"Condom: the folds of time" Condom by mke1963
Condom Travel Guide: 36 reviews and 52 photos
The town of Condom is my favourite place on the entire planet: barely a day goes by without me wishing, at some point, that I was wandering its warms stone streets or sitting in one of the bars, having a pizza with the kids in the alleyway at the Origan or hunched up at a tiny table outside the Cafe des Sports.
The name, which attracts the giggling English and Americans, desperate to say that they have been there - most stop to have their photographs taken at the town signboard and drive on through. Local truck drivers delight in scaring these purile visitors, whooshing their 38 tonnes of asaparagus or sunflower oil centimetres away from the beaming tourists, brakes hissing and a shudder of air from the draught of the huge trailer.
The tranquility of this area has long attracted those seeking a more wholesome life, and today the area is the summer home to many celebrities. Several years ago, locals were concerned when it appeared that British PM Tony Blair had people scouting around for a house in the area between Condom and Lectoure (he eventually bought a place near Albi, to the relief of the Condomois). But the peace and quiet has not been lying over the area: starting with the Hundred Years War, the area between the Aquitaine and Gascony was a constant battlefield, and the whole area to the west of Condom was a dangerous place to live. Alphonse de Poitiers built the first bastide town at Montreal du Gers in 1255, and this concept changed the face of the area, as other settlements copied the fortifications. The picturesque village of Larressingle (where we have our long-term home) retains its fortifications, and the traces of these days can be found in almost every village and town in Gascony.
Now, Condom is the chef-de-canton of the thirteen northernmost communes of the Gers departement, and the commercial centre of the northern Gers. The town looks, commercially, more to the Garonne and the city of Agen to the north rather than south to the sleepy departementale capital Auch.
The town owes its origins to the Baise river widening at this point, so making it shallow enough to cross easily throughout the year. Today, the 'port' of Condom and the weir below the lower bridge have made the river much deeper. The port has long played an important role in the town's fortunes, as much of its agricultural produce has been shipped from here out to the Garonne river and on to Bordeaux. Condom became the transshipment point especially for the textiles and armagnac - Condom is still known as the little capital of Armagnac (nearby Eauze gaining the title of the 'big' capital of armagnac, despite being a smaller town). The river trade ended in the early 20th Century with the arrival of the railway, but the river level arcaded loading bays can be seen, and both banks of the river retain the big warehouses.
Condom's role was further enhanced by the passage, from east to west, of the Via Podensis of the Chemin de St-Jacques de Compostelle, that great medieval pilgrimage route from Le Puy to Santiago de Compostella in north-east Spain.
But it is known that humans have inhabited the area since prehistoric times: the flinty soil created vegetation that was easy to navigate for the hunter-gathers, and also provided an endless source of flint tools for them. Remains of these earlier civilizations have been found in Condom, but also in most villages, and few farms here do not have their little collections of axe-heads and spear tips.
In the 1st Century CE, the first Gallo-Roman settlements started to be set up, notably by the local Sotiates tribe (based in Sos, 20km to the west) and later the Novempopulani (around Lectoure, 20km to the east).
Then in 720 CE, a group of one hundred Basque families applied to the British Duke of Aquitaine to settle on the banks of the Baise, where each family built a fortified houe with a look-out tower (a symbol that remains on the coat of arms of the town). In the early 9th Century, a hurch was built on the rocky outcrop above the river, and the town proper grew around. Around this time, the area was ravaged by the Normans, and Condom suffered as badly as other settled places. However, the area was presided over by the Benedictine monastery of Saint-Pierre, attracting nobles and petit bourgeoise alike. Tension grew between these local warlords and the officials appointed by the Duke of Aquitaine.
In the early 9th Century, the first hospital was built in the town, by Amuna, wife of the Duc de Gascogne. The second followed in 1212 (Hopital Notre-Dame de Pradau), the third in 1319 (Hopital Saint-Jacques) and then the fourth in 1472, also known as the Hopital Notre-Dame (at the Pont des Carmes) and then finally the Hopital at Barillet. These hospitals were to figure largely in the future of Condom, as it became a trade centre of far greater importance than might be imagined now.
In 1152, Condom had become part of England on the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to Henry Plantagenet, but for several hundred more years, much of the region lay in a kind of no-man's land, neither French nor English.
While the Cathars were on the rise, the strength of Condom and its potential to harbour unfriendly armies led to a treaty in 1229 in which Condom agreed to destroy its town walls and use the stones to pave the streets. Traces of these town walls can be seen in a little park just to the north of the cathedral precincts.
Originally, Condom was considered part of the territory of the Bishop of Agen, and it was not until 1317 that Condom finally won its independence, but the links between the Agenais and the Condomois have remained strong down the centuries. It is surprising that when France's departements were being created that the canton of Condom did not end up in Lot-et-Garonne rather than the Gers.
Condom did not finally revert to the French crown until 1454, being placed under the sovereignty of the Bordeaux parliament by Louis XI. But war and petty local politics had taken its toll on the town. At the end of the 15th Century, the newly installed bishop, Jean Martre, who set about restoring the cathedral. Tragically, the plague hit the town just as work was starting, and epidemics in 1507, 1508 and 1518 decimated the population. Later in the same century, more lives were to be lost in bloody struggles between the Catholics and the Calvinists (nearby Nerac was a centre of Calvinism). In 1569, the Calvinist leader Montgomery entered the town and destroyed much in the cathedral and in the town. The religious in-fighting continued in and around Condom for decades afterwards as feuds and vendettas were pursue with a vengeance.
By the 17th Century, the town was, like many in France, a scene of devastation; commerce had dried up, the church was in a poor state, and continuing ruinous national wars had emptied the land of both men and crops. To make matters worse, the plague returned in 1632, 1652 and 1653.
In 1675, a bizarre event can be seen as Condom's renaissance: Louis XIV exiled his entire parliament with its army to Condom while he stayed in Bordeaux. The clerics and secular officials were forced into cleaning up the town. All kinds of rules were introduced to create a town that would appear more civilized than it really was! The court-in-exile knew how to live and brought a vast entourage that breathed life back into the worn stones and freshly cleaned streets and alleys. Although the parliament was only in Condom for less than a year, the economic impact was enormous and it set Condom on its feet once again. Prosperity returned to the Condomois: it was said that the last bishop before the Revolution was so wealthy that he did his laundry in Rotterdam, his washing up in Delft and cleaned his furniture in Paris! However, the Revolution passed Condom by, and the Condom guillotine saw action only once.
From the 17th Century, the landscape changed for ever with the massive expansion of the vineyards - previously beef cattle had been the mainstay of local agriculture, and in the last fifty years the planting of sunflowers has added another colourful dimensiion to the fields in the area. Rather sadly, both the vineyards and the sunflower fields are on the decline, subject to increased competition from the New World, and the area of soya under irrigated cultivation seems to increase each year. Recent drought years (including this year, 2005) is likely to see further transformations in many fields in the area. There has been noticeably less sunflower fields this year. The Condomois is just on the fringe of the appellation controllee for the 'prunes of Agen' so in the area to the north of the canton, there are many plum orchards.
Condom slowly modernised through the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, largely uninfluenced aain by the outside world.
Even the First World War left Condom less scathed than most French towns, but the Condomois still lost 300 of its young men. Equally, the Second World War left Condom in its wake. There was heavy fighting in the area around the edge of the Landes forest, but Resistance activity was less frenetic in and around Condom than seemingly around nearby Nerac and Condom.
Today, Condom is one of the few towns that have grown in size (from 6,650 in 1801 to 7,250 by 1999, and even that disguises a damatic inncrease from 6,725 in 1946). The pleasant climate has attracted many immigrants, both from northern Frane and northern Europe, but also from the Maghreb.
Chnage doesn't happen fast here. Condom was the last town in France to introduce traffic lights, and there is still so little traffic that you are left wondering if it was a waste of electricity.
From the banks of the Baise, here dammed up by the weir below the lower bridge up to the cathedral on the town square, the light reflects from the bronze hue of the local stone. In the late afternoon, Condom glows like no other place I know.
It's not really a slow pace in Condom, but more a measured one. But that doesn't mean it is boring. Far from it. The town has great pride in itself and its surrounding countryside. It even joins in the jokes about 'condoms', although they are wearing a bit thin now (the jokes, not the condoms).
Condom is a place for sitting and having a few drinks, a good meal, and a walk around. It's worth a lot more time than the few seconds it takes to take a snaphot by the town's road-sign.
Moving on from Condom, to the south is the capital of the Gers, Auch; west are the Roman centres of Eauze and Montreal du Gers; east is Lectoure, while 23km north, in Lot-et-Garonne, is the old Calvinist stronghold and seat of Henry Plantagenet's court Nerac. Just don't forget to drop in on Larressingle before you leave!
- Pros:The architecture, the sitting-and-doing-nothing and the swimming pool
- Cons:The jokes
- In a nutshell:An old traditional town in the best part of France
Across France every evening - and most afternoons - people of all ages and sizes come out to enjoy a game of boules on... more travel advice
Most visitors wander around the cathedral and a few make it around the three routes prepared by the Tourism Bureau.... more travel advice
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