Giverny

The water lily pond in Claude Monet's Japanese garden at Giverny

The pretty little Norman village of Giverny is where the impressionist painter Claude Monet spent the last 40 years of his life, living in a large, picturesque house not far from the banks of the River Seine, and painting the water lilies in his Japanese garden. Having read about Giverny in a travel magazine a few months before I went to Paris, I decided it would be the perfect place for a day trip from the French capital.

Monet's garden in Giverny

Along with Monet’s house, Giverny is home to a small museum dedicated to the impressionist movement, idyllic medieval houses, and a small church where Monet and his family are buried.

The village was already heaving with tourists when I arrived late morning, with the queue to visit Monet’s house and gardens stretching down the street. After around half an hour’s wait, I made my way inside.

Flowers fill Claude Monet's garden at Giverny

Monet’s house boasts two impeccable gardens – Clos Norman, which lies behind the painter’s house, and a Japanese water garden, which is on a patch of land the other side of the road to Clos Norman.

Clos Norman (above and below) is enormous and packed with flowers and plants. The flowers include poppies and roses in various shades of pink and purple, as well as purple alliums. The huge number of plants and flowers means the perfectly curated garden has quite a wild feel to it.

Alliums and poppies in Claude Monet's garden at his home in Giverny

At the bottom of the garden, there’s an underpass that takes you to the Japanese garden. It’s a secluded spot, with lots of bamboo, and green and orange plants and flowers. In the centre is the famous pond dotted with white and pink water lilies (below), which is book-ended by two Japanese-style footbridges.

Claude Monet's famous lily pond in his Japanese garden at Giverny

While the garden is undeniably beautiful, visiting it wasn’t a pleasant experience, largely because it was chock-full of people blocking the paths while posing for photos. I don’t mind people taking photos, we all like to have a reminder of the places we’ve been, but I have found myself getting increasingly annoyed by how selfish people are.

Places like Giverny are becoming full of people who think nothing of spending ages posing for photos with complete disregard for anyone else, knowing full well they’re ruining the experience for others. And worst of all, I often get the impression they have no interest in the places they’re visiting, beyond being able to show off they’ve been there.

One of two wooden footbridges over the water lily pond in Monet's Japanese garden at Giverny

Rant aside, the garden would be an idyllic place if there was no-one else there and it’s easy to see why Monet was so inspired by it. The water lilies are delightful and the edge of the pond is lined with willow trees, their long wispy branches dancing over the water, which added to its charms.

Pink water lilies in the pond at Claude Monet's Japanese garden in Giverny

Having looked around the gardens, I made my way inside Monet’s house (below). The large country house is full of light and airy rooms, and as far as I could tell, none of the rooms were off-limits to visitors. I toured the sitting room, Monet’s studio, various bedrooms and the kitchen.

Claude Monet's pink and green house at Giverny

The dining room was painted a glorious sunny yellow, while the blue kitchen featured a spectacular blue and white tiled cooker, and copper pans lined the walls. The house was a little art gallery unto itself with paintings by Monet’s fellow impressionists, as well as numerous Japanese works of art, adorning the walls.

The entrance to the Musée des Impressionnismes in Giverny

From Monet’s house, I strolled through the village to the Musée des Impressionnismes (above), a small gallery dedicated to the impressionist movement. Much of the museum was dedicated to a sizeable exhibition marking the gallery’s 10th anniversary, which compared the works of Monet with those of Jean-Francis Aubertin, a younger contemporary of Monet’s.

Monet and Aubertin painted many of the same locations, particularly around Brittany (the Belle-Île was especially popular) and Normandy, and the exhibition featured several examples of the two artists’ works of the same location side-by-side.

Aubertin was a good painter, but I felt his works were outshone by Monet’s, who came across as the superior artist. Most of the works featured were by Aubertin, rather than Monet, but I didn’t mind as I wasn’t aware of Aubertin before the exhibition and liked his style.

The gallery’s permanent collection is housed in a room downstairs , which turned out to be disappointingly small, and I can’t say the pieces were all that remarkable. I also wasn’t sure you could class any of them as belonging to the impressionist movement (but that could be down to my lack of art history knowledge!). While the exhibition about Aubertin and Monet was interesting, the rest of the museum was a bit of a let down.

After my visit to the museum, I ambled through Giverny, strolling through the gorgeous medieval part of the village until I reached the church at the far end, where I stopped to take a look around.

Sainte-Radegonde Church, where Claude Monet is buried, in Giverny

The Sainte-Radegonde Church in Giverny is a small, typical parish church and is noteworthy for being home to the Monet family tomb. There’s also a memorial commemorating a crew of British airmen whose plane crashed near Giverny during the Second World War.

A magpie in Claude Monet's garden at Giverny

I enjoyed my day out in Giverny, it’s a lovely little place, and Monet’s house and gardens are enchanting. But I was taken aback by how busy it was – I’ve been going to France every year since I was a baby, and this is the first time I’ve noticed such huge visitor numbers outside Paris. That being said, it’s an exquisite part of the world, and one which has given me a much greater appreciation for Monet’s works.

Tips

Claude Monet's garden at Giverny

It’s easy to get to Giverny from Paris. Trains leave the Gare Saint-Lazare every couple of hours and take around 55 minutes to get to Vernon-Giverny station. From there, a shuttle bus or tourist train will take you the 20 minutes or so to Giverny, which is the other side of the Seine to Vernon. I took the train, which cost €8 for a return ticket, and includes a mini-tour of the historic town of Vernon before arriving in Giverny.

Avoid taking a rucksack with you to Giverny, even if it’s really small. My rucksack was tiny and caused problems everywhere – I was told by a very stern woman at Monet’s house that I had to wear it on my front and only just got away with being allowed to wear it on my front at the Musée des Impressionnismes.

If you’re planning to visit Monet’s house and gardens, as well as either the Musée des Impressionnismes, the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris or the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris, you can buy a combined ticket, which will save you money.

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Paris – Ile de la Cité

The Conciergerie on the banks of the River Seine

One of two small islands in the middle of the Seine in Paris, the Ile de la Cité is the oldest part of the French capital. Settled in the 3rd century BC by the Celts, Paris’s historic centre is home to Point Zero, the point from which all distances in France are measured.

But it’s more widely known as the home of some of France’s most important and historic monuments, including the cathedral of Notre-Dame, the church of Saint-Chapelle and the Palais de Justice (below).

The Palais du Justice in Paris

Despite having been to Paris numerous times and even visiting the archaeological crypt beside Notre-Dame on my last trip, I hadn’t spent much time on the Ile de la Cité, so I was keen to take a look around when I was in Paris in June.

The western part of the Ile de la Cité is home to an enormous block of buildings that once formed the Palais de la Cité, the main royal residence of the early medieval French kings. Today the various buildings are better known as the Conciergerie, the Palais de Justice and Sainte-Chapelle.

The Conciergerie on the Ile de la Cite

In the 14th century, part of the palace was turned into a prison and it was dubbed the Conciergerie (above). Over the centuries, this enormous jail has accommodated several famous political prisoners, including Marie-Antoinette, Henri IV’s assassin François Ravaillac, and Charlotte Cordray, notorious for having stabbed and killed the revolutionary leader Marat in his bath.

At the height of the Revolution, some 4,000 prisoners were locked up in the Conciergerie and it remained a high-profile prison until 1914, when it became a museum.

The Salle des Gens d'Armes in the Conciergerie

The first thing you see on entering the Conciergerie is the Salle des Gens d’Armes (above), a huge Gothic hall with a stunning vaulted ceiling, built in 1302. It’s one of the largest medieval halls in Europe and it’s a magnificent space. Leading off from it is an empty kitchen, as well as the Salle des Gardes, which features information panels about the Conciergerie’s history.

There’s a natural path around the museum and after the Salle des Gardes, I made my way to a series of rooms focusing on the Revolution, which weren’t particularly interesting, followed by re-creations of how the prison’s offices might have looked at that time. One recreated the office where the prisoners were registered, another showed the office where the prisoners had their hair cut before they were executed.

I continued upstairs, where I came to a room that highlighted the names of the 4,000 people who were imprisoned in the Conciergerie as part of the Revolutionary Tribunal. There was also a series of rooms that explored the theme of justice during the Revolution.

This part of the museum was much more interesting and recounted the histories of some of the main players, including Maximilien Robespierre and the public prosecutor, Antoine Quentin Fouquier-Tinville.

The site of Marie Antoinette's former prison cell at the Conciergerie

Back downstairs, I found myself in the chapel, which was used to house prisoners during the Revolution. Leading off from the chapel is the expiatory chapel of Marie-Antoinette, founded by Louis XVIII in 1815 to mark the site of his sister-in-law’s cell (above).

The chapel is a richly decorated space and there are a number of objects, which purportedly belonged to Marie-Antoinette, on display. The last stop on the tour was the women’s courtyard, a small nondescript area that didn’t add anything to the museum.

My visit to the Conciergerie was interesting enough, but I wasn’t blown away by it. The architecture, especially the Salle des Gens d’Armes, was superb, but I didn’t feel the curators made the best use of the space and the experience was patchy, with some parts better than others.

The exhibits concentrated too much on the Revolution and not enough on the Conciergerie. I would have liked to have learned more about the prison – its entire history not just the Revolutionary parts, its famous prisoners and what life was like as a prisoner or a worker there.

Scaffolding in the middle of Notre-Dame Cathedral following the devastating fire of April 2019

From the Conciergerie, I made my way across the Ile de la Cité to the cathedral of Notre-Dame, while I waited for the huge queue at Sainte-Chapelle to go down. Like many others, I watched in horror last April as Notre-Dame de Paris, the city’s most celebrated cathedral went up in flames, leaving it a shell of its former self.

I wasn’t sure how close I’d be able to get to Notre-Dame and was surprised at how small the cordon around it was, with just a ring of beige metal fencing to keep curious visitors at bay. The medieval cathedral, immortalised by Victor Hugo in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, looked much the same as ever, minus its roof and spire, and it was heartening to see it standing defiantly in the sunshine.

Saint-Chapelle

By the time I made my way back towards Sainte-Chapelle, the enormous queue had disappeared and I was able to walk straight in. The unique Sainte-Chapelle was built in the 1240s by Louis IX (later known to history as Saint Louis) to house a number of religious relics, including the Crown of Thorns.

Featuring two chapels, one on top of the other, this High Gothic church has to be the most beautiful and ethereal ecclesiastical building in the world. It’s ridiculously pretty, which means it’s heaving with people searching for that perfect Instagram shot.

The dark blue and gold fleur-de-lys ceiling in the Lower Chapel at Sainte-Chapelle

The lower chapel was designed to be used by servants and lower-ranking courtiers, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at it (above). It’s decorated with a dark blue ceiling with a gold fleur-de-lys pattern, red walls, and dark blue and red columns embellished with a gold pattern. At the far end of the chapel, there’s a white marble statue of Louis IX. It’s an arresting sight and quite unlike any church I’ve ever seen.

The stained glass windows inside the Upper Chapel of Sainte-Chapelle

Despite the splendours of the lower chapel, I’d yet to see the best part of Sainte-Chapelle – the showstopping upper chapel (above and below), which was used by the royal family and the most important courtiers.

With its 15 stained glass panels and dark blue ceiling with gold fleur-de-lys pattern, it’s a magical sight. I’d seen lots of photos of Sainte-Chapelle before my visit so I was prepared to be awed, but I was amazed by just how spectacular it was in person. Photos don’t do it justice.

The altar inside the Upper Chapel at Sainte-Chapelle

The only downside to the chapel was that it was packed with people, many of whom were taking selfies or posing for photos, which made it difficult to move around and appreciate its beauty. It was so uncomfortable, I didn’t stay for long – I just moved from one end of the chapel to the other and back again as quickly as possible.

I enjoyed my whistlestop tour of the Ile de la Cité, even if my experiences were mixed. I’d long been keen to see Sainte-Chapelle and I wasn’t disappointed. Even though it was incredibly busy, it’s a dazzling building and well-worth seeing, especially if you’re interested in ecclesiastical architecture or stained glass windows.

Top tip

If you’re planning to visit the Conciergerie and Saint-Chapelle, head to the Conciergerie first and buy a combined ticket for the two sites. The Conciergie doesn’t see anywhere near as many visitors as Saint-Chapelle, which means you can go through security and buy your ticket in minutes. I did this when I went and was so glad I did, as not only did I save money, but I was able to bypass the enormous queue to buy tickets for Saint-Chapelle, which was at least a half hour’s wait.

Info

Conciergerie, Boulevard du Palais, 75001
Open daily, 9.30am to 6pm
€9 adults, €7 concessions
paris-conciergerie.fr/en/ 

Sainte-Chapelle, Boulevard du Palais, 75001
Open daily, 9am to 5pm (October to March), 9am to 7pm (April to September)
€10 adults, €8 concessions
sainte-chapelle.fr/en/

Combined Conciergerie and Sainte-Chapelle tickets
€15 adults, €12.50 concessions

Margam Country Park

Margam Castle as viewed from the park

With 800 acres of parkland, roaming deer, an abandoned castle, a ruined abbey, a farm and two of the best children’s playgrounds I’ve ever come across, Margam Country Park makes for a great day out. Situated not far from the south Wales coast and close to the industrial town of Port Talbot, Margam Park is easy to get to from the M4.

I hadn’t been to Margam Park since I was a child, but had fond memories of its incredible playground and was keen to revisit it as an adult. So earlier this summer, on a baking hot day, I hopped in my car for a road trip and was not disappointed.

I arrived at Margam Park bright and early, which meant it was fairly quiet when I got to the estate. Being the castle-lover that I am, I immediately made my way to Margam Castle (more a country house than a traditional castle) for a look around.

Margam Castle

Built in the 1830s, the enormous Tudor Gothic mansion (above) was the former home of the wealthy Mansel Talbot family, who were responsible for much of the area’s industrialisation and who helped introduce the railways to south Wales.

In 1974, the castle was acquired by Bridgend County Borough Council, but just three years later, a devastating fire gutted the mansion and today only small parts of it are open to the public.

The grand staircase inside Margam Castle

I popped my head inside the door and found myself inside the great hall, at the centre of which was a very grand staircase (above). The hall featured a small, informative exhibition about the Mansel Talbot family, which was interesting as I didn’t know anything about the family, and I learned a lot about their lives and how influential they were.

The ruins of the 12th century Cistercian abbey at Margam Park

From the castle, I strolled down the hill to the ancient ruined abbey (above). The Cistercian Abbey was built in 1147 and like so many monastic buildings in England and Wales was dissolved by Henry VIII during the reformation. Very little remains of the abbey, but it’s nevertheless an impressive structure with a few intriguing nooks and crannies to explore.

Beyond the ruined abbey is the Abbey Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, a small parish church, that’s still in use today. The church isn’t part of Margam Park, but you can go inside from the grounds of the estate and have a look around.

The Orangery at Margam Park

From the church, I walked to the park’s Orangery (above), an enormous Georgian structure that dates back to 1790. At that time it was built, it was said to be the longest orangery in Britain. You can’t go inside the building (it’s mostly used as a wedding venue now), so I had a pleasant stroll around the gardens that surround it instead.

Pig lying in the mud at the farm in Margam Park

Having seen all there was to see in this part of the park, I made my way back towards the castle and then headed south through the parkland to the estate’s farm. The farm is home to a host of animals, including the usual suspects such as pigs, cows, sheep, goats, chickens and even turkeys. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a live turkey before, so I was fascinated by them and spent quite a bit of time watching the birds strutting around their pen. 

From the farm, I set off to explore the rest of the park’s extensive grounds and planned to head up to the Pulpit, a viewpoint on a ridge overlooking the estate, as it’s said to boast fantastic views over the south Wales coast. But as I began walking up the path to take me to the top of the hill, I turned a corner and stumbled across a large herd of deer, many of whom pricked up their heads as I strode into view.

A herd of deer lounging in the grass in the foothill of Margam Park

Fallow deer have lived at Margam Park since at least Norman times and the deer, along with red and Pere David deer, freely roam around some 500 acres of the park. I visited the park in June, during fawning season, and as such I’d passed a number of notices warning visitors to keep their distance from the deer as the parents were very protective of their young.

As soon as I turned the corner, the stags in the herd turned to look at me, eyeing my every move. Not wanting to agitate them any further, I decided it was best to turn around, rather than continue up the path as it would have brought me even closer to the deer.

While it was incredible to see the deer in their natural habitat, I was a little intimidated, too, as the stags clearly weren’t pleased to see me and I had no desire to find out what happens when a herd of stags charge at you.

Stags in the grass at Margam Park

Despite not making it to the top of the ridge, there was still a great chunk of the park left to explore and I spent the rest of my visit sticking to the more widely populated paths to avoid disturbing any more deer.

I had a lovely day out at Margam Park – I’d forgotten just how splendid it was – and it’s now firmly back on my list of local places to visit for a weekend stroll. It’s huge and there’s so much to see and do, you can easily spend a whole day there. A real gem of a country park.

Info

Margam Country Park, SA13 2TJ
Open daily 10am-6pm (April to August), 10am-4pm (September to March)
Free entry, but there’s a £6 car parking charge for cars
margamcountrypark.co.uk

Dyffryn Gardens – Summer 2019

View of Dyffryn House from the lily pond

This morning I paid my annual spring/summer visit to Dyffryn Gardens. Situated in the Vale of Glamorgan, just outside Cardiff, Dyffryn Gardens is run by the National Trust and is home to a grand Edwardian manor, surrounded by some 55 acres of botanical gardens – and it’s one of my favourite places for a weekend stroll.

Italian Gardens at Dyffryn Gardens

I’ve visited the gardens a couple of times already this year, but this was my first visit during the summer when the flowers were in full bloom. I like going back every year to see what the groundspeople have done to the gardens as they never look the same from one year to the next.

White gladioli at Dyffryn Gardens

There was a lot of colour in the gardens this year, and following on from last year, the planting seemed much more natural and less formal that it has in previous years. I had great fun photographing the many flowers in the gardens – some of which were spectacular. Here are some of my favourites from this year’s visit:

There were lots of bees, dragonflies and butterflies buzzing around the gardens, too, and it’s safe to say I got a bit carried away trying to photograph them:

The gardens were as lovely and as welcoming as ever, and I really enjoyed my visit. If you’re ever in the Cardiff area, I highly recommend Dyffryn for a day out. And if you’re interested in how the gardens have looked in previous years, take a look at my blog posts from 2017, 2016 and 2015.

Info

Dyffryn Gardens, St Nicholas, Vale of Glamorgan CF5 6SU
Adults £10.90, children £5.45
nationaltrust.org.uk/dyffryngardens

Tyntesfield

Tyntesfield House in Somerset

If I was ever to write an Agatha Christie-style 1920s murder mystery, I’d set it at Tyntesfield, a gloriously Gothic manor surrounded by acres of land in the middle of the Somerset countryside.

It’s the sort of place where you could imagine cocktail-drenched parties full of bright young things taking place and then a dead body or two inconveniently turning up in the library or the billiard room…

Tyntesfield House in Somerset

In short, Tyntesfield was my kind of place. The manor house is the former home of the wealthy Gibbs family. It was bought by William Gibbs in 1844, who in the 1860s had the architect John Norton turn it into the Victorian Gothic masterpiece it is today.

The estate was taken over by the National Trust in 2002, following the death of Richard Gibbs, the last member of the family to live there. Today, visitors to the estate will find not only the aforementioned mansion, but an arboretum, multiple gardens and woodland to explore, as well as a couple of cafés, a shop and an imaginative children’s playground.

Tyntesfield House in Somerset

Having decided it was the perfect place to take my Mum, we turned up somewhat sweaty and bedraggled after an unexpected trek through the nearby woodland, so we immediately made our way to the café. This being a National Trust property, the café did not disappoint – think cakes, scones and hearty traditional fare, such as baked potatoes, soups and sandwiches.

The rose garden at Tyntesfield House

Rested and sated, we set off to explore the estate. Tickets to the mansion are timed and you have an hour from when you buy your ticket to go inside the house, so we slowly ambled through the arboretum in the direction of the house, stopping to admire the rose garden (above) along the way.

The library at Tyntesfield House

When we reached the house, we cut through the courtyard to the entrance, where we were greeted by a friendly volunteer who warmly welcomed us inside. There’s a natural route through the house, which we decided to follow, stepping first into the library (above), which is home to some 3,000 books collected by the Gibbs family.

In the hall, a talented young man was playing the piano and the sound reverberated throughout the house, adding to the Gothic, murder-mystery vibe. All the rooms were fully furnished and they were decorated in that slightly shabby, thread-worn style I associate with the British aristocracy, which gave the mansion a lived-in, family feel.

A few of the rooms were cordoned off (one was being renovated, another was storing items from the house), but you could still take a peek inside, which was nice and meant you didn’t feel you missed out on any parts of the house.

The cosy fireplace in the Billiard Room at Tyntesfield House

One of my favourite rooms was the billiard room (above), where, with its cosy fireplace, large billiard table and comfy-looking seats, you could imagine the family and their guests retiring after dinner for a game of billiards and a heated debate over a glass of port.

Having toured the ground floor, we made our way upstairs, where we looked inside a number of bedrooms (complete with an abundance of floral wallpaper and bedding) and a small bathroom that boasted a fabulous old medicine cabinet filled with lotions and potions.

Our tour of the house ended in the adjoining chapel (above), a suitably Gothic affair. Rumoured to have been inspired by the magnificent Saint-Chapelle in Paris, it was a grand place of worship for a country house in Somerset.

Inspired by our visit to the house, we continued our way through the estate to the kitchen gardens. The area around them is home to an orangery, a small café and a children’s playground, as well as several greenhouses, and herb and vegetable gardens.

Pineapples growing in pot plants in the greenhouses at Tyntesfield House

The kitchen gardens were superb and there was much more to them than I’d  anticipated. I was amazed to find pineapples growing in one of the greenhouses as I’d never seen a pineapple plant before and hadn’t expected to come across one in a pot in Somerset (above).

In a nice touch, you could also pick up some tulip bulbs to take home with you and there was an honesty box alongside them where you paid the price you thought they were worth.

Tyntesfield is the sort of place where you can let your imagination run wild. I found it hugely inspiring, and by the end of my visit, I was itching to sit down to write a whodunnit. I loved our day out at the estate, it’s one of the best country houses I’ve visited (and I’ve been to a lot) and I’m already planning my return visit.

Top tip

While it’s perfectly possible to get to Tyntesfield by public transport (the X6 bus runs from Bristol bus station), and the National Trust encourages this with money off vouchers for the café and shop, avoid doing so on Sundays and bank holidays as the buses don’t run, or if they do, they’re sporadic and unreliable.

And definitely don’t get on the X9 bus from Bristol as we did unless you want an hour-long walk along a hairy, verge-less country road or to cut through the woods not quite knowing where you’re going (also as we did). There’s a good possibility you could end up stranded and having to call a bunch of taxi firms (a number are most unhelpful) to come take you home.

Info

Tyntesfield, Wraxall, Bristol, North Somerset BS48 1NX
£16.50 adults, £8.25 children
nationaltrust.org.uk/tyntesfield

London – Kew Gardens

One of the many weird and wonderful flowers at Kew Gardens

I was in London in the spring catching up with friends, when one of my friends suggested we spend the day at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew. I love Kew Gardens and hadn’t been there for years, so I was more than happy to revisit one of my favourite London haunts.

Home to more than 50,000 species of plants from all corners of the globe, the world-famous gardens date back to the mid-18th century, when King George III’s mother, Princess Augusta, established a botanical garden at Kew. In 1840, the gardens were handed over to the state and they’ve been open to the public ever since.

One of the many flowers at Kew Gardens

Kew holds a special place in my heart because I vividly remember visiting a park in London that had an amazing pagoda as a child. For years, I wasn’t sure if it was real or if I’d imagined it, and it was only when I visited Kew as an adult that I was able to put two-and-two together and realised it was home to that pagoda.

The Palm House at Kew Gardens

We began our visit to Kew with a trip to the Palm House (above), a large, elegant, slightly rundown Victorian greenhouse that’s home to plants from tropical hot spots all over the world. It was fascinating being able to compare the similarities and differences of the various plants, and I got quite excited when I realised I recognised a few of them having seen them in the wild (such as the cacao tree from Costa Rica).

The jade vine inside the Palm House at Kew Gardens

I enjoyed learning about some of the bizarre plants that call the Palm House home, such as the tree with its roots growing above ground. One of my favourite plants was the jade vine (above), an eye-catching jade green plant that stood out from the many palms surrounding it.

There were lots of helpful information signs about the plants in the Palm House, from which we learned some unexpected facts. For example, we were surprised to learn that the Palm House is home to the world’s oldest pot plant – a South African palm that dates back to 1775!

View from the balcony inside the Palm House at Kew Gardens

After walking all the way around the Palm House, on both the ground floor and the upper balcony that spans the edge of the greenhouse, we headed back outside and strolled through the gardens until we reached The Hive (below).

The Hive is a 17m-high aluminium structure that’s designed to recreate life in a beehive and is a wonderful piece of engineering. It was somewhat eerie standing in the middle of it, and it made me realise how lucky I am not to be a bee, having to endure something similar on a regular basis.

Looking up at the roof of the Hive at Kew Gardens

From The Hive, we walked to the Princess of Wales Conservatory. This large indoor greenhouse is home to a variety of rockeries, and houses plants that would normally be found in dry tropical environments, including deserts. It’s full of orchids, succulents and cacti, as well as other less well-known plants, and we had a great time learning about the unusual flora and pointing out curious specimens to each other.

Orchids inside the Princess of Wales Conservatory at Kew Gardens

After the delights of the conservatory, we continued our way through the gardens until we reached Kew Palace (below). Although it’s situated in the grounds of Kew Gardens, the palace is run by a different organisation, Historic Royal Palaces.

The small, red brick palace was built in the 17th century by Samuel Fortrey, a silk merchant, and fell into royal hands during the reign of George II. But it’s his grandson George III and George III’s wife Charlotte of Mecklenberg-Strelitz who are most closely associated with the palace. It was here that George III recuperated when he was laid low by his mental illness.

Kew Palace

Inside, the palace is decorated and furnished in the Georgian style, as it may have looked during George III and Queen Charlotte’s day. Thanks to its small rooms, it has quite a homely feel and is more like a posh manor house than a grand, splendid palace. It’s quite easy to picture a family living here once upon a time.

Given its small size, it didn’t take long to walk around the palace, and afterwards, we popped inside the nearby Royal Kitchens. The 18th century kitchens were, unsurprisingly, where the servants used to prepare food for the royal family.

The downstairs rooms where the food was made were large and bare (there’s not much to them, so they’re rather dull and uninteresting), while the upstairs rooms housed the kitchen offices. These were a little more interesting as there was more to them – for example, you could see the books where they logged the food they bought.

Rhododendron in flower at Kew Gardens

From the palace, we set about exploring the rest of the gardens and made our way through the grounds to the Rhododendron Dell. I always associate rhododendrons with Agatha Christie novels (they always seem to crop up in them), and thanks to my mother’s persistent teaching, they’re one of the few plants I can identify. As it was spring time, many of the rhododendron were in bloom and we enjoyed a lovely stroll amid the pretty flowering plants.

Syon Park across the River Thames from Kew Gardens

At the other end of the Dell, we stopped briefly at a gap in the trees to take a look at Syon Park (above, the magnificent London residence of the Duke of Northumberland) on the other side of the River Thames, before carrying on through the tree-lined trails until we reached the Great Pagoda (below).

The Great Pagoda at Kew Gardens

The impressive structure was built in 1762 as a present for Princess Augusta. Having not been to Kew for a few years, I hadn’t realised you could now go inside the pagoda, and we briefly considered doing so, until we saw how long the queue was. As I didn’t have long left until my train back to Cardiff and there was more we wanted to see, we decided to skip it – but it’s at the top of the list for my next visit!

The recently restored Temperate House at Kew Gardens

Our next stop was Temperate House (above), a delightful glass behemoth that recently reopened after five years’ restoration work. Dating back to 1863, it’s the biggest Victorian greenhouse on earth and boasts some 10,000 plants from temperate zones all over the world, including Mauritius, the Himalayas and New Zealand.

It’s a fantastic structure and we took our time looking around the greenhouse, marvelling at the huge variety of flora on show and learning about the many plants that live in temperate zones.

From Temperate House, we ambled through the Cherry Walk – a small, pretty spot that was lined with blossoming cherry trees – before finding ourselves back at the entrance. I really enjoyed our day out in Kew Gardens. It’s a beautiful, relaxing park, and with so much to see and do, there’s something for everyone. It’s a delightful place that never disappoints and it’s well worth visiting if you’re in London.

Info

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Open daily
£16.50 adults, £14.50 concessions, from £4.50 children
kew.org

Amman

View of Amman, including the Roman Theatre, from the Citadel

A bustling, vibrant capital city that’s home to more than one million people, Amman is a modern metropolis with ancient roots, having been inhabited in some form or another for millennia. Its former incarnations include Ammon, the capital of the Ammonite people during Biblical times, and the Greek and Roman city of Philadelphia. And it’s where I spent my final day in Jordan.

The Jordan Museum in Amman

My first destination was the Jordan Museum (above), a small museum dedicated to the country’s history and culture.

Its exhibits cover much of the region’s early history, from its early settlement by prehistoric hominids to the introduction of farming, as well as the innovations of the Bronze and Iron Ages, and the influence of the Nabateans, the Greeks, the Romans and the Byzantines. It also explores many aspects of Bedouin culture, focusing on topics as varied as cooking practices, the tribal court and weaving.

One of my favourite exhibits looked at the development of writing and featured an incredible display that showed how the world’s alphabets evolved. It was superb, and as part of the exhibit, you could type your name into a computer to find out what it would be in Aramaic, Nabatean, Greek and Arabic, then print off a certificate to take home with you.

I also was intrigued by the Ain Ghazal statues, a series of unusual, 8,500-year-old plaster figurines that are completely out of proportion – one had a tiny head with a fat body and legs, another consisted of a large square with two small heads.

But the undoubted highlight is the fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls that are on display alongside a few copper-plated scrolls.

The scrolls, which contain some of the oldest known Biblical texts, were discovered in caves in what was then Jordan during the 1940s and 1950s. Most of the scrolls now belong to Israel with only a few remaining in Jordanian hands, so it was incredible to have the chance to see these world-famous texts up close, even if they only amounted to a few fragments.

I really enjoyed the Jordan Museum. It was well-curated, boasted interesting artefacts and the wealth of information for visitors helped provide context to some of the many sites I’d been to in the country. We only spent an hour there, but I could easily have spent longer, reading all the information plaques in detail and studying the many objects on display.

The Roman Theatre in the centre of Amman

After the museum, we made our way to the Roman Theatre (above), a two thousand-year-old sandstone amphitheatre in the heart of the city. With its three tiers and seating for around 6,000 people, the amphitheatre is bigger than the two amphitheatres we visited in the nearby Roman city of Jerash.

We spent a little while walking around the theatre, climbing its steps and sitting in its seats, before taking a look at another, much smaller amphitheatre (below) near its entrance. The amphitheatres were very well preserved and it was amazing to see they were still in such good condition after so many years.

The little amphitheatre next to the Roman Theatre in Amman

The area surrounding the amphitheatre is home to a couple of small, basic museums.

To the left of the Roman Theatre is the Jordan Museum of Popular Traditions, which features clothing and jewellery from Jordan, Palestine and Syria. It also exhibits folklore decorations and daggers, as well as stones worn or carried by the Bedouin for preventative medicine or curing purposes. Despite being very small, it’s a great little place and there are a number of interesting artefacts on display.

The Folklore Museum, meanwhile, lies to the right of the Roman Theatre and uses models to showcase traditional Jordanian ways of life, such as what women did in the home and how the Jordanians made bread. It’s not as interesting as the Museum of Popular Traditions, but it’s worth a quick peek inside.

From the Roman Theatre, we made our way to the ruined citadel, which lies atop the Jebel el-Qalaa mountain opposite. The citadel is an enormous ruined archaeological site in the centre of Amman and provides spectacular views of the city (below).

View of Amman from the citadel

In front of us were the tightly-packed apartment complexes where many of the Palestinians who’ve sought refuge in Jordan live, while in the distance I could make out the tall skyscrapers of the modern city, as well as the orange roofs of the royal palace, nestled among lush green gardens.

The Roman Temple of Hercules in the citadel in Amman

The citadel ruins are extensive and take a good hour to walk around. Representing a swathe of Amman’s ancient past, the remains date back to various eras including the Roman period, the Umayyad Caliphate and the Byzantine empire. Some of the most impressive ruins include the tall and imposing Roman Temple of Hercules (above), along with the small blue-domed mosque that lies within the ruins of the old Umayyad Palace (below).

The blue-domed Umayyad mosque in the Citadel in Amman

The citadel complex is also home to the Jordan Archaeological Museum (below). The museum houses Jordanian artefacts that date from the Bronze, Roman, Hellenistic, Chalcolithic, Iron, Nabatean and Umayyad periods.

The Jordan Archaelogical Museum in the citadel in Amman

Fossils, coins, bits of pottery, jewellery and glassware are among the artefacts on display, along with horse, buffalo and rhino teeth, and three anthropoid coffins. The museum was small and fairly basic, but it offered a fascinating glimpse into the country’s history (not to mention, it provided a welcome break from the scorching sun outside).

I enjoyed my informative, whistle stop tour of the Jordanian capital and I came away with a much deeper understanding of the country’s – and its capital’s – long history. It was a great way to end a delightful week in a part of the world I hadn’t been to before.

Aqaba

The port of Aqaba as seen from the Red Sea

The port of Aqaba lies on the southern tip of Jordan and is the country’s main gateway to the sea as it’s the only large town on Jordan’s small strip of coast. As such, it’s a popular destination for Jordanians hoping for some sea with their sun and sand.

Aqaba was much more touristy than the other parts of Jordan I’d visited, and with palm trees lining the roads, the rich blue expanse of sea, packed beaches and countless families milling about, it had a holiday vibe to it.

After checking in to our hotel, we made our way to the port area, where we hopped on a boat for a tour of the Red Sea. There were a number of gigantic shipping vessels, filled to the brim with containers, around the port and lots of industrial equipment lining the shore. Across the water, we could clearly see the Israeli town of Eilat, only a few kilometres away.

Our glass-bottomed boat was a simple two-deck affair, and once on board, I made my way down to the bottom deck, so I could look through the clear bottom. We set sail across the Red Sea – ironically the bluest sea I’ve ever laid eyes upon – and there was little to see aside from the odd enormous shipping vessel, the occasional holiday resort on the Jordanian shore, and the barren, sandy mountains of Jordan and Israel.

One of a number of enormous cargo ships, piled high with containers, sailing in the Red Sea

After around half an hour, the boat sailed closer to the shore, near a few resorts on the Jordanian coast, and slowed down so we could see the coral reef below. It was a beautiful sight and I got quite excited when we saw a few fish swimming among the coral.

The boat continued on its merry way through the choppy, vivid blue sea, passing over a sunken battleship, now studded with coral and what seemed to be a sea creature’s paradise. We soon came to a stop at a place called Black Rock, where we were offered the chance to go snorkelling.

I quickly changed into my swimsuit, put on my snorkelling gear, jumped off the back of the boat and swam out to our guides, who almost immediately pointed out a large turtle swimming beneath us, close to the sea floor. It was an incredible sight – seeing a sea turtle was top of my wish list and I was chuffed to bits we’d seen one straight away – and I spent ages watching the magnificent creature as it slowly glided through the water.

I got so caught up watching the turtle, I hadn’t realised the rest of the group had moved on, so I swam towards them to make sure I didn’t lose them, struggling at times to clear my breathing apparatus as the sea was quite rough.

When I reached the group, I took another look under the water and realised I was now swimming close to the coral reef with its spectacular cloud- and sponge-like shapes. There were lots of fish swimming in and around the coral, including a stingray, as well as a few small jellyfish, which I made sure to keep well clear of. I also made sure to keep a good distance from the reef to avoid touching and damaging the delicate coral.

A ship sailing through the choppy waters of the Red Sea, just outside the port of Aqaba

After a while, one of our guides signalled it was time to go back to the boat. I was having such an amazing time, my heart sank – I didn’t want to leave and could happily have stayed there all day. Back on board, I headed up to the top deck, where lunch was being served. Once everyone had finished eating, the boat picked up speed and we headed back to Aqaba.

That evening, we had dinner in a restaurant down by the harbour, and afterwards went for a stroll along the beach, around the area where an enormous flag of the Arab Revolution stands tall. The area was packed with Jordanians down for the weekend, chatting and dancing along the seafront.

I enjoyed my brief stay in Aqaba. There didn’t seem to be a huge amount to the town – it’s very much a holiday resort/industrial port – but I loved our tour of the Red Sea, especially snorkelling near the coral reef. The reef was breathtaking and I loved every minute snorkelling around it, in awe of its incredible marine life. It was one of my favourite experiences in Jordan, and was a nice way to spend my penultimate day in the country, before heading back up north to the capital Amman.

Wadi Rum

The sun sets over the desert at Wadi Rum

In the run up to my trip to Jordan, I began reading TE Lawrence’s The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, in which the former British army officer recounts his time in the region supporting the Arab Revolt during the First World War.

In his memoir, Lawrence also raves about the beauty of Wadi Rum, a vast desert in southern Jordan that boasts astonishing rock formations and the place I planned to spend a night in a Bedouin camp.

Unfortunately, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom turned out to be a crushing bore and I only got halfway through before my trip (I eventually finished it a few months later in between other books), which meant I learned very little about Lawrence’s thoughts on Wadi Rum. I, however, had ample opportunity to form my own opinions.

Roadside camels on the way to Wadi Rum

We travelled to Wadi Rum from Petra by bus, and as we approached the valley, the scenery began to change. Camels roamed freely by the roadside and the terrain became increasingly desert-like, with enormous rock formations jutting up from the sandy floor.

View from Wadi Rum Railway Station

Our first port of call was Wadi Rum Station, where an Ottoman train was ambushed on the tracks of the Hejaz Railway in 1916 by members of the Arab Revolt. The perfectly-preserved Al Hijaz Steam Train (below) is rather an odd sight, standing all on its lonesome in the middle of the desert, surrounded as far as the eye can see by sand and rocks.

We spent some 20 minutes looking around this curious relic, taking the opportunity to pop inside the wood-panelled carriage that was open to visitors, before continuing to the Wadi Rum Visitor Centre.

There, we headed up to the viewing platform to take a look at some of the desert’s most famous rock formations, including the iconic and impressive Jebel Makhrad, otherwise known as the Seven Pillars of Wisdom after Lawrence’s book (below).

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom from the Wadi Rum Visitor Centre

After soaking up the views, we made our way to our home for the night – a Bedouin campsite in the desert, consisting of a series of tents that included a large seating area, a dining room and 14 bedrooms. As we arrived at the camp (below), we were offered some tea by our Bedouin hosts, and then spent a couple of hours relaxing, away from the searingly hot sun.

Our Bedouin camp in Wadi Rum

In the early evening, we hopped in a jeep for a tour of Wadi Rum. As we drove around, I was taken aback by the vivid hue of the orangey-red desert sand and the magnificent rose-red rock formations. It’s a beautiful place and I was surprised by how many (albeit pretty dry) shrubs there were growing amid the barren landscape.

Carving of Lawrence of Arabia on a rock in Wadi Rum

At Jebel Umm Ulaydiyya, we stopped by a small Bedouin camp, opposite a huge sand dune. We got out of the jeep and slowly climbed the arduously steep dune (a real thigh burner), and when we eventually reached the top, sat down to enjoy the splendid view and relax. Afterwards, we made our way to the Bedouin camp for tea and stopped to take a look at the images of Lawrence of Arabia (above) and King Faisal carved into a nearby rock.

Faint outline of ancient Nabatean carvings on a rock face in Wadi Rum

We hopped back in the jeep to continue our desert adventure, stopping at a small raised viewing platform that boasted fabulous views of the valley below. From there, we carried on, stopping again by another large rock to take a look at a series of inscriptions carved into the stone a few thousand years ago. I was particularly taken by the wonderful camels depicted on the rock face (you can just make them out in the photo above) and was amazed they’d survived for so long.

Driving around Wadi Rum just before sunset

We continued our tour through the desert, enjoying the delightful scenery around us and stopping for a final time to climb a large rock, from which we watched the sun go down. The sunset was sensational (below), and once the sun had disappeared, we clambered down from the rock and sat on the desert floor, where we had tea with our Bedouin guides.

Three camels set off into the desert in Wadi Rum at sunset

It was lovely sitting with the Bedouin, sipping our tea and chatting. The desert was so still and peaceful, it felt as though we were the only souls for miles. I could have happily stayed there for hours, but as it was almost dinner time, it was time to head back to camp.

Our tour through the desert had lasted two-and-a-half hours, but I enjoyed it so much, it had whizzed by and I was surprised to discover how long we’d been out.

Unearthing our dinner in the Bedouin camp in Wadi Rum

Back at the camp, we watched as our Bedouin hosts uncovered our dinner, which was buried in a pot under the sand, and carried it into the dining room, ready for serving. Our hosts piled my plate high with food – a mix of spiced chicken and goat, rice, potato and carrots, served with flat bread, yoghurt, baba ganoush, hummus, and a tomato and cucumber salad. It was delicious and filling.

At bedtime, a few of us brought our mattresses out into the campfire area, where we slept under the stars. I’d expected the desert to be silent at night, but it was quite noisy – I could hear dogs barking in the middle of the night, as well as the call to prayer in the early hours of the morning. Nevertheless, I awoke – super relaxed – at 5.30am.

The desert and rock formations of Wadi Rum in Jordan

Spending a day and night in Wadi Rum was an incredible experience, and I enjoyed exploring the vast barren valley, learning how the Bedouin have traditionally lived in such a harsh environment, and marvelling at the area’s natural beauty. I can see why Lawrence of Arabia – among countless others – was so taken with it, it’s a spectacular place and well worthy of the gushing, lyrical praise it’s inspired over the years.

Little Petra

One of the spectacular dwellings in Little Petra

A short distance to the north of Petra is Siq al-Barid, a small archaeological site commonly referred to as Little Petra, because it’s essentially a miniature version of the world-famous ancient Nabatean capital.

It’s thought that Little Petra is where many Nabateans lived as it’s mostly home to a series of dwellings with very few tombs and temples, unlike Petra, which is a largely ceremonial and commercial tomb-and-temple fest.

One of the many dwellings in Little Petra

Little Petra is quite small, but it’s dotted with a surprising number of houses, staircases and water cisterns, all carved into the rose-red rock, and I was stunned by how much there was to see. The buildings were much simpler than those at Petra, but were nevertheless, mindbogglingly amazing.

Looking up at some of the dwellings in Little Petra

We ventured inside a few of the houses – one had two rooms with a little alcove and a small ledge you could sleep on, along with large windows. Another had a black ceiling cause by the smoke from the oil that was used to heat the room.

The ceiling inside the Painted House in Little Petra

One of the most impressive dwellings we looked inside was one known as the Painted House because it boasts a plaster ceiling and walls, which are decorated with intricate paintings of flowers, vines, gods and goddesses (above). It’s incredible to think it’s survived for some two thousand years!

The precarious trail leading to the viewing platform at Little Petra

Little Petra sits within a gorge and there’s a very narrow, precarious flight of steps at the end of it where the ravine narrows considerably (above). We decided to clamber up the steps to see where it took us, which wasn’t easy as it was less a traditional staircase and more a perilous set of rocks.

The super cute ginger kitten at Little Petra

The slightly hair-raising climb was worth it though as it led onto a plateau where a few Bedouin lived. We didn’t meet any Bedouin as walked around, but we did meet a tiny and very friendly ginger kitten (above).

The view from the viewing platform at Little Petra

We walked past the Bedouin tent and came to the end of the rock, which looked out over the valley beyond (above). The view was, unsurprisingly for this part of the world, incredible, and we spent a good 10 minutes admiring the scene before us, before clambering back down to the archaeological site.

Looking down on Siq al Barid, otherwise known as Little Petra

I loved our trip to Little Petra and was glad we’d added it to our itinerary as I’m sure many people skip it when they visit Petra. It’s a fascinating place, and I was amazed by how many dwellings there were carved into the rocks, and how we were allowed to wander in and out of them with very few restrictions. It’s quite a small place, so it doesn’t take long to look around, but it was great fun and complemented what we’d seen at Petra.