My sister, the planner, booked a house (“villa” I should say) in Southern France over a year ago, and then populated it with family and friends for a September 2017 stay. Her husband, my daughter and I were the family and two other couples who were friends of hers made up the balance. None of us had ever heard of the town it was located in, Limoux, which is located in the southwestern portion of France known as Languedoc. By the time we approached the date of the vacation, it had reached a sort of mythical status in our minds – the ideal French village, as my daughter half-joked, a la the opening scene of Beauty and the Beast (animation or live action, take your pick).
Tantalizing photos of the charms of the villa had been offered up by the booking agency, although Google street view made the exterior look bland and ordinary. Opening the substantial front door, a whole new world was revealed. A Medieval courtyard with vaulted ceiling led to a stage-set of a grand interior, with three floors and amazing views from all windows. Here, the Gothic church across the River Aude. There, a hillside with the ubiquitous vineyards. I would not call it cozy, by any stretch, but rather intimidatingly majestic.
The first full day there, my daughter and I explored the town. The obligatory historic central square was only a couple of blocks from the villa, over a scenic stone bridge, and had all the usual French town amenities – bakery, butcher shop, wine shop, cafes with sidewalk seating, and a fountain in the middle. The first day we were there, it also had a portable stage with a spin class instructor blaring out music and loud speaker instructions to a cadre of stationary cyclists. Welcome to the blend of old and new that is contemporary Europe.
Since we spend a lot of time exploring Limoux (two whole days and in between other excursions) I will only cover some highlights of the town without boring you to tears. The details of someone else’s trip, I realize, grow tedious after a while. Suffice it to say that Limoux has many charms, including some very interesting museums. We started at the Museum of the Piano, which is housed in an old disused church, and was again only a couple of blocks from the villa. Do you like pianos? Well, you will love this museum then. Even if you like old churches, and just nominally enjoy pianos, it is worth a visit. It also features a concert area in the back, where we capped off our visit to Limoux at the end of the week with a wonderful piano and cello recital.
We also visited the Museum of Automotons, which features life-sized figures created by the enthusiastic and talented artist in residence, brought to some semblance of life (movement at least) by a colleague. Later in the visit, we tried in vane to find a place called Catharama (which still existed on some maps), only to discover it had met its demise several years back. (More about the Cathars, infamous 12th century heretics who continue to capture the collective imagination at a later date.) The Musee Petiet, a nice smallish art museum featuring the work of a local female painter, was well worth a visit as well. We eventually found the Printing Museum (which is listed as being it two different places) near the river, but no one was inside though the door was open.
A few pointers about Limoux, in case you find yourself in the vicinity some day. First: food. Market day is Friday, and the food market is not in the central square but in and around the market building a few blocks from the square. There are several green grocers in town, though if you crave fruit and veg, and their produce is reasonable and delicious. (Best peaches ever!) There are some smallish in-town grocery stores, and on the outskirts of town, there is one of the biggest grocery stores I have ever seen anywhere, not as charming but good for stocking up if you have a car. It is a much better deal, and in keeping with the local customs, to go out for a leisurely two or three course lunch and make your own light dinner. Cafes and restaurants abound, cheaper fare being pizzas and crepes off the square.
Next: transportation. The train station is convenient, and you can get north or south easily and pretty often, though northward you must change in Carcassonne no matter where you are headed, and southward, Quillan, about 40 minutes away, is the end of the line. I guess the mountains get in the way from there. Also, you buy a train ticket but only some of the conveyances are actually trains. The others are buses, and you have to know the difference because you wait one place for trains and the other for buses. And, the interior of the train station, with an actual service person to ask for clarification, is only open on the weekdays. (Trial and error are the watchwords in this part of France.)
Recommended: find the tourism office early in your visit. That motto holds true for any town in this area of France, or elsewhere in the world I would guess. In smaller places like Limoux, this helpful office and its usually cheerful personnel is not open during the lunch hour, however, so catch it before 12 or after 2.
Next up, day trips to Carcassonne, Quillan and Sete, with castles, water features, and sweeping views on offer. Stay tuned if armchair travel is your thing!