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.

Advertisements

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.

Tintern Abbey

The remains of Tintern Abbey

If you were looking for a picture-perfect spot on which to build an abbey, Tintern, on the banks of the River Wye in Monmouthshire, would tick all the boxes. Beside a bend in the river, Tintern is surrounded by steep hills covered in lush, green forest and is so lovely it’s inspired artists and writers, such as JMW Turner and William Wordsworth.

Since passing my driving test earlier this year and buying a car, I’ve been keen to explore the south Wales countryside, especially places that aren’t easily accessible via public transport. When I was drawing up a list of places to visit, Tintern was at the top. I had vague memories of visiting Tintern as a child and I’d been keen to go back after passing it a couple of years ago on the way to a friend’s wedding in Gloucestershire.

Tintern Abbey and the remains of the buildings associated with it

After what seemed like a very long drive from Cardiff along twisty-turny country roads (I wasn’t brave enough to venture onto the M4), I eventually arrived in the idyllic village of Tintern, parking in the handy car park opposite the abbey.

Inside the remains of the church at Tintern Abbey

The abbey was founded in the 12th century by the local powerhouse Walter de Clare, the owner of nearby Chepstow Castle, and it was the first Cistercian abbey in Wales. But in the 16th century, the abbey, like so many religious houses in England and Wales, was closed and plundered during the reformation.

The remains of the monks' dormitory and day room at Tintern Abbey

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the abandoned abbey and the River Wye proved a beacon for many artists and writers, inspiring poems and paintings that celebrated the romantic ruins and its picturesque surroundings. William Wordsworth name-checked the abbey in one of his poems, while JMW Turner and Thomas Gainsborough were among the artists who immortalised it on canvas.

The remains of the presbytery inside Tintern Abbey

Today, the abbey is an enormous, ruined shell, maintained by Cadw, the Welsh historic environment organisation, and is still one of the finest medieval buildings in south Wales. It’s flanked by the ruins of a number of monastic buildings, which I had a great time exploring, seeking out the many nooks and crannies.

Inside the church at Tintern Abbey

The abbey is still a draw for artists and creative types today, and on the day I visited, there were a fair few folk taking pictures of the gothic ruins. It’s a splendid structure, even in its ruined state, and I spent ages photographing the abbey from lots of different angles.

The ruins of the warming house at Tintern Abbey

After spending a good hour at the abbey looking around it all, I decided to go for a long walk and set off along a path close to the River Wye (below). I followed a trail that took me up into the steep hills on the other side of the river, where I went in search of Offa’s Dyke, the ancient structure that roughly marks the border between Wales and England, and the Devil’s Pulpit, which promised excellent views over the valley.

The River Wye at Tintern

The path to Offa’s Dyke took me through a thick forest and was quite uneven underfoot, and as I climbed higher and higher up the hill, it began getting quite windy and at one stage a large branch snapped off a tree in front of me.

The deeper into the woods I got, the more the weather turned less favourable, and after 40 minutes or so, I decided to turn back as I didn’t want to be caught out on a precarious hillside path if it suddenly started bucketing down or the wind picked up even more.

Lemon and elderflower cake, and a pot of tea, at The White Monk Gift Shop and Tea Room in Tintern

Back safely in Tintern, it was time for a well-earned rest, along with a pot of tea and a slice of scrumptious lemon and elderflower cake (above), in a charming cafe next to the abbey, The White Monk Gift Shop and Tea Room. It was the perfect way to end a very agreeable day out.

Info

Tintern Abbey, Tintern NP16 6SE
Adults £6.90, Seniors £5.50, children aged 5-16 and students £4.10, children under 5 free
cadw.gov.wales/daysout/tinternabbey

Fonmon Castle

Fonmon Castle in the Vale of Glamorgan

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

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

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

One of the gardens at Fonmon Castle

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

Part of the gardens at Fonmon Castle

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

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

The delightful grand dining room at Fonmon Castle

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

The remains of a tower in the grounds of Fonmon Castle

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

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

Info

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

Edinburgh travel guide

View over Edinburgh New Town and the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh Castle

Settled around two extinct volcanoes and steeped in history, Edinburgh is a cultural, culinary powerhouse boasting dramatic scenery, excellent food and fabulous shopping. With lots to see and do, it’s a great destination for a weekend city break. If you’re planning a trip to Auld Reekie, here’s my mini travel guide to the Scottish capital…

History

The entrance to Edinburgh Castle

Perched atop one of the city’s two ancient volcanoes, Edinburgh Castle is not to be missed (above). The huge fortress is home to a royal residence, the legendary stone of scone, the Scottish crown jewels, the city’s oldest building (St Margaret’s Chapel), the national war memorial and a few museums (a couple of regimental museums and another on prisoners of war). While the ruined David’s Tower was the site of Scotland’s very own ‘red wedding’ when the young head of the Black Douglas clan and his brother were murdered during a banquet in an event known to history as ‘the black dinner’.

The Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh

Down the hill from Edinburgh Castle, at the end of the Royal Mile, is Edinburgh’s other royal residence, the Palace of Holyroodhouse (above), the Queen’s official residence in Scotland. The palace is also the site of another infamous royal murder – that of Mary, Queen of Scots’s private secretary David Rizzio by her husband Henry, Lord Darnley, and his cronies. Inside the palace you can tour Mary’s apartments and explore the ruined Holyrood Abbey (below), which once upon a time hosted the coronations and marriages of many a Scottish monarch.

A passageway inside Holyrood Abbey

Delve into the capital’s more recent history and pop inside the Scottish Parliament opposite Holyrood Palace. The parliament, which is free to visit, offers guided hour-long tours focusing on different aspects of the building – you can choose from a parliament tour, a photography tour, an art tour or an architecture tour.

Museums and galleries

There are a number of world-class museums and art galleries in the Scottish capital, but the best by far is the National Museum of Scotland. The enormous museum extends over multiple floors and features exhibitions about Scottish history, the natural world, technology, science, fashion and more.

The museum’s most famous artefacts are the Lewis Chessmen, a series of 12th century ivory and walrus-tooth chess figurines discovered on the Isle of Lewis. Eleven of the glorious chessmen – they each have unique facial features – are on display here, the remaining 82 pieces are in the British Museum in London.

The statue of Greyfriars Bobby

On leaving the museum, don’t miss the statue of Greyfriars Bobby opposite (above), outside Greyfriars Kirk. JK Rowling found inspiration for many a Harry Potter character’s name in the churchyard – the names on the gravestones include Thomas Riddell, McGonagall, Potter and Moodie.

Art lovers should make a beeline for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Housed in a gorgeous red brick building in the New Town, the enormous gallery is home to a host of portraits of fascinating, world-leading Scots (I had no idea how many Scots had shaped our world until I visited). Flora MacDonald, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns are among the famous Scots whose portraits are on display.

Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh

The Scottish National Gallery (above) beside the city’s Princes Street Gardens features works by a slew of famous artists such as Constable, Monet, Degas and El Greco. While modern art fans should plan a trip to the city’s Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art where you can see works by the likes of Joan Miro, Alberto Giacometti and Rene Magritte.

Plants and wildlife

Edinburgh’s most famous gardens are the Princes Street Gardens in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle. The popular gardens are a great place to while away an hour or two with a book on a sunny afternoon. The Royal Botanic Gardens to the north of the city centre span some 70 acres and are home to more than 13,500 plant species. RZSS Edinburgh Zoo, meanwhile, looks after the UK’s only giant pandas (Tian Tian and Yang Guang) and koalas (Alinga, Goonaroo and Toorie), along with penguins, lions, vultures, hippos and more.

Walking

View of Arthur's Seat from the grounds of the Palace of Holyroodhouse

When a city boasts two extinct volcanoes, you know there will be plenty of opportunities for long walks and hikes. The best hike in the city is the magnificent Arthur’s Seat (above), which overlooks the Palace of Holyroodhouse and has breathtaking views over Edinburgh and out towards the Firth of Forth. There are various trails you can follow to the peak, some steeper than others, and depending on the weather, it can get pretty windswept at the top.

If you’re not feeling quite so energetic, the nearby Calton Hill, which is topped by the  distinctive, unfinished Parthenon-like national monument, is a better bet. For those who dislike hills, the Water of Leith walkway follows the path of the River Leith from the suburb of Balerno to the port of Leith and extends over 12 miles in total. But for a shorter walk, start in the city’s picturesque Dean Village and follow the river through the city to Leith, home to the Royal Yacht Britannia.

Shopping

Princes Street is Edinburgh’s shopping mecca, awash with the usual high street names such as H&M and Marks & Spencer, but make sure to explore the streets and alleyways behind it in the city’s New Town. The area is filled with independent boutiques that are well worth a browse. Edinburgh’s quirkiest and most interesting shops, though, are to be found in the city’s Grassmarket area and along steep Victoria Street that curves from the George IV Bridge down to Grassmarket.

Food

Outside London, Edinburgh is one of the UK’s brightest culinary hot spots featuring a host of exceptionally good restaurants and cafés. One of my favourite places is The Scran & Scallie gastropub, co-owned by renowned local chef Tom Kitchin, which serves modern, seasonal British fare. Be sure to rock up on a Sunday evening when folk musicians play in the bar area – there’s a lively atmosphere and it makes for a fun evening.

Chez Jules, an unpretentious French bistro in the New Town, is also worth checking out, as is Hendersons, an Edinburgh institution that serves excellent veggie and vegan dishes. It’s my go-to breakfast place in the city. For a quick caffeine fix, Wellington Coffee in the New Town is a tiny, basement delight. Order the hot chocolate – it comes with a giant, pillowy chunk of marshmallow on the side.

Day trips

Fancy seeing some sights outside the city? You’re in luck as the area surrounding the Scottish capital is brimming with places to visit. Fans of symbolism and/or The Da Vinci Code should hop on the number 37 bus from Princes Street, which will take you to the village of Roslin, home to the romantic 15th century Rosslyn Chapel and its copious, intricate stone carvings. Sadly, there’s no sign of the holy grail.

The courtyard inside the ruined Linlithgow Palace

If Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse failed to satisfy your appetite for all things royal, the haunting Linlithgow Palace (above) is a short 20-minute train ride away. The ruined shell of a palace was the birth place of Mary, Queen of Scots. While the imposing and impressive Stirling Castle is around 50 minutes by train from Edinburgh Waverley Station.

Inchcolm Abbey

The beautiful Firth of Forth is also a short train ride away – alight at South Queensferry where you can catch a boat to Inchcolm Island. The small island in the middle of the firth is home to a splendid, partially-ruined abbey (above). While sailing across the firth, keep your eye out for puffins (their distinctive orange beaks make them relatively easy to spot) and soak up the magnificent views as you sail under the iconic Forth Bridges.

Getting there

Edinburgh Airport is well served by airports in the UK and abroad. Once you’ve arrived, the easiest way to get into the city is via the express bus service. Buses run every 10 minutes and cost £7 for a return ticket. The bus’s final destination is Waverley Bridge, overlooking Edinburgh Waverley train station, in the heart of the city.

Wells – Bishop’s Palace and Gardens

The Bishop's Palace in Wells

Welcome to part two of my Wells adventure, which after Wells Cathedral and Vicars’ Close focuses on the remaining part of the city’s triumvirate of medieval masterpieces – the Bishop’s Palace and gardens. The partially-ruined Bishop’s Palace has been the home of the Bishop of Bath and Wells for more than 800 years and is steeped in history.

The medieval stone gatehouse and drawbridge that provides entrance to the Bishop's Palace

The palace, along with the 14 acres of gardens that surround it, lies in the heart of the city, a stone’s throw from Wells Cathedral, concealed behind high stone walls. To get inside, you have to cross a large moat, which is home to a number of swans that have a bell they ring when they want feeding, and pass through an impressive stone gatehouse (above).

Stone archway beyond which lies the Bishop's Palace's south garden

After paying our entrance fee, we made our way past the large croquet lawn towards the palace, turning off before we got there by passing through a stone archway into the gardens (above). The archway forms part of the palace’s ruined great hall, which, along with the chapel, is one of the oldest parts of the palace, having been built in the 1290s. Only a couple of its walls and a few turrets remain, and it’s now enveloped by large, idyllic gardens, creating a picturesque scene.

The ruins of the great hall and the surrounding gardens at the Bishop's Palace in Wells

It was a warm, sunny day when we visited and there were quite a few people spread out on the lawn in the south garden (above), reading a book or enjoying a picnic, and I couldn’t help but think that if I lived in Wells, I’d definitely be doing the same when the sun was out. It’s such a pretty, tranquil space.

We strolled around the gardens at a leisurely pace, taking in the sights and enjoying the peace and quiet. The gardens were dotted with pieces of art, including a large wooden carving of a hand and a statue of a monk praying (above). The art was a fun, quirky touch and added a playful element.

Along the far side of the south garden, we climbed up onto the ramparts and walked the length of the wall. If you stand on tiptoes and look over the wall, you can just make out the deer park on the other side of the moat. Despite trying my best, I didn’t spot any deer but the large tract of land has been home to the ruminants since the early 13th century when King John gave the then-bishop Joscelin permission to establish a park, which he later filled with the creatures.

From the ramparts, we wandered through the east garden, which is home to lots of delightful plants and flowers, along with a giant swing, and then passed through a doorway and over a stream into another part of the gardens, which is home to the city’s namesake wells.

The Well Pool in the Bishop's Palace gardens, with Wells Cathedral in the background

The well springs are formed when water in an underground river, which flows down from the nearby Mendip Hills, hits a series of rocks and is forced up through the ground. There are three wells in total, the largest of which is the Well Pool (above). The Well Pool is stunning and we took our time walking around it, admiring the picture-perfect scene and scanning the surface of the water to see if we could spot any bubbles, which form when the water rises through the ground.

We then strolled around the other two wells and the remaining parts of the garden, including the arboretum, which features a large play park for children, and the community garden, before making our way back towards the Bishop’s Palace.

The Bishop's Palace from the east garden

The palace is still in use by the Bishop of Bath and Wells so only a small part of it is open to the public. The most impressive parts on display are the long hall, a long corridor filled with paintings of previous bishops, and the chapel, which features a high-vaulted ceiling and lots of stained glass windows.

By the time we’d finished looking around the palace and its gardens, it was mid-afternoon, so we stopped at The Bishop’s Table café within the palace grounds for lunch. The friendly café sells hearty fare such as ham, egg and chips, burgers and ploughman’s, along with a range of sandwiches and salads. There’s also a great spread of cakes. I had a cheese and pickle sandwich, which came with a side of coleslaw and salad, and really hit the spot.

Saint Andrew's Well in Wells

Having seen all the main sights in Wells, we spent the rest of the afternoon pottering around the market (there was also an antique fair in the city hall) and the city’s shops before making our way back to the bus station. I loved my day out in Wells. It’s a charming place full of pretty medieval architecture and great food, and is the perfect place for a day trip.

Info

The Bishop’s Palace, Wells BA5 2PD
Open 10am-6pm, daily (25 March to 28 October); 10am-4pm, daily (28 October to 31 March) 
£8.05 adults; £7.15 concessions; £3.55 children aged five to 18 years old
bishopspalace.org.uk