Costa Rica – top tips

A crocodile yawns on the banks of the Tarcoles River

If you’re planning to go to Costa Rica, here are some of my top tips to help you make the most of your visit:

Climate

One of the idyllic golden sandy beaches in Manuel Antonio National Park

You might expect Costa Rica to be hot and sunny as it’s so close to the equator, but the country’s home to lots of microclimates, which means the conditions vary massively from one place to another. During my trip, it was hot and sunny on the coast, but much cooler in the high altitude cloud forest.

The country has two distinct seasons – the wet season, which lasts from May to November, and the dry season, from December to April. I visited the country in November during the tail end of the wet season and it rained a lot. I’m Welsh and I like to think I know a thing or too about rain, but Costa Rican rain was unlike anything I’ve experienced.

It bucketed down like crazy for at least an hour each day and umbrellas were positively useless against the deluge. It was also too humid for waterproofs, which meant unless I wanted to hibernate indoors for huge stretches of the day, I got wet – very wet – every day. That said, you quickly get used to the rain and learn to live with it. And I’m not sure you can say you’ve truly experienced Costa Rica unless you’ve been soaked to the skin at least once. It’s all part of the fun.

Money matters

The national currency is the Costa Rican colón and its brightly coloured bank notes proudly showcase the country’s wildlife. When I tried to exchange my British pounds before my trip, I was (incorrectly) told by the currency exchange that you can’t buy the colón in the UK. So I headed to Costa Rica with a load of US dollars instead, intending to convert them there. But when I got there I was advised to keep my US dollars as they’re widely accepted throughout the country. I picked up some colón along the way, which came in handy for tipping and small purchases, but other than that I used my US dollars everywhere.

What to wear

View of Arenal Volcano from Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park

I didn’t find Costa Rica anywhere near as warm as I was expecting. There were some hot and humid moments, but equally there were times I felt decidedly chilly, so my advice is to pack plenty of layers. Loose cotton trousers and tops came in handy, especially when hiking through the rain forest. I’m a mecca for mosquitoes and was worried about being bitten, but the long, loose garments kept me cool and protected my skin from the sun and the pesky bloodsuckers. I was bitten a little, but thankfully not too often.

Leafy green foliage flanks the path through Arenal Volcano National Park

My toed-caped waterproof hiking sandals, which I took to go white water rafting, proved to be fantastic for hiking, especially during the fierce onslaughts of rain, as they were super comfy and dried out in no-time. If I’d taken non-waterproof trainers, I’d have been faced with the unpleasant prospect of wearing soggy, stinky shoes every day, so comfortable, waterproof shoes are a must.  And if you’re planning to take part in potentially muddy activities (mountain biking, horse riding, zip lining), take some old clothes you don’t mind ruining as I know from experience the mud doesn’t come out of pale clothing.

It’s also worth making good use of the reasonably priced hotel laundry services if you’re visiting during the wet season. The climate’s so humid it’s impossible to dry your clothes after you’re caught in one of the inevitable downpours and after a couple of days, your damp clothes begin to pong. Needless to say, the laundry services were a life saver.

What to pack

A roseate spoonbill wades in the waters of the Tarcoles River

The usual essentials for visiting a hot country will all come in handy – suntan lotion, sunglasses, a hat, hand sanitiser and mosquito spray. If you’re planning to see the local wildlife, it’s worth packing some binoculars and a long-lens camera if you have them. I took my long-lens camera, and while it’s heavy to cart about, I was so glad I’d taken it as a lot of the animals are high in the tree canopy. Having my camera meant I was able to get a closer look at the animals and take a ton of photos that would have been impossible on my phone.

Eating and drinking

Ceviche with tortilla chips

Ceviche (above), tilapia and tacos pop up regularly on Costa Rican menus, while casados is a popular and tasty option for lunch. This set meal usually consists of fried meat or fish served with rice, refried beans, vegetables, such as plantain, and salad. One of the most unusual foods I had was cactus flower ice cream, a delicious and unusual bright pink, slightly fruity desert.

Be warned, some food combinations can be a little odd – the vegetable nachos I ordered in La Fortuna unexpectedly came with boiled broccoli, carrots and cauliflower. While I ordered a tea with milk at a small bar near the capital San Jose and was given a cup of hot milk with a tea bag in it.

Meet the wildlife

A sloth climbing a tree in Manuel Antonio National Park

If there’s one creature you have to see before leaving Costa Rica, it’s the sloth (above). The lethargic fur balls are ubiquitous throughout the country and are usually to be found hiding in plain sight in the trees. Depending on which parts of the country you visit, there’s a good chance you’ll spot monkeys, frogs, tarantulas, iguanas and snakes, as well as lots of spectacular birds and unusual insects. Crocodiles, macaws, toucans, raccoons and an armadillo were just some of the many creatures I saw.

Get active

Looking for an action-packed, adrenaline-fuelled holiday? Then Costa Rica’s the place for you. The country’s diverse landscapes make it perfect for hosting a range of activities. Whether you prefer water sports to hurtling through the trees on a zip line, tracking the local wildlife or getting mucky quad biking, there’s something for everyone. I tried my hand at zip lining, white water rafting, horse riding, mountain biking and snorkelling during my visit, while I also joined lots of hikes, canopy tours and wildlife-spotting trips.

Have your say

Have you been Costa Rica or are you looking to go? If so, please share your thoughts and tips about the country in the comments below. And if you have any questions, please let me know – I’ll try my best to answer them!

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Costa Rica

The beach at Manuel Antonio National Park

Lush green rain forests, golden sandy beaches and active, lava-spewing volcanoes are just some of the many diverse landscapes in Costa Rica. The small Central American country, which is nestled between Nicaragua and Panama, and is flanked by the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, is home to some 4.9 million people, as well as an abundance of extraordinary wildlife.

A teeny frog sits in between two leaves

The country is one of the most biodiverse in the world and around four per cent of all the species on Earth call it home, which means it’s nigh on impossible to go anywhere without coming across a spectacular bird, mammal, reptile, amphibian or insect.

A capuchin monkey in a tree in Manuel Antonio National Park

I spent nine days in Costa Rica, travelling around the country, and “oohing” and “aahing” at its natural wonders. My trip was ostensibly an activities-based tour as I was keen to have an active holiday, but while the zip lining, white water rafting and snorkelling were great fun, my companions and I soon turned into budding naturalists more concerned with spotting and photographing the local wildlife than thrill seeking.

A raccoon strolls across a beach in Manuel Antonio National Park

It helped that our guide, Pedro, was a walking encyclopaedia of the wildlife and an expert at spotting animals that were hiding in plain sight. I felt incredibly privileged to see so many fascinating creatures in their natural environments, including frogs, monkeys, crocodiles, tarantulas, sloths and macaws, to name but a few.

Arenal Volcano

My journey began on the outskirts of the capital San Jose, and from there, I headed north to the town of La Fortuna, which lies just below the country’s most famous (and active!) volcano Arenal (above). I spent two days in the region, exploring Arenal Volcano National Park, meeting the local wildlife, relaxing in the volcanic hot springs, and horse riding and mountain biking through the countryside.

The lush, dense cloud forest at Monteverde

From Arenal I travelled south-west to Monteverde, high in the mountains and home to the rare cloud forest (above). The climate is perfect for growing coffee, sugar cane and chocolate, and in between numerous hikes through the forest, I joined a tour of a local farm that grew all three. I also tried my hand at zip lining, which was fun and terrifying in equal measure, taking place in the 100m-high tree canopy.

One of the idyllic golden sandy beaches in Manuel Antonio National Park

After two days in Monteverde, I continued travelling south-west to the Pacific coast and the beach town of Manuel Antonio (above). The small, relaxed town boasts stunning sandy beaches and a national park that’s home to sloths, monkeys, lizards, crabs, raccoons and more. I spent my time exploring the national park and snorkelling in the Pacific where I was stung all over by microscopic jelly fish.

Voted the happiest country in the world in 2016, the Costa Rican people, or Ticos as they’re known, are exceptionally warm, friendly and full of life. Everywhere I went I was greeted by two little words: “Pura Vida!”. Meaning “pure life”, the motto represents the laid back way of life in Costa Rica and it’s a fitting saying for a country that’s so committed to being a peaceful nation, it has no army.

A howler monkey perches on a tree branch

Costa Rica is a diverse, friendly and fascinating country, and I loved every second I spent there. The wildlife is exceptional, and I was surprised by how awed and excited I was by the remarkable flora and fauna I encountered. Add to that the warm people, exhilarating activities and great food (lots of tacos and ceviche), and I ended up having the most fun I’ve ever had travelling. It was the trip of a lifetime and an unforgettable experience.

Pura vida!

London – The Impressionists at the Tate Britain

When I was in London at the beginning of April, I was looking for an exhibition to visit and the one that caught my eye was The Impressionists at the Tate Britain. The blockbuster exhibition, which closes today, has been running since November and centres around the French Impressionists who fled France for Britain during the Franco-Prussian War of the 1870s.

Impressionism is one of my favourite art movements and this exhibition didn’t disappoint with notable works by the likes of Claude Monet, Camille Pissaro and Auguste Rodin on display. Spread over eight galleries, it took a little over an hour to see everything there was to see, and while the exhibition was heaving in the first few galleries, the crowds eased off the further into the exhibition I got.

The exhibition began with paintings depicting the horrors of the Franco-Prussian War in Paris, with paintings of dead or wounded soldiers, and buildings alight or in ruins. The artworks were vivid and haunting, and brought home the tragedy of war. The exhibition then introduced some of the most notable members of the Impressionism movement in London, including Monet, Pissaro and Alfred Sisley.

Having introduced the key players, the exhibition then focused on numerous works by James Tissot, which depicted his take on London high society. The paintings were fantastic and some of the best on display, and I was taken by the way Tissot realistically depicted the fabrics worn by the many women in his paintings – one in particular stood out, and that was a painting of a woman in a white dress with yellow bows. The detail and the life-like way he captured the fabrics was superb.

From there I wandered into a large room dedicated to Alphonse Legros, one of the first French artists to seek shelter in London and friend to the likes of Whistler, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Monet, Tissot and Pissaro. There was an array of paintings and sculptures on display, but the standout for me was Rodin’s captivating bust of Legros, which displayed his superb craftsmanship to full effect.

The fourth gallery revolved around the French sculptor Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux during his time in London, while the fifth looked at British sports, crowds and parks from an outsiders’ perspective. I really enjoyed this gallery, there was lots to see and some exceptional pieces. I particularly liked Pissaro’s Bank Holiday, Kew and Guiseppe de Nitti’s Piccadilly Wintry Walk in London. Monet’s atmospheric Leicester Square at Night and Hyde Park were also showstoppers.

The sixth gallery focused on foggy scenes of the Thames and Westminster. I’m often captivated by paintings and illustrations where London is shrouded in fog as they’re so far removed from my experiences of the capital. It isn’t something I’ve witnessed, yet it’s a popular 19th century image of London. The gallery featured a number of excellent works, including three pieces from Whistler’s haunting Nocturne series. Pissaro’s Charing Cross Bridge, London and Guiseppe de Nitti’s Westminster were also fantastic.

The penultimate gallery showcased Monet’s work. To me, Monet is the epitome of Impressionism and I’ve been a fan of his since I was introduced to his work in school. The gallery was packed with recognisable works including two paintings of Charing Cross Bridge and countless depictions of the Houses of Parliament.

What I particularly liked about Monet’s paintings of the Houses of Parliament was the way he captured the iconic landmark at different times of the day and in different lights – at sunset, in sunlight and the effect of sunlight in the fog. It was great to see all these similar paintings together in one room as it really helped showcase the varying effects of the light.

The eighth and final gallery explored André Derain’s colourful depictions of the Thames. He painted traditional scenes of the Thames, such as Charing Cross Bridge, in bright, vivid, unrealistic colours and it was a complete contrast to the other Impressionists’ more realistic depictions of London’s most famous river. It was an interesting, unexpected and playful end to the exhibition.

I really enjoyed The Impressionists exhibition – it was packed with exceptional pieces and  showcased works by lesser known Impressionists alongside the blockbuster names. I was introduced to a number of great artists I was unfamiliar with, but I also liked that it featured some of the most iconic of the Impressionists’ works. It was fantastic to see so many of Monet’s works, for example, in one room. A great exhibition and well worth seeing.

Info

The Impressionists, until 7 May 2018
Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1P 4RG
Adults £17.70, many different concessions available
tate.org.uk

 

London – Hampstead Heath and Kenwood House

Kenwood House in Hampstead, London

One of my favourite places in London for a Sunday stroll is Hampstead Heath in the north of the capital. When I lived in London, I spent many a morning tramping through the heath in all kinds of weather, but I hadn’t been back since I left the Big Smoke more than three years ago. So when I was up in London at the beginning of April, I decided it was the perfect time to revisit my old stomping ground.

The viaduct ponds on Hampstead Heath

During my trip, I recreated my favourite walk through heath, which starts at the entrance near Hampstead Heath Overground Station and takes me as far as Kenwood House, the stately home that sits on the northern edge of the heath, before looping back around to my starting point via a different route.

On joining the heath, I walked past the open grassland of Pryors Field and the Hampstead Ponds, and kept walking until I reached the woods. There I carried on through the woods for a short distance until I reached the Viaduct Pond (above). This pond is one of my favourite places on the heath as it’s so pretty and tranquil, and I love the weathered, red brick arches of the viaduct. There are usually a few ducks happily bobbing away on the water, too, which adds to the serene feel of the place.

Walking through the woods on Hampstead Heath

From the pond, I walked up to and over the viaduct, and continued along the path until I reached the men’s toilets. There I turned to the right and carried on walking through the woods, past a massive overturned tree, until I reached the entrance to Kenwood House. This stretch of the heath can get very muddy, so wellies or hiking boots are essential during the winter months or if it’s been raining heavily.

The view over the heath from Kenwood House in Hampstead

Kenwood House is an elegant 18th century stately home and I always remember it for its starring role in Notting Hill when Hugh Grant’s character comes to meet Julia Roberts’s character on the set of the period drama she’s filming.

There’s a fair bit of parkland surrounding Kenwood House and once you reach the gates, you have to walk another 10 minutes or so through the grounds before you come upon the house. The grounds are lovely, stretching over some 112 acres, and there’s plenty to see. Alongside the rolling meadows and woods, there are ponds, a fake bridge, an old dairy and sculptures by the likes of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. Its also the source of the old Fleet River.

A sandwich and a pot of tea at The Brew House Cafe at Kenwood House

It was lunchtime as I arrived at Kenwood House, so I made beeline for its café. The Brew House Café is a great place for a bite to eat, selling tasty food and delicious cakes, and I used to regularly stop off here for a hot chocolate or an ice cream (depending on the season) during my hikes across the heath. It can get very busy though, so if you’re planning to have lunch here, it’s best to do so sooner rather later. I arrived just before it got really busy, and I’m glad I did, as it was heaving some 10 minutes later.

Kenwood House in Hampstead, London

Happily refreshed and sated, it was time to explore the house. The present house was built by the Scottish architect Robert Adam in the late 18th century and is now run by English Heritage. It’s a long, beautiful house with two floors open to the public.

The music room at Kenwood House

On going inside, I found myself in the entrance hall, and from there, I did a loop of the ground floor, before venturing upstairs. From the hall, I went through a narrow corridor to the green room and onto the elegant music room (above). Then I headed back through the green room to the orangery, which boasts fabulous views over the grounds, and onto the breakfast room (below) and Lord Mansfield’s dressing room, finishing up in the grand dining room and the pastel-hued great library.

The Breakfast Room at Kenwood House

One thing I hadn’t appreciated before visiting Kenwood House was how extensive its art collection is. Almost every room in the house is filled with incredible paintings by acclaimed artists such as Rembrandt, Gainsborough, Vermeer and Van Dyke, to name a few. The astounding number of pieces, which once belonged to the 1st Earl of Iveagh, makes Kenwood House one of London’s great, unsung art galleries.

The artworks are superb and I was amazed at how many pieces by great artists were hanging on its walls – even the smaller, less distinguished rooms were dripping with paintings by well-known names.

My favourite room was the Great Library (above), which was refurbished between 2012 and 2013 with the aim of recreating the room’s original late-18th century decor. It’s a huge, light, airy room with an incredible pale blue and pink ceiling, and rows and rows of glorious book cases. It’s a spectacular space and so very, very pretty.

The room filled with collections of buckles, jewellery and miniatures

After seeing all there was to see downstairs, I headed upstairs. There are fewer rooms on the first floor so it doesn’t take as long to see it all, but the first floor, like the floor below, is home to countless works of art. There’s also a room filled with cabinets displaying pieces of jewellery, belt buckles (some of which are very bling) and miniatures. It’s a curious room with some superb, unusual objects and well worth venturing upstairs for.

Having looked around the house, I headed back outside where I wandered through the grounds until I reached the heath. From there, I took a slightly different route back, cutting across the woods via a different path to the Viaduct Pond, crossing the viaduct, and then carrying on in a straight line until I reached the other side of the Hampstead Ponds. There I crossed a path between two of the ponds and carried on walking until I reached Hampstead Heath Overground Station.

Hampstead Heath

I loved my time on Hampstead Heath, it was just as beautifully wild and untamed as I remembered, and wonderfully relaxing, too. When I’m walking across the heath I find it hard to believe I’m in the middle of London as it feels as though I’m in the countryside. For huge stretches of my walk, I was all alone – it’s a fantastic place to unwind, away from the hustle and bustle of the capital. By far and away, one of the best places in London for a walk.

Info

Kenwood House, Hampstead Lane, Hampstead NW3 7JR
Open seven days a week
Free
english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/kenwood

Cardiff – RHS Flower Show

Plants on display at the RHS Flower Show in Cardiff

For the last three or four years, I’ve made a beeline to the RHS Flower Show when it’s come to Cardiff and this year was no exception. The three-day event takes place annually in April in the city’s Bute Park and I usually pop along as soon as it opens (10am) on the Saturday, as the huge crowds that flock to the show often make it unbearably busy if you go any later.

The show is spread out over a large area and features a number of show gardens and plants for sale, as well as food, craft and other stalls selling products such as garden furniture and gardening tools. I tend to do a loop of the showground, looking at all there is to see, before going back and buying any bits and pieces that have taken my fancy.

Flowers at the 2018 RHS Flower Show in Cardiff

Despite not having a garden, I usually find myself going home with a few plants – this year I picked up two cactii (as I’m less likely to kill them than a flowering pot plant) and a pretty Japanese flowering quince. I also have a tendency to buy more food than plants as the numerous food stalls selling cakes and cheeses prove too hard to resist.

But my favourite part of the event is the show gardens as I’m always impressed by the imagination of the garden designers and the creative ways they make use of the space, objects and plants. I find it almost impossible to view a garden as a blank canvas and visualise all the different and creative things you can do to it, so I have a ton of admiration for those who can.

The Japanese-style Disequilibrium garden at the RHS Flower Show in Cardiff

My favourite show garden this year was the silver medal winning garden Disequilibrium (above). I’m a sucker for traditional Japanese-style gardens as they’re so pretty, and I particularly liked the use of water in this one and the rusted red metal backdrop that contrasted beautifully with the pristine, delicate nature of the garden.

The Urban Regeneration Garden at the RHS Flower Show in Cardiff

This year’s gold medal-winning garden was the Urban Regeneration Garden (above) with its stark concrete blocks that form a water feature. The garden was too minimalist and didn’t have enough plants for my tastes, but I can appreciate why it was a top medal winner as it looks very professional. Apparently the concrete blocks were a disused water tank the garden’s designers found while out walking, and while it’s a great way to reuse discarded objects, I found the garden as a whole too cold and uninviting.

The Reimagined Past garden at the RHS Flower Show in Cardiff

I loved this next garden, entitled The Reimagined Past, as I really liked the way the designers had incorporated reclaimed household objects such as the fireplace, sink and table into an outdoor setting. I also really liked the use of colour, and the orange-red bricks in particular added a striking contrast to the green and purple plants. This quirky, creative and colourful design is the sort of thing I’d like to have if I had a garden.

The 'Cwm Caerdydd' garden at the RHS Flower Show in Cardiff

I would have adored this next garden as a child with its man-made water feature, cave and mini-mountain to climb. I could imaging having great fun running over the top of the mound or having secret tea parties in the grotto behind the waterfall. Called Cwm Caerdydd (Cardiff Valley), it was designed to replicate the hills of the south Wales valleys, and it’s a fantastic, playful use of space.

Every year the flower show features a series of wheelbarrows planted by local school children and visitors to the show are asked to vote for their favourite. So before leaving, I had a look around the wheelbarrows. I love how much effort the children put into their wheelbarrows, they’re all brilliant, and it’s always difficult to decide which one to vote for. I ended up voting, not for the most eye-catching garden, but for one of the ones that was quite messy and looked as though the teachers had let the children run wild.

I spent a great couple of hours looking around this year’s RHS Flower Show in Cardiff, and I found myself wishing I had my own garden as there were so many lovely looking plants and flowers for sale. I’m not sure I’ll ever make much of a gardener as I’m not remotely green-fingered, but it’s fun spending a few hours pretending I could be and imagining what my ideal garden would look like.

Gloucester Cathedral

Gloucester Cathedral from the Secret Garden in the centre of the cloisters

Gloucester Cathedral might not have the same instant name recognition as some of England’s other great ecclesiastical buildings, such as Westminster Abbey, York Minster and Canterbury Cathedral, but it should – as it’s one of the country’s most magnificent cathedrals.

Dating back almost 1,000 years, it’s a huge structure with lots of elements to explore, including spectacular cloisters, a tranquil garden and some of the finest stained glass in England. The present cathedral was built between 1089 and 1100 on the site of an old Anglo-Saxon religious house. Originally known as St Peter’s Abbey, it became a cathedral following the dissolution of the monasteries in 1541.

King Edward II's tomb at Gloucester Cathedral

Gloucester Cathedral also holds the distinction of being one of only a handful of cathedrals in England where a monarch was laid to rest (the others being Winchester, Worcester and Canterbury). Edward II was buried here in a beautifully carved tomb (above) following his murder at nearby Berkeley Castle in 1327. William I’s eldest son and rightful heir, Robert of Normandy, is also buried in the cathedral, in a gloriously ornate and colourful tomb.

The architecture and craftsmanship throughout the cathedral are superb with high vaulted and fan-vaulted ceilings, delicate and intricate stone masonry, and countless stained glass windows. There are numerous chapels within the cathedral, too, including the elegant Lady Chapel (above, centre); the South Ambulatory Chapel, with its striking, blue stained glass windows installed in 2013 (above, right); and the St Andrew’s Chapel, with its colourful painted ceiling.

One of the most impressive parts of the cathedral is the quire, the area surrounding the high altar (above). The church within a church boasts a superb fan-vaulted ceiling, some lovely old wooden choir stalls and an enormous stained glass window (the largest in a medieval cathedral in Britain), known as the great east window.

The Great East Window at Gloucester Cathedral

The great east window (above) was commissioned by Edward III in the 1350s to commemorate his father Edward II and it’s an impressive sight, providing an exquisite backdrop to the wonderful stonework surrounding it. Around three-quarters of the original glass remains and the cathedral has gone to great lengths to preserve it.

During the Second World War, the glass panes were removed and stored in the cathedral’s crypt to protect them from potential bombing raids. It was then carefully pieced back together, using a photo as a guide, once the war was over.

A man crouches down to take a photo Inside the cloisters at Gloucester Cathedral

While the main body of the cathedral is a non-stop barrage of beautiful medieval architecture, my favourite part was the cloisters. The cloisters boast the world’s first fan-vaulted ceiling, intricate carvings all over the walls and rows of stained glass windows.

The cloisters have a magical quality and it’s hardly surprising they were used as a filming location for the first two Harry Potter films. They’re truly spectacular and some of the most beautiful cloisters I’ve seen. There’s also a small, pretty garden, known as the secret garden, in the middle of the cloisters. The garden was quiet and peaceful when I visited, the perfect place to curl up on a hot, sunny day with a book.

The cathedral is also home to a café, the Monks’ Kitchen, which leads off from the cloisters, and it’s where I stopped for lunch. The café sells home-made fare such as sandwiches, quiches, soups and jacket potatoes, as well as a selection of cakes and tray bakes. I had a toastie, made using fresh, good quality ingredients, which, at £4.95, was a bargain as the portion was enormous and it also came with side-helpings of salad, coleslaw and crisps.

The crypt under Gloucester Cathedral

The cathedral offers guided tours of the crypt and the tower, and during my visit I joined a tour of the crypt. The tour lasted some 20 to 30 minutes and was led by a helpful and informative volunteer named Keith. He took us down into the crypt and showed us around, explaining how the crypt was used in centuries past and how it was built (the cathedral’s foundations are only 2m deep and it’s had to be reinforced over the years to hold the weight of the subsequent building work).

Keith explained that during the Second World War, the coronation chair was brought down from Westminster Abbey and locked in the crypt for safekeeping, along with other valuable objects such as the great east window and Robert of Normandy’s tomb.

The crypt is cold and empty these days – there are no bodies buried in this crypt, although it did briefly house Edward II’s body before he was entombed. The only object of note is a very heavy-looking granite font (goodness knows how they got it into the crypt) designed by George Gilbert Scott, the architect behind London’s St Pancras Station, which sits in one of the crypt’s chapels.

I really enjoyed my visit to Gloucester Cathedral, it’s a magnificent building and one of the finest ecclesiastical buildings in the UK. I especially enjoyed ambling around the ethereal cloisters and my informative tour of the crypt, while the café was a great place to recharge my batteries. If you like medieval architecture and/or Harry Potter, it’s well worth a visit.

Gloucester

The city of Gloucester with the cathedral in the background

The Romans, the royals and the Georgians have all made their mark on Gloucester over the millennia, which means the city is a hodge podge of old, beautiful buildings mixed in with some much more recent eyesores. I’d long been keen to visit Gloucester, largely because of its grand cathedral, but I was also intrigued to find out what else this historic English city had to offer.

I arrived in the city by train and quickly set off in the direction of the tourist information office to pick up a map and plot my day. Luckily, Gloucester has direction signs throughout the city centre, so even if you don’t have a map you can easily find the city’s main sites.

Warehouses in the historic docks area of Gloucester

After checking out the map, I decided to head in the direction of the city’s historic docks, which are apparently the most inland port in the UK. The area around the docks has been regenerated in recent years and there are lots of bars, cafés, restaurants and shops in this attractive part of the city. There were quite a few people around the docks the day I visited, enjoying the April sunshine, and I imagine the area becomes quite lively at night, especially during the summer months.

The small Mariners' Chapel in Gloucester

After walking around the Victoria Dock, which was filled with colourful canal barges, I stopped to briefly look inside the old Mariners’ Chapel (above). The small chapel was opened in 1849 to serve the maritime community in Gloucester and during the Victorian era it welcomed seamen from all over the world, including the US, Norway, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands. Inside, there isn’t much to see – it’s just one large, very simply decorated room with white walls and wooden pews.

The ruins of Llanthony Secunda Priory in Gloucester

From the church I made my way over to the ruins of Llanthony Secunda Priory nearby. The priory was built in the 12th century after the original Llanthony Priory in Monmouthshire was captured by rebels and the priory’s monks were given the land to build themselves a new home.

I wasn’t able to visit the main body of the priory as it’s currently undergoing extensive restoration work thanks to a large lottery grant, but I was able to wander around the ruins of the priory’s tithe barn (above). The tithe barn is now just an empty shell, but from what I could see of the restoration works, the priory looks as though it will be an interesting place to visit once it opens to the public later this year.

The main basin surrounded by large red brick warehouses in Gloucester's historic docks

From the tithe barn, I walked back to the main basin of the historic docks along the Gloucester Sharpness Canal. There I continued to wander around the docks, admiring the Victorian warehouses and crossing a number of narrow lock bridges to get around. The area around the main basin, in contrast to the Victoria Dock, was quite quiet and made for a peaceful place for a stroll.

St Mary de Crypt Church in Gloucester

Having walked around the docks, I made my way back towards the city centre, passing the Blackfriars Priory and St Mary de Crypt Church (above) along the way.  Both buildings were sadly closed – Blackfriars Priory is only open on Sundays and Mondays, while the church looked as though it was undergoing extensive restoration work – and so I wasn’t able to go inside. I also passed the ruined Greyfriars on my walk taking a quick peep at the little that is left of the 13th century Franciscan monastery.

The Museum of Gloucester

Around the corner from Greyfriars is the Museum of Gloucester (above) and I stopped to go inside as I was keen to learn more about the city’s history. The small museum takes visitors on a tour of Gloucester through the ages, starting from the days of the dinosaurs and culminating in more recent times. The museum costs £5 to enter and the ticket also gives you entrance to the Gloucester Life Museum.

The museum doesn’t have a huge number of really interesting and unusual artefacts, although there are a few stand outs including a 2,000-year-old Celtic mirror found buried alongside a woman on nearby Birdlip Hill (above, top left), the remains of the city’s Roman walls and the skeleton of a Roman woman (above, top right), as well as a very early version of backgammon (above, bottom).

The family-friendly museum has bundles of charm, the staff are welcoming and the curators have done an excellent job making the most of the artefacts on display. They’ve been quite creative in how they present the objects and tried to make the museum as interesting and exciting as possible for visitors.

There are huge dinosaur models to be found throughout the museum and there are lots of activities for children to enjoy, too. There’s also a great temporary photography exhibition featuring some incredible wildlife photographs taken by a local photographer Margaret Robson, as well as a modern art exhibition on the first floor.

I really enjoyed my visit to the museum, it was interesting, excellently curated and I learned a lot about Gloucester (while I knew Gloucester was a Roman city, I hadn’t realised quite how important and prosperous it was).

From the museum, I made my way through the city centre to the cathedral where I spent the rest of my day. I’ll write about the cathedral in my next post as it’s such a magnificent piece of architecture it deserves its own post (and this post will be 2,000 words long at the rate I’m going!).

The remains of St Oswald's Priory in Gloucester

Before leaving Gloucester, I headed over to the ruined St Oswald’s Priory, the burial place of Alfred the Great’s daughter Lady Aethelflaed who once ruled the kingdom of Mercia, only to discover there wasn’t much of it left (above).

I really enjoyed my day trip to Gloucester. The city wasn’t quite what I’d anticipated – I’d expected it to be much more affluent in the centre. There are lots of hideous 1960/1970s buildings and rundown shopping areas interspersed between the beautiful historic buildings and the city doesn’t make the most of some of its old buildings. Nevertheless the historic docks are great, while the area around the cathedral is picturesque and charming, and it’s somewhere I’d like to return to.

Info

Museum of Gloucester, Brunswick Road, Gloucester GL1 1HP
Open Tuesdays to Saturdays, 10am to 5pm
Adults £5, Concessions £3, Children under five free

Poitiers

Cathedrale Saint Pierre in Poitiers

With its ancient churches, numerous bookstores and fantastic shops, Poitiers is one of my favourite French cities. Its medieval centre is a delight to wander around, a maze of winding streets featuring charming timber-clad buildings and distractingly tempting food shops and cafés.

When we arrived in the city, we decided to take a self-guided walking tour around its medieval centre, which took in most of the city’s sights. After a quick cup of coffee near the university, we set off down the Rue Gambetta, stopping to look in the many shops that took our fancy – and there were quite a few! – along the way.

Our first destination was the Church of Saint Hilary the Great. The church is a short walk beyond the city centre, tucked away in a residential area, and as I followed the map to the church, I had to repeatedly reassure everyone that we were going the right way.

The church is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was built in the 11th century to honour the first Bishop of Poitiers, St Hilaire. The Romanesque church is a striking, weathered building, the highlight inside being its beautiful high vaulted ceiling, and I was glad we’d made the detour to go to the church as it was well worth seeing.

The back of the Palais de Justice in Poitiers

From the church, we walked back towards the city centre, where we passed the impressive town hall and carried on walking in the direction of the Palace of Justice. The palace was once the home of the counts and dukes of Aquitaine, and counts the legendary Eleanor of Aquitaine among its former inhabitants.

Its renowned for its dining hall, the Salle des Pas Perdus (the hall of the lost footsteps), which was commissioned by Eleanor of Aquitaine in the late 12th century and is so-called because it’s said to be so big you can’t hear any footsteps within. We weren’t able to go inside on the day we visited, so we stopped to admire the stunning view of the back of the palace instead (above).

Baptistery of St Jean in Poitiers

We then made our way to the Rue Jean-Jaures and carried on down the street to the Baptistery of St John (above). The Merovingian baptistery is said to be the oldest church in France and dates back to the 4th century. We had a quick look inside and found it to be a fascinating, unusual place with amazing medieval frescoes on the walls and random stone sarcophagi dotted around the place.

Saint Pierre Cathedral in Poitiers

From the baptistery, we headed over to the city’s cathedral, the Cathédrale de Saint Pierre (above). The impressive 12th century cathedral was commissioned by Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and was built on the site of a ruined Roman basilica. It’s a massive, imposing structure from the outside, while inside it’s an elegant space with creamy stone walls and a high vaulted ceiling.

An ornate doorway at the Saint Pierre Cathedral in Poitiers

We spent ages looking around the cathedral, admiring its many notable features including its 13th century wooden choir stalls, its bright, colourful stained glass windows and its grand 18th century organ. I was particularly taken by the intricate carvings above the main doors (above).

Having looked around the cathedral, we headed back to the town centre, passing some quirky and intriguing shops on the Rue de la Cathédrale and the large Notre-Dame la Grande church as we went.

Before leaving, I was keen to visit a large bookshop I’d passed earlier in the day on the Rue Gambetta, Gilbert Joseph. I’m a massive bibliophile and always on the look out for some new (French) children’s history books I can read, so I was keen to check out their selection. Despite having a very thorough rummage – much to everyone else’s consternation – I couldn’t find what I was looking for.

With its long and varied history, characterful buildings and excellent shopping, Poitiers is a wonderful city and I could easily have spent longer there. In fact, I probably could have done with a whole day just to browse in all the interesting shops I passed. The food shops in particular looked very enticing, especially the chocolate shops and patisseries, and I’d probably need a month to eat everything that took my fancy.  I thoroughly enjoyed my day trip to the city, so much so if I were ever to move to a French city, Poitiers would be at the top of my list.

Coulon

The bridge over the canal in Coulon

The tree-lined canals and rivers of the Marais Poitevin are renowed for their idyllic beauty, and as they were only an hour or so’s drive from Parthenay, we were keen to see this fabled part of France for ourselves.

The Marais Poitevin is a huge area of marshland stretching over some 970 sq km and the part we were keen to see was the La Venise Verte, or the Green Venice, so-called because of the green duck weed that covers the waterways. Our destination was Coulon, the unofficial capital of the region. As usual we arrived at lunchtime and after a quick lunch, we set about exploring the area.

A cafe, shop and a church in the centre of Coulon

The small village of Coulon is listed as one of le plus beaux villages de France (most beautiful villages in France) and it’s a charming place, if a little touristy. There are a number of shops and restaurants that are clearly geared towards visiting tourists with shops selling local ‘artisan’ produce and souvenirs, such as fridge magnets. As a result I didn’t find it quite as appealing as some of the other plus beaux villages I’ve visited such as Monpazier and Angles sur l’Anglin.

Boats lined up along the canal at Coulon

Having looked around the village, we made our way down to the river and the heart of the Green Venice. The Sèvre-Niortaise River runs through the village, and down by the water’s edge you can explore the surrounding network of canals and rivers by renting punts or taking a guided boat tour. The river bank is a pretty place with lots of characterful buildings overlooking the river, as well as numerous willow and poplar trees lining the banks.

Bridge over the canal in Coulon

We strolled along the river bank for quite a way into the surrounding countryside, enjoying the water’s peaceful and relaxing charms, and admiring the attractive buildings we passed along the way. Having ambled for quite a while down the river bank, we turned back towards Coulon where we joined a guided boat trip along the river. The boat trip was pleasant and scenic, but nothing spectacular.

L'Eglise de Sainte-Trinite in Coulon

After our boat ride, we strolled back through the village, stopping to look inside the old church in the centre of the village, the Eglise de Sainte-Trinité (above). Our day trip to Coulon was pleasant enough, but if I’m honest, I wasn’t blown away by the experience and I was left feeling rather underwhelmed. France’s Green Venice is a little touristy for my tastes and nowhere near as spectacular as its reputation and name suggests – it’s perfectly nice, but no more than that.

Angles-sur-l’Anglin

View of the cliff-top fortress and a mill on the river bank in Angles-sur-l'Anglin

One of the plus beaux villages de France (most beautiful villages in France), the village of Angles-sur-l’Anglin is, as its label suggests, ridiculously pretty. Situated around the idyllic River Anglin, the charming village boasts picture-perfect medieval buildings, breathtaking views and a ruined cliff-top castle. It’s also home to a series of 14,000-year-old Paleolithic cave sculptures.

The medieval streets in Angles-sur-l'Anglin

We arrived in Angles-sur-l’Anglin at lunchtime and after a spot of lunch, spent a couple of hours ambling around the village’s winding, narrow streets, admiring the attractive architecture, taking lots of photos and looking in the occasional shop we passed along the way.

The village was quiet when we visited, which added to its idyllic charms. It also meant I could take my time playing with the settings on my camera and have a little fun with my photography as I didn’t have to worry about people stepping into my shot.

Angles-sur-l'Anglin fortress

With it’s dramatic position high on the cliff overlooking the River Anglin, one building in the village stands out from all the rest – the castle. The ruined fortress, which was originally built between the 12th and 15th centuries for the bishops of Poitiers, is now in such a precarious state it’s closed to the public for safety reasons. But you can still look around the outside, which is what we did after walking around the centre of the village.

The castle is located in a strategic position between the ancient regions of Berry, Poitou and Touraine, which were hotly contested by the French and the English during the Middle Ages. When we were up at the castle, it was easy to see why the bishops of Poitiers would build a fortress here as it’s elevated position makes it a great place from which to detect an invading army.

After seeing what we could of the ruined castle, we made our way to the highest point on the cliff, which is home to the Saint Pierre Chapel. The tiny, unassuming and abandoned-looking chapel was closed, so we couldn’t look inside, but the views over the village, the castle and the river were fantastic and well-worth the climb.

River Anglin in Angles-sur-l'Anglin

From the chapel, we strolled back down the hill, past the castle, to the river. There we ambled along the picturesque river bank, stopping to look at an old water mill along the way. After a short walk, we turned back and made our way to Roc-aux-Sorciers.

Roc-aux-Sorciers, or Sorcerers’ Rock as it’s known in English, is a rock shelter featuring 14,000-year-old cave sculptures of animals. The sculptures are closed to the public for conservation reasons, but the site is home to an interpretation centre where you can view replicas of the sculptures and find out more about their Paleolithic creators.

Unfortunately when we got to Roc-aux-Sorciers, we found we’d made that rookie mistake of not checking the opening times before we visited and the centre was closed. We might not have seen the replicas of the Paleolithic sculptures, but we nevertheless had a lovely day out in Angles-sur-l’Anglin, which more than lived up to its billing as one of France’s most beautiful villages.