It’s the Summer Solstice, and we’re hoping to make the most of the longest day with a day out in the mountains. However, when we wake up, the distant ridges are draped in a feather boa of purpley-black clouds, and the air is close and still. We’re unwilling to climb a mountain unless there’s a good chance of a view from the top, and the visibility is blurred and hazy.
Well, we’re nothing if not flexible, so we collect Monty, who’s lying on the front lawn and toasting his tummy in the early morning sun, and head off for a day of exploring the forests and villages of the neighbouring Ariège.
From the pretty spa town of Salies-du-Salat, we make our way eastwards along the departmental roads towards Betchat on the D34. We follow the road through the village until we reach the car park, set into a clearing in the forest. This is the starting point for several walks and VTT (Vélo Tout Terrain, or mountain bike) routes.
We decide to customise a walk based on VTT routes 13 and 14, to take in a viewpoint marked on our map.
[A little digression here, on the subject of maps. The best maps we’ve found for the area are the blue Carte de Randonnée series from IGN. Unfortunately, as they’re small scale, each map only covers a relatively small area, and we often find we need two or three to cover a specific drive or walk. Still, if you’re going to be making multiple visits, they’re a good investment, and are sold by most French supermarkets and tabacs for around 7 to 10 euros, as well as online in the UK. For our walk today, we’re using map no. 2047, covering St Girons and Couserans.]
We start off down a shady forest path. The path is lined with campion and bracken, both familiar woodland growth, but mixed with dozens of plants I don’t recognise – graceful, primeval ferns, tiny mauve orchids and a low-growing shrub that supports a dainty yellow flower between two dark green glossy leaves.
The track emerges onto a metalled lane, sticky with new-laid tar and gravel. Monty picks his way through fastidiously, grumbling about the effect of tar on white fur, and we walk down into the first village on our tour, La Bastide-du-Salat. We’ve hit the village at lunchtime, and it’s deserted except for a fat tabby cat, who raises an indolent ginger eyebrow at us from its perch atop a sunny wall. Monty is still too busy muttering about tar to notice the cat, although it swishes its tail provocatively as we pass. A short walk along the road brings us to the village of Lacave, equally empty apart from a cheerful speckled chien de chasse and an over-zealous La Poste van, still delivering despite the hour.
Once through Lacave, we walk along the road for a few kilometres, stopping briefly to admire the hilltop chateau of nearby Prat-Bonrepaux, a village that we won’t be passing through.
A few minutes more brings us to Bonrepaux, a pretty village with a grassy tree-lined avenue. Again, the village is deserted apart from another employee from La Poste, revving the engine of his little yellow van. Why are these people still working at lunchtime? Don’t they know that this time of day is only suitable for mad dogs and Englishmen? We stop to eat our picnic beside the river, and our very own mad dog, Monty Spaniel, takes advantage of the break to have a quick power nap.
So far the walk has been very clearly signposted and easy to follow, even if we’re going deliberately a little off piste.
After lunch, we follow the Betchat signpost back into the forest, and an hour’s climb brings us to the top of the ridge. The views are hazy, but still dramatic.
Another twenty minutes brings us back to the car park, for a total walk time of around five hours including breaks. Monty has spent the last part of the walk happily paddling around in the muddy wallows made by wild boars, and is now just tan instead of his normal black, white and tan. The local clay soil turns to sticky orange goo when it’s wet, and soon Monty is happily spreading it throughout the back of the car as we head home.