The Midi Pyrenees: Vals, Foix & Saint Lizier

Leaving Mirepoix, we stopped at Vals, a small hamlet on the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route.

Its ancient church is both perched on and under a granite cliff. Climbing up through a narrow cleft we entered the original subterranean Roman sanctuary.

From the 11th century onwards it had been used as a church. It was simple inside with ancient wooden pews and carved wooden chests lining the stone walls. 12th century frescoes of angels with eyes in their wings decorated the ceiling.

Climbing up a winding wooden staircase we opened a door out onto a panoramic view of the countryside and the towering Pyrenees from the pretty 14th century bell tower.

We stopped at the last French town of Foix, before the N20 road ran south to Andorra. Less touristy and more provincial it has a medieval centre around an impressive 10th century Chateau, perched high above the wide River Aude.

Château de Foix

A dusty plaque marked a riverside house where the department’s resistance leader, a woman, was assassinated by the Gestapo in 1942. It was one of an increasing number of memorials to resistance fighters.

The French and Spanish Basque communities have a proud history of fierce independence so it’s perhaps not unsurprising that although so far from Paris this corner of France was busy with counterspy and sabotage activity by brave men and women.

Views of Plantaural and Ariège mountains from the Château

Travelling further back in time we reached hilltop Saint Lizier, a Gallo-Roman town and one of France’s early Bishophrics. Today it’s a quiet and elegant maze of tall rose covered town houses.

The village falls into two quite separate parts: the lower part contains the old village around the Cathedral of Saint Lizier while the upper part, surrounded by ancient fortifications, includes the Bishop’s Palace.

The ancient town sits above the Salat river

The highlight is undoubtedly the Cathedral, featuring an octagonal tower and attractive cloisters with a balcony and interesting carved stone decorations at the top of the columns. There are a large number of ancient (11th century) frescoes inside the cathedral.

We wandered through the large and peaceful cloisters and admired the unusual addition of a second, wooden storey.

The Bishop’s Palace at the very top of the town afforded a view across to the mountains which were now a constant feature of our journey, the natural boundary between France and Spain.

Saint Lizier at the foot of the Ariège Pyrenees

Wanting to trial Bertha at altitude we spent a day driving west through L’Ariege and into the Comminges.Planning for a future trip, Simon was keen to see how she performed on long inclines. We reached the pass of Col de Portet-d’Aspet at 1,069 meters easily.

Many lycra-clad cyclists were making their slow way up the hairpin bends to the memorial of Italian cyclist Fabio Casartelli who died making the descent during the 1995 Tour de France.

Views of the Pyrenees from Col de Portet-d’Aspet

I was hopeful of spotting an Izard goat, particular to this part of the Pyrenees and able to change the colour of its coat with the season. How fashionable!

Unfortunately none were about that day so we made the fast and steep descent toward to the River Garonne, stopping for half an hour to rest Bertha’s hard-working brakes and waving to cyclists flashing downhill past us on the twisting road.

The Vallée de Luchon

St Bertrand-de-Comminges is a landmark stop on the pilgrimage route. Settled by Roman general Pompey its ruins include bathhouses, an amphitheatre, temple, basilica and marketplace. It is allegedly the place of King Herod’s exile.

Its 11th century cathedral towers over the fortified medieval town and has a fully enclosed chancel, carved in wood and decorated with allegorical as well as religious icons from where the Latin mass is sung and celebrated without any distraction from the congregation. An interesting concept.

St Bertrand-de-Comminges from the road below

We wandered the pretty streets reflecting on just how much it costs you to be a pilgrim these days.

The church was the only one in France we had paid to enter and the advertised room rates in the pretty bijou hotels were equivalent to central London’s. Meals were plentiful but set lunches started at €22.

It seems there is not much poverty expected in piety today!