· A magic, wild place, little known to the English speaking world but not far from a vibrant, cosmopolitan European city.
Imagine the rolling hills of the English Cotswolds with more than a hint of Tuscany or the Napa Valley, with a backdrop of a snowy mountain range reminiscent of the distant 'Himalayas'. A warm, sunny, yet lush climate where consecutive grey days are rare. The regional major city is modern, high-tech, yet still easily discoverable, intimate, with a rose-warm, welcoming centre, some exquisite cuisine, world-class healthcare, expanding global & national transport connections and a hub for high-tech businesses. And yet, a few miles south, renovation projects still can be found. Simple rural life exists within touching distance of this thriving metropolis.
Historic, pretty villages lie unblighted by mass, vulgar tourism. Chefs use fine local ingredients and adapt traditional recipes to tantalise your taste-buds. The butternut soup with prawns at Auberge de Fountescut is a gastronomic glimpse of the possibilities & wonders that await.
• Escape the crowds, find a genuine, charming location with a mix of Catalan and southern French culture, tastes and colours.
Fine BIO wine is produced on the sunny hillsides. Rainbow-coloured Bee-eaters nest by the river. Imagine further a pristine, quiet English Lake District albeit much higher, capped with snow each winter with skiing, snowshoeing and dotted with hot spas.
There are deep blue lakes, even beaches. Mile upon mile of glorious paths reach out into the vast wilds of the mountains. If you see more than 4 other fellow walkers during your day, then you have been unlucky.
Remember to look up, to seek the eagles and vultures in the blue skies above. Griffons, with near 2.5m wingspans fly in groups of up to 30. The bone-breaking Bearded Vulture soars in the highest, quietest places. And there, as if by magic, high on a mountainside, a table waits with a cold beer, a 3-couse meal, a pitcher of very drinkable wine and a warm, comfortable mountain-refuge bed.
• A vast, wild chain of magnificent awaits to be explored, rich with wildlife and well-marked footpaths.
Elusive, 80% herbivore, European Brown Bears still roam freely yet very rarely encountered in this wilderness that exists so close to bustling ‘civilisation’. Yes, it is still a wilderness; beautiful and at times savage but also easily accessible, offering shelter & comfort when needed, inhabited by warm-hearted, durable people, proud of their heritage. Indeed, a whole, incredible history dating back to the last Ice Age, with tales of giant caves, mammoths & sabre-tooth tigers begins a journey through time, from the Romans to the seismic, horrific events of the Albigensian crusades and the very existence of modern-day France to finally arrive in the dark days of the 20th Century, the Spanish Civil War & WW2, the terrible, epic human migrations in both directions, all to escape persecution, to continue the fight, for freedom.
• Full of history, castles, caves, follow a remarkable journey through time.
A short hop by budget airline gets you here. Or for long-haul, why not mix a few nights at the nearest international hub, Barcelona, followed by a pleasant, easy 4-hour drive or train journey?
So, where is this place?
The Ariege, south of Toulouse.
Below are some quick facts:
The Ariege is one of the least populated departments in France (95th) with a population of just over 150,000 in an area of 1800 sq miles.
The capital, Foix, is the smallest administrative seat in France (pop 11,000).
There are 50% more trees now in the Ariege than 100 years ago.
PLACES TO EAT
Auberge Pierre Bayle
Auberge Pierre Bayle bears the name of the famous 18th-century writer/philosopher born in the village, a 'founding-father' of the concept 'liberté, égalité, fraternité'. Fernand de Oliveira and his wife have produced fresh, visually beautiful, wonderfully tasty meals in the Auberge since 1998. When booking, make every effort to have table next to the wide windows overlooking the rolling hills to the Pyrenees mountain chain, jagged and magnificent in the sunset. Profit from the range of reasonably priced 'menus' to sample a delicious starter, main and desert...whether you are habitually a sweet -tooth or not! Also take a moment beforehand to visit the galleries in the village, particularly that of Tristran Ra (sample work below).
AUBERGE PIERRE BAYLE
09130 Carla-Bayle - Ariège Midi-Pyrénées
T / 05 61 60 63 95
Auberge de Fontescut
in the tiny, charming village of Sieuras that occupies a ridge commanding fine views over the surrounding fields offers a relaxed atmosphere in which you can enjoy Jean-François' fine cuisine at your leisure. Covers of never more than 15 people ensure you have the appropriate attention, service and guidance on your food journey. Start by sampling the many fortified wines on offer on your arrival. Then choose a 'menu' starting from 34 Euros that will take you through all the delights, from truly outstanding soups, impeccably cooked meats and dreamy deserts. Not forgetting in between an enormous 'assiette de fromages' & the specialite 'tete de veau' for those with a heartier appetite!
There is an excellent choice of wine and a 'digestif' will round off a thoroughly enjoyable evening or a long Sunday lunch!
Auberge de Fountescut
Réservations et informations au :
T: 05 61 69 25 48.
La Tomate du Jardin.
Ilona Rutgers and Lionel Sevenes produce inventive dishes based on BIO products, fresh vegetables and fruits. In the heart of the ancient village of Daumazan, their old clergy house is full of character and 'le jardin' offers a shady setting for fine lunches and long, warm evenings. Fish, meat and vegetarians options are always to be found. Local produce & recipes are wonderfully embellished with herbs and carefully chosen ingredients that compliment and enhance. As would be anticipated, a fine wine list is accompanied by Lionel's knowledge & gentle advice. Le Tomate is a thriving, welcoming restaurant that maintains impeccable service, attention to detail and a warm 'ambiance'. La Tomate may be notionally third in our list (for it is the furthest from Carla Bayle!) but each restaurant offers something different, special and all are equal in our recommendation.
Address: 1 Place de l'Église,
09350 Daumazan-sur-Arize, France
T:+33 5 81 30 40 03