Paris – Ile de la Cité

The Conciergerie on the banks of the River Seine

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

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

The Palais du Justice in Paris

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

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

The Conciergerie on the Ile de la Cite

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

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

The Salle des Gens d'Armes in the Conciergerie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saint-Chapelle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The altar inside the Upper Chapel at Sainte-Chapelle

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

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

Top tip

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

Info

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

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

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

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Tyntesfield

Tyntesfield House in Somerset

If I was ever to write an Agatha Christie-style 1920s murder mystery, I’d set it at Tyntesfield, a gloriously Gothic manor surrounded by acres of land in the middle of the Somerset countryside.

It’s the sort of place where you could imagine cocktail-drenched parties full of bright young things taking place and then a dead body or two inconveniently turning up in the library or the billiard room…

Tyntesfield House in Somerset

In short, Tyntesfield was my kind of place. The manor house is the former home of the wealthy Gibbs family. It was bought by William Gibbs in 1844, who in the 1860s had the architect John Norton turn it into the Victorian Gothic masterpiece it is today.

The estate was taken over by the National Trust in 2002, following the death of Richard Gibbs, the last member of the family to live there. Today, visitors to the estate will find not only the aforementioned mansion, but an arboretum, multiple gardens and woodland to explore, as well as a couple of cafés, a shop and an imaginative children’s playground.

Tyntesfield House in Somerset

Having decided it was the perfect place to take my Mum, we turned up somewhat sweaty and bedraggled after an unexpected trek through the nearby woodland, so we immediately made our way to the café. This being a National Trust property, the café did not disappoint – think cakes, scones and hearty traditional fare, such as baked potatoes, soups and sandwiches.

The rose garden at Tyntesfield House

Rested and sated, we set off to explore the estate. Tickets to the mansion are timed and you have an hour from when you buy your ticket to go inside the house, so we slowly ambled through the arboretum in the direction of the house, stopping to admire the rose garden (above) along the way.

The library at Tyntesfield House

When we reached the house, we cut through the courtyard to the entrance, where we were greeted by a friendly volunteer who warmly welcomed us inside. There’s a natural route through the house, which we decided to follow, stepping first into the library (above), which is home to some 3,000 books collected by the Gibbs family.

In the hall, a talented young man was playing the piano and the sound reverberated throughout the house, adding to the Gothic, murder-mystery vibe. All the rooms were fully furnished and they were decorated in that slightly shabby, thread-worn style I associate with the British aristocracy, which gave the mansion a lived-in, family feel.

A few of the rooms were cordoned off (one was being renovated, another was storing items from the house), but you could still take a peek inside, which was nice and meant you didn’t feel you missed out on any parts of the house.

The cosy fireplace in the Billiard Room at Tyntesfield House

One of my favourite rooms was the billiard room (above), where, with its cosy fireplace, large billiard table and comfy-looking seats, you could imagine the family and their guests retiring after dinner for a game of billiards and a heated debate over a glass of port.

Having toured the ground floor, we made our way upstairs, where we looked inside a number of bedrooms (complete with an abundance of floral wallpaper and bedding) and a small bathroom that boasted a fabulous old medicine cabinet filled with lotions and potions.

Our tour of the house ended in the adjoining chapel (above), a suitably Gothic affair. Rumoured to have been inspired by the magnificent Saint-Chapelle in Paris, it was a grand place of worship for a country house in Somerset.

Inspired by our visit to the house, we continued our way through the estate to the kitchen gardens. The area around them is home to an orangery, a small café and a children’s playground, as well as several greenhouses, and herb and vegetable gardens.

Pineapples growing in pot plants in the greenhouses at Tyntesfield House

The kitchen gardens were superb and there was much more to them than I’d  anticipated. I was amazed to find pineapples growing in one of the greenhouses as I’d never seen a pineapple plant before and hadn’t expected to come across one in a pot in Somerset (above).

In a nice touch, you could also pick up some tulip bulbs to take home with you and there was an honesty box alongside them where you paid the price you thought they were worth.

Tyntesfield is the sort of place where you can let your imagination run wild. I found it hugely inspiring, and by the end of my visit, I was itching to sit down to write a whodunnit. I loved our day out at the estate, it’s one of the best country houses I’ve visited (and I’ve been to a lot) and I’m already planning my return visit.

Top tip

While it’s perfectly possible to get to Tyntesfield by public transport (the X6 bus runs from Bristol bus station), and the National Trust encourages this with money off vouchers for the café and shop, avoid doing so on Sundays and bank holidays as the buses don’t run, or if they do, they’re sporadic and unreliable.

And definitely don’t get on the X9 bus from Bristol as we did unless you want an hour-long walk along a hairy, verge-less country road or to cut through the woods not quite knowing where you’re going (also as we did). There’s a good possibility you could end up stranded and having to call a bunch of taxi firms (a number are most unhelpful) to come take you home.

Info

Tyntesfield, Wraxall, Bristol, North Somerset BS48 1NX
£16.50 adults, £8.25 children
nationaltrust.org.uk/tyntesfield

Amman

View of Amman, including the Roman Theatre, from the Citadel

A bustling, vibrant capital city that’s home to more than one million people, Amman is a modern metropolis with ancient roots, having been inhabited in some form or another for millennia. Its former incarnations include Ammon, the capital of the Ammonite people during Biblical times, and the Greek and Roman city of Philadelphia. And it’s where I spent my final day in Jordan.

The Jordan Museum in Amman

My first destination was the Jordan Museum (above), a small museum dedicated to the country’s history and culture.

Its exhibits cover much of the region’s early history, from its early settlement by prehistoric hominids to the introduction of farming, as well as the innovations of the Bronze and Iron Ages, and the influence of the Nabateans, the Greeks, the Romans and the Byzantines. It also explores many aspects of Bedouin culture, focusing on topics as varied as cooking practices, the tribal court and weaving.

One of my favourite exhibits looked at the development of writing and featured an incredible display that showed how the world’s alphabets evolved. It was superb, and as part of the exhibit, you could type your name into a computer to find out what it would be in Aramaic, Nabatean, Greek and Arabic, then print off a certificate to take home with you.

I also was intrigued by the Ain Ghazal statues, a series of unusual, 8,500-year-old plaster figurines that are completely out of proportion – one had a tiny head with a fat body and legs, another consisted of a large square with two small heads.

But the undoubted highlight is the fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls that are on display alongside a few copper-plated scrolls.

The scrolls, which contain some of the oldest known Biblical texts, were discovered in caves in what was then Jordan during the 1940s and 1950s. Most of the scrolls now belong to Israel with only a few remaining in Jordanian hands, so it was incredible to have the chance to see these world-famous texts up close, even if they only amounted to a few fragments.

I really enjoyed the Jordan Museum. It was well-curated, boasted interesting artefacts and the wealth of information for visitors helped provide context to some of the many sites I’d been to in the country. We only spent an hour there, but I could easily have spent longer, reading all the information plaques in detail and studying the many objects on display.

The Roman Theatre in the centre of Amman

After the museum, we made our way to the Roman Theatre (above), a two thousand-year-old sandstone amphitheatre in the heart of the city. With its three tiers and seating for around 6,000 people, the amphitheatre is bigger than the two amphitheatres we visited in the nearby Roman city of Jerash.

We spent a little while walking around the theatre, climbing its steps and sitting in its seats, before taking a look at another, much smaller amphitheatre (below) near its entrance. The amphitheatres were very well preserved and it was amazing to see they were still in such good condition after so many years.

The little amphitheatre next to the Roman Theatre in Amman

The area surrounding the amphitheatre is home to a couple of small, basic museums.

To the left of the Roman Theatre is the Jordan Museum of Popular Traditions, which features clothing and jewellery from Jordan, Palestine and Syria. It also exhibits folklore decorations and daggers, as well as stones worn or carried by the Bedouin for preventative medicine or curing purposes. Despite being very small, it’s a great little place and there are a number of interesting artefacts on display.

The Folklore Museum, meanwhile, lies to the right of the Roman Theatre and uses models to showcase traditional Jordanian ways of life, such as what women did in the home and how the Jordanians made bread. It’s not as interesting as the Museum of Popular Traditions, but it’s worth a quick peek inside.

From the Roman Theatre, we made our way to the ruined citadel, which lies atop the Jebel el-Qalaa mountain opposite. The citadel is an enormous ruined archaeological site in the centre of Amman and provides spectacular views of the city (below).

View of Amman from the citadel

In front of us were the tightly-packed apartment complexes where many of the Palestinians who’ve sought refuge in Jordan live, while in the distance I could make out the tall skyscrapers of the modern city, as well as the orange roofs of the royal palace, nestled among lush green gardens.

The Roman Temple of Hercules in the citadel in Amman

The citadel ruins are extensive and take a good hour to walk around. Representing a swathe of Amman’s ancient past, the remains date back to various eras including the Roman period, the Umayyad Caliphate and the Byzantine empire. Some of the most impressive ruins include the tall and imposing Roman Temple of Hercules (above), along with the small blue-domed mosque that lies within the ruins of the old Umayyad Palace (below).

The blue-domed Umayyad mosque in the Citadel in Amman

The citadel complex is also home to the Jordan Archaeological Museum (below). The museum houses Jordanian artefacts that date from the Bronze, Roman, Hellenistic, Chalcolithic, Iron, Nabatean and Umayyad periods.

The Jordan Archaelogical Museum in the citadel in Amman

Fossils, coins, bits of pottery, jewellery and glassware are among the artefacts on display, along with horse, buffalo and rhino teeth, and three anthropoid coffins. The museum was small and fairly basic, but it offered a fascinating glimpse into the country’s history (not to mention, it provided a welcome break from the scorching sun outside).

I enjoyed my informative, whistle stop tour of the Jordanian capital and I came away with a much deeper understanding of the country’s – and its capital’s – long history. It was a great way to end a delightful week in a part of the world I hadn’t been to before.

Little Petra

One of the spectacular dwellings in Little Petra

A short distance to the north of Petra is Siq al-Barid, a small archaeological site commonly referred to as Little Petra, because it’s essentially a miniature version of the world-famous ancient Nabatean capital.

It’s thought that Little Petra is where many Nabateans lived as it’s mostly home to a series of dwellings with very few tombs and temples, unlike Petra, which is a largely ceremonial and commercial tomb-and-temple fest.

One of the many dwellings in Little Petra

Little Petra is quite small, but it’s dotted with a surprising number of houses, staircases and water cisterns, all carved into the rose-red rock, and I was stunned by how much there was to see. The buildings were much simpler than those at Petra, but were nevertheless, mindbogglingly amazing.

Looking up at some of the dwellings in Little Petra

We ventured inside a few of the houses – one had two rooms with a little alcove and a small ledge you could sleep on, along with large windows. Another had a black ceiling cause by the smoke from the oil that was used to heat the room.

The ceiling inside the Painted House in Little Petra

One of the most impressive dwellings we looked inside was one known as the Painted House because it boasts a plaster ceiling and walls, which are decorated with intricate paintings of flowers, vines, gods and goddesses (above). It’s incredible to think it’s survived for some two thousand years!

The precarious trail leading to the viewing platform at Little Petra

Little Petra sits within a gorge and there’s a very narrow, precarious flight of steps at the end of it where the ravine narrows considerably (above). We decided to clamber up the steps to see where it took us, which wasn’t easy as it was less a traditional staircase and more a perilous set of rocks.

The super cute ginger kitten at Little Petra

The slightly hair-raising climb was worth it though as it led onto a plateau where a few Bedouin lived. We didn’t meet any Bedouin as walked around, but we did meet a tiny and very friendly ginger kitten (above).

The view from the viewing platform at Little Petra

We walked past the Bedouin tent and came to the end of the rock, which looked out over the valley beyond (above). The view was, unsurprisingly for this part of the world, incredible, and we spent a good 10 minutes admiring the scene before us, before clambering back down to the archaeological site.

Looking down on Siq al Barid, otherwise known as Little Petra

I loved our trip to Little Petra and was glad we’d added it to our itinerary as I’m sure many people skip it when they visit Petra. It’s a fascinating place, and I was amazed by how many dwellings there were carved into the rocks, and how we were allowed to wander in and out of them with very few restrictions. It’s quite a small place, so it doesn’t take long to look around, but it was great fun and complemented what we’d seen at Petra.

Petra – the Monastery

The Monastery and the nearby archaeological dig at Petra

On our second day in Petra, we set off at 7am to hike to the Monastery, an enormous monument cut into the rose-red rock, high on top of one of Petra’s many mountains.

Having learned our lesson about hiking in the searing midday sun the day before and with temperatures set to be even hotter (33°C), we were keen to leave as early as possible to complete our hike before noon.

The rose-red rocks of the Siq in Petra

It was quiet and peaceful as we strolled along the Siq (above), the narrow canyon that leads to the ancient capital, and in the stillness, I found myself noticing things I had missed the day before. The rocks appeared to be a slightly different colour to how I’d remembered them and I got the impression that Petra looks different on any given day, depending on the time of day and the weather.

As it was so early in the morning, there was no one around, in stark contrast to the day before when it was filled with people not long after 8.30am. It was a lovely moment when we reached the Treasury as there were so few people, we almost had it to ourselves. Aside from the odd traveller or two, the only other people around were the Bedouin guides and a film crew who were walking around inside the monument.

The rose-red amphitheatre cut into the rock at Petra

After taking some photos, we made our way past the tombs of the Outer Siq to the City of Petra, where we stopped to admire the marvellous amphitheatre (above), a glorious structure cut into the rose-red rock.

The day before I’d felt so ill as we walked through the City of Petra I wasn’t in a fit state to appreciate the incredible sights I passed, and so I was grateful we had a second day in the city and an opportunity to see them afresh.

The ruins in the City of Petra

We continued through the city (above) and after we passed the restaurants, we turned right to follow the trail up the mountain. The trek to the Monastery isn’t easy, with more than 800 steps to the monument. It was 9am by the time we reached the start of the path, the sun was already strong, and there was little shade as we began to climb.

The surrounding rocks on the hike to the Monastery in Petra

The trail was long with lots of twists and turns, and there were Bedouin stalls dotted along the route (I bought a lovely head scarf from one of them). It was a hard climb in the hot sun and every so often, as we came across a shady spot, we’d stop for a breather and some water.

When we finally reached the top, the first thing we saw was a very welcome café on the other side of a sandy plateau. We descended the steps towards the plateau, ready to make a beeline for the café, but before we did so, we stopped and turned around. To our right, much to our surprise, was the Monastery (below).

The Monastery at Petra

The Monastery is an enormous structure, similar to the more famous Treasury, but plainer and less ornate. It’s thought to date back to around the 1st century BC and is dedicated to the Nabatean king, Obodas I, who was worshipped as a god following his defeat of the Greeks and the Hasmoneans.

I can’t quite put into words what a fantastic moment it was stumbling upon the Monastery when we were hot, bothered and least expected it. There’d been no indication from the trail that we were about to reach it, nor did I expect it to look quite as huge and spectacular as it did.

I enjoyed the moment so much more than seeing the Treasury for the first time as I knew what to expect when I saw the Treasury, but this was such an unexpected surprise, it blew me away and is one of my all-time favourite travel experiences.

The plateau was deserted when we reached it, and aside from one young woman and her Bedouin guide, we had the place to ourselves, which somehow made the moment feel more special. After spending a bit of time staring in awe at the Monastery and pinching ourselves, we made our way to the café opposite, which was housed in a small cave.

We sat in the cool café, sipping lemon and mint juice, unable to take our eyes off the Monastery. The chilled, relaxing café was the perfect place to unwind after our long and sweaty hike.

View over the Monastery from the high place overlooking it

After a good rest, we headed to the high point behind the café, passing an archaeological dig along the way, so we could see the Monastery from above. We clambered up the rocks to the high point where we enjoyed breathtaking views of the ancient temple and the surrounding valleys (above and below).

Views of the surrounding valleys from the high place in Petra

We scooted down the rocks, and decided to follow a sign that promised the “best view in Jordan” on a rock a little further along the path. At the top of the viewpoint, we were greeted by an elderly Bedouin man and his nephew sitting in a small seating area on top of the rock.

View over the Wadi al-Araba from the Bedouin tent on the viewing platform near the Monastery in Petra

The view from the rock was superb as it looked out over the Wadi al-Araba (above), where the Bedouin told us they filmed The English Patient. The mountains in front of us were a dark green/purple colour, while the ones behind them were a light golden colour, in contrast to the rose-red rocks we were standing on. It was incredible to see so many different coloured rocks and mountains next to each other, and it was like nothing I’d ever seen.

We were invited to join the Bedouin for tea, which we gratefully did, and made ourselves comfortable on the low sofas and stools in the seating area. It was a precarious place to set up a makeshift café as it’s perched right on the edge of the mountain and there was a sheer drop all around us. But the spectacular views were well worth any health and safety quibbles.

Sitting on top of the mountain, sipping tea and chatting to the Bedouin, while gazing in awe at the jaw-dropping views all around us, was the perfect end to our morning adventure. It was a fantastic once-in-a-lifetime moment and I didn’t want to leave, it was so peaceful and relaxing.

Eventually, we rallied and managed to drag ourselves away, aware we needed to make our way back down the mountain before it got too hot. It was much faster going down the mountain than it was going up, but the sun was blazing and it was hard work as there were few places to seek shade.

By the time we reached the bottom, we were hot and uncomfortable, so we stopped off in the Tents restaurant for a drink, deciding to stay for an hour to rest and recuperate.

Two camels rest outside the Treasury in Petra

From the restaurant, we slowly made our way back out of Petra, constantly looking around us at the amazing sights and taking in every last drop of the ancient capital. At the Treasury, I took one last photo (above), and as we walked up the Siq, I turned around for my final glimpse of that magnificent monument. Once again, the Treasury looked a little different in the mid-afternoon sun.

I enjoyed my final walk through the Siq, but the last stretch between the Siq and the visitor centre was a long, slow, painful, uphill walk. The last stretch felt as though it took forever to complete, but we eventually made it to the visitor centre and from there to our hotel.

It’s hard to do justice to what an incredibly special and magical place Petra is. Petra is the reason I decided to spend a week in Jordan as I’d long wanted to see its famous tombs and the Treasury up close. I’ve sometimes found that world-renowned, iconic places don’t always live up to the hype when you see them in person (cough, Sydney Opera House), but Petra didn’t disappoint, and in fact was far more impressive than I’d imgained.

There’s so much more to Petra than the oft-photographed Treasury and Siq. The scenery is awe-inspiring, the hiking trails superb, and the Monastery and viewing points magnificent. It’s the one place I’d encourage everyone to put on their “bucket list” (for want of a better, less clichéd phrase) – it’s truly memorable and one of my top travel highlights.

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…

Petra – the Treasury and the Siq

The Treasury at Petra

I don’t mind admitting I’ve been dreading writing this post, not because I didn’t enjoy Petra or because I had nothing to write about, but because it’s such an extraordinary, unique place, it’s almost impossible to do it justice in a blog post.

How do you succinctly sum up one of the great wonders of the world in less than a thousand words? There are so many captivating parts to the ancient city, it’s hard to know where to begin, what to include and what to leave out. But here goes…

The Garden Triclinium tomb in Petra

The ancient Nabatean capital of Petra lay undiscovered for centuries, unknown to all bar a few local Arabs, until the Swiss explorer, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, uncovered its secrets in 1812. Since then, the mesmerising site has been celebrated as one of the great archaeological wonders of the world.

Looking down on the outer Siq in Petra

The vast city, nestled among the mountains and valleys of what is today south-west Jordan, was carved out of the rose-red rocks by the Nabatean people more than 2,000 years ago. Home to countless temples and tombs, an amphitheatre and breathtaking scenery, this magical, atmospheric site still casts a spell to this day.

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

On our first day in Petra, we were up bright and early, and at the visitor centre (a modern complex filled with shops) by 8am so we could reach its most famous temple, The Treasury, by 9.15am to see it bathed in the morning light. From the ticket office, we walked down the long, winding road to the start of the Siq, the narrow canyon in the Wadi Musa that leads to the ancient city.

Along the way, we passed a couple of Nabatean monuments, the Obelisk Tomb and the Bab el-Siq Triclinium. The impressive tombs cut into the golden-red rock were merely a taste of the spectacular sights that awaited us further on.

We soon reached the Siq, and as we began making our way through the 900m-long golden-red ravine, I was blown away by the natural beauty around us. I couldn’t help but think of the photos I’d seen of the Grand Canyon or the iconic rock formations in Arizona and Utah.

The elephant-shaped rock formation in the Siq in Petra

The geology was simply extraordinary and one of my favourite sights was the rock formation in the shape of an elephant (above). I was also awe-struck by the faint outline of a man and his camels carved into the rock (below), which had sadly eroded over time. We passed some of the original Nabatean paving, too, as well as a series of water channels cleverly cut into the rocks.

The remains of the carving of a man and his camels in the Siq in Petra

As we ventured deeper into the Siq, it became narrower and narrower, then as we neared the end, a shard of light appeared between the rocks and the magnificent form of the Treasury came into view. The world-famous temple, which dates back to the 1st century BC, is a magnificent spectacle.

Its enormous ornamental facade, expertly carved into the rock, features many decorative symbols and touches, such as vines, eagles, gods and goddesses.

The Treasury in Petra

Around the sides of the Treasury, I noticed lots of small holes in the rock. The Nabateans drilled these holes into the rock and filled them with wood, which they then wet and left, so they expanded, causing the rock face to collapse and leaving them with a flat, sheer piece of rock for carving.

You can’t go inside the Treasury, but if you stand beside it and look down, you can see the entrance to the ancient tombs below. It’s a breathtaking sight and we spent a good 20 minutes admiring the golden-red carving and taking lots of photos.

The Treasury in Petra in the early morning sunshine

The Treasury is an extraordinary sight and quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Bathed in the golden hue of the early morning light, the temple almost glowed and it was easy to see why it’s one of the most iconic, most photographed places on earth. It’s spectacular and the perfect introduction to the many wonders of Petra…

Stay tuned for part two of my adventures in Petra as I visit even more temples, including the Royal Tombs, and hike to the High Place of Sacrifice.

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.

Jordan

The Treasury in Petra

With spectacular scenery, countless archaeological gems and one of the seven wonders of the world, Jordan is an extraordinary country. Almost entirely landlocked, bar a slither of coastline along the Red Sea, the country is flanked by Syria to the north, Iraq to the north-east, Saudi Arabia to the east and south-east, and Israel and Palestine to the west.

Given the catastrophes playing out in its northern neighbours and the uneasy, violent tensions among its western neighbours, it’s amazing that Jordan has so far emerged relatively unscathed amid the turbulent chaos of the Middle East. That’s not to say the wars playing out around it haven’t impacted the country, for the Jordanian Government says it has taken in an estimated 1.3 million refugees fleeing the war in Syria.

Despite all the chaos surrounding it, the country remains a safe destination for travellers, although if it wasn’t for Petra, I’m not sure I would have visited Jordan as it wasn’t really on my travel radar. I’d long been keen to see the once-lost Nabatean city, seduced by all the gorgeous photos of the Treasury and the Siq, but the rest of the country had barely made a blip in my consciousness.

That all changed when I started researching my trip to Petra and discovered that Jordan was host to an array of fascinating places, and I found myself wanting to tour a much bigger swathe of the country.

The long colonnaded Cardo in Jerash

I spent a week travelling around Jordan, starting in the vast Roman city of Jerash (above) in the north-west of the country, before travelling south to the lowest and saltiest place on earth, the Dead Sea. From there, I explored some of the nearby sites, including Mount Nebo (said to be the place where Moses was buried) and Madaba, home to an extraordinarily accurate mosaic map of the region that dates back to the sixth century AD.

The desert and rock formations of Wadi Rum in Jordan

Continuing south, I stopped by the superb crusader castle at Kerak, before arriving in Petra, where I spent a few days exploring the phenomenal Nabatean city, as well as the nearby smaller site of Little Petra. After the wonders of Petra, we continued south, spending the night in a Bedouin camp in the breathtaking desert surroundings of Wadi Rum (above) on our way to the port of Aqaba, where we spent an afternoon snorkelling in the Red Sea.

From there, we made our way back north to the Jordanian capital, Amman, where we spent a day exploring the city’s sites, including the ancient citadel and amphitheatre, as well as the superb Museum of Jordan (the artefacts on display included some of the Dead Sea Scrolls).

Wadi Mujib in Jordan

One of the things that struck me most when travelling around Jordan was the breathtaking scenery I encountered. The rock formations and colours were out of this world, reminiscent of the far more celebrated rock formations in Arizona and Utah.

The most extraordinary thing for me when I visited Petra wasn’t the tombs (as fascinating as they were) but the geology and the vast array of colours in the rocks. It’s the only place on earth where I’ve encountered rocks in vivid shades of blues, reds, greens, blacks, purples and more. It’s sensational.

I often find when I’m travelling that the people I meet are warm, hospitable and friendly, and it was true of Jordan, too. When I was staying in Petra I was lucky enough to be welcomed for dinner by a local woman who’d grown up living in the nearby caves. She cooked us an amazing feast and happily told us about her life, and was more than willing to share a few of her delicious recipes with us, too.

Meze at the Don Quichotte Restaurant in Amman

Jordan is a culinary delight and I had many great meals in the country. I ate lots of flatbreads and dips (baba ghanoush, hummus), an abundance of salads and pickled vegetables, along with regional specialities such as kibbe (fried minced meat patties), mansaf (lamb or goat served with rice and topped with a sour yoghurt sauce) and mussakhan (roast chicken and onions with sumac).

I can’t say I enjoyed everything I tried, the goats milk/yoghurt drink I had in Wadi Mujib was definitely an acquired taste. But my favourite thing was a flatbread filled with falafel, hummus and salad from a roadside shop just outside Amman that was packed with locals and cost just 30p. As an Islamic country, alcohol is rare in Jordan, but there are lots of great fruit juices to be had – I developed a penchant for lemon and mint juice. Tea, especially mint tea, and coffee are ubiquitous, too.

Laying claim to being the safest and most secure country in the Middle East is something of an achievement given the volatile nature of the region, and I have to say I felt incredibly safe everywhere I went in Jordan. It was clear the country takes threats to its security seriously with police checkpoints along the main roads and a noticeable police presence at all the main visitor sites.

In all the hotels I stayed in, I had to pass through airport-style security to get in, too. Far from making me feel anxious or worried about my safety, I found it reassuring and was glad the country was taking such proactive steps to make sure its citizens and visitors were safe.

The Monastery in Petra

I came back from Jordan raving about the country – telling anyone who’d listen how spectacularly beautiful it was, how great the food was and all about the many interesting and varied places I’d visited. Petra should be on everyone’s travel to-do-list. It’s a magical place unlike anywhere else on earth and I don’t think you can truly appreciate its wonders until you’ve experienced it. But I’d encourage anyone thinking of visiting Petra to spend a little time exploring the other, less celebrated parts of Jordan, too, as you may very well fall in love with it.

Cuba travel guide

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

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

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

Havana

The outdoor book market at the Plaza de Armas in Havana

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

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

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

Pinar del Río

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

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

Viñales

The countryside around Vinales in Cuba

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

Cienfuegos

Sunset by the beach in Cienfuegos, Cuba

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

Trinidad

Plaza Mayor in Trinidad, Cuba

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

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

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

Santa Clara

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

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

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

Food and drink

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

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

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

Where to stay

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

Currency

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

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

Have your say

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