Kerak Castle

Inside the remains of Kerak Castle

Regular readers of my blog may have noticed that I really, really love a castle and so it goes without saying I was very excited at the prospect of visiting Kerak Castle during my week in Jordan.

Walls and passageways at Kerak Castle

The Crusader castle at Kerak is an enormous white limestone fortress, perched high on a hill overlooking its modern-day namesake town. It was built during the Crusades, in 1142, by Pagan the Butler, lord of Outrejourdain – one of a number of castles built by the Crusaders across the Levant.

Some of the ruined walls at Kerak Castle

The castle’s extensive walls extend across the hill top, dominating the town, and I couldn’t help but be impressed as we approached it.

Dusty white limestone passageway inside Kerak Castle

The enormous castle’s in a ruined state, so you have to use your imagination to picture what it must have looked like during the 12th century. The ground underfoot is rocky and dusty, too, so I was glad I’d worn sensible, sturdy shoes for my visit. Being a clumsy so-and-so, I had to make sure I looked where I was going as I wandered around.

Looking up at the white limestone ruins of Kerak Castle

The sprawling fortress is home to lots of rooms, tunnels and passages, and with multiple floors to explore, uneven staircases, dark, unlit rooms and only a handful of safety barriers, there’s no way it would pass a health and safety inspection in the UK, but I had great fun clambering over the rocks, going up and down the staircases, and exploring the castle’s many, many nooks and crannies.

Walking around the castle, I couldn’t help but admire its grand majesty. The Crusaders built it in an excellent strategic location, with incredible views over the vast valley below – Jerusalem is visible in the distance on a clear day – and it must have been a formidable and imposing sight during its Crusader heyday.

Views over the valley below from Kerak Castle

It’s a superb fortress and a fabulous place to spend a fun-filled hour or so. While it’s in a bit of a dilapidated state, it’s nevertheless an incredible building and I had a fantastic time exploring all there was to see. With so much to seek out, Kerak Castle more than lived up to my (admittedly rather high) expectations.

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Pau

King Henri IV of France's chateau at Pau

The elegant capital of Béarn is the former home of the kings and queens of Navarre, and as such, boasts a rather impressive château. Needless to say, castle-lover that I am, I wasn’t about to miss out on an opportunity to visit Pau during our week in Béarn.

Our first port of call on arriving in Pau was the Boulevard de Pyrenees, an attractive promenade that overlooks the Gave de Pau, and on a clear day, as its name suggests, boasts excellent views of the nearby Pyrenees. After a short stroll along the promenade, we made our way to the Rue Mal Joffre, where we stopped for tea and cake (gateau Basque, a local custard tart) in a quiet, friendly salon de thé that sold exquisite chocolates, jams and pâtisserie.

Happily sated, we headed outside and continued along the street until we reached the magnificent Château de Pau. With its gleaming ivory walls, navy slate roof and red brick tower, the château looked mightily impressive and I was very excited about going inside.

The entrance to King Henri IV of France's chateau at Pau

Inside, the excitement quickly wore off when we were each handed a sheet of paper in English and ushered onto a guided tour. It turns out you can only visit the castle on a guided tour – in French. Now in France, I expect to join guided tours that are all in French and have happily done so many times before. With my rudimentary French, I can usually follow the tour and pick up on what the tour guide is saying.

However on this occasion, the tour guide droned on and on and on for what seemed like an age in each room and I couldn’t keep up with what was being said. We had the bare minimum of information about each room on our sheet of paper, which meant we and all the other people on the tour who didn’t speak French (and there were quite a few) were left bored out of our minds wondering what on earth the tour guide was saying because there didn’t seem to be that much to talk about in each room.

Everyone was also deadly silent during the tour, which meant we didn’t feel comfortable wandering around, looking at things and chatting among ourselves, as we felt obliged to silently stand and listen attentively to what was being said.

A statue of King Henri IV of France in the grounds of the Chateau de Pau

The rooms we visited were interesting to look at, with lots of grandly furnished spaces and marble staircases on display, although I got the sense we only saw a small part of the château. All the rooms had been furnished and decorated in the 19th century in imitation of how it might have looked during the reign of Henri of Navarre, and there were lots of tapestries hanging on the walls. It was essentially a shrine to its most famous resident, King Henri IV of France, but none of the contents, as far as I could tell, were authentic.

All in all, I was left feeling a bit disappointed by the château. I’d been looking forward to our visit, but once there, I found it a colossal bore and rather underwhelming. I was disappointed by how little of the castle we saw; the imitation interior, which relied far too heavily on tapestries for my liking; and the lack of information about the royal family of Navarre and how they used the château. It would also have been good to have been forewarned about the guided tour before we joined it.

The grounds at the Chateau de Pau

The tour over with, we went for a stroll around the château grounds, passing the small gardens, which were full of flowers and herbs, and briefly looked inside a tower, which featured an exhibition about the old currency of Navarre.

We then headed back towards the centre of Pau to have a look around the city’s other major sites. Given its long history, I’d expected Pau to be home to lots of medieval buildings but instead most of the buildings we passed dated from around the 19th century. The city is charming and elegant with superb shopping (there are lots of expensive-looking clothes shops and chocolatiers), but there wasn’t much in the way of places to visit other than the château.

Inside the Eglise Saint-Martin in Pau

One place we did look inside was the Église Saint-Martin, an attractive grey stone church, not far from the château. The church featured high-vaulted stone ceilings, and like so many churches in the region, an elaborately decorated chancel with lots of blues, purples and reds (above). We also briefly stopped by the winter palace, the Palais Beaumont, in the city’s Parc Beaumont. But there wasn’t much more to it than its attractive façade.

The winter palace, the Palais Beaumont, in Pau

Having walked all around the city centre and exhausted all the sites, we made our way home. My disappointment about the château aside, I found Pau to be a handsome city that boasts some excellent shops, and if I were rich, it’s probably where I’d go to do my clothes shopping. I really liked the city, it had a nice atmosphere and was a pleasant place to stroll around, and I got the impression that it would be nice place to call home if you were looking for a French city in which to live.

Lourdes

The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes in France

Nestled at the foot of the Pyrenees, Lourdes is France’s most famous pilgrimage site. Having been to Santiago de Compostela in Spain some eight years ago, I was keen to visit Lourdes during our trip to Béarn to compare the two sites and to find out why this Pyrenean town attracts some five million Christian pilgrims each year.

The miracle around which the town’s fortune was built occurred in 1858 when an 18-year-old shepherdess named Bernadette saw 18 apparitions of the Virgin Mary. The miracle allegedly took place in a small grotto on the outskirts of town, the Grotto of Massabielle. A small spring is then said to have appeared where Bernadette saw the Virgin Mary and this water is reputed to have miraculous healing powers, which is partly what has attracted so many millions of pilgrims over the years.

Lourdes photographed from the town's chateau

It was a grim, grey day when we visited Lourdes and the rain was chucking down. Having parked in the town centre, we headed to the Tourist Information office where we were given a map by a cheery man who helpfully pointed out the main areas of interest – namely the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, which was built on the rock above the Grotto of Massabielle, and the castle.

We decided to make our way to the sanctuary first and followed a walking trail through the town, which took us past shops selling all manner of religious souvenirs, including statues, fans, fridge magnets and candles. As we neared the sanctuary, the number of pilgrims increased massively and there were lots of people in wheelchairs or who were old and infirm who, I’m guessing, were hoping to be healed by the grotto’s waters.

The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes

The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes (above) is situated within a large oval park and I was blown away by how enormous it was. It’s ginormous and mind-bogglingly ostentatious. The sanctuary consists of a tall, grey stone structure with a basilica at the bottom, huge flights of stairs and ramps on either side, a crypt above the basilica and a church on top of that. There are also lots of statues dotted around the park, including one of the Virgin Mary and another of Bernadette with a flock of sheep.

Inside the basilica at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes

Not quite sure where to begin, we made our way to the basilica, entering via a set of ornate gold doors. Inside, we found a massive cavern boasting a white stone ceiling, red marble walls engraved with the names and dates of those apparently cured by the site’s waters, and above the altar, a gorgeous gold and blue domed ceiling (above and below). Around the sides, there was a series of small chapels featuring lots of gold and paintings depicting different scenes from the Bible. It was very elaborate.

The ornate gold and blue patterned domed ceiling inside the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes

When we walked back outside, we found the rain had stopped so we decided it was a good time to visit the grotto where Bernadette experienced her visions. Situated under the huge rock on which the sanctuary was built, there was a long queue to get to the grotto. Once in line, we were quickly shepherded to the tiny grotto and filed past it in no time, with the pilgrims around me touching the rock as often as possible. The small miraculous spring was partitioned off behind a pane of glass.

The crypt and the church at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes

We then made our way up the stairs to the crypt where some of Bernadette’s remains are interred in a small chest. There were lots of small plaques in the crypt, too, with people giving their thanks for the miracles that happened to them after visiting the grotto. One was from a formerly childless couple who conceived following their visit.

Inside the church at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes

From the crypt, we nipped upstairs to the church on top of the sanctuary. Once there, we found there was a service taking place, so we only stayed briefly, before making our way back down the stairs and through the park to the town’s Boulevard de la Grotte. Part way up the street, we stopped at Eleanor’s Salon de Thé, which was run by a friendly woman from the West Midlands, for a warming cup of tea and a bowl of vegetable soup.

Happily sated, we then walked through the town’s narrow streets to find the entrance to the castle, which is perched high on a rock in the centre of town. At the bottom of the rock, there’s a small office where you pay your entrance fee – from there, you can either take the stairs or the lift to the castle on top. We took the lift.

One of the stone buildings and the keep that make up the Chateau-Fort at Lourdes

At the top of the rock, we discovered that the castle isn’t so much a traditional castle as a series of buildings and ramparts that are also home to a museum where you can learn about the traditional way of life in the Pyrenees. The elements of traditional life on display included life in a Béarnaise kitchen, an exhibition of black and white photos of agricultural workers taken between 1965 and 1980, and models of the various animals you can find in the Pyrenees.

View over Lourdes and the Pyrenees from the ramparts at the town's Chateau-Fort

My favourite part of the castle was the Pointe du Cavalier Sud, high on the ramparts, which offered incredible views over Lourdes and the Pyrenees (above). The low lying grey clouds had lifted by the time we reached the ramparts, so we were able to see parts of the magnificent mountain range for the first time.

After the ramparts, we continued our tour of the museum. The exhibits included one room that was a recreation of a traditional Pyrenean bedroom, displays about local games, ceramics and agricultural tools, and a fascinating exhibit about the region’s costumes.

A recreation of a traditional Pyrenean cottage inside the museum at the Chateau-Fort in Lourdes

Towards the end of the tour, we learned about the history of the castle, before climbing a narrow 104-step spiral staircase to the top of the keep. I’d expected the top of the keep to have amazing views of the Pyrenees, but unfortunately it was covered and home to a rather dull display of granite and other building materials. The climb to the top of the keep was far more exciting than the exhibition within.

The tiny chapel at the Chateau-Fort in Lourdes

The next building we ventured inside was home to a series of artworks, including a genteel set of paintings of Lourdes by Louis de Bondidier, as well as a temporary display about the various castles that have inspired artists. We finished our tour with a peek inside the castle’s stone chapel (above), which looked rather simple from the outside but turned out to be ostentatiously decorated inside with statues and lots of gold and marble. By now we’d seen all there was to see in the castle, so we headed back down to the town via the lift.

The magnificent Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes

I really enjoyed our day trip to Lourdes – there was a lot more to the town than I was anticipating. We spent around five hours in Lourdes and could easily have spent longer as there were parts of the town, such as the parish church, that we didn’t get a chance to visit.

The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes (above) is huge and an incredible piece of architecture, while I hadn’t expected to find a large castle perched high on a rock in the centre of town. Lourdes is a fascinating and classy town with lots to see and do, and very friendly people. It was well-worth visiting and, I have to say, possibly preferable to Santiago de Compostela.

Dinefwr

Newton House seen through the trees from Dinefwr Deer Park

Nestled among the trees and woodland of the Carmarthenshire countryside, Dinefwr is a grand estate boasting a medieval castle, a stately home and a 100-acre nature reserve that’s home to a host of wildlife including deer, otters and badgers.

Looking for somewhere to stop on my drive back to Cardiff from Pembrokeshire, I stumbled upon Dinefwr, and as it was almost at the half-way point between the two, I decided it would be the perfect place to stretch my legs and have a spot of lunch.

On arriving at the estate, which is maintained by the National Trust, I parked my car and made my way to the information hut to get a map from the friendly staff. There are a number of walking trails around the estate and I chose a route that would take me up to the castle, then through the nature reserve to Mill Pond and returning via the deer park.

Dinefwr Castle

I set off from the car park over a field and entered the Castle Wood, following the woodland path uphill until I reached the castle (above). Perched high on a hill overlooking the River Tywi, Dinefwr Castle was once the home of Lord Rhys and the princes of Deheubarth, the ancient kingdom of south-west Wales.

Only the outer shell of the castle, which is maintained by Cadw, remains, but you can walk all the way along the ramparts and they offer spectacular views of the Carmarthenshire countryside, the River Tywi and Dinefwr Park (below). The big round tower is still intact, too, and you can climb to the top and walk around it. There isn’t a huge amount to Dinefwr Castle, but what remains is in excellent condition and it’s a lovely place to explore.

View over Dinefwr Park and beyond from the top of Dinefwr Castle

From the castle, I headed back down the hill, cutting through the woodland, and continuing to follow the path over a field until I came to the deer park entrance. I passed through the metal gates into the park and followed the boardwalk through Bog Wood until I came to the picturesque Mill Pond.

Wooden sculpture of a bird of prey in the deer park at Dinefwr

From there, I carried on walking through the deer park, and was surprised and delighted when I saw two young deer sprint past me on the path ahead. I hadn’t expected to see any deer, despite the park’s name, and was thrilled to see not one, but two of these magnificent creatures.

Deer just visible on top of a hill in the Deer Park at Dinefwr

I continued through the deer park, and as I neared the metal gates at the end of the path, I looked to my left where I saw a row of deer relaxing on top of the hill (you can just make out them out in the photo above). Most were lying down, but some were standing around or eating.

It was an incredible experience seeing so many deer so close. I thought the deer would keep themselves hidden, away from the footpaths, and so hadn’t expected to come across any. The only other place I’ve seen deer is in Richmond Park in London, so seeing the deer made my visit to Dinefwr quite special.

Newton House in the grounds of Dinefwr

Feeling elated from my encounters with the deer, I continued on the path towards Newton House (above), the stately home at Dinefwr. The house was closed so I couldn’t look around, but The Billiard Tearoom inside was open, so I stopped there for lunch. The tea room sells a variety of soups, light lunches and sweet treats, and the staff were incredibly warm and welcoming, and made my visit all the nicer. Starving, I wolfed down a steaming bowl of red thai squash soup, followed by a slice of toffee gateau.

View of the inside of Dinefwr Castle from the ramparts

Dinefwr is an exceptional place, full of history, wildlife and beautiful scenery, and having lived in Wales most of my life, I can’t believe it was my first visit. Seeing the deer in the deer park was particularly memorable, and as I was walking around, I was already planning my return visit. I may only have just discovered Dinefwr, but it’s a place I’ll be returning to again and again.

Info

Dinefwr Castle
Free
Open 10am-4pm every day
cadw.gov.wales/daysout/dinefwrcastle

Dinefwr Park
Llandeilo, Carmarthenshire, SA19 6RT
Adults £7.60, children £3.80
www.nationaltrust.org.uk/dinefwr

 

Ogmore-by-Sea

The rocky coastline at Ogmore-by-Sea

Ogmore-by-Sea is one of my favourite stretches of coastline in south Wales. The rocky strip of land, which boasts fantastic views over the Bristol Channel, is around the corner from another favourite beach, Southerndown, and is a great place for a brisk weekend coastal walk.

Ogmore Beach and the River Ogmore where it meets the Bristol Channel

A couple of weeks ago, I spent a blustery morning exploring Ogmore as Storm Ali approached, whipping up the occasional (painful) blast of sand and giving my hair a very windswept aesthetic.

There’s a long strip of grassland along the top of Ogmore beach and I set off for a stroll along it, admiring the sea views as I walked and stopping every so often to watch the waves crash onto the rocks below. The rocks are home to lots of rock pools and, on a calmer day, they’re a great place to look for marine life such as starfish, anemones and crabs.

Stormy skies above the River Ogmore

Having strolled along the coastal path and back, I wandered down to the shore near the mouth of the River Ogmore (above), and from there, made my way to Ogmore Castle, a short walk down stream.

The entrance to the ruined Ogmore Castle

Built in Norman times by one of William the Conqueror’s knights, William de Londres, Ogmore Castle is now very much a ruin and what’s left of it is maintained by Cadw, the Welsh heritage organisation.

The ruins of Ogmore Castle

The remains of the castle were more extensive than I was expecting, but there still isn’t a huge amount to see. It is, however, in a beautiful location, set against the idyllic (and strategic) backdrop of the Ogmore River. And it was a fun place to spend a little time clambering over the ruins, exploring  its nooks and crannies, and trying to imagine how the castle would have looked during its medieval heyday.

The remains of Ogmore Castle

Down by the river, there are a series of stepping stones you can use to cross it and from there you can walk to Merthyr Mawr, home to a large sandy beach and Wales’s biggest sand dune, and had it been a nicer day I would have set off in their direction. But by now the weather was turning blacker and the rain wasn’t too far off, so I made the decision to turn back rather than risk getting stuck the other side of the river during a storm. I’ll just have to go back next spring/summer when the weather’s better  and properly explore the area.

Info

Ogmore Castle
Open 10am-4pm, daily
Free
cadw.gov.wales/daysout/ogmorecastle

Fonmon Castle

Fonmon Castle in the Vale of Glamorgan

Tucked away in the Vale of Glamorgan countryside, not far from Cardiff Airport, is Fonmon Castle. I first heard about the privately-owned castle a couple of years ago when it opened its doors to the paying public for guided tours on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons.

As I work during the week, I hadn’t had a chance to visit until last Wednesday when I had the week off work and was spending my days exploring the countryside near Cardiff. It’s lucky that Fonmon Castle was at the top of my to-visit-list, as it turns out it’s up for sale and, depending on its new owners, might not be open to the public next year.

The small castle dates back to 1180 and since then it’s been owned by just two families – the original owners, the St Johns, and then from the 1650s onwards, the Jones and Boothby families.

One of the gardens at Fonmon Castle

I arrived a little early for my tour and so spent the next 20 minutes exploring the castle grounds, which are also open to the public on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons. As it’s mid-September, there weren’t many flowers to be seen (I suspect the gardens look rather more colourful in spring and early summer), but the gardens were well-maintained and the vegetable plots looked sublime with giant cabbages, lettuces and beans among the veg being grown.

Part of the gardens at Fonmon Castle

Just before 2pm, a side door near the castle entrance opened and I ventured inside to be met by our tour guide. Our friendly guide was incredibly knowledgeable about the castle, and over the next hour, proceeded to tell us in great detail about its history and its former owners, some of whom led rather colourful lives.

As the castle is also a family home, only part of it is open to the public, but we were shown a number of rooms including the grand orange-hued entrance hall with its sparkling chandelier, the old kitchen, and the small library dotted with old books and a cabinet filled with priceless china. Throughout the castle, portraits of its former occupants are on display, which helped bring the stories being told about them to life.

The delightful grand dining room at Fonmon Castle

My favourite room was the delightful grand dining room (above), a large, light and airy room with a beautiful rococo ceiling and bookcases filled with old tomes. The room is often used for weddings and teas, and I can see why it would be a popular venue as it’s enchanting.

The remains of a tower in the grounds of Fonmon Castle

Following our guided tour, I headed off for a stroll across a large, perfectly-mowed lawn, which was once the driveway to the castle, in search of Fonmon tower (above). The derelict, partially-ruined folly was at the end of the lawn, hidden behind some trees.

I’m glad I finally made it to Fonmon Castle – and in the nick of time, too! It’s a wonderfully preserved slice of local history, and it was great to have an opportunity to look around the castle and learn about the families who owned it and their long connection to the region. It was a charming place to spend a leisurely afternoon.

Info

Fonmon Castle, Fonmon, Vale of Glamorgan CF62 3ZN
Open for guided tours on the hour from 2-4pm on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, between April and September
£6 – adults and children over the age of 14 years
fonmoncastle.com

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.

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