Giverny

The water lily pond in Claude Monet's Japanese garden at Giverny

The pretty little Norman village of Giverny is where the impressionist painter Claude Monet spent the last 40 years of his life, living in a large, picturesque house not far from the banks of the River Seine, and painting the water lilies in his Japanese garden. Having read about Giverny in a travel magazine a few months before I went to Paris, I decided it would be the perfect place for a day trip from the French capital.

Monet's garden in Giverny

Along with Monet’s house, Giverny is home to a small museum dedicated to the impressionist movement, idyllic medieval houses, and a small church where Monet and his family are buried.

The village was already heaving with tourists when I arrived late morning, with the queue to visit Monet’s house and gardens stretching down the street. After around half an hour’s wait, I made my way inside.

Flowers fill Claude Monet's garden at Giverny

Monet’s house boasts two impeccable gardens – Clos Norman, which lies behind the painter’s house, and a Japanese water garden, which is on a patch of land the other side of the road to Clos Norman.

Clos Norman (above and below) is enormous and packed with flowers and plants. The flowers include poppies and roses in various shades of pink and purple, as well as purple alliums. The huge number of plants and flowers means the perfectly curated garden has quite a wild feel to it.

Alliums and poppies in Claude Monet's garden at his home in Giverny

At the bottom of the garden, there’s an underpass that takes you to the Japanese garden. It’s a secluded spot, with lots of bamboo, and green and orange plants and flowers. In the centre is the famous pond dotted with white and pink water lilies (below), which is book-ended by two Japanese-style footbridges.

Claude Monet's famous lily pond in his Japanese garden at Giverny

While the garden is undeniably beautiful, visiting it wasn’t a pleasant experience, largely because it was chock-full of people blocking the paths while posing for photos. I don’t mind people taking photos, we all like to have a reminder of the places we’ve been, but I have found myself getting increasingly annoyed by how selfish people are.

Places like Giverny are becoming full of people who think nothing of spending ages posing for photos with complete disregard for anyone else, knowing full well they’re ruining the experience for others. And worst of all, I often get the impression they have no interest in the places they’re visiting, beyond being able to show off they’ve been there.

One of two wooden footbridges over the water lily pond in Monet's Japanese garden at Giverny

Rant aside, the garden would be an idyllic place if there was no-one else there and it’s easy to see why Monet was so inspired by it. The water lilies are delightful and the edge of the pond is lined with willow trees, their long wispy branches dancing over the water, which added to its charms.

Pink water lilies in the pond at Claude Monet's Japanese garden in Giverny

Having looked around the gardens, I made my way inside Monet’s house (below). The large country house is full of light and airy rooms, and as far as I could tell, none of the rooms were off-limits to visitors. I toured the sitting room, Monet’s studio, various bedrooms and the kitchen.

Claude Monet's pink and green house at Giverny

The dining room was painted a glorious sunny yellow, while the blue kitchen featured a spectacular blue and white tiled cooker, and copper pans lined the walls. The house was a little art gallery unto itself with paintings by Monet’s fellow impressionists, as well as numerous Japanese works of art, adorning the walls.

The entrance to the Musée des Impressionnismes in Giverny

From Monet’s house, I strolled through the village to the Musée des Impressionnismes (above), a small gallery dedicated to the impressionist movement. Much of the museum was dedicated to a sizeable exhibition marking the gallery’s 10th anniversary, which compared the works of Monet with those of Jean-Francis Aubertin, a younger contemporary of Monet’s.

Monet and Aubertin painted many of the same locations, particularly around Brittany (the Belle-Île was especially popular) and Normandy, and the exhibition featured several examples of the two artists’ works of the same location side-by-side.

Aubertin was a good painter, but I felt his works were outshone by Monet’s, who came across as the superior artist. Most of the works featured were by Aubertin, rather than Monet, but I didn’t mind as I wasn’t aware of Aubertin before the exhibition and liked his style.

The gallery’s permanent collection is housed in a room downstairs , which turned out to be disappointingly small, and I can’t say the pieces were all that remarkable. I also wasn’t sure you could class any of them as belonging to the impressionist movement (but that could be down to my lack of art history knowledge!). While the exhibition about Aubertin and Monet was interesting, the rest of the museum was a bit of a let down.

After my visit to the museum, I ambled through Giverny, strolling through the gorgeous medieval part of the village until I reached the church at the far end, where I stopped to take a look around.

Sainte-Radegonde Church, where Claude Monet is buried, in Giverny

The Sainte-Radegonde Church in Giverny is a small, typical parish church and is noteworthy for being home to the Monet family tomb. There’s also a memorial commemorating a crew of British airmen whose plane crashed near Giverny during the Second World War.

A magpie in Claude Monet's garden at Giverny

I enjoyed my day out in Giverny, it’s a lovely little place, and Monet’s house and gardens are enchanting. But I was taken aback by how busy it was – I’ve been going to France every year since I was a baby, and this is the first time I’ve noticed such huge visitor numbers outside Paris. That being said, it’s an exquisite part of the world, and one which has given me a much greater appreciation for Monet’s works.

Tips

Claude Monet's garden at Giverny

It’s easy to get to Giverny from Paris. Trains leave the Gare Saint-Lazare every couple of hours and take around 55 minutes to get to Vernon-Giverny station. From there, a shuttle bus or tourist train will take you the 20 minutes or so to Giverny, which is the other side of the Seine to Vernon. I took the train, which cost €8 for a return ticket, and includes a mini-tour of the historic town of Vernon before arriving in Giverny.

Avoid taking a rucksack with you to Giverny, even if it’s really small. My rucksack was tiny and caused problems everywhere – I was told by a very stern woman at Monet’s house that I had to wear it on my front and only just got away with being allowed to wear it on my front at the Musée des Impressionnismes.

If you’re planning to visit Monet’s house and gardens, as well as either the Musée des Impressionnismes, the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris or the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris, you can buy a combined ticket, which will save you money.

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Paris – Ile de la Cité

The Conciergerie on the banks of the River Seine

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

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

The Palais du Justice in Paris

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

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

The Conciergerie on the Ile de la Cite

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

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

The Salle des Gens d'Armes in the Conciergerie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saint-Chapelle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The altar inside the Upper Chapel at Sainte-Chapelle

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

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

Top tip

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

Info

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

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

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

Margam Country Park

Margam Castle as viewed from the park

With 800 acres of parkland, roaming deer, an abandoned castle, a ruined abbey, a farm and two of the best children’s playgrounds I’ve ever come across, Margam Country Park makes for a great day out. Situated not far from the south Wales coast and close to the industrial town of Port Talbot, Margam Park is easy to get to from the M4.

I hadn’t been to Margam Park since I was a child, but had fond memories of its incredible playground and was keen to revisit it as an adult. So earlier this summer, on a baking hot day, I hopped in my car for a road trip and was not disappointed.

I arrived at Margam Park bright and early, which meant it was fairly quiet when I got to the estate. Being the castle-lover that I am, I immediately made my way to Margam Castle (more a country house than a traditional castle) for a look around.

Margam Castle

Built in the 1830s, the enormous Tudor Gothic mansion (above) was the former home of the wealthy Mansel Talbot family, who were responsible for much of the area’s industrialisation and who helped introduce the railways to south Wales.

In 1974, the castle was acquired by Bridgend County Borough Council, but just three years later, a devastating fire gutted the mansion and today only small parts of it are open to the public.

The grand staircase inside Margam Castle

I popped my head inside the door and found myself inside the great hall, at the centre of which was a very grand staircase (above). The hall featured a small, informative exhibition about the Mansel Talbot family, which was interesting as I didn’t know anything about the family, and I learned a lot about their lives and how influential they were.

The ruins of the 12th century Cistercian abbey at Margam Park

From the castle, I strolled down the hill to the ancient ruined abbey (above). The Cistercian Abbey was built in 1147 and like so many monastic buildings in England and Wales was dissolved by Henry VIII during the reformation. Very little remains of the abbey, but it’s nevertheless an impressive structure with a few intriguing nooks and crannies to explore.

Beyond the ruined abbey is the Abbey Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, a small parish church, that’s still in use today. The church isn’t part of Margam Park, but you can go inside from the grounds of the estate and have a look around.

The Orangery at Margam Park

From the church, I walked to the park’s Orangery (above), an enormous Georgian structure that dates back to 1790. At that time it was built, it was said to be the longest orangery in Britain. You can’t go inside the building (it’s mostly used as a wedding venue now), so I had a pleasant stroll around the gardens that surround it instead.

Pig lying in the mud at the farm in Margam Park

Having seen all there was to see in this part of the park, I made my way back towards the castle and then headed south through the parkland to the estate’s farm. The farm is home to a host of animals, including the usual suspects such as pigs, cows, sheep, goats, chickens and even turkeys. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a live turkey before, so I was fascinated by them and spent quite a bit of time watching the birds strutting around their pen. 

From the farm, I set off to explore the rest of the park’s extensive grounds and planned to head up to the Pulpit, a viewpoint on a ridge overlooking the estate, as it’s said to boast fantastic views over the south Wales coast. But as I began walking up the path to take me to the top of the hill, I turned a corner and stumbled across a large herd of deer, many of whom pricked up their heads as I strode into view.

A herd of deer lounging in the grass in the foothill of Margam Park

Fallow deer have lived at Margam Park since at least Norman times and the deer, along with red and Pere David deer, freely roam around some 500 acres of the park. I visited the park in June, during fawning season, and as such I’d passed a number of notices warning visitors to keep their distance from the deer as the parents were very protective of their young.

As soon as I turned the corner, the stags in the herd turned to look at me, eyeing my every move. Not wanting to agitate them any further, I decided it was best to turn around, rather than continue up the path as it would have brought me even closer to the deer.

While it was incredible to see the deer in their natural habitat, I was a little intimidated, too, as the stags clearly weren’t pleased to see me and I had no desire to find out what happens when a herd of stags charge at you.

Stags in the grass at Margam Park

Despite not making it to the top of the ridge, there was still a great chunk of the park left to explore and I spent the rest of my visit sticking to the more widely populated paths to avoid disturbing any more deer.

I had a lovely day out at Margam Park – I’d forgotten just how splendid it was – and it’s now firmly back on my list of local places to visit for a weekend stroll. It’s huge and there’s so much to see and do, you can easily spend a whole day there. A real gem of a country park.

Info

Margam Country Park, SA13 2TJ
Open daily 10am-6pm (April to August), 10am-4pm (September to March)
Free entry, but there’s a £6 car parking charge for cars
margamcountrypark.co.uk

Petra – the High Place of Sacrifice and the Royal Tombs

Looking down on the outer Siq in Petra

After our wonderful introduction to Petra via the Siq and the Treasury, we continued exploring the ancient Nabatean capital via the Outer Siq.

The Outer Siq is a large path that leads to the heart of the City of Petra, and the rocks surrounding it are home to countless tombs and dwellings. As we walked along the Outer Siq, we passed a number of Bedouin stalls lining the route, as well as a few Bedouin offering camel, horse and donkey rides.

Just beyond the tombs, we reached a staircase carved into the rock, which led to the High Place of Sacrifice on top of the Jebel Attuf mountain, and decided to follow it.

Looking down on the staircases and paths that lead to the High Place of Sacrifice in Petra

The trail wound round the mountain, following the natural path of the rock, and it was a long, but comfortable climb to the High Place of Sacrifice. Near the top, the path all but disappeared and we found ourselves walking over the bare rock face. The higher we got, the windier it became, and I didn’t feel particularly safe as we neared the summit, as there was nothing to stop us hurtling off the mountain if we were blown off our feet.

The High Place of Sacrifice in Petra

Luckily, as I approached the summit, an elderly Bedouin woman grabbed me by the hand and pulled me up. The High Place of Sacrifice (above), is large rectangular space cut into the top of the mountain, with an altar to the side, and it is thought to have been used by the Nabatean people for animal and human sacrifices.

Despite the slightly hairy end to the climb, it was well worth it as the views from the top, looking out over the main thoroughfare in Petra (below), were phenomenal.

The spectacular view from the High Place of Sacrifice in Petra

The elderly woman stayed with us as we looked around the High Place of Sacrifice and climbed down a series of steps on the other side of the altar to a viewing platform, where we sat on the edge of the mountain, enthralled by the view in front of us.

The views on the hike where we descended the High Place of Sacrifice in Petra

After a short rest, we said goodbye to the woman and decided to take a different path down the mountain, following a long, winding trail through the rocks. Thankfully, there was a light breeze, which helped reduce the effects of the strong sun that was now blazing down upon us.

As we walked, I was captivated by the incredible shapes in the rocks, caused by millennia of water erosion, and the vast array of colours – an intoxicating mix of reds, purples, yellows, blacks, greens, whites and even light blues.

I’d never seen anything like it, and try as I might, it was impossible to capture the full array of colours in a photo. The rock formations were spectacular and I kept finding myself tripping over the rocks on the ground because I was so busy looking around in awe at the astonishing geology.

Halfway down the mountain, we stopped at a shack belonging to a Bedouin woman for a welcome drink, before continuing along the trail.

The Tomb of the Roman Soldier in Petra

We soon reached a large plateau, home to a number of tombs, including that of the Roman Soldier (above). We ventured inside the tomb and found a large, square room with black walls and a black ceiling. I was a little taken aback by how dark it was inside because for some reason, I’d assumed it would be the same rose-red hue as outside.

The Garden Triclinium tomb in Petra

There were a series of other tombs in the near vicinity, too, including the Garden Triclinium (above), the Broken Pediment Tomb and the Renaissance Tomb. But we decided against going inside them all, as they didn’t seem to be particularly exciting, and instead continued to follow the long, winding trail down the mountain. As we carried on along this final stretch, we were in the full glare of the searingly hot sun, and by the time we reached the City of Petra, I was feeling quite ill.

The hike from the Tomb of the Roman Soldier to the City of Petra

Once in the city, we headed to a large tented restaurant for lunch, where I felt too sick to eat. But after taking paracetamol and drinking plenty of water, I made myself eat – some salad, hummus and flatbread. I was still overheating, though, so I went to the bathroom and bathed my feet and face in ice-cold water in a desperate bid to cool down.

After an hour or so’s respite and feeling a little better, we set off along a trail towards the Ridge Church. Along the way, we enjoyed great views over the buildings opposite, including the altar, the royal palace and the market place. When we reached the church, we stepped inside to take a look at a series of fascinating mosaics that dated back to the 6th century AD.

The Royal Tombs carved into the mountain in Petra

From the church, we carried on along the path towards the Royal Tombs (above), stopping en route at a small shack for a quick respite, as by now, I wasn’t the only one feeling the effects of the sun. I poured water all over my face to try to cool down, and once we felt better, we set off again and soon arrived at the Royal Tombs.

The Royal Tombs are a series of enormous temples carved next to each other in the El-Khubtha mountain. The remarkable temples are thought to have housed the tombs of the kings and queens of Petra. We made our way inside the largest tomb, the Palace Tomb, and then ventured inside the Urn Tomb.

The rectangular chamber inside the Urn Tomb was massive, with an exceptionally high ceiling and recesses cut into the back wall and along the sides. The tomb was lovely and cool, and we sat down for a respite to admire the red, purple and white marbling effect in the rock. Despite there being no intricate carvings or decoration inside the tomb, it was a stunning sight thanks to the natural beauty of the rock.

A series of tombs cut into the rock in the Outer Siq at Petra

After a good look around the Royal Tombs, we rejoined the main thoroughfare in the City of Petra, stopping off along the way to look at the Bedouin stalls that lined the street.

We slowly made our way back through the Outer Siq (above) to the Treasury (below), where I was amazed by how different it looked in the late afternoon sunshine compared to the early morning. The ornate temple was now a rich, reddy-pink colour instead of the golden hue of the morning.

The Treasury bathed in the late afternoon light in Petra

It was a long, arduous walk back through the Siq and to the visitor centre – I’d forgotten quite how long it took to get into the city. But despite feeling hot, bothered, tired and a little woozy, it was well worth it because I’d had a marvellous day.

Petra is a remarkable place, quite unlike anywhere else on Earth. A natural geological stunner, it’s home to some of the most incredible archaeology on the planet and I couldn’t wait to get back to explore some more.

Stay tuned for the final part of my adventures in Petra, where I hiked to the Monastery and had one of my all time favourite travel experiences…

Madaba

A sign at the Greek Orthodox Church of St George's in Madaba, Jordan

Tucked away among the narrow streets of Madaba is St George’s Church. And while from the outside, it may look like any other church, inside it’s home to one of Jordan’s greatest treasures – the sixth century map of Madaba.

The Madaba Mosaic Map is a mosaic map of the Holy Land that’s thought to date back to the time of the Emperor Justinian. The mosaic is incomplete with only fragments surviving, but what remains is a detailed and fairly accurate map of the region.

An illustrated diagram of the Mosaic Map of Madaba at St George's Church

Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Jericho, the Dead Sea, Mount Sinai, the Jordan River and the Nile Delta are just a few of the famous places featured in the map. The place names are marked using Greek capital letters, and with more than 2,000 characters, it’s one of the largest surviving pieces of Byzantine writing.

The map lay undiscovered until 1884, and once people realised how important it was, St George’s Church was built around it in 1902 to protect it.

When we arrived at the site, we made our way to the visitor centre next door to the church where we were given a brief introduction to the map, before heading inside the church. St George’s Church is a small, ornately decorated Greek Orthodox church and its star attraction, the mosaic map, is in the centre, surrounded by protective ropes.

Part of the Mosaic Map of Madaba in St George's Church

The ancient map was much bigger than I’d anticipated. And while much of it has been lost, the fragments that remain are fascinating and in fairly good condition. I spent quite a bit of time looking at the different parts of the map, trying to work out where the many places depicted were.

Part of the Mosaic Map of Madaba on the floor of St George's Church

The Mosaic Map of Madaba is an extraordinary piece of Byzantine cartography and craftsmanship, offering an intriguing glimpse into the region’s past. It’s amazing to think that such a remarkable piece of history has survived for so long and is now taking pride of place in an unassuming church in the middle of Jordan.

Mount Nebo

Memorial of Moses on top of Mount Nebo in Jordan

According to the Bible, Jordan’s Mount Nebo is the place from which Moses saw the Promised Land right before he died. The mountain, which overlooks the Dead Sea, is today home to the prophet’s purported grave, as well as a church and a small museum.

View towards Amman from the top of Mount Nebo

It was bright and early when we arrived atop Mount Nebo, some 800m above sea level, and thanks to the cloudless, clear skies, we were greeted by fantastic views – to the north, we could just make out the two towers in far away Amman beyond the Wadi ‘Uyun Musa (above); to the south was the Wadi al Judaydah; to the east, the Wadi ‘Afrit; and to the south-west, the Dead Sea, beyond which we could just about see Israel and some of the buildings in Jerusalem (below).

View from the top of Mount Nebo with the Dead Sea to the south-west and Israel in the far distance

Unsurprisingly, given its religious significance, there’s been some form of sanctuary or church on top of Mount Nebo since at least the fourth century, and today, the site is home to the Memorial Church of Moses, which is thought to have been built in the sixth century.

Mix of old and new inside the Memorial Church of Moses on top of Mount Nebo

After spending some time admiring the views from the top of the mountain, we made our way inside the church. The small, simple basilica is a curious mix of church and archaeology museum. The interior is dominated by a series of ancient mosaics, some of which date back as far as 531AD. There’s also a coffin-sized hole in the ground, which is said to be Moses’s grave (below).

A glass top protects Moses's purported grave inside the Memorial Church of Moses

The mosaics cover large parts of the floor and walls, and according to our guide, the mosaics on the floor (below) were only discovered during an earthquake, as they were originally overlaid by those now hanging on the walls. The mosaics are in excellent condition, and it’s clear they’ve been expertly restored and cared for – they look so clean and modern, it’s hard to believe they’re 1,500 years old.

After a good look around the church, we paid a quick visit to the site’s small museum to find out more about its history. Mount Nebo is a curious and unusual place – its undeniable highlight being the breathtaking mosaic floors.

Jerash

Looking down over the Forum in Jerash

The most striking thing about the ruined Roman city of Jerash is its size – it’s a vast site home to two extraordinarily well-preserved amphitheatres, two temples and even an intact mosaic floor. Known as Gerasa in ancient times, Jerash in north-west Jordan dates back to the 3rd century BC and today lies in the middle of its namesake modern city.

Hadrian's Arch in Jerash

When we first entered Jerash via the stunning and imposing Hadrian’s Arch (above), the ruined city looked deceptively small and it was only when we began walking around the site that we realised just how big it was. Through the arch, we came upon the remains of an ancient church featuring an uncovered mosaic floor, as well as what was left of an old olive press.

Opposite the church, we passed through a doorway into a vast space that once housed the city’s hippodrome, which played host to Jerash’s sporting events and chariot races. Much of the hippodrome has been lost over the millennia, but you can nevertheless get a sense of its size and appreciate how big it must have been.

South Gate in Jerash

From the hippodrome, we walked towards Jerash’s South Gate (above), passing through it and along a passageway to the photogenic Forum (below). The huge oval space, flanked by 56 columns, was practically complete and sensational to look at.

Part of the oval forum in Jerash

We made our way through the forum to the Cardo (below), a long street leading off from the forum, which is also flanked by a series of columns. As we began walking along the Cardo, I got a better sense of the size of the site as the street seemed never-ending.

As we walked its length, we stopped every so often to take a look at the interesting ruins leading off from it – among the various sites we visited were the former market place, an eighth-century mosque and a few churches.

The long colonnaded Cardo in Jerash

Towards the end of the Cardo, we veered off to the left to see the first of the site’s two large amphitheatres, the North Theatre (below). The pretty and impressive amphitheatre was completely open to visitors, so we clambered up the steps to the top of the theatre to get a better view of the stage and the rows of seats facing it.

Looking down over the North Theatre in Jerash

We then made our way towards the magnificent Temple of Artemis (below). Built using a series of ropes to hoist one enormous stone on top of another, I was amazed that so much of the temple was still standing, especially when I learned that it survived the devastating earthquake of 749AD intact. A few of the stones were out of alignment having moved over the centuries and if you popped your hands in the gaps between the stones you could feel the enormous pressure holding the stones in place.

Columns in the Temple of Artemis in Jerash

Walking south from the Temple of Artemis, we had a great vantage point over the ruined city and it brought home just how big Jerash was. We continued walking until we reached the city’s second amphitheatre, the South Theatre, and stepping inside, we found three men in front of the stage performing for the crowds – one of the men was playing the bag pipes.

It was a little surreal to be sitting in a Roman amphitheatre in Jordan listening to the bag pipes, but we learned that the bag pipes were introduced to the country by the British during its occupation following the First World War. The acoustics inside the amphitheatre were incredible, so much so that if you stood on the first stone laid in the centre of the theatre and talked, you could hear what was said throughout.

View over the Forum from the Temple of Zeus in Jerash

Having enjoyed our bag pipe show, we made our way to our final stop in Jerash, the spectacular Temple of Zeus. Unlike the Temple of Artemis, the Temple of Zeus didn’t survive the 749 earthquake because it was built on an artificial hill made of sand, which subsided during the quake. Subsequently rebuilt, the temple boasted fantastic views across Jerash, with around 85 per cent of the ancient city visible from the temple (above).

The remains of the Nymphaeum in Jerash

Jerash is a fascinating place and we spent around two-and-a-half hours walking around the enormous site. I was stunned at how well-preserved its ruins were and amazed that we were free to wander all over the site, there weren’t any restrictions on where we could or couldn’t go. It’s one of the most impressive ancient sites I’ve visited and I really enjoyed our visit.

Bordeaux

Place de la Bourse in Bordeaux

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

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

The Basilica of Saint Michel in Bordeaux

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

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

Grosse Cloche in Bordeaux

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

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

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

The Place de la Bourse in Bordeaux

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

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

La Garonne River in Bordeaux

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

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

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

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

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

Cathedrale de Saint-Andre in Bordeaux

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

The Musee d'Aquitaine in Bordeaux

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Travel tip

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

Chapelle Notre-Dame at Bétharram

Chapelle Notre-Dame de Betharram

On the way to the Grottes de Bétharram, we spied an unusual church by the side of the road in Lestelle-Bétharram. So on the way back from the caves, we stopped to take a look.

The Chapelle Notre-Dame, which lies on the banks of the Gave de Pau, was built in the 17th century on what has been a popular site with Christian pilgrims for centuries. The chapel’s unusual shape and blue-grey hue was eye-catching and intriguing in itself, but inside I was blown away by how opulent the road-side chapel was. It’s one of the most lavishly decorated churches I’ve visited.

The area around the chancel was filled with an elaborately carved gold display with lots of statues, while the walls and ceiling were painted teal with a gold star pattern. There were marble columns, huge paintings framed in gold that looked as though they cost a fortune, as well as two ginormous crystal chandeliers. It was amazing and looked like something that belonged in Naples rather than a small chapel in a rural town in the Pyrenees.

Tomb of Saint Michel Garicotis inside the Chapelle Notre-Dame de Betharram

After our surprising experience in the main body of the chapel, we wandered down a corridor to another small chapel. This chapel was much simpler and home to a shrine dedicated to St Michel Garicotis, featuring a plush gold and glass tomb just behind the altar (above).

Shrine, part of the Way of the Cross, beside the Chapelle Notre-Dame de Betharram

Having seen all there was to see inside the incredible chapel, we ventured back outside to have a look at the shrine in a small building (above) to the right of the chapel. Inside, behind locked gates, there was a marble statue depicting an episode from Jesus’s life. We could see more of these unusual shrines dotted along a walking trail on the nearby hillside, so our curiosity piqued, we decided to follow the trail up the hill.

Church on top of the hill along the Way of the Cross in Betharram

As we climbed up the hill, we came across more and more shrines, and realised the trail – the Way of the Cross – led all the way to the top of the hill. We carried on until we reached the top, where we  found a simple church (above). Opposite the church, there were yet more shrines, as well as three statues depicting the crucifixion of Jesus in front of a graveyard (below).

Statues depicting the crucifixion of Jesus beside a graveyard in Betharram

For the second time that day, we were stunned by the scene in front of us as we hadn’t expected to find such an elaborate display when we started out. It was a little eerie on the mountain top as it was completely deserted, until a keep-fit class emerged towards the end of our visit. I really enjoyed our impromptu hike up the hill and our visit to the Chapelle Notre-Dame. The chapel was exquisite and the shrines oddly fascinating, and it was a wonderful, random and unexpected ending to our final day in Béarn.

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.