Bill will readily admit that he’s not an early riser unless, as our friend Pete says, there’s a treat at the end. When you combine our favorite form of transportation, the train, with bargain fares of one euro per person, and the chance to visit two cities along scenic rail routes, that’s one big treat. It was enough to coax him out of bed at 5 AM three weeks before we wanted to travel to snag those cheap tickets as soon as they went on sale. Where were we headed? It might seem strange that during a summer with record-breaking high temperatures we would visit a town known for its hot springs, but we wanted to see this area in the Pyrenees before its other attraction arrived: snow.
First the Greeks in the Bronze Age followed by the Romans in the Iron Age passed through and/or settled in Ax-les-Thermes, drawn there by the 60 hot springs that would have made harsh winters in the mountains a little more bearable. The water emerges at a temperature of up to 78℃ (172℉) to fill pools that were used under orders from King Louis IX (who became St. Louis) to help heal soldiers from the Crusades of ailments including rheumatism, respiratory problems, and even leprosy. In 1250 a hospital was built directly beside one of these pools known as the Bassin des Ladres (Lepers’ Pond) where even today you can dangle your feet in the sulphurous water.
The grand spas in town offer a range of services that can be as short as 2 hours just in the pools or up to 3 weeks for those who want the full treatment. To give you an idea of how popular “taking the cure” is, there are 7 trains per day (with a connection) from Paris bringing skiers in the winter, hikers in the summer, and hot springs bathers all year long.
And speaking of 2 hours, that’s all the time we spent in Ax before we hopped aboard the train for our second destination of the day. The Romans found Foix to be of interest for its waters as well but these were not “boiling”; instead, the confluence of the two rivers, Ariège and Arget, proved of military importance. Their fort on the hill overlooking the town provided the foundation for the 10th century castle, reinforced since then and still standing today.
But even before the castle there was an abbey. Founded in 849, with an earlier origin traced back to Charlemagne, Abbey Saint-Volusien brought prosperity to Foix that lasted until the mid 1500s when the building was destroyed during the Wars of Religion. The “new” building that took its place was completed in 1670. This part of the city known as Old Town retains some of its Medieval look with narrow streets, half-timbered houses, and some buildings connected by tiny bridges called pontils.
This was a long day out that started at 6 AM and finished back at the Carcassonne train station at 7 PM, but well worth it. The best part: for one of us the total cost for tickets was 5 euros round trip and for the other it was 8 euros. I’m going to set the alarm clock for 5 AM tomorrow to find out where we can go next!
Travel note: To get the best train fare when your trip involves a connection, it’s good to compare the through fare (for today’s trip, Carcassonne to Ax-les-Thermes was priced at 17€) with the individual fares (in this case, Carcassonne to Toulouse for 1€ and then Toulouse to Ax-les-Thermes for 1€). If you are two or more people traveling together, check the prices of one ticket for your entire group vs. the total cost of buying a ticket for each person individually.
French National Railways website (in English): https://en.oui.sncf/en/
History of this rail route (in French): https://www.pyrenees-pireneus.com/Transport-Pyrenees/Trains-Chemins-Fer/Toulouse-Barcelone.php