PLACES TO VISIT
In addition to some great activities and things to do in the Ariege, there are also an interesting and varied selection of places to visit in the Ariege whilst on holiday at Manzac and especially for families with younger children.
We have tried and enjoyed almost all of these Places to Visit in the Ariege ourselves and can therefore advise you on many aspects of each excursion - suitability, costs, how to pay (some places don't take credit cards), how to get there etc. We can also make any bookings and reservations on your behalf to help make everything easier and more efficient for you.
Immediately below is a collage with each of the excursions listed including a link to their respective websites. For much more information and pictures and a website link on each, please scroll down and click on the highlighted text.
Cathar Chateau de Roqufixade
Cathar Chateau de Montsegur
Cathar Chateau de Foix
Cite de Carcassonne
Le Grotte de Mas d'Azil
Riviere Souteraine de Labouche
Grotte de Lombrives
Grotte de Niaux
Pic du Midi
While the traditional French market is beginning to struggle in some parts of France due to the increased competition of the supermarkets etc, they are thriving in the Ariege and we are very lucky to have a wide selection of local markets. The towns and villages who host these markets come alive on market day and as well as being a place to do the shopping, they are also an important social event and a chance for everyone to get together and catch up on the local gossip. Despite the increasing dominance and convenience of the supermarkets, however, the markets offer much better quality fruit and vegetables and much better value for money - certainly we try to do as much of our fresh produce shopping as possible in the markets.
As well as better quality and better value produce, the local French market continues to be a a great experience and a 'must do' as part of any holiday in France. Apart from Monday there is a market on every day of the week within 30 minutes of Manzac d'en Bas - all of them are very different in their setting, their produce on sale and their character.
An important part of the history of this part of SW France is in the persecution of the Cathars by the Roman Catholic Church in Rome during the 13th Century and there are some spectacular remnants of this history within striking distance of Manzac.
The Chateau de Roquefixade is just over a hour from Manzac and is the most delapidated of the castles but it is set in truly spectacular countryside in the foothills of the Pyrenees, Just up the valley and visible from Roquefixade is the Chateau de Montsegur, famous as the last Cathar stronghold which fell after a 10 month siege in 1244 and resulted in 200 cathars being burned alive rather than renouncing their faith. Both these castles require some physical effort to visit, but are well worth the hike. The Chateau to Foix, 35 minutes from Manzac and the Ariege's most popular tourist attraction, and the Cite de Carcassonne, nearly two hours from Manzac and one of France's top 10 attractions, are both more easily accessible. Carcassonne is a long day out and is very busy in high summer, but it is a spectacular castle to visit with plenty of good restaurants in the central square, a mediaeval jousting display on the ramparts, concerts and France's biggest firework display on Bastille Day (14th July) - worth breaking the trip with a visit to the lovely town of Mirepoix.
Within an hour of Manzac d'en Bas, there are a number of limestone caves, four of which are of special interest and which are equally spectacular in very different ways. The nearest is the Grotte de Mas d'Azil which is the largest natural tunnel in Europe that you can drive through and is certainly worth a visit (esp on Sundays in the summer when there is bungee jumping at the entrance to the cave which is fun to watch) There is also a guided tour of the cave but this is rather expensive and not very memorable / good value / recommended.
Between Manzac and Foix is the Riviere Souterraine de Labouiche which is the longest navigable underground waterway in Europe - the guided tour is 60m below the surface, is 1500m long and takes about 75 minutes to complete and includes a wealth of classic limestone geology - stalacmites, stalactites and columns. A really worthwhile excursion especially when the weather is either a bit below par or boiling hot and you want to cool off (it is a constant 13C in the cave). Furthermore this trip is refreshingly natural and while it is very safe, there is no requirement to wear life jackets and helmets (as would be probably be the case under UK H&S rules!)
Beyond Tarascon is the Grotte de Lombrives which is the largest cave complex in Europe with a total length of 39km and can be visited on guided tours lasting between 1 and 3 hours. The highlight of this tour is a chamber which is the same size as the inside of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and during the summer, classical concerts are held here taking advantage of the extraordinary ecoustics.
The fourth special cave to visit in the Ariege is the Grotte de Niaux which is famous for it's 14,000 year old cave paintings of bison, horses and ibex. To help preserve these paintings, there are limited pre-booked guided tours per day (including one in English) which last approx 1.5 hours. A really excellent excursion from many points of view - artistic, historical, geological or simply somewhere very different to visit.
While Manzac d'en Bas is set in a truly peaceful and rural location, just an hour away is Toulouse. Located on the River Garonne and known as La Ville Rose (The pink city) due to the terracotta bricks (forraine) from which much of it is built, Toulouse is France's fouth biggest city and is an easily accessible day out from Manzac for those who want to enjoy the culture, architecture and vibrancy of a modern city. Centred on the Capitole, Toulouse is very compact with many of the main attractions all within walking distance - cafes, restaurants, shops, museums, galleries, markets, St Sernin Basillica, the River Garonne, the Canal du Midi. The best of both worlds - rural Manzac and the modern city of Toulouse within easy and close proximity.
About 45 minutes from Manzac, towards the Pyrenees and near St Girons is the old walled town of St Lizier, which has been listed as one of France's most beautiful villages. In particular, it is noted for it's two Cathedrals. The (much) smaller one is really beautiful with it's octagonal tower, magnificent 11th century frescos and intimate cloisters which are rich in interesting stone carvings. The larger Notre Dame de la Sede Cathedral at the top of the village no longer has any religious significance, but since 1800 has been used as the town hall, a prison, a poorhouse and an asylum. Today it houses the Ariege museum and an excellent restaurant on the terrace with great views towards the mountains. Well worth a visit in conjunction with a trip to St Girons.
The Pic Du Midi is about two hours drive from Manzac, but it is certainly worth the drive. The Pic du Midi is in the heart of the Pyrenees and is just below 3000m in altitude. Apart from being a spectacular place to visit, the Pic du Midi is France's biggest observatory with four telescopes including the biggest telescope in France (2m). It is also used as a weather forecasting station and TV / radio etc transmission point.
Access to the Pic du Midi Observatory is from La Mongie next to the Col Tourmalet via two cable cars rising over 1000m in 15 minutes - a spectacular ride, but probably not for those who don't like heights!
Incidentally, Tour de France fans will know the Col de Tourmalet as being one of the most famous and most visited climbs in the Pyrenees.
Once there, there are numerous viewing platforms to admire the huge views and especially the peaks of the Pyrenees. There is also a very good restaurant and a museum to enjoy