Last Updated on Monday, 02 January 2012 12:06
We are based in The Ariege, a little known and underpopulated region of Southern France that straddles the Pyrenees from Comminges in the east, the principality of Andorra in the south, and the area of Rousillion in the west. Neil Lands, in his book on 'The History, People and Places of the French Pyrenees', stated that it was in fact his favorite region of the whole area, "because it is full of little hidden valleys with castles and towers", amongst wild and beautiful scenery.
The area is rich in natural beauty and history and remains wonderfully unspoilt, despite being only 90 minutes from Toulouse, and as such is a perfect base for many types of holiday.
History of Ariege
Ariege, as a region within the Midi Pyrenees, was originally part of Aquitaine, and has retained many hallmarks of the Gascon culture and language (Gascon being a dialect of Occitan). Today's region was created during the French Revolution in 1790, when the counties of Foix and Couserans were renamed, using the River Ariege as a namesake. The medieval city of Foix, with its stunning 3 turreted Chateau, is the administrative capital, however the towns of Pamiers and Mirepoix have also historically served an important role. The Chateau in Foix has been besieged and attacked many times during its history, but never successfully, and perhaps because of its fortitude, has been used as a prison in the past. During the Middle Ages the area was ruled by the powerful Comtes de Foix, who earned their fortune from mining iron ore in the Vicdessos valley. This seam was so rich that it was only worked out in 1931.Today the Chateau has an interesting museum throwing some light on its history, plus, from its elevated position, it offers fabulous views over the rest of the town.
The Ariege has been inhabited by man for thousands of years and has the largest concentration of grottes in the whole of France. Prehistoric man left his mark here in the form of some of Europe's oldest cave paintings (bison, horse and ibex) at the famous Grottes de Niaux and the Grotte de Bedheillac in the Vicdessos Valley.
The region also provided refuge later, in the Middle Ages, when the religious sect, the Cathars were besieged by the Catholics during the Albigensian Crusades and later, the Inquisition. The Cathars have been linked to the Grottes des Lombrives, in the local village of Ussat les Bains, where local folklore says 600 Cathars were walled up and left to die during the Crusades.
Today, apart from tourism, agriculture remains the predominant industry, despite the fact that more than 50% of the Ariege is mountainous. The methods of farming have stayed traditional however, and the medieval practice of transhumance still happens. This involves leading livestock up to the high mountains in May or early June, and then bringing them back down to winter in the valleys from about October. Often whole villages will follow the livestock up into the mountains during a transhumance festival.
Until this century, farmers and their families would all move to higher pastures during the summer, to live in stone huts that you still find dotting the mountainside. If a 'patre' should be looking after his flocks independently, he would be likely to be living in a stone 'orri' in the mountains. This most basic accommodation was actually like a stone igloo, with grass roof, and no facilities. Many orri's continue to stand in good condition in the high pastures, and hanging valleys of the mountains. Due to depopulation of the countryside and industrialization, though transhumance continues, the farmers and their families now remain in the valley during the summer and travel up to the mountains to maintain their livestock.
The geography of the Area is dominated by the Pyrenean mountains that rise up to 3000m along the border with Andorra and Spain. You can even see the peaks from the huge city of Toulouse which is 90 mins drive in the neighboring Department of the Haute Garonne.