London – Azzedine Alaia: The Couturier at the Design Museum

Azzedine Alaia: The Couturier exhibition at the Design Museum

When I was in London a couple of weekends ago, I was looking for an exhibition to see and, while there weren’t many that grabbed my fancy,  Azzedina Alaïa: The Couturier at the Design Museum looked intriguing. I might not be a fashionista, but I enjoy fashion and am familiar with Azzedine Alaïa’s work, and was curious to see what his clothing would look like up close.

Purple and white dresses from the wrapped forms display at the Azzedine Alaia exhibition

The exhibition is the first in the UK to be solely dedicated to the late Tunisian designer and was co-curated by the legendary couturier and his friend, curator Mark Wilson, and I was surprised to see the entire exhibition contained within one large, open-plan room.

Exploring volume display at the Azzedine Alaia exhibition

The exhibition features around 60 items of clothing, mostly dresses, dating from the early 1980s through to Alaïa’s last collection in 2017. The pieces are grouped together according to theme and the themes included “exploring volume”, “Spanish accent” and “other places, other cultures”.

The pieces on display were exquisite, and it was fascinating to be able to examine the clothing up close and see the intricate detail and superb craftsmanship that went into making them. I might not have wanted to wear all the pieces (some are best left to Amazonian supermodel-types), but I could nevertheless appreciate Alaïa’s exceptional knowledge of structure and fabric.

Sculptural tension display at the Azzedine Alaia exhibition

My favourite dresses were the seven dresses that made up the “sculptural tension” display (above). The black velvet dress (above, 2nd from right) and the sculpted pleated leather dresses either side of it were my favourites and I’d have been very happy if any of them had made their way into my wardrobe. I also adored the slinky, hooded purple dress from the “wrapped forms” display and all the dresses in the “timelessness” section.

Along the walls hung a number of photos of Alaïa, along with famous models, actresses and singers (notably Naomi Campbell and Grace Jones) wearing his creations. There was also a short film playing.

Black and pink dress from the exploring volume display at the Azzedine Alaia exhibition

Azzedine Alaia: The Couturier is a fascinating glimpse inside the world of an exceptional designer and is filled with fabulous, jaw-dropping fashion. It was interesting to see how the designer’s style evolved over the years and to have an opportunity to appreciate how clever his designs were. My only complaint is I felt the exhibition was overpriced for what it was. It didn’t take long to look at everything (20 minutes or so, if you were really taking your time) and £16 seemed a bit steep for such a small collection. But that aside, it’s an intriguing exhibition and one that’s likely to appeal to those interested in fashion and design.

Info

Azzedine Alaia: The Couturier at the Design Museum, 224-238 Kensington High Street, London W8 6AG
Until 7 October 2018
Adults £16, children (six to 15 years old) £8, concessions and students £12
designmuseum.org/exhibitions/azzedine-alaa-the-couturier

 

 

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Edinburgh travel guide

View over Edinburgh New Town and the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh Castle

Settled around two extinct volcanoes and steeped in history, Edinburgh is a cultural, culinary powerhouse boasting dramatic scenery, excellent food and fabulous shopping. With lots to see and do, it’s a great destination for a weekend city break. If you’re planning a trip to Auld Reekie, here’s my mini travel guide to the Scottish capital…

History

The entrance to Edinburgh Castle

Perched atop one of the city’s two ancient volcanoes, Edinburgh Castle is not to be missed (above). The huge fortress is home to a royal residence, the legendary stone of scone, the Scottish crown jewels, the city’s oldest building (St Margaret’s Chapel), the national war memorial and a few museums (a couple of regimental museums and another on prisoners of war). While the ruined David’s Tower was the site of Scotland’s very own ‘red wedding’ when the young head of the Black Douglas clan and his brother were murdered during a banquet in an event known to history as ‘the black dinner’.

The Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh

Down the hill from Edinburgh Castle, at the end of the Royal Mile, is Edinburgh’s other royal residence, the Palace of Holyroodhouse (above), the Queen’s official residence in Scotland. The palace is also the site of another infamous royal murder – that of Mary, Queen of Scots’s private secretary David Rizzio by her husband Henry, Lord Darnley, and his cronies. Inside the palace you can tour Mary’s apartments and explore the ruined Holyrood Abbey (below), which once upon a time hosted the coronations and marriages of many a Scottish monarch.

A passageway inside Holyrood Abbey

Delve into the capital’s more recent history and pop inside the Scottish Parliament opposite Holyrood Palace. The parliament, which is free to visit, offers guided hour-long tours focusing on different aspects of the building – you can choose from a parliament tour, a photography tour, an art tour or an architecture tour.

Museums and galleries

There are a number of world-class museums and art galleries in the Scottish capital, but the best by far is the National Museum of Scotland. The enormous museum extends over multiple floors and features exhibitions about Scottish history, the natural world, technology, science, fashion and more.

The museum’s most famous artefacts are the Lewis Chessmen, a series of 12th century ivory and walrus-tooth chess figurines discovered on the Isle of Lewis. Eleven of the glorious chessmen – they each have unique facial features – are on display here, the remaining 82 pieces are in the British Museum in London.

The statue of Greyfriars Bobby

On leaving the museum, don’t miss the statue of Greyfriars Bobby opposite (above), outside Greyfriars Kirk. JK Rowling found inspiration for many a Harry Potter character’s name in the churchyard – the names on the gravestones include Thomas Riddell, McGonagall, Potter and Moodie.

Art lovers should make a beeline for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Housed in a gorgeous red brick building in the New Town, the enormous gallery is home to a host of portraits of fascinating, world-leading Scots (I had no idea how many Scots had shaped our world until I visited). Flora MacDonald, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns are among the famous Scots whose portraits are on display.

Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh

The Scottish National Gallery (above) beside the city’s Princes Street Gardens features works by a slew of famous artists such as Constable, Monet, Degas and El Greco. While modern art fans should plan a trip to the city’s Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art where you can see works by the likes of Joan Miro, Alberto Giacometti and Rene Magritte.

Plants and wildlife

Edinburgh’s most famous gardens are the Princes Street Gardens in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle. The popular gardens are a great place to while away an hour or two with a book on a sunny afternoon. The Royal Botanic Gardens to the north of the city centre span some 70 acres and are home to more than 13,500 plant species. RZSS Edinburgh Zoo, meanwhile, looks after the UK’s only giant pandas (Tian Tian and Yang Guang) and koalas (Alinga, Goonaroo and Toorie), along with penguins, lions, vultures, hippos and more.

Walking

View of Arthur's Seat from the grounds of the Palace of Holyroodhouse

When a city boasts two extinct volcanoes, you know there will be plenty of opportunities for long walks and hikes. The best hike in the city is the magnificent Arthur’s Seat (above), which overlooks the Palace of Holyroodhouse and has breathtaking views over Edinburgh and out towards the Firth of Forth. There are various trails you can follow to the peak, some steeper than others, and depending on the weather, it can get pretty windswept at the top.

If you’re not feeling quite so energetic, the nearby Calton Hill, which is topped by the  distinctive, unfinished Parthenon-like national monument, is a better bet. For those who dislike hills, the Water of Leith walkway follows the path of the River Leith from the suburb of Balerno to the port of Leith and extends over 12 miles in total. But for a shorter walk, start in the city’s picturesque Dean Village and follow the river through the city to Leith, home to the Royal Yacht Britannia.

Shopping

Princes Street is Edinburgh’s shopping mecca, awash with the usual high street names such as H&M and Marks & Spencer, but make sure to explore the streets and alleyways behind it in the city’s New Town. The area is filled with independent boutiques that are well worth a browse. Edinburgh’s quirkiest and most interesting shops, though, are to be found in the city’s Grassmarket area and along steep Victoria Street that curves from the George IV Bridge down to Grassmarket.

Food

Outside London, Edinburgh is one of the UK’s brightest culinary hot spots featuring a host of exceptionally good restaurants and cafés. One of my favourite places is The Scran & Scallie gastropub, co-owned by renowned local chef Tom Kitchin, which serves modern, seasonal British fare. Be sure to rock up on a Sunday evening when folk musicians play in the bar area – there’s a lively atmosphere and it makes for a fun evening.

Chez Jules, an unpretentious French bistro in the New Town, is also worth checking out, as is Hendersons, an Edinburgh institution that serves excellent veggie and vegan dishes. It’s my go-to breakfast place in the city. For a quick caffeine fix, Wellington Coffee in the New Town is a tiny, basement delight. Order the hot chocolate – it comes with a giant, pillowy chunk of marshmallow on the side.

Day trips

Fancy seeing some sights outside the city? You’re in luck as the area surrounding the Scottish capital is brimming with places to visit. Fans of symbolism and/or The Da Vinci Code should hop on the number 37 bus from Princes Street, which will take you to the village of Roslin, home to the romantic 15th century Rosslyn Chapel and its copious, intricate stone carvings. Sadly, there’s no sign of the holy grail.

The courtyard inside the ruined Linlithgow Palace

If Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse failed to satisfy your appetite for all things royal, the haunting Linlithgow Palace (above) is a short 20-minute train ride away. The ruined shell of a palace was the birth place of Mary, Queen of Scots. While the imposing and impressive Stirling Castle is around 50 minutes by train from Edinburgh Waverley Station.

Inchcolm Abbey

The beautiful Firth of Forth is also a short train ride away – alight at South Queensferry where you can catch a boat to Inchcolm Island. The small island in the middle of the firth is home to a splendid, partially-ruined abbey (above). While sailing across the firth, keep your eye out for puffins (their distinctive orange beaks make them relatively easy to spot) and soak up the magnificent views as you sail under the iconic Forth Bridges.

Getting there

Edinburgh Airport is well served by airports in the UK and abroad. Once you’ve arrived, the easiest way to get into the city is via the express bus service. Buses run every 10 minutes and cost £7 for a return ticket. The bus’s final destination is Waverley Bridge, overlooking Edinburgh Waverley train station, in the heart of the city.

Jordan travel guide

Wadi Mujib in Jordan

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

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

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

Sightseeing

Amman

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

Jerash

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

Dead Sea

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

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

Biblical sites

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

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

Kerak

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

Petra

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

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

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

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

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

Wadi Rum

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

Aqaba

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

Food and drink

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

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

Climate

Wadi Rum

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

Safety

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

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

Share your experiences

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

Cardiff Castle

Cardiff Castle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cardiff Castle apartments

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

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

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

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

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

The tunnels inside Cardiff Castle's walls

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

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

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

Inside the Firing Line museum at Cardiff Castle

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

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

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

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

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

Cardiff – St Fagans

St Fagans Castle and gardens, Cardiff

One of my favourite places for a Sunday stroll is the St Fagans National Museum of History on the outskirts of Cardiff. The museum is an open-air museum set in 100 acres of woodland in the grounds of St Fagans Castle.

Blaenwaun Post Office, St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff

The castle and the grounds were given to the public in 1948 by their then-owner the Earl of Plymouth and since then more than 40 buildings from different eras from all over Wales have been rebuilt in the grounds.

Over the summer, the main entrance building, which had been closed for the past few years for an extensive refurbishment, reopened and I was keen to see what it was like. I was surprised to find the main building was quite sparse with an enormous foyer and a small information desk, a new café and a shop. But it turned out it has yet to fully reopen as the exhibition galleries are still being refurbished.

Turog Bakery, St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff

As a creature of habit, I always follow the same tried-and-tested route whenever I visit St Fagans. My first port of call is always the bakery (above) because their cheesy buns are one of my favourite things in the world to eat and they’re so popular they often sell out. There’s nothing more disappointing than a trip to St Fagans to find there are no cheesy buns. So cheesy buns purchased, we were free to stroll around the rest of the grounds at our leisure.

A pig on the farm at the St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff

First off, we headed down to the farm (above), which is home to numerous animals such as geese, chickens, and my favourites, the pigs. I love the pigs, especially the adorable piglets, and make a beeline to see them whenever I visit. They always look so content lounging on the ground or moving around their pens, sniffing as they go and munching the straw around them, that I could spend hours watching them.

Siop Losin (sweet shop) at the St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff

Having spent quite a long time watching the pigs, we strolled back towards the bakery, past the old water mill and the toll house, and on to the Gwalia grocery stores. There you can buy traditional Welsh produce such as cheese, jam, seaweed snacks and honey. Next door there’s a new sweet shop (above), so we popped inside and found a back wall filled with jars of old fashioned sweets, while the area around the counter was brimming with chocolate, Kendal mint cake and sticks of rock. I resisted the temptation to load up on sweet treats and instead plumped for an intriguing pot of raspberry and lavender jam from the grocery stores.

Oakdale Workmen's Institute, St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff

Behind the Gwalia stores is the Oakdale working men’s institute (above). I’m from a long line of coal miners in the Valleys and the institute is one of my favourite buildings as I feel it’s the one that best represents my Welsh heritage. Working men’s institutes were built all over the Valleys to provide coal miners and their families with a social and cultural centre, and this wonderful building boasts a library, reading room and committee room. Over the years, I’ve spent ages poring over the photographs that hang on the walls, wondering whether or not any of the faces staring back at me are my ancestors. Probably not – but it’s not impossible!

After the institute, we wandered up through the woods to Llys Llywellyn (Llywellyn’s Court). It’s a recreation of a medieval princes’ court from Anglesey and has been under construction for a few years. I like popping by whenever I’m in St Fagans to see how it’s coming along and this time I was surprised to see one of the buildings was almost finished. I’m really looking forward to having a look around it when it opens as there aren’t any surviving examples of the princes’ courts and I’m keen to see what they would have looked like.

From Llys Llywellyn, we walked the short distance to another of my favourite buildings, St Teilo’s Church (above). From the outside, the church looks like any regular church, but inside it’s elaborately painted as it would have been during the Middle Ages. I love looking inside and seeing the decoration. I often forget when I visit old churches in the UK that many of them would have been painted during the Middle Ages and I’m always amazed at how colourful and decorative St Teilo’s Church is as it’s so different to the plain, stone churches we usually see in the UK.

Wicker man at St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff

After looking around the church, we strolled up to the old slate farmhouse, which was closed for renovation work, then walked past the woods that played host to the Battle of St Fagans on 8 May 1648 during the Civil War.

As we wandered back down towards the centre of the museum, I was intrigued by the giant wicker man that was standing tall in one of the fields (above). The wicker man had been erected for Halloween and was set to be burned during one of the museum’s nighttime Halloween events. There were lots of craft stalls nearby, too, where you could buy handmade goods or try your hand at making a mini wicker man, pottery or jewellery.

Our final destination was St Fagans Castle (above right). I love strolling around the castle gardens as they’re so vast and varied. They include Italian-style gardens on the hill leading up to the castle and a series of rectangular ponds beneath them (above left). Up near the castle there’s a fruit and vegetable garden with a number of greenhouses, as well as a series of gardens beautifully laid out in different patterns.

It’s a really pretty, relaxing place to walk, especially during the autumn when the trees are a medley of reds, yellows, oranges and greens. I’ve been inside the castle countless times, so I often skip the tour inside and just spend time enjoying the gardens, which we did this time, too.

Red stone farmhouse, St Fagans National History Museum, Cardiff

From the castle, we then headed back to the main building for a well-earned, warming cup of tea in the café. The perfect way to end a very pleasant autumn stroll.

Info
St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff CF5 6XB
Open daily, 10am-5pm
Free
museum.wales/stfagans/

Lisbon – Calouste Gulbenkian Museum

Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon

The last place I visited during my trip to Lisbon was the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, founded in 1969 to house the enormous art collection that belonged to Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian.

Calouste Gulbenkian was an obscenely rich businessman born in Constantinople in 1869. Over the years he amassed a massive collection of around 6,400 artworks dating from the Egyptian and Greco-Roman period to the early 20th century. When he died in 1955, he left his collection to the city of Lisbon on condition it built a museum to house it.

The museum was constructed in the mid-1960s in the city’s Parque de Santa Gertrudes and around 1,000 of Gulbenkian’s artworks are on permanent display. The building has won a number of architectural awards, but if I’m honest I wasn’t too keen on it. It’s very late 1960s/early 1970s with lots of beige and brown, which I found quite ugly.

Inside, the museum is split into different sections and the first part I visited housed ancient works from Egypt, the Greco-Roman empire and Mesopotamia. There were also tiles, rugs and various other objects from Persia and Turkey, as well as some lovely pieces of porcelain and silks from China. There was a lot to look at and it was fascinating to see so many varying pieces in such close proximity.

I then wandered over to the section on European art. This part of the gallery is home to a magnificent bust of Victor Hugo by Rodin, a portrait of Madame Claude Monet by Renoir in which she looks wonderfully French, as well as paintings by Nanette, Gainsborough and Turner.

The standout part of the gallery was the room dedicated to René Lalique. Gulbenkian amassed one of the world’s greatest collections of objects by Lalique and the pieces on display are incredible. There were beautiful glass goblets, dazzling vases, and delicate hair accessories and broaches. Everything was so elegant and pretty, I spent ages looking at it all.

Gulbenkian’s art collection is home to some exquisite works of art so I enjoyed my visit. It’s rare to see such a huge breadth of pieces from so many different eras and parts of the globe in such a small space. The gallery was also quite quiet as it’s away from the Lisbon tourist trail, so I was able to take my time looking around the collection. The only downside was the miserable staff, but the fabulous artworks more than made up for it. If you like art, it’s worth a visit.

Lisbon – Castelo de Sao Jorge and the Alfama

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The Castelo de São Jorge and the Alfama are among the oldest parts of Lisbon. This ancient, hilly district is home to a warren of winding cobbled streets and characterful old buildings, and it’s where I decided to spend my final morning in the city.

The Castelo de São Jorge is perched high on a hill, and to get to it, I had to put my thigh muscles to good use as I climbed the steep cobbled streets that twisted and turned in all directions. It would be easy to get lost in this labyrinthine part of Lisbon, but luckily there are signposts en route to show you the way to the castle. The stream of tourists heading up the hill also provided a handy clue that I was going the right way.

View over Lisbon and the River Tagus from the Castelo de Sao Jorge

The castle was built by the Moors in the middle of the 11th century. Unlike most castles in Europe, the Castelo de São Jorge was built as a base to house troops and wasn’t intended to be a home. But the following century, the castle was captured during the country’s Christian reconquest and it became a royal residence. It’s easy to see why the royal family would want to live here. From its vantage point on top of one of the city’s seven hills, it boasts fantastic views over Lisbon and the River Tagus (above).

Castelo de Sao Jorge in Lisbon

The area around the Castelo de São Jorge is enormous, home to the castle itself, the remains of a former palace and an archaeological site featuring buildings that date back as far as the Iron Age. When I arrived at the castle, I passed through an outer courtyard then spent some time walking around the outer perimeter of the castle. This gave me an idea of the scale of the fortress – it’s huge, with tall formidable sandstone walls linking a series of square towers.

Inside the Castelo de Sao Jorge in Lisbon

After exploring the castle’s exterior, I went inside, crossing a stone bridge and passing a huge stone tower that once housed the royal treasury and a couple of bare stone rooms to reach a large courtyard. The courtyard is a big space, but like the rooms that preceded it, empty. So after having a quick look around, I climbed a flight of stairs that led to the ramparts above.

It’s possible to walk all the way around the ramparts, going inside the towers and admiring the spectacular views over Lisbon. There isn’t a huge amount to see inside the castle, it’s essentially an empty shell as there aren’t any furnished rooms to give you an idea of what it looked like when it was in use. So the ramparts, with their incredible views, were by far the best part of the castle and I enjoyed walking around them, stopping here and there to look out over the city.

Having explored it all, I made my way back down to a second courtyard, which was also pretty bare but had a few features, including a couple of wells and some trees.

Archaeological site at the Castelo de Sao Jorge in Lisbon

By now I’d seen everything there was to see in the castle, so I headed over to the archaeological site. The excavations have uncovered a number of ruins from different eras, including Iron Age structures, a couple of Moorish houses and part of the Palace of the Counts of Santiago, which was destroyed during the 1755 earthquake.

You can’t walk in between the excavated buildings but you can walk around the edge of the site and there’s a guide that shows you what you’re looking at. It was interesting to see remains from such varied points in Lisbon’s history so close together, and it brought home how old the city is and the richness of its history.

From the archaeological site, I made my way back towards the entrance, passing the ruins of the old royal palace (also destroyed by the 1755 earthquake). The area around the ruined palace is a relaxing and attractive space with fragments of columns, trees and statues dotted around, as well as a strutting peacock (above).

Alfama district of Lisbon

After leaving the castle, I decided to explore the Alfama district. The Alfama is home to many of Lisbon’s oldest buildings and it was a pleasant place to spend a couple of hours, ambling up and down its narrow, winding alleyways and soaking up its sights and sounds. As I neared the waterfront, I stumbled upon a fantastic market selling all sorts of crafts including jewellery and leather goods, and I bought a pretty bracelet and a small bag made from cork.

My morning at the castle and the Alfama was enjoyable. The castle was enormous, and even though there wasn’t much to see inside, the views from the ramparts made up for the lack of attractions and the archaeological site was interesting. The Alfama neighbourhood, meanwhile, was a cool, relaxing place, a far cry from the hustle and bustle of the city centre. An agreeable way to spend my final morning in Lisbon.

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.

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.

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.