L’Ariege Pyrenees- foothills of the Pyrenees

We headed south from Toulouse to a campground close to a place called Le Mas d’Azil, which has an interesting cave system inhabited about 14,000 years ago by Magdalena Man. We were able to tour through the caves. You enter from a huge cave which passes right through the mountain ridge and which forms the main north-south road route through the area. You could see why it was favoured by prehistoric man during the Ice Age occurring at the time.

We realised we might have been better staying further south close to the main highway south to Andorra for the amount of driving we did on day trips. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but we didn’t realise we would have a minimum of 25 minutes drive to get to the main highway so we ended up doing long day trips several times. We spent one night staying with a friend from my French class in their little village further west in the Midi-Pyrenees. We visited some of their favourite haunts including St Bertrand de Comminges which has a cathedral with some beautiful paintings and wood carvings.

Given Richard’s love of caves we also did the boat trip along the underground river at Labouiche, an interesting experience as the guide pulls the boat along using cables fixed to the walls of the cave. it is the longest navigable underground river in Europe. It was a good thing to do on a hot day as the caves were nice and cool.

Another day trip was to La Grotte de Niaux where we walked in 800m over uneven sometimes slippery ground with just a torch to view the only original cave drawings now accessible to the public in Western Europe. We had to be careful not to touch the walls anywhere and were not allowed any bags or walking sticks as they are very wary of the risk of spreading mould etc from the outside. This happened at Lascaux in the Dordogne where we took the girls 18 years ago and they used a mini electric train to transport people – sadly it is now closed to the public. No photos were allowed but it was an amazing experience to see first hand the complexity of the art including lots of bison and ibex. These paintings are from about 12-14,000 years ago.

We had thought the area we stayed in would have lots of good hiking, and while there was hiking (the Santiago de Compostela Pilgrim’ trail passes through the area), and we did do on short one, it is mainly low level hill walks or along minor roads. We found an amazing sounding walk about 1 hour 30 drive south to Le Pic Tarbesou, which reaches 2400m altitude. Luckily there was a windy road up to the pass which meant we only had about 400m to climb, the most by far that Richard had attempted since rupturing his Archilles at the beginning of the year. It proved to be a fabulous walk of 3 1/2 hours with a steady climb to the top and amazing 360 degree views once we got there.

Horses grazing with bells attached
We came across lots of horses grazing, some with bells – we have seen sheep, cows and goats with bells before but never horses.

We suspect they may go on to become la cheval on the local restaurant menus!

After a week at Le Mas d’Azil it was time to move on – to near the French border with Spain.

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