The life of a village square

Now that we are back in New Zealand, there are, of course, lots of things that we miss about France. Many of them were always going to be on the miss list – the bread, the fresh goat’s cheese, the good affordable wine, the weather (although I hear it’s not that flash there at the moment), the relative cost of living. But what I miss most about Quillan, unexpectedly, is the Place de la Republique – ‘our’ square – which gave us an incomparable outlook on the comings and goings of daily life.

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The beautiful view from our living and dining rooms – I will never stop missing this.

The square is the beating heart of a typical French village. It can take very different forms depending on the nature and size of the town, but you’d be hard pressed to find a village of any size that does not have one. In some cases the commercial heart of the village no longer aligns with the square. Near Quillan there are several small towns and villages where the square has been abandoned by the retailers, who ply their wares in premises along the main road instead. It feels somehow wrong. In Quillan there is more than one square, being a sizable town. The Place de la Republique is in the old centre and has retained cafes, a bar and a tabac. The main commercial square is 300 metres away.

We’ve never lived in quite such a central location anywhere before. When booking our apartment, we were slightly worried it might be too noisy, or too much of a thoroughfare. We were concerned about drunks and music from the bars. We shouldn’t have been concerned – it was all of those things, but it was wonderful. Morning to night there was always something to look at; being so central we really felt part of things; and the events programme, organised by the local Mairie and the commercants in and around the square, is astonishing for an economically deprived town. Add to that a friendly cafe owner below and a weekly market outside the door, and life is sweet.

We spent many hours happily enjoying the outlook, curtain twitching like the best old French ladies.

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The perfect spot for people watching

One of us was generally up from first light with the baby, and we got into the habit of eating and sleeping later, so we had a good view of activity in the square around the clock, which followed a natural rhythm of sorts.

The square was perhaps at its most beautiful first thing in the morning. At that time, without a soul in sight, it could have been my own private back garden. I liked to imagine it so.

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The first activity was usually the opening of the Tabac on the corner of the rue de l’Eglise and the square, at about 7am. White van man was usually the first customer. Locals come here for their papers, their cigarettes, but also their bread, despite the fact that there are two boulangeries within reach. Between 7 and 8am there is a steady traffic of locals, on foot, and parking their cars up on the kerb opposite, mostly blocking the narrow road round the square. It was great sport to watch the rubbish truck or the bread delivery van have to pass a parked car, with only millimetres to spare either side of the wing mirrors.

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There are two cafes and a bar on the square, and we were happy customers of both cafes. We didn’t quite fit the usual clientele of the bar and if anything kept us awake in the wee hours it was more likely to be from the patrons or the entertainment there than from below us.

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The Cafe du Fleuve, a great place to live above, with a friendly patron,and occasional live music. Good espressos.

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Le Palace – a great spot on the river, with views of the castle and the old bridge, a congenial if slightly harassed patron, and great diabolos.

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Le Glacier bar – we didn’t have occasion to go here, but they were a lively addition to the square, drawing a crowd for football games.

On market days on a Wednesday, the produce market set up every morning in the Place de la Republique. From our arrival in early spring, stallholders steadily increased until in the summer stalls spilled off down the side streets. We’d been worried that the setting up would start in the early hours and disturb our sleep, but we were often awake before the first producers arrived with their vans to offload in a well-established routine. It was great fun – and a good way to occupy the baby – to spend an hour or so watching them set up between 6.30 and 7.30am and the first customers arrive for the best deals. The square was never more vibrant than on market day, with people coming and going all morning.

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Events are the life blood of the, drawing large crowds in, bringing much-needed custom to the cafes and bars, whose traffic otherwise ebbs and flows throughout the day. At times the square was little more than one giant stage, at other times it was a fishing lake!

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The most packed we ever saw the square was for the Fete de la Musique, which would have been superseded by the crowds for the Bastille Day celebrations, if they hadn’t been rained off. In the summer, from late June through August, there’s barely a weekend without musical entertainment in the square, thanks to the organised programme of events.

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The night market is a reqular fixture on Thursday evenings in July and August, from 6pm to midnight, with musical accompaniment and people drinking and dining into the night. Sadly we only experienced two of these before we left,

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Whenever there’s a National day of any sort, there’s a parade through the town, usually starting at the Mairie on our street, passing through the square, before ending at the war memorial. It’s usually accompanied by the local band, which makes for entertaining, and often colourful viewing.

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When it’s too hot the square is quite quiet, as people shutter their windows and stay out of the sun. When it’s wet, it’s as good as deserted, and over it all, the castle and the sky provide a brooding backdrop.

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At night, the square once again becomes deserted – early on Sunday and Monday evenings when the cafes are closed and there is no entertainment. Then, with the cafe tables kept out, the parents can sit with their bottle of wine, while the children use the square as a playground.

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I hadn’t anticipated quite such a love affair with the square, but it was just wonderful, and I have now become quite attached to old town living. I’m not sure there’s really an equivalent in New Zealand, but if there were, I’d seriously contemplate living there, for the outlook. I would certainly happily rent an apartment on a French village square again. In comparison, suburban Wellington life seems gloomy and quiet.

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