Skiing in the winter, whitewater rafting in the summer or exploring the nearby Cathar Castles – there’s a host of activities to keep you occupied in the French town of Quillan all year round.
Situated at the foothills of the Pyrenees, not far from the Spanish border and about 70 miles to duty-free Andorra (the sixth smallest nation in Europe), Quillan is a picturesque, rustic town with a population of a few thousand or so.
According to local tradition, the town got its name from the three craggy hills, the Trois Quilles (the Three Skittles) which surround it.
As it is located in the of region Languedoc-Roussillon , the town is within short driving distance to many majestic Cathar Castles, which were erected nearly a thousand years ago to protect the Cathars from invasions from the north. Some of the castles are rundown, but others like Carcassonne have been well kept and still serve as popular tourist attractions.
Carcassonne city, which is a 45 minute drive from Quillan, is the only fortified town in Europe still inhabited. It is also home to the closest airport, followed by Perpignan, a large town near the Mediterranean coast, which is an hour’s drive away. You can get the train or bus from Carcassonne to Quillan, but you may prefer to hire a car at the airport.
The nearest castles to Quillan are about 10 miles away, including one in Puivert, a tiny town with a lake and manmade beach, which is great for a cool down in the high summer heat.
As well as castles, there are also chateaux, which were inhabited by the nobility of Languedoc. The stone tower of the 13th-century château de Quillan overlooks the town.
There are many markets in surrounding area of Quillan which offer a chance to sample the French way of life. They usually start at around 9am and finish just after midday. Fresh food, hand-made crafts, clothes and jewelry are just a few of the items sold. The market in Quillan is held on Wednesdays, which is the best day, and also on Saturdays.
Being so close to the mountains, Quillan is very popular with hikers and cyclists and the deep gorges provide fantastic opportunities for whitewater rafting, canoeing and kayaking. Other options on offer include fishing, climbing, horse-riding, orienteering and caving. There are many activity centres around where you can try these out.
If you’re not the sporty type, you can always try the local culinary delights and fine wines. As well as castles, the region is home to the oldest recorded sparkling wine. Blanquette de Limoux was apparently invented by Benedictine Monks in the Abbey of Saint Hilaire near Carcassonne in 1531. Limoux is a pretty town a fair bit larger than Quillan and is less than half an hour drive away.
It’s also a great place to be based for a skiing holiday if you don’t want your accommodation to be high up in the Pyrenees. It’s between one to two hours’ drive to a number of ski resorts, and although the road there can be a little hairy due to the windy roads with deep drops to the side, the slopes on offer are great for children, beginners and pros. There are also snow parks for the more experienced and daring skiers and snowboarders who want to practice their acrobatic skills.
The resorts of Font Romeau, Formiguères and Les Angles are part of the Neiges Catalanes Ski Area and all charge around €30 for a day pass to use the ski lifts. You can also buy a pass that allows you to ski at all the resorts. During the holiday periods it can be a bit pricier as well as a lot busier.
In the town of Esperaza, just 6 miles from Quillan, there is an excellent dinosaur museum which was the first in Europe. It is home to a magnificent collection of dinosaurs, fossils of reptiles, mammals, invertebrates and plants from the region and throughout the world and is open to the public in July and August.
If you fancy seeing some live animals and don’t mind a bit of a drive there is the wildlife park, Sigean African Reserve, which is 55 miles away and is home to more than 3800 animals.
In the summer a week-long Folklore Festival is held, where dancers, musicians and singers from around the globe perform during the day and evening on the town square of Quillan.
Other cultural and sporting events such as music concerts, cycling races, motor racing and canoeing competitions take place in the town all year round; however, the busiest time for this is March to September.
If you have a lot of time to spend in the region, then a trip to the Spanish towns of Girona (2.5 hours away) or Barcelona (3 hours) would be a good idea.