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A Few Days in the Pyrenees

The mellowest, and possibly most delightful, part of our European tour were the few days we spent in Foix, a little town in the Midi-Pyrenees, about 50 km south of Toulouse. Our attraction to this region had two main causes: 1) paleolithic cave paintings (at Niaux), and 2) Cathar castles. We ended up specifically in Foix because, looking for lodging in the area, we stumbled upon the website for Pisciculture de l’Arget, a bed and breakfast that also happens to be a trout farm — and she loves the fish.

The chambres de l’Arget. Our room spanned pretty much the entire second floor facing this side.

The choice proved excellent. Corinne and Patrick run the place, and are excellent hosts. We were given “La tahitienne” (scroll down), a huge room with a huge bath. Among the first things we did was take deliriously lengthy soaks in the tub. This was what we saw when we looked out the window:


All this space and comfort, for only 45 Euros a night. The only cheaper lodging we had on this trip was in the hostel in Barcelona. It’s one of the nicest things about the Ariege-Pyrenees region — it’s not overrun with tourists, so prices are reasonable!

For an additional 15 Euros for each of us, we ate at Pisciculture, where we had tasty dishes that utilized trout in ways you’ve never thought of. My favorite: the trout carpaccio appetizer (essentially trout sushi). Yum!

Okay, so we didn’t spend all of our time at the lodging. (Not that that would have been a bad thing). Our first excursion was to la grotte de Niaux, the site of 15,000-year-old cave paintings, and one of the few that allows visitors inside. At 13h00 every day in the on-season they have an English-language tour. It cost about 10 Euros. We were the only North Americans — the bulk of the people were German, and there were a few Brits. The entrance:


You then walk in about 800 meters, led only by your provided flashlights, until you reach Salon Noir, the Black Room, which has, well, 15,000-year-old drawings of bison and horses and ibexes. You can’t photograph inside the cave, so you’ll have to make due with the pictures on the site linked earlier. Though, that page doesn’t include our favorite painting, the smiling horse:

Image stolen from here.

Making your way into the cave is a transformative experience. You wonder just what on earth lead these prehistoric peoples to explore so deeply into the rock, especially since their illumination technology was even more primitive. And why so deep? Were they hiding something? Protecting themselves? Or was it just not such a big deal?

And that link that you’re given to the past, through these drawings… You so want to touch them, just so you can connect to these predecessors.

After you’ve traveled forward in time and emerged from the cave, this is the view you get:

What’s most distressing about this image is that such views are pretty much dime a dozen around here. Cute little villages nestled in verdant hilly areas. (The red tiled roofs are the buildings in the little town of Niaux.)

We remained firmly rooted in prehistory by following our cave excursion with a trip to Parc de l’Art Prehistorique. It’s a remarkably well-planned museum/park thing focused on things like cave paintings. The park has a path that leads you through a variety of experiences:

how archaeologists work:
archaeology demonstration

demonstrations of spear-throwing (a favorite with the kiddies!):
spear throwing demonstration

and my favorite, the Labyrinth of Sounds:
This is an entrance into the Labyrinth. You stroll these paths through this growth, accompanied by a variety of wildlife sounds meant to evoke life back in the day. A simple, but really effective, immersion.

Our other big excursion (the following day) was to Montsegur, the last stronghold of the Cathars.

Arriving at Montsegur, you park in a lot at the foot of the mountain. You then hike up for about 20-30 minutes to reach the castle.

A view from inside the castle. It’s seen better days.

Looking down at Lavelanet, the nearest biggish town.

Frankly, and this might upset the Board of Tourisme of Ariege-Pyrenees, I found Montsegur disappointing. It’s really just a set of ruins high up on a hill. Not much to see. There’s no attempt to interpret or situate yourself within the historical context.

The Town of Foix
Surprisingly, we stayed in Foix, yet we didn’t do the one thing everyone else does when you visit Foix – go to Chateau de Foix, the big castle in the middle of town. Frankly, it didn’t even occur to us.

Foix is an adorable medieval town, which means lots of little twisty turny streets and really old buildings. Sadly, they allow automobiles down these sinewy paths, which means you’re constantly dodging cars.

We arrived by train from Toulouse:
Gare de Foix

We then walked about a kilometer into town (we didn’t realize that we could have taken the Navette, a little bus line.):

Entering Foix
Crossing the river, entering the heart of the old town.

If, like us, you don’t quite know what you’re doing, head straight for the Office of Tourism (“cliquez ici”! ha!), which is very centrally located. We found them very helpful.

We rented a car from a Hertz on the Peysales. Our three days of rental totalled around 155 Euros, including hefty taxes and, I think, insurance. Not too bad. We did learn that you want to plan your car rental in advance — it took us a long time to find a reasonable rate day of.

Our one meal in town was at “Le Mediéval”, a moderately fancy restaurant. Upon seating, Stacy showed me her menu — which, unlike mine, didn’t show prices. We both ordered prix fixe, and were pleased (though not knocked out). It was one of those restaurants where you get little mini courses in between the normal courses. I also had a hockey-puck-sized entrée of foie gras, which proved to be too much — I felt ill the next day, and I know that was the reason why.

I love the Ariege-Pyrenees region. A future trip of mine will be a road trip, starting at the eastern end of the Pyrenees, and heading west toward Basque country. Along the way, a variety of stops in little villages, at cave sites, and for day hikes in the mountains. A guide book at the B&B showed all these delightful “randonnées” that take you from village to village nestled in the mountains. This region isn’t overrun with people, so it sounds most blissful.

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