Lisbon – Belem

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With two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, a palace, a museum and a café famous for its pastel de nata, there was no way I was spending four days in Lisbon without making a day trip to its western suburb of Belém on the banks of the Tagus River. The easiest way to get to Belém is to hop on a tram, which takes half an hour from central Lisbon, and I caught the number 15 tram from Praça da Figueira, next to Rossio Square.

Antiga Confeitaria de Belém

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Antiga Confeitaria de Belém is reputed to be the best place in Lisbon for pastel de nata, so it was my first port of call when I reached Belém. The cavernous café, which is just down the road from the Mosteiro dos Jerónimo, looked a little intimidating from the outside as there were lots of tourists milling around. But most of the tourists were buying pastries to take away with them so I headed inside to see if there were any spare tables and found a maze of rooms with plenty of empty tables to choose from.

The café was a wonderfully relaxed place. Old fashioned and charming, it had a red tiled floor, and blue and white tiles on the walls, and wasn’t remotely snooty or pretentious like some of these famous cafés can be. The service was good, too – quick and efficient.

I ordered the pastel de nata and when the Portuguese custard tarts arrived they were incredible – a delicious combination of warm, creamy custard surrounded by a crisp, flaky pastry. They weren’t too sweet either and there was icing sugar and cinnamon on the table for topping the tarts. It was the perfect way to start the day.

Mosterio dos Jerónimo

Having had my pastel de nata fix, I headed up the road to the Mosteiro dos Jerónimo. I wrote about the magnificent monastery in my last blog post as it was such an astonishing building I felt it deserved its own post. Then I wandered through the Praça do Imperio gardens on my way to the Torre de Belém, a 20-minute walk away.

Torre de Belém

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Built on the banks of the Tagus River by King Manuel I in the early 16th century to protect Lisbon from a sea invasion, the Torre de Belém is one of Lisbon’s most iconic buildings and is featured on lots of the city’s tourist memorabilia. There was a long queue to get into the tower when I arrived, but luckily I’d bought a combined ticket at the Mosteiro dos Jerónimo, which meant I was able to bypass the long line of people and stroll right in.

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The stone tower is pretty and features lots of ornate carvings, some of which are very Moorish, and the viewing platform at the top of the tower provides great views over Belém (above, with the Ajuda Palace high on the hill in the background) and the Tagus River. However it’s quite small and doesn’t take long to look around. I left feeling rather underwhelmed. It was okay but there wasn’t a huge amount to see, and I didn’t feel it justified the 40-minute round trip from the monastery.

Ajuda National Palace

Nestled in the hills overlooking Belém is the astonishing Ajuda National Palace. Built by King John VI in the early 19th century, the palace wasn’t completed as planned because the royal family had to flee the country in 1807 when Napoleon invaded, spending 14 years in exile in Brazil.

As I approached the enormous palace – a 20-minute walk uphill from central Belém – I couldn’t help thinking it looked rather shabby and in need of some love. But I was pleasantly surprised when I went inside and found it was packed with remarkable treasures. The palace was quiet and there weren’t too many other people around – I’m not sure it’s on many tourists’ radar – which meant I could take my time wandering around and looking at all there was to see. And there was a lot to see.

The palace was home to the Portuguese royal family from the mid-19th century until the end of the monarchy in 1910, and became a museum in 1968. Two floors of the palace are open to the public and there are lots of rooms – all lavishly decorated – to visit, including the king’s and queen’s bedrooms, the audience room, the music room and the throne room.

Some of the rooms are quite unusual – there’s the pink room, so-called because all the walls and furniture are pink, which is filled with porcelain figures. The oval archers room is an unusual shape and the state dining room, with its two long rows of ivory-coloured tables and chairs, is jaw-droppingly grand. State banquets are still held here and the room was laid out as though ready for an event.

Other notable rooms included the painting studio, which features beautiful wooden furniture, and the billiards room, which is home to some rather inviting wooden chairs. I loved the Ajuda Palace, it’s the epitome of a hidden gem – an all-but forgotten palace tucked away in the hills, a little rough around the edges, but a delightful experience inside.

Museum of Electricity

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My last stop of the day was the Museum of Electricity, a renovated power station on the banks of the Tagus River. It’s a striking building – all industrial red brick and grey metal. I headed upstairs to the second floor of the cavernous building, which was hosting a photography exhibition. The museum often hosts art exhibitions and when I visited, it was hosting an excellent exhibition of contemporary photos from around the world that depicted sport, nature and people going about their everyday lives.

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Having checked out the exhibition, I wandered into the Tejo Power Station boiler room, which features lots of wonderful metal contraptions, machines and pipes (as above) and teaches you how boiler rooms work. As I walked around I could hear the sound of the engines whirring, which made me feel as though I was inside a working electricity station.

The Museum of Electricity is home to lots of machines with detailed explanations about how they work and the role they play in making electricity. One of my favourite displays featured black and white photos of the sub-station and the various men who once worked there. The photos were fascinating and I was especially taken by one photograph of a man inside his tool warehouse. I also enjoyed an exhibition about some of the leading players in the discovery of electricity such as Thomas Edison, André-Marie Ampère and Alessandro Volta.

At one point, I followed a sign to go inside a furnace, and as I climbed the steps to do so, I could hear the furnace crank up. Inside I walked across a red hot coal walkway and everything around me was a fierce red and black. I then walked downstairs to a large room where the ashes came out from the furnace and there were models of two men collecting the half-burned coal from the funnels above.

The museum was great and one of the most curious museums I’ve visited. I was expecting a fairly conventional electricity museum and until I got there, was unaware it also hosted art exhibitions. The photo exhibition was excellent, but I really enjoyed seeing the power station and learning how they make electricity. It was a well thought-out, fascinating place.

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Lisbon – Mosteiro dos Jeronimos

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Built by King Manuel I of Portugal in the 16th century, the magnificent Mosteiro dos Jerónimos is one of Lisbon’s most popular landmarks. The huge monastery, which is affiliated with the Order of St Jerome (hence its name), is situated in the western suburb of Belém and is the resting place of Portuguese monarchs and poets, as well as the legendary explorer Vasco da Gama.

Having read that the monastery is often heaving with tourists, I arrived bright and early before it opened at 10am and was glad I did as the queue to go inside was already enormous. I queued up in the sunshine for what seemed like ages, taking the opportunity to admire the ornate carvings on the monastery’s exterior and watching tour group after tour group bypass the long line, before I eventually got to the front of the queue and bought my ticket.

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Inside, I headed straight for the monastery’s cloisters. The 16th century cloisters, which are a classic example of Manueline architecture, are split over two floors. I wandered out onto the grassy quadrangle in the centre of the cloisters for a better look and was taken aback by the abundance of intricate, ornate details carved into the stone.

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The cloisters are one of the most superb pieces of craftsmanship I’ve seen. They’re also really photogenic and I found myself taking a ridiculous amount of photos, waiting patiently for the many visitors around me to move so I could snap as many tourist-free shots as possible.

Having walked all the way around the ground floor, I moved upstairs where I took a look inside the Church of Santa Maria from the balcony that overlooks it. The church is home to the tombs of King Sebastian and Vasco da Gama, along with various other Portuguese royals. You can enter the church from the ground floor, but the queue to go in was enormous and having already spent ages queuing, I decided to skip it and enjoy the view from the balcony instead.

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The balcony offers a great vantage point from which to view the church (above) and I got a good look at its architecture, including the 30m-wide vaulted ceiling and could just make out the high altar at the far end, too. It’s a beautiful church but seeing how many people and tour groups were milling around down below, I was glad I was viewing it from the relative quiet of the balcony.

I then spent some time exploring the upper floor of the cloisters. Like the ground floor, the upper level is filled with ornate carvings and there are lots of interesting features to photograph, so I had a good look around, taking even more photos as I went.

After seeing all there was to see, I went back downstairs where I wandered around the different rooms that lead off from the cloisters, such as the sacristy, the library and the refectory. The refectory (above, left) is a long, empty rectangular room with pretty blue, yellow and white tiles decorating the walls that depict scenes from the Bible such as the feeding of the five thousand and Joseph’s life in Egypt. The library, meanwhile, is home to an interesting exhibition about the history of the monastery, Belém and Portugal called A Place in Time.

The monastery is fantastic and if it wasn’t clear by now, I really enjoyed my visit. As a keen photographer, I left with a crazy amount of photos. The only downside was the huge number of visitors. I’m not sure there’s ever a quiet time to go, but I’d imagine early morning or late afternoon are probably the quietest times if you’re planning a trip.

Top tips

  • The best way to get to Belém from central Lisbon is to hop on the number 15 tram, which you can catch from Praca da Figueira. You pay for your ticket on the tram.
  • As I’ve already said, get there early or really late to try to beat the queues – you’ll still have to queue for a while, but it won’t be as busy as going in the middle of the day.
  • The monastery is free to visit on Sunday mornings (which probably means it’s also stupidly busy).
  • If you’re planning to visit the Tower of Belém, buy a combined ticket for the tower and the monastery, and you’ll be able to stroll past the queues for the tower.
  • Stop off for a breakfast of pastel del nata at the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém before you go. The cavernous café, which is just down the road from the monastery, popularised the Portuguese custard tarts – enjoy them warm, dusted with icing sugar or cinnamon.

Cascais

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“If you’re going to Lisbon, make sure you go to Cascais,” said my father before I headed off to the Portuguese capital.

Cascais is a small fishing town on the Atlantic coast to the west of Lisbon, renowned for its beaches and charming character. The town had been one of my beach-loving father’s highlights when my parents visited Lisbon and despite not being much of a beach lover, I decided to take a trip to see what all the fuss was about.

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Cascais is a 40-minute train ride from Cais do Sodré station and after my visit to the Oceanarium, I made my way to the train station to spend the afternoon by the sea. The train ride is great as the railway line follows the coastal path, passing the resort of Estoril along the way, and providing fantastic views over the ocean. It’s a beautiful stretch of coast and as we made our way down to Cascais, the train steadily emptied with each passing station as the crowds of people who got on the train at Lisbon gradually got off, heading to the various beaches that line the coast.

I arrived at Cascais a little after 2pm, and having not yet had lunch, was famished. As someone whose life is often ruled by her stomach, my main priority was filling that gaping hole. My plan was to grab a quick sandwich before exploring the town and its beaches. The plan seemed full proof, but I hadn’t anticipated that it would take around 40 minutes to find a sandwich shop.

Cascais is full of cafés, bars and restaurants, some of them off-puttingly touristy with plastic menus and waiters accosting you in the street, many offering big meals and sit down service. This was the last thing I wanted, so I ignored all the entreaties to have lunch and instead walked up and down the streets looking for something lighter and quicker, until I eventually found a tiny shop selling sandwiches where I bought a tuna and salad baguette that I promptly devoured.

Happy I’d finally eaten, I made my way back through the town towards the beach, looking at the various sights and shops I passed along the way. Cascais was busy that afternoon and the beach, which was much smaller than I’d anticipated, was heaving with people so I decided against spending time there with my book and instead, having seen almost all there was to see in the town, decided to explore further afield.

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Around a 20-minute walk outside Cascais is a series of caves known as Boca do Inferno (hell’s mouth in English) for the sound the waves make when they crash against the rocks. You can reach the caves on foot by following the coast road to the west of the town, so I made my way out of Cascais, past the Palace of Cascais Citadel and through the marina, where I was amazed at how many expensive-looking yachts and boats were moored there.

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Just outside Cascais, I came across the Santa Marta Lighthouse (above), an intriguing square-shaped white and blue tiled watchtower. I stopped off to climb its 8m-tall tower, admiring the stunning tiles that line the inside of the lighthouse and the beautiful views from the platform at the top. The lighthouse is fantastic and a great place to unwittingly stumble upon. There’s a museum attached to it, too, but as it was getting late, I decided not to stop and look around, but instead to carry on to the caves.

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A little further along the coast, I reached the Boca do Inferno. The caves are carved into the coastline and there’s a small cove you can look down upon from the cliffs above. On the day I visited, the sea was calm and there weren’t too many waves crashing into the caves so I didn’t hear any otherworldly sounds. There were also a lot of other tourists, some of whom were clambering over rocks they probably shouldn’t have been clambering over as they didn’t look too safe, and I had to patiently wait my turn to get close enough to see the caves.

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The Boca do Inferno is a pretty part of the coastline, but nothing spectacular and the sort of scenery you see regularly along the coasts of Wales and Scotland. Needless to say, it was nice to look at, but I was a bit puzzled as to why it’s such a tourist attraction as it’s nowhere near as dramatic as the name suggests. After stopping to look at all there was to see and take a few photos, I headed back to Cascais to catch the train back to Lisbon.

All in all, I was rather underwhelmed by Cascais. It’s a fairly average fishing town and I’m not entirely sure why it’s often listed as one of the top things to do when visiting Lisbon. It’s a pretty enough place, but very touristy, which takes away from its charms, and its beaches are disappointing. I may just have been grouchy with hunger pangs when I arrived, which coloured my view of the town, but Cascais was the one place I visited during my Lisbon trip I could happily have skipped.

Lisbon – Parque das Nacoes and the Oceanarium

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When I was doing my research looking for things to do in Lisbon, the one place that consistently received top billing was the Oceanarium. Oceanariums aren’t typically top of my to-do-list (castles usually are), but this one had such great reviews I was keen to experience it for myself. And so, on my first full day in the Portuguese capital, I decided to pay it a visit.

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The Oceanarium is situated in the Parque das Nações or Park of Nations on the banks of the Tejo River in the north-east of the city. The park was built as part of the Expo 98 exhibition and is a modern, clean space with interesting artworks and quirky design features, as well as a row of flags representing nations from around the world. There’s also an enormous cable car that runs alongside the river to give visitors a bird’s eye view of the site.

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To get to the park, I caught the metro to Oriente station, and from there, headed down towards the waterfront. I had a great time walking around the Parque das Nações, seeing all there was to see and I particularly liked the unusual artworks, such as the statue above and the multi-coloured striped benches, as well as the beautiful views across the river.

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Having spent 40 minutes walking around the park and taking lots of photos, I made my way towards the Oceanarium. The Oceanarium is based in a huge modern square building that seems to float in the middle of the park’s Olivais Dock. There’s also a fun plastic figurine of a diver whose head bobs above the surface of the water just outside it (above), which made me smile.

The Oceanarium opened in 1998 as part of the Expo. Split over two floors, it features a variety of marine creatures from cold water, tropical and temperate environments.

The main attraction, and the one that captured my attention almost as soon as I walked in, is the enormous tank in the centre of the Oceanarium that traverses both floors. It’s a huge space and is home to lots of different marine creatures including sharks (my favourites), sunfish and rays.

The tank dominates the attraction and as I made my way through the site, I was repeatedly drawn to it. It was fascinating and I’d find myself mesmerised as I watched the creatures gliding through the water and interacting with each other, never quite sure what was going to appear next.

Aside from the enormous central tank, the Oceanarium has numerous tanks devoted to particular types of marine creatures, such as jelly fish and sea insects, as well as tanks featuring creatures from specific parts of the world. I enjoyed looking at the weird and wonderful creatures that call our oceans home and finding out more about them. There are some incredible species living in our waters that unless you’re a deep sea diver you rarely get a chance to see up close.

There’s also a series of rock pools home to creatures such as star fish and sea anemones, as well as birds such as puffins and penguins. I wasn’t expecting this element to the Oceanarium and it was great to see the wildlife in a different environment. I really like penguins, so I spent quite a bit of time watching them waddling about on the rocks and playfully swimming in the water.

Every so often, a human being in a wetsuit would appear in the pools and tanks, staff from the Oceanarium who were tending to the marine life. I enjoyed watching them at work and I was quite envious of them getting to swim with the animals. I’d have loved to have been able to get in with them.

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I really enjoyed my visit to the Oceanarium and was glad I’d made the decision to go. I now understand why it’s so highly rated as a visitor attraction as it’s one of the best aquariums I’ve been to. It was fascinating to see so many marine creatures from all over the world together in one place and the marine life seemed to be well cared for, the staff were very attentive towards them. If you’re in Lisbon, it’s well worth visiting.

Lisbon

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Cool, laid-back, friendly are just some of the words I’d use to describe Portugal’s capital city Lisbon. It’s home to fantastic food, beautiful buildings and delightful views, and there’s loads of culture, both old and new, to soak up. As such, the hilly city is the perfect place for a long weekend.

I’d been dying to go to Lisbon for a long time, partly because I’d never really been to Portugal before (the day trip across the Galician border doesn’t count) and partly because I’d heard excellent things from friends and colleagues. Needless to say, I was very excited about my four-day city break.

After flying into the city from Bristol, I hopped on the metro and headed to my hotel, the Hotel Lisboa Plaza. Having checked in, I then set off exploring. My hotel was just off the Avenida da Liberdade, the large tree-lined boulevard that cuts a swathe through the city centre, connecting the Parque Eduardo VII to the central Rossio district.

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I followed the avenue down to Rossio Square, the city’s most famous square, where I stopped to admire the large fountain and the enormously tall statue of Dom Pedro IV, after whom the square is officially named. The square is surrounded by lots of grand cafés, as well as Rossio train station, and is a good place to orientate yourself.

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I then headed south towards the Baixa district. The area is laid out in a regimented grid pattern, the original district having been destroyed by the massive 1755 earthquake and subsequent tsunami, so it’s almost impossible to get lost. The buildings are beautiful and I enjoyed walking around, getting my bearings and admiring the classical architecture. Bright yellow trams are everywhere in the streets around the Rossio and Baixa districts and I learned pretty quickly to keep an eye out for them when crossing the roads.

By now it was early evening, so I decided to walk up to the Bairro Alto district, up the hill to the right. The Bairro Alto district is home to lots of narrow winding streets – and I found myself getting a little lost here. There are lots of unusual shops, as well as tons of bars and restaurants, and I ambled around soaking up the atmosphere and casing out possible places to eat.

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With my tummy rumbling, I decided on Petiscos no Bairro (above), a small hip-looking restaurant on the Rua da Atalaia, for dinner. The restaurant is teeny – it’s not the sort of place you could take a large group of people. But it had a cosy feel, the staff were really friendly and they had clams on the menu.

Clams are one of Lisbon’s speciality dishes and I was keen to try them. The clams, which came in a garlicky coriander sauce, were amazing. It was one of the best restaurant dishes I’ve ever eaten and I was so happy with my choice! I had quite a large bread basket with my meal and I happily polished off the whole lot, using the bread to soak up every last drop of the delicious sauce. For dessert, I had a Portuguese rice pudding, a cold rice pudding with cinnamon on top, which was nice, but didn’t quite match the perfection of my main. If you’re ever in Lisbon and like seafood, I can’t recommend Petiscos no Bairro highly enough.

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Feeling suitably full and happy, I wandered up the hill to the Miradouro de Sao Pedro de Alcantara, a small park high on the hill with great views of the city. I then meandered back down to my hotel where I stopped off for a nightcap of dry port, along with tea and homemade biscuits (above), in the bar before bed.

Top tips

  • The easiest way to get from the airport to the city centre is to take the metro – it’s really easy to navigate (there are only four lines) and cheap!
  • Lots of the pavements around central Lisbon are polished cobblestones and they’re quite slippery. So wear shoes with a suitable grip as I kept sliding all over the place in my sandals.
  • I found Lisbon sunny but very windy, so I wore suntan lotion every day because the sun was strong enough to burn even though it didn’t feel particularly warm. The wind also meant I had a few ‘Marilyn’ moments in the summer dresses I’d packed – in hindsight, shorts would’ve been better!
  • I visited Lisbon as a solo traveller and found some bars and restaurants were unwilling to serve me because I was by myself. Some went out of their way to accommodate me and were fantastic and I’ll mention those as I write about my trip, but it’s the one place I’ve travelled in Europe where people were taken aback I was travelling alone. One bar I went to would only serve me the beer they had on tap because letting me have any other drink (eg a glass of wine) wasn’t worth the hassle for them as I was by myself. So if you are travelling to Lisbon by yourself, be aware you may need to try a few bars or restaurants before you’ll find one that will serve you.

London – Wellcome Collection

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The Wellcome Collection on the Euston Road is one of my favourite London museums/galleries and is, in my opinion, one of the capital’s most underrated. When one of my friends suggested we visit it after our recent afternoon tea, I happily agreed.

The museum houses a series of unusual objects collected by the Victorian philanthropist, entrepreneur and science patron Henry Wellcome. It’s also home to a permanent collection that explores the human body, science and medicine.

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Our first stop on arriving was Medicine Now, one of the permanent collections, that explores a series of ideas about medicine and science since the 1930s. The exhibition is filled with lots of interesting objects, including a transparent model of a woman where you can light up different organs in the body. We had great fun learning where the different organs were, some of which weren’t where we expected to find them! There was also a plastinated body slice on display, which was fascinating, and we spent ages debating whether or not it was a man or a woman.

We then had a look around the temporary exhibition, A Museum of Modern Nature, which runs until 8 October 2017. The exhibition features a series of objects, donated by members of the public, that represent what nature means to them. Some of the objects (such as antlers donated by wildlife expert Chris Packham) made perfect sense, others were far more abstract. My favourite item on display was a research chart compiling the daily behaviours of a group of apes and I spent ages poring over the records trying to decode some of the activities featured.

The second permanent collection, Medicine Man, features a series of objects collected by Henry Wellcome on his travels. It’s a curious mix of artifacts that includes a toothbrush that allegedly once belonged to Napoleon, masks from different parts of the world, a lock of George III’s hair, very painful looking Victorian forceps and other medical instruments, and Japanese sex toys.

There’s also a series of paintings – some of which, including one set in purgatory, are downright bizarre. The collection’s eye-opening and fascinating, and there were lots of cries of ‘look at this!’, as well as debates as to what various objects were used for.

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Before leaving, we headed upstairs to the Reading Room (above). It’s a lovely space, surrounded by bookshelves filled with books you can borrow and read in one of the comfy looking chairs or bean bags, and tables featuring board games. There are also a few paintings and objects on display, including another plastinated body slice. It’s a very relaxing space and I could easily have sat down with a book and settled in for an hour or two.

I’ve been to the Wellcome Collection many times and I never tire of the curiosities on display. Each time I go I find something new I hadn’t noticed before among the quirky and intriguing objects Henry Wellcome collected on his travels. If you’re looking for a museum in London that’s a little different to the norm, add the Wellcome Collection to your itinerary.

Info
Wellcome Collection
183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE
Free
10am-6pm, Tuesday to Sunday, (open until 10pm on Thursdays)

wellcomecollection.org

London – The Encounter at the National Portrait Gallery

I had a couple of hours to spare before meeting my friends for afternoon tea at Bea’s of Bloosmbury so I headed to my favourite museum/art gallery in London – the National Portrait Gallery near Trafalgar Square.

I was keen to see one of the gallery’s temporary exhibitions, The Encounter: Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt, which runs until 22 October. The exhibition features 48 portraits by European Renaissance and Baroque artists such as Hans Holbein the Younger, Rembrandt van Rijn, Albrecht Dürer and Leonardo da Vinci.

The portraits were all drawn on paper using coloured chalks, pen and ink, or metalpoint, and this simplicity lent an intimacy to the exhibition. The craft and skill on display was incredible, and it might sound silly, but I was struck by how lifelike all the portraits were. They looked like real people as opposed to slightly distorted drawings or caricatures and I felt as though I was seeing a true reflection of what the sitter looked like.

Of all the portraits featured, those by the 16th century Italian artist Annibale Carracci were my favourite. The exhibition featured four portraits that were either drawn by the artist or attributed to the artist – one was of the lutenist Giulio Pedrizzano, while the others were of unknown young men and boys. The portraits were excellent and really seemed to capture the essence of the sitters.

Hans Holbein the Younger is one of my favourite portraitists, largely because I like his portraits from his time at Henry VIII’s court. The exhibition featured seven of his portraits, mostly of unnamed people, but one of the portraits was of John More, the father of Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor Thomas More. The one thing that struck me about Holbein’s portraits was the lifelikeness of the eyes. In one portrait, the eyes looked so true to life they looked like a photograph.

Despite being one of the headline artists, there’s only one portrait by Leonardo da Vinci in the exhibition, but it’s an exceptional piece of portraiture and shows why he’s one of the greatest artists of all time. The portrait is that of a naked man and he’s captured his form perfectly in a deceptively simple drawing.

I really enjoyed The Encounter, it’s a small exhibition (it only took half an hour to see everything) but interesting. The skills showcased by the artists are astonishing and it was great to see such simple, but incredible, works of art. Photos weren’t allowed, which is why there aren’t any accompanying pictures. But if you like portraiture and drawing, and are in London, the exhibition is well worth seeing.

Info
The Encounter: Drawings from Leondardo to Rembrandt
National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place, London WC2H 0HE
Adults £8, concessions £6.50, free for members
Until 22 October 2017

npg.org.uk

 

London – Afternoon tea at Bea’s of Bloomsbury

 

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When my friends suggested we go for afternoon tea for my birthday recently, I jumped at the chance. I love afternoon tea. One of my friends works for a foodie magazine so after asking one of her colleagues where we should go, we had a shortlist of Bea’s of Bloomsbury, the Dean Street Townhouse and the Berkeley Hotel.

I plumped for Bea’s of Bloomsbury as I liked their menu and at £24.50 for a full afternoon tea, it wasn’t too expensive compared to some afternoon teas in the capital – some charge eye-watering sums of money.

Bea’s of Bloomsbury is a small chain of cafés across London specialising in cakes, pastries and afternoon tea. They have outlets in Bloomsbury, St Paul’s, Marylebone, Farringdon and Maida Vale, but we decided to go to the Bloomsbury branch so we could visit the nearby Wellcome Collection afterwards.

The Bloomsbury branch is tiny, so booking is essential as it was pretty much full the entire time we were there. We were welcomed inside, and as the first afternoon tea customers of the day had our choice of tables, so we opted for a table opposite the counter. We all chose the full afternoon tea menu – they also have vegetarian and wheat-free options, as well as menus that include a glass of prosecco or champagne.

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The food soon arrived – a mouthwatering array of mini brioche rolls filled with: avocado and dukkha spiced yoghurt; parma ham with mascarpone cream, fig relish and honey; egg mayonnaise and cress; and smoked salmon and crème fraiche. Along with plain scones served with jam and clotted cream; a selection of mini cake bites including brownies, blondies and meringues; and a full-sized cupcake each. All was washed down with a giant pot of English breakfast tea.

The brioche rolls were great, if a little messy – some were easy to cut up into bite-sized chunks and eat, others (egg mayo) less so. The smoked salmon and crème fraiche was my favourite as its one of my favourite sandwich combinations. I didn’t like the avocado with dukkha spiced yoghurt as much as it lacked flavour and I found it a little odd and tasteless. Everything else was good though and it was nice to have something different to the standard cucumber and cream cheese.

The scones were lovely and weren’t too big – sometimes the scones are massive and a meal unto themselves, leaving you full before you get to the patisserie. And I enjoyed having a selection of miniature cakes as it meant you could try a little of everything. We just about managed to eat all the mini bites, but had no room left for the cupcakes so we had these boxed up to take away with us.

As it was my birthday, my friends insisted I take them home with me and the cupcakes (chocolate oreo and red velvet) were incredible – beautifully light, moist sponge topped with a buttercream that wasn’t too sickly or sweet.

One of the things that made the experience so good was the friendly and helpful staff. They’d playfully joke with us as they brought out our teas, rolls and cakes, and when we asked for an extra plate or knife, they were happy to help. Great service often makes or breaks these experiences, but I couldn’t fault the staff, and it was a chilled, comfortable place to while away a few hours.

If you’re looking for somewhere to have afternoon tea in London that won’t break the bank, Bea’s of Bloomsbury is a great place to try. It was a lovely, relaxing experience and the food was good. And if you have any suggestions of other places that offer an excellent afternoon tea in London (Brown’s Hotel do a great one, too), please share them in the comments.

Info
Bea’s of Bloomsbury, 44 Theobalds Road, London WC1X 8NW
Open Monday-Friday, 7.30am-7pm, Saturday-Sunday 10am-7pm
From £24.50 for full afternoon tea
beas.london

Costa Rica travel guide

My mini-travel guide to Lisbon seemed to go down well, so I thought I’d put together another mini-travel guide – this time to Costa Rica. I recently spent a week travelling around the Central American country and this is my mini-guide to the friendly, wildlife haven that’s been voted the happiest place on earth (sorry Disneyland!).

In brief

Costa Rica is home to a number of very different landscapes and it’s worth travelling around the country to get a flavour of the contrasting environments. From volcanoes to rainforests, cloud forests and idyllic beaches, there are lots of diverse landscapes to explore. It also boasts an abundance of wildlife, with five per cent of the world’s species calling the country home. On top of that, there are activities galore (think zip lining, white water rafting, snorkelling, mountain biking, and so on), which means you’ll never be short of things to do.

Arenal

Dominated by the magnificent Arenal Volcano (above), which slumbers peacefully in the background, the Arenal region is home to some great hiking trails. It was here I saw my first sloth (albeit so far up a tree I could barely make it out), venomous snakes and a turkey-like bird. I also heard howler monkeys and cicadas for the first time.

Do try some of the activities while you’re here – I visited a couple of hiking trails in the national park, and tried my hand at horse riding (loved it) and mountain biking (hated it).

The Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park is fantastic – there are so many species of birds, insects and flora to see, plus there are fantastic views from the bridges high above the ground.

Also do not leave without paying a visit to one of the hot springs around the town, they make blissfully relaxing use of the thermal waters. Sipping a pina colada in the bubbling hot waters was the perfect way to soothe my aching muscles after a day of hiking and horse riding.

And if you get a chance to go on an evening frog hunt, do – the many species of frog are super cute.

Monteverde

Cloud forest country high up in the mountains, Monteverde is an excellent place for hiking and I saw lots of wildlife here, including howler and capuchin monkeys, more snakes and frogs, and lots of unusual birds and insects.

Do take part in a night-time safari through the forest if you can – it’s fantastic. I saw toucans sleeping high in the trees, tarantulas and even an armadillo!

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Monteverde is also coffee country and I joined a coffee tour at El Trapiche to: find out how they farm coffee, sugar cane and chocolate; have a go at making sweets; and try the best coffee I’ve ever tasted (and as someone who hates coffee that’s saying something).

Do have a go at zip lining in Monterverde, too – it was terrifying, but great fun once I got over the whole ‘Oh-dear-God-I’m-100ft-high-in-a-tree-with-nothing-but-a-rope-to-stop-me-plummeting-to-the-ground’ thing.

Manuel Antonio

Situated on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, Manuel Antonio is home to lots of picture-perfect beaches. It was also the most touristy place I visited. I toured the national park where I came face-to-face with more capuchin monkeys, raccoons, more sloths (including a mother and baby), lizards and crabs. I also took a boat trip out to the Pacific Ocean where I went snorkelling – and got stung by tons of miniature jelly fish.

Weather

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There’s rain, there’s Welsh rain and then there’s Costa Rican rain. If you’re planning to go to Costa Rica and stay dry, think again – it’s nigh on impossible. I ended up skin-soakingly wet at least once a day during my week-long stay because when it rains, it really rains and it’s far too hot and humid for sweaty waterproofs. Umbrellas are no match against the fierce onslaught of rain either. There’s also no point trying to wait it out as the torrential downpours go on and on and on…

You’re far better embracing the rain and accepting you’re going to get wet, repeatedly, no matter what. The only problem is, it’s so humid it’s almost impossible to dry your clothes and after a few days, everyone’s damp clothes start to pong. Thankfully, the hotel laundry services are a lifesaver – unless you want a super stinky suitcase, make liberal use of their services.

Food

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There’s nothing hugely remarkable about Costa Rican food, but it is good and if like me you love fish and fruit, you’ll be very happy. I ate a ridiculous amount of ceviche (above)  – it’s on the menu at a lot of restaurants and that irresistible mix of raw fish, lime juice, chilli and coriander with a helping of tortilla chips on the side was a winner every time.

Casados is a Costa Rican staple, a mix of grilled meat or fish served with rice, refried beans, vegetables such as plantain, and salad. I often ate this for lunch and it was consistently good – but be warned it’s very filling, so definitely not a light lunch. Fruit is also abundant – ripe, juicy watermelon, pineapple and banana were all in season when I visited.

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Do try the local coffee, the local sugar cane spirit and if you can find it, cactus flower ice cream (above) – it’s a vivid pink colour. Sounds weird but tastes delicious.

Be warned sometimes the food combinations are a little odd. In the first restaurant we visited I ordered tea with milk – which turned out to be a cup of hot milk with a tea bag in it. Not quite what I was expecting. I also ordered some vegetable nachos at a restaurant in Arenal. I was expecting the usual combination of tortilla chips with tomatoes, guacamole, cheese and sour cream, and instead got nachos with boiled carrots, broccoli, green beans and cauliflower. It was edible, if bizarre.

What to pack

  • Loose cotton trousers – these were useful when I was hiking in the jungle and helped shield my skin from the pesky mosquitoes
  • Waterproof shoes – given the constant downpours, these came in super handy
  • Hiking shoes – there are lots of hiking trails through the jungles and good footwear is essential
  • Insect repellent – in all likelihood you’ll get bitten anyway, but it’s worth spraying yourself silly regardless
  • Hand sanitiser – the traveller’s best friend for those inevitable visits to soap-free bathrooms
  • A good camera – I was really glad I took my long-lens camera, it came in especially handy when trying to get photos of the wildlife (sloths, monkeys) high in the trees

Have you been to Costa Rica? If so, and you have any comments or suggestions about what to see and do there, please leave them in the comments below.

Doctor Who Experience

For the last few years, I’ve walked past the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff Bay on a regular basis and each time I’ve said to myself, “I must go in and see what it’s like”. In July, with the news the attraction is set to close at the beginning of September, I finally made good on my promise.

Now I should probably start by saying I’m not a Doctor Who fan and although I’ve seen the odd episode, I haven’t watched it in years. So I came to the experience completely cold, aware of the TARDIS and the Daleks, knowing who the current Doctor Who is (goodbye Peter Capaldi, hello Jodie Whittaker)… and that was about the extent of my knowledge.

Having bought our tickets, we were told to line up at 3pm for the start of the interactive experience. This was fine, except the experience didn’t start for another 20 minutes and by that point everyone in the queue was bored and restless.

We were finally ushered inside the Gallifrey Museum where we were met by our tour guide and were given time crystals to wear around our necks. The experience lasted some 30 minutes and during this time we were led into the TARDIS where we travelled to various locations and eras, including a creepy graveyard and the 1960s, on a mission to help the Doctor.

Photos were strictly forbidden during this part of the tour and if I’m honest, I was a little confused as to what was going on, which is why my write up isn’t as clear as it could be. The sound quality was poor and I found it hard to hear what was being said. Nevertheless, our tour guide was super enthusiastic and the kids seemed to be having a great time.

Having successfully navigated the experience, we were now free to explore the rest of the visitor attraction, which is essentially a museum dedicated to all things Doctor Who, set over two floors. This was the real gem of the attraction.

The lower floor of the museum featured recreations of sets and props from every era of the show, including the interior and exterior of a number of TARDIS time and space machines, such as the one above from the Christopher Eccleston-Billie Piper era. The detail in the props and sets was amazing, and it was fascinating seeing them up close.

My favourite part were the costumes, which were on display on the upper floor, along with models of the various creatures that have appeared on the show over the years. I spent ages looking at everything – some of the models were really creepy and the attention to detail was again incredible.

I was also intrigued by how different some of the costumes looked in real life compared to how they appeared on screen. There was one brown leather jacket worn by Catherine Tate’s character that was really pale in real life but looked much darker in the stills from the show.

Overall, I had mixed feelings about the Doctor Who Experience. I didn’t massively enjoy the 30-minute experience at the start of the tour (not helped by the unnecessary 20-minute wait in the queue before we began). The production values weren’t good enough, with the sound quality in particular a problem, so I didn’t feel immersed in the world, which hampered my enjoyment of it.

But the museum part was fascinating and I would have liked more of it. I’m sure for fans of the show the whole experience is a delight, but I would have preferred a bigger museum section as you don’t need to be a fan of the show to appreciate the incredible skills and handiwork that went into making the props, costumes and sets. Interesting enough, but could be better.

Info
Doctor Who Experience, Discovery Quay, Cardiff CF10 4GA
Adults £16, children £11.75
doctorwho.tv/events/doctor-who-experience