Start your tour of medieval Ariège with the Château de Foix (11th century). It overlooks the world from the top of its rock with pride in its unspoilt walls, towers and machicolations. From the top of the keep you can see the Pyrenees just as Gaston Fébus, one of the castle's famous owners, saw it when he was here.
The counts of Foix were very involved in defending the Cathar cause and their château withstood the attacks well. The town nestled at the bottom of the castle has held onto its period features and treats you to medieval events in May, August and October.
Did you know ?
Simon de Montfort, leader of the crusade against the Cathars, made the following announcement in front of Château de Foix: "I'll slice through the rock like butter to grill the master on it!". But the château remained impenetrable.
You can see Château de Montségur perched on top of its 1200m high pog 35 mins from Foix. Your 30 min climb will be rewarded by the incredible view of the Pyrenees and the site's atmosphere: the ruins of Montségur radiate a powerful emotion that has shone through the centuries. You are now in the last Cathar refuge due to the Church's persecution.
Montségur Museum, in the village at the foot of the mountain, depicts Cathar "heresy" and the terrible crusade that followed in the 12th century.
2 legendary footpaths run beneath Montségur: the Cathar trail from Port-la-Nouvelle to Foix, and the Chemin des Bonhommes (another name for the Cathars in French) from Foix to Berga in Spain. Experienced hikers, you've been warned!
Well worth the visit
A 45 min trail from the lovely village of Roquefixade takes you to the ruins of the Roquefixade Cathar castle: magical views of the Olmes peaks and Corbières in the distance.
You'll find the only Roman cloister in Ariège and remarkable frescoes similar to Byzantine art. Saint-Lizier, population of 1600, has a palais épiscopal (bishop's palace) and two cathedrals (one in the village and the other at the top). Stop on the Chemin du Piémont trail, the whole thing is listed as UNESCO World Heritage as part of the Santiago de Compostela routes.
Notre-Dame-de-la-Sède Cathedral is next to the Palais des Evêques which has unobstructed views of Saint-Lizier, Saint-Girons and Couserans.
You're going to love the main square in Mirepoix. Half-timbered houses watch over the buzzing square with its cafés and shops nestled under covers. Picture it! Their oak pillars are over 800 years old.
Mirepoix was rebuilt using a bastide model after being flooded in 1289 and was a major Cathar site too. Its cathedral and unusually wide nave mark its return to Catholicism.
Your quest, however, is to sample the local and organic produce at the famous Monday market under the village's lovely hall.
Unmissable event: Château de Foix Medieval Festival in the last weekend in May and the first weekend in October. You'll meet knights (sword fighters) and acrobats, you'll try archery, you'll see fire performers, explore medieval watering-holes and more. Vidéo © Sites Touristiques Ariège.
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