Sarlat le Caneda

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To the north of the Dordogne lies the pretty town of Sarlat le Caneda. Home to an abundance of picturesque medieval and renaissance buildings, the town is so renowned for its attractive architecture, it’s one of the most popular tourist spots in the region.

On arriving in Sarlat, we headed straight to the most photogenic part – the old town centre. There we walked around the maze of narrow cobbled streets and alleyways, admiring the beautiful buildings around us, and paying particular attention to the buildings’ intricate and eye-catching details such as turrets, carvings, and arched doors and windows.

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Sarlat is a foodie town and we were lucky enough to visit on a Wednesday, one of its two market days (the other being Saturday), when its narrow, winding streets are filled with stalls selling fresh produce such as fruits and vegetables, sausages, meats, cheeses and more. We spent quite a bit of time wandering around the food stalls, then stopped by the large covered market that’s filled with yet more food stalls, where I bought some lovely little macarons.

Having thoroughly checked out all the food stalls, we made our way to the Manoir de Gisson, a curious little museum housed in a couple of attractive townhouses that once belonged to high-ranking members of the Sarlat nobility. On going inside, we were greeted by strange and interesting artefacts, as well as some grisly and very painful looking torture instruments.

We carried on through the museum, which then turned into a tour of the living quarters showcasing how the rich townsfolk lived during the medieval and renaissance eras. The museum isn’t very big so it didn’t take long to see it all, but I did leave a little bemused by the two very distinct, contrasting sections. It’s the only museum I’ve been to that combines plushly-decorated living quarters with torture instruments and unusual curiosities.

By now we were getting hungry, so we stopped for lunch in one of the many cafes lining the town’s squares. The food was good, but nothing special, and tummies sated we headed up towards the main street where we carried on admiring the architecture, and popping in and out of the many shops.

As pretty as Sarlat is, I didn’t love it. I found it a little too touristy for my tastes and felt it was on that dangerous cusp of beginning to cater so much to tourists that it loses the charms that made it special in the first place. That being said, if you’re in the region, it’s worth visiting (for now) to see what the fuss is about – just make sure you visit on market day and take advantage of all the wonderful produce on sale.

We’re all going on a boar hunt

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Soon after arriving in the Dordogne, I found a little trail that led from our country gite to Monpazier. Despite being rather untrodden in parts, the trail was a great little 40-minute shortcut to Monpazier taking us through some woods, passed a little stream, a number of farms, and finally, up a hill to the town on top.

Having successfully navigated this walking trail, I’d noticed another trail leading from our gite towards the town of Biron, a few miles away. Biron is home to a grand chateau (above), so I decided to see if this trail turned out to be just as good as the one to Monpazier. My mother, worried at the thought of me hiking through the unknown French countryside by myself, decided to come with me.

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We set off along the path at the bottom of the garden along a narrow ledge that led into the surrounding woods. We clambered over the various brambles and branches lying in our way, winding through the forest until we came out by a field in a neighbouring farm. We tramped across the field to a nearby road, then followed it for a bit until we came to a bend. Instead of continuing along the road, we turned down a path into a big patch of woodland.

The path was wide and clearly marked underfoot. It was a hot and sunny day, and so far we hadn’t come across another living soul. We followed the path deeper and deeper into the woods, when suddenly we heard loud barking. Now I’m a little uncomfortable around dogs, especially large dogs, as is my mother. The noise made us a little jittery as it sounded as though there were lots of dogs roaming the woods, but we carried on regardless.

A few moments later we heard a gunshot. By now, we were spooked and my mother suggested we head back. As we turned around and started walking, an old man appeared carrying a shotgun gesturing to us to continue through the woods, seemingly telling us, “It’s fine, there’s nothing to worry about.”

A little bemused as to what was going on, we followed the man’s directions and headed back into the woods. Soon we heard more dogs and more gunshots; we also met another man with a shotgun. At this point, the penny dropped that there was a hunt going on in the woods.

As we continued, we passed yet more hunters, dogs and even a van – and as we walked past the van, we could clearly hear something rattling around inside. We walked through the woods, intrigued by the activity around us, and as we reached the other side came upon another van with a woman standing beside it.

Using my best French, I asked her what was going on and she told us they were hunting boar. In recent years there’s been an explosion of wild boar in France with more than two million roaming the French countryside. The animals destroy crops, breed like rabbits and are responsible for a high number of car accidents, so for the past seven years there’s been a national control plan in place urging hunters and farmers to keep their numbers down.

By now fully clued up on what we’d unwittingly stumbled upon, we thanked the woman and carried on down the path to Biron. We crossed a large field and came out onto a road, surrounded on either side by woodland. As we wandered down the road, a swarm of midgies and flies joined us and it got so bad we couldn’t keep our eyes open. The flies and midgies were relentless and as more and more joined the party, it became impossible to keep going. So we turned back.

A quarter of an hour after saying goodbye to the boar hunters, we were saying hello to them again. This time walking through the woods, I felt much safer knowing what was going on around us. I also took the time to pay attention to what the hunters were doing. I’d never witnessed a hunt before, but it seemed they were using the dogs to drive out the boar before capturing them.

The afternoon turned out to be one of the most random experiences I’ve had. I may not have made it to the magnificent chateau of Biron, but I did stumble upon a wild boar hunt, something I never thought I’d do. It was a little unnerving when we initially stumbled upon it, but I was fascinated when we discovered what was actually going on. Some of my most memorable travel experiences are those unexpected moments that you couldn’t plan even if you tried, and this afternoon’s adventure turned out to be one of the most unusual.

 

 

Cahors

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Of all the places I visited when staying in the Dordogne, the place I was most excited about seeing was the medieval town of Cahors. Not only does the town lend its name to my favourite type of wine, but its famed medieval bridge, the Pont Valentré, had been on my French bucket list since I was a child when I came across it in a book about France and was captivated.

Nestled in a bend in the river Lot, Cahors is the capital of the Lot region (to the south of the Dordogne) and dates back to the 1st century BC. Despite its early origins, the town came to prominence during the medieval era and its old town is home to some spectacular, well-preserved medieval buildings.

On arriving in the town, we parked the car in the centre of Cahors, and immediately made our way down to the old town. There we spent a fair bit of time wandering up and down the narrow warren of streets, admiring the medieval and Renaissance buildings.

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Our first stop was the magnificent Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a stop on the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route. An architectural gem, the 12th century cathedral is beautiful and has undergone regular and extensive rebuilding over the centuries, resulting in a glorious mix of architectural styles. The cathedral proudly boasts two massive domes over the nave, the largest in south-west France.

We headed inside to explore the interior of the cathedral, admiring the nave, the domes and the stained-glass windows, before heading to the cloisters. The pretty cloisters are centred around a small, neat garden and offer great views of the cathedral. There you can see the cathedral from lots of different angles and I was able to gain a much better appreciation of its architecture. The domes, in particular, stood out with their round navy slate roofs sitting atop the smooth cream stone and dark stained-glass windows.

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Having fully explored the cathedral, we moved on to the part I was most excited about, the incredible Pont Valentré. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Pont Valentré was built in the 14th century and took some 50 years to complete. The striking 172m-long bridge features three Gothic towers that boast great views over the Lot. In the 19th century, the bridge was restored by the architect Paul Gout who commissioned Antoine-Cyprien Calmon, a local artist, to carve a small stone devil into the middle tower.

The devil represents an old legend around the construction of the bridge – according to the tale, the original architect sold his soul to the devil in return for help building the bridge. If the devil failed to help the architect at any point, their pact would be broken. So the architect decided to try to get out of the arrangement by tricking the devil and in revenge, the devil made sure the last stone laid on the middle tower kept falling off.

The bridge is fantastic and an incredible piece of engineering. The towers really command your attention, there’s great attention to detail and it’s very well-preserved for its age. It’s quite unlike any other bridge I’ve seen, so needless to say, I was really impressed by it.

The only thing I didn’t like were the large number of elderly tourists, who as soon as I pointed my camera at something would walk in front of it and not move. If I was one of those people who spent ages lining up my shot, I’d understand people getting fed up and walking in front of the camera, but I’m pretty much a point-and-shoot girl (as evidenced by many of my photos), and I found it rude and unnecessary. It wouldn’t have killed them to wait a couple of seconds. But after lots of patience and waiting about, I finally managed to get a few elderly tourist-free shots.

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After spending quite a bit of time exploring every facet of the Pont Valentré, we headed back to the car for a tour of the Lot Valley – and its wineries. Once we left Cahors, it didn’t take long before we hit upon the first wineries and we soon stopped at one. I was in seventh heaven as we wandered around, tasting the glorious bottles of cahors and marvelling at the sheer size of some of the bottles – some were enormous!

A few purchases later, we continued our tour of the valley, snaking our way along the banks of the Lot, crossing the river every so often as we followed the winding roads. The Lot Valley is home to some picturesque old towns and villages, and even if there weren’t lots of lovely wines to sample along the way, it would make for an incredible drive as it’s so pretty and peaceful. It was a really lovely way to end a fantastic day out.

 

Bergerac

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Sitting on the banks of the Dordogne, medieval Bergerac has a long and turbulent history, and is one of the largest towns in the region. During the middle ages, the town changed hands repeatedly between the French and the English, until it was reclaimed for good by the French king Charles VII in 1450. It was also a Protestant stronghold during the 16th and 17th centuries.

On arriving in Bergerac, we headed straight to the old town where we picked up a map with a self-guided walking tour. The town’s medieval centre isn’t enormous, it only takes an hour or so to walk around it, but it is very attractive. The old town is full of well-preserved timber-clad and light-coloured stone houses, and there are lots of flowers everywhere, adding to its charms.

We followed the walking trail around the winding medieval streets and down towards the river, where we enjoyed great views over the magnificent Dordogne. On the way down to the river, we passed a water level (above) that showed how high the water level had been when the Dordogne has broken its banks over the years. There was also an abandoned wooden boat down by the water’s edge, a reminder of the city’s past as an important trading hub when boats would transport goods up and down the river.

One of my favourite things about Bergerac was the statues of Cyrano de Bergerac, the hero of Edmond Rostand’s play, dotted around the town. There’s a colourful statue of the big-nosed hero on top of the steps of the Place Pélissière beside the 12th-century Église Saint-Jacques. And another statue made out of stone in a little garden in the middle of the Place de la Mirpe.

After spending a good hour or so walking around the town, we stopped off for a late lunch near the Place Pélissière. I enjoyed our day out in Bergerac, it’s a pleasant, pretty town and a nice place to spend a relaxing couple of hours strolling past some very attractive old buildings.

 

Monpazier

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One of les plus beaux villages en France, the utterly delightful bastide town of Monpazier, south of the Dordogne, more than lives up to its billing as one of the country’s most beautiful villages. I adored it. So much so that if I were ever to move to France, this is where I’d want to live.

The town dates back to 1284 when it was founded by the English king, Edward I. Its one of a series of bastide towns and villages in south-western France built by the English during the Hundred Years War in the 13th and 14th centuries. A bastide town is a fortified town, surrounded by large, thick stone walls and built to a grid layout – and Monpazier is one of the best surviving examples.

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As a typical bastide town, Monpazier has a large square at its centre, a series of streets and alleyways leading off it, and fortified gates around the edges providing entrance to the town (today, three of the original six gates remain).

Around the central square is a series of covered walkways home to shops, including a tabac where I’d get my daily newspaper; restaurants; and a great little café, where I’d stop off for a hot chocolate in the morning. The square also hosts the town’s market on a Thursday, as well as a number of flea markets throughout the summer where I had great fun browsing (and buying) antiques.

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Monpazier is home to some excellent shopping. There’s a fantastic leather shop, where I bought a black leather handbag – everything in there was so nice, I could easily have bought half the shop. There are also a number of shops selling home furnishings, a butcher’s that sells portions of homemade lasagne and quichés, and stores selling local food stuffs, such as foie gras and pécharmant wine.

One of my favourite spots was the fabulous patisserie on the Rue Saint-Jacques. The cakes and desserts were so good I made a daily pilgrimage (apart from the day it was closed) to sample a different treat – the walnut tart was particularly good. By the end of the week, the lady who ran the patisserie must have thought “You, again?” as I enthusiastically sauntered through the doors.

Monpazier’s light coloured stone buildings are incredibly pretty and largely untouched since medieval times – it’s so charming, I found myself happily ambling around on a daily basis, somewhat in awe of its loveliness. Adding to its many charms, it has a relaxed vibe, and the people are warm and friendly, too. If you’re looking for somewhere to base yourself in the Dordogne, you could do a lot worse than Monpazier.

 

Dordogne

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With its lush green forests, picturesque medieval architecture and gourmet food, the Dordogne is one of my favourite parts of France. Cutting a swathe through the heart of the region in the south-west of France is its namesake river. The magnificent Dordogne River flows for more than 300 miles from the mountains of the Auvergne near Clermont-Ferrand to the Gironde Estuary, just north of Bordeaux.

I first visited the Dordogne when I was around eight years old on a family holiday. We were staying in a caravan on a campsite and I have fond memories of riding through the campsite’s forest on my bike during the hot sunny days and being awe-struck by the epic thunderstorms at night.

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So when my parents said they were renting a gite in the Dordogne for a week and would I like to join them, I jumped at the chance. We stayed in a lovely little house, just outside the bastide town of Monpazier, and from there we day-tripped to nearby Bergerac, the pretty medieval city of Sarlat-la-Canéda and the stunning Chateau de Biron (above). We also toured the nearby countryside, as well as the vineyards of the Lot valley and its capital Cahors.

France is renowned for its excellent cuisine and, in my opinion, the region’s gastronomy is among the country’s very best. Put simply the Dordogne is a foodie’s paradise. Home to deliciously ripe fresh fruits and vegetables (I discovered black tomatoes in a greengrocer’s in Monpazier), beans and strong cheeses. Duck and goose can commonly be found on restaurant menus, along with nuts in various forms – I enjoyed more than one walnut tart during my week’s stay. Foie gras is also a popular local delicacy, despite its notoriety, and you can find it for sale all over the region.

The Dordogne’s wines may not be as famous as those of the neighbouring Gironde, but it’s home to some very drinkable wines. Péchamant, from the Bergerac area, is a full-bodied red and this became our wine of choice during our week as there was a little shop selling cheap, drinkable boxes of it in Monpazier. The region also produces the Montbazillac dessert wine. To the south of the Dordogne, the Lot valley is home to my favourite wine, the Cahors.

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But what I like best about the region is its traditional, relaxed way of life. The people are warm, friendly and welcoming, and there’s a slow, laid-back charm to the area. If you’re looking for somewhere quiet and relaxing, with a little bit of sightseeing, history, beautiful scenery and incredible food and wine, there’s no place better than the Dordogne.

 

Bath

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Famed for its Roman Baths and gorgeous Georgian architecture, Bath is a compact, picture-perfect city. Despite its undeniable good looks, I have a complicated relationship with the city as I once spent a month living there and loathed every minute. Nine years after vowing never to set foot in the city again, I decided the time was ripe to revisit it – and surprisingly, I didn’t hate it. In fact, I kinda liked it…

On arriving in Bath, we headed straight for the city centre and the main shopping district to get our bearings. It was a Friday, so the main streets were really busy with shoppers and filled with the usual big-name high street stores, so we wandered past without stopping. We ambled up Stall Street first, past the Roman Baths, then Union Street and Milsom Street.

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After cutting a swathe through the city centre, we carried on northwards until we reached The Circle. The well-known circular avenue is home to some beautiful Georgian villas and we stopped to admire the architecture and take a few photos before heading to the left down Brock Street to the famed Royal Crescent. The Royal Crescent is delightful and is quintessentially Bath to me. When you’re there, it’s hard not to imagine Jane Austen’s heroines ambling across the gardens in front of it or calling upon a friend in one of the houses for tea.

Having stopped to admire it, we then headed back towards the city centre. The lanes and alleyways that lead off the main shopping streets are teeming with independent shops and we spent quite a bit of time weaving in and out the lanes, looking in the many excellent shops.

By now, it was lunchtime and we were getting hungry, so we decided to stop somewhere for lunch. Luckily, we were spoilt for choice as Bath is filled with fantastic places to eat. The Bertinet Bakery, which sells gorgeous breads, pastries and cakes, left my mouth watering and tummy rumbling. I was sorely tempted by the lusciously plump Bath buns and croissants, but thinking I needed something more substantial for lunch, decided to come back later to pick some up on my way home. This turned out to be a huge error as when we went back two hours later, they were all gone!

We ended up stopping at Rosarios, a tiny Sicilian café in Northumberland Place (they also have a branch in Bristol). The food was delicious and the service friendly and welcoming. I had a lovely Caprese salad washed down with a glass of homemade lemonade infused with basil and ginger. We were so impressed with the food, and their homemade pesto, that we asked for a pot of the pesto to take away with us.

Tummies full, we headed to the Roman Baths to continue our sightseeing. The Roman Baths are a series of bathing pools built around natural hot springs that date back to Roman times. There’s a museum built around them, which tells you about their history, the people who would have used the baths and showcases Roman artefacts from the site. You can also see the remains of some of the original Roman buildings.

We arrived at the baths around 2pm, which turned out to be a big mistake as a number of school groups arrived at the same time. Undeterred we headed inside, but the place was heaving and the museum packed with people standing around listening to their audio guides and blocking the displays and pathways.

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The baths themselves were lovely and we were able to wander around those fairly easily, but we weren’t able to get in to see many of the displays as there were too many people, refusing to move. As a result, I didn’t see much of the museum. I like to look at all the artefacts and read the accompanying information, but I would have been there for hours trying to do this and after a few frustrating attempts, gave up. Instead I squeezed past where I could and stopped off at the quieter displays.

What I did see was interesting and there’s clearly a lot of history to see and read about, but the Roman Baths really needs to think about capping the visitor numbers as the hoards of people made for an unpleasant visitor experience.

On leaving the baths, we headed next door to Bath Abbey. The abbey was founded in the 8th century as a Benedictine monastery and its claim to fame is that King Edgar, the first king of England, was crowned in the abbey in 973.

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The abbey is a beautiful piece of architecture and is similar to most English cathedrals. We had a good look around the abbey, admiring the building, especially the lovely stained glass windows and high decorative ceilings.

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Having explored the abbey, we wandered towards the River Avon to take a look at Pulteney Bridge and Weir. Pulteney Bridge is an 18th century covered bridge, home to shops and cafés. The Georgian bridge is a charming sight, so we stopped to take some photos, before strolling along it and looking in all the shops.

I enjoyed my day trip to Bath, even the disappointing visit to the Roman Baths, and I’d go back again. The highlight was discovering so many incredible foodie places and I’m going to have to go back just to try some of the tempting cafés and restaurants we didn’t get a chance to visit – and I will definitely be stopping by The Bertinet Bakery to pick up a much-longed for Bath bun!

Info

The Bertinet Bakery
1 New Bond Street Place, Bath BA1 1BH

Open 8am-5pm Monday-Friday, 8.30am-5.30pm Saturday
bertinet.com/bertinetbakery/bakery.php

Rosarios Café
18 Northumberland Place, Bath BA1 5AR

rosarioscafe.co.uk

The Roman Baths
Abbey Church Yard, Bath BA1 1LZ
romanbaths.co.uk

Bath Abbey
Abbey Church Yard, Bath BA1 1LZ
bathabbey.org

Lisbon travel guide

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A couple of months ago, I found out that a mini-travel guide to Lisbon I’d put together for a friend was doing the rounds of our friends and friends of friends. According to the friend I’d written it for, “it’s like a proper travel guide”. Which got me thinking that, as I have a travel blog and my friends seem to find it useful, I should probably post it.

I’ll blog about my trip in more detail later this year, but for now here’s my mini-travel guide to Lisbon. I hope you find it useful, too – and if you have any other recommendations, please share them in the comments.

City centre

There’s not much to do in central Lisbon itself in terms of sightseeing, I just mooched around the different districts. But the castle on top of the hill is well worth a visit as it has amazing views over the city.

Belem

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Belem is one of the suburbs and there’s loads to do. Just hop on the number 15 tram from Praca da Figueira (you pay on the tram) and it will take you there. There you’ll find the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, a world heritage site and monastery. It’s quite cool to walk around, although the queues are long so it’s worth getting there early. There’s also an amazing palace up on the hill that no-one knows about, the Palacio de Ajuda, that’s definitely worth seeing.

Belem is also home to the café that popularised the Portuguese custard tart and you have to visit it – the tarts are fantastic! The Antiga Confeitaria de Belem is just down the road from the Mosteiro, so I popped in there for breakfast before starting my day.

Other sights include the Torre de Belem, a tower on the river, but to be honest it’s a 20-minute walk away and nothing special, so might be worth skipping. I also went to the electricity museum, which was weird, but cool – it’s housed in an old electricity sub-station and is one-half electricity museum, one-half art gallery.

Beach

I went to Cascais, a little fishing port outside Lisbon. It had a little beach and wasn’t really worth the trip, but on the way there loads of people were hopping off the train to go to the various beaches en route to Cascais. I got the train from Cais do Sodre station, so if you want the beach, I’d hop on the train and follow the locals.

Sintra

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My favourite place I visited. It’s a little town in the mountains just south of Lisbon (get the train from Rossio station). Quinta da Regalaria is a world heritage site in the mountains. It’s a bizarre folly/country house with extensive gardens where they’ve built towers, caves and lakes, and is great fun to explore.

The other thing to do is to follow the knights’ templar trail up the mountain to the castle and palace at the top (it looks horrendous from the bottom, but it’s not actually steep or tiring). You can get the bus to the top of the hill, but I don’t think it would be as much fun.

The Castelo dos Mouros was built on top of the hill by the Moors around the 12th century and is a series of castle ramparts that go all over the top of the mountain. It’s spectacular to walk around and the views from the top are incredible.

The Palacio de Pena, meanwhile, is a quirky, kitsch palace with an art deco exterior and extensive grounds. It’s kind of crazy and a complete contrast to the palace at Belem. There’s also a palace in the middle of Sintra, the Palacio Nacional, but it isn’t as interesting, so I’d leave it ’til last and do it if you have time.

Food and drink

Time Out Mercado da Ribeira, 18.05.15

The Bairro Alto is Lisbon’s food and drink district, and is teeming with restaurants and bars. I had the most amazing clams (a Lisbon speciality) at Petiscos No Bairro on the Rua da Atalaia. I also had a great meal at O Cantinho do Bem Estar, it’s really rustic, home cooked food. The portion sizes are enormous, it’s crazy cheap (I had a massive plate of food and half a jug of wine for 10 euros) and the people that run it are lovely.

Time Out runs a food market (above) at the market across the road from Cais do Sodre station. There are 30-odd stalls from top Lisbon restaurants, food shops and bars, and you take your pick from them and sit down at the tables in the middle of the market. It’s great and you can try loads of different stuff.

I didn’t get round to it when I was in Lisbon, but Tagide is supposed to be great for lunch. You can get a three course meal, plus wine and coffee for 12 euros or so, and all the food guides recommend it.

You should also make sure to try Ginginha, a Portuguese cherry brandy (sounds disgusting, but really nice!), and white port, it’s not as sweet as regular port and hard to come by outside Lisbon. Also, do you like cinnamon? A lot of the desserts have cinnamon in them, especially those that are branded ‘Portuguese’.

Caerphilly Castle

Wales’s biggest castle and the second largest in the UK (after Windsor), Caerphilly Castle is a massive stone fortress surrounded by a series of lakes. Built between 1268 and 1271 by Gilbert de Clare, the Earl of Hertford and Gloucester, the castle was designed to defend south Wales against the expansion of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, prince of Gwynedd, who was attempting to unite the principality.

The castle was the first in the UK to be built in a concentric style, that is a castle within a castle. I used to visit Caerphilly Castle as a child and back then, the structure was in a state of disrepair and all you could do was walk around the grounds as it was too unsafe to go inside. That’s all changed today and now you can explore much of the inner castle, which includes the great hall and various towers and passages.

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The castle is only 20 minutes from Cardiff and having not been there for 20-odd years, I was keen to find out how it had changed over the years. First up, I made a beeline for the castle’s famed leaning tower. The leaning tower has been on an incline since the 17th century and now leans more than the famous tower of Pisa. I was delighted to discover that not only is the tower still standing (and leaning), but there’s now a statue of a man “holding it up”.

After taking a few photos of the tower, I headed through the Inner East Gatehouse to explore the main body of the castle. There isn’t much to see within the castle as most of the rooms are empty, but the Inner East Gatehouse is home to a couple of small exhibitions, including an interactive display about the castle’s history where I inadvertently blew up the castle (virtually, of course).

There are several towers and passages to explore and you can even get to the top of a few of the towers, which provide great views over the castle and the surrounding area. I spent a good hour or so wandering all over the castle and seeking out all the nooks and crannies to explore, and had a great time imagining what the castle must have been like during the 14th century.

After having a good look around the inner castle and the middle ward, which surrounds it, I crossed one of the drawbridges back towards the entrance and headed to the right where there’s a grassy area with a few more bits and pieces to explore (above). The area is home to a couple of small towers and a series of wooden catapults that show how its medieval guardians defended the formidable fortress during its heyday. I really enjoyed my morning at Caerphilly Castle – it certainly lived up to my expectations.

Info
Caerphilly Castle, Caerphilly CF83 1JD
Open daily
Adults £7.95, Children and concessions £5.20
cadw.gov.wales/daysout/caerphilly-castle

Ho Chi Minh City – Part 2

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Just before lunch we headed to the Reunification Palace in the centre of Ho Chi Minh City. Home to the president of South Vietnam in 1975 when the North’s tanks came rolling in, it’s stood in a virtual time warp ever since. To get to the palace, we walked through the large pale grey gates surrounding it and past an immaculate round lawn where we headed up a flight of steps to the main entrance.

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Inside, the palace is home to ceremonial spaces, a banqueting hall, meeting rooms, seating areas, a dining room, screening room and even an indoor rockery. And as befitting a presidential palace, it’s lavishly decorated in parts. The enormous Conference Hall (above), for example, is filled with chintzy red sofas and armchairs with a red patterned carpet. While the Ambassador’s Chamber is a large gold-themed room featuring Japanese-style laquered furnishings.

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While the entire palace is an ode to the 1970s, when I walked inside the National Security Council Chamber (above), I really felt as though I was stepping back in time. The room has maps all over the walls, basic furniture and an amazing series of pastel coloured phones in a row on a wooden cupboard.

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Downstairs in the basement is the war bunker, a claustrophobic space full of sparsely-furnished rooms. One of the rooms was empty bar a table, chair, filing cabinet and a series of phones; another just had a bed, a small table and a couple of phones. The Reunification Palace is perfectly preserved and there’s lots to see. I really felt as though I’d been transported back to the 1970s as I walked around and it offers an intriguing insight into what life was like at the palace at the time.

Having spent the morning sightseeing, we spent the rest of the day ambling around the city centre, taking a walking tour of the main sights, such as the elegant Municipal Theatre and the People’s Committee Building, and doing a spot of shopping.

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Ho Chi Minh City is great for shopping and it’s worth spending a little time exploring the shops around Union Square (above). Le Loi is home to some great boutiques, including my favourite, the Saigon Boutique, where I felt as though I bought half the shop. If you collect art, Union Square has some great galleries – I bought a striking painting in one of them. The central market, meanwhile, is packed with stalls selling all manner of goods, such as fruit and veg, coffee (including the infamous weasel coffee), souvenirs and clothing, while the Vincom Shopping Centre is a modern mall filled with big name high street stores.

In the evening, we headed back to Union Square to check out the People’s Committee Building. We’d read in a guidebook that the exterior is filled with geckos at dusk and we were keen to see if this was true. It turned out it was – there were loads of geckos all over the facade. The soldiers guarding the building, though, were less than impressed by our game of ‘spot the gecko’ and we were soon shooed away and told off for getting too close to the building, which isn’t open to the public.

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Just before dinner we made our way to the Saigon Skydeck in the Bitexco Financial Tower, one of the tallest buildings in the city. The Skydeck has incredible views in every direction over the city and we stayed there as the sun went down, before stopping off at the bar for a couple of ice-cold margaritas with a view. The perfect way to end a jam-packed day of sightseeing and shopping.