Paris – Ile de la Cité

The Conciergerie on the banks of the River Seine

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

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

The Palais du Justice in Paris

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

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

The Conciergerie on the Ile de la Cite

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

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

The Salle des Gens d'Armes in the Conciergerie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saint-Chapelle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The altar inside the Upper Chapel at Sainte-Chapelle

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

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

Top tip

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

Info

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

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

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

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Cuba travel guide

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

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

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

Havana

The outdoor book market at the Plaza de Armas in Havana

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

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

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

Pinar del Río

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

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

Viñales

The countryside around Vinales in Cuba

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

Cienfuegos

Sunset by the beach in Cienfuegos, Cuba

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

Trinidad

Plaza Mayor in Trinidad, Cuba

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

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

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

Santa Clara

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

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

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

Food and drink

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

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

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

Where to stay

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

Currency

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

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

Have your say

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

Bordeaux

Place de la Bourse in Bordeaux

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

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

The Basilica of Saint Michel in Bordeaux

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

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

Grosse Cloche in Bordeaux

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

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

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

The Place de la Bourse in Bordeaux

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

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

La Garonne River in Bordeaux

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

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

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

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

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

Cathedrale de Saint-Andre in Bordeaux

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

The Musee d'Aquitaine in Bordeaux

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Travel tip

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

Bilbao – art and the Guggenheim

The Tall Tree and the Eye installation by Anish Kapoor outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

After spending our first few hours in Bilbao exploring its historic centre, our second day was spent focusing on the city’s architectural gems and art galleries.

Arriving in the city near the central train station, we again crossed the Bilbao River at Arenal Bridge, but this time instead of continuing straight ahead into the old town, we turned left and followed the curve of the river all the way to the Guggenheim.

City Hall in Bilbao

The stroll along the river bank was pleasant and we passed a number of the city’s architectural highlights along the way, including Bilbao’s impressive city hall (above), which dates back to 1892.

Zubizuri Bridge over the Bilbao RIver

My favourite part of the journey was the Zubizuri Bridge (above), a curved, white footbridge. It’s a fantastic piece of engineering and while it looked impressive from a distance, it was even better up close and we decided it was the perfect spot to cross the river.

Maman, a giant metal sculpture of a spider, by Louise Bourgeois outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

Continuing our stroll, we soon arrived at the Guggenheim and as we approached it, the first thing we saw was a tall, giant metal spider (above) with lots of people huddled underneath it’s long spindly legs. The spider by Louise Bourgeois is one of a series of playful art installations in and around the museum.

Brightly coloured flowers float on water as part of an art installation at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

One of my favourite installations was the brightly coloured paper flowers (above) floating on a small body of water as it was fun and cheery. I also liked the tall statue of silver balls by Anish Kapoor, a little further along the river bank, which was simple but effective against the titanium-clad museum.

The Puppy by Jeff Koons outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

By now, it was almost midday so we stopped at a small outdoor café opposite the museum for a quick drink and then headed up to the main entrance, where we were greeted by the sight of a giant multi-coloured puppy (above) made from lots and lots of flowers by Jeff Koons.

The curved titanium and glass Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

As we’d walked around the outside of the Guggenheim, we were full of admiration for the building designed by Frank Gehry. The gleaming, curved titanium behemoth, which twists and turns in a variety of shapes, photographs beautifully from every angle. The impressive architecture continued inside, too, with a tall confection of curved white walls, metal and glass (below, left).

The museum is huge and our first port of call, once we got our bearings, was the permanent exhibition on the first floor, Richard Serra’s The Matter of Time (above, right), which features eight massive steel sculptures that curve in different ways.

I had great fun walking in and out the mega structures – some of the paths inside the structures are very narrow and claustrophobic, others lead to a dead end. But that’s all part of the fun, blindly wandering through them and not knowing what you’re going to find or where you’re going to end up.

From there, we visited an exhibition of Georg Baselitz’s work featuring young men, painted between 1965 and 1966. The paintings were powerful and admirable, but not really my cup of tea. We then moved on to an exhibition devoted to the work of Bill Viola, which I really disliked. It was a collection of moving images, mostly short videos of people doing nothing in unreal situations, which I found creepy and pointless, so after a quick look around we swiftly moved on.

The exhibition of modern masters featuring works by the likes of Cy Twombly, Mark Rothko and Jean-Michel Basquiat was more my speed. The collection was a mixed bag – some of the works were the usual eye-rollingly pretentious nonsense you find in modern art galleries, but some of the works, especially those by Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter, were fantastic. One of the most famous works on display was by Andy Warhol and featured 150 screenprints of Marilyn Monroe in different colours.

The final exhibition we visited was Paris, Fin de Siécle,  which featured a series of paintings, drawings and illustrations by artists living in Paris during the 1890s. Monet’s Waterlillies in vivid dark purples and greens, and Toulouse Lautrec’s iconic posters and paintings of the Moulin Rouge, were the standouts. But Odilon Redon’s The Egg was my favourite as it was clever, playful and memorable.

Tulips by Jeff Koons on display at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

Overall, I wasn’t that impressed by the Guggenheim and found it disappointing. Despite the enormity of the building, I didn’t feel there was much to see inside and many of the works that were on display weren’t to my taste. A lot of the artworks were very pretentious, too. The building itself is by far and away the most impressive work of art – it’s superb and rightly considered iconic. It’s worth going to the Guggenheim to see the building, but if you skipped the art inside, you wouldn’t be missing much as it’s only so-so.

The courtyard at the Fine Arts Museum in Bilbao

After lunch, we made our way to our next art gallery of the day – the Fine Arts Museum (above). I’d read in a guidebook that the museum’s artworks were far superior to those of the Guggenheim and I’d have to agree. It’s a superb gallery and features a great mix of art from across the ages. It’s also deceptively big and packs in a lot.

Our first stop was the temporary Alicia Koplowitz Collection. Magnificently curated, the collection featured pieces from Roman times to the present day with works by the likes of Goya, Canaletto, Picasso, Alberto Giacometti and Van Gogh, to name but a few.

From there, we moved on to the modern art section, which was full of interesting and thought-provoking pieces, and I liked almost everything on display. Eduardo Chillida’s iron sculptures, in particular, were memserising.

We continued through the gallery into a series of rooms featuring works by Spanish artists, such as Joaquín Sorolla, and I enjoyed getting to know the artists and their art. The final rooms featured some of the oldest pieces in the gallery, and included royal portraits and paintings by Goya and El Greco.

Four artworks of women outside the Fine Arts Museum in Bilbao

I came away from the Fine Arts Museum with a new-found appreciation of Spanish art, having discovered a number of Spanish artists I wasn’t familiar with. It’s well-curated,  relaxed and was practically empty on the day we visited, which meant we could enjoy the museum at our own pace. If you only have time to explore one gallery in Bilbao and you want to see some great works of art, I’d recommend the Fine Arts Museum.

After a day of non-stop art, we made our way back towards the train station via the Lopez de Haro, a huge shopping street in the centre of the city home to popular Spanish brands such as Mango and Zara, along with high-end labels such as Max Mara, Michael Kors and Massimo Dutti.

Bilbao is a fantastic city. There isn’t masses to do and what there is to do, you can easily do in a day and a half, but it has a cool vibe, and fabulous food and drink. It’s unpolished, unrefined, imperfect and a little rough around the edges – but that’s what makes the city so great. It feels like a city that’s lived in, as opposed to a perfectly polished tourist hub, and as a result it makes for a wonderful place to spend a weekend.

Bilbao – the old town

Colourful houses on the banks of the Bilbao River in central Bilbao

When I think of Bilbao, the first place that springs to mind is the Guggenheim Museum, the Frank Gehry-designed curved titanium and glass behemoth that put the Basque capital firmly on the international art map in the late 1990s. But there’s much, much more to the city than its most iconic building.

I recently spent a day-and-a-half in Bilbao on my way to the Haut-Béarn region in France. I arrived in the city with no expectations, other than knowing I wanted to go to the Guggenheim, and I found a city that’s cool and edgy, a mixture of old and new, brimming with culture, history, art and exceptionally good food. Needless to say, I loved every minute there.

The grand Arriaga Theatre in Bilbao

It was late afternoon when we arrived in Bilbao, and keen to see as much as we could in the next few hours, we made a beeline for the old town, the city’s historic centre. Crossing the Arenal Bridge over the Bilbao River, we came upon the Arriaga Theatre (above), a grand, elegant 19th century architectural gem that’s still in use as a theatre.

Santiago Cathedral in Bilbao

From there, we walked through the narrow streets of the old town to Santiago Cathedral (above). The Basque-Gothic cathedral, which dates back to the 14th and 15th centuries, is said to be the oldest building in the city and after paying the €5 entry fee (which also gave us entry to the nearby San Antón Church), we headed inside.

The pale stone walls inside the simple, but elegant, Santiago Cathedral in Bilbao

The cathedral, which boasts three naves, is beautifully simple, with pale stone walls, high-vaulted ceilings and delicately-patterned stained glass windows. The cathedral has been destroyed by flooding on a number of occasions, resulting in extensive restoration work, but you’d never know it walking around. It’s impeccable and a simple, ornate but classy building.

Inside the cloisters at Santiago Cathedral in Bilbao

Having had a good look around the main body of the church, we headed to the adjoining cloisters, which feature a small garden filled with lemon trees in the centre. I really liked the simplicity of the cloisters and the small gargoyles atop the outer wall and the leafy green pot plants dotted throughout added to its charms and helped create a sense of tranquility.

The Mercado de la Ribera in Bilbao

Having seen all there was to see in the cathedral, we wandered down one of las 7 calles, the so-called seven oldest streets in Bilbao, which run parallel to each other and make up the heart of the old town. At the end of the street, we came upon the Mercado de la Ribera on the banks of the Bilbao River.

A sign inside the Mercado de la Ribera in Bilbao

I’d read good things about the market, which is the largest covered market in Europe, so we crossed the road and had a look inside, and were thrilled to discover an amazing food hall. The food hall is home to lots of stalls selling all manner of pintxo (Basque tapas), along with a central seating area where you can enjoy your purchases.

From the market, we made our way to the neighbouring San Antón Church (above, left). Dating back to 1453, the church is tiny and looks really old from the outside. It’s much more modern inside, with cream stone walls and an altar filled with paintings and statues. There’s a glorious chandelier in one of the chapels (above, right), and you can also see the remains of the original foundations through a series of glass floor panels near the altar and the entrance. It’s a nice enough church, simple yet unremarkable.

After our visit to San Antón, we continued to amble through the narrow warren of streets, taking in the sights and sounds. Many of the buildings were quite rundown and the streets were home to a bizarre array of shops, selling all manner of goods, including clothes, hams, furniture, paintings, pastries, household goods, and fruit and veg.

The old town has a cool, edgy vibe to it, and as I walked through the streets, I felt as though I’d stepped back in time. All the shops were independent, there wasn’t a chain store in sight, and many of the characterful bars were teeming with locals.

Santos Juanes Church in the middle of the old town in Bilbao

Our final destination in the old town was Santos Juanes Church, a Basque-Classicist church dating back to the 17th century. The church was far more ornate and lavish inside than it’s nice, simple exterior suggested.

The ornate altar inside the Santos Juanes Church in Bilbao

Inside, at the far end of the church, there was a lavish altar that was dripping with gold, while along the sides of the church, there was a series of chapels featuring elaborate and ornate guilding, and very expensive-looking paintings and statues. It was a small, interesting church and in total contrast to the simplicity of the cathedral.

Olives with accompaniments on sticks at the Mercado de la Ribera in Bilbao

By now we’d thoroughly explored the old town, so we headed back to the Mercado de la Ribera for dinner. Being able to pick and choose small bites from lots of different stalls was great, the only downside was that everything looked so tempting, I had trouble deciding what to eat.

I ended up choosing a series of olive skewers from La Bodeguilla (above) to start. Each skewer featured different accompaniments such as anchovies, gherkins, quail’s eggs and tomatoes. The skewers were delicious and cheap (€1.10 each), and I could easily have had an entire meal of them.

Mixed pintxo at the Mercado de la Ribera in Bilbao

Next up, I shared half a slice of ham pizza, which was tastier than it sounds, and finished my meal with cod pintxo with squid ink and aioli, a pastry puff with goat’s cheese and tomato sauce, and a cheese croquette on a slice of bread from Me Tienes Frit@ (above). I got a little carried away buying the pintxo, but thankfully the man who ran the stall suggested I stop at three, and I’m glad I listened to him, as by the time I’d polished it all off I was stuffed.

Santander train station on the banks of the Bilbao River in central Bilbao

With dinner over, we had a pleasant walk along the riverbank back to the train station (above). I really enjoyed my first few hours in Bilbao as it turned out to be a wonderful, unexpected afternoon filled with great experiences.

Stay tuned for my second day in Bilbao, including my trip to the Guggenheim…

Wells

Wells Cathedral from the city's Bishop's Palace Gardens

I’m a little ashamed to admit I hadn’t heard of Wells, England’s smallest city, until a couple of months ago when my Bristol-based sister and brother-in-law took my mother there on a day out. My mother came back raving about the place, insisting I had to go as she knew I’d love it.

Fast forward a few weeks ago and my mother announced she was treating me to a day out in Wells for my birthday. Wells may officially have city status because of its cathedral, but in reality, it’s more like a small, traditional English market town. One that also happens to boast a beautiful cathedral, the UK’s only street that’s completely medieval, a partially-ruined Bishop’s Palace surrounded by idyllic gardens and, of course, a series of wells.

Nestled at the foot of the Mendip Hills in Somerset, the city is named after its three wells and has been inhabited since Roman times. We visited the city on a Saturday, and when the bus dropped us off in the city centre, we found a huge outdoor market taking place. The market stretched all over the large central square (the aptly-named Market Place) and was filled with stalls selling everything from candles to ceramics, cacti and local produce, such as cider, jams and honey.

The medieval houses with their very tall chimneys in Vicars' Close, Wells

After a quick look around the market and a brief sustenance stop (tea and scones) in the cathedral café, we headed to Vicars’ Close, which my mother had correctly predicted I’d spend ages photographing. The street is said to be the only complete medieval street left in the UK and it’s mindbogglingly attractive.

The entire length of the street is filled with small, picturesque stone cottages, each with a distinctive tall, thin chimney. There’s a tiny chapel at the far end (above) and a covered entrance at the other. Walking up and down it, I felt like I’d stepped into a scene from Harry Potter or The Chronicles of Narnia; it has such an otherworldly feel, it doesn’t seem real.

The stone cottages in Vicars' Close, Wells

Built in the 1360s as homes for the cathedral’s choir, the street is still occupied today. And despite looking like a picture-perfect idyll, I can’t imagine it’s much fun to live there. I suspect the steady stream of strange visitors walking up and down the street taking photos of your home must be quite tiresome.

Wells Cathedral

From one medieval masterpiece to another, we made our way to the city’s showstopper – its magnificent 12th century cathedral (above). The cathedral’s facade is unlike any other I’ve seen in the UK as it’s covered with sculptures and boasts one of the largest collections of medieval statues in the world. The sculptures represent a variety of kings, bishops, angels and apostles. There’s also a statue of Jesus.

Scissors arches and the ceiling in the nave at Wells Cathedral

Inside, the cathedral (and the nave in particular) is just as spectacular boasting unusual architecture and rare features, and is the earliest Gothic-style cathedral in England. The highlights include the unique scissor arch design in the nave (above), which was added in the early 14th century to stop the tower’s foundations from sinking. It’s a tremendous piece of craftsmanship and is so beautiful, not to mention practical, that I’m amazed more cathedrals didn’t follow suit and copy the design.

The Chapter House at Wells Cathedral

Just beyond the scissor arches, to the left of the nave, there’s a rickety old staircase that leads up to the mesmerising Chapter House (above). The stunning octagonal chamber dates back to the beginning of the 14th century and is still used today.

The Wells Cathedral clock

At the bottom of the rickety staircase, we stopped for a brief sojourn on a bench opposite the cathedral’s celebrated clock (above). The medieval clock, which dates to around 1390, is said to be one of the oldest in the UK. Every 15 minutes, a series of knights come whirling out onto a ledge above the clock face where they take part in a “jousting contest”.

The knights were amusing to watch and I was impressed that the clock is still in such good working order after more than 600 years. It’s a remarkable piece of machinery. I also enjoyed the little figurine of a man in the top right-hand corner who rings his bell when the knights come out to play.

The quire and Jesse window at Wells Cathedral

The rest of the cathedral, which includes a couple of chapels and cloisters, is fairly typical for a medieval English cathedral. The old quire in the centre of the cathedral is pretty, as is its exquisite stained glass Jesse window (above). I really enjoyed looking around the cathedral and Vicars’ Close, and admiring their charming architecture. It’s remarkable that after so many centuries, these incredible pieces of medieval craftsmanship are still in one piece.

After leaving the cathedral, we ambled over to our final destination, the medieval Bishop’s Palace and gardens, which I’ll write about next week – stay tuned for part two of my Wells adventure!

Getting there

It’s really easy to get to Wells using public transport. The 376, which stops just outside Bristol Temple Meads train station, runs every 30 minutes and takes around an hour to get to Wells. The bus drops you off in the city centre, but on the return journey, you’ll need to go to Wells Bus Station to catch the bus back to Bristol.

Info

Wells Cathedral

Wells Cathedral

Wells Cathedral, Chain Gate, Cathedral Green, Wells BA5 2UE
Open 7am-7pm, daily (April to September); 7am-6pm, daily (October-March)
Free – donations are welcomed
wellscathedral.org.uk

Gloucester Cathedral

Gloucester Cathedral from the Secret Garden in the centre of the cloisters

Gloucester Cathedral might not have the same instant name recognition as some of England’s other great ecclesiastical buildings, such as Westminster Abbey, York Minster and Canterbury Cathedral, but it should – as it’s one of the country’s most magnificent cathedrals.

Dating back almost 1,000 years, it’s a huge structure with lots of elements to explore, including spectacular cloisters, a tranquil garden and some of the finest stained glass in England. The present cathedral was built between 1089 and 1100 on the site of an old Anglo-Saxon religious house. Originally known as St Peter’s Abbey, it became a cathedral following the dissolution of the monasteries in 1541.

King Edward II's tomb at Gloucester Cathedral

Gloucester Cathedral also holds the distinction of being one of only a handful of cathedrals in England where a monarch was laid to rest (the others being Winchester, Worcester and Canterbury). Edward II was buried here in a beautifully carved tomb (above) following his murder at nearby Berkeley Castle in 1327. William I’s eldest son and rightful heir, Robert of Normandy, is also buried in the cathedral, in a gloriously ornate and colourful tomb.

The architecture and craftsmanship throughout the cathedral are superb with high vaulted and fan-vaulted ceilings, delicate and intricate stone masonry, and countless stained glass windows. There are numerous chapels within the cathedral, too, including the elegant Lady Chapel (above, centre); the South Ambulatory Chapel, with its striking, blue stained glass windows installed in 2013 (above, right); and the St Andrew’s Chapel, with its colourful painted ceiling.

One of the most impressive parts of the cathedral is the quire, the area surrounding the high altar (above). The church within a church boasts a superb fan-vaulted ceiling, some lovely old wooden choir stalls and an enormous stained glass window (the largest in a medieval cathedral in Britain), known as the great east window.

The Great East Window at Gloucester Cathedral

The great east window (above) was commissioned by Edward III in the 1350s to commemorate his father Edward II and it’s an impressive sight, providing an exquisite backdrop to the wonderful stonework surrounding it. Around three-quarters of the original glass remains and the cathedral has gone to great lengths to preserve it.

During the Second World War, the glass panes were removed and stored in the cathedral’s crypt to protect them from potential bombing raids. It was then carefully pieced back together, using a photo as a guide, once the war was over.

A man crouches down to take a photo Inside the cloisters at Gloucester Cathedral

While the main body of the cathedral is a non-stop barrage of beautiful medieval architecture, my favourite part was the cloisters. The cloisters boast the world’s first fan-vaulted ceiling, intricate carvings all over the walls and rows of stained glass windows.

The cloisters have a magical quality and it’s hardly surprising they were used as a filming location for the first two Harry Potter films. They’re truly spectacular and some of the most beautiful cloisters I’ve seen. There’s also a small, pretty garden, known as the secret garden, in the middle of the cloisters. The garden was quiet and peaceful when I visited, the perfect place to curl up on a hot, sunny day with a book.

The cathedral is also home to a café, the Monks’ Kitchen, which leads off from the cloisters, and it’s where I stopped for lunch. The café sells home-made fare such as sandwiches, quiches, soups and jacket potatoes, as well as a selection of cakes and tray bakes. I had a toastie, made using fresh, good quality ingredients, which, at £4.95, was a bargain as the portion was enormous and it also came with side-helpings of salad, coleslaw and crisps.

The crypt under Gloucester Cathedral

The cathedral offers guided tours of the crypt and the tower, and during my visit I joined a tour of the crypt. The tour lasted some 20 to 30 minutes and was led by a helpful and informative volunteer named Keith. He took us down into the crypt and showed us around, explaining how the crypt was used in centuries past and how it was built (the cathedral’s foundations are only 2m deep and it’s had to be reinforced over the years to hold the weight of the subsequent building work).

Keith explained that during the Second World War, the coronation chair was brought down from Westminster Abbey and locked in the crypt for safekeeping, along with other valuable objects such as the great east window and Robert of Normandy’s tomb.

The crypt is cold and empty these days – there are no bodies buried in this crypt, although it did briefly house Edward II’s body before he was entombed. The only object of note is a very heavy-looking granite font (goodness knows how they got it into the crypt) designed by George Gilbert Scott, the architect behind London’s St Pancras Station, which sits in one of the crypt’s chapels.

I really enjoyed my visit to Gloucester Cathedral, it’s a magnificent building and one of the finest ecclesiastical buildings in the UK. I especially enjoyed ambling around the ethereal cloisters and my informative tour of the crypt, while the café was a great place to recharge my batteries. If you like medieval architecture and/or Harry Potter, it’s well worth a visit.

Angles-sur-l’Anglin

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.

Montreuil-Bellay

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.

Parthenay

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.