Ariège is a department in Occitanie close to Midi Pyrenees, easily reachable by car. Ever since the initial liberation from our ‘lockdown’ last spring, like other Toulousers, we have been daytripping and discovering Ariège.

Before this year, my familiarity with Ariège was limited to Mirepoix, a pretty medieval bastide town with a handful of restaurants, cafés and bars. To be honest, I thought Ariège was the sort of place where burned out Parisians relocated to make goats cheese and enjoy early retirement.

We did also once go to a concert in Foix, the capital of Ariège. The castle of Foix, standing atop the town is well worth a visit, as it is the one intact chateau cathar in the area.  Little by little I am getting to know and love the department which borders Aude, one of my longtime favourite places. Both departments are known for Cathar ruins amongst other things.  The more I see of Ariège the more I love it.

Although there is a lot more to say about Foix, and many places to visit in the area, this post is about another part of Ariège with pedagogical and ludic activities for all ages.

Cave entrance

La Grotte de Niaux is situated in the Vicdessos valley, near Tarascon-sur-Ariège.

The cave system is complex with underground passages and chambers. The site has a documented history of Paleo-human presence and contains wall paintings from the Magdalenian period, between 17000 and 11000 years ago.

It was initially documented by a historian Félix Garrigou, again discovered by Commander Molard and his sons, who found the Salon Noir and consequently published a plan of the sight. A year later it received proper recognition after the investigation by Henri Breuil, a priest and archeaologist, and Emile Cartailhac, another prehistorian.

Parc de la préhistoire

You might be intersted to know that visitors during the 19th century not only helped themselves to souvenirs they fancied and even left ‘graffiti’ on the walls. For all the bad press we give ourselves about our behaviour in these times, at least we know better than to do such things.

You definitely need to book to visit the cave and children under five are not allowed. Tour groups are relatively small, up to 24; a veritable party crowd in the time of Covid.

We gathered our torches and headed into the grotto with our lovely knowlegable guide and walked through the narrow passages on the untouched slippery and uneven floor. You will want to keep your torch pointed downwards! At the best of times exploring prehistoric caves is not suitable for claustrophobic people and even less so now that we are obliged to wear masks. Once we had walked a few hundred metres our guide had us turn off four flashlights for a brief minute and suddenly illuminated the first of the paintings with her torch which took what was left of our breath away. There we were standing before these cave paintings created so very long ago and remarkably intact. After some explanation we moved on a bit and repeated the experience in another section of the cave with even more impressive paintings.

  The animals displayed on the cave walls are most often of horses, bison and ibex. The artisits were able to create the illusion of movement by painting on curves. The people of the Magdalenian culture in SW France were semi nomadic and moved around through the mountains, and as far as the seaside. They had an abundance of food and were able to kill and hunt with spears and other tools. The great increase in art and decorative forms indicates that they had leisure time.

The visit lasts 1 hour and 45 minutes. With our wonderful guide, who even sang for us in the dark for a moment or two, helping us imagine how things might have once been in the cave, the time passed very quickly . We are lucky to still be able to visit these caves…….for now.

For more information visit www.sites-touristiques-ariege.fr

Very nearby, on the other side of Tarascon-sur-Ariège sits the Parc de la Préhistoire. This interactive indoor outside museum absolutely definitely warrants a visit. With stations where you can learn how to make fire (yes she did in front of us with great ease). Definitely the one you want to go camping with! The guides, passionate and knowledgeable will explain how people hunted and gathered back in the day. We are not able to participate in all of the activities at the moment due to the sanitary crisis of our day but we were still able to paint in the makeshift “grotto”. The park is superb and it is easy to maintain social distancing. It is a must for any and all ages. Make sure you leave around 3 hours for your visit. There is a restaurant with a view to enjoy before or afterwards.

I hope that you have enjoyed this post about the Grotte de Niaux and the Park of Prehistory. Follow me to keep up with me on my travels around beautiful Occitanie……….. next up more discovering  Ariège        …………………………….à bientôt Christina

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