Foix, the capital of Ariège, is France’s smallest prefecture. Its 9,000 inhabitants are called Fuxéens. Many canton capitals in numerous other French departments have more people. At first, the department was called Pays de Foix. Located between Saint-Girons to the west, Perpignan to the east, Pamiers to the north and Andorra to south, Foix was part of the duchy of Aquitaine and the earldom of Carcassonne. It became an earldom in the 11th century.
From the Middle Ages to the late 19th century, many gold-panners washed the sand here to find nuggets. Some, weighing up to 15 grams, were found downstream from Foix between Varilhes and Pamiers.
Foix castle was already standing in the year 1200, both military stronghold and home to the Counts of Foix.
The Foix castle houses the Ariège Museum, which has many pre-historic items and a fine Gallo-Roman archaeological collection attesting to human life in the 300 caves that have been discovered in Ariège. Every summer the museum puts on a show, “Il était une Foix l’Ariège”, when the castle is all lit up.
Bedeilhac cave, with both stalactites and stalagmites, was discovered in 1906. The former are limestone concretions hanging from the ceiling, the latter, made of the same substance, are remarkable in that they have no central cavity. It dates back to the Magdalenian, 15,000 years ago. There is a painting of a bison painting that the abbot Henri Breuil authenticated.
Saurat, a prehistoric site, was identified in 1034. once home to many blacksmiths and coalmen, the village took part in the Young Ladies War, a conflict between landowners and poor peasants who lived in autarky in the forests and, from 1829 to 1872, rose up against Charles X because he wanted to take away their land. The feud’s name comes from the fact that the farmers dressed up in as young ladies in long dresses, scarves and wigs to carry out their attacks.
Massat is the stronghold of Georges Galy Gasparrou (1896-1979), who was mayor from 1921 to 1977. He was junior minister of information in Pierre Mendès France’s cabinet and junior minister of the council presidency in the Bougès Maunoury government.
Galy Gasparrou volunteered in 1914. He was a judge in Senlis but was arrested and sentenced to death for refusing to swear allegiance to Pétain. He escaped from prison and became a prosecutor at the high court.
The history of Saint-Girons, from the Occitan Sent Gironç, is linked to that of Saint-Lizier, which the Romans founded. For a long time it was just a warehouse until the village was built along the Salat. Saint-Girons’ coat of arms is a gold bell like the one used in velodromes to signal the last lap of sprints and chases.
Saint-Girons is the birthplace of international rugby player Sylvain Dispagne, surrealist poet Gabriel Massat, and Roger Fauroux, industry and urban planning minister in Michel Rocard’s cabinet.
Wool-fulling mills long provided the main economic activity, as well as paper mills, thanks to the clear waters of the torrents, ideal for treating paper pulp. JOB cigarette paper, which is named for the initials of the man who created it, Jean Bardou, is still made in Saint-Girons.
The only noteworthy thing about this agricultural village is that it has the same name as an excellent Médoc.
Saint-Béat, once called Passus lupi, or “wolves’ crossing”, is famous for its white marble quarries. This is the birthplace of Marshal Joseph Galliéni, who graduated from the Saint-Cyr military academy in 1868, fought the Prussians as an officer in 1870 and became military governor of Paris on 26 August 1914, just as the Great War was breaking out. He died in Versailles on 27 May 1916.
Saint-Béat has opened a Treasure Museum displaying all the marvels of the land beneath it.
Port Pass, which culminates at 1,249 m, is almost a classic about Pyrenees stages. It was not discovered until 1910 (Lapize was the first man to reach to top). The pass is not in the same category as Tourmalet, Aspin and Aubisque. Although it is neither ranked among the “great stages” of the Pyrenees nor scaled every year, Port Pass has revealed some great climbers, including the world champion and classics record-breaker Rik Van Looy in 1965.
Laurent Brochard won the stage in 1997, the first time in 21 years that the Tour de France went through the pass. The last time was in 2002, when Laurent Jalabert took first place.
Haute-Garonne, in the Midi-Pyrénées region, is bounded by Ariège, Aude, Tarn, Hautes-Pyrénées and Spain (Val d’Aran in Catalonia and Huesca province in Aragon).
It has 1,046,338 inhabitants in three districts – Toulouse, Muret and Saint-Girons – 53 cantons, 28 intermunicipalities and 580 towns.
The aerospace plants in Toulouse Blagnac are the department’s economic pride, but services and research are also major activities.
A memorial stone after the summit of Portet d’Aspet Pass dedicated to the memory of Fabio Casartelli recalls that the 1992 Barcelona Olympics champion died in a terrible fall during his descent in 1995. Portet d’Aspet is a Tour de France classic. The last time it came through here was in 2005, when Eric Dekker was the winner.
Menté Pass, 1,349 m above sea level, will always be remembered for Luis Ocana’s bad luck in the 1971 Tour. The Castilian, who had been wearing the yellow jersey since his amazing climb to the top of Orcières-Merlette, fell during a torrential downpour. He could have stood up, gathered his wits about him and gone on, but then Joachim Agostinho hit him in the chest.
The emotionally devastated Castilian had to drop out of the Tour even though he was nearly nine minutes ahead of Eddy Merckx.
José Manuel Fuente won the stage in Luchon (and the next day at Bagnères). As a tribute to Ocana, he refused to wear the yellow jersey.
Hautes Pyrénées, in the Midi-Pyrénées region, has 222,368 people in three districts – Tarbes, the capital, Argelès Gazost and Bagnères de Bigorre – 34 cantons, 33 intermunicipalities and 474 towns.
The department, which could have been called Bigorre, was in the former province of Gascony. Hautes Pyrénées shares borders with Gers, Haute Garonne and Spain’s Huesca province, and has two enclaves in Pyrénées Atlantiques. The geography consists of plains between Pau, Argelès Gazost and Lourdes.
Mauleon, whose name comes from the Latin malus, “mean”, and leo, “lion”, became Mauléon Soule in Basque and took its definitive name when the lord of Soude and Barousse acquired it.
Climbed by the Tour de France for the first time, this impressive pass culminating at 1,750 m links Barousse and Oueil Valleys to the former earldom of Comminges.
With a mere six inhabitants per square kilometre, this village’s 49 souls must feel like winged climbers after the pack has fallen apart.
Saint-Paul d’Oueil, which lies on the road to Santiago de Compostella, offers a “second” itinerary with its Piedmont road.
Garin, in the valley of Arboust, bears no relation to Maurice Garin, winner of the first Tour de France. In 1344 the town had consuls, who had St Pié Chapel built in 1387. Excavations in 1978 have revealed 200 Bronze Age burial sites.
This popular tourist resort and spa gained tremendous public exposure in 1991 when Spaniard Miguel Indurain won in Le Louron ahead of breakaway partner Claudio Chiappucci, setting up the first of his five Tour victories.
Long before it saw famous riders passing through, Loudenvielle was a stop on the road to Compostella.
Aranvielle chapel, built in the 16th century, has lovely wall paintings, as do three other religious edifices in the valley.
Today Loudenvielle has a museum, the Axiro, which has been created on an old farm. It features state-of-the-art exhibits on plant and wildlife in a typical Pyrenees setting.
Part of the museum focuses on buildings in the Louron Valley, where stone, wood and slate were used. A small, Italian-style theatre hosts puppet shows whose characters, members of a local family, talk about the construction of dams, which gave the valley a tremendous boost.
Le Louron is a ski resort well suited for families, with a snow blower, 20 km of slopes and the largest domain for beginners in the Pyrenees. A particularly effective snow cannon can produce snow even when the temperature is 13°C.
Snowshoeing can be enjoyed, as well as speed-riding, where the idea is to go down a regular slope, only with a small sail attached in one’s back, so as to fly away on the first bump!
As for air-board skiing, it is done lying down on a small luge, most often at night, while the regular skiers are relaxing and drinking hot spicy wine.