Kerak Castle

Inside the remains of Kerak Castle

Regular readers of my blog may have noticed that I really, really love a castle and so it goes without saying I was very excited at the prospect of visiting Kerak Castle during my week in Jordan.

Walls and passageways at Kerak Castle

The Crusader castle at Kerak is an enormous white limestone fortress, perched high on a hill overlooking its modern-day namesake town. It was built during the Crusades, in 1142, by Pagan the Butler, lord of Outrejourdain – one of a number of castles built by the Crusaders across the Levant.

Some of the ruined walls at Kerak Castle

The castle’s extensive walls extend across the hill top, dominating the town, and I couldn’t help but be impressed as we approached it.

Dusty white limestone passageway inside Kerak Castle

The enormous castle’s in a ruined state, so you have to use your imagination to picture what it must have looked like during the 12th century. The ground underfoot is rocky and dusty, too, so I was glad I’d worn sensible, sturdy shoes for my visit. Being a clumsy so-and-so, I had to make sure I looked where I was going as I wandered around.

Looking up at the white limestone ruins of Kerak Castle

The sprawling fortress is home to lots of rooms, tunnels and passages, and with multiple floors to explore, uneven staircases, dark, unlit rooms and only a handful of safety barriers, there’s no way it would pass a health and safety inspection in the UK, but I had great fun clambering over the rocks, going up and down the staircases, and exploring the castle’s many, many nooks and crannies.

Walking around the castle, I couldn’t help but admire its grand majesty. The Crusaders built it in an excellent strategic location, with incredible views over the vast valley below – Jerusalem is visible in the distance on a clear day – and it must have been a formidable and imposing sight during its Crusader heyday.

Views over the valley below from Kerak Castle

It’s a superb fortress and a fabulous place to spend a fun-filled hour or so. While it’s in a bit of a dilapidated state, it’s nevertheless an incredible building and I had a fantastic time exploring all there was to see. With so much to seek out, Kerak Castle more than lived up to my (admittedly rather high) expectations.

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Madaba

A sign at the Greek Orthodox Church of St George's in Madaba, Jordan

Tucked away among the narrow streets of Madaba is St George’s Church. And while from the outside, it may look like any other church, inside it’s home to one of Jordan’s greatest treasures – the sixth century map of Madaba.

The Madaba Mosaic Map is a mosaic map of the Holy Land that’s thought to date back to the time of the Emperor Justinian. The mosaic is incomplete with only fragments surviving, but what remains is a detailed and fairly accurate map of the region.

An illustrated diagram of the Mosaic Map of Madaba at St George's Church

Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Jericho, the Dead Sea, Mount Sinai, the Jordan River and the Nile Delta are just a few of the famous places featured in the map. The place names are marked using Greek capital letters, and with more than 2,000 characters, it’s one of the largest surviving pieces of Byzantine writing.

The map lay undiscovered until 1884, and once people realised how important it was, St George’s Church was built around it in 1902 to protect it.

When we arrived at the site, we made our way to the visitor centre next door to the church where we were given a brief introduction to the map, before heading inside the church. St George’s Church is a small, ornately decorated Greek Orthodox church and its star attraction, the mosaic map, is in the centre, surrounded by protective ropes.

Part of the Mosaic Map of Madaba in St George's Church

The ancient map was much bigger than I’d anticipated. And while much of it has been lost, the fragments that remain are fascinating and in fairly good condition. I spent quite a bit of time looking at the different parts of the map, trying to work out where the many places depicted were.

Part of the Mosaic Map of Madaba on the floor of St George's Church

The Mosaic Map of Madaba is an extraordinary piece of Byzantine cartography and craftsmanship, offering an intriguing glimpse into the region’s past. It’s amazing to think that such a remarkable piece of history has survived for so long and is now taking pride of place in an unassuming church in the middle of Jordan.

Mount Nebo

Memorial of Moses on top of Mount Nebo in Jordan

According to the Bible, Jordan’s Mount Nebo is the place from which Moses saw the Promised Land right before he died. The mountain, which overlooks the Dead Sea, is today home to the prophet’s purported grave, as well as a church and a small museum.

View towards Amman from the top of Mount Nebo

It was bright and early when we arrived atop Mount Nebo, some 800m above sea level, and thanks to the cloudless, clear skies, we were greeted by fantastic views – to the north, we could just make out the two towers in far away Amman beyond the Wadi ‘Uyun Musa (above); to the south was the Wadi al Judaydah; to the east, the Wadi ‘Afrit; and to the south-west, the Dead Sea, beyond which we could just about see Israel and some of the buildings in Jerusalem (below).

View from the top of Mount Nebo with the Dead Sea to the south-west and Israel in the far distance

Unsurprisingly, given its religious significance, there’s been some form of sanctuary or church on top of Mount Nebo since at least the fourth century, and today, the site is home to the Memorial Church of Moses, which is thought to have been built in the sixth century.

Mix of old and new inside the Memorial Church of Moses on top of Mount Nebo

After spending some time admiring the views from the top of the mountain, we made our way inside the church. The small, simple basilica is a curious mix of church and archaeology museum. The interior is dominated by a series of ancient mosaics, some of which date back as far as 531AD. There’s also a coffin-sized hole in the ground, which is said to be Moses’s grave (below).

A glass top protects Moses's purported grave inside the Memorial Church of Moses

The mosaics cover large parts of the floor and walls, and according to our guide, the mosaics on the floor (below) were only discovered during an earthquake, as they were originally overlaid by those now hanging on the walls. The mosaics are in excellent condition, and it’s clear they’ve been expertly restored and cared for – they look so clean and modern, it’s hard to believe they’re 1,500 years old.

After a good look around the church, we paid a quick visit to the site’s small museum to find out more about its history. Mount Nebo is a curious and unusual place – its undeniable highlight being the breathtaking mosaic floors.

The Dead Sea

At 431 m below sea level, the Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth. A slither of receding water between Jordan and Israel, the Dead Sea is actually a large lake, part of the Jordan Rift Valley, and it’s where I spent a late afternoon relaxing during my week-long sojourn in Jordan.

Road signs on the way to the Dead Sea

As we approached the Dead Sea, the super-salty body of water looked enchanting as it glistened in the late-afternoon sunshine. With a salinity level of 33.7 per cent, the Dead Sea is one of the saltiest bodies of water on Earth and is almost 10 times saltier than the water you find in most seas. It’s this high salt concentration that gives the lake its name, as it’s so salty no living creatures can survive in it.

We planned to stop at a resort on the shores of the lake, which was surrounded by derelict wasteland and home to a small private beach and a couple of swimming pools. As soon as we arrived, we made our way down to the beach, eager to try our hand at floating in the famous body of water.

The water was clear, and in the shallow waters by the shoreline, I could clearly see the white salt crystals glinting on the floor of the lake (below). The salt crystals can be really sharp, so you need to wear shoes when you enter the water.

Salt crystals on the floor of the Dead Sea

As I waded into the water and sat down, I immediately began to float, and found myself lying on my back with my feet in the air. The sea was still and there weren’t many people around, so it was very peaceful, quietly bobbing on the surface of the water. The high mineral content of the water made it feel quite oily and it felt quite unusual against my skin.

We stayed there, floating in the sea, for some 20 minutes, before getting out. And almost as soon as we were back on dry land and began drying off, I could see a fine layer of white salt crystals forming on my body.

The glistening Dead Sea

I washed the salt water off, then made my way back to the shore, where I found a spot of mud, hidden at the bottom of the lake near the water’s edge. I plastered my skin with the mud and let it dry off in the sun, and as it did so, I could see my skin begin to crease and tighten. Once it was completely dry, I waded back into the water to wash it off and was immediately left with baby soft skin.

I had another quick dip in the sea and by the time I’d washed off the water and dressed, it was almost 7pm and starting to get dark. So we decided to stay and watch the sun set over the Dead Sea – and Israel in the far distance. We were pretty much the only people left in the resort by this time and it was such a quiet and peaceful moment, looking out over the beautiful giant body of water as the sun slowly disappeared from view.

Tips

  • Whatever you do, don’t get any salt water in your eyes or in any sensitive parts of your body – it will sting like hell
  • Do slather yourself in the sea’s mineral-rich mud, which you can find in small pockets along the shorefront, leave it to dry, then wash it off for super-soft skin
  • Because of the water’s high salt content, don’t stay in the sea for longer than 20 minutes at a time – and make sure you rinse all the salinated water off you as soon as you get out
  • Don’t forget to wash your hands thoroughly after getting out of the sea before touching your camera or phone, otherwise you risk them becoming encrusted with salt

Jerash

Looking down over the Forum in Jerash

The most striking thing about the ruined Roman city of Jerash is its size – it’s a vast site home to two extraordinarily well-preserved amphitheatres, two temples and even an intact mosaic floor. Known as Gerasa in ancient times, Jerash in north-west Jordan dates back to the 3rd century BC and today lies in the middle of its namesake modern city.

Hadrian's Arch in Jerash

When we first entered Jerash via the stunning and imposing Hadrian’s Arch (above), the ruined city looked deceptively small and it was only when we began walking around the site that we realised just how big it was. Through the arch, we came upon the remains of an ancient church featuring an uncovered mosaic floor, as well as what was left of an old olive press.

Opposite the church, we passed through a doorway into a vast space that once housed the city’s hippodrome, which played host to Jerash’s sporting events and chariot races. Much of the hippodrome has been lost over the millennia, but you can nevertheless get a sense of its size and appreciate how big it must have been.

South Gate in Jerash

From the hippodrome, we walked towards Jerash’s South Gate (above), passing through it and along a passageway to the photogenic Forum (below). The huge oval space, flanked by 56 columns, was practically complete and sensational to look at.

Part of the oval forum in Jerash

We made our way through the forum to the Cardo (below), a long street leading off from the forum, which is also flanked by a series of columns. As we began walking along the Cardo, I got a better sense of the size of the site as the street seemed never-ending.

As we walked its length, we stopped every so often to take a look at the interesting ruins leading off from it – among the various sites we visited were the former market place, an eighth-century mosque and a few churches.

The long colonnaded Cardo in Jerash

Towards the end of the Cardo, we veered off to the left to see the first of the site’s two large amphitheatres, the North Theatre (below). The pretty and impressive amphitheatre was completely open to visitors, so we clambered up the steps to the top of the theatre to get a better view of the stage and the rows of seats facing it.

Looking down over the North Theatre in Jerash

We then made our way towards the magnificent Temple of Artemis (below). Built using a series of ropes to hoist one enormous stone on top of another, I was amazed that so much of the temple was still standing, especially when I learned that it survived the devastating earthquake of 749AD intact. A few of the stones were out of alignment having moved over the centuries and if you popped your hands in the gaps between the stones you could feel the enormous pressure holding the stones in place.

Columns in the Temple of Artemis in Jerash

Walking south from the Temple of Artemis, we had a great vantage point over the ruined city and it brought home just how big Jerash was. We continued walking until we reached the city’s second amphitheatre, the South Theatre, and stepping inside, we found three men in front of the stage performing for the crowds – one of the men was playing the bag pipes.

It was a little surreal to be sitting in a Roman amphitheatre in Jordan listening to the bag pipes, but we learned that the bag pipes were introduced to the country by the British during its occupation following the First World War. The acoustics inside the amphitheatre were incredible, so much so that if you stood on the first stone laid in the centre of the theatre and talked, you could hear what was said throughout.

View over the Forum from the Temple of Zeus in Jerash

Having enjoyed our bag pipe show, we made our way to our final stop in Jerash, the spectacular Temple of Zeus. Unlike the Temple of Artemis, the Temple of Zeus didn’t survive the 749 earthquake because it was built on an artificial hill made of sand, which subsided during the quake. Subsequently rebuilt, the temple boasted fantastic views across Jerash, with around 85 per cent of the ancient city visible from the temple (above).

The remains of the Nymphaeum in Jerash

Jerash is a fascinating place and we spent around two-and-a-half hours walking around the enormous site. I was stunned at how well-preserved its ruins were and amazed that we were free to wander all over the site, there weren’t any restrictions on where we could or couldn’t go. It’s one of the most impressive ancient sites I’ve visited and I really enjoyed our visit.

Jordan

The Treasury in Petra

With spectacular scenery, countless archaeological gems and one of the seven wonders of the world, Jordan is an extraordinary country. Almost entirely landlocked, bar a slither of coastline along the Red Sea, the country is flanked by Syria to the north, Iraq to the north-east, Saudi Arabia to the east and south-east, and Israel and Palestine to the west.

Given the catastrophes playing out in its northern neighbours and the uneasy, violent tensions among its western neighbours, it’s amazing that Jordan has so far emerged relatively unscathed amid the turbulent chaos of the Middle East. That’s not to say the wars playing out around it haven’t impacted the country, for the Jordanian Government says it has taken in an estimated 1.3 million refugees fleeing the war in Syria.

Despite all the chaos surrounding it, the country remains a safe destination for travellers, although if it wasn’t for Petra, I’m not sure I would have visited Jordan as it wasn’t really on my travel radar. I’d long been keen to see the once-lost Nabatean city, seduced by all the gorgeous photos of the Treasury and the Siq, but the rest of the country had barely made a blip in my consciousness.

That all changed when I started researching my trip to Petra and discovered that Jordan was host to an array of fascinating places, and I found myself wanting to tour a much bigger swathe of the country.

The long colonnaded Cardo in Jerash

I spent a week travelling around Jordan, starting in the vast Roman city of Jerash (above) in the north-west of the country, before travelling south to the lowest and saltiest place on earth, the Dead Sea. From there, I explored some of the nearby sites, including Mount Nebo (said to be the place where Moses was buried) and Madaba, home to an extraordinarily accurate mosaic map of the region that dates back to the sixth century AD.

The desert and rock formations of Wadi Rum in Jordan

Continuing south, I stopped by the superb crusader castle at Kerak, before arriving in Petra, where I spent a few days exploring the phenomenal Nabatean city, as well as the nearby smaller site of Little Petra. After the wonders of Petra, we continued south, spending the night in a Bedouin camp in the breathtaking desert surroundings of Wadi Rum (above) on our way to the port of Aqaba, where we spent an afternoon snorkelling in the Red Sea.

From there, we made our way back north to the Jordanian capital, Amman, where we spent a day exploring the city’s sites, including the ancient citadel and amphitheatre, as well as the superb Museum of Jordan (the artefacts on display included some of the Dead Sea Scrolls).

Wadi Mujib in Jordan

One of the things that struck me most when travelling around Jordan was the breathtaking scenery I encountered. The rock formations and colours were out of this world, reminiscent of the far more celebrated rock formations in Arizona and Utah.

The most extraordinary thing for me when I visited Petra wasn’t the tombs (as fascinating as they were) but the geology and the vast array of colours in the rocks. It’s the only place on earth where I’ve encountered rocks in vivid shades of blues, reds, greens, blacks, purples and more. It’s sensational.

I often find when I’m travelling that the people I meet are warm, hospitable and friendly, and it was true of Jordan, too. When I was staying in Petra I was lucky enough to be welcomed for dinner by a local woman who’d grown up living in the nearby caves. She cooked us an amazing feast and happily told us about her life, and was more than willing to share a few of her delicious recipes with us, too.

Meze at the Don Quichotte Restaurant in Amman

Jordan is a culinary delight and I had many great meals in the country. I ate lots of flatbreads and dips (baba ghanoush, hummus), an abundance of salads and pickled vegetables, along with regional specialities such as kibbe (fried minced meat patties), mansaf (lamb or goat served with rice and topped with a sour yoghurt sauce) and mussakhan (roast chicken and onions with sumac).

I can’t say I enjoyed everything I tried, the goats milk/yoghurt drink I had in Wadi Mujib was definitely an acquired taste. But my favourite thing was a flatbread filled with falafel, hummus and salad from a roadside shop just outside Amman that was packed with locals and cost just 30p. As an Islamic country, alcohol is rare in Jordan, but there are lots of great fruit juices to be had – I developed a penchant for lemon and mint juice. Tea, especially mint tea, and coffee are ubiquitous, too.

Laying claim to being the safest and most secure country in the Middle East is something of an achievement given the volatile nature of the region, and I have to say I felt incredibly safe everywhere I went in Jordan. It was clear the country takes threats to its security seriously with police checkpoints along the main roads and a noticeable police presence at all the main visitor sites.

In all the hotels I stayed in, I had to pass through airport-style security to get in, too. Far from making me feel anxious or worried about my safety, I found it reassuring and was glad the country was taking such proactive steps to make sure its citizens and visitors were safe.

The Monastery in Petra

I came back from Jordan raving about the country – telling anyone who’d listen how spectacularly beautiful it was, how great the food was and all about the many interesting and varied places I’d visited. Petra should be on everyone’s travel to-do-list. It’s a magical place unlike anywhere else on earth and I don’t think you can truly appreciate its wonders until you’ve experienced it. But I’d encourage anyone thinking of visiting Petra to spend a little time exploring the other, less celebrated parts of Jordan, too, as you may very well fall in love with it.

Cuba travel guide

A blue classic car parked outside a house in Trinidad, Cuba

Travelling around Cuba can feel like you’ve stepped back in time – the iconic classic cars from the 1950s are everywhere, the architecture is from a bygone era and it’s perfectly normal to see a horse and cart in the street or a man using oxen to plough his field.

The Caribbean island, famous for its rum, salsa music and cigars, is a fascinating country boasting attractive scenery and great food and drink, and is home to a warm, hospitable people. I spent a little over a week travelling around the western and central parts of the island, and loved every minute of it. So without further ado, here’s my mini-travel guide to Cuba…

Havana

The outdoor book market at the Plaza de Armas in Havana

The Cuban capital is a must for anyone visiting the country and the old, historic centre is easily explored on foot. Browse the second-hand books and posters for sale in the market in the Plaza des Armes (above), stop for a drink in Ernest Hemingway’s favourite bar La Bodeguita del Medio or step inside the beautiful Catedral de San Cristobal.

Memorial to Jose Marti in the Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana

The Plaza de la Revolución is a fascinating tribute to the revolution and the men who inspired it, with an incredibly tall monument dedicated to José Martí, a national hero in Cuba, at its centre (above). Before I went to Cuba, I was told if I did one thing in Havana, I should go to the Hotel Nacional and enjoy a cocktail on the veranda – I did and it was wonderful.

Pinar del Río

Shelves full of bottles of guayabita flavoured rum liqueur for sale in Pinar del Rio, Cuba

Situated on the western tip of the island, Pinar del Río is best known for its cigars and rum. During my brief trip to the city, I visited Fábrica de Tabacos Francisco Donatién, a small cigar factory where I learned about cigar-making while watching the staff hand-rolling and cutting cigars, as well as a rum factory. Pinar del Río produces its own particular type of rum liqueur, guayabita (above), made from little guava fruits and is a must-try if you’re in the area.

Viñales

The countryside around Vinales in Cuba

The beautiful Viñales Valley (above) boasts superb scenery thanks to the unusual and distinctive mogotes (the limestone rocks covered in lush green vegetation) that dot the landscape. There isn’t much to do in the town itself, but the countryside is well worth exploring. I had a wonderful time in Viñales walking through the countryside and meeting some of the local fruit and tobacco farmers.

Cienfuegos

Sunset by the beach in Cienfuegos, Cuba

The southern coastal city of Cienfuegos is a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its perfectly-preserved historic centre. Parque Marti in the middle of the city is surrounded by beautiful, historic buildings, including the Catedral de la Purisima Concepción and the Teatro Tomás Terry, which is well worth a look inside. With its enchanting bay-side location and historic centre, the city has been nicknamed the Pearl of the South.

Trinidad

Plaza Mayor in Trinidad, Cuba

Walking around the centre of Trinidad can feel like you’re in another era thanks to its cobbled streets and colourful colonial-era buildings. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was my favourite place in Cuba. There’s a laid-back charm to the city and I happily spent a couple of days mooching around, popping into its shops, restaurants, museums and churches, browsing the handicrafts market, and soaking up its rich heritage and culture.

The view over Trinidad and the surrounding countryside from the bell tower at the Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco

If you like cocktails, make sure to visit Canchánchara, a small bar in the city that’s famed for its namesake cocktail – a delicious concoction of honey, rum, lime and water. And don’t miss the nightly Casa de la Musica on the stone steps beside the Plaza Mayor (above) where Trinidadians come to dance, listen to music and sip mojitos.

Santa Clara

Memorial to Ernesto "Che" Guevara in Santa Clara, Cuba

If you’re looking to delve into Cuba’s revolutionary past, then head to Santa Clara. For the city was the site of the last, decisive battle in the revolutionary war of the 1950s. The Tren Blindado Monument recreates the train derailment, orchestrated by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, that prevented the then-dictator Batista from moving his soldiers and weapons to the east of the country.

The city is also where Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara is buried and his burial site is surrounded by a jaw-droppingly enormous memorial, the Conjunto Escultorico Comandante Ernesto Che Guevara (above), that has to be seen to be believed. The site also includes a small museum dedicated to the guerilla leader.

Food and drink

Cuba tends to have a bad (and unfair) reputation for its food. There’s a lot of pork, rice and beans on menus, but I feasted most nights on delicious platters of seafood. My favourite meal was lobster and shrimp with plantain chips and salad (which I ate a lot), but I also enjoyed a great paella, red snapper and a scrumptious tuna sandwich, which to my surprise consisted of a flavourful marinated tuna-steak and salad in a roll.

A cup of canchanchara at the Canchanchara bar in Trinidad, Cuba

The island is famous for its rum and the spirit beloved by sailors can be found everywhere – bottles of the ubiquitous Havana Club rum are incredibly cheap. Rum is most often drunk in cocktails – you’ll find piña coladas, daiquiris, cuba libres and mojitos on most drinks menus. But you’ll also find the odd local speciality, such as Trinidad’s Canchánchara cocktail (above), and Pinar del Río’s guayabita rum liqueur, too.

Where to stay

To experience some Cuban hospitality, it’s worth staying in a casa particular, a private home that rents out rooms or apartments to paying travellers for the night. It’s a handy way for Cubans to earn a little extra money. I stayed in two casa particulares when I was in Cuba – one in Viñales, the other in Trinidad – and in both cases, my hosts were warm and friendly, and the accommodation excellent. They also served superb breakfasts in the morning.

Currency

If you’re planning a trip to Cuba, it’s worth noting that you can’t buy Cuban money outside the country. And confusingly for first time visitors, the country has two currencies – the Cuban Peso, which is mostly used by Cubans, and the Cuban Convertible Peso (known as CUCs), which is mostly used by visitors.

You can buy your CUCs from a kiosk at Havana Airport, as well as at banks and cadecas throughout the country. British Pound Sterling and Euros are accepted. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the country charges travellers a departure tax – so you’ll need to keep 25 CUCs aside to leave the country.

Have your say

Have you been to Cuba? If so, please feel free to share your travel tips in the comments below. I’d love to hear your thoughts about the island, too.

The Royal Mint Experience

The Royal Mint Experience

Last year marked 50 years since The Royal Mint moved to Llantrisant, a small town in south Wales to the north-west of Cardiff, and two years since its visitor experience opened its doors.

The Royal Mint Experience consists of a 45-minute guided tour, which includes a look inside the factory where the coins are minted, after which you’re free to wander around the museum at your own pace.

A mini covered in pennies at The Royal Mint Experience

Our tour began with a brief introductory video about the Mint, before we followed our guide into the factory where he explained how they mint the coins and showed us some of the rarest coins currently in circulation in the UK. We were then taken into a room, where from behind a glass screen, we could see the factory floor and watch the coin production process in action.

A box of £1 coins at The Royal Mint Experience

I hadn’t realised that The Royal Mint produces some five billion coins each year, minting coins not only for the UK, but for countries all over the world. Only £2, 50p and 10p pieces have unusual, collectable designs on them. The rarest 50p piece features the pagoda from Kew Gardens – only 20 per cent of the coins are still in circulation because the other 80 per cent have been kept by coin collectors.

The guided tour was fascinating, I learned a lot and it made me realise how little I knew about the coins I handle on a daily basis, and how much work and thought goes into producing them. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable and did an excellent job explaining the production process. There were a couple of serious coin collectors on our tour who asked the guide some tricky questions, but he answered them with ease.

Posters advertising the introduction of decimal coins in the UK at The Royal Mint Experience

After completing our factory tour, we were free to walk around the experience’s museum and I spent ages looking at everything. The museum featured displays about the Mint’s history, from its origins in the Tower of London to its later homes on Tower Hill and at Llantrisant.

There were lots of very rare coins on display, too, including an elusive 1933 penny (only six or seven were made), the first coin minted at the Llantrisant site, as well as coins from the reign of Elizabeth I and Sir Isaac Newton’s seal (he was master of The Royal Mint for almost 30 years until his death in 1727).

A display of facts about coins at The Royal Mint Experience

The Royal Mint makes coins, medals and blanks (the pieces of metal minted into coins) for lots of countries, including the Philippines, Costa Rica and Jordan, and there was an informative display about the many countries the Mint has worked with over the years.

A display about how coins are designed and modelled at The Royal Mint Experience

Other interesting displays included a section that explored the design process in detail (I learned that some coin designers choose to have their initials engraved on the coin, which I hadn’t noticed before), a section featuring a series of fascinating facts about coins and another that looked at the medals the Mint has manufactured over the years.

The Royal Mint made all the medals for the 2012 London Olympics (below) and the museum lets you handle replicas of them. It turns out that the Olympic gold medals are much heavier than the bronze and silver ones, with the silver medal also weighing more than the bronze.

London 2012 Olympic medals on display at The Royal Mint Experience

All in all, we spent a good two hours at The Royal Mint Experience and I thoroughly enjoyed our visit. I came away armed with so many facts about coins that I bored my family and friends stupid with my new found knowledge. I also made a mental note to start checking my change from now on.

Tips

We visited the Mint bright and early on a Wednesday morning because between 10am and 2pm each Wednesday, you can swap a 10p piece for one of The Great Coin Hunt Quintessentially British A-Z 10p pieces. It’s a collectable series of coins that feature a different letter of the alphabet on the one side and a design linked to something intrinsically British (for example, M is represented by a Mackintosh raincoat and B by James Bond) on the other. So if you’re interested in picking up a collectable coin during your visit – Wednesday’s the best day to do so.

Info

The Royal Mint Experience, Pontyclun CF72 8YT
Open from 9.30am every day
Adults £13.50, children (5-15 years) £11, children under five are free, senior citizens £12
royalmint.com/the-royal-mint-experience

Hay-on-Wye

The clock tower in Hay-on-Wye

One of my favourite places to visit in Wales is the small market town of Hay-on-Wye. Straddling the Welsh-English border, and flanked by the River Wye and the Black Mountains, the attractive town is probably best known for its many bookshops and annual literary festival, which has attracted the likes of Salman Rushdie, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton over the years.

When I was growing up, my family and I used to make an annual pilgrimage to Hay, usually the week after Christmas, where we’d wander around the town, browsing in its shops (Hay used to be home to an amazing jigsaw shop, which has sadly closed) and scouring the shelves in the many bookshops on the lookout for interesting and unusual tomes. This year, for the first time in a number of years, we decided to carry on the family tradition and paid a visit on New Year’s Eve.

Millionaire shortbread at The Granary in Hay-on-Wye

We arrived in the town at lunchtime, and after parking the car, strolled down to The Granary Café and Restaurant for tea and cake. The café sells home-made traditional fare such as soups, jacket potatoes and toasties, and always has a good selection of cakes (above). The only downside is it’s often heaving, and on the day we visited, it was as busy as I’ve ever seen it, with the queue almost out the door. Luckily, we were able to get a table, and despite the huge queue, were served relatively quickly.

The Murder and Mayhem bookshop in Hay-on-Wye

Refreshments over, it was time to hit the bookshops, and as an avid bookworm, I made a beeline to my favourite bookshop, Murder and Mayhem, on Lion Street. The small second-hand bookshop specialises in murder mysteries and features classics from the golden age of detective fiction from the 1920s and 1930s, American hard-boiled detective fiction, as well as popular modern crime writers such as Ruth Rendell and Ben Aaronovitch’s River of London series.

I love raking through the shelves in the upstairs room and spent ages picking out books. I ended up with a massive pile that included one of Dorothy L Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries and a British Library Crime Classic by Mavis Doriel Hay. I also picked up a Lew Archer mystery by one of my favourite hard-boiled authors Ross MacDonald and a few novels from the Crime Masterworks series, including Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver. All in all, I was very pleased with my haul.

The Hay Cinema Bookshop in Hay-on-Wye

Laden with books, we strolled through the town, browsing in the many clothes shops, bookshops and food shops, before finishing up in another of my favourite bookshops, the Hay Cinema Bookshop, so named because it’s housed in an old cinema. The cavernous shop sells all manner of books and it’s great fun browsing the shelves, not knowing quite what you’re going to find. I ended up buying a couple of novels by Graham Greene and Alexandre Dumas that I haven’t read.

By now, we were thoroughly bookshopped out, so decided to make our way home. And I’m now armed to the rafters with enough books to last me until next Christmas.

Bordeaux

Place de la Bourse in Bordeaux

Following my week-long sojourn in Béarn, I headed north-west to Bordeaux for a whistle-stop 21-hour tour of France’s ninth biggest city. It was almost 4pm by the time I arrived in Bordeaux and checked into my hotel near the city’s central railway station, the Gare Saint-Jean.

Having dumped my stuff in my room, I set off for a walk around Bordeaux and soon came to rue my decision to arrive in the city late on a Saturday afternoon as it was heaving and far too busy to stop in the street to look at the places that interested me or (more often) work out where the hell I was.

The Basilica of Saint Michel in Bordeaux

My hotel was a 15 to 20 minute walk from the heart of the city centre, and as I strolled in that direction, I was soon distracted by the sight of the enormous 14th century Basilique St Michel (above) and La Flèche, the tall belfry next to it. I continued walking towards the old town and decided to veer off via the backstreets, but soon got utterly lost, ending up at the city’s Marché des Capucins.

Completely disorientated, I went back the way I came before veering off down another side street and soon found myself before the Grosse Cloche (below), one of the oldest belfries in France. Its giant bell is rung at midday on the first Sunday of the month and at six other times during the year to mark special occasions such as Bastille Day.

Grosse Cloche in Bordeaux

I didn’t spend long at the belfry because it was unbelievably busy, making it almost impossible to stop, as there were crowds of people walking past in all directions, as well as lots of cyclists who seemed to defy all rules of the road. There were quite a few interesting shops in this part of Bordeaux, but it was too crowded to stop and look at them as the pavements were so narrow, if you stopped, you blocked the path.

Disorientated and somewhat stressed by how busy it was, I soon lost my way again and found myself at the Place de la Victoire, far from where I wanted to be. Once I realised my mistake, I corrected course and carefully kept to the Cours Pasteur, passing the Musée d’Aquitaine on my way to the Cathédrale Saint-André and its bell tower, the Tour Pey-Berland.

I stopped for a little while to admire the architecture of the two magnificent structures, then headed into the old town, where I spent the next hour or so wandering up and down the streets, browsing in the area’s many shops. The old town wasn’t anywhere near as crowded as the other parts of the city (although it was still busy) and I found it much more bearable and relaxing, so much so, I finally started to enjoy my time in Bordeaux.

The Place de la Bourse in Bordeaux

After an hour or so exploring the old town, I made my way down to the Place de la Bourse (above), a grand, elegant square with a showstopping fountain in its centre, the Fontaine de Trois-Gráces.

From the square, I crossed the road to take a look at the Garonne River and the enormous Pont de Pierre that spans it (below). The Garonne was huge and much, much wider than I was expecting, and after marvelling at how attractive everything was in the warm evening sunshine, I set off for a stroll along the river bank on the way back to my hotel.

La Garonne River in Bordeaux

The next day I was up and out of my hotel by 9.20am as I was keen to see as much as I could during the little time I had left in Bordeaux. But this being France on a Sunday, I was also aware that most places were likely to be closed for a while.

Undeterred, I set out in the direction of the old town along the Cours d’Alsace et Lorraine looking for somewhere to have breakfast. Every café and shop I passed was closed and the streets were practically deserted, in sharp contrast to the hustle and bustle of the day before, so I was finally able to take my time to look around and get my bearings.

A croissant and hot chocolate at Le Duffour par Alfredo in Bordeaux

I’d spotted a nice looking boulangerie, Le Duffour par Alfonso, on the Cours Pasteur the day before, so I decided to head in its direction on the off chance it was open. Luckily it was, and I sat down to a simple, comforting breakfast – a croissant and hot chocolate (above).

After breakfast, I made my way to the Cathédrale de Saint-André and the Tour Pey-Berland. The bell tower already boasted a long queue of people waiting to go inside, but with my limited time left and poor weather and visibility, I decided not to join them.

Cathedrale de Saint-Andre in Bordeaux

Instead, I popped inside the cathedral (above), only to find (unsurprisingly) that the Sunday morning service was about to begin, during which time, the cathedral was off-limits to non-worshippers. As the service had yet to start, I nipped past the tape to keep out non-worshippers and had a quick nosy around. The cathedral was an impressive sight inside with wide, grey stone high-vaulted ceilings and an enormous stained glass window behind the altar.

The Musee d'Aquitaine in Bordeaux

When I stepped outside again, the heavens had opened and it was raining heavily, so I decided to spend my remaining couple of hours in the dry surroundings of the Musée d’Aquitaine (above) as I was keen to learn more about the region’s history. Inside the free museum, I made my way to the permanent exhibition on the ground floor, which takes visitors on a journey through the region’s history from prehistoric times to the end of the 18th century.

Most of the information about the displays was only in French, but my rudimentary understanding of the language meant I was (for the most part) able to follow it. The exhibition was okay, the highlight being the many Roman artefacts on display, which included quite a few very well-preserved mosaic floors. Bordeaux is an old Roman city and many of the artefacts were found in the streets surrounding the museum, and it was interesting to learn about this aspect of the city’s history.

Effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine at the Musee d'Aquitaine in Bordeaux

The museum’s medieval and renaissance displays, by contrast, were rather disappointing as I’d been hoping to learn a lot about the region’s history and the people who shaped it, but there was very little about these periods. Even Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the region’s most famous rulers, was barely mentioned, bar a marble effigy (above).

Having seen all there was to see in the permanent ground-floor exhibition, I headed upstairs to the first floor where there was a huge exhibition about Bordeaux, covering the years 1800 to 1939.

The exhibition was really well curated and well designed, with lots of interesting artefacts on display, supported by information in French, Spanish and English. My only quibble was that a few of the information panels were illegible because they were written on glass or they’d failed to use contrasting colours on the panels, which meant the text blended into the background.

Display about Bordeaux's maritime history at the Musee d'Aquitaine in Bordeaux

The exhibition began by looking at the city at the turn of the 19th century, its growth and architecture, the wine trade and its notable citizens. It then moved on to a display about the city’s lengthy maritime history (above), featuring some superb model ships, and a sobering, thought-provoking and extensive display about the city’s links to the slave trade and the development of the French colonies in places such as Haiti, Martinique and La Réunion.

The display didn’t hold back as it explored the appalling treatment of the black slaves and the pervading racism at that time. I’ve visited a number of museums over the years that have glossed over the ugly aspects of their region’s or country’s past, and I was pleased that the museum did no such thing, but rather openly confronted and criticised the shameful aspects of Bordeaux’s history.

Recreation of an old grocery shop at the Musee d'Aquitaine in Bordeaux

The exhibition then turned its attention to life in Bordeaux as it developed into a modern city, including the development of its railways and commerce (above). All in all, it was a fascinating exhibition and I learned a lot. I came away with a much better understanding of the enormous impact the slave trade and the nation’s colonial history had on the city’s wealth, growth and development.  It was informative and eye-opening.

By now it was 1pm and time to head to the airport to catch my flight back to the UK. I left Bordeaux with mixed feelings. It’s a very handsome city with a long history, striking architecture, rich culinary heritage, great shops and lots to see and do, yet I can’t say I particularly enjoyed my time there.

However, I think this was largely down to my own stupidity in choosing to spend 21 hours in the city when it was at its busiest and quietest, and if I’d chosen to visit at any other time, I’d probably have had a fantastic time. I’d love to go back to Bordeaux, preferably some time during the week, to test this theory out as I suspect Bordeaux has the potential to be an incredible place for a short city break.

Travel tip

If you’re travelling to and from the city via its airport, hop on the number 1 bus, which will take you from the airport to the Gare Saint-Jean in the city centre, stopping at numerous points in the city en route. Tickets cost €1.60 and last an hour – you’ll need to buy your ticket before you board the bus, you can do this from a ticket machine or at your hotel.