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

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

The medieval streets in Angles-sur-l'Anglin

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

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

Angles-sur-l'Anglin fortress

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

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

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

River Anglin in Angles-sur-l'Anglin

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

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

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



Chateau de Montreuil-Bellay in France

As regular readers to my blog likely know by now, I love a castle, and if there’s one close by when I’m travelling, I have to visit it. During our stay in Parthenay, our hosts had told us the best castle nearby was in the town of Montreuil-Bellay, so that’s where we headed on our second day in the region.

When we arrived in Montreuil-Bellay, we found the castle was closed for lunch, so we found a café where we had a bite to eat and then spent some time wandering around the town until 2pm when the castle was set to reopen. The town of Montreuil-Bellay has a long history as it’s strategically placed between the historic areas of Anjou, Poitou and Touraine (all former Plantagenet strongholds). As a result, it’s home to lots of attractive, old buildings.

The 15th century St John's Gate in Montreuil-Bellay

We spent a pleasant half hour or so ambling around the town’s streets, admiring the old buildings and fortifications (including the 15th century St John’s Gate, above) and looking in the odd shop, before making our way back to the castle. The huge, beautiful castle is still inhabited so it can only be visited by guided tour at certain times throughout the day.

Chateau de Montreuil-Bellay in France

The current castle was built between the 13th and 15th centuries, but there’s been a castle on the site since the 11th century. It has quite the storied history, too. Its moat sheltered starving peasants during the Hundred Years War between England and France, women thought to be sympathetic to the royalist cause were imprisoned here during the revolution of the 1790s, and it served as a hospital for wounded soldiers during the First World War.

View of the River Thouet from the gardens at the Chateau de Montreuil-Bellay

After buying our tickets, we had time to spare before our tour began so we set off to explore the castle’s gardens and ramparts. The castle, which overlooks the River Thouet, boasts 13 towers and some 650m of ramparts, and I had great fun climbing the garden’s towers, exploring the ramparts, from which I had fantastic views of the river below, and strolling around the landscaped grounds.

The gardens were really pretty with beautifully manicured lawns and hedges, and flower beds filled with red, pink and white flowers. There’s also an enormous, elegant chapel. After spending a good half hour roaming the grounds and taking lots of photos, it was finally time for our guided tour.

The guided tour, which takes you around the castle’s ground floor and the cellars, was carried out in French and English, and lasted just under an hour. Among the rooms on display were the music room, dining room and the Duchess of Longueville’s bedroom, as well as the impressive medieval kitchen and the huge cellars where they used to make wine. We weren’t allowed to take any photos inside, hence the lack of indoor pics, but the tour was interesting and our guide knowledgeable.

Montreuil-Bellay is a beautiful château and an interesting place to spend an hour or so, but I’m not sure it was worth the hour or so drive there and back from Parthenay. Unfortunately, you can’t see much of the castle other than those few rooms on the ground floor and the cellars, which is understandable when people still live there, but it felt as though it was lacking something, especially given its long and fascinating history. It’s lovely and all, but if I’m honest, it’s not the most interesting castle I’ve visited in France.


River Thouet in Parthenay

A couple of years ago, I spent a week just outside the fortified town of Parthenay in the Nouvelles-Aquitaine region of France. The town is situated in a bend in the River Thouet and is a charming, attractive place, with timber-clad houses, a ruined castle, a number of impressive medieval gates and striking churches.

The medieval streets with timber-clad houses in Parthenay

Soon after arriving, we spent a happy couple of hours exploring the citadel, wandering through the old town’s hilly, winding medieval streets and enjoying the views of the river. We went on a circuitous route through the old town centre, ambling past lots of rickety-looking timber-clad houses, not quite sure where we were going, going up this road, then that, and seeing where we ended up.

Looking up at the Porte Saint-Jacques in Parthenay

Along the way, we came upon the impressive Porte Saint-Jacques (above) where we decided to stop and climb to the top of the tower, admiring the great views over the town and the river. From there, we continued on, making our way down to the river bank and following the path along the river to the castle. The river walk was pretty and peaceful – the only other people we met along the way were a few dog walkers.

Parthenay’s castle was originally built in the 11th century, then expanded in the 13th and 15th centuries. Now much of it lies in ruins with only parts of three of its nine towers remaining. We spent a little time exploring what remained of the ramparts and the towers, before making our way back up to the town.

The water features in the medieval garden in Parthenay

We carried on walking through the narrow, cobbled streets until we came across a lovely medieval garden. It was only small, with a little water feature, an orchard and lots of herbs growing, but it was a relaxing spot and I was glad we stumbled across it. By now, we’d pretty much walked around the whole of the medieval part of Parthenay, so we stopped off at a café for a well-deserved rest and a drink. Our stroll around the town was really enjoyable and a great way to start our week-long break in the region.


London – Junkyard Golf, Brick Lane and Spitalfields

The evil clown hole at Junkyard Golf

After visiting the Winnie the Pooh exhibition at the V&A, which I wrote about in my last post, my friends and I headed east, stopping for lunch at Madame D, a Nepalese restaurant on Commercial Street.

The restaurant’s menu features a series of sharing plates so we each chose one and shared them between the four of us: Naga chilli beef puffs, hakka chilli paneer, vegetable momos and Kathmandu curry with steamed rice. I also ordered a glass of homemade chilly lemonade, aka lemonade with a chilli in it.

The food was really good. The chilli beef puff was delicious and gone far too quickly. The chilli paneer was by far the tastiest dish, but very hot, and even though I really enjoyed it, my mouth was on fire. I wasn’t too fond of the momos, they were a little tasteless and the dough too thick, but the curry was lovely and had a great flavour.

Happily sated, we wandered up Fournier Street, one of my favourite streets in London – I love the characterful period houses, which look like something out of a Dickens novel – to Brick Lane. Junkyard Golf is situated in the Old Truman Brewery quarter off Brick Lane and was heaving when we arrived on the Saturday afternoon.

The skull ferris wheel hole at Junkyard Golf

After having our bags searched and being made to get rid of our bottled water, we headed downstairs to the golf courses. Junkyard Golf is a trendy crazy golf club where all the courses are made out of what look like scrap materials. It has branches in London, Manchester and Oxford.

The Brick Lane branch has four themed nine-hole courses. We were on a course called Bozo, which had a fairground and circus theme, as well as its own bar selling beers, wines and cocktails with names such as Ribena Turner, Hotline Ting and Obi Wan Banoffee.

None of the holes required much skill – some were stupidly easy, others downright impossible. My favourite was the hole where you had to whack your ball through a cannon, which fired it through some star-shaped holes where it then dropped to the ground and rolled perfectly into the hole for a hole in one.

My least favourite was the hole where you had to hit your ball along a pipe from which it was supposed to drop into a skull-shaped carriage on a ferris wheel and tip into the hole. It was impossible. Nobody came close to completing it so everyone got frustrated (not just in our group, in the groups behind and ahead of us, too) and cheated.

Junkyard Golf is great fun and I enjoyed our visit, it was a relaxed, friendly game and no-one got too competitive. The only downsides are it doesn’t take long to complete the course, only an hour, and I’m not sure I’d like to be there at night when there were lots of groups drinking on the course.

Dark Sugars Cocoa House in Brick Lane

After all our exercise on the (crazy) golf course, we crossed Brick Lane to Dark Sugars, a shop selling exquisite and very expensive chocolates, as well as decadent hot chocolates. I couldn’t resist joining the queue of people ordering hot chocolates and opted for a hazelnut praline one for £5.50.

Staff making chocolate shavings to top my hot chocolate

Admittedly it’s rather a lot of money to pay for one hot chocolate, but it was expertly made, combining melted chocolate with foaming hot milk and topped with lashings of dark, milk and white chocolate shavings. It was fascinating watching the staff prepare the hot chocolates and artfully cutting the chocolate shavings. Most importantly, the hot chocolate was sublime and went down far too quickly, although it was so rich I couldn’t have managed more than one.

From Dark Sugars, we hopped back across Brick Lane to the Vintage Market. The cavernous market is filled with stalls selling vintage clothing, some of which is very unusual, and there are designer bargains to be had, too. The first piece I picked up was a 1980s pencil skirt by Alberta Ferretti and I saw numerous pairs of Jimmy Choo heels.

I had a good rake in a number of the stalls and bought an amazing 1980s-style black and gold bolero jacket. You can pick up some incredible finds in the market, in particular classic, elegant coats , quirky dresses and chic hats. I could have spent ages rummaging through all the rails. If you’re after some unusual pieces, the market is worth a visit.

By now it was early evening and time for me to make my way back to Paddington to catch my train home, so we walked towards Liverpool Street Station, stopping off at the Old Spitalfields Market along the way to browse in the shops and stalls. The area around the market is home to lots of quirky clothing and antique shops, as well as bars, cafés and restaurants. After a quick look around the market, I said goodbye to my friends and headed back west having enjoyed a fun, action-packed day.


Madame D
76 Commercial Street, London E1 6LY 

Junkyard Golf Club
Dray Walk, Old Truman Brewery, 91 Brick Lane, London E1 6QL
Open daily
£9.50 per person Sunday to Wednesday, £11.50 per person Thursday to Saturday 

Dark Sugars Cocoa House
124-126 Brick Lane, London E1 6RU
Open daily, 10am to 10pm 


London – Winnie the Pooh at the V&A

Winnie the Pooh climbing at the V&A

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

Albert Memorial, Kensington Gardens

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

Winnie the Pooh cuddly toys at the V&A

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

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

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

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

Illustrations on display at the Winnie the Pooh exhibition

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

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

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

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


V&A – Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic
Open daily until 8 April 2018
Costs £8


Jordan travel guide

Wadi Mujib in Jordan

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

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

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



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


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

Dead Sea

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

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

Biblical sites

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

Wadi Rum

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


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

Food and drink

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


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


Wadi Rum

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


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

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

Share your experiences

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


Barry Island

Whitmore Bay, Barry Island

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

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

Friars Point, Barry Island

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

Whitmore Bay, Barry Island

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

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

Beach huts, Barry Island

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

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

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

Jackson's Bay, Barry Island

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

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

Rocks, Barry Island

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


Cardiff Castle

Cardiff Castle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cardiff Castle apartments

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

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

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

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


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

The tunnels inside Cardiff Castle's walls

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

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

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

Inside the Firing Line museum at Cardiff Castle

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

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

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

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

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


Turin – Mole Antonelliana and the Egyptian Museum

Mole Antonelliana, Turin

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

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

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

Egyptian Museum, Turin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Piazza Carlo Alberto, Turin

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


Turin – Cathedral and the Royal Palace

View over Turin

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

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

Piazza San Carlo in Turin

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

A giant advent calendar and Christmas market in the Piazza Castello

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

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

Turin cathedral and bell tower

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

The home of the Turin shroud on display

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

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

View over Turin and the Alps

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

Royal Palace, Turin

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

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

Ballroom in the Royal Palace, Turin

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

Armoury in the Royal Palace, Turin

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

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

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

Courtyard inside the Royal Palace in Turin

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

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

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

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