Lisbon – Parque das Nacoes and the Oceanarium

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When I was doing my research looking for things to do in Lisbon, the one place that consistently received top billing was the Oceanarium. Oceanariums aren’t typically top of my to-do-list (castles usually are), but this one had such great reviews I was keen to experience it for myself. And so, on my first full day in the Portuguese capital, I decided to pay it a visit.

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The Oceanarium is situated in the Parque das Nações or Park of Nations on the banks of the Tejo River in the north-east of the city. The park was built as part of the Expo 98 exhibition and is a modern, clean space with interesting artworks and quirky design features, as well as a row of flags representing nations from around the world. There’s also an enormous cable car that runs alongside the river to give visitors a bird’s eye view of the site.

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To get to the park, I caught the metro to Oriente station, and from there, headed down towards the waterfront. I had a great time walking around the Parque das Nações, seeing all there was to see and I particularly liked the unusual artworks, such as the statue above and the multi-coloured striped benches, as well as the beautiful views across the river.

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Having spent 40 minutes walking around the park and taking lots of photos, I made my way towards the Oceanarium. The Oceanarium is based in a huge modern square building that seems to float in the middle of the park’s Olivais Dock. There’s also a fun plastic figurine of a diver whose head bobs above the surface of the water just outside it (above), which made me smile.

The Oceanarium opened in 1998 as part of the Expo. Split over two floors, it features a variety of marine creatures from cold water, tropical and temperate environments.

The main attraction, and the one that captured my attention almost as soon as I walked in, is the enormous tank in the centre of the Oceanarium that traverses both floors. It’s a huge space and is home to lots of different marine creatures including sharks (my favourites), sunfish and rays.

The tank dominates the attraction and as I made my way through the site, I was repeatedly drawn to it. It was fascinating and I’d find myself mesmerised as I watched the creatures gliding through the water and interacting with each other, never quite sure what was going to appear next.

Aside from the enormous central tank, the Oceanarium has numerous tanks devoted to particular types of marine creatures, such as jelly fish and sea insects, as well as tanks featuring creatures from specific parts of the world. I enjoyed looking at the weird and wonderful creatures that call our oceans home and finding out more about them. There are some incredible species living in our waters that unless you’re a deep sea diver you rarely get a chance to see up close.

There’s also a series of rock pools home to creatures such as star fish and sea anemones, as well as birds such as puffins and penguins. I wasn’t expecting this element to the Oceanarium and it was great to see the wildlife in a different environment. I really like penguins, so I spent quite a bit of time watching them waddling about on the rocks and playfully swimming in the water.

Every so often, a human being in a wetsuit would appear in the pools and tanks, staff from the Oceanarium who were tending to the marine life. I enjoyed watching them at work and I was quite envious of them getting to swim with the animals. I’d have loved to have been able to get in with them.

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I really enjoyed my visit to the Oceanarium and was glad I’d made the decision to go. I now understand why it’s so highly rated as a visitor attraction as it’s one of the best aquariums I’ve been to. It was fascinating to see so many marine creatures from all over the world together in one place and the marine life seemed to be well cared for, the staff were very attentive towards them. If you’re in Lisbon, it’s well worth visiting.

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Lisbon

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Cool, laid-back, friendly are just some of the words I’d use to describe Portugal’s capital city Lisbon. It’s home to fantastic food, beautiful buildings and delightful views, and there’s loads of culture, both old and new, to soak up. As such, the hilly city is the perfect place for a long weekend.

I’d been dying to go to Lisbon for a long time, partly because I’d never really been to Portugal before (the day trip across the Galician border doesn’t count) and partly because I’d heard excellent things from friends and colleagues. Needless to say, I was very excited about my four-day city break.

After flying into the city from Bristol, I hopped on the metro and headed to my hotel, the Hotel Lisboa Plaza. Having checked in, I then set off exploring. My hotel was just off the Avenida da Liberdade, the large tree-lined boulevard that cuts a swathe through the city centre, connecting the Parque Eduardo VII to the central Rossio district.

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I followed the avenue down to Rossio Square, the city’s most famous square, where I stopped to admire the large fountain and the enormously tall statue of Dom Pedro IV, after whom the square is officially named. The square is surrounded by lots of grand cafés, as well as Rossio train station, and is a good place to orientate yourself.

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I then headed south towards the Baixa district. The area is laid out in a regimented grid pattern, the original district having been destroyed by the massive 1755 earthquake and subsequent tsunami, so it’s almost impossible to get lost. The buildings are beautiful and I enjoyed walking around, getting my bearings and admiring the classical architecture. Bright yellow trams are everywhere in the streets around the Rossio and Baixa districts and I learned pretty quickly to keep an eye out for them when crossing the roads.

By now it was early evening, so I decided to walk up to the Bairro Alto district, up the hill to the right. The Bairro Alto district is home to lots of narrow winding streets – and I found myself getting a little lost here. There are lots of unusual shops, as well as tons of bars and restaurants, and I ambled around soaking up the atmosphere and casing out possible places to eat.

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With my tummy rumbling, I decided on Petiscos no Bairro (above), a small hip-looking restaurant on the Rua da Atalaia, for dinner. The restaurant is teeny – it’s not the sort of place you could take a large group of people. But it had a cosy feel, the staff were really friendly and they had clams on the menu.

Clams are one of Lisbon’s speciality dishes and I was keen to try them. The clams, which came in a garlicky coriander sauce, were amazing. It was one of the best restaurant dishes I’ve ever eaten and I was so happy with my choice! I had quite a large bread basket with my meal and I happily polished off the whole lot, using the bread to soak up every last drop of the delicious sauce. For dessert, I had a Portuguese rice pudding, a cold rice pudding with cinnamon on top, which was nice, but didn’t quite match the perfection of my main. If you’re ever in Lisbon and like seafood, I can’t recommend Petiscos no Bairro highly enough.

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Feeling suitably full and happy, I wandered up the hill to the Miradouro de Sao Pedro de Alcantara, a small park high on the hill with great views of the city. I then meandered back down to my hotel where I stopped off for a nightcap of dry port, along with tea and homemade biscuits (above), in the bar before bed.

Top tips

  • The easiest way to get from the airport to the city centre is to take the metro – it’s really easy to navigate (there are only four lines) and cheap!
  • Lots of the pavements around central Lisbon are polished cobblestones and they’re quite slippery. So wear shoes with a suitable grip as I kept sliding all over the place in my sandals.
  • I found Lisbon sunny but very windy, so I wore suntan lotion every day because the sun was strong enough to burn even though it didn’t feel particularly warm. The wind also meant I had a few ‘Marilyn’ moments in the summer dresses I’d packed – in hindsight, shorts would’ve been better!
  • I visited Lisbon as a solo traveller and found some bars and restaurants were unwilling to serve me because I was by myself. Some went out of their way to accommodate me and were fantastic and I’ll mention those as I write about my trip, but it’s the one place I’ve travelled in Europe where people were taken aback I was travelling alone. One bar I went to would only serve me the beer they had on tap because letting me have any other drink (eg a glass of wine) wasn’t worth the hassle for them as I was by myself. So if you are travelling to Lisbon by yourself, be aware you may need to try a few bars or restaurants before you’ll find one that will serve you.

London – Wellcome Collection

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The Wellcome Collection on the Euston Road is one of my favourite London museums/galleries and is, in my opinion, one of the capital’s most underrated. When one of my friends suggested we visit it after our recent afternoon tea, I happily agreed.

The museum houses a series of unusual objects collected by the Victorian philanthropist, entrepreneur and science patron Henry Wellcome. It’s also home to a permanent collection that explores the human body, science and medicine.

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Our first stop on arriving was Medicine Now, one of the permanent collections, that explores a series of ideas about medicine and science since the 1930s. The exhibition is filled with lots of interesting objects, including a transparent model of a woman where you can light up different organs in the body. We had great fun learning where the different organs were, some of which weren’t where we expected to find them! There was also a plastinated body slice on display, which was fascinating, and we spent ages debating whether or not it was a man or a woman.

We then had a look around the temporary exhibition, A Museum of Modern Nature, which runs until 8 October 2017. The exhibition features a series of objects, donated by members of the public, that represent what nature means to them. Some of the objects (such as antlers donated by wildlife expert Chris Packham) made perfect sense, others were far more abstract. My favourite item on display was a research chart compiling the daily behaviours of a group of apes and I spent ages poring over the records trying to decode some of the activities featured.

The second permanent collection, Medicine Man, features a series of objects collected by Henry Wellcome on his travels. It’s a curious mix of artifacts that includes a toothbrush that allegedly once belonged to Napoleon, masks from different parts of the world, a lock of George III’s hair, very painful looking Victorian forceps and other medical instruments, and Japanese sex toys.

There’s also a series of paintings – some of which, including one set in purgatory, are downright bizarre. The collection’s eye-opening and fascinating, and there were lots of cries of ‘look at this!’, as well as debates as to what various objects were used for.

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Before leaving, we headed upstairs to the Reading Room (above). It’s a lovely space, surrounded by bookshelves filled with books you can borrow and read in one of the comfy looking chairs or bean bags, and tables featuring board games. There are also a few paintings and objects on display, including another plastinated body slice. It’s a very relaxing space and I could easily have sat down with a book and settled in for an hour or two.

I’ve been to the Wellcome Collection many times and I never tire of the curiosities on display. Each time I go I find something new I hadn’t noticed before among the quirky and intriguing objects Henry Wellcome collected on his travels. If you’re looking for a museum in London that’s a little different to the norm, add the Wellcome Collection to your itinerary.

Info
Wellcome Collection
183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE
Free
10am-6pm, Tuesday to Sunday, (open until 10pm on Thursdays)

wellcomecollection.org

London – The Encounter at the National Portrait Gallery

I had a couple of hours to spare before meeting my friends for afternoon tea at Bea’s of Bloosmbury so I headed to my favourite museum/art gallery in London – the National Portrait Gallery near Trafalgar Square.

I was keen to see one of the gallery’s temporary exhibitions, The Encounter: Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt, which runs until 22 October. The exhibition features 48 portraits by European Renaissance and Baroque artists such as Hans Holbein the Younger, Rembrandt van Rijn, Albrecht Dürer and Leonardo da Vinci.

The portraits were all drawn on paper using coloured chalks, pen and ink, or metalpoint, and this simplicity lent an intimacy to the exhibition. The craft and skill on display was incredible, and it might sound silly, but I was struck by how lifelike all the portraits were. They looked like real people as opposed to slightly distorted drawings or caricatures and I felt as though I was seeing a true reflection of what the sitter looked like.

Of all the portraits featured, those by the 16th century Italian artist Annibale Carracci were my favourite. The exhibition featured four portraits that were either drawn by the artist or attributed to the artist – one was of the lutenist Giulio Pedrizzano, while the others were of unknown young men and boys. The portraits were excellent and really seemed to capture the essence of the sitters.

Hans Holbein the Younger is one of my favourite portraitists, largely because I like his portraits from his time at Henry VIII’s court. The exhibition featured seven of his portraits, mostly of unnamed people, but one of the portraits was of John More, the father of Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor Thomas More. The one thing that struck me about Holbein’s portraits was the lifelikeness of the eyes. In one portrait, the eyes looked so true to life they looked like a photograph.

Despite being one of the headline artists, there’s only one portrait by Leonardo da Vinci in the exhibition, but it’s an exceptional piece of portraiture and shows why he’s one of the greatest artists of all time. The portrait is that of a naked man and he’s captured his form perfectly in a deceptively simple drawing.

I really enjoyed The Encounter, it’s a small exhibition (it only took half an hour to see everything) but interesting. The skills showcased by the artists are astonishing and it was great to see such simple, but incredible, works of art. Photos weren’t allowed, which is why there aren’t any accompanying pictures. But if you like portraiture and drawing, and are in London, the exhibition is well worth seeing.

Info
The Encounter: Drawings from Leondardo to Rembrandt
National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place, London WC2H 0HE
Adults £8, concessions £6.50, free for members
Until 22 October 2017

npg.org.uk

 

London – Afternoon tea at Bea’s of Bloomsbury

 

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When my friends suggested we go for afternoon tea for my birthday recently, I jumped at the chance. I love afternoon tea. One of my friends works for a foodie magazine so after asking one of her colleagues where we should go, we had a shortlist of Bea’s of Bloomsbury, the Dean Street Townhouse and the Berkeley Hotel.

I plumped for Bea’s of Bloomsbury as I liked their menu and at £24.50 for a full afternoon tea, it wasn’t too expensive compared to some afternoon teas in the capital – some charge eye-watering sums of money.

Bea’s of Bloomsbury is a small chain of cafés across London specialising in cakes, pastries and afternoon tea. They have outlets in Bloomsbury, St Paul’s, Marylebone, Farringdon and Maida Vale, but we decided to go to the Bloomsbury branch so we could visit the nearby Wellcome Collection afterwards.

The Bloomsbury branch is tiny, so booking is essential as it was pretty much full the entire time we were there. We were welcomed inside, and as the first afternoon tea customers of the day had our choice of tables, so we opted for a table opposite the counter. We all chose the full afternoon tea menu – they also have vegetarian and wheat-free options, as well as menus that include a glass of prosecco or champagne.

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The food soon arrived – a mouthwatering array of mini brioche rolls filled with: avocado and dukkha spiced yoghurt; parma ham with mascarpone cream, fig relish and honey; egg mayonnaise and cress; and smoked salmon and crème fraiche. Along with plain scones served with jam and clotted cream; a selection of mini cake bites including brownies, blondies and meringues; and a full-sized cupcake each. All was washed down with a giant pot of English breakfast tea.

The brioche rolls were great, if a little messy – some were easy to cut up into bite-sized chunks and eat, others (egg mayo) less so. The smoked salmon and crème fraiche was my favourite as its one of my favourite sandwich combinations. I didn’t like the avocado with dukkha spiced yoghurt as much as it lacked flavour and I found it a little odd and tasteless. Everything else was good though and it was nice to have something different to the standard cucumber and cream cheese.

The scones were lovely and weren’t too big – sometimes the scones are massive and a meal unto themselves, leaving you full before you get to the patisserie. And I enjoyed having a selection of miniature cakes as it meant you could try a little of everything. We just about managed to eat all the mini bites, but had no room left for the cupcakes so we had these boxed up to take away with us.

As it was my birthday, my friends insisted I take them home with me and the cupcakes (chocolate oreo and red velvet) were incredible – beautifully light, moist sponge topped with a buttercream that wasn’t too sickly or sweet.

One of the things that made the experience so good was the friendly and helpful staff. They’d playfully joke with us as they brought out our teas, rolls and cakes, and when we asked for an extra plate or knife, they were happy to help. Great service often makes or breaks these experiences, but I couldn’t fault the staff, and it was a chilled, comfortable place to while away a few hours.

If you’re looking for somewhere to have afternoon tea in London that won’t break the bank, Bea’s of Bloomsbury is a great place to try. It was a lovely, relaxing experience and the food was good. And if you have any suggestions of other places that offer an excellent afternoon tea in London (Brown’s Hotel do a great one, too), please share them in the comments.

Info
Bea’s of Bloomsbury, 44 Theobalds Road, London WC1X 8NW
Open Monday-Friday, 7.30am-7pm, Saturday-Sunday 10am-7pm
From £24.50 for full afternoon tea
beas.london

Costa Rica travel guide

My mini-travel guide to Lisbon seemed to go down well, so I thought I’d put together another mini-travel guide – this time to Costa Rica. I recently spent a week travelling around the Central American country and this is my mini-guide to the friendly, wildlife haven that’s been voted the happiest place on earth (sorry Disneyland!).

In brief

Costa Rica is home to a number of very different landscapes and it’s worth travelling around the country to get a flavour of the contrasting environments. From volcanoes to rainforests, cloud forests and idyllic beaches, there are lots of diverse landscapes to explore. It also boasts an abundance of wildlife, with five per cent of the world’s species calling the country home. On top of that, there are activities galore (think zip lining, white water rafting, snorkelling, mountain biking, and so on), which means you’ll never be short of things to do.

Arenal

Dominated by the magnificent Arenal Volcano (above), which slumbers peacefully in the background, the Arenal region is home to some great hiking trails. It was here I saw my first sloth (albeit so far up a tree I could barely make it out), venomous snakes and a turkey-like bird. I also heard howler monkeys and cicadas for the first time.

Do try some of the activities while you’re here – I visited a couple of hiking trails in the national park, and tried my hand at horse riding (loved it) and mountain biking (hated it).

The Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park is fantastic – there are so many species of birds, insects and flora to see, plus there are fantastic views from the bridges high above the ground.

Also do not leave without paying a visit to one of the hot springs around the town, they make blissfully relaxing use of the thermal waters. Sipping a pina colada in the bubbling hot waters was the perfect way to soothe my aching muscles after a day of hiking and horse riding.

And if you get a chance to go on an evening frog hunt, do – the many species of frog are super cute.

Monteverde

Cloud forest country high up in the mountains, Monteverde is an excellent place for hiking and I saw lots of wildlife here, including howler and capuchin monkeys, more snakes and frogs, and lots of unusual birds and insects.

Do take part in a night-time safari through the forest if you can – it’s fantastic. I saw toucans sleeping high in the trees, tarantulas and even an armadillo!

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Monteverde is also coffee country and I joined a coffee tour at El Trapiche to: find out how they farm coffee, sugar cane and chocolate; have a go at making sweets; and try the best coffee I’ve ever tasted (and as someone who hates coffee that’s saying something).

Do have a go at zip lining in Monterverde, too – it was terrifying, but great fun once I got over the whole ‘Oh-dear-God-I’m-100ft-high-in-a-tree-with-nothing-but-a-rope-to-stop-me-plummeting-to-the-ground’ thing.

Manuel Antonio

Situated on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, Manuel Antonio is home to lots of picture-perfect beaches. It was also the most touristy place I visited. I toured the national park where I came face-to-face with more capuchin monkeys, raccoons, more sloths (including a mother and baby), lizards and crabs. I also took a boat trip out to the Pacific Ocean where I went snorkelling – and got stung by tons of miniature jelly fish.

Weather

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There’s rain, there’s Welsh rain and then there’s Costa Rican rain. If you’re planning to go to Costa Rica and stay dry, think again – it’s nigh on impossible. I ended up skin-soakingly wet at least once a day during my week-long stay because when it rains, it really rains and it’s far too hot and humid for sweaty waterproofs. Umbrellas are no match against the fierce onslaught of rain either. There’s also no point trying to wait it out as the torrential downpours go on and on and on…

You’re far better embracing the rain and accepting you’re going to get wet, repeatedly, no matter what. The only problem is, it’s so humid it’s almost impossible to dry your clothes and after a few days, everyone’s damp clothes start to pong. Thankfully, the hotel laundry services are a lifesaver – unless you want a super stinky suitcase, make liberal use of their services.

Food

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There’s nothing hugely remarkable about Costa Rican food, but it is good and if like me you love fish and fruit, you’ll be very happy. I ate a ridiculous amount of ceviche (above)  – it’s on the menu at a lot of restaurants and that irresistible mix of raw fish, lime juice, chilli and coriander with a helping of tortilla chips on the side was a winner every time.

Casados is a Costa Rican staple, a mix of grilled meat or fish served with rice, refried beans, vegetables such as plantain, and salad. I often ate this for lunch and it was consistently good – but be warned it’s very filling, so definitely not a light lunch. Fruit is also abundant – ripe, juicy watermelon, pineapple and banana were all in season when I visited.

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Do try the local coffee, the local sugar cane spirit and if you can find it, cactus flower ice cream (above) – it’s a vivid pink colour. Sounds weird but tastes delicious.

Be warned sometimes the food combinations are a little odd. In the first restaurant we visited I ordered tea with milk – which turned out to be a cup of hot milk with a tea bag in it. Not quite what I was expecting. I also ordered some vegetable nachos at a restaurant in Arenal. I was expecting the usual combination of tortilla chips with tomatoes, guacamole, cheese and sour cream, and instead got nachos with boiled carrots, broccoli, green beans and cauliflower. It was edible, if bizarre.

What to pack

  • Loose cotton trousers – these were useful when I was hiking in the jungle and helped shield my skin from the pesky mosquitoes
  • Waterproof shoes – given the constant downpours, these came in super handy
  • Hiking shoes – there are lots of hiking trails through the jungles and good footwear is essential
  • Insect repellent – in all likelihood you’ll get bitten anyway, but it’s worth spraying yourself silly regardless
  • Hand sanitiser – the traveller’s best friend for those inevitable visits to soap-free bathrooms
  • A good camera – I was really glad I took my long-lens camera, it came in especially handy when trying to get photos of the wildlife (sloths, monkeys) high in the trees

Have you been to Costa Rica? If so, and you have any comments or suggestions about what to see and do there, please leave them in the comments below.

Doctor Who Experience

For the last few years, I’ve walked past the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff Bay on a regular basis and each time I’ve said to myself, “I must go in and see what it’s like”. In July, with the news the attraction is set to close at the beginning of September, I finally made good on my promise.

Now I should probably start by saying I’m not a Doctor Who fan and although I’ve seen the odd episode, I haven’t watched it in years. So I came to the experience completely cold, aware of the TARDIS and the Daleks, knowing who the current Doctor Who is (goodbye Peter Capaldi, hello Jodie Whittaker)… and that was about the extent of my knowledge.

Having bought our tickets, we were told to line up at 3pm for the start of the interactive experience. This was fine, except the experience didn’t start for another 20 minutes and by that point everyone in the queue was bored and restless.

We were finally ushered inside the Gallifrey Museum where we were met by our tour guide and were given time crystals to wear around our necks. The experience lasted some 30 minutes and during this time we were led into the TARDIS where we travelled to various locations and eras, including a creepy graveyard and the 1960s, on a mission to help the Doctor.

Photos were strictly forbidden during this part of the tour and if I’m honest, I was a little confused as to what was going on, which is why my write up isn’t as clear as it could be. The sound quality was poor and I found it hard to hear what was being said. Nevertheless, our tour guide was super enthusiastic and the kids seemed to be having a great time.

Having successfully navigated the experience, we were now free to explore the rest of the visitor attraction, which is essentially a museum dedicated to all things Doctor Who, set over two floors. This was the real gem of the attraction.

The lower floor of the museum featured recreations of sets and props from every era of the show, including the interior and exterior of a number of TARDIS time and space machines, such as the one above from the Christopher Eccleston-Billie Piper era. The detail in the props and sets was amazing, and it was fascinating seeing them up close.

My favourite part were the costumes, which were on display on the upper floor, along with models of the various creatures that have appeared on the show over the years. I spent ages looking at everything – some of the models were really creepy and the attention to detail was again incredible.

I was also intrigued by how different some of the costumes looked in real life compared to how they appeared on screen. There was one brown leather jacket worn by Catherine Tate’s character that was really pale in real life but looked much darker in the stills from the show.

Overall, I had mixed feelings about the Doctor Who Experience. I didn’t massively enjoy the 30-minute experience at the start of the tour (not helped by the unnecessary 20-minute wait in the queue before we began). The production values weren’t good enough, with the sound quality in particular a problem, so I didn’t feel immersed in the world, which hampered my enjoyment of it.

But the museum part was fascinating and I would have liked more of it. I’m sure for fans of the show the whole experience is a delight, but I would have preferred a bigger museum section as you don’t need to be a fan of the show to appreciate the incredible skills and handiwork that went into making the props, costumes and sets. Interesting enough, but could be better.

Info
Doctor Who Experience, Discovery Quay, Cardiff CF10 4GA
Adults £16, children £11.75
doctorwho.tv/events/doctor-who-experience

Dyffryn Gardens – the manor house

I’ve written about my annual day trips to Dyffryn Gardens a lot, but for some reason I’ve never written about the house even though I always go inside and have a look around.

Dyffryn House is a large, beautiful Victorian mansion set amid 55 acres of gardens. It was built in 1895 by the Cory family, who made their millions from the coal fields of the south Wales valleys. At the turn of the 20th century, around a third of the world’s coal was being exported from nearby Cardiff and it’s rumoured the city’s coal exchange witnessed the world’s first £1 million deal (a cool £100-ish million in today’s money).

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Needless to say, as a major player in the city’s coal trade, the Cory family was loaded – hence, the gorgeous villa surrounded by acres of land. In 1939, the estate was leased to the local council and the house was then used variously as a police academy, training and conference facility, and a dog-training centre. Still council-owned, the National Trust took over responsibility for running and maintaining the property in 2013.

When the National Trust stepped in, the house was in a state of disrepair without any furniture or artworks. The trust has slowly been restoring the house to its former glory, doing a fantastic job in the process. When the house opened its doors to the public in 2013, only five rooms had been restored and since then more rooms have undergone restoration work.

You can wander around many of the rooms as they are being restored and the National Trust has handily put up signs explaining the restoration and conservation work, including any issues they’ve faced. It’s been fascinating to go back every year to see what they’ve been doing and how much work goes into restoring these grand houses.

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The first room you enter on going inside is the great hall. The grand wood-panelled room has an enormously high ceiling and was once used by the Cory family as the main drawing room. Above the door is a large stained glass window and on the other side is a balcony where you can look down at the room from the first floor. It’s a magnificent space and gives a sense of how palatial the house must have been during its heyday.

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The great hall leads off into a number of different rooms, one of which is the billiard room. It’s a fairly standard billiard room with the requisite wood-panelling and massive billiard table in the centre. After years of reading 1920s-1940s crime novels, I always feel no stately home is truly complete without a billiard room and Dyffryn House hasn’t let me down.

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Close by is the blue parlour room, which is set out as a music room, and during this summer’s visit featured a number of props created by the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama as part of a performance called ‘The Desert Daydreamer’. The props included a model of a dead bird under the piano (above) and a dead ostrich beside the chest of draws. The room is a gorgeous space largely because of the huge windows, which let in enormous amounts of light – it was very light and airy, and must have been a great room in which to relax.

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The red parlour room next door is so-called because of the red silk panels on the walls, which were discovered during the restoration work. Some of the silk panels were repaired by conservationists, but those that were beyond repair were replaced by replicas. I was really impressed by the restoration work as I couldn’t see a difference between the different panels and they all looked to be in great condition.

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From the red parlour room, I wandered along to the second-hand bookshop where I had a good rake through the shelves to see if there were any books I wanted to buy. Being a bookworm, I like having a bookshop on site as I’m always on the lookout for interesting books I haven’t come across before and it’s a good way to raise some extra money for the house, too.

Dyffryn House, Vale of Glamorgan, July 2017 (24)

While much of the downstairs of the house has been restored, upstairs it’s another matter and the rooms are largely unfinished and in a state of disrepair. In a number of rooms there were exhibits about the First World War with various displays showing the support the Cory family gave to the war effort. The displays were interesting and really brought home how the war affected everyone, regardless of wealth or status.

Dyffryn House, Vale of Glamorgan, July 2017 (23)

As someone who likes visiting castles and stately homes, I’ve enjoyed seeing the restoration of the house over the last few years and reading about the conservation work that goes into restoring a grand old house like this. Having spent years as a child visiting Dyffryn Gardens but never being able to go inside, it’s great to now be allowed to explore the house and see it slowly restored to its full glory. If you’re ever in the Cardiff area, it’s definitely worth a visit – especially in spring and summer when the gardens are in full bloom.

Info
Dyffryn Gardens, St Nicholas, Vale of Glamorgan CF5 6SU
Adults £8.60, Children £4.30
nationaltrust.org.uk/dyffryn-gardens

 

Dyffryn Gardens – 2017

In July, I made my annual trip to Dyffryn Gardens, a grand Victorian manor house in the Vale of Glamorgan in south Wales. The house is surrounded by extensive gardens and is a really pleasant place to go for an afternoon stroll.

I like going back at least once a year to see how the flower displays have changed and to spot the latest gardening trends. Last year, the gardens featured lots of reds and oranges, and wildflowers such as poppies and cornflower. While in 2014, the gardens were home to lots of bright, planned flower beds with yellow and pink tulip displays, in particular, sticking in my mind.

This year, the theme was the First World War, probably to tie in with its centenary. Everything looked very natural and organic as though the gardeners hadn’t done anything, which I really liked. None of the flower beds looked carefully planned, polished or manipulated, although much like ‘no makeup makeup’, I’m sure lots of work went into making them look so natural.

The highlights included lots of very pretty wildflowers, as well as some beautiful pink roses in the rose garden. In some of the gardens, the flowers had been replaced by vegetables, such as marrows and squash, to highlight how people turned their flower gardens into vegetable plots during the war to help feed the nation.

Here’s a selection of photos I took during this year’s trip:

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As ever, I had a very pleasant day out at Dyffryn Gardens and enjoyed wandering around, admiring the flowers and annoying my brother by taking a ridiculous amount of photos. I’m also conscious that I’ve yet to blog much about the manor house, so I’ll write about that in my next post.

Info
Dyffryn Gardens, St Nicholas, Vale of Glamorgan CF5 6SU
Adults £8.60, Children £4.30
nationaltrust.org.uk/dyffryn-gardens

Llandudno

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For the past three years, I’ve made an annual trip to the Welsh seaside town of Llandudno for work. The first year, I made it no further than my hotel and the conference centre. The second year, I wandered along the promenade almost as far as the pier. But this year, I finally made it all the way along the promenade, to the end of the pier and around the town centre. Result!

Llandudno is a Victorian seaside town on the North Wales coast and like many seaside towns around the UK is a little worn and frayed in parts, but it’s still an attractive and appealing place. A long row of Victorian villas, most of which are hotels or B&Bs, line the promenade, looking out over the Irish Sea.

The coastline is beautiful and the town’s long curved beach is book-ended on either side by two enormous rocks, known as the Great Orme and the Little Orme. There are nice little touches along the promenade, too, including a statue of the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland (above) and a compass embedded in the ground.

It was an overcast day when I walked along the seafront this year, unlike the previous year when I basked in glorious sunshine, and my aim was to make it to the end of the town’s pier. The blue and white pier, which sits in the shadow of the Great Orme, is a splendid piece of Victorian architecture. At 2,295ft-long, the pier was built between 1876 and 1878, and is still in excellent condition (if in need of a lick of paint).

As I made my way along the pier, I passed numerous shops selling souvenirs, buckets and spades, books and music, as well as fairground rides and amusement arcades. There were also lots of stalls selling food and drink, including seaside staples such as candyfloss, doughnuts and ice cream.

The pier is much longer than it looks and it took a good 10 minutes to walk its length. By the time I made it down the pier, it had started to rain and was getting to be quite windy, so I didn’t spend too long admiring the views. But I did stop to take in the fantastic views of the seafront, as well as the Great Orme (above), and to watch a man fishing from a little platform attached to the end of the pier.

Accommodation

I always stay in the same bed and breakfast when I go to Llandudno, a lovely little place called the St Hilary Guest House on the seafront. It’s run by a friendly couple Howard and Anne-Marie, and is full of nice little touches – the beds are comfy; the rooms spotless, peaceful and tastefully decorated; the shower’s good; there’s a very well-stocked tea and coffee tray in the room with water, biscuits and chocolate; there’s information about the locally-sourced products they use; and I’ve never had any problems with the WiFi.

They also provide a mean breakfast – you can choose from a range of cooked breakfast options, as well as cereals, fruit juices and fresh fruit. I usually have a bowl of fresh fruit and yoghurt, followed by smoked salmon and poached egg on a muffin. Highly recommended.

Restaurants

Llandudno is home to a couple of great Italian restaurants, including Carlo’s and Romeo’s. I ate at Romeo’s this trip and had a fantastic plate of linguine with mussels in a tomato and garlic sauce. They were really generous with the mussels, which were piled on top of the pasta, and the sauce tasted really fresh, too.

I also ate at a new restaurant, Dylan’s, which only opened a couple of months ago. It’s situated inside the recently refurbished Washington, a fabulous 1920s building on the seafront. The new owners have retained many of its original features including a beautiful wooden revolving door and a grand wood-panelled entrance way. Dylan’s is part of a small chain of restaurants in North Wales offering modern cuisine and fresh seafood. I opted for the sea bass tacos, which were very messy (luckily, they came with a finger bowl), but delicious.

Info

Llandudno Pier
Open 9am-6pm (until 11pm during the summer), daily
llandudnopier.com

St Hilary Guest House
16 Craig-y-don Parade, Llandudno LL30 1BG
sthilaryguesthouse.co.uk

Romeo Ristorante Italiano & Pizzeria
25 Lloyd Street, Llandudno LL30 2UU
Open daily, 5.30pm-late
ristoranteromeo.com

Dylan’s
East Parade, Llandudno LL30 1BE
dylansrestaurant.co.uk