Nestled beneath the snow-covered peaks of the Pyrenees, Ariège is a department relatively unknown in France, even by the French. Whilst the owner of a small auberge there, not far from the town of Saint-Girons, I lost count of the number of people who called to ask where exactly in France the hotel was. But when you visit, you begin to realise that it is not only the French who have forgotten about this amazing region which lies along the border with Spain. It seems even Time itself has overlooked it.
Author Julia Stagg reveals what life is like in the Ariege…
Life in the Slow Lane, Ariege France
Visiting in September, the initial impression is how green everything is. Cross over into Spain or Andorra and the land turns brown, parched and weathered from the relentless sunshine. But here in the Couserans district of the Ariège, the hills remain lush and verdant, even after the heat of a French summer, shielded from the harsher weather by the Pyrenees. And in September, they are at their best. Still awaiting the first snowfall to drape the mountains, the high pastures are accessible, humble autumn crocuses providing splashes of purple and yellow throughout the fields, while those with sharper eyes might spot a red kite or two soaring overhead.
We share the hills with scattered herds of cattle. We take long walks past mountain lakes, their waters still cool despite the efforts of summer, and visit the ruins of the Château de Mirabat high above the Salat valley, gaining a commanding view of the peaks that separate us from Spain. On our way back, we meet an old lady, bent over with age, face lined with years of outdoors life. She is with a small flock of sheep which she is herding from field to field and she regales us with tales of her youth. The hills, she says, her broad hand sweeping across the panorama of trees to encompass it all, have changed. In her day they were managed. Steep tiers built into them, the forest cut down and the land farmed. Now, they have been overtaken again by nature. She shakes her head, then wishes us bonnes vacances, whistling the dog that has been lying patiently in the shade before continuing on her way, the sheep moving ahead of her. As she goes, we notice the truth of what she says, the terraces cut long ago into the hills, sides once propped with stone walls that are now dislodged and crumbling…
As the sky starts to darken, we are ready for our evening meal. A salad dressed with Rogallais cheese is followed by a hefty plate of cassoulet. Arguments over the origins of the dish are enough to bring passionate gourmands to blows but this evening I don’t care who created it. It’s exactly what I need. Piquant Toulouse sausage, haricot beans from the nearby town of Pamiers, and duck confit. I don’t think I’ll be able to manage another morsel but succumb to the temptations of a slice of Ariège croustade: layers of flaky pastry encasing plums. Not long after, I fall into bed, soothed to sleep by the distant lullaby of cow bells.
The Ariège isn’t just about pastoralism though. Saint-Girons, capital of the Couserans, is a thriving place, albeit with a laid-back air that befits the Ariège. Its streets are lined with cafés and small bespoke shops which demand you linger and browse. Visit on a Saturday and you will get the true measure of Saint-Girons as the legendary market unfolds along the Champs-de-Mars on the banks of the River Salat. The stalls are set up beneath the broad plane trees which offer seasonal cover and the variety of wares on offer is staggering. Alongside professional vendors selling cheese from a refrigerated truck or the butcher offering cuts of meat fresh from local farms, is an old lady with a basket of potatoes, a small bunch of carrots and a chicken which looks older than her. She sits on her stool, constantly in conversation, occasionally checking to make sure the chicken hasn’t escaped.
The market has grown so large, due to its increasing popularity, it now sprawls out from beneath the plane trees and up around the post office. When the jostling and crowding have grown too much, we amble up the hill to the historic site of Saint-Lizier, its imposing 14th century Bishops’ Palace towering above us. Officially classified as one of the most beautiful villages in France, it is an oasis of calm. Narrow cobbled streets twist around medieval half-timbered houses, alleyways which meander out of sight entice the curious visitor and then, somehow, you’re not sure how, you suddenly emerge at the top of the town, beneath the thick stone walls of the Bishops’ Palace. And the view! It takes your breath away. But this being France, there is always a café around the corner where you can grab a seat and recover, taking in the scenery as you linger over a long lunch in this place that lives life very much in the slow lane.
Julia Stagg is the author of the Fogas Chronicles, novels set in the Ariège region of the French Pyrenees. www.jstagg.com