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

London – Kew Gardens

One of the many weird and wonderful flowers at Kew Gardens

I was in London in the spring catching up with friends, when one of my friends suggested we spend the day at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew. I love Kew Gardens and hadn’t been there for years, so I was more than happy to revisit one of my favourite London haunts.

Home to more than 50,000 species of plants from all corners of the globe, the world-famous gardens date back to the mid-18th century, when King George III’s mother, Princess Augusta, established a botanical garden at Kew. In 1840, the gardens were handed over to the state and they’ve been open to the public ever since.

One of the many flowers at Kew Gardens

Kew holds a special place in my heart because I vividly remember visiting a park in London that had an amazing pagoda as a child. For years, I wasn’t sure if it was real or if I’d imagined it, and it was only when I visited Kew as an adult that I was able to put two-and-two together and realised it was home to that pagoda.

The Palm House at Kew Gardens

We began our visit to Kew with a trip to the Palm House (above), a large, elegant, slightly rundown Victorian greenhouse that’s home to plants from tropical hot spots all over the world. It was fascinating being able to compare the similarities and differences of the various plants, and I got quite excited when I realised I recognised a few of them having seen them in the wild (such as the cacao tree from Costa Rica).

The jade vine inside the Palm House at Kew Gardens

I enjoyed learning about some of the bizarre plants that call the Palm House home, such as the tree with its roots growing above ground. One of my favourite plants was the jade vine (above), an eye-catching jade green plant that stood out from the many palms surrounding it.

There were lots of helpful information signs about the plants in the Palm House, from which we learned some unexpected facts. For example, we were surprised to learn that the Palm House is home to the world’s oldest pot plant – a South African palm that dates back to 1775!

View from the balcony inside the Palm House at Kew Gardens

After walking all the way around the Palm House, on both the ground floor and the upper balcony that spans the edge of the greenhouse, we headed back outside and strolled through the gardens until we reached The Hive (below).

The Hive is a 17m-high aluminium structure that’s designed to recreate life in a beehive and is a wonderful piece of engineering. It was somewhat eerie standing in the middle of it, and it made me realise how lucky I am not to be a bee, having to endure something similar on a regular basis.

Looking up at the roof of the Hive at Kew Gardens

From The Hive, we walked to the Princess of Wales Conservatory. This large indoor greenhouse is home to a variety of rockeries, and houses plants that would normally be found in dry tropical environments, including deserts. It’s full of orchids, succulents and cacti, as well as other less well-known plants, and we had a great time learning about the unusual flora and pointing out curious specimens to each other.

Orchids inside the Princess of Wales Conservatory at Kew Gardens

After the delights of the conservatory, we continued our way through the gardens until we reached Kew Palace (below). Although it’s situated in the grounds of Kew Gardens, the palace is run by a different organisation, Historic Royal Palaces.

The small, red brick palace was built in the 17th century by Samuel Fortrey, a silk merchant, and fell into royal hands during the reign of George II. But it’s his grandson George III and George III’s wife Charlotte of Mecklenberg-Strelitz who are most closely associated with the palace. It was here that George III recuperated when he was laid low by his mental illness.

Kew Palace

Inside, the palace is decorated and furnished in the Georgian style, as it may have looked during George III and Queen Charlotte’s day. Thanks to its small rooms, it has quite a homely feel and is more like a posh manor house than a grand, splendid palace. It’s quite easy to picture a family living here once upon a time.

Given its small size, it didn’t take long to walk around the palace, and afterwards, we popped inside the nearby Royal Kitchens. The 18th century kitchens were, unsurprisingly, where the servants used to prepare food for the royal family.

The downstairs rooms where the food was made were large and bare (there’s not much to them, so they’re rather dull and uninteresting), while the upstairs rooms housed the kitchen offices. These were a little more interesting as there was more to them – for example, you could see the books where they logged the food they bought.

Rhododendron in flower at Kew Gardens

From the palace, we set about exploring the rest of the gardens and made our way through the grounds to the Rhododendron Dell. I always associate rhododendrons with Agatha Christie novels (they always seem to crop up in them), and thanks to my mother’s persistent teaching, they’re one of the few plants I can identify. As it was spring time, many of the rhododendron were in bloom and we enjoyed a lovely stroll amid the pretty flowering plants.

Syon Park across the River Thames from Kew Gardens

At the other end of the Dell, we stopped briefly at a gap in the trees to take a look at Syon Park (above, the magnificent London residence of the Duke of Northumberland) on the other side of the River Thames, before carrying on through the tree-lined trails until we reached the Great Pagoda (below).

The Great Pagoda at Kew Gardens

The impressive structure was built in 1762 as a present for Princess Augusta. Having not been to Kew for a few years, I hadn’t realised you could now go inside the pagoda, and we briefly considered doing so, until we saw how long the queue was. As I didn’t have long left until my train back to Cardiff and there was more we wanted to see, we decided to skip it – but it’s at the top of the list for my next visit!

The recently restored Temperate House at Kew Gardens

Our next stop was Temperate House (above), a delightful glass behemoth that recently reopened after five years’ restoration work. Dating back to 1863, it’s the biggest Victorian greenhouse on earth and boasts some 10,000 plants from temperate zones all over the world, including Mauritius, the Himalayas and New Zealand.

It’s a fantastic structure and we took our time looking around the greenhouse, marvelling at the huge variety of flora on show and learning about the many plants that live in temperate zones.

From Temperate House, we ambled through the Cherry Walk – a small, pretty spot that was lined with blossoming cherry trees – before finding ourselves back at the entrance. I really enjoyed our day out in Kew Gardens. It’s a beautiful, relaxing park, and with so much to see and do, there’s something for everyone. It’s a delightful place that never disappoints and it’s well worth visiting if you’re in London.

Info

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Open daily
£16.50 adults, £14.50 concessions, from £4.50 children
kew.org

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.

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 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.

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.

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.