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…

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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.

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.

Ceredigion coastal path – Gwbert to Mwnt

The sandy cove of Mwnt in the distance, spied from the Ceredigion coastal path

Earlier this month I was in Pembrokeshire, west Wales, for a wedding. The morning after, feeling a little delicate, I decided I needed a healthy dose of sea air to blow the cobwebs away and so embarked on a seven-mile circular walk from my hotel in Gwbert to Mwnt.

Gwbert is a tiny village perched high on the cliffs overlooking Cardigan Bay. The Ceredigion coastal path (part of the Wales Coast Path, a free to access footpath that runs along the entire Welsh coastline) passes through the village. Having done a spot of research online, I found that if I followed the path to the north, I’d end up in the picturesque sandy cove of Mwnt, just three-and-a-half miles away.

The wild and dramatic Ceredigion coastline from Gwbert

Before I set off, I paid a quick visit to the clifftops at the end of my hotel’s grounds to have a look at the spectacular stretch of coastline I was about to explore (above). Joining the coastal path, I walked firstly uphill along a wide country road, and then followed the signs over a stile through a series of (at times muddy and wet) farmers’ fields.

View of Cardigan Island in the distance from the Ceredigion coastal path

The path through the fields took me right down to the shore where I had good views of nearby Cardigan Island (above), and from here, I followed the jagged, curving pathway along the edge of the coast, through fields and quarries, and along narrow clifftop pathways.

The path was mostly well-trodden, but it was muddy, slippery and perilously close to the cliff edge in parts. The signs warning that clifftops could be deadly did not help reassure me and I was very aware that if I tumbled at certain points, I’d fall straight over the edge of the cliff onto the craggy, forboding rocks below.

Looking down on the sandy cove of Mwnt from the Ceredigion coastal path

After around an hour or so, I finally spied Mwnt’s compact sandy beach in the distance (above). And as I got closer to the cove, the path became increasingly muddy, rocky and slippery, and there was one section where I struggled to keep my footing. But I soon made it down to the beach where I enjoyed the beautiful views over the coastline I’d just walked (below).

View of the Ceredigion coastline from Mwnt

Being November and a little drizzly, the beach was unusually quiet (it’s often heaving on a sunny summer’s day) with only a few other walkers around. I spent a little while at the beach looking out for any signs of seals, pups or dolphins, which frequent the area, and then headed up the hill to the small Church of the Holy Cross (below), which overlooks the cove.

The lonely Church of the Holy Cross in Mwnt

From there, I headed inland up a long, winding, uphill road, where at the top, I turned to the right, and walked back to Gwbert via the roads, passing the tiny village of Ferwig along the way. My return journey wasn’t anywhere near as scenic or as pleasant as the coastal path, but it was a much easier, more sure-footed walk. And some three hours after setting out, I arrived back at my hotel where I collapsed on my bed with a warming cup of tea and some ginger biscuits.

I really enjoyed my walk along this incredibly scenic stretch of the Ceredigion coastal path, it’s a great route and the views over the coastline are breathtaking. It was the first time I’ve deliberately walked a good stretch of the Wales Coast Path, and having completed this walk, I’d like to explore more of it.

Tips

  • Take a map – there’s no phone or internet signal in this part of rural Wales and while the coastal path is well signposted, the road signs are sporadic and there are a number of junctions that aren’t marked.
  • Take plenty of water and snacks – there are no cafés or shops en route.
  • There’s a small toilet at Mwnt that’s open all year-round, but bear in mind these are the only facilities along the walk.
  • Wear waterproof hiking shoes with good grips – the coastal path is muddy and very slippery in parts so good footwear is essential.
  • Be aware that once you join the coastal path at Gwbert there’s no way of turning off it until you get to Mwnt.

Info

Get more information about the Wales Coast Path.

Bilbao – the old town

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

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

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

The grand Arriaga Theatre in Bilbao

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

Santiago Cathedral in Bilbao

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

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

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

Inside the cloisters at Santiago Cathedral in Bilbao

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

The Mercado de la Ribera in Bilbao

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

A sign inside the Mercado de la Ribera in Bilbao

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ornate altar inside the Santos Juanes Church in Bilbao

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

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

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

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

Mixed pintxo at the Mercado de la Ribera in Bilbao

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

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

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

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