’s foggy but we can see Gorge de Frau below (we were there recently) and fortress of Montsegur. Having enjoyed the view we drive further to Mirepoix.
Day 17. Camon, Montreal
Early in the morning we drive to nearby medieval fortified town of Camon.There we explore the impressive walls and old streets and buildings, then go back to Mirepoix.
Mirepoix has a gorgeous old town. The central square (Place de Couverts) is perfect – all the houses around have extraordinary wide arcades were the souvenir shops and tourists swarm. One of the houses has crossbars with carved faces.
On a way to the airport we decide to visit Montreal. Not one in Canada – but the real one 🙂 Unfortunately it is raining in Montreal. When the rain stops we have a short walk in old town and take a look at the huge cathedral. Then we say farewell to Montreal and go to the airport.