Rural heaven in the Ariège, France

Sunshine is warming the sheer mountainside, gilding the rooftops far below in the valley and the dense woodland around. But I am standing 900 metres inside a vast cavern, delving my hands into my pockets for warmth. The Grotte de Niaux, close to Tarascon in the French Pyrenees, is home to cave art dating from around 12,000 BC. It's a cool 12 degrees Celsius inside, to preserve the exquisite line drawings in manganese oxide on the walls. Seeing the bison and horses, admirable representations even by today's standards, was high on my wish list for our holiday to Foix in the Ariège region.

We'd arrived late on Saturday evening after driving through Switzerland and France, via the striking Roman aqueduct Pont du Gard, to our base in La Mouline. La Scierie gites, run by a friendly English family, provided an ideal base and a quaint, if basic, rural retreat with a vast garden and a bakery within walking distance.

Waking to sunshine every day, we soon set about exploring the sights the region has to offer. Chief among them are the Cathar castles, many of which provide ideal start- and end-points for mountain walks. Roquefixade, a crumbling ruin perched above the eponymous village with awe-inspiring 360-degree views, was a nice introduction to the area, while Lordat castle provided an elegant gateway to a mountain walk up to the Etang d'Appy in the Massif de Tabe. The gently ascending route took us past grazing donkeys and cows with jingling bells, finally culminating in a tempting lake (paddling was irresistible) with views across the Pyrenees.

We also hiked up to Montsegur, the last Cathar stronghold, precipitously perched on a ledge. If the scenery was made to be hiked, the Bains du Couloubret at Ax-les-Thermes provided the antidote to aching legs. Relaxing in the up to 38-degrees Celsius water while gazing at summits did away with tension in the muscles. Well-deserved eclairs from one of myriad patisseries in the area were literally the icing on the cake. (Our favourites were from Mazas in Foix).

Indeed food was - as you would expect in France - one unforgettable aspect. From the fresh ingredients served up in restaurants (La Barguillere in Saint Pierre de Riviere being the finest we tried) to the bread from local boulangeries and the local wine and Dutch cheese (yes, really) from Marcel next door to La Scierie, it was all mouth-wateringly good.

How the French have their values sorted: we spent evenings sitting in the garden listening to the gurgling river, feeling the sun warm our faces. We enjoyed conversations with the really friendly locals, and spent days on the mountains without encountering another soul. And those humbling sights we saw - like the cave art I am now looking at - remind you what life is really about. The perfect relaxing week in a rural corner that I would like to return to again and again, and certainly every time I need a breather from the hectic everyday.
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