The smallest 'departement' in France and one of the least populated, Ariège lies between the prosperous city of Toulouse and France's high mountain borders with both Spain and Andorra. At the centre of the Ariège lies the historic town of Foix, right on the very edge of the Pyrenean foothills. To the north of Foix the hills flatten into rolling countryside and open plains, home to the popular market town of Pamiers and the historic Mirepoix, whose large cathedral dates from the 13th century. To the south of Foix the terrain quickly steepens and after about 20km you'll find yourself in deep craggy valleys, with snaking roads and forest tracks connecting almost-forgotten villages. Apart from a multitude of outdoor activities activities & cultural events you can find plenty of fun activities specifically for children and families.
The town of Tarascon-sur-Ariège lies at the confluence of several such valleys. Steeped in history and mentioned even by Julius Caesar, it was for a long time the principal administrative centre in the Ariège valley. This rich history is evident from the many ancient buildings, churches and shrines that still remain. A small town of only a few thousand residents, Tarascon is easily reached from chez Arran and has plenty of amenities, supermarkets, shops and restaurants, a main line train station and a very helpful Tourist Information centre. Moreover, the town probably has more developed climbing – better quality and with more variety – within just a few kilometres than has virtually any other town on earth. Everything from well-equipped introductory sectors to 35m horizontal roof climbs! The largest and most spectacular of these crags undoubtedly is Sinsat, which proudly sports free and aid routes up to 400m long.
Only 4km from Tarascon, just before Sinsat, is the quiet little hamlet of Ornolac, home to chez Arran, complete with its own crags, walking/running/biking trails and natural thermal baths. Just outside the village you can hire kayaks or go rafting on the picturesque Ariège river. Just opposite is the Grotte de Lombrives, an impressive show-cave and the most extensive in Europe!
While the area gets plenty of sunshine throughout the summer, the temperature rarely feels oppressive. In August you're unlikely to want to be doing strenuous activity in the valleys in full sunshine, but there's always plenty of shade to be found. There are local crags facing all directions, and by driving just 15 or 20 minutes up the Vicdessos or Ariège valleys you'll gain enough altitude to take the edge off even the hottest of days. The atmosphere and views you'll find will make the journey even more worthwhile.
If you want a good walk or bike ride you're spoilt for choice. At one extreme there are gentle routes over easy terrain, punctuated with historic points of interest. At the other extreme there are challenging multi-day ventures across the very roof of the Pyrenees.
Ornolac sits at an altitude of around 500m and, while it does snow at this level during the winter, any snow doesn't usually stay for long and rarely causes difficulties driving. Indeed the sun shines on most days in winter and when it does it's usually great climbing conditions on the many low-lying, south-facing crags near to the house. A short journey up the valley though and the situation changes radically. The biggest downhill ski area is Ax Bonascre (or Ax les 3 domaines), which starts at 1,800m but which can be accessed by cable car (price included in ski ticket) directly from the town of Ax les Thermes, only 15 mins drive from Ornolac and easily reached by train too. If cross-country skiing is your thing you're in luck too, since the Plateau de Beille is one of France's premier Nordic facilities and the winding road up to it starts from within 10km of chez Arran.
Snow shoeing is an activity that's becoming very popular in the region, and there's plentiful information and guide books available to help you choose between the many spectacular and scenic routes available.
Spring & Autumn
The long days of Spring can be great in the Ariège valley. The high rivers can make it the best time for river sports, before the weather usually settles again sometime in May. November and December are generally the poorest weather months, but earlier in the Autumn – September and October – usually provide some of the very best conditions, typically settled and sunny yet cool enough to be comfortable in the sun as well as in the shade.