No, it’s not what you’re thinking. Shame on you. We are talking France, more specifically Condom in The Gers department in the country’s southwest. Condom-en-Armagnac, as it is sometimes also referred to, is roughly halfway between Bordeaux to its northwest and Toulouse to its southeast in undulating countryside leading to the foothills of the Pyrenees.
To break up the long drive from England, where the car is, to Andalucia, where we had our next planned house sit, we were looking for a stop along the route that would be a nice place to rest. When we ran across this sit in Condom, a beautiful part of France, and thought it would be a nice respite. The dates lined up very well with our plans so we applied as quickly as possible. What a joy it was to arrive and find spring-like weather just a few hundred miles south from gray and wet England.
To be honest, we had never heard of Condom until about three years ago when a nephew announced his engagement and we were invited to the happy couple’s wedding just up the road from there. That took place in the summer of 2014. We can still vividly recall the wonderful drive past field after field of glorious sunflowers soaking up the rays.
We stayed just outside of Condom itself in a pretty country setting and just a few kilometers up the road from where the wedding reception had been. The house sits imposingly on the top of a hill looking over the small local hamlet. What a gem. We could see now why this Scottish family had moved there years before. Today they run Le Mirail Gite (self-catering holiday accommodation) in beautifully restored outbuildings of this former Armagnac-producing estate originally built in the 1700s. While the gite would also have been the perfect accommodation for us, we lucked out by staying in the main house complete with Aga in the large kitchen and wood burning stove in one of the two living rooms - both great accompaniments to those chilly winter nights. With a dog, a cat and a rabbit to look after, we settled in for the next ten days, expecting rain and getting mostly clear and often sunny days once the early morning mist on the hills had cleared.
Condom itself is definitely worth a visit. Today, Condom is known for being in the heart of Armagnac country. With a charming center, good eateries and a river running through its middle, it delivers typical French charm of a quaint market town to the visitor. In the Middle Ages, it was better known as a stopping place along the famous Via Podiensis, one of the four routes along the Way of St James that pilgrims would walk from France to Santiago de Compostela in the Galician region of northwest Spain. Later, with its navigable river Baïse running through the town’s center, it became a kind of inland port with rich merchants building their impressive houses close to the waterfront. Gone are the boats delivering grain and other commodities, but the buildings remain.
When not walking Markha the springer spaniel through the fields and vineyards surrounding the house, or along the multiple footpaths and converted former railway line passing through the woods opposite, we had the chance to sample several other local places. The countryside surrounding Condom is blessed with some truly beautiful villages - it is claimed some of the loveliest in all of France. We managed to visit a few in just one afternoon. Here are three worth visiting within 30 minutes west of Condom:
Just minutes up the road from us by car we discovered this tiny medieval fortified village. It was deserted. In the twenty or so minutes we spent walking through and around it, we did not see a soul. I am sure it is busy in the summer, maybe even at weekends, but it was like visiting a really beautiful ghost village. Eerie, but it looked like a few people actually live there still, hidden away from prying eyes
This brought back memories. The moment we walked into the main square of this very large village, or more realistically small town, we felt dumb. You see, this is where the wedding took place just over two and a half years ago. We had failed to connect the dots driving there. As we wandered back into the main square and then the grand old church, full of its Catholic history, we reminisced. It was good to be back.
Bigger than Larressingle but smaller than Montréal, this medium sized village is unique in having a round central square. (Does that even make sense?) Where once stood a castle, now charming timber-framed houses and a few village shops surround a circular green. It’s really pretty and worth visiting or even staying in. While we didn’t go it, the Renaissance-style fifteenth century Château de Fourcès that offers accommodation looked wonderful from the outside.
If instead, you venture south of Condom, just a 10 minute drive will take you to Flaran Abbey (Abbaye de Flaran). Founded in the middle of the twelfth-century monks, this former Cistercian monastery is now fully restored. These days it is an artistic and cultural center and houses the Simonov Collection with works of art from the seventeenth to twentieth centuries including paintings from the likes of Monet. Definitely worth a visit for both the wonderful art collection and magnificent abbey cloisters and surrounds.
Tired from walking so much we headed back to the house. It was time to walk and feed Markha, find Zorro the cat, and put Leslie the rabbit to bed for the night. This ended up being a quiet, relaxing experience in a beautiful part of France. Just what we needed before embarking on the 1,500 kilometer drive to Andalucia.
Sitting outside in the glorious sunshine in March looking at hills with plumes of smoke rising from small bonfires and majestic mountains in the background, I’ve had time to reflect on a few things. First, how our discovery last year of house sitting has opened so many diverse travel opportunities for us and satisfied our thirst for exploration and diversity of existence. And second, how by sharing these experiences with old friends, and new ones we’ve made along the way and, of course, here on the blog, we are in some small way able to relive them, and cement all those feelings (good and bad) to our memory. It was actually in one of these sharing sessions with friends over a few beers that we remembered we had never had a chance to write about one of our favorite travel experiences thus far.
The night before our friends and hosts left on vacation, we hit the subject of Myanmar (Burma), where they had been in 2002, back when few tourists visited, and from which we had just returned 2 months ago. Of course, a note comparing session was in order. Back in 2002, far fewer tourists visited Myanmar. Our friends were the exception. Today, the country has opened up, the number of visitors is creeping up daily, and with local SIM cards and 4G data costing next to nothing, people are touring around more and encouraging others to follow. While Myanmar will always offer great history and spectacular views, as planeloads of foreigners pile in, it will, like most hidden gems, lose something that was once there. One thing we could all agree on was the wonder and beauty that you can still be found in Myanmar to this day, particularly in Bagan, land of over two thousand remaining temples and other religious structures built between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. It was interesting to us that more English - the de facto language for international travelers - is spoken there now than in the commercial capital, Yangon. Whereas our friends had visited multiple pagodas in a horse-drawn cart, we charged around on rented eBikes. They stayed in rudimentary hostels; we passed multiple large hotel complexes being constructed. It’s not too late though and, if you are visiting Myanmar, it would be criminal not to find the time to hit up Bagan. Here’s what we managed to achieve in a mere 36 hours in this beautiful place.
Yangon to Bagan - the inexpensive way
Everyone told us to fly - a quick one hour journey in the air. So, of course, we had to do the opposite and take the 8 hour bus to Bagan. The overnight ride from Yangon was an adventure in itself. We splurged on the “VIP” bus for an exorbitant US$3 more each in the hope of getting leg room for two 6’5” (1.96m) guys. Of course, we had to be sitting behind the one person who wanted to make our life difficult. Her broken seat, when reclined without care, went almost completely flat and into an area most people would prefer not to place their head. After a polite conversation, she only went halfway down during the first few hours of the trip. But sometime after midnight we were woken up to her protests that she was entitled to go all the way because she “paid extra for that feature” (ahem, 2-3 of her precious euros). After a heated conversation, her pushing her chair all the way back, my knees rapidly thumping the back of her seat, and finally her just laying on the bus floor martyred, we continued on our merry way to Bagan. Finally, we were able to enjoy the most camp-decorated long distance bus we have ever traveled in to date. In retrospect, should we have flown? Verdict: No. The journey alone was an adventure - not to be missed - which afforded us maximum time to explore when we got there. No regrets and lots of dollars saved from same-old boring flights to spend on other travels.
Day One - Early Morning
We arrived at Bagan Bus Station at around 4:30 in the morning. The sky was still dark outside and, for the first time since arriving in Myanmar, we actually felt a chill. After shuffling off the bus and calling our hotel to send the driver over to pick us up we were on our way…That is until we pulled over to the side of the road because we had to pay the Bagan Archaeological Zone Tourist Fee, an actually exorbitant (for Myanmar) 25,000 kyat (US$18/€17) each. Considering we had never heard of it before we were lucky on two counts: 1) To have cell service so we could look it up and make sure we were not being taken for a ride, and 2) Enough local currency to pay for it. They should really get rid of these tourist fees or add them as a tax to the tourist activities because it puts a really bad taste in your mouth to have people badgering you for money when you have just arrived and are still half asleep. Plus most travel horror stories start with a taxi pulling over in the middle of the night in a place you have never been to before and random guys asking you to pay a fee you have never heard of. What if we had been out of cash?
Having dropped our bags at the hotel, too early for a room and still dark outside, we figured why not just go for a walk. We asked the hotel manager for a suggestion on where to go and then headed out in search of the Shwe Leik Too Temple for sunrise. There wasn’t much going on at this time besides the odd person stoking a fire at the side of the road sending plumes of smoke rising into the night sky, or setting up their eatery for the early morning crowd. We were propositioned by the occasional horse-drawn carriage driver, but after being on a bus for 8 hours we just wanted to stretch our legs. We walked and walked until we turned off the road as the sun was about to rise and there, before us, were literally hundreds of pagodas stretching out as far as the eye could see.
Having reached Shwe Leik Too, we saw some sandals outside but no evidence of life. We entered and walked around but could not find where all the owners of the sandals were until we looked up. Several people - mainly locals - were sitting on the roof above in silence, praying, meditating, contemplating. Quietly and respectfully, we ascended a tiny staircase, bent over double to fit through an archway made for twelfth-century humans, and sat under the stars in awe watching the sun slowly rise over one of the most magnificent and spiritual views we have ever experienced. Then, right after the sun, came the hot air balloons which, although an expensive tourist gig, held their own magnificence as they gently rose, one after the other, and drifted away in the gentle wind.
Emboldened by the warm rays of the sun, we continued our journey a couple more miles down to the Ayeyarwady River that separated Mandalay region, which Bagan is in, from Magway region. A bustling outdoor market selling all kinds of fruits, vegetables, and various foodstuffs was getting up and running, and the tourists - albeit most seemed to be from Myanmar itself - were arriving. With a long walk ahead, and before the sun got too high in the sky, it was time to beat a retreat to our modest but excellent small hotel.
Day One - Afternoon
We napped. After an amazing and very full morning of temple spotting, grabbing a quick bite at The Moon all-vegetarian, walking miles and really starting to feel the effects of an “all-nighter” on the bus, we slept. But just a little.
Day One - Evening
There are four ways to explore Bagan. You can walk. We had already done that in abundance and, while mostly healthy, your scope is limited. You can take one of the horse-drawn carriages. Touristy; likely overpriced; who knows where you will be taken (the driver’s uncle’s shop?). You can get pushbikes. Fun but tiring once the sun comes up and it gets hot. Or you can rent eBikes. For 20,000 Kyats (under US$15/€14) for two eBikes for 24 hours it was a no brainer.
What amazing fun. We were mobile. We got to ride around Bagan that evening, sampling the sights and smells, navigating through the hundreds of motorbikes, cars, people, and animals, feeling the wind in our hair as the day cooled off. We visited the Dhamazeddi Pagoda where loud music was playing out of speakers (but no evidence of more than a couple of people); we had our first dinner at a restaurant called Novel; and because we can sometimes be greedy (but remember we had walked mile after mile earlier in the day), we had our second dinner sitting outside at La Pizza on restaurant row (officially Thi Ri Pyitsaya 4 Street in Nyaung-U), keeping warm, as the temperature fell, next to the roadside brick oven that turned out some of the best pizza we have ever had outside of Italy itself. If you are craving good pizza on your travels to Bagan, this is the place to go.
Day Two - Morning
After a quick breakfast of eggs, toast and fresh fruit all included in our US$34 room rate at the very welcoming New Park Hotel, it was time to upgrade our transportation. You see, I had discovered by being left behind that one of the eBikes was much quicker than the other. In an effort not to be selfish and hold him up, I felt the need to upgrade my motor. So it was back to the eBike store, and an incredibly smiley and helpful owner immediately gave us his own without question. Talk about great customer service from the Tet Sein eBike Rental Service (conveniently just up, and on the same side of, the road from La Pizza).
Then, more temples, this time farther afield, lots more. Small ones, larger ones, avoiding in the main the most touristy ones, we toured around in the sun visiting literally deserted structures hundred of years old (yet someone maintained by at least someone with fresh flowers). Many were down dirt tracks; others vibrant places filled with locals and foreigners being sold modern day artefacts (and, sadly, tat). We could list the ones we visited but, to be honest, there is little point. One of the joys of Bagan - and this we suspect will last for a while due to their sheer quantity - is not having to visit the larger pagodas already filled with tourists, their guides, and merchandise from who knows where. With thousands to choose from, just get off the beaten track, explore and enjoy. The chances are that you will be on your own or just bumping into the odd local.
Day Two - Afternoon
Did I mention that we had one of the best pizzas ever in Bagan? Time to go back for more before our short visit came to an end. So back to La Pizza it was. A pizza each and then, just for good measure, a third to share instead of dessert. Shame on us, but to be fair, the alternative tourist-focused food on restaurant row, was no contest. We did learn our lesson though because, as the third pizza came out, a German tourist lost control of her eBike and came crashing into ours. No damage was done to her or the eBikes, but perhaps we should have left after the first round of pizzas.
With so little time and so much to explore, it was then back on the eBikes to get lost just a little more as we rode the long way around Nyaung-U, then took a dirt track to find all kinds of other temples. Now, sometimes the Gods are looking out for you, but here comes a warning. For it was not on one of the dirt tracks, but on a “main” road heading back towards our hotel road that Blair’s battery suddenly and unexpectedly died. What to do, but for him to push the eBike uphill and for me to follow? We still do not know how this happened, but after about 15 minutes our friendly, still smiling, Tet Sein eBike store owner suddenly appeared with a freshly charged bike that he handed over. Had someone seen us and called ahead to tell him? No idea, but we rode off, grateful. Then, not even five minutes later we passed a young couple pushing their shared eBike. Battery dead? Yes. Time to repay the favor. So Blair gave the girl a ride to their store in Old Bagan with me following, while her companion remained with the dead contraption awaiting her rescue once she has collected a fresh one. I am not sure why I was surprised given what had just happened, but then suddenly my battery died as I watched Blair and his passenger disappear off unaware into the distance. Oh well, I guess with hindsight, I should have known that “fuel” gauges, and in particular battery ones, lie when they get low. Luckily it wasn’t too far back to the store.
Day Two - Evening
So ended our 36 hours in Bagan. We arrived in the dark and we left in the dark the next day. Yet in between, it felt like we had covered a week’s worth of really positive experiences and adventures. Bagan is an amazing place - magical, mystical, beautiful. But something tells us that Bagan will lose some of its allure quickly now that tourism is opening up in earnest. While fourteen years ago it must have been even more fascinating for our friends, we are both so glad we made it there in early 2017. If you are planning a trip, go now. It likely won’t be quite as nice, or nearly as cheap, five years down the road
The Roaming Blog
From Europe to Asia. From cities to villages. From mansions to cottages. Follow us on our journey as we celebrate a new type of travel - House Sitting. Learn how to start you house sitting career, tips for making the most of your travel, and the tricks for being the best house sitter you can be.
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