The neo-Gothic façade of the old thermal baths has been retained, giving Les Bains du Couloubret a noble appearance from the moment you set eyes on it. The architecture, the materials used and the decorative elements, all are subtle references to the Romans, great lovers of bathing and the people who first discovered the mineral springs of the Pyrenees.
This is the perfect place to relax after a mountain walk or unwind after a day’s skiing, the way to get rid of stress and tension. Les Bains du Couloubret cleverly features the full range of today’s modern recreational spa facilities: geysers, countercurrent systems, surround showers, swan necks, bubble features, massage jets and more, all fed with naturally warm thermal water.
Every Tuesday and Saturday you can potter around the charming market held in the main square in Ax-les-Thermes. You will find a good selection of fresh, local produce as well as clothes stalls and stalls selling local soap, haberdashery, plants and an interesting bead stall. During summer the market also takes place on a Thursday.
The town is a pleasure to wander around and has a good selection of bars, restaurants showcasing different cuisines.
We have not eaten in every restaurant in the town, but here are some that we have enjoyed:
Le P’tit Montagnard
Just opposite the apartment is Le P’tit Montagnard, a hotel with a good bistro-style restaurant serving traditional, local dishes.
Just next door to the apartment is L’Oiseau Bleu, a lovely creperie serving a selection of savoury and sweet pancakes and waffles – perfect for a light meal.
Les 4 Saisons
Friendly restaurant specialising in French cuisine. Speciality is the huge “Cassoulet” they serve up. Does great salads. Good food and service and has outdoor seating.
La Petite Fringale
Traditional restaurant with outdoor terrace. It has quirky decor inside on the ground floor which is tiny (although it stretches over several floors), so reservations recommended. Specialises in fondue – cheese and meat.
Le Comptoir Des Negociants
Bar/restaurant serving brasserie-style dishes just a few steps from the apartment. Limited inside space, but lovely terrace in the summer.
For fine dining, Le Chalet is a great choice. It produces beautifully presented dishes using local produce and has wonderful views over the river and the park “Le Teich”.
Ax is a lovely town simply to wander around. As well as the usual small supermarkets (both in the market square) and ski rental businesses, there is a good pharmacy, a butcher, several boulangeries and a greengrocer. The town has lots of small independent shops selling summer and winter activity wear and general clothing, and also a good little bookshop, a useful hardware store, three delicatessens (La Ferme is particularly good), souvenir shops, and a local bike shop.
The swimming pool is next door to the tennis courts at the sports ground. The pool is heated and is open from June to mid-September. It has a diving board, and an adjoining shallow section for small children with a water spout. (tel: 05 61 64 69 15)
The “Parc d’Espagne” in the centre of the town has a variety of pitches where you can play football, basket ball, volley ball, tennis (4 hard courts), football tennis and badminton. There is also mini golf and a climbing wall.
In the same outdoor complex is the town open air, heated swimming pool. This is open from June to August.
Reservations should be made at the swimming pool in July and August (tel: 05 61 64 69 15) and at the tourist office the rest of the year (tel: 05 61 64 60 60)
The park close to the Casino is a lovely shaded area with a children’s playground, small football pitch and a covered boulodrome and 2 indoor tennis courts.
The Park “Le Teich” is close to the river and has ancient sequoia trees which provide welcome shade in the summer. This is a lovely, calm park, perfect for a picnic. The park close to the Casino is a lovely shaded area with a children’s playground, small football pitch and a covered boulodrome and 2 indoor tennis courts.
Due to its influential position on the major route linking Toulouse with Spain, along with the coincidence of its natural hot springs, Ax boasts a wealth of history from Roman times through the Cathar rebellion and the Belle Epoque to the present day. The Tourist Office has designed a historical tour of discovery with 14 stops, each one illustrated with an information board for both adults and children. The route takes about an hour and a guide map is available from the Tourist Office.
Why not enjoy a good film? You can see the full programme online.
If you fancy going out one night, the casino is open 7 days a week from 2pm to 3am. Luck may be on your side at the one-armed bandits or the poker tables.
Located high above the pretty spa town of Ax Les Thermes, and accessed via gondola or a mountain road, the ski resort of Ax 3 Domaines is a hidden gem. Situated in the Ariège department of the Pyrénées and close to Andorra, the resort is made up of three ski areas with over 80 km of trails and wide open spaces. Bonascre was the first of the three ski areas and it is the entrance point to the Ax 3 domaines ski area. Ax 3 Domaines offers great skiing and plenty of activities for groups and families alike and, with an altitude of between 1400 and 2400 metres, you are guaranteed a good depth of snow throughout the season. Ax has plenty to offer mixed-ability family groups and recreational skiers who appreciate a relaxed experience and the most beautiful panoramas of the Ariège Pyrenees. With safe areas for beginners and children, Ax 3 Domaines with its even mix of cruising blues to sweep down and rolling red runs is also great for intermediates. There is also a decent selection of black runs for the experienced skier too as well as some great off piste.
• 80km of skiable pistes (9 green, 10 blue, 10 red et 7 black)
• 1 cable car from the centre of Ax-les-Thermes is an easy and quick link to the pistes,
• 1 air-bag
• 1 snow park set amongst the snowy pine trees
• 19 lifts : 2 cablecards « 6 et 16 seats », 6 chair lifts ; 8 drag lifts ; 2 beginners’ lifts et 1 magic carpet, more than 210 snow canons.
• 1 beginners’ area consisting of : 1 covered, 50m magic carpet, 1 drag lift and 1 beginner lift
A resort with 17 pistes and 7 lifts (1 chairlift, 1 magic carpet), 26 snow canons, ski hire, ski school, toboggan run, a cafétéria… The ski slopes are suitable for all levels of skiing.
Only 32km from Ax-les-Thermes Grandvalira is the biggest ski resort in the Pyrénées and one of the largest in Europe with 210 km of ski runs spread over a total of 128 slopes of all different levels, and the creation of one single forfait to enjoy all of the skiable territory. Its 200 kms of interconnecting pistes can be accessed from the village of Pas-de-la-Casa (on the French border) only 30 minutes’ drive from Ax-les-Thermes.
Plateau de Beille (1800m-2000m)
The Plateau de Beille is the number 1 site for cross-country skiing in the Pyrenees. It has everything you need to be seduced: 65 Kms of marked (1 green, 4 blue, 5 red, 2 black), 10km of snow shoe trails, 4 toboggan runs and various walking routes. With the adventure company « Angaka » you can experience a sled ride pulled by husky dogs. The resort has a ski school, restaurant, ski and equipment hire.
Col du Chioula (1240m-1650m)
Opposite the slopes of Beille, Chioula is the number 2 resort for cross-country skiing in the Pyrenees. It is just a few moments away from Ax-les-Thermes. Its marked cross-country ski pistes and show shoe trails wind gently through forests over plains and through valleys. 60km of cross country ski pistes (2 green, 2 blue, 2 red, 1 black), various market snow shoe trails and walking routes all make up the delightful resort of Chioula.
This is a unique place in a unique location, high on the Plateau de Beille offering a wide range of activities for all the family throughout the year. You can go off on a magical sled ride pulled by husky dogs, you can camp in a yurt or tipi, you can enjoy a shared meal in a trapper’s cabin or even build your own igloo to sleep in. Visit the website to see all the available options.
If you feel you could do with a spot of help getting started or would simply like the knowledge of a local guide why not try one of the organised snow shoe walks which include forest walks and night time escapades!
Snow shoes have been used since the dawn of time by travellers, huntsmen and farmers to cross the snowy terrain of the Pyrenees. Snow shoes are a wonderful way to enjoy the mountains in the winter whether alone or with family and friends. Great fun for big and small alike.
Chioula Nordic Area is just 10km away from Ax Les Thermes and at a modest altitude and has a mountain refuge for those wishing to overnight. It offers 60km of cross country trails set in untouched nature as well as 10km of snow shoeing trails.
Beille Plateau Nordic Area is also an option but is a little further away, located 30km from Ax Les Thermes. This area is distinguished by its immense high mountain plateau suspended at an altitude of 1,800 and 2,000m. Here you will find 70km of cross country trails and 30km of snow shoeing trails.
Ski-Joëring? What on earth is that? Well, it’s a bit like waterskiing, but in the snow and you are pulled along by a horse and not a boat.
Take part in a hair-raising snake like train down the 4.5 km of blue run through the pine trees. Seated in your sledge with your legs placed in the sledge in front of you begin the descent from 2000, down to 1400, winding down the long run. A fun filled event with whoops and laughter.
Booking: Daily during French school holidays (February, Christmas and New year); Wed/Fri/Sat: other periods.
Meeting Time: 16.15 & 18.15 (Daily during French school holidays; Wed/Fri/Sat during other periods).
Tel: +33(0)681 265502.
Take a mountain bike out onto the snow – you would think it impossible but, thanks to the “Ktrak” system (a small ski at the front and a caterpillar track at the rear), you can ride your environmentally friendly skidoo on the slopes. There is a 600m descent route accessible from the ski area and this will give you plenty of time to take control of the bike and churn up the snow.
Booking: Available upon reservation with minimum numbers. Ariège Guides. Tel: +33(0)561 019062.
Located in the heart of Ax-les-Thermes, the thermoludique centre “Les Bains du Couloubret” is a delight after a hard day’s exercise.
3000 m² of relaxation and well-being has been created in the old Couloubret thermal baths where the neo gothic façade has been preserved. The same thermal water that made Ax-les-thermes famous supplies all the pools. The décor and setting of the Bains du Couloubret are of Antique Roman inspiration: marbles, colonnades, warm colours, wall frescos, mosaics… Come and relax in the jacuzzis, let your muscles be massaged by the jets, sample the dry heat of the sauna and the steam of the hammam. Outside on two levels are pools where you can enjoy the mountain views and refreshing mountain air while basking in naturally hot water (35°-38°). And for that extra bit of pampering, try one of the wellness treatments on offer.
Created in 1981 in order to protect mountain game this nature reserve covers 4,000 hectares. Walkers often come across the local mountain goat (the “Isard”) on the trail up to the refuge at En Beys. You may also see the pair of royal eagles that live in the valley or perhaps spot a bearded vulture or two – an enormous bird of prey with a wingspan of more than 2.5m.
The Musical Forest
Nestled in the valley of the National Nature Reserve at Orlu this magical forest of music and sound is a fabulous experience for young and old. With over thirty surprising and ingenious ‘instruments’, visitors can experience the pleasure of making music outdoors and discovering different noise-making machines.
Come and discover an animal park deep in the forest dedicated only to wolves. In the middle of a beautifully preserved corner of nature you can observe the packs of European and North American wolves. Come and stroke the goats, dwarf pigs, lambs, ponies, rabbits and chicks in our mini-farm; or follow the botanical trail to learn about local Pyreneen flora and fauna or the animal tracker trail and test your knowledge on animal footprints. There is also a picnic area, gift shop and snack bar.
Only a few minutes’ drive from Ax-les-Thermes, in a magnificent beech forest, you can set off on an adventure to search for the Holy Grail… defend your territory, attack the fort, hide behind rocks, camouflage yourself with ferns.
Treetop Adventure Park
This is the biggest treetop adventure park in the Ariège and is in the middle of a spectacular nature reserve. There are 12 different courses available through the forest, some with zip wires over waterfalls. If you are really adventurous, why not try completing a course at night, under the light of the stars and accompanied by the howling of the wolves in the local wolf park close by.
Lovers of hiking have a beautiful, vast area to explore with over 5000 kilometres of marked trails. From easy walks to physical hikes, in the plains of the valley or high in the mountains, there is something for everyone. The tourist office in Ax-les-Thermes sells a guide with 20 different routes lasting between 2hrs for families and 6hrs for the more adventurous.
For a personal and convivial experience, why not consider a hike accompanied by a local mountain guide who can show you both the hidden treasures as well as the hidden dangers…
There are a number of mountain bike routes suitable for riders of all abilities. The Ariège region has a selection of routes just as suitable for beginners as for experienced riders.
With departure points in Ax-le-Thermes, Prades, at the “plateau de Beille” or the “col du Chioula”, families and beginners can have their first experience of mountain biking on short and accessible circuits while the more experienced rider can try the steeper, more difficult tracks.
Matthieu Baty is a local mountain guide and mountain bike instructor. He can organise easy or challenging mountaing bike trails adapted to your abilities. Matthew will also accompany you on guided walks in the Pyrenees.
There a numerous little mountain roads in the Ariège region which will help you explore the countryside around Ax-les-Thermes. You can combine a good cycle ride with a visit to one of the local cultural attractions. Come and discover the “col de Marmare”, the “route des corniches”, the “col du Chioula”, the “col du Pradel” and numerous other intineraries for cyclists of all levels.
Take a look at the cycle guide for the area published by IGN :
If you want to see the beauty of the region from a different angle, why not try a river descent by canoe, kayak or raft. The Ariège River, at the foot of the Pyrenees, is bursting with beautiful river descents where you will get to experience a real sense of freedom and fresh air. You can book an accompanied descent with the professionals. You can also rent a canoe-kayak.
Orlu Canyon is a fun and exciting descent in the middle of the forest in the Orlu nature reserve. The canyon gorge opens out under canopy of magnificent beech trees. The river winds its way through enormous granite rocks and even though it is not too narrow, nor are the obstacles ever too high, the speed of the river makes Orlu Canyon an original and refreshing course.
The areas around Ax-les-Thermes has attracted generations of climbers ever since the first pioneers attempted to conquer “la Dent d’Orlu”, otherwise known as the “Pic de Brasseil”, a distinctive peak in the Pyrenees. Today, climbing has diversified and there are several new challenges to conquer.
9 sites are equipped for climbers of all levels of experience: from the beginner to the experienced climber. There are routes which take 1 or several hours, some in the shade, some in bright sunshine, some high up on the slopes, others down in the valleys.
There is more than enough for everyone.
Remember to bring all the necessary equipment for climbing with you. If you are a beginner or simply want to improve your technique, contact one of the climbing instructors via the sites below.
Les Crinières Noires
At the foot of the Plateau de Beille, in a magnificent area at the edge of the Ariège river and the trout ponds, you will find the riding centre Les Crinières Noires. Here you can learn about horses and ponies in an area of natural beauty.
The riding school is open all year round and riding lessons take place every weekend with courses available in the school holidays.
L’Ecrin des cimes
At Orgeix, nestled in a narrow valley by the Ariège river is a kingdom of black horses, the “Mérens” horse. Both a riding school and stud farm, L’Ecrin des Cimes is, above all, a little corner of paradise for people passionate about walks on horseback.
Come and learn about bird of prey. You can observe 30 or more raptors, mainly European species (eagles, vultures, red kites, falcons and owls) in their nests or flying. See them roam freely and perhaps even land on you…
Tel. Christophe Lafuste 05 61 01 34 22
This is a unique place in a unique location, high on the Plateau de Beille offering a wide range of activities for all the family throughout the year. You can go off on a magical sled ride pulled by husky dogs, you can camp in a yourte or tipi, you can enjoy a shared meal in a trapper’s cabin or even build your own igloo to sleep in. Visit the website to see all the available options.
The Donkey Farm has a selection of walking options, with or without accommodation, by the day or for longer periods. Their donkeys will transport your bags and/or children, up to a maximum of 40kg in weight. Cuddly, knowing and calm, the donkey is the perfect companion for a restful walk. If you’re lucky, you might even spot the odd alpine marmot on your walk through the stunning countryside in the nature reserve.
Ever fancied a walk accompanied by llamas? The llama farm is the perfect place to experience this and relish the delights of the countryside at the feet of the Pyrenees. There is also a small shop where you can buy llama and alpaca wool and other produce.
The Prehistory Park (Parc de la Préhistoire), located in a magnificent mountain setting in Tarascon-sur-Ariège, takes visitors big and small on a wonderful journey back to prehistoric times. Dedicated to the life and art of the Magdalenian people, this fun and educational 13-hectare site features a museum of prehistoric art and a reconstruction of the Niaux caves and paintings produced by man 12,000 years ago. Various workshops and demonstrations on the themes of cave art, archaeological excavation, tool cutting, fire lighting and spear throwing using an atatl (spear thrower) are also organised.
The Niaux Cave
One of the most famous decorated prehistoric caves in Europe still open to the public. Though its vast opening (55 metres high) which opens at an altitude of 678 metres, the Niaux cave extends for more than 2 kilometres. The guided tour of the Salon Noir, 800 metres from the entrance, will reveal to you more than 70 exceptional prehistoric paintings
Mas d’Azil Cave
This cave was long a refuge both for animals (rhinoceros, bears and mammoths) and humans (from the Magdalenians to the Huguenots). The story of the cave is told through a sound and light slide show in a natural theatre at the heart of the cave. There is also a reconstruction of a Magdalenian home.
Labouiche Underground River
Discover the classified site of the Underground River of Labouïche in Ariège, in the heart of Pyrénées, an area rich with caves and caverns. Embark on journey 60 metres underground. The tour will surprise you with the variety of its landscapes and its geological wealth.
The Lombrives Cave
Whether you are interested in prehistory, history, geology, mineralogy, linked to the strange underworld or you are lover of beauty, Lombrives is a grand, unique cave for you to see. For over 25 years, this cave has been ranked the largest cave in Europe by the Guinness Book of Records. For that extra special experience, it is sometimes possible to go to a concert or show or even have a candlelit meal in the cave.
The Château de Montségur is probably the best known of all Cathar Castles. It is famous as the last Cathar stronghold, which fell after a 10 month siege in 1244. A field below the hilltop castle is reputed to be the site where over 200 Cathars were burned alive, having refused to renounce their faith.
A building on this site sheltered a community of Cathar women at the end of the twelfth century. Early in the thirteenth, Raymond de Pereille the co-seigneur and Chatelain, was asked to make it defensible, anticipating the problems to come.
The present ruin is open to the public, as is a museum in the nearby modern village of Montségur. There is an entrance fee for both.
The Château de Foix is a castle in the Ariège. An important tourist site, it dominates the town of Foix and was once a Cathar Castle.
In the 12th and 13th centuries the castle had only 2 square towers; the round tower was only added in the 15th century. It was the home of the celebrated family of counts who became the viscount of Béarn, then kings of Navarre and kings of France. In 1002 the castle figured in the testament of Roger the first count of Carcassonne who bequeathed it to his eldest son Bernard. Bernard Roger is the first to use the title Comte de Foix. The castle was the count’s main residence until 1290.
Château de Lordat, located in the French town of Lordat, is one of the oldest and largest feudal castles of the County of Foix. This is a typical example of medieval military architecture of the Ariege Pyrenees. Its construction probably dates back to the ninth and tenth centuries. Around 1244 it was occupied by the Cathars during the Albigensian crusade.
Montaillou is a small village in the remote Sabarthès area where Catharism was revived in the fouteenth century. In 1318 the whole village was arrested on the orders of the bishop of Pamiers, Jacques Fournier, who had been the Cistercian Abbot of Fontfroide and who found a new vocation as an Inquisitor.
Between Ax-les-Thermes and Tarascon-sur-Ariège there are some hidden gems of religious architecture that appeared in the Pyrenees at the dawn of the second millennium. High above the N20 main road in the distance, you follow the picturesque “Route des Corniches”, stopping off at Unac, Vernaux, Axiat and Verdun. These little villages are home to Romanesque churches with a mountain charm, strongly influenced by the Lombard master builders who settled in neighbouring Catalonia in the 9th and 10th centuries.
Guided visits are available. Reservations at the Tourist Office in Ax-les-Thermes.
Discover the Ariège of yesteryear and its old trades presented thematically in the museum, from bear keeper to tooth puller to farrier to glass blower and bookbinder.
To really enable you to understand, there is nothing better than watching the artisans and touching or tasting their products. Meet the blacksmith, the clog maker, the baker (from mid May to the end of September), the gold washer in the River Scios (in high season), the horn comb maker and the hammerer. Each artisan works in front of you using old tools.
Established in 1905, this vast talc quarry is situated at 1800m altitude above the Ax valley in the commune of Luzenac in the high Ariège. It produces 400,000 tons of talc per year, employing 310 permanent workers and 110 seasonal workers. Because of its high elevation the activity at the quarry is restricted to the period from April to November but the factory functions year round using the talc extracted during the warm months.
There is one guided tour per day from mid-May to mid-October — enquire at the tourist office in Ax-les-Thermes.
The ruins of Miglos castle in the Vicdessos Valley between Niaux and Capoulet, stand on a calcareous pinnacle. The current remains show the mark of the 14th century, but a stronghold had been there in the 12th century. In the middle of the 13th century, the Lord of this place, Arnaud de Miglos, was a partisan of the Cathars’ cause and had given weapons to those besieged at Montségur. In the late Middle Ages, the land of Miglos, established as a barony, controlled the access to the Foix’ states. In 1789, the castle of Miglos (already in ruins) was destroyed by fire.