The Pays du Couserans still has fewer inhabitants than the rest of south-west France: the ground is hard and over the centuries, life even harder. Its villages were once famous for their bear-trainers, who, driven by hunger and poverty, toured the lowland towns with their performing beasts.
It is still possible to see the occasional bear and, more frequently, wolves in their natural habitat, the Réserve du Mont-Valier, the oldest park in the Pyrénées. At its centre is Mont-Valier, a mountain that can been seen as far distant as Toulouse. Most climbers use as their base the “city” of the Courserans, Saint-Girons. Two hours walk from the mountain summit lies the Refuge des Estagnous, first put up by the Touring Club de France in 1912 and restored by the Saint-Girons tourist office. It is open throughout the summer months for overnight stays and both sunset and sunrise over the mountain offer an unforgettable experience.
Just where some startlingly fierce rapids give way suddenly to calmer waters on the River Salat, the Old Bridge links Saint-Girons’s medieval buildings on opposing banks. Little changes here: some of the shop fronts would fit seamlessly into a movie set in the nineteenth century, part of the town’s understated charm. The pavements, too, belong to a bygone age, made of a reddish-pink marble quarried just outside the town, containing elegant gutters to take away the rainwater. A classroom from the local school has been preserved just as it was in 1900, with heavy wooden writing desks, inkwells, blackboard and worn down teacher’s chalk. Her writing would put all of us to shame today: beautifully clean up and down strokes.
Not much has changed, either, in the Place des Poilus, although its true cachet once relied upon the crumbling grandeur of the Grand Hôtel de France, whose fortunes declined with the provincial railway, although it still hosts a fine restaurant. On the edge of the square the Hotel de l’Union, endearingly old-fashioned, remains open for business and has a superbly situated café, which opens out on to a splendid balcony facing the riverside Champ de Mars with its symmetrical lines of plane trees. The lively market of local fruit and vegetables takes place here each Saturday. On the second and fourth Mondays of the month there is a “foire” with lots of bric-a-brac stalls. The town has a folklore festival in the middle of July and a theatrical festival in early August.
Barely ten minutes' drive away, past the old SNCF station, is Saint-Lizier, a hilltop town with walls, arcades, and half-timbered ancient houses in narrow, cobbled streets. Its cathedral, with its distinctive octagonal tower, has an exquisite Romanesque cloister dating from the twelfth century and rare sculpted column capitals. The frescoes also date from the twelfth century but you will need a torch and a sharp eye to make them out. At the top of the hill the huge bishop’s palace, undergoing renovation, embraces another church with cathedral status, Notre-Dame-de-la-Sède; from here the walk around the old ramparts rewards those who make the effort with superb views of the town and the mountains. To the south, in the Bethmale Valley, Aret claims to have the region’s last surviving sabot-making workshop. These brightly coloured clogs with curved points were traditionally exchanged as tokens of betrothal, but no doubt came in handy later as domestic weapons when love began to fade.
Just north of Aret, Audressein has a medieval church, Notre-Dame-de-Tramesaygues, built at the confluence of two little rivers, the Lez and the Bouigane, on the old pilgrim route to Spain. The church contains an astonishing collection of fourteenth-century frescoes, sensitively restored a quarter of a century ago. They are like a religious newsreel from the middle ages, showing a band of angels – literally, playing flute, lute and harp - a penitent murderer, a released prisoner and a rosy-cheeked youth miraculously saved from injury despite falling from a tree; although what he was doing climbing it in the first place bereft of any garments below the waist, we may never know.
© OT St-Girons