Mark Piper | Ariège

It was never meant to be a pilgrimage. 

A romantic weekend trip to meet my sweetheart in the quiet Ariège town of Saint-Girons; allowing a couple of days to experience the majestic beauty of the snow-capped Pyrenees, with just enough time to get back to dear old Blighty for work on Monday morning. So why am I clutching an empty plastic four litre petrol can as I clear customs and excise at Toulouse-Blagnac Airport? 

The pilgrimage forms part of a generous favour for a librarian colleague who lives in the Occitanie commune of Auch. We have been given a map and accurate written instructions on how to locate and collect spa water from a mountainous section of the Pyrenees, situated along the border between France and Spain. Apparently, the water contains “therapeutic virtues that help fight chronic diseases.” I’m happy to go along with this new age nonsense - the request is a sincere one, plus a trip to the border promises to be outstandingly beautiful.

Saint Girons is situated approximately 80 miles south of Toulouse in the region known as the Couserans. It’s where the plains of Gascony meet the mountains of the Pyrenees and it’s a stunner! However, the scenery is largely ignored as my partner and I speedily recount everything that has happened in the months since our last encounter. Boy, long distance relationships can be punishing.

On reaching our destination – a remote hostel on a seemingly abandoned farm – we are greeted by a hastily scribbled welcoming post-it note, a key hidden under a mat and a small wooden honesty box. But no mountainous panorama. Rain clouds hang over the tops of the Pyrenees, blocking our bedroom window vista. Evidently spring has yet to arrive in Saint Girons.

The owner is nowhere to be seen. Or the farmer. Or anybody, for that matter. Have we stumbled into an environmental evacuation zone, or the set of a Gascoyne remake of Twin Peaks?

a gascoyne remake of Twin Peaks?  The Saint-Girons rugby team in 1937
a gascoyne remake of Twin Peaks? The Saint-Girons rugby team in 1937

Over the next 24 hours an attempt is made to visit the hallowed spa, but our efforts are thwarted by a combination of impenetrable mist, rain and lethal hairpin bends, forcing a dramatic U-turn. Back in the warm comfort of the hostel, we have been left a stack of locally farmed cheeses wrapped in wax paper and rustic bread and a plastic bottle of unlabelled vin rouge. Still no sign of human life, just the sound of bleating goats and incessant rain in the near distance. The wine and cheese both taste exquisite – simple and marvellously fit for the occasion.  

As we break bread we are caught off-guard by the arrival of a fellow traveller; a French student of sustainable architecture who is just passing through. We share food and wine and he asks us to comment on a collection of photographs he has taken of the local area. 

“Would like to live in this property?” 

We are shown a picture-book ideal of a traditional half-timbered cottage surrounded by a spectacular mountain landscape. 

“Oh yes. It looks beautiful”.

After one enveloping Pyreneen mist too many, a cow decides to end it all
After one enveloping Pyreneen mist too many, a cow decides to end it all

We are shown further images, each one more charming than the last. Our comments are overwhelmingly positive, with the thought of returning to my grotty pied-à-terre in Finsbury Park perhaps colouring my response. The student tells us that none of these idyllic properties would be considered by French residents for a number of head-scratchingly obscure reasons. Comments include - “There is modern-looking silo in the background, partly obscuring the view of the mountains”;” the neighbouring fence is a metre too close to the house”; “the timber looks imported and is not from local stock” etc. The French sensibility to environment seems to be admirably two steps ahead of us in terms of sustainability and eco considerations. 

The next morning, we watch the rain clouds disappear as we drive away from the Pyrenees. As I say farewell to my sweetheart we make the decision to fill the petrol container with eau potable from the lavatory at Toulouse Airport: therapeutic virtues and healing properties not guaranteed.

Cities in ARGELES GAZOST, BEAUCENS-LES-BAINS, CAUTERETS, LUZ SAINT SAUVEUR, BARÈGES, BARZUN operate spas which Gush hundreds of sources of hot water but water cold, sodium, alkaline, carbonate, sulphurized and the delight of thousands of patients

- from a tourist guide to the Pyreneen spas

and here are Lionel, Richard and François:


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Mark Piper Writer