A Tale Of Two Continents
If you have followed our blog posts to date you will know already that we do crazy travel things. Sometimes these are driven by cost considerations; at other times by committing to different trips at different points in our schedule. The worst was seven flights to get us from London to Yangon at the end of 2016. This time it wasn’t quite so bad with only five flights to get us from Singapore to Turkey. Are we learning?
For the first part of this latest trip, we were headed to a semi-rural location outside of Fethiye to look after a dog called Opus while his owners were away. We had heard that Turkey’s Opal Coast is beautiful but had no appreciation of what we would find as we landed at Dalaman airport and drove along the coastline towards our destination. For the next week, we would enjoy living in an extremely comfortable house up in the hills overlooking the most beautiful scenery. We had everything set up perfectly for a relaxing yet fulfilling trip. Up the road, even walkable with Opus, was a small local town with everything we needed from a choice of multiple restaurants and bars, a bakery, small supermarket, to even a couple of barber shops.
Just one word of advice if, as a man and just as I did, you ever need to get a haircut in Turkey. Don’t be nervous when a big wax candle is lit and then slapped intermittently with the barber’s hand across your cheeks and ears. It’s actually quite an efficient way of burning off any residual hair and not some weird ritual that will leave you going up in flames. What great entertainment at just 10 Turkish Lira (under 3 US Dollars or Euros), lira for a haircut and fire show literally right in front of my eyes.
The amusing ordeal over, only 20 minutes drive down towards the coastline is a pretty much deserted beach called Akmaz. As well as great views it houses a beach restaurant serving the best Turkish breakfast. Our hosts had taken us there on our first morning before they left and subsequently going back there became an almost daily ritual. We had the valid excuse that Opus could exercise by running along the beach, but also we could not resist the feast. It seemed, too, that our small-framed German Shepherd rescue had already seduced the restaurant owners who would bring his morning snack along with our meal. After breakfast, more beach exercise for dog and humans alike. Then in the afternoons so many options: relaxing by the pool, reading, sightseeing (see below), walking in the woods, playing with Opus - life couldn’t have been much better for this relatively short stay one week stay.
There’s plenty in this area to keep a visitor busy and happy. Fethiye itself is a bustling town, with markets, multiple bars and restaurants, a waterfront, and all the other amenities you might expect of a place this size. The views out to the sea here are beautiful, but become magnificent when you head down the coast. Parts of the road are pretty elevated; they look out over a bright blue expanse of water with small islands scattered here and there. At other times you find yourself inland passing through pastures and woodland with green scenery all around you. We really enjoyed driving this route and, after about ninety minutes from Fethiye, we got to Kaş, a town that is over 1,600 years old. The Romans were here, the Greeks too, and now the Turks have reclaimed and enjoy this small and pretty waterfront town. Interestingly, as you look out to sea while sipping on a cocktail, right there in front of you just one mile away is the Greek island of Kastellorizo. Why, you ask yourself? Well, up until the Paris Peace Treaties of 1947, this and many other islands with predominantly Greek populations had been annexed by Italy and then occupied by Allied forces during WW2. After that, Greece managed to get it back despite its proximity to the Turkish mainland. There is so much history and also territorial conquests and change that have taken place in this region over the centuries - too much to even start to explain in this blog.
The Greeks did not have it all their own way though. They were less fortunate at Kayaköy. On another day we visited this deserted ghost village just five miles south of Fethiye on the mainland. It’s just a little eerie and remains almost exactly as it was left when finally abandoned in 1922 by its Greek population. Then there was our trip to Ölüdeniz, a small beach town just 30 minutes from Fethiye to eat, drink and watch more active folks paragliding from up high down onto the golden sands of the crescent shaped beach right in front of our eyes.
We were checking off daily the list of recommended places our homeowners had provided us, and a good selection it was to gain an appreciation of this part of the world. If you want beautiful scenery from snow capped mountains in the background to golden beaches along the coast and bright blue water beyond, this part of Turkey is definitely worth a visit. But after a little over a week that left us wanting to return some day in the future, it was time to head to Europe next, and to that great and grand former capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. We were off to Istanbul to truly sample one city straddling two continents.
If you go to Istanbul you have to visit the Sultan Ahmed Mosque often referred to as the Blue Mosque, built by Ahmed I at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Just avoid prayer times (unless going to pray, of course). Right next door is the beautiful Topkapi Palace and Museum. It was constructed after the fall of Constantinople in the fifteenth century as the main residence of the new rulers, the Ottoman sultans. From there you can walk down to the waterfront and cross the Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn, then wander along to Taksim Square. It is often thought of by locals as the center of the city, a place for celebration but also where various riots and protests have taken place over the years. Here you will find the Monument of the Republic built to commemorate and symbolize the beginning of the modern Turkish state in 1923.
With magnificent mosques, their minarets pronouncing prayers throughout the day, lining both banks of the Bosphorus, the views of Istanbul from the ferry crossing from Europe to Asia and back again are spectacular. The European side seems more touristy with its famous palaces, mosques and other monuments, not to mention tourists themselves from all parts of the world. The Asian side gives the impression of being younger, more lively, more hip, more local. Next time we visit Istanbul - and we will - we should stay on this side of town and enjoy the local restaurants, bars, cafés and generally buzzing vibe.
Don’t forget to visit a local hammam for another of those seemingly torturous experiences that turn out to be great. With two strong, fat, hairy, toweled Turk men ready to scrub us clean on a marble slab that looked like an executioner’s table, I was lying there wondering which would be preferable: being beaten to death here, or burned alive at the barber shop back on the Opal Coast. As it turned out, I had never felt better when emerging again into the daylight of Asian Istanbul after my first Turkish hammam experience. It was time for a balık ekmek, the local fish sandwich available from any number of street vendors or stalls along either bank of the Bosphorus. Sorry McDonald’s, but it's got your Filet-O-Fish 1,000% beat.
And so came to an end our two weeks in Turkey. From dog sitting Opus the German Shepherd in a beautiful rural hillside location just minutes from the coast with the sun shining all day, to charging around one of the world’s largest and greatest cities with clouds and just a bit of rain, Turkey exceeded all our expectations. It left us yearning for more as got ready to head back to Singapore - via London, of course, just to add more flights - so that we could resume our Southeast Asia tour, the first chapter of which you can read about in our earlier Singapore blog post.
An island, city, and country all rolled into one. Singapore manages to pack all the features of a much larger country into just 277 square miles (719 square kilometers). Its reputation as an excellent travel and living destination is completely warranted. There is plenty to do on this little isle - countless museums, world-renowned resorts, numerous nature reserves and parks, beaches, theme parks, zoos, and world-class dining. Plus visiting is made easier because it has one of the world’s busiest and best airports and extensive, modern transit system.
Singapore’s reputation for being a strict and straightlaced country might turn some people off from visiting, but I think it’s been a bit exaggerated, and that this country is really a “can’t miss”. Singapore is a crossroad of eastern and western culture done right.
People also tend to get into their heads that Singapore is very expensive, and its listing as the world’s most expensive city doesn’t help. But this is mainly for people planning to live there as housing costs are sky-high. Yes, the country is a lot more expensive than other Southeast Asian Countries like Vietnam or Thailand, but you can still find great deals on food, clothing, and shopping and there are a lot of completely free things to do if you are trying to save money (just don’t try to buy a beer in a restaurant). So here is our Singapore guide broken down by your ideal budget level.
Backpacker / Thrifty
Singapore offers plenty for the thrifty traveler. For people from countries in the EU or places like Australia and the US, you will find the prices at the same level or even slightly cheaper than at home. So if you plan on visiting, budget accordingly. There are plenty of hostels in Singapore and while you won’t get a bed for $5/night like in other places, you still won’t break the budget either. Popular places are Beary Best! or Wink hostels. Another good option is a pod hotel if you’re not planning to spend your downtime indoors.
Getting around Singapore is so easy and surprisingly cheap even compared to places like Bangkok. The MRT system spans the island mostly by subway, but to some locations further out you will need a bus. Busses and trains come very often and the whole system is distance based so if you transfer from subway to bus you won’t be hit twice. You can even go all the way from and to the Airport making arrival and departure easy.
Your best food options will be the numerous hawker centers that dot the city. A Hawker center is basically a group of food stalls all combined under one big roof. They normally have a variety of cuisines and all the stalls are licensed and hygienic so you don’t have to worry. You can get almost anything your heart desires and for under S$5 you will walk away full. They often have cheaper beer here on par with the prices in the convenience stores or supermarkets. Most centers have at least one dedicated vegetarian stall so even if communication is tricky you can just ask them to pile up whatever’s is behind the counter without worry. You can also find stalls for other special diets too. The Telok Ayer Market Center downtown is a busy hawker center and has some unique options.
Your entertainment need not be a drain; in fact, the city has multiple options for free things to do throughout the day. Gardens By The Bay is a 101 hectare garden set in the center of the city, but it is so much more than that with numerous exhibits laid out amongst the beautiful plants. The main attraction for many people is the free nightly light and music show which brings out large crowds who find a space in the Supertree Grove to sprawl out and watch. There is also a hawker center located in the depths of the park for when you are hungry after the show. Continuing our garden theme, the Singapore Botanic Gardens is a must-do! It’s beautifully laid out, large, and admission is free. It’s a great way to spend an afternoon, if you want to see the National Orchid Garden, the Orchid being Singapore’s national flower, it’s just a S$5 admission.
While on the West Coast if you’re looking for something a little more off-beat you should visit Haw Par Villa. The villa was built by the Tiger Balm family fortune and can not easily be described, it just has to be seen. There are numerous life-size sculptures dedicated to Chinese morality, folklore, mythology, and many other scary/interesting/obscure things. If you don’t have lots of time to visit just hit the “10 Courts of Hell” a tunnel which has dioramas depicting the punishments that await sinners in hell (personally my favorite is the “Hill of Knives”). Just maybe leave the children outside for this one.
Surprisingly for a country that is almost completely urban, it’s the green spaces and parks that are the best attractions. The many many parks, are impeccably kept and are some of the best in the world. West Coast Park, appropriately named for its location on the West Coast, is one of the great ones. Its 50 hectares contain numerous walking trails, bbq pits, camping plots, a jungle walk, and a great view of the coastal ports. We stayed on the West Coast overlooking the park while house sitting and spent many hours here walking Pablo And Blake up and down the paths to the huge dog run at the south end of the park.
If you need some beach time Singapore is a little lacking but you can still find a nice man-made beach on the east coast. East Coast Park is the largest park in Singapore and in addition to its man-made beach it has a famous seafood center (the best place for Chili Crab), skatepark, and camping areas.
Mid-level / Flashpacker
For travelers a little less concerned about cost but who still want to get the most for their money, Singapore is a perfect stop. In addition to everything we mentioned in the Backpacker/Thrifty section, which you should visit no matter what your budget, there are some more options if you have a little more cash to spend.
The Singapore Zoo is a place to see exhibits of exotic species in gorgeous green setting. Prepare for a long hot day as you need a long visit to truly experience it. Don’t skip any of the shows, even if you think you won’t like them, as they are very well done. Most importantly the animals look happy and healthy which is always nice to see. The zoo compound also has two other parks, the River Safari and Night Safari. They are under separate tickets but absolutely worth the price of admission as they expand on the exhibits of the Zoo but also offer their own specialties. For shopping needs try the markets in Chinatown (souvenir central) or the shops of Arab Street (pashminas and rugs abound). In Chinatown, the temples are normally packed with tourists but the most popular is the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple which is exactly what it sounds like. Near Arab Street, take a guided tour around the Sultan Mosque and for an interesting lunch try the Deer Murtabak at Singapore Zam Zam. It’s a culinary treat you can only find in Singapore.
After a long day out hit Holland Village. Self-described as “Singapore’s Bohemian Enclave”, it is the place to be for dining and drinking. A mix of visitors and locals crowd the bars that stretch out into the street and chow down at the hawker center. For some really good ice cream cross under the road and get a cone at Sunday Folks.
If Holland Village is too far out for you, then you can always hit Clarke Quay just north of Chinatown. On the banks of the Singapore River, this place explodes with crowds at night shuffling in and out of dance clubs, karaoke bars, and restaurants. The price of alcohol might throw you for a loop, but even if you just enjoy the river view and people watching it’s a good time.
If you are ready to splurge then there is no better place to do it than Singapore. With a mall on every corner (sometimes two) you will find plenty of places to spend your hard earned dollars.
For your lodging, Singapore has got you covered. The hotels here are top notch and not to be missed. The famous Raffles Hotel is the haunt of writers and celebrities (Ava Gardner, Rudyard Kipling, Noel Coward, John Wayne to name a few) and you can stay just like them in their eponymous suites. The Fullerton Hotel in the historical Fullerton Building offers travelers design, comfort, and location all in one. But the most recently built and well-known hotel is, of course, the Marina Bay Sands which contains in its grounds an opulent shopping mall, glitzy casino, bars and dining establishments, and a magnificent rooftop infinity pool. Exclusivity is the name of the game at Marina Bay Sands. The Conrad Centennial is highly rated 5-star hotel that won’t leave you completely bankrupt. It’s luxurious, but not obscene, and offers a great breakfast buffet, quick access to shops, and if you’re lucky, the best view of the Fountain of Wealth. The hotel is under the Hilton banner so great for those wanting to use or collect Hilton Hhonors points.
Get lost in shopping heaven as malls intertwine in Downtown Singapore. Whether it’s Raffles Place, Bugis, Suntec, or the numerous malls and shops on Orchard Road you should have no trouble finding your favorite branded stores next to boutique shops, fun restaurants, and even the occasional movie theater. Large, bright, clean, and excessively air conditioned, Singapore does malls right.
If you’re looking more to relax and have fun with the family then head to Sentosa Island. Sentosa is a man-made and reclaimed island off of Singapore whose raison d'être is entertainment and fun. When you think Sentosa think sun, sand, golf, theme parks, and attractions for people of all ages. Whether you stay at Resorts World or the Shangri-La Rasa Sentosa Resort you will find world class amenities and dining. The breakfast buffet at the Silver Shell Cafe is a particular treat. Take a spin around the Island on the shuttles, and for a really great day pick up tickets to Universal Studios. A compact but quality theme park which has some classic Universal attractions (think The Mummy) along with some original rides exclusive to the park.
For some of the best of Singapore’s hometown dish, Chili Crab, visit Momma Kong’s where you can even get the crab shelled for you (for a small fee) to cut out all the hard work. Get what is possibly the world’s cheapest Michelin star meal at the Liao Fan hawker stall. Chicken Rice, another Singapore special, is the only thing on the menu you need to worry about. And at just a few S$ a plate it can’t be beaten. If you’d prefer comfort, speed, and air conditioning they now also have a brick and mortar restaurant you can visit just a few minutes away. The dishes cost a little bit more, and they technically don’t have that coveted star, so maybe stick to the original if you want a good story to tell.
This is really just the beginning of the list of everything Singapore has to offer but hopefully, from these suggestions, travelers of all styles and budgets will find something to enjoy in Singapore.
Romping Around Ronda
Once in a while, while the proverbial cat’s away, we, the pets, like to come out to play. And that’s what we have done here. We have taken over the blog - just for now - to have some fun while our family is away having their own on vacation. By way of background, we are a happy and settled menagerie of three - two cats and a dog - living in the foothills just outside of the historic town of Ronda. For those of you who don’t know the area, it is located in Spain’s southern region of Andalusia offering visitors majestic mountain views and, just over an hour south of us by car, a sunny and inviting coastline. Most of the time it’s really busy here as we have to share our home with two adults and their two boys, and often it gets even busier with multiple guests enjoying their vacation rentals while staying either on the top floor of our main house or in the adjacent cottage by the pool. Occasionally, we get just a little more tranquility. That happened recently when they all went away for three weeks at the end of winter and left us with The Roaming Sitters. While those two gave us lots of attention, there were times when they would sneak off for a few hours here or there to sample some of the local sights and fare. They would then return boasting of beautiful places they had visited and food, beers, and wine they had consumed. It made us just a little jealous. Why couldn’t we sample some local fare for ourselves? So we decided to get online and see what we could find. Check out our profiles, and let us know what you think and whether you want to pay us a visit someday soon.
Hello, my name is Kismet. My ancestry is German, or so I am told, but I see myself as all Spanish. Alas, a lady does not reveal her age so let’s just say that I look great for mine - as you can see from my picture on here - and I am young at heart. I can be very shy when I first meet people but once I get to know you and feel comfortable being around you I will most likely become very affectionate. I like to go on long walks come rain or shine. Each day I love to charge up, along and down the hills that surround my home. I do have a habit of walking on ahead as I get bored and sometimes excited at the various distractions, but I never venture too far unless sheep are involved. I particularly like stopping at my favorite watering hole on the final stretch home, the Hotel Molino del Puente. It’s an old mill house converted into a really nice hotel, and the British owners are warm and welcoming. I have been told that the food is great and that the place is worth visiting even if you go there just to eat and don’t need a place to crash (because remember, you can perhaps come back to mine). I normally just enjoy a drink there before heading back, and then often have a quick dip in the stream close to home to freshen up. Once back I can just relax and enjoy sneaking onto the sofa while you are not looking waiting for you. I am very easy going overall and am sure you will like getting to know me, spending time with me, and, when I lie on my back legs in the air, rubbing my tummy and whispering sweet things in my ears.
Hi there, Dorito here. I am the new boy in town. I have a very friendly personality that I hope you will instantly to warm to. I am young, good looking, youthfully cheeky, at times mischievous and, so I was told by The Roaming Sitters, just a tad irresistible. If, because of my boundless energy, I ever get a little exhausting when you just want to relax, forgive me as the remainder of the time I will shower you with loving attention and charm. I adore being touched all over and even tickled in all the right places. I also like playing games including hide and seek - either with myself or various objects you might leave lying around. While this could drive you mad at times, remember it’s just a game and that when you look in my eyes as I snuggle up to you, you’ll not be able to resist loving me even more. Unlike my housemate Kismet, I do not venture too far from home. I am more interested in tearing around the pool or sunbathing on the roof, though very occasionally I get stuck up there and will need rescuing by you. As I still enjoy a youthfully fast metabolism, I love mealtimes, but that comes with risks. My insatiable enthusiasm while food is being prepared has left me vulnerable to being injured. One of these days I will get stepped on or kicked accidentally and it will hurt. Luckily it’s never happened in a serious manner, but I should really learn to be a little calmer at dinner time. Come night though, I will just want to cuddle up next to you, or, better still, lie on top of you. Then, when the sun rises in the morning, I will make sure I wake you up so we can play some more.
I’m Lilly, but some call me Other. When you first meet me you might accuse me of coming across as a little disgruntled, but you would be wrong. I am really just content within myself and with life in general which has been good to me. I accept that the energetic redhead just trying to entice you showed up not that long ago and that now there’s a younger model in town stealing people’s attention. That fine, though, as I am at a stage in life where I like a calm existence even if it risks showing me as a bit of a loner these days. Don’t get me wrong, I am friendly, but while the kids play outside in the sun, I am happy to come in and take a nap on my chair. Being somewhat more mature now, I don’t like being touched quite as much as the young ones do, but I will be both happy and grateful for the attention you give me. After supper, I tend to go for a stroll and then settle in for the night. The nice family I live with, perhaps anticipating that one day I would settle down a bit more, built me a lovely cottage in the grounds. They provide holiday lets there but keep the attic of the perhaps aptly named Casa Abuela (Grandma’s House) available for me. It's really cozy in winter as the boiler is up there and keeps me nice and snug at night, though perhaps you would like to take its place while you’re in town.
So that’s what we have to offer you, our prospective suitors. As we don’t travel away from home, you will have to come visit us at Finca Retama. It’s really beautiful around here as you can see from the pictures, and each of us will make you very welcome in our own way. You can just lounge by the pool, eating, drinking and enjoying our collective company. When tired of that, you can venture out on great walks past olive groves, farms, sheep with their shepherds, and soak up the beautiful scenery. And, if and when you get itchy feet, there is a multitude of other places to visit while we take a nap or just fool around among ourselves.
First of all, just minutes up the road by car, you will find Ronda. This historic town is ancient. It’s been around for almost thirty centuries - yes, you read right “30” centuries - and is one of Spain’s oldest urban areas. With its famous bullring, Ronda is built atop the deep El Tajo gorge. The views, stretching out for miles, are spectacular. As you walk through the narrow streets of the old town and take in the beauty of this part of southern Spain, you can stop for delicious tapas or more extensive meals washed down with local wines or beers. You can walk around the Old Town with its cobbled streets and whitewashed houses and just enjoy that sense of the history of Old Spain. Ronda is a must if you find yourself in this part of Andalusia.
If you have time, there are so many other great places to visit further afield that are easily reached as a day trip. For instance, you can head down to the coast, cooler in summer and likely warmer and sunnier in winter. One day The Roaming Sitters took a trip down to Marbella and walked along the promenade before enjoying a great seafood lunch looking out across the Mediterranean. After lunch, they took a drive along the coast with all its beaches and views from certain points right across to north Africa.
Another day they went to Seville, the regional capital and a much bigger version of Ronda. With another famous bullring, it is full of history, beautiful architecture, streets and squares full of orange-bearing trees, delicious food everywhere, and just a lively, happy atmosphere. Worth visiting there is the Alcázar castle with its Moorish influence; also the Gothic cathedral in which Christopher Columbus is buried, and its Giralda, the former Islamic minaret turned into a beautiful bell tower.
Then there was the day they headed south again but this time to Gibraltar, that big rock that the British pinched in 1713 and that is today home to 30,000 people. As there is no sales tax there, they meant to do some shopping for us but selfishly forgot and ended up checking out the monkeys who have also colonized The Rock, and, no surprises here if you’ve read some of their earlier blogs, scoffing down fish and chips with insufficiently chilled English beer. Shame on them resorting to that foreign muck when all this wonderful Spanish fare is right here on the doorstep.
There are so many other places they could, and probably should, have visited had time permitted. If you head east from here in Ronda, just under two and a half hours away you will find Granada with its Moorish-inspired Alhambra. Head north for a similar amount of driving time and you will hit Cordoba, a former Roman and later Islamic center of note. There you can visit the famous La Mezquita mosque from the eighth century later converted into a Christian church. If you want to go west just over 90 minutes you will hit Jerez with its Moorish fortress. Today it is perhaps best known as the center for Sherry production and trade, and for its famous horses and their Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art and, perhaps most notably, for Flamenco dancing. After all, this is where it all started.
Come visit. We will be waiting.
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.
As 2017 starts up, it is inevitable that we would contemplate how life has changed this past year. It’s a clear, sunny day - about 30ºC (86ºF) - at lunchtime here in a leafy residential quarter of Yangon in Myanmar (Burma). We are looking after Bubbles, who we met on our very first house sit in Normandy in France only 6 months ago. For that is where our story of house and pet sitting really starts, and what an unpredictable adventure it has been ever since. If you had asked us a year ago what we would be doing now, or where we would be, never in our wildest dreams would we have contemplated this. So to say goodbye to 2016 we have compiled a list of our favorite moments, best meals, and the most stunning locations we have experienced. Without further ado here are our 12 Best and Most Pleasantly Surprising (and 6 Not So Great) Travel and House Sitting Moments of 2016 in no particular order.
-Blair and Nicolo
Normandy American Cemetery
We of course expected to be moved by the experience at the Normandy American Cemetery and Omaha Beach, but it was more than that. Being halfway across the world and seeing all the graves lined up really put things in perspective. It’s stunning in its sadness, and yet there is something beautiful about the memorial to so many who died protecting our world and our freedoms. It was the least we could do to take time out of our trip to honor the dead. The exhibit is extensive and you should plan on spending a few hours here to take in everything.
Nestled in the far northwest of England lies the (very) small town of Silloth in Cumbria. For years I had driven up the M6 motorway from the south to north of England and on into Scotland. What a shame I had never known to divert west 30 minutes to the coastline. It’s beautiful. And right in the middle of town is the large Silloth Green filled in winter with dogs and their walkers, in summer I am sure with a mass of people enjoying the beautiful scenery, Victorian designs and Silloth Music and Beer Festival. - N.
Eagle’s Nest (Kehlsteinhaus)
As history buffs, we would have never forgiven ourselves if we had skipped this stop on our way to Austria from France. There is a strange disparity being here as the stunning views of Austria and Germany are not to be missed while at the same time the history is almost startling when you think about what was and what could have been - especially after having visited the Normandy beaches and war memorials just a few weeks before - The bus ride to the top is gorgeous but also thrilling. And if you’re feeling adventurous you can walk all the way down to the bottom, which we did. You can also walk all the way up, but, no thank you because it is a giant hill.
Fish and Chips
If there are two people who have tried harder to survive on more than solely Fish and Chips please comment below and bring us out of our shame. Also if there is prize money for the award for most Fish and Chips eaten in one year we happily accept checks. It’s gotten so bad we now do post-mortems after each fish and chip meal and keep running reviews and rankings. We just can’t resist the deep fried goodness. So we have to shout-out or favorites of the year. Riley’s Fish Bar, a family-owned shop on the coast in Blackhall Colliery, Durham, for having humongous portions and for restarting up the fryer after closing once you saw the four sad hungry faces outside your window. And just down the road in Blackhall Rocks, Cod on the Rocks, for having very friendly staff, and for being the perfect meal for four people who had just traveled a very long way to get home. The Angel Inn in Grosmont, Monouthshire, Wales, for having Fish Thursdays instead of Fridays and for the food and atmosphere in this charming pub being perfect. The Fountain Head in Branscombe, Devon, for providing the perfect accompaniments to the excellent main dish: real ale and the best platter of local cheeses for the ultimate cholesterol booster. The King’s Road Fish Bar in St Leonards, East Sussex for being the perfect snack to take to the beach. The Pheasant Inn for being a surprise find near London Heathrow Airport with an expansive menu, quick service, so many drink options, exceptional portion sizes, and great fish and chips.
La Route du Cidre is definitely worth it if you are visiting Normandy. You can take one day to visit, but that won’t be enough time to really tour all the facilities and really take advantage of the route (ahem, taste all the cider!). The scenery, the people, and the alcohol pretty much make a perfect day! The setting is perfect for sampling the local cider, calvados, pommeau, and cheeses. Just be careful because they are very generous with the samples. If you can arrange a driver, do so, otherwise someone is going to have to DD and trust the others to pick good bottles to bring home. Our favorite was the Poiré, also known as Perry or Pear Cider, from Manoir du Grandouet. This place was really beautiful, with an informative tour of the press, caves, and farm. Also, they weren’t judgy at all when we bought 18 bottles to take with us on our travels.
Nissan, why don’t you make this anymore? If I had known how awesome it is, despite how ugly it is, I definitely would have bought one! Left to us by one of the homeowners we were housesitting for in California, this big-little car was perfect for getting around. With headroom for two 6’5” giants like us, and cargo space plus room for pets, it was absolutely perfect. Comfortable, good mileage - I’m totally a convert now. I heard they still sell them in Japan; anyone know a good exporter? - B.
Because we haven’t talked about food enough, we have to mention the Bijou Bistro restaurant in Leith, Edinburgh, Scotland. For a birthday breakfast, this was great. The proprietor is completely mad but it just adds to the fun. We ate way more than necessary but still not enough off this really good menu.
Turkish Airlines Lounge in Istanbul
It’s very rare that I’ve ever wanted to stay in the airport rather than get on my next flight, but this is one of those times we would have been happy for a delay. Set across two floors, The Turkish Airlines CIP Lounge at Ataturk Airport is travel paradise. Just leave your stuff in the private electronic lockers and let loose. You can continually stuff your face on the buffet of different types of food being freshly prepared for you by the chefs. Lounge in front of the multitude of video screens, or pass the time playing the video games made available to you. It’s exactly what you imagine being an adult will be like when you are a kid but better because there is alcohol! - B.
The Ewyas Harold Common
One of our nicest surprises of touring and sitting England the last few months was discovering the county of Herefordshire (not to be confused with Hertfordshire just north of London). The mainly rural county runs along the southwest border with Wales. It’s beautiful, with narrow country roads and hillsides stretching for miles. Nothing exemplifies this more, though than the huge 125-acre area of common land featuring wild roaming ponies, fields of ferns, woodland, and fresh blackberries and damsons to eat there or take home to make jam and lies with at the time of year we visited. We often spent hours here each day watching our canine charge around and never tire, as we never did of the views.
National Trust Properties
I grew up, lived and worked in England before moving to the US almost two decades ago. Being back for several weeks this year made me experience again the rich history and beautiful landscapes that this island offers visitors and inhabitants alike. One of the great organizations that protects this for future generations is The National Trust While staying in the Cotswolds, in particular, we were within reach of a multitude of National Trust properties that I was able to visit - ranging from the village of Bibury with its seventeenth century weavers cottages and water meadow to Great Chalfield Manor, a fifteenth century medieval manor house, and Lacock Abbey, an 800-year-old country house with monastic roots, to name just a few. - N.
Edinburgh Fringe Festival
We could not have been luckier than to be scheduled for a house sit in Edinburgh while the Fringe Festival was taking place. People pay hundreds of dollars for what little accommodation is available and we had a place to stay for free! As first-time festival attendee I were overwhelmed with options but somehow managed to see 12 shows over one weekend. From The Lady Boys of Bangkok to a bilingual English/Welsh production of A Good Clean Heart, it was an unforgettable experience. - B.
The City of Bath, which lies about 115 miles directly west of London, is a gem dating back almost a thousand years. Established originally by the Romans during their occupation of Britain as a thermal spa resort, it became hugely fashionable once again in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with its stunning Georgian architecture later added to by the Victorians who would go there to “take the waters”. Nothing exemplifies this better than The Royal Crescent, a row of 30 Georgian townhouses with Royal Victoria Park in front of it. Today, Bath retains almost all of its heritage and architectural beauty despite being a bustling city and smaller sister to nearby Bristol. Well worth a visit for a day.
Google - Hallstatt, Austria...stunning right? You have now experienced everything you need to about Hallstatt. This town that looks so beautiful in photos did not live up to the hype and felt more like a cheap roadside attraction in person. First, you have to struggle to find parking, then you pass the bus loop where loads of tourist are getting off and immediately snapping photos. After that, you stroll past the stands selling expensive pretzels, soap, and trinkets. A few duck boat peddlers and random kitsch here and there line the cobblestone streets and that’s about it. Other than one square there is really nothing interesting to look at. It’s boring, overpriced, and lame. If it wasn’t for our walk around the lake to get to the town (trying to avoid the crazy parking lots) the day would have been a complete waste.
Instead - skip going into town and have a picnic on the other side of the lake or camp in the area. Take a nice train ride from Bad Ischl. Visit some of the other lake towns in Austria like St. Wolfsburg.
I empathize with ABBA. I was definitely sick and tired of everything when I woke up the next morning in Glasgow. This city can really do a number on you. There are a number of popular bars and restaurants of which we were taking to three (or was it four) of in one night. The Karaoke at the Horseshoe Bar was definitely top notch, but most memories after that get fuzzy. There were magic tricks, deep-fried pizza, and lots of stumbling down the streets speaking too loudly. Enjoy the city, and pace yourself, but also maybe not. - B.
I have to be honest. I do not eat popcorn very often, and typically only at the movies. But I was hot and tired and feeling hungry towards the tail end of this day, having walked several miles through hot, bustling Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. When you’re still far from “home”, this is the perfect recipe for going to a Malaysian movie theater. They are inexpensive, modern, with large comfortable soft seating, A/C cranked up high (actually too high if you are just in shorts and a T-shirt), and, as with most cinemas, you can buy snacks on the way in. Not being a meat eater, and not knowing what many of the food items contained, I decided I would just have to do with popcorn. So I got in line and waited my turn to get to the front of the queue. Imagine my horror then when I was told that the regular popcorn had run out, but the featured variant - chicken flavor - was all that was left. Chicken flavor popcorn? Really? What next? - N.
Smog Season - Sounds like a bad B-movie but no, this is how Malaysians describe the period when the air is thick with haze and fog that gets irritates the eyes, nose, and throat. Said to be caused by illegal slash and burn land clearing practices taken by corporations in Indonesia, it’s a real pain. If it wasn’t for the huge storm we were lucky to get that cleared this out we might have been unable to leave the house for the duration of our trip to Malaysia.
This, of course, is not a surprise to anyone, but having spent so much time in the UK this year it has become sort of a running joke. Britain, your weather sucks, you need to do something about this. - B.
What were your favorite (or least favorite) moments from 2016? What are you excited for in 2017? Comment below.
Photograph of Nissan Cube by IFCAR (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Photograph of Royal Crescent by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
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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