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
It was with just a little trepidation that we set off from England for Normandy where our first official housesit would take place. All that stood between us and our destination was the English Channel , one Eurotunnel ride, and a few hundred kilometers of French country roads. While it was true that we had looked after other people's homes and pets before, they had been friends or family members that we already knew well. This time, we were walking - well rather driving - into something sight unseen.
We were excited though. We were heading to France. Being July it was the height of summer. We had already met one of homeowners on Skype a few weeks earlier. She was funny and charming and seemed to be as excited and nervous as us about the whole thing. The house in the photos looked wonderful. The sun was shining. We were off on an adventure. Not our first adventure of course, we have done quite a bit of International travel in the past, but a flavor nonetheless new.
You see we are an Anglo-American couple. The Anglo being me, Nicolo. Well, in case you are wondering about the name, half English through my father and half Italian through my mother. The all-American being Blair, my husband. We have travelled in our spare time for years. We’ve been to the deserts of Mexico, the cities of India, the canals of Amsterdam, the beaches of Australia. Now life has led us to a place where we are both free from the constraints of the 9-to-5 to explore the world as we see fit, and as luck would have it, a relative introduced us to the world of house sitting at the same time.
So that’s how we ended up on this adventure, but how would it go? Would people really be so willing to hand over the keys to their home and the care of their pets to people they had only met online? As we drove down the narrow, curving country roads on the final stretch we acknowledged the beauty of this part of northern France with its timber framed 'Colombage' style houses and rolling countryside. Then, as we left the road and went down a long driveway, the house came into sight. And it wasn’t a disappointment. The photos we had seen were not “real estate agent” photoshopped, in fact, they didn’t really do it justice. We were not prepared for this beautiful house in a charming, tranquil setting.
One by one we met the fantastic family of four who made us feel so welcome and at home. I’m not saying we were expecting them to line up and announce themselves like the Von Trapp children, but we were quite surprised and relieved by how casual the whole affair was. As with any home with two teenage boys, there was a certain amount of excitement and energy. You see, they were off the next morning to check out universities in England and everyone was trying to make sure everything was ready. Despite all of this going on they found time as a family to prepare a delicious meal of grilled local fish to share while we got to know them and, even more importantly, as we met Bubbles the dog, who we would be sharing our lives with for the next week and a half.
We had been warned Bubbles could be a little temperamental with new people. She was a little uneasy with us at first, as you would be too if two tall strangers showed up one day and took the place of your loving people. But a few feedings later and she was as happy as a dog could be. Whether darting around the large garden after her toy rabbit, going for long walks to buy amazing fresh baguettes, or snuggling up next to us on the sofa, she was an absolute delight. Bubbles is the kind of dog we all crave. Energetic when outside, calm when inside, and privately undertaking her “other business” hidden from humans in the bushes and woods at the edge of the garden so we never had to pick up after her. In fact, you couldn’t. She would disappear for a minute or two each day and come back relieved and ready for play.
We bonded. Within a couple of days my “little helper” followed me everywhere. If we went outside for a glass of the famous (and delicious) local cider, she would follow. When we sat on the sofa to watch television or read a book in the evening, she would join us. When we went to bed, she would climb the stairs with us then settle into her bed next door and sleep all night (except on the one occasion when she very kindly (and very thankfully) woke me to say “I need to pee desperately”). When we went to the bathroom…. okay, well she didn’t follow there. The only thing she didn’t like? Wearing a harness. She was happy to let you know that putting the leash on her collar would be just fine, thank you very much.
What a joy this first house sit turned out to be. We were able to see and experience so much during our time. The Normandy American Cemetery, for a day of reflection. A journey along The Cider Route where we found the most delicious pear cider (and bought 18 bottles of it). The market at Honfleur with its sounds and colors! We could have stayed on for weeks more. We were actually a little sad when the host family came back. And it’s not because we were not looking forward to seeing them all again, we just knew that we would miss our new home and our new furry friend. And that, it has to be said, is the only small downside of house and pet sitting. You become a foster parent. You bond. You quickly settle into a life and don’t want to say goodbye so soon. But like most feelings the sadness passed while we spent the evening sharing our respective French and English experiences over wine and food. As we jumped in the car the next day I looked back in the mirror and spotted Bubbles with her permanent family waving us goodbye and for a moment I had to reflect on the experience that seems to have gone by in an instant and but changed so much about our lives from there on out. Still, we just knew we would see her again one day, for we bonded not just with her, but with the whole family. But mostly we knew this because they asked us if we would sit for them again the next summer in France! The only thing to say to that is “Yes!”
So forget sadness, after having such a great time in France, we were ready to see if this experience was a fluke or if this house sitting thing was really as good as it seems. We pointed the car in the direction of Austria. Our next adventure was about to begin.
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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