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Tarascon-sur-Ariège: The Perfect Base To Explore The Ariège

Never heard of Tarascon-sur-Ariège? Neither had I. But once I started to plan the southern France part of my 2-month trip (Trip #33), this is the place I chose as my base. It turned out to be the perfect spot to do exploring in the Ariege department. The town is beautiful and there are many interesting sites nearby. Both the journey from Prades and the town of Tarascon-sur-Ariège were very scenic. It is an area of France I will definitely be returning to. [2 nights was not enough].

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Tarascon-sur-Ariège

1. Located In The Ariège, Occitanie

The town of Tarascon-sur-Ariège is located 100 km south of Toulouse in the Ariège department of the Occitanie region of France. This department is predominantly rural and one of the least populated areas in France. But it is known for its Cathar fortresses (ie. Montségur), caves (ie. Grotte de Niaux), mountain scenery (ie. Pyrérnées), and there’s many outdoor activities like cycling, hiking, and skiing.

2. Hotel Terranostra

View from room at Hotel Terranostra, Tarascon-sur-Ariege
View from room at Hotel Terranostra, Tarascon-sur-Ariège

Why stay in this town? Quite simply: the views. The scenery in and around the town is stunning. It’s in a valley and surrounded by the Pyrénées mountains. These are the mountains that separate France from Spain.

The window in my hotel room (Hotel Terranostra) opened to a lovely view of the Ariège River and mountains. Being in the heart of this small town, I was able to easily walk around and visit some of the famous sites. It was also within a short driving distance to some major attractions in the area.

3. Towers In The Town Of Tarascon-sur-Ariège

View of Tarascon-sur-Ariege
View of Tarascon-sur-Ariège

(a) Tour du Castella

Castella Tower
Castella Tower

After settling into my hotel, I decided to explore the city. I walked along the lovely Ariège River and then to the Tour du Castella (Castella Tower or Castella Tarasconnais), which is high on a hill in the centre of town. It was constructed in 1775 on top of the original fortress keep or tower.

The walk to the top is easy; however, it can be windy. But it’s worth the trek because the panoramic views of the town, valley, mountains, and river are impressive.

(b) Tour Saint-Michel

Tour Saint-Michel
Tour Saint-Michel

In the old town of Tarascon-sur-Ariege is the Tour Saint-Michel (Saint Michel Tower), which is a bell tower from the 14th century. The nave of St. Michel’s church is gone and all that remains is the bell tower.

Excursions In The Ariège

[A map is at the end of the post]

1. Foix

Foix, France
Foix

On my second day in the Ariège, I drove to Foix (18 km north), which is the capital of the Ariege. Unfortunately, the main attraction, Château de Foix, was closed for renovations.  This 10th-century fortress, high on a rocky outcrop with three towers, provided the perfect strategic location during the Crusades and the War of Religions.  The castle was renovated in 2019 and now has many workshops about medieval life, so it’s especially appealing to children.

Even though I couldn’t visit the castle, I did enjoy walking around town. I’ll have to return another time, especially for the 360-degree views of the valley.

2. Grotte de Niaux

Grotte de Niaux
Grotte de Niaux
Display at Grotte de Niaux
Display at Grotte de Niaux

If there’s one site in the Ariège that you should be sure to see, it is the Niaux cave, Grotte de Niaux, located 7 km south of Tarascon-sur-Ariège. I purchased tickets in advance (mandatory) because they limit the number of visitors into the cave that is one of the most outstanding prehistoric (Palaeolithic) caves with original cave art in Europe. While the ones I saw in the Dordogne were pretty spectacular, Niaux has a more mysterious aura and I wish I could share photos; however, none are allowed inside.

I was in the English-speaking guided tour which lasts 1 hour 45 minutes. From April to September there is typically one English tour each day; however, there are only 3 tours in total per day and each group has a maximum of 25 people. This is to help preserve the cave from environmental damage like at Font de Gaume in the Dordogne, which is one of the few caves that allows the public to see the original paintings.

We had to leave all purses/backpacks in our cars and were given “torches” (big flashlights) to take with us through the cavern because there aren’t any lights inside. We were instructed not to touch any rock because in this cave are the REAL paintings that date back 17,000 years.

It is in the first 800 metres where most of the art is (on the walls and floors) and the journey through the cave, which is in fact 2 kilometres long, is fascinating. Some of the walls are several meters high and other parts of the cave require you to crouch. The famous gallery, Salon Noir, has drawings and paintings of animals such as bison and symbols done in black and they are not reproductions like at Lascaux IV. There is even graffiti from visitors dating back to 1602.

I wore a long sleeve shirt, pullover, and a Gortex jacket because it was chilly down below (around 12 degrees C). It was advised that one wear walking or sports shoes as well because you’ll be walking on uneven rock part of the time and it can be slippery. [Note: the tours are not meant for children under the age of 6].

3. Château Montségur

The next day I checked out of my hotel to head to Carcassonne, I decided to make some stops along the way. The first place was Château Montségur; unfortunately, there was so much fog that you couldn’t even see the château. Like Foix, I’ll have to return because it is one of the most famous fortresses in the Ariège, rising to an altitude of 3900 feet.

It is a 30-45 minute walk to the castle from the car park. I’ve heard it’s quite the trek—steep and sometimes slippery—-but the views from the top are spectacular.

The original château was a Cathar castle; however, it was captured in 1244 and the tragic story concerns the Cathar persecution. 200 Cathar heretics were burned at the stake because they wouldn’t renounce their faith. After they were burned alive, the castle was destroyed.

Over the next 3 centuries another fortress was built and what is present today are the ruins of that château. 

4. Camon

Camon, France
Camon, France

I had better luck visiting the next town, Camon, known as “Little Carcassonne” as it was constructed like Carcassonne— a fortified village that surrounds a Benedictine monastery. The monastery is now the L’Abbaye-Château de Camon. It is a luxury chambres d’hôtes and gourmet restaurant and not open for viewing unless you are staying/dining there.

Camon also has the distinction of being one of “Les Plus Beaux Villages de France” (one of the most beautiful villages in France) [LINK].  And it is especially known for its annual rose festival—La Fête des Roses—which takes place on the third Sunday of May each year. More than 400 rose bushes are in bloom and special gourmet and floral markets and events, such as concerts in the church, take place.  When you enter the town, a rosary is at the entrance and rose vines are everywhere.

5. Château de Lagarde

Chateau de Lagarde
Château de Lagarde

As I wrote in a previous post, I thoroughly enjoyed visiting my next stop, Château de Lagarde even though I was at first spooked out by what I thought were ghosts. It is located just 6 km NW of Camon and is a great stop on the way to Mirepoix. Check out the post and see how impressive the ruins are: Château de Lagarde.

6. Mirepoix

Place des Couverts, Mirepoix
Place des Couverts, Mirepoix
Wooden faces and gargoyles at Place des Couverts, Mirepoix
Wooden faces and gargoyles at Place des Couverts, Mirepoix

If you’re familiar with French cooking you know that mirepoix is a mixture of onions, carrots and celery sautéed with butter or oil to make a flavour base. I often make mirepoix with these items diced when making a chicken pot pie. Larger chunks are used when I’m making chicken stock. It was created in the 18th century by the cook who worked for Duke Charles-Pierre-Gaston François de Lévis—the duc de Mirepoix (1699-1757).

Mirepoix is another lovely fortified town in the Ariege that I visited on my way to Carcassonne. I really liked the various entrances into the old town. Place des Couverts should definitely be visited. Medieval houses and a long wooden arcade with shops and restaurants underneath. The arcade surrounds the square on the perimeter and have wooden beams and many medieval faces and gargoyles are carved into the pillars.

A carousel, grassy area, and more cafe seating are in the centre of the square. While many find the shops a bit touristy, it’s the architecture that’s the star attraction as is the famous market, which is held on Mondays.

7. Other Activities In The Ariège

The Ariège department is popular in all seasons. As it is in the Pyrénées mountains, hiking, fishing, swimming, sailing, kayaking, canoeing, and cycling are very popular in the summer. Downhill and cross-country skiing are popular in the winter.

One attraction near Tarascon-sur-Ariege that is particularly popular for families is the “Parc de la Préhistoire” (Prehistoric Park). Besides a reproduction of the Salon Noir from Grotte de Niaux, the park and hands-on workshops take visitors through the life of prehistoric man where they can paint on cave walls, do an archeological dig, learn how to hunt, and more. Not just for kids.

Another attraction in the area is the thermal spa resort in nearby Ax-les-Thermes. The waters were used in Roman times and today it’s very popular with pools and spas to relieve those aching muscles after hiking or skiing.

June Weather In The Ariège

In early June, as you can see from the photos, the weather was beautiful.  It was clear, sunny and about 18° C—-about 7° C cooler in this part of the Occitanie compared to Prades.

In my notes that I keep, I remarked a few times about how windy it was, particularly at the top of Castella Tarasconnais, the tower in the centre of town. So keep this in mind.

Travelling To Tarascon-sur-Ariège

1. From Prades

Route from Prades to Tarascon-sur-Ariege
En route to Tarascon-sur-Ariège

I travelled from Prades, which was my base in the Pyrénées-Orientale department. It was the perfect base for visiting Villefranche-de-Conflent and taking the Little Yellow Train. Driving from Prades to Tarascon-sur-Ariège “in theory” takes 2.25 hours via the N16 and N20 roads; however, it took much longer as I kept stopping for photographs and due to the terrain.

The roads varied between wide and straight and narrow and winding. I just paced myself and was careful. They are “N” roads, after all. Not autoroutes.

2. From Carcassonne

If you are coming from the north, say Carcassonne, you’d be taking the D119 and N20 and the journey would be about 1.5 hours.

Accommodation And Restaurants In Town

There are a number of hotels in Tarascon-sur-Ariege; however, I stayed at Hotel Terranostra-La Bellevue due to its ideal location, right by the bridge in the centre of town. Parking was on the street and a nearby lot. As mentioned, my room had splendid views plus a kettle, air conditioning, a towel warmer, a modern bathroom.

There are some rooms in Hotel La Bellevue that have microwaves/fridges and are more suited for families. I had dinner at the hotel’s restaurant/brasserie one night—just pizza and ice cream. It was an inexpensive meal and very good. I would stay here and eat here again.

The other night I walked over to Le Vieux Carré and sat outside for dinner. I had grilled sardines in pepper with potatoes. Dinner was just OK but nothing exciting as the potatoes were boiled and I was sitting beside smokers. But it was reasonably priced.

Tarascon-sur-Ariege Sites And Excursions Map

Click on the map or on this link and you’ll be directed to a Google Map indicating all the places in this post.

Tarascon-sur-Ariege Sites And Excursions Map

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3 Days In The Ariege Based In Tarascon-sur-Ariege

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