To get a feel for a place, it helps to experience some public transportation frequented by locals. Toward this end, we started out to catch the train south from Limoux to Quillan (the end of that particular train line). We aimed for the 10:18 listed online, only to find out that there was no 10:18, and the train was really a bus. Long story, but lessons learned.
Once that was sorted, we boarded the 11:18 bus to Quillan. This is a short but very scenic ride along the Aude River, through a series of historic towns including Alet-les-Bains (ruined abbey), Couiza (jumping off point for Rennes-le-Chateau of The Da Vinci Code fame), and Esperaza (both a dinosaur and a hat museum). We did not get out to explore any of those places, but they all had promise for the adventurous tourist.
Wednesday is market day in Quillan, so we headed downtown to check out the action. We didn’t find the produce market (it had probably already ended, seeing as we didn’t get there until after noon), but there was a lively flea market, where one could find everything from clothing to books, housewares to new age paraphernalia. We spent some time pawing through a huge and very funky pile of t-shirts on offer from some Northern African merchants and chatted in my broken French with them.
Next, a short hike to the highest point in town, which was to become a theme in our wanderings around this part of France, but is always a good tourist strategy wherever you roam. In Quillan, that would be the site of the ruined castle, just a big square stub of stone with a few decorative features left, the rest of which we learned later had been pilfered by the locals to build houses down in town. (Even the gargoyles have made themselves to the end of the drain spouts of a couple of homes.) Good for spectacular views across the Pyrenees, though.
Back down into town for lunch and a decision. Bolt down lunch and make the next bus to go explore somewhere else, or enjoy a leisurely lunch and experience the rest of Quillan? We opted for the latter. After lingering over an excellent seafood salad and scads of baguette, we headed for the tourist office in order to find out how to take a deeper dive into the less obvious sites of the town. (Note, tourist offices in smaller towns in these parts close from 12 – 2 so plan accordingly.)
The rest of the day was spent strolling the streets, visiting the church, taking in the view of fishermen fly-casting on the Aude, learning how the past prosperity of the town had come from hat factories and poking down alleyways, guided somewhat by a walking tour the tourist office attendant had printed out for us. This was topped off by a reward of afternoon ice cream before boarding the 4:00 bus back to Limoux.
In short, Quillan did not offer the Medieval splendor of Carcassone, nor the tourist magnetism of some of the other remarkable places we visited during our trip, but spending a day there was a wonderful experience of feeling the rhythm of a midweek in this part of the country, and feeling pleasantly surprised by the little things. A sun dial on the side of a house. Front and back yard flower and vegetable gardens. School children headed home. Old friends greeting one another. All in the setting of the age-old mountains and the winding Aude. A most excellent day all around.