Journalist Catherine Cooper moved to the Ariège in France seven years ago and – among other things – runs a gite there
You may not have heard of the Ariège; before we decided to move to France and started looking at areas I don’t think I, or my husband, had either. It’s one of the least populated areas of France and, even though it has a tourism industry, it remains unspoilt, un-crowded and more like “the real France” than many typical tourist destinations.
So, why come here? Well, the scenery is incredible for starters: the view from our house is simply fields…and then mountains. Every single day it looks different. We’re in the south, so the climate is good but, because we’re also in the foothills of the mountains, there’s a freshness in the air. It’s rarely stifling or humid.
When we first saw the house, which was in need of total renovation, I wasn’t sure if I could live there – it felt so remote. But, once I’d got my bearings, I realised we’re actually just 15 minutes’ drive from the local town, less than an hour from Toulouse (a fabulous city) and around an hour from the mediaeval city of Carcassonne.
Ariège isn’t on the coast, but a day at the beach is very doable: we often go to Narbonne on the Med for the day
We refurbished the house, and Gite Vue des Montagnes. Guests have two hectares of grounds to explore and amazing panoramic views of the Pyrenees. It has three generously sized bedrooms, an open-plan kitchen, living area with wood burning stove, English satellite TV and wi-fi internet access.
Many of our gite guests spend their week (or two), sitting around the pool while the kids play ping-pong, bounce on the trampoline and play on the swings, but there’s plenty to do in the area for those who feel like getting a little more active.
Just around the corner from us there’s a brilliant “accrobranche”, La Belle Verte, with zip wires and rope bridges through the trees and a miniature version for kids aged three and up. You can also raft and kayak there.
Around an hour away, our local ski resort of Ax les Thermes has its main lift open during July and August and plenty more going on there in the summer, including mountain biking (downhill only thanks to the lifts) and a fabulous thermal spa.
There are plenty of restaurants to hand where you can get an amazing three course lunch for around 20 euros, and vineyards, not too far away, where you can sample the local wine.
The area is also known for its caves; the spectacular Grotte de Lombrives is well worth a visit, as is the underground river of Labouïche and there are several swimming lakes with little beaches to visit.
Ariège isn’t on the coast, but a day at the beach is very doable: we often go to Narbonne on the Med for the day. Slightly further away at Leucate there are great beaches and you can eat oysters just off the boat. You can easily head over to Andorra for some duty-free shopping, or – if you’re feeling adventurous – you can even drive through to Spain, making your visit to our little corner of Ariège in France a two-country experience.
How to get to the Ariège in France without flying:
You can drive to Ariège in France from any of the northern French ferry ports served from the UK and Ireland (it’s around 12 hours’ drive from Calais), or you take the overnight ferry from Portsmouth to Santander: it’s a five-hour drive from there.
Words: Catherine Cooper for Feet on the Ground
Images: Catherine Cooper