For a small and sparsely populated department with not a lot of money, Ariège is not half bad at making its presence felt. A couple of years ago, for example, when we were still living over the border in Aude, we decided to hit the bright lights of Toulouse one rainy Saturday in March and what did we find? The main square, Place du Capitole, was filled with hundreds of stalls promoting and celebrating our soon-to-be-home department, complete with goats and sheep and prehistoric flint knappers and every sort of food and heaven knows what else. It was heaving with people - and great fun.
Ariège, or to give it its self-proclaimed full title Ariège-Pyrénées (adopted because it was - and officially still is - the only department sharing a border with Spain that didn't have 'Pyrénées' as part of its name), is department number 09. Every French department has a number, running alphabetically from A to Z (with a couple of quirks, naturally), and residents are strongly attached to 'their' numbers. Two years back, it was decided to replace the current system of departmental vehicle registration, under which the last two numbers are always the department of residence. Now this is a great system, not just because you can wear your departmental badge with pride, but because you also get fair warning that the car behind you comes from one of the departments with particularly bad drivers - anywhere in Paris, for example, or maybe my particular bugbears Gironde (33) and Tarn et Garonne (82) .... So when a national registration scheme was mooted, France revolted. And to cut a long story short, in the end the government had to concede that when the new system finally comes in next month,a department number, while not forming an official part of the registration number, would nevertheless be compulsory on all plates - a typical French compromise.
Now being department number 09 in the year 2009 is not a marketing opportunity to be missed. And missed it won't be: our Conseil Général and the Comité Départementale du Tourisme have just launched their 09 - L'année de l'Ariège campaign, with 9 events which they hope will 'typify the Ariège of tomorrow', put the department centre stage, and give people 9 (more) good reasons to come here. Here they are:
1. The opening of the first part of the new voie verte (green road, for walkers and cyclists - no motor vehicles allowed) which will link Foix with St Girons, along the old railway track. Great news for us, as when it's completed in 2010 it will pass right through Rimont.
2. The opening last month of the centre thermoludique at Ax les Thermes - the first in Ariège, and destined to become one of the best in the Pyrénées. I've not managed to get there, yet, but oh, I will, I will ...
3. The enlargement of the Parc de la Préhistoire in Tarascon, at the heart of one of the most extensive networks of prehistoric caves in Europe.
4. The designation of part of the Cathar Pyrénées as 'pays d'art et d'histoire'.
5. The official creation in May, after several years of negotiations, of the Parc Naturel Régional Pyrénées Ariégeoises. Rimont, and Grillou, will be a part of the new Parc.
6. The celebration on 22 August of the 20th anniversary of the Challenge des 3000 Ariégeois, a mountain running 42.5 km marathon that climbs - wait for it - over 2500 metres. I shan't be running.
7. The creation of a major competition for local innovators, to dynamise the local economy.
8. The commemoration of the 800th anniversary of the Albigensian crusade against the Cathars.
9. And finally ... la surprise. On the 9th September 2009 (09/09/09) at 09.00 (it had to be, didn't it ...), the Conseil Général and the Comité Départementale du Tourisme are preparing 'an event'. That's all I know, because for now their collective lips are firmly sealed on the details. But watch this space. Or even this one.