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.
The last few months of 2016 have seen us spend quite a bit of time in England. Not only did we have an opportunity to visit family and friends but we also took on four separate house sitting assignments across the country.
Situated in a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), we could not have snapped a prettier or more quintessentially English countryside scene than what we discovered in Branscombe. We found ourselves in this tiny hamlet of just a few houses, in a beautiful thatched cottage, looking out across steep rolling hills leading down to the coastline and the sea. And it was really unfortunate that the sit was only 3 days long. We were in earthly heaven.
As planned, we arrived to be greeted only by Snoops.This Persian looked us up and down - we were not sure at the time whether approvingly or disapprovingly - and then seemingly allowing our presence continued about her day as usual. Snoops would prove to be a very independent, undemanding feline whose principal requests were a tin of cat food and to be let out to sit on her throne in the front garden and rule over her domain stretching to the Jurassic Coast down below.
We made the most of our three days by exploring the area as much as we could. Directly below the cottage we were able to traverse fields full of sheep and cows, descend the steep hill, cross streams and brooks and eventually hit the beach, losing time there enjoying the magnificent views until it was almost dark.
Thankfully, about halfway back to the cottage, stood The Fountain Head, a fourteenth-century pub with a log fire burning and offering a selection of real ales on tap for those, like me, who like their beer warm and flat. If you are ever fortunate enough to sup here, the selection of amazing Devonshire cheeses accompanied by a pint (or three) gives you just about the right amount of energy needed to spur you home.
A break from the coast
After Branscombe we took a trip to Switzerland (Don’t Judge a Basel By Its Cover) followed by California, and then returned to the UK. A quick diversion from our coastal route, we stayed in an eco friendly, solar paneled house in Martins Heron, situated on the eastern side of Bracknell just west of London. We appreciated the homemade yogurt waiting for us in the fridge on arrival, and the whole house was fitted with high-tech audio and video equipment. It was the perfect spot for downtime and visiting family in nearby Windsor and London.
St Leonards, East Sussex
Once we said our goodbyes to Chloe in Bracknell it was back to the seaside for some quality time in St Leonards, East Sussex. We arrived at a large, tall, rambling and beautifully appointed Victorian house with views right down to the English Channel.
Two cats - Zuri and Kaya - and an energetic and playful springerdoodle accepted us into their lives almost immediately. The cats loved to stay in, sleep and snuggle when not bringing us gifts of leaves from the garden (better than dead mice or birds). Nala, on the other hand, loved to play and be outside. Both in the local large park with woodland, lakes and acres of open space to run around in, and down on the beach. She never ran out of energy chasing after her ball, even going into the sea after it. Even when the temperature plummeted below freezing, and we were very reluctant to leave the house, she was always up for her outdoor time.
Castle Eden, County Durham
With our stint in the south of England done it was time to head Up North. We were due to head to Cumbria, in the far northwest of England for our next sit. However, we had a couple of days to spare. What better excuse than to visit our friends in Castle Eden who you might remember from The Roaming Scotties blog? It was wonderful being reunited too - albeit briefly - with Maggie and Denny as we walked, and the Scotties shuffled, along the beach enjoying ice cream with monkey’s blood (yes, we didn’t know what that meant either until the raspberry syrup was drizzled on our cones), and then indulged in a seafood risotto dinner back at the house. How different the northeast coast was with warm sun allowing us ice cream, to the southeast coast with freezing temperatures just a few days earlier where only warm mulled wine would have done.
They say the weather in Britain changes almost daily or is that hourly? This was clearly evidenced in our fourth, and final English house sit. Situated almost directly opposite County Durham, we headed to a small town - really a big village - called Silloth on the northwest coast just short of the border with Scotland. For the next week we would be living right by Silloth Green in a beautiful conversion of the old Post Office - well the two of us, one cat, Sox, and two lively but very different dogs: Tali, a young jet black Labrador, and his younger brother Mac, a Bedlington, Poodle, Whippet mix puppy, also known affectionately as Gnasher after the canine companion of Dennis The Menace in the UK’s famous comic strip, The Beano.
Like Nala in St Leonards, these two loved the outdoors as much as we did. Every day the view would change. When we arrived it was sunny and crisp. From the seafront, just moments from the house, we looked out across the water to Scotland. By the next day, Scotland had vanished, to be replaced by mystical fog that shrouded almost everything. After that, a day of wind and rain, though this did not deter Tali and Mac from demanding hours each day charging around the Green and along the coast playing with each other and the multitude of other dogs and their walkers who we would befriend. This is perhaps the biggest difference between the north and the south of England. In the south, people are always courteous, but they seem busy, going about their daily business with barely an acknowledgment of strange faces. Head north and it's a different world. People - dog walkers in particular it seems - have time to stop, chat, give advice on local sights, and tell tales of times past. While the dogs charged about burning off their youthful energy, we would engage with the locals in this truly beautiful spot. And just as our week started drawing to a close the wind and rain lifted, the sun shone once again, and Scotland, perched across the Firth of Solway with its magnificent Criffel appearing to rise out of the sea, beaconed us for a future trip once more.
It was fun to have so many unique experiences and despite the sometimes inclement or gloomy weather, our trips were a great success. While we don’t know what 2017 will bring, we will be shocked if a return trip to England for some more house sitting isn’t on the cards at some point.
As you know if you’re not reading this blog for the first time, we’ve done a lot of house sitting in a lot of different places this year. So that has meant making quite a few choices about the places we want to go. Sometimes we pick a place because it seems like it would be a nice quiet getaway (Northleach, Abbey Dore, Normandy). Other times because we have never been before and we want to experience it (Bad Ischl, Kuala Lumpur). It could just be a place we know will have plenty for us to do in the area (Edinburgh, Castle Eden). Basel, on the other hand was not picked for any of those reasons. We picked it simply because it filled the necessary dates on our calendar, and was not too difficult to get to. While this isn’t the best reason to pick a place, I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with it. To be completely honest, in the past if we had to make a list of the places we wanted to housesit, Basel would not have even made it close to the list. Now that may seem unfair but it’s not our fault. We had never been to it before but we had driven through a number of times, and it never really looked like much. What we found when we actually had a chance to explore was more than we would have ever expected.
Basel is definitely different. The beautiful images of lakes, mountains and rolling green countryside that Switzerland conjures in your mind are not exactly found here. The small city itself is all within Switzerland but it’s tightly squeezed between the borders with Germany and France so the edges of town are within those countries. From what we had seen before it was just a continuous mass of highways and industrial areas with chimney stacks and steam outlets atop factory-looking buildings, presumably manufacturing many of the pharmaceuticals that Switzerland is famous for. On our way there it took us three-and-a-half attempts to get off at the right exit, and get to the house. When we finally did get there we found it difficult to find parking. The restrictions within the city limits are so strict that we actually ended up parking across the border in Germany and just walking over. So, yes, now we can say we literally went to another country to save money on parking.
We were staying in Wettstein, an area that combines office and industrial buildings with residential housing. It’s clear that the residents have that well-known Swiss work ethic as it seems many of them work in the area and live just minutes away on foot. We also got our first taste of one of my favorite aspects of the city, the fountains you can discover almost everywhere. You can even drink from a lot of them. The area was nice because it was just a short walk to the old town which spans the Rhine with the Altstadt GrossBasel (Large Old Town Basel) to the south and the Altstadt Kleinbasel (Small Old Town Basel) to the north.
Altstadt GrossBasel is the main area for tourists. There are a number of large museums and churches to visit and lots of restaurants, food stalls, and shops - all mostly overpriced for our taste in large part due to the Swiss Franc exchange rate. We actually spent a lot of time looking up and around to find the best sights. The colorful roofs, amusing sculptures, and interesting architecture are all kind of hidden behind the noise, you have to work for it. So it didn’t really charm us at first but slowly became better. It was fairly busy too. People lined the sidewalks and pedestrian areas and there was even a protest march going on while we were there. We had no idea what they were protesting; it was confusing.
Altstadt Kleinbasel seems to be the more bohemian and eclectic area. It felt a little less touristy and a little more real, but it was just as busy and urban as the Grossstadt. The crowd seemed a bit younger and rowdier, and there was fun art along the tiny back streets. There wasn’t as much to be seen but I imagine I would spend more time here if I lived in Basel.
The riverfront is perfect for walking, biking, or just relaxing. It was filled with people resting on the banks and drinking from the many pop up bars along the riverwalk. All ages and types were sitting along the steps leading into the water and taking in the sunset. We even saw a very naked man in what was almost definitely not a nude area sunbathing, but it’s Europe so at this point it seems normal.
We didn’t experience that much else in Basel. Completely our fault, we just didn’t put enough effort into getting out further. We never felt that inspired, I guess we just weren’t feeling the city. We did take a few lessons away from Basel though. One, obviously, never judge a book by it’s cover. At the same time, and maybe for the first time, we didn’t really fall in love. Sometimes that happens and it’s fine. It was definitely still a nice experience we just had a few things that made it not our favorite. Basel felt like it was all business. This created a few problems because it seemed every restaurant and store closed at 6:00pm so there wasn’t much to do any later than that. The prices in Switzerland obviously are more than we are used to so we didn’t really go out to eat at all and honestly did most of our shopping across the border in Germany. The parking was seriously impossible which is so rare, normally you can find some hidden open place to park but not here. To top things off we found that our phones, being so close to so many towers in three different countries and roaming on foreign networks would be constantly switching dropping data or completely overheating and crashing. I guess this was also a good thing because we discovered how to fix our phones to one network to prevent that problem.
All was not bad of course. We had a really comfortable place and it was nice being so close to everything. We had a great time with the cats Oscar and Ron (Swanson) and spent most of the week hanging out with them in the apartment. They are very soft bundles of excitement and it would be hard to find two easier or friendlier cats. Like a lot of cats each evening their energy levels surged and they tore around the open plan apartment playing, it was very amusing. While we were there we also got a lot of work done, we must have been inspired by the Swiss spirit of productivity. So even without being charmed by the city we still had a good time and do not regret our visit. Maybe on a return trip we would take the time to get out more and experience more of the city and the surrounding area.
With a few days to spare until we needed to be in Gloucestershire for our Cotswolds stay, we had no problem making this diversion. We were excited to look after this Segugio hunting hound they had rescued in Italy a few years earlier. He is a great dog: friendly, engaging, and generally quiet. That is until he sniffs a leash and the scent of a walk. At that very second the curtain goes up and his outdoor performance begins. Have you ever accidentally stepped on a dog’s paw? You know that piercing yelp they make? Usually, that awful sound stops as soon as you lift off the pressure. Now imagine going on a 60 minute walk through town with that same sound going on the whole time while the hound darts from side to side, up and down grass banks, howling as loud as possible, and hunting for who knows what. That’s him. Now I am exaggerating a little but he is definitely not an early Sunday morning dog unless you hate the neighbors. When passers-by smile at you and mutter to each other “Oh, it’s that dog again”, or when the old lady goes “Tut tut” under her breath while rolling her eyes in Victorian-era disbelief, you just have to keep walking by, eyes forward and humming to yourself in an oblivious state of mind. Aside from that, he is absolutely adorable.
After handing him off to his next house sitter we had just a few hours to make the trip to Northleach. As we drove through small country lanes and came into the Market Square that was to be home for the next eleven days, the natural beauty of this part of England became evident. We arrived at the front door of a beautiful old stone house that had been renovated but kept all its charm with different staircases, little nooks and crannies and an Aga! This was classic countryside England at its best. It was all there: the little local post office, the village shop, the two pubs, even the takeaway restaurant. People said good morning or good afternoon to you as you walked down the street. And, for most of the days that we were there, the sun was even shining.
Stunning setting, lovely house, fun pets, it was an incredible house sit. No there wasn't the excitement of some of the other places but being on the road constantly you sometimes forget to sit back and bring your the energy level down for a while. Always racing around to see things and do things becomes really tiring. Sometimes you need a place where you can just relax, binge watch the Olympics, and take leisurely strolls through the countryside. No attractions, no events, no stress, a place that just feels like home for a little while.
Like all good things though our downtime in Northleach came to an end. But our timing could not have been more perfect for a period of relaxation because our next trip would be the most exotic and intense so far. We were headed to Asia.
Photo of South of the Border © 2004 Sullynyflhi 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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