London – Winnie the Pooh at the V&A

Winnie the Pooh climbing at the V&A

A few Saturdays ago I caught up with some friends in London. Our plan for the day was to visit the Winnie the Pooh exhibition at the V&A and then a game of crazy golf at Junkyard Golf, just off Brick Lane. I was due to meet my friends at the V&A just after midday, so after arriving at Paddington a little after 11am I set off for the V&A on foot via Kensington Gardens.

Albert Memorial, Kensington Gardens

That day, the sun was shining and aside from a few dog walkers, Kensington Gardens was quiet. I ambled through the park towards the magnificent Albert memorial (above) – commissioned by Queen Victoria to commemorate her husband Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha after his death in 1861 – and then continued on, passing the Royal Albert Hall, on my way down to Exhibition Road and the V&A.

Winnie the Pooh cuddly toys at the V&A

Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic explores the famous children’s stories written by AA Milne and illustrated by EH Shepard. The exhibition, which runs until 8 April 2018, looks at the origins of Winnie the Pooh, the inspiration behind the characters, places and stories, and how it came to be considered a beloved, world-famous classic.

The exhibition features the cuddly toys upon which the characters are based, photographs and information about AA Milne’s home life and explores the real-life locations behind the Hundred Acre Wood, Galleon’s Lap and more. It also showcases lots of Winnie the Pooh-related merchandise and objects, including some first edition books, which must be worth a fortune; board games; lunchboxes; and a very rare Winnie the Pooh tea set that was given to The Queen as a child.

Pooh sticks bridge, Winnie the Pooh at the V&A

There’s lots for kids to enjoy, too, with a slide, cubby holes, a doorway and games among the exhibition’s interactive elements. One of the best interactive elements was the illustrated recreation of Poohsticks bridge (above). My mum used to play Poohsticks with us as kids, but it was only here that I realised where the game came from – I hadn’t made the Winnie the Pooh connection before!

Illustrations on display at the Winnie the Pooh exhibition

The best part of the exhibition was EH Shepard’s amazing illustrations. EH Shepard liked to base his illustrations upon real-life objects and places, and it was fascinating to compare his drawings with photographs of the real-life versions. The exhibition also looks at Shepard’s technique and it was interesting to see his original pencil sketches – in some he’d redrawn the characters repeatedly – alongside the final ink versions.

As well as Shepard’s illustrations, the exhibition features lots of familiar excerpts from the stories – including Eeyore losing his tail and Piglet’s reaction when Eeyore suggested Owl have Piglet’s house – and they brought back lots of fond memories from my childhood.

'Mr Sanders' Winnie the Pooh's home at the V&A

Winnie the Pooh: Exploring a Classic is a fantastic, well-curated exhibition and I very much enjoyed it. There was lots to see and do, and I turned into a child again as we posed for photos on Poohsticks bridge, played with the interactive games and got into the spirit of the exhibition. It was also interesting to learn more about these iconic stories and characters that were such a big part of my childhood.

Info

V&A – Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic
Open daily until 8 April 2018
Costs £8
vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/winnie-the-pooh-exploring-a-classic

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Jordan travel guide

Wadi Mujib in Jordan

If I had to guess, I’d wager that Petra is the reason most people visit Jordan and it was certainly why I booked my trip. I’d long been keen to visit the ancient Nabutean city, but little did I realise it’s just one of a number of incredible places to see in this fascinating country.

Jordan is home to wonderfully preserved Roman ruins, the lowest and saltiest point on Earth and Moses’s alleged burial site, as well as cracking Crusader castles, spectacular deserts, and relaxing beach resorts. It’s also one of the most beautiful countries I’ve seen and boasts breathtaking scenery that rivals the great American vistas of Zion and Arches national parks.

Jordan has a long and fascinating history, playing host to a number of cultures and peoples over the millennia; the food is delicious; and the people are warm, friendly and hospitable. I spent a week travelling around the country last year and needless to say, I loved every minute of it. Here’s my mini travel to Jordan…

Sightseeing

Amman

I wasn’t hugely impressed by Jordan’s capital city Amman, it didn’t seem to have much of a centre to it and you needed to drive everywhere, so it felt a little soulless. But there are some impressive places to visit, including the old Citadel (above) on top of a hill in the centre of the city and the Roman amphitheatre below it. The Jordan Museum, which is home to some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, is also worth a visit – it’s small, so only takes an hour or so to look around, but it’s full of interesting exhibits about the country, its history and its culture, and has an excellent display about the origins of language.

Jerash

One of the largest and best preserved Roman sites in the world, Jerash is a fascinating place. The ancient city is much bigger than I was expecting and even though we spent a good two-and-a-half hours there, I still felt as though we rushed our trip and didn’t quite see everything there was to see. The spectacular ruins include two almost perfectly preserved amphitheatres, numerous temples and an intriguing mosaic on the floor of an old church.

Dead Sea

The mineral-rich lake that lies between Jordan and Israel is 411m below sea level, making it the lowest point on Earth. There are a number of resorts dotted along the edge of the Dead Sea where you can while away an afternoon floating in the thick salty waters.

Make sure you don’t spend longer than 20 minutes in the sea at any one time before washing all the minerals off your body and avoid getting the sea water in your eyes or other sensitive parts of your body. Look out for small pockets of mud along the shore, which you can use to slather over your body, then wait for the mud to dry before washing it off in the sea – it will leave your skin super soft!

Biblical sites

As part of the Holy Land, Jordan is home to a number of important Biblical sites. Mount Nebo, for example, is home to the Memorial Church of Moses, which commemorates the prophet Moses who reportedly saw the promised land from the spot, and features Moses’s reputed burial site, as well as some fantastic mosaics. The mountain, which lies at the top end of the Dead Sea, also boasts fantastic views over Israel (you can just make out Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem in the distance, above).

St George’s Church in the town of Madaba, meanwhile, features an incredible 6th century mosaic map of the Holy Land (above). Only parts of the map remain, but what’s there is fairly topographically accurate and it’s possible to make out the Jordan River, the Dead Sea and Jerusalem.

Kerak

Perched high on a hill and dominating its namesake town, the crusader castle at Kerak is enormous. The sandstone structure is an imposing and formidable fortress. Much of it is now in ruins, but you can clamber about inside the dark chambers and passages, exploring what remains and there are fantastic views over the nearby valleys.

Petra

The jewel in Jordan’s crown and one of the seven wonders of the world, Petra does not disappoint and is a must for anyone visiting the country. The most surprising thing  about Petra is its size, it’s enormous, and you’ll need at least two, if not three, days to see it all. I spent two full days in Petra and could have done with an extra day.

Petra is famed for its ancient tombs, but surprisingly, they’re not the most spectacular part of the city. Rather I was blown away by its incredible landscapes – it’s one of the most beautiful places on earth. The colours in the rocks – greens, reds, whites, purples, blacks, even bright blues – are like nothing I’ve seen before.

Petra gets very busy, especially the area around the Treasury (above), so it’s worth getting there as early as possible. It was incredibly hot and sunny when I visited in May, so we did the bulk of our sightseeing in the morning before the temperatures became unbearable.

Petra’s very hilly so you’ll need to do a lot of hiking to reach some of the more interesting parts of the city. My favourite place was the Monastery (above), high on top of one of the city’s hills, and for me, more spectacular than the iconic Treasury. My surprise when I turned around and saw it after a long hike to the top of the mountain will stay with me forever.

It’s also worth carrying on past the Monastery to the look-out points on the rocks nearby. There’s one overlooking the Monastery and one further on with a Bedouin tent on top of a precarious-looking rock – don’t miss either highest point and stay for tea with the friendly Bedouin. The view from the rock over the Wadi al Araba is extraordinary and one of my favourite travel moments.

Wadi Rum

The beautiful desert of Wadi Rum was immortalised by Lawrence of Arabia in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his detailed account of his time in the Middle East helping unite the Arab tribes. The Seven Pillars of Wisdom is named after a rock formation in the wadi (an Arabic term for valley) and there’s even a carving of TE Lawrence on a rock in the desert. Wadi Rum is also home to an old, unused train station with a train you can clamber aboard, as well as ancient Nabutean carvings. You can also spend the night sleeping under the stars in a Bedouin camp where you’ll be treated to great food, music and dancing.

Aqaba

Aqaba lies at the top of the Red Sea and is the only port in this otherwise landlocked country. I spent a day on a glass-bottomed boat on the sea, snorkelling in the coral reefs. The current in the sea can be very strong, but the marine life is incredible – I was lucky enough to find myself snorkelling with a turtle, which was definitely a pinch-myself moment.

Food and drink

Jordanian food is fairly typical Middle Eastern fare – think lots of delicious salads, hummus, baba ghanoush, pickled vegetables, tabbouleh, falafel and flatbreads. Other foods to look out for include kibbe, which are little meat croquettes; mansaf, a dish of goat or lamb served with rice and topped with a yoghurt sauce; and mussakhan, a chicken wrap with onions.

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Alcohol is rare in Jordan – the only places I saw it for sale were in Petra and Aqaba – and instead you’ll find lots of fantastic fruit juices in the restaurants. My favourite was lemon and mint juice, which you’ll find everywhere, although it varied in taste depending on where I had it. Sometimes it was sweet, other times really sour. I also drank lots of mint tea while I was there and tried some fermented goat’s milk, an interesting local delicacy, during a picnic in Wadi Mujib.

Climate

Wadi Rum

Jordan is in the heart of the Middle East and so is a hot, dry country. It’s baking hot in the summer, but cooler in winter, around 5°C to 10°C in January. I visited in May when the sun was searingly strong, so I tried my best to avoid the midday sun, venturing out in the morning or late afternoon and seeking as much shade as possible. I still struggled with headaches and overheating though, despite taking every precaution to protect myself.

Safety

“Is it safe?” was the one question everyone asked when I told them I was going to Jordan. “Yes,” I’d reply wearily, “it’s perfectly safe.” And it is. I didn’t have any concerns about my safety during my trip, and if anything, I probably felt safer there than I do in most European countries.

The Jordanians take their security seriously, so every tourist site has a police presence and there were numerous police checks along the roads. There was also airport-style security at the entrance to a number of hotels. I didn’t find this scary, rather I found it reassuring that the Jordanians know the country’s a likely target for terrorists given its location and are taking the necessary steps to keep everyone safe.

Share your experiences

Have you been to Jordan? If so, I’d love to hear what you thought of it and if you have any tips I haven’t covered here, please share them in the comments.

Barry Island

Whitmore Bay, Barry Island

When I was a child, Barry Island was the most exciting place in the world. At the time it was the rundown site of a Butlin’s holiday camp, but it was also home to a fairground, games arcades and candy floss, so until I discovered the magic of Disneyland Paris, it was the most thrilling place on earth. I can still remember how excited I’d get whenever we’d get the train to the island.

Nowadays the Butlin’s camp has long gone and the island boasts sandy beaches, grassy headlands and hidden coves, which makes it a fantastic place for a Sunday stroll. The island’s transformation is down to the local council, the Vale of Glamorgan, which over the past few years has done an excellent job of sprucing it up, installing playful beach huts and other amenities, and opening up walking paths along the cliffs.

Friars Point, Barry Island

A few Sundays ago, I spent the day at Barry Island, enjoying a pleasant walk in the brisk January sunshine. We started off at Friar’s Point, the headland to the right of the island’s pleasure beach, Whitmore Bay. The headland is a site of special scientific interest because of its cowslip meadow and boasts great views of the sandy beaches either side of it – the one above looks out towards the headland at the Knap in Barry.

Whitmore Bay, Barry Island

From there, we ambled down to Whitmore Bay (above), where we walked across the long sandy beach, past the promenade, the pleasure gardens and the two eye-catching shelters that date from the 1920s.

The beach was full of families enjoying a day out, as well as dog walkers, and there were lots of dogs happily running along the shore front, dancing merrily in and out of the waves. During the peak season, dogs are banned from the beach but at this time of the year, when it’s far too chilly to venture into the water and the beach isn’t too crowded, they’re permitted to roam the sands.

Beach huts, Barry Island

From Whitmore Bay, we continued up towards the other headland that flanks it, Nell’s Point, passing the colourful beach huts, climbing wall and art installation that sprays water during the summer months.

Nell’s Point looks out over the Bristol Channel, and on the day of our walk, the sky was clear so we could make out the islands of Flat Holm and Steep Holm. Flat Holm belongs to Wales and is the most southerly part of the country; while Steep Holm, some six miles off the coast of Weston-super-Mare, belongs to England.

Nell’s Point used to be home to the Butlin’s holiday camp, which closed in 1996, and it’s taken almost 20 years to remove all traces of the 1960s resort and restore the area back to its natural beauty. These days you can explore the ruins of a Norman chapel, St Baruc’s, there, as well as the remains of a gun emplacement that was used to help defend the coastline during the Second World War.

Jackson's Bay, Barry Island

We carried on walking around the headland to the nearby cove of Jackson’s Bay (above), stopping at the Coastwatch Station along the way to visit its small exhibition about the work of the Barry coastguard.

Dating from the Jurassic and Triassic periods, the beaches around south Wales are a geological goldmine and popular with fossil hunters. The cliffs that surround Jackson’s Bay are made from layer upon layer of red and grey rock, and we couldn’t help but wonder as we walked down to the beach what sorts of fossils might be lying within them and what sorts of geological events occurred to create such striking strata.

Rocks, Barry Island

I always enjoy my day trips to Barry Island – these days for very different reasons to when I was a child. Barry Island has been a rundown shell for most of my life, so it’s fantastic to see it now so vibrant and full of life, and to have the chance to walk along its beaches and headlands, and admire the splendid views. It might not be the most exciting place on earth for me anymore, but it always makes me smile and brings back lots of fond memories.

Cardiff Castle

Cardiff Castle

A few of my friends came down to Cardiff to celebrate the New Year and while they were here, they were keen to have a look around Cardiff Castle. I’ve been to the castle a few times and have a key to the castle that lets residents visit for free, but I’m always a little ashamed to admit, that despite growing up in the city, I didn’t visit the castle until my early twenties.

The castle is unusual in that it features the remains of castles built by the Romans and the Normans, as well as a 19th century stately home. The castle dates back to the first century when the Romans built the first of four forts on the site. These days only the remnants of the final stone fort remain and you can still see parts of its ancient walls, which were destroyed by the Normans, in the visitor centre.

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Our first port of call was the Norman keep (above), which sits atop an artificial mound and dominates the landscape within the castle walls. Originally built as a wooden structure in 1081, it was rebuilt in stone in the 1130s, and used to be far bigger than it is today as much of the keep’s outer buildings were destroyed in 1784.

View of the main house from the top of the castle keep

We climbed the many steep steps to the keep where we were greeted by a large empty round space. We then climbed even more rickety, steep steps to the top of the tower. The staircase to the top is very narrow, which means there’s only room for one group of people to go up or down at any one time. This created some confusion with groups getting stuck at the top or bottom for ages, waiting for the non-stop flow of people from the opposite direction to finish. But the wait to get to the top was worth it as the keep boasts fantastic views over the castle grounds and the city.

We spent a little while admiring the views from all directions, before eventually making our way back down and over to the castle apartments (above), which were once home to the Bute family. During the Victorian era, John Crichton-Stuart, the 3rd Marquess of Bute, was reportedly the richest man in the world, and the eccentric, oppulent residence he had designed by the architect William Burges is testament to this wealth.

Cardiff Castle apartments

If you visit Cardiff Castle, it’s worth joining a house tour if you can. These last 50 minutes and take you around the entire residence, which means you’ll see the full extent of Burges’s splendid architecture and decor. During the summer months you can also tour the castle’s striking clock tower.

On our visit, there didn’t seem to be any house tours running, so we took the self-guided tour around the castle apartments instead. The self-guided tour is much shorter than the guided house tour and a number of the castle’s most impressive rooms are roped off. Even though I was a little disappointed we didn’t get to see all the rooms, my friends, who’d never been before, were impressed by what they saw.

The apartments’ most impressive room is the Arab room (above), which you can see on the self-guided tour. This quirky room features decorative marble walls and flooring, and a dazzling roof. The square, oddly shaped roof is decorated in an intricate gold, red, white and black pattern, and is stunning. It’s one of the most unusual roofs I’ve come across. The room’s tiny and only a couple of people are allowed in to see it at any one time, but it’s worth the wait to get in as it’s so distinctive and over-the-top.

The other rooms on the self-guided tour include the great hall, which features a fabulous fresco along the top of the walls that depicts the English civil war of the 1130s and 1140s; two dining rooms; and a parlour. The ceilings in the various rooms were more often-than-not jaw-droppingly embellished and I made a point of looking upwards whenever I entered a new room to see the lavish decoration above my head.

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The tour finished in the library (above), a long narrow room, which is filled with wooden bookcases brimming with books. We were delighted to find a couple of complete volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and found ourselves reminiscing about our pre-internet childhoods when we had to consult the encyclopaedia if we wanted to look something up. It’s a beautiful room and was a lovely end to our tour of the apartments.

The tunnels inside Cardiff Castle's walls

From the house, we headed over to the tunnels that lie within the castle walls. During the Second World War, the tunnels were used as an air-raid shelter for some 1,800 local residents and they extend quite a distance. We walked the full length of the tunnels, stopping to admire the many wartime posters (below) that lined the walls urging women to join the land army, grow their own food and mind what they said in public.

Some of the posters were a little sexist and seemed to imply that women couldn’t be trusted to keep secrets as well as men, but they were fascinating to look at and really helped transport us back in time to the 1940s. As we walked through the dark and damp tunnels, wartime music played over the loudspeakers, which added to the sense that we were back in 1940, taking shelter during an air raid.

One of my favourite features was the small canteen that had been recreated in one of the recesses in the castle walls. There was a small makeshift stove, an urn and it was “selling” teas, coffees and scones for a few pence. All the authentic wartime touches helped bring the tunnels alive and made them all the more interesting to explore. It also made me grateful that we don’t have to seek shelter in them any more as they were quite cold and damp, and I’m not sure how much protection they’d offer during a bombing raid.

Inside the Firing Line museum at Cardiff Castle

Having explored the tunnels, we made our way back to the visitor centre to have a look around the museum. Firing Line: Cardiff Castle Museum of the Welsh Soldier is a small museum dedicated to two Welsh regiments, The Royal Welsh and 1st The Queen Dragoon Guards.

The museum takes you through the history of the two regiments through major conflicts, such as the Second World War, the Anglo-Zulu War and the Napoleonic wars. It also explores the role of the regiments during the height of the British Empire. The museum is well curated, there are lots of interesting artefacts and everything is explained really well.

One of the most interesting aspects of the museum was learning about the soldiers and their experiences. One display, for example, looked at six men who were awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery, why they were awarded the medal and what happened to them afterwards (which in some cases was quite tragic). There was also a hands-on display where you could dress up in the regiments’ uniforms.

All in all I enjoyed my visit to Cardiff Castle – even if I didn’t get a chance to explore the entire house. I know I’m biased as I’m from Cardiff, but I do think the castle is one of the best and most unusual castles in the UK as there are so many varied things to see and do. It’s a strange mix of a traditional, ruined Norman castle, Roman walls, a wacky, ornate stately home, air-raid shelters and a military museum. I’ve now been to the castle several times and never get bored of it, it’s a fascinating place.

Info
Cardiff Castle, Castle Street, Cardiff CF10 3RB
Open daily, 9am-6pm (March to October), 9am-5pm (November to February)
Adults £12.50 (plus an extra £3.25 for the house tour), children £9 (plus £2 for the house tour)
cardiffcastle.com

Turin – Mole Antonelliana and the Egyptian Museum

Mole Antonelliana, Turin

During my afternoon in Turin, I’d decided to visit Turin’s tallest building, the Mole Antonelliana (above), as well as the city’s renowned Egyptian Museum. So after having a spot of lunch, I wandered along Turin’s elegant covered streets, past lots of shops and cafés, on my way to the Mole Antonelliana.

The Mole Antonelliana is an enormous late 19th century building with a 550ft spire – in its heyday, it was the tallest brick building in Europe. It was designed by the architect Antonio Antonelli in the 1860s when he was commissioned by Turin’s Jewish community to build them a synagogue. As Antonelli’s plans became more elaborate and the costs spiralled, the Jewish community pulled out of the project and the city of Turin took over. The Mole Antonelliana was finally finished in 1889 and today is home to the National Museum of Cinema.

The Mole Antonelliana is a stunning building with an unusual and distinctive shape. You can take a panoramic lift to a viewing platform, which is 278ft from the ground, and I was keen to do this until I saw the queue and the hour-long wait for it. As I was planning to visit the Egyptian Museum before I left, I didn’t think I had time to do both so I decided to skip the viewing platform, even though the views across the city and the Alps must be incredible.

Egyptian Museum, Turin

From the Mole Antonelliana, I walked through Turin’s streets to the Egyptian Museum, which is housed in a gorgeous palazzo-style building in the centre of the city (above), admiring the sights and window shopping as I went.

Turin’s renowned Egyptian Museum is the only museum outside Cairo dedicated to ancient Egypt and boasts the second largest collection of ancient Egyptian artefacts in the world. Only a fraction of the museum’s 32,500-piece collection is on display, with some 6,500 artefacts on show and the remaining 26,000 in storage.

I visited in early December 2017 and there was an interesting temporary exhibition on the ground floor about the men and women who were responsible for amassing, curating and preserving the museum’s collection. It was interesting to read about the people behind the collection, their motives for collecting the artefacts and the impact it had on their lives. So often you visit museums or art galleries and admire the amazing objects within, but it’s rare to learn about the people responsible for those collections.

From there, I followed the visitor route around the museum. Starting on the second floor, it told the story of ancient Egypt from its prehistoric origins all the way through to the later dynasties of pharaohs. There were lots of artefacts on display, the most impressive being the scrolls from the Book of the Dead. They looked as good as new – the colours were vivid and not at all faded, and it was hard to believe they were thousands of years old. I would have loved to have been able to read the hieroglyphics so I could understand what they said.

There were also lots of mummies and coffins (some with brightly painted exteriors), statues, pieces of pottery, steles and more on display, as well as a net made from turquoise beads, which had been found wrapped around a mummy. It’s an extraordinary and extensive collection, and very well curated. I spent a good two hours looking around the museum and could easily have spent longer as it’s a fascinating place.

One of the more interesting aspects of the museum was the exhibit of material culture on the balcony above one of the galleries on the second floor. The display brought together lots of similar objects, such as head rests, grave goods and so on, in one cabinet. It was an unusual but effective approach to displaying lots of similar artefacts, and one I’d like to see repeated in other museums.

The only slight downside was the huge number of tour groups who blocked paths and access to the display cases for long periods of time. I found a few of them quite rude and unwilling to let people past, and it would be good if the museum restricted the number of tour groups it allowed on busy weekends so that all the visitors could enjoy the attractions.

Piazza Carlo Alberto, Turin

I really enjoyed my day trip to Turin, although I could have done with a lot longer to look around. The few attractions I visited – the royal palace and the Egyptian Museum – were enormous and world-class, with lots to see, and there were many more attractions I didn’t get chance to visit. A day isn’t long enough in Turin and I could have done with at least three or four days. I’ll have to go back one day to see all the attractions, as well as the parts of the royal palace and the Egyptian Museum, I missed on my whistle stop tour.

Turin – Cathedral and the Royal Palace

View over Turin

Famous for its sports cars and chocolate, the elegant Italian city of Turin is only an hour from Milan by train, so I decided to spend a day there during my recent Italian jaunt. With its large charming squares, tree-lined avenues, covered walkways, palazzo-style buildings and Alpine backdrop, Turin is a picturesque city to explore.

As the capital of the Duchy of Savoy from 1572 and the first capital of Italy between 1861 and 1865, Turin has a long and interesting history, and as a result there’s lots to see and do. The city is home to numerous museums, a huge royal palace and a cathedral, as well as churches, grand cafés and an architectural gem of a tower. The capital of the Piedmont region also hosted the Winter Olympics in 2006.

Piazza San Carlo in Turin

When I arrived in Turin, I was cheered to find it had been snowing overnight, and while most of the snow had melted, there were still some pockets around, which added to the city’s wintery charms. After leaving the train station, I picked up a map from the tourist information office, then set off through the city via a series of palatial squares and handsome walkways.

A giant advent calendar and Christmas market in the Piazza Castello

When I reached the Piazza Castello, I was delighted to find it playing host to a silvery white Christmas tree, as well as a giant advent calendar (above). There was also a small Christmas market to the side. I love a good Christmas market and hadn’t found one in Milan, so I was pleased to come across it – although I was a little disappointed to find there was no mulled wine nor many Christmas-themed stalls.

From the market, I walked the short distance to Turin’s cathedral. The late 15th century cathedral is the home of the Turin shroud, the linen cloth that bears the outline of a crucified man and may or may not have been used to wrap Jesus’s dead body. Despite carbon dating suggesting the cloth is a clever medieval fake, there’s still much debate about the authenticity and the origins of the cloth.

Turin cathedral and bell tower

The cathedral sits in a small square next to the royal palace beside a 15th century bell tower. After the magnificence of Milan’s Duomo, Turin’s fairly plain cathedral somewhat paled in comparison and inside there wasn’t much to see other than a massive display case, which I think contained the Turin shroud.

The home of the Turin shroud on display

The shroud itself isn’t on display – the last time the public was allowed to view it was in 2015 – and I can only presume it’s inside the coffin-like structure that’s covered by the cloth (above). There were a few people sitting opposite in quiet contemplation and prayer, but if I’m honest, I found it a little weird. I’m not religious so the symbolism was lost on me and there was nothing to tell me what I was looking at, which I found confusing.

After looking around the cathedral, I headed to the bell tower where you can walk to the top for stunning views across the city for just €3. I climbed the rickety wooden and metal staircase, and when I got to the top, walked out onto the platform only to start slipping. The centre of the platform was covered with ice and snow – which at 272ft in the air, wasn’t the safest place to be sliding around!

View over Turin and the Alps

Luckily, the edges around the bell tower were free from snow, so I kept to the edges and avoided the icy middle. Minor drama aside, the views from the top were incredible and well worth the climb. I could see right across Turin in all directions, but the view towards the snow-capped Alps was the best (above). It was stunning and I could have spent ages looking at it.

Royal Palace, Turin

From the bell tower, I walked to the royal palace where I stopped off at the café for a cup of thick hot chocolate before looking around the royal apartments.

Home to the dukes of Savoy, the royal palace was commissioned in the mid-17th century by the regent at the time, Maria Cristina. The palace was built on the site of the city’s old bishops’ palace and construction continued until the 19th century. It is now, along with the city’s other royal residences, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Ballroom in the Royal Palace, Turin

The grand palace is enormous and the royal apartments within impressive, with ornate gilding, sumptuous fabrics, eye-popping chandeliers and magnificent works of art everywhere you look. My favourite room was the beautiful ballroom (above). I also really liked the Chinese room, so-called because of its black lacquer and floral print walls, and the council room, with its spectacular green furnishings.

Armoury in the Royal Palace, Turin

The palace is also home to an massive armoury (above) that’s set over two rooms. The first room is a long hall with armoured soldiers and taxidermied horses, as well as display cases filled with helmets, guns, daggers, shields and more. The second room is much smaller, with a magnificent piece of Chinese armour that was gifted to one of the dukes of Savoy.

The royal palace is free to visit the first Sunday of every month – the day I visited – so it was heaving. It was great to have free entry, but it did mean it was so busy it was difficult to look around.

The armoury, in particular, was crammed with people taking photos and selfies. It was annoying trying to squeeze past so many people who were too busy taking photos to look at the exhibits and I didn’t find it a pleasant experience. It’s a shame as the armoury is such as grand and impressive room it must be a spectacular sight when it’s empty.

Courtyard inside the Royal Palace in Turin

Once I finished touring the royal apartments, I followed the path through the building to the Galleria Sabauda, an enormous art gallery that’s housed within one of the palace’s wings.

The gallery features art works by Brueghl (Jan the elder, Jan the younger and Abraham), Anthony van Dyck and Rembrandt van Rijn. It also had a temporary exhibition about biscuit porcelain, so named because it’s twice baked. The gallery is extensive – in the two hours I was there, I didn’t manage to see everything – and the numerous works of art remarkable.

On the ground floor, underneath the gallery, there’s an archaeological museum, which tells the story of Turin’s origins and showcases archaeological finds from the city. The artefacts on display include coins, pieces of pottery, as well as an extraordinary bronze head of a young man. The museum was interesting and informative, and I learned a lot about Turin’s history.

The royal palace was fantastic, with lots to see, and it was much bigger than I had been anticipating. I hadn’t expected it to also house an art gallery and an archaeological museum, so I spent hours there, and it was so interesting and well curated, I was reluctant to skip any of it. The only downside, as I’ve already mentioned, was the hoards of people, which is to be expected when there’s free entry. I’d love to go back when it’s quieter so I can take my time seeing it all.

Milan – Top tips

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping arcade in Milan, Italy

Despite doing a lot of research before my trip to Milan, there were a few things I learned while I was there that I wish I’d known sooner. So I’ve put together some of my top tips for anyone planning a trip to the Lombard capital.

Getting there

Milan has three airports – Malpensa, Linate and Bergamo. I flew into Malpensa, which is some 30 miles from the centre of Milan. It’s really easy to get to Milan from the airport – there’s an express train that takes you to Central Station or Cadorna Station. But I chose to hop on the express bus, which leaves every 20 minutes from Gate 4 – it only costs €8 (I bought my ticket from a guard beside the bus) and takes around an hour to get to Central Station. Linate and Bergamo airports also have express bus services that take you to the centre of Milan.

Getting around

The city centre is very compact and all the main sights are within walking distance. But if your legs are tired or you want to get from A to B quickly, then the Metro is very reliable. The underground transit system has four lines – a red, yellow, purple and green one – and stops close to all the major sights.

You can buy your tickets from the ticket machines or kiosks in the Metro stations. But be warned, many of the ticket machines are old and aren’t in the best condition, and I found a lot of people struggled to use them so you can be queuing for a while to buy your ticket. A one-way ticket costs €1.50 and is valid for 90 minutes or you can buy a day ticket for €4.50.

Sightseeing

The Last Supper

Santa Maria delle Grazie Church and Convent

If you’re planning to see Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper while you’re in Milan, make sure you book your tickets weeks in advance. I booked my tickets two weeks before I went and the only tickets left on the Saturday morning were for slots that started before 9am.

Tickets cost €10 (plus a €2 booking fee) and you can buy them from the Vivaticket website or by phone on +39 02 9280 0360. Only 30 people are allowed in to see The Last Supper at any one time and visits last 15 minutes. You’ll need to pick up your tickets at least 20 minutes before your scheduled visit – the ticket office is in a separate building to the Santa Maria delle Grazie refectory, it’s the other side of the small garden next to the refectory entrance.

The Duomo

The Duomo in Milan, Italy

Milan’s magnificent cathedral is open every day from 8am and if you’re planning a visit, you’ll need to buy your tickets from the box office across the street or online from booking.duomomilano.it. You can buy tickets for the cathedral, its roof terraces or its archaeological area, or you can do as I did and buy a Duomo pass, which allows you to visit all three and will save you money.

I opted for the Duomo Pass B, which cost €12 and gave me access to the terraces by foot. If you want to take the lift to the roof terraces, you can buy a Duomo Pass A for €16, but unless you have mobility issues, you’re better off saving yourself the €4 and walking – it’s not a particularly arduous climb and you’re at the top before you know it.

Food

Dishes

Risotto alla Milanese

Milan’s most famous dish is probably osso bucco, which is a dish of slow-cooked veal shanks in a vegetable broth. It’s often served alongside risotto alla milanese (above), which is a saffron-based risotto. I made sure to try both during my trip to Milan and the osso bucco, in particular, was incredibly tender and tasty. I ordered it at a pleasant little restaurant called Momus on the Via Arco. Milan is also the home of Panettone.

Panzerotti

Luini Panzerotti in Milan

On my first day in Milan, I passed a small shop called Luini (above) selling panzerotti  that had a long line of people outside queuing to get inside.

Whenever I go anywhere and see a long line of people queuing for food, I take it as a good sign. So at lunchtime the next day I headed over to Luini’s, tucked away in a little side street between the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II arcade and the Duomo, only to find there were two enormous queues stretching down the street – in both directions!

Panzerotti look like pasties but are essentially small calzone pizzas – they’re made with dough and filled with typical pizza toppings such as tomato, mozzarella and hot salami. They also have sweet versions with fillings such as peaches, almond and amaretti, and figs, walnut and cocoa.

Tomato, mozzarella, olive and anchovy panzerotti

I joined the queue and it took around 20 minutes to get served, and I was amused to find there was a security guard near the front making sure no-one pushes in and that the queue moves efficiently.

I opted for a tomato, mozzarella, anchovy and olive panzerotto (above), as well as a chocolate and pistachio one, which I saved for later. I then copied my fellow diners and stood in the street opposite the shop tucking into my warm panzerotto. It was delicious and  worth the wait! The sweet panzerotto was also very good.

Restaurants

Before going to Milan, I’d read the Brera district (to the north of the Duomo) was a good place to go for dinner. So on my first night, I headed off on foot up the Via Brera only to find a number of places that looked like tourist traps. Famished, I stopped off at one where the food was good and reasonably priced, but not quite as nice as I was hoping for.

On my final night, I did a bit more digging and found I was in the right district, but at the wrong end. So I hopped on the Metro and got off at Lanza (on the green line), then headed in the direction of the Via Mercato and the neighbouring side streets where there were loads of great restaurants. If I was to visit Milan again, this is where I’d go for dinner.

Food shops

Passion fruit and raspberry eclair

Milan is renowned for its fashion boutiques, but the city also has some impressive food shops. The food hall on the seventh floor of La Rinascente department store is incredible with unbelievably pretty chocolates, desserts and patisserie (above), along with unusual pastas, pasta sauces, condiments and wines. It’s not cheap, but well worth a browse.

Window display at Peck, Milan

Peck is another of Milan’s famed food halls, it’s like the Milanese Fortnum & Mason’s. I had a great time wandering around and gawking at all the incredible food stuffs I couldn’t afford to buy. There’s a fish counter, a meat counter, a cheese counter and so on, all brimming with top quality produce, as well as chocolates and other sweet treats that are so pretty it would be a crime to eat them (above).

Have you been to Milan? If so and you have any more tips to share, I’d be really interested in reading them – please leave them in comments below.

Looking ahead to 2018

Playa Manuel Antonio in Manuel Antonio National Park

If there’s one thing I learned over the past year, it’s not to make predictions on my blog. I made a number of predictions for 2017 – and while a few of them materialised, quite a few of them didn’t.

Part of that is down to the fact the past year has flown by (more so than usual) and I can’t believe we’re in a new year already.

I’d like to say a huge thank you to everyone who’s read, commented, liked or followed my blog this year –  I’ve really appreciated your support and encouragement, and I’m still surprised anyone actually reads it. And to all the bloggers I follow and have discovered in 2017, I’ve really enjoyed reading what you’ve been up to – your blogs have provided a lot of inspiration and have done nothing to lessen my wanderlust and food envy.

Coming up in 2018

In 2018, I’m looking forward to a year of notable milestones. I’m currently having driving lessons and hoping to pass my test in the spring. I’m also hoping to finally buy my own home and be a fully fledged grown up.

On the travel front, I’m 90-odd per cent certain I’m going to Brittany in France in June – I’m planning to spend a week in the countryside and then a few days in the capital Nantes.

Other than that, I’d quite like to take a city break somewhere in Europe (suggestions welcome!) and a longer trip further afield – current destinations in the running include Ethiopia, Zambia, China and Russia. If you’ve been to any of these places, please let me know what you thought of them. And if I do pass my driving test, I’m hoping it will allow me to travel a little more freely throughout the UK.

On the blog front, I’ll be writing up my trip to Costa Rica over the next few months, as well as my recent trip to France in the area around one of my favourite French cities Poitiers. I’d also like to continue my mini travel guide series as they seem to have proved popular – next up will be Jordan, then after that possibly Cuba or Edinburgh. If you have a preference, let me know.

I’m also hoping to finally get around to writing my Insider Guides to London and Cardiff that I promised last year. I’ve planned the content – I just need to find time to write them.

Whatever the year brings, hopefully it will be a year full of adventure and laughter. I can be a little slow in writing up some of my adventures so if you’d like to keep up with what I’m doing in real time, check out my Instagram @thislittleoldworld.

Happy New Year! Have a wonderful 2018!

Bx

Milan – Castles, churches and more da Vinci

Castle Sforza in Milan

As regular readers to my blog may have guessed, I’m a sucker for a castle and when I found out Milan has its very own castle, it ended up somewhere near the top of my must-visit list. Having spent the morning exploring every last inch of the city’s Duomo, I made my way to the castle.

The Sforza Castle, or Castello Sforzesco to give it it’s Italian name, was built between 1360 and 1370 on behalf of Galeazzo II Visconti, the then-ruler of Milan. It then passed into the hands of the famed Sforza dynasty, after whom the castle is named, who turned it into a great ducal residence. Over the centuries, the castle changed hands multiple times between Milan’s ruling powers and fell into decline, until it was rescued and restored by the architect Luca Beltrami in the late 19th century.

Courtyard inside the Castle Sforza in Milan

When I arrived at the castle, I walked through the massive gates into a huge courtyard, and it was then that I realised that the Sforza Castle isn’t a castle in a traditional sense with lots of rooms, and nooks and crannies, to explore. Instead various parts of the castle have been turned into museums – there’s an Egyptian museum, an art gallery, a museum of ancient art, as well as a museum dedicated to Michelangelo’s masterpiece Rondanini Pietà.

Smaller courtyard inside the Castle Sforza in Milan

Rather than explore the castle’s many museums, I spent time looking around the castle’s courtyards, taking photos of the different facets of this impressive building. It’s an imposing sight and must have been quite something during its heyday when the Sforza family held court.

Parco Sempione in Milan

Behind the castle, sits Milan’s Parco Sempione, and having seen all there was to see in the castle’s courtyards, I headed to the park through an exit at the rear of the castle. The 116-acre park used to be a hunting ground for the Sforza family but in the late 19th century it was turned into a landscaped park. At the far end of the park is a huge triumphal arch, commissioned by Napoleon, that was remodelled as an Arch of Peace by the Austro-Hungarian emperor Francis I in commemoration of the 1815 Congress of Vienna.

After making a quick detour to a nearby gelateria for some gelato, I headed back to the park where I took my time walking around it. The park is a large, attractive space, and although there isn’t anything particularly special or distinctive about it, it was nice to spend some quiet time away from the busy streets, ambling around the park’s pretty trees and lakes.

Basilica di Sant'Ambrogio in Milan

After a pleasant stroll, I headed off on foot to the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio, which I’d read was one of Milan’s most impressive churches. When I arrived, the church was closed for lunch so I hung around for 10 minutes or so until it opened, then headed inside.

The basilica was founded by the city’s patron saint, St Ambrose, in the 4th century and is notable for the two campaniles that stand either side of the church. Inside, the basilica is a fairly standard Milanese affair with a pretty patterned roof and lots of priceless-looking paintings hanging above the many altars that line the church’s sides. There’s also a striking marble pulpit decorated with delicate, intricate carvings.

The church’s crypt is the resting place of St Ambrose, along with two martyrs, the Roman soldiers Gervasius and Protasius, and I was somewhat taken aback to find their three skeletal corpses on display in a see-through casket, their bones clothed as though they were still alive. It was such an unexpected and unusual sight that I had to take a second glance to make sure I hadn’t imagined it.

Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan

From the basilica, I made my way through the back streets of Milan to the Pinacoteca and Biblioteca Ambrosiana. The art gallery and library is home to paintings, sculptures and artefacts from the 16th to the 19th centuries, and features artworks by the likes of Jan Brueghl, Paul Brill, Sandro Botticelli and Titian, as well as a number of Lombard artists. But the gallery’s pièce de résistance is Leonardo da Vinci’s Portrait of a Musician, as well as pages from a folio featuring sketches and notes by the great master.

The Pinacoteca and Biblioteca Ambrosiana has some 22 galleries to explore and is situated in a magnificent late 16th century building. I followed the suggested visitor route around the gallery, which at times took me outside to a balcony lined with statues, overlooking a spectacular courtyard (above).

The building itself is as much a work of art as the priceless pieces within and many of the rooms are spectacular. Room 12, for example, features a stunning marble staircase and mosaic, with a series of marble statues above it. While rooms 10 and 11 feature a fake wooden library above the artworks.

The lighting throughout is superb, too, and is possibly the best lighting I’ve come across in a museum or gallery. The artworks are showcased in dimly lit rooms with spotlights shining on them, which makes them pop and shows them at their best.

The Pinacoteca Ambrosiana is best known for its da Vincis but as I walked around I had yet to see them and was worried I’d missed them. But as I was leaving the gallery, I stepped into a room and there, taking pride of place, was da Vinci’s Portrait of a Musician. It’s a striking painting and dominates the room, and I spent quite a bit of time admiring it, as well as the other painting in the room, before moving into the library.

The library (above), which was commissioned by Cardinal Federico Borromeo in the early 17th century, is supposedly Italy’s first public library and is stacked high with thousands of books, but its main attraction is the Codex Atlanticus.

The Codex is a collection of sketches and notes by da Vinci, and pages from the Codex are on display in clear panels in the centre of the room. I took my time looking at all the pages, some of which are really impressive, others less impressive scraps and doodles, and I came away with the impression that da Vinci must have been a prolific doodler.

There’s one last masterpiece within the gallery, tucked away at the far end of the room, just before the exit – Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit. It’s a magnificent painting, and with this and the da Vincis, the gallery saved the best for last. I’m always amazed by how true to life so many still-life paintings are and Basket of Fruit is no exception. I have no idea how Caravaggio managed to paint such realistic looking grapes, apples and figs, it’s really clever and I was a little dumb stuck by how good it was. It’s a fabulous painting and a brilliant way to end a superb museum.

By now it was early evening, so I stopped off for a cup of tea in one of Milan’s many swanky cafés (bog standard Starbucks-type establishments seemed to be few and far between in Milan), then spent the rest of the evening wandering around the shops. I had another look around La Rinascente department store, then ambled up the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, a large shopping street, until I reached the fashion quarter.

There, I turned down the swanky Via della Spiga, aka Milan’s Bond Street, where I marvelled at the incredible window displays in the designer stores. Being a pauper, I avoided going inside any of the shops as I wasn’t too keen on having a Pretty Woman moment, but the window displays were so spectacular I was happy just gawking at them and the overpriced goods within.

Milan is very much a walking city and I enjoyed my day ambling around the city, mooching from one attraction to the other. From churches to priceless works of art, castles to parks, I visited so many varied places it made for a fun and eventful day. I was also glad I found time to fit in a spot of window shopping. I wasn’t sure I’d have time to fit in any shopping as I’d planned such an action-packed day, but I’m pleased I did as I couldn’t go to one of the world’s greatest fashion capitals without seeing a few sartorial masterpieces.