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One of my favourite things about France is that you’re always discovering beautiful new places that the majority of tourists have never heard of. While Paris remains one of the top tourist destinations in the world, the rest of France, especially small towns and rural villages, often go completely unnoticed. Even though I’m an avid traveller of France and spend hours researching the best unknown spots to visit in the country, I was completely taken aback when I was placed as a teaching assistant in the town of Foix.
Foix is not a small village gripping onto the side of a mountain for dear life. In fact, it’s the administrative capital of the department of Ariège, an hour South of Toulouse and not far (about an hour and a half) from the Spanish border. However, the population is very small and like many people, I’d never heard of it before in my life.
The most surprising aspect of this story is that Foix has come to be one of my favourite places in France. This little, sparsely populated town, situated on the edge of the Pyrenees is steeped in rich history, breathtakingly beautiful and completely unforgettable.
Where to stay in Foix
Despite the fact that Foix is on the smaller side, you can find accommodation options for all tastes.
If you want a beautiful bed and breakfast right in the centre of town, try L’Arche des Chapeliers, where you’ll find big, bright bedrooms with traditional furnishings, as well as a library and a terrace. It’s also very near the train station so easy to reach and explore the surrounding area if you’re not using a car.
The more modern Hotel Balladins, on the other hand, has everything you’d need for a relaxing holiday in the Southern French countryside, including air conditioning and a jacuzzi. This hotel is a little further away from the centre of town, however it is easy to reach via both car and public transport.
Things to do in Foix
Chateau de Foix
The first thing you’ll notice when you arrive in Foix is the jaw-dropping fairytale castle that overlooks the whole town, while perched upon a pedestal of rock. Even though I’d seen many pictures of Foix by the time I visited, nothing could prepare me for how stunning the castle is in person.
Although the Rock of Foix (on which the castle presides) has been inhabited since Prehistoric times, the Chateau du Foix as we recognise it today was built around the year 1000. It was bequeathed to Bénard Roger, who became the first Count of Foix, by his father in 1002. Throughout the centuries, the castle was the centre of the Occitan resistance to Albigensian crusades that aimed to eliminate Catharism in Southern France.
Today you can visit the Chateau du Foix for €10,20 (€8,00 student price) and explore the secret dusty rooms, the banquet halls and take in the magnificent views over Ariège from the top of the towers. Before you climb up the long path to the Chateau, visit the exhibition to learn all about the history of the chateau and the region.
On the Chateau grounds, you can participate in all types of workshops that will immerse you different forms in Medieval life, from archery to forging weapons from stone and using important machinery from the Middle Ages.
Historic Centre of Foix
At the base of the Chateau de Foix, is the Historic Centre of Foix, a labyrinth of beautiful narrow houses and shops, painted every colour you can imagine.
One of my favourite streets is Rue de la Faurie where you can find charming half-timbered buildings as well as what I like to call the ‘Powerpuff houses,’ due to the trio of houses in a row painted pastel blue, green and pink. I often spend a long time taking photos of this beautiful street. On this street, you can also find some cool antique furniture shops, book shops, and boutiques where you can buy artwork, clothing and incense.
On Rue des Marchands, you can find another of my favourite stores Savignac Maison (opposite the Savignac knife store, if you’re interested in knives) where you can find all types of unique trinkets and gifts for yourself or loved ones. I often go there to buy candles and little art deco postcards for my room.
At the end of Rue des Marchands, you’ll find the stunning Abbatiale Saint-Volusien de Foix, built in the Romanesque style. It isn’t known how long the abbey has stood there, however it was definitely around as early as the 1104. Unfortunately, it was destroyed during the 16th century French Wars of Religion and had to be reconstructed in the following years.
Hike to the Terrasses des Pech
One of my favourite experiences in Foix so far was my hike to the Terrasses des Pech, which overlook the town from the East. The trail is quite easy to find from the station. As you walk up the road leading away from the station, you’ll see immediately a sign across the road reading ‘Terrasses des Pech.’ Follow this sign and you should find the trailhead pretty quickly.
The hike is pretty steep to begin with but once you get up onto the terraces it’ll definitely be worth it. The views over the orange-roofed town, embedded in a blanket of verdant green, and the stunning Chateau de Foix standing proudly amongst it all, are unforgettable.
I did this hike during the first few days of autumn, meaning during my descent from the terraces, I was lucky enough to capture some stunning photos of the Chateau de Foix framed by bright red leaves.
Visit Subterranean Labouiche river
Visit the subterranean Labouiche river (Rivière Souterraine de Labouiche) for a unique boat journey 60 metres underground surrounded by exquisite stalactites, and other interesting mineral formations. At the end of the 1500m journey, you’ll reach a waterfall that flows into a bright turquoise 3m deep pool.
The river is closed to visitors from mid-November to April so plan your trip wisely if this is at the top of your to-do list. The entry prices are €11.40 for an adult and €9.40 for a child.
Unfortunately for me, the river closed to visitors for the winter almost as soon as I arrived for my placement teaching in France. However, it opens again at the beginning of April so I will be sure to update this post with my experience and photos!
Hike to the Saint Saveur Cross
Directly North of the Chateau de Foix, you’ll see a large green mountainside. Atop this mountainside, in-between the foliage, poking its way through the greenery, you’ll spot a the Saint-Saveur cross. You can actually hike your way up to this cross from the Medival Centre of Foix for magnificent views over the city and far beyond to the Pyrenees.
I embarked on this hike on an overcast wintery day and although the foliage was mostly brown and the sky was dark, it was still worth the climb to see the cluster of bright orange rooftops in miniature and the beautiful chateau surveying it all from its perch.
To find the trailhead, search for Rue Saint-Saveur (past the abbey and across the L’arget river) where you’ll find a little carpark. Walk past the car park and up the hill, the trail will appear on the left. The hike is relatively short and can be done in under an hour, but it is quite steep, especially in the beginning section.
Relax and eat in the town centre
In the centre of Foix, you’ll find Place de la Halle aux Grains, a pavilion that is set up with tables and chairs from the nearby cafés. My favourite thing to do on a sunny day is to sit in this spot with a drink and read a book or people watch.
At lunchtime, the Café Le Central always has a delicious Plat du Jour on offer for a pretty affordable price. However, this usually consists of something meaty, so I often order from the café next door O Délices du Park and have a hot sandwich or a crepe instead.
Recently, I’ve spent a couple of lunchtimes at Vintage’s Café where you can make up your own wrap or salad with ingredients of your choice. The decor of Vintage’s café is (obviously) American vintage-inspired and there are a few comfy sofas around, which is great for my long lunch breaks as I sit with a warm drink for an hour or so.
For an evening meal, there are plenty of options to be found throughout Foix, including Argentinian restaurants (Olalama), Moroccan restaurants (Atlas), Middle Eastern restaurants (1001 Nuits) and more. I’ve eaten at Café Gros where they have an extensive menu (eg. pizza, pasta, steak, mussels and chips) all for a reasonable price.
Visit the Farmer’s market
On Tuesdays and Fridays, the Farmer’s market comes to town and takes over a good portion of the Place de la Halle aux Grains. If you’re a frequent visitor of France, you know that markets are a strong part of the country’s tradition. This is where you can pick up fresh fruit and vegetables from local farmers, as well as meat and fish and cheese. I always make sure to try one of the samples on offer at the cheese stall!
I hope you enjoyed reading about one of France’s lesser-known but equally as beautiful destinations. If you want to find out more about more of my favourite French cities and towns, consider reading my post about the best day trips from Lyon, which includes both some well-known and off the beaten track French locations.