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.

Advertisements

The Royal Mint Experience

The Royal Mint Experience

Last year marked 50 years since The Royal Mint moved to Llantrisant, a small town in south Wales to the north-west of Cardiff, and two years since its visitor experience opened its doors.

The Royal Mint Experience consists of a 45-minute guided tour, which includes a look inside the factory where the coins are minted, after which you’re free to wander around the museum at your own pace.

A mini covered in pennies at The Royal Mint Experience

Our tour began with a brief introductory video about the Mint, before we followed our guide into the factory where he explained how they mint the coins and showed us some of the rarest coins currently in circulation in the UK. We were then taken into a room, where from behind a glass screen, we could see the factory floor and watch the coin production process in action.

A box of £1 coins at The Royal Mint Experience

I hadn’t realised that The Royal Mint produces some five billion coins each year, minting coins not only for the UK, but for countries all over the world. Only £2, 50p and 10p pieces have unusual, collectable designs on them. The rarest 50p piece features the pagoda from Kew Gardens – only 20 per cent of the coins are still in circulation because the other 80 per cent have been kept by coin collectors.

The guided tour was fascinating, I learned a lot and it made me realise how little I knew about the coins I handle on a daily basis, and how much work and thought goes into producing them. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable and did an excellent job explaining the production process. There were a couple of serious coin collectors on our tour who asked the guide some tricky questions, but he answered them with ease.

Posters advertising the introduction of decimal coins in the UK at The Royal Mint Experience

After completing our factory tour, we were free to walk around the experience’s museum and I spent ages looking at everything. The museum featured displays about the Mint’s history, from its origins in the Tower of London to its later homes on Tower Hill and at Llantrisant.

There were lots of very rare coins on display, too, including an elusive 1933 penny (only six or seven were made), the first coin minted at the Llantrisant site, as well as coins from the reign of Elizabeth I and Sir Isaac Newton’s seal (he was master of The Royal Mint for almost 30 years until his death in 1727).

A display of facts about coins at The Royal Mint Experience

The Royal Mint makes coins, medals and blanks (the pieces of metal minted into coins) for lots of countries, including the Philippines, Costa Rica and Jordan, and there was an informative display about the many countries the Mint has worked with over the years.

A display about how coins are designed and modelled at The Royal Mint Experience

Other interesting displays included a section that explored the design process in detail (I learned that some coin designers choose to have their initials engraved on the coin, which I hadn’t noticed before), a section featuring a series of fascinating facts about coins and another that looked at the medals the Mint has manufactured over the years.

The Royal Mint made all the medals for the 2012 London Olympics (below) and the museum lets you handle replicas of them. It turns out that the Olympic gold medals are much heavier than the bronze and silver ones, with the silver medal also weighing more than the bronze.

London 2012 Olympic medals on display at The Royal Mint Experience

All in all, we spent a good two hours at The Royal Mint Experience and I thoroughly enjoyed our visit. I came away armed with so many facts about coins that I bored my family and friends stupid with my new found knowledge. I also made a mental note to start checking my change from now on.

Tips

We visited the Mint bright and early on a Wednesday morning because between 10am and 2pm each Wednesday, you can swap a 10p piece for one of The Great Coin Hunt Quintessentially British A-Z 10p pieces. It’s a collectable series of coins that feature a different letter of the alphabet on the one side and a design linked to something intrinsically British (for example, M is represented by a Mackintosh raincoat and B by James Bond) on the other. So if you’re interested in picking up a collectable coin during your visit – Wednesday’s the best day to do so.

Info

The Royal Mint Experience, Pontyclun CF72 8YT
Open from 9.30am every day
Adults £13.50, children (5-15 years) £11, children under five are free, senior citizens £12
royalmint.com/the-royal-mint-experience

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.

Lourdes

The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes in France

Nestled at the foot of the Pyrenees, Lourdes is France’s most famous pilgrimage site. Having been to Santiago de Compostela in Spain some eight years ago, I was keen to visit Lourdes during our trip to Béarn to compare the two sites and to find out why this Pyrenean town attracts some five million Christian pilgrims each year.

The miracle around which the town’s fortune was built occurred in 1858 when an 18-year-old shepherdess named Bernadette saw 18 apparitions of the Virgin Mary. The miracle allegedly took place in a small grotto on the outskirts of town, the Grotto of Massabielle. A small spring is then said to have appeared where Bernadette saw the Virgin Mary and this water is reputed to have miraculous healing powers, which is partly what has attracted so many millions of pilgrims over the years.

Lourdes photographed from the town's chateau

It was a grim, grey day when we visited Lourdes and the rain was chucking down. Having parked in the town centre, we headed to the Tourist Information office where we were given a map by a cheery man who helpfully pointed out the main areas of interest – namely the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, which was built on the rock above the Grotto of Massabielle, and the castle.

We decided to make our way to the sanctuary first and followed a walking trail through the town, which took us past shops selling all manner of religious souvenirs, including statues, fans, fridge magnets and candles. As we neared the sanctuary, the number of pilgrims increased massively and there were lots of people in wheelchairs or who were old and infirm who, I’m guessing, were hoping to be healed by the grotto’s waters.

The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes

The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes (above) is situated within a large oval park and I was blown away by how enormous it was. It’s ginormous and mind-bogglingly ostentatious. The sanctuary consists of a tall, grey stone structure with a basilica at the bottom, huge flights of stairs and ramps on either side, a crypt above the basilica and a church on top of that. There are also lots of statues dotted around the park, including one of the Virgin Mary and another of Bernadette with a flock of sheep.

Inside the basilica at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes

Not quite sure where to begin, we made our way to the basilica, entering via a set of ornate gold doors. Inside, we found a massive cavern boasting a white stone ceiling, red marble walls engraved with the names and dates of those apparently cured by the site’s waters, and above the altar, a gorgeous gold and blue domed ceiling (above and below). Around the sides, there was a series of small chapels featuring lots of gold and paintings depicting different scenes from the Bible. It was very elaborate.

The ornate gold and blue patterned domed ceiling inside the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes

When we walked back outside, we found the rain had stopped so we decided it was a good time to visit the grotto where Bernadette experienced her visions. Situated under the huge rock on which the sanctuary was built, there was a long queue to get to the grotto. Once in line, we were quickly shepherded to the tiny grotto and filed past it in no time, with the pilgrims around me touching the rock as often as possible. The small miraculous spring was partitioned off behind a pane of glass.

The crypt and the church at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes

We then made our way up the stairs to the crypt where some of Bernadette’s remains are interred in a small chest. There were lots of small plaques in the crypt, too, with people giving their thanks for the miracles that happened to them after visiting the grotto. One was from a formerly childless couple who conceived following their visit.

Inside the church at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes

From the crypt, we nipped upstairs to the church on top of the sanctuary. Once there, we found there was a service taking place, so we only stayed briefly, before making our way back down the stairs and through the park to the town’s Boulevard de la Grotte. Part way up the street, we stopped at Eleanor’s Salon de Thé, which was run by a friendly woman from the West Midlands, for a warming cup of tea and a bowl of vegetable soup.

Happily sated, we then walked through the town’s narrow streets to find the entrance to the castle, which is perched high on a rock in the centre of town. At the bottom of the rock, there’s a small office where you pay your entrance fee – from there, you can either take the stairs or the lift to the castle on top. We took the lift.

One of the stone buildings and the keep that make up the Chateau-Fort at Lourdes

At the top of the rock, we discovered that the castle isn’t so much a traditional castle as a series of buildings and ramparts that are also home to a museum where you can learn about the traditional way of life in the Pyrenees. The elements of traditional life on display included life in a Béarnaise kitchen, an exhibition of black and white photos of agricultural workers taken between 1965 and 1980, and models of the various animals you can find in the Pyrenees.

View over Lourdes and the Pyrenees from the ramparts at the town's Chateau-Fort

My favourite part of the castle was the Pointe du Cavalier Sud, high on the ramparts, which offered incredible views over Lourdes and the Pyrenees (above). The low lying grey clouds had lifted by the time we reached the ramparts, so we were able to see parts of the magnificent mountain range for the first time.

After the ramparts, we continued our tour of the museum. The exhibits included one room that was a recreation of a traditional Pyrenean bedroom, displays about local games, ceramics and agricultural tools, and a fascinating exhibit about the region’s costumes.

A recreation of a traditional Pyrenean cottage inside the museum at the Chateau-Fort in Lourdes

Towards the end of the tour, we learned about the history of the castle, before climbing a narrow 104-step spiral staircase to the top of the keep. I’d expected the top of the keep to have amazing views of the Pyrenees, but unfortunately it was covered and home to a rather dull display of granite and other building materials. The climb to the top of the keep was far more exciting than the exhibition within.

The tiny chapel at the Chateau-Fort in Lourdes

The next building we ventured inside was home to a series of artworks, including a genteel set of paintings of Lourdes by Louis de Bondidier, as well as a temporary display about the various castles that have inspired artists. We finished our tour with a peek inside the castle’s stone chapel (above), which looked rather simple from the outside but turned out to be ostentatiously decorated inside with statues and lots of gold and marble. By now we’d seen all there was to see in the castle, so we headed back down to the town via the lift.

The magnificent Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes

I really enjoyed our day trip to Lourdes – there was a lot more to the town than I was anticipating. We spent around five hours in Lourdes and could easily have spent longer as there were parts of the town, such as the parish church, that we didn’t get a chance to visit.

The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes (above) is huge and an incredible piece of architecture, while I hadn’t expected to find a large castle perched high on a rock in the centre of town. Lourdes is a fascinating and classy town with lots to see and do, and very friendly people. It was well-worth visiting and, I have to say, possibly preferable to Santiago de Compostela.

Bilbao – the old town

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

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

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

The grand Arriaga Theatre in Bilbao

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

Santiago Cathedral in Bilbao

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

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

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

Inside the cloisters at Santiago Cathedral in Bilbao

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

The Mercado de la Ribera in Bilbao

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

A sign inside the Mercado de la Ribera in Bilbao

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ornate altar inside the Santos Juanes Church in Bilbao

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

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

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

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

Mixed pintxo at the Mercado de la Ribera in Bilbao

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

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

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

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

London – Azzedine Alaia: The Couturier at the Design Museum

Azzedine Alaia: The Couturier exhibition at the Design Museum

When I was in London a couple of weekends ago, I was looking for an exhibition to see and, while there weren’t many that grabbed my fancy,  Azzedina Alaïa: The Couturier at the Design Museum looked intriguing. I might not be a fashionista, but I enjoy fashion and am familiar with Azzedine Alaïa’s work, and was curious to see what his clothing would look like up close.

Purple and white dresses from the wrapped forms display at the Azzedine Alaia exhibition

The exhibition is the first in the UK to be solely dedicated to the late Tunisian designer and was co-curated by the legendary couturier and his friend, curator Mark Wilson, and I was surprised to see the entire exhibition contained within one large, open-plan room.

Exploring volume display at the Azzedine Alaia exhibition

The exhibition features around 60 items of clothing, mostly dresses, dating from the early 1980s through to Alaïa’s last collection in 2017. The pieces are grouped together according to theme and the themes included “exploring volume”, “Spanish accent” and “other places, other cultures”.

The pieces on display were exquisite, and it was fascinating to be able to examine the clothing up close and see the intricate detail and superb craftsmanship that went into making them. I might not have wanted to wear all the pieces (some are best left to Amazonian supermodel-types), but I could nevertheless appreciate Alaïa’s exceptional knowledge of structure and fabric.

Sculptural tension display at the Azzedine Alaia exhibition

My favourite dresses were the seven dresses that made up the “sculptural tension” display (above). The black velvet dress (above, 2nd from right) and the sculpted pleated leather dresses either side of it were my favourites and I’d have been very happy if any of them had made their way into my wardrobe. I also adored the slinky, hooded purple dress from the “wrapped forms” display and all the dresses in the “timelessness” section.

Along the walls hung a number of photos of Alaïa, along with famous models, actresses and singers (notably Naomi Campbell and Grace Jones) wearing his creations. There was also a short film playing.

Black and pink dress from the exploring volume display at the Azzedine Alaia exhibition

Azzedine Alaia: The Couturier is a fascinating glimpse inside the world of an exceptional designer and is filled with fabulous, jaw-dropping fashion. It was interesting to see how the designer’s style evolved over the years and to have an opportunity to appreciate how clever his designs were. My only complaint is I felt the exhibition was overpriced for what it was. It didn’t take long to look at everything (20 minutes or so, if you were really taking your time) and £16 seemed a bit steep for such a small collection. But that aside, it’s an intriguing exhibition and one that’s likely to appeal to those interested in fashion and design.

Info

Azzedine Alaia: The Couturier at the Design Museum, 224-238 Kensington High Street, London W8 6AG
Until 7 October 2018
Adults £16, children (six to 15 years old) £8, concessions and students £12
designmuseum.org/exhibitions/azzedine-alaa-the-couturier

 

 

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.

Gloucester

The city of Gloucester with the cathedral in the background

The Romans, the royals and the Georgians have all made their mark on Gloucester over the millennia, which means the city is a hodge podge of old, beautiful buildings mixed in with some much more recent eyesores. I’d long been keen to visit Gloucester, largely because of its grand cathedral, but I was also intrigued to find out what else this historic English city had to offer.

I arrived in the city by train and quickly set off in the direction of the tourist information office to pick up a map and plot my day. Luckily, Gloucester has direction signs throughout the city centre, so even if you don’t have a map you can easily find the city’s main sites.

Warehouses in the historic docks area of Gloucester

After checking out the map, I decided to head in the direction of the city’s historic docks, which are apparently the most inland port in the UK. The area around the docks has been regenerated in recent years and there are lots of bars, cafés, restaurants and shops in this attractive part of the city. There were quite a few people around the docks the day I visited, enjoying the April sunshine, and I imagine the area becomes quite lively at night, especially during the summer months.

The small Mariners' Chapel in Gloucester

After walking around the Victoria Dock, which was filled with colourful canal barges, I stopped to briefly look inside the old Mariners’ Chapel (above). The small chapel was opened in 1849 to serve the maritime community in Gloucester and during the Victorian era it welcomed seamen from all over the world, including the US, Norway, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands. Inside, there isn’t much to see – it’s just one large, very simply decorated room with white walls and wooden pews.

The ruins of Llanthony Secunda Priory in Gloucester

From the church I made my way over to the ruins of Llanthony Secunda Priory nearby. The priory was built in the 12th century after the original Llanthony Priory in Monmouthshire was captured by rebels and the priory’s monks were given the land to build themselves a new home.

I wasn’t able to visit the main body of the priory as it’s currently undergoing extensive restoration work thanks to a large lottery grant, but I was able to wander around the ruins of the priory’s tithe barn (above). The tithe barn is now just an empty shell, but from what I could see of the restoration works, the priory looks as though it will be an interesting place to visit once it opens to the public later this year.

The main basin surrounded by large red brick warehouses in Gloucester's historic docks

From the tithe barn, I walked back to the main basin of the historic docks along the Gloucester Sharpness Canal. There I continued to wander around the docks, admiring the Victorian warehouses and crossing a number of narrow lock bridges to get around. The area around the main basin, in contrast to the Victoria Dock, was quite quiet and made for a peaceful place for a stroll.

St Mary de Crypt Church in Gloucester

Having walked around the docks, I made my way back towards the city centre, passing the Blackfriars Priory and St Mary de Crypt Church (above) along the way.  Both buildings were sadly closed – Blackfriars Priory is only open on Sundays and Mondays, while the church looked as though it was undergoing extensive restoration work – and so I wasn’t able to go inside. I also passed the ruined Greyfriars on my walk taking a quick peep at the little that is left of the 13th century Franciscan monastery.

The Museum of Gloucester

Around the corner from Greyfriars is the Museum of Gloucester (above) and I stopped to go inside as I was keen to learn more about the city’s history. The small museum takes visitors on a tour of Gloucester through the ages, starting from the days of the dinosaurs and culminating in more recent times. The museum costs £5 to enter and the ticket also gives you entrance to the Gloucester Life Museum.

The museum doesn’t have a huge number of really interesting and unusual artefacts, although there are a few stand outs including a 2,000-year-old Celtic mirror found buried alongside a woman on nearby Birdlip Hill (above, top left), the remains of the city’s Roman walls and the skeleton of a Roman woman (above, top right), as well as a very early version of backgammon (above, bottom).

The family-friendly museum has bundles of charm, the staff are welcoming and the curators have done an excellent job making the most of the artefacts on display. They’ve been quite creative in how they present the objects and tried to make the museum as interesting and exciting as possible for visitors.

There are huge dinosaur models to be found throughout the museum and there are lots of activities for children to enjoy, too. There’s also a great temporary photography exhibition featuring some incredible wildlife photographs taken by a local photographer Margaret Robson, as well as a modern art exhibition on the first floor.

I really enjoyed my visit to the museum, it was interesting, excellently curated and I learned a lot about Gloucester (while I knew Gloucester was a Roman city, I hadn’t realised quite how important and prosperous it was).

From the museum, I made my way through the city centre to the cathedral where I spent the rest of my day. I’ll write about the cathedral in my next post as it’s such a magnificent piece of architecture it deserves its own post (and this post will be 2,000 words long at the rate I’m going!).

The remains of St Oswald's Priory in Gloucester

Before leaving Gloucester, I headed over to the ruined St Oswald’s Priory, the burial place of Alfred the Great’s daughter Lady Aethelflaed who once ruled the kingdom of Mercia, only to discover there wasn’t much of it left (above).

I really enjoyed my day trip to Gloucester. The city wasn’t quite what I’d anticipated – I’d expected it to be much more affluent in the centre. There are lots of hideous 1960/1970s buildings and rundown shopping areas interspersed between the beautiful historic buildings and the city doesn’t make the most of some of its old buildings. Nevertheless the historic docks are great, while the area around the cathedral is picturesque and charming, and it’s somewhere I’d like to return to.

Info

Museum of Gloucester, Brunswick Road, Gloucester GL1 1HP
Open Tuesdays to Saturdays, 10am to 5pm
Adults £5, Concessions £3, Children under five free

London – Winnie the Pooh at the V&A

Winnie the Pooh climbing at the V&A

A few Saturdays ago I caught up with some friends in London. Our plan for the day was to visit the Winnie the Pooh exhibition at the V&A and then a game of crazy golf at Junkyard Golf, just off Brick Lane. I was due to meet my friends at the V&A just after midday, so after arriving at Paddington a little after 11am I set off for the V&A on foot via Kensington Gardens.

Albert Memorial, Kensington Gardens

That day, the sun was shining and aside from a few dog walkers, Kensington Gardens was quiet. I ambled through the park towards the magnificent Albert memorial (above) – commissioned by Queen Victoria to commemorate her husband Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha after his death in 1861 – and then continued on, passing the Royal Albert Hall, on my way down to Exhibition Road and the V&A.

Winnie the Pooh cuddly toys at the V&A

Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic explores the famous children’s stories written by AA Milne and illustrated by EH Shepard. The exhibition, which runs until 8 April 2018, looks at the origins of Winnie the Pooh, the inspiration behind the characters, places and stories, and how it came to be considered a beloved, world-famous classic.

The exhibition features the cuddly toys upon which the characters are based, photographs and information about AA Milne’s home life and explores the real-life locations behind the Hundred Acre Wood, Galleon’s Lap and more. It also showcases lots of Winnie the Pooh-related merchandise and objects, including some first edition books, which must be worth a fortune; board games; lunchboxes; and a very rare Winnie the Pooh tea set that was given to The Queen as a child.

Pooh sticks bridge, Winnie the Pooh at the V&A

There’s lots for kids to enjoy, too, with a slide, cubby holes, a doorway and games among the exhibition’s interactive elements. One of the best interactive elements was the illustrated recreation of Poohsticks bridge (above). My mum used to play Poohsticks with us as kids, but it was only here that I realised where the game came from – I hadn’t made the Winnie the Pooh connection before!

Illustrations on display at the Winnie the Pooh exhibition

The best part of the exhibition was EH Shepard’s amazing illustrations. EH Shepard liked to base his illustrations upon real-life objects and places, and it was fascinating to compare his drawings with photographs of the real-life versions. The exhibition also looks at Shepard’s technique and it was interesting to see his original pencil sketches – in some he’d redrawn the characters repeatedly – alongside the final ink versions.

As well as Shepard’s illustrations, the exhibition features lots of familiar excerpts from the stories – including Eeyore losing his tail and Piglet’s reaction when Eeyore suggested Owl have Piglet’s house – and they brought back lots of fond memories from my childhood.

'Mr Sanders' Winnie the Pooh's home at the V&A

Winnie the Pooh: Exploring a Classic is a fantastic, well-curated exhibition and I very much enjoyed it. There was lots to see and do, and I turned into a child again as we posed for photos on Poohsticks bridge, played with the interactive games and got into the spirit of the exhibition. It was also interesting to learn more about these iconic stories and characters that were such a big part of my childhood.

Info

V&A – Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic
Open daily until 8 April 2018
Costs £8
vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/winnie-the-pooh-exploring-a-classic

Cardiff Castle

Cardiff Castle

A few of my friends came down to Cardiff to celebrate the New Year and while they were here, they were keen to have a look around Cardiff Castle. I’ve been to the castle a few times and have a key to the castle that lets residents visit for free, but I’m always a little ashamed to admit, that despite growing up in the city, I didn’t visit the castle until my early twenties.

The castle is unusual in that it features the remains of castles built by the Romans and the Normans, as well as a 19th century stately home. The castle dates back to the first century when the Romans built the first of four forts on the site. These days only the remnants of the final stone fort remain and you can still see parts of its ancient walls, which were destroyed by the Normans, in the visitor centre.

20171231_130233 (2)

Our first port of call was the Norman keep (above), which sits atop an artificial mound and dominates the landscape within the castle walls. Originally built as a wooden structure in 1081, it was rebuilt in stone in the 1130s, and used to be far bigger than it is today as much of the keep’s outer buildings were destroyed in 1784.

View of the main house from the top of the castle keep

We climbed the many steep steps to the keep where we were greeted by a large empty round space. We then climbed even more rickety, steep steps to the top of the tower. The staircase to the top is very narrow, which means there’s only room for one group of people to go up or down at any one time. This created some confusion with groups getting stuck at the top or bottom for ages, waiting for the non-stop flow of people from the opposite direction to finish. But the wait to get to the top was worth it as the keep boasts fantastic views over the castle grounds and the city.

We spent a little while admiring the views from all directions, before eventually making our way back down and over to the castle apartments (above), which were once home to the Bute family. During the Victorian era, John Crichton-Stuart, the 3rd Marquess of Bute, was reportedly the richest man in the world, and the eccentric, oppulent residence he had designed by the architect William Burges is testament to this wealth.

Cardiff Castle apartments

If you visit Cardiff Castle, it’s worth joining a house tour if you can. These last 50 minutes and take you around the entire residence, which means you’ll see the full extent of Burges’s splendid architecture and decor. During the summer months you can also tour the castle’s striking clock tower.

On our visit, there didn’t seem to be any house tours running, so we took the self-guided tour around the castle apartments instead. The self-guided tour is much shorter than the guided house tour and a number of the castle’s most impressive rooms are roped off. Even though I was a little disappointed we didn’t get to see all the rooms, my friends, who’d never been before, were impressed by what they saw.

The apartments’ most impressive room is the Arab room (above), which you can see on the self-guided tour. This quirky room features decorative marble walls and flooring, and a dazzling roof. The square, oddly shaped roof is decorated in an intricate gold, red, white and black pattern, and is stunning. It’s one of the most unusual roofs I’ve come across. The room’s tiny and only a couple of people are allowed in to see it at any one time, but it’s worth the wait to get in as it’s so distinctive and over-the-top.

The other rooms on the self-guided tour include the great hall, which features a fabulous fresco along the top of the walls that depicts the English civil war of the 1130s and 1140s; two dining rooms; and a parlour. The ceilings in the various rooms were more often-than-not jaw-droppingly embellished and I made a point of looking upwards whenever I entered a new room to see the lavish decoration above my head.

20171231_132140

The tour finished in the library (above), a long narrow room, which is filled with wooden bookcases brimming with books. We were delighted to find a couple of complete volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and found ourselves reminiscing about our pre-internet childhoods when we had to consult the encyclopaedia if we wanted to look something up. It’s a beautiful room and was a lovely end to our tour of the apartments.

The tunnels inside Cardiff Castle's walls

From the house, we headed over to the tunnels that lie within the castle walls. During the Second World War, the tunnels were used as an air-raid shelter for some 1,800 local residents and they extend quite a distance. We walked the full length of the tunnels, stopping to admire the many wartime posters (below) that lined the walls urging women to join the land army, grow their own food and mind what they said in public.

Some of the posters were a little sexist and seemed to imply that women couldn’t be trusted to keep secrets as well as men, but they were fascinating to look at and really helped transport us back in time to the 1940s. As we walked through the dark and damp tunnels, wartime music played over the loudspeakers, which added to the sense that we were back in 1940, taking shelter during an air raid.

One of my favourite features was the small canteen that had been recreated in one of the recesses in the castle walls. There was a small makeshift stove, an urn and it was “selling” teas, coffees and scones for a few pence. All the authentic wartime touches helped bring the tunnels alive and made them all the more interesting to explore. It also made me grateful that we don’t have to seek shelter in them any more as they were quite cold and damp, and I’m not sure how much protection they’d offer during a bombing raid.

Inside the Firing Line museum at Cardiff Castle

Having explored the tunnels, we made our way back to the visitor centre to have a look around the museum. Firing Line: Cardiff Castle Museum of the Welsh Soldier is a small museum dedicated to two Welsh regiments, The Royal Welsh and 1st The Queen Dragoon Guards.

The museum takes you through the history of the two regiments through major conflicts, such as the Second World War, the Anglo-Zulu War and the Napoleonic wars. It also explores the role of the regiments during the height of the British Empire. The museum is well curated, there are lots of interesting artefacts and everything is explained really well.

One of the most interesting aspects of the museum was learning about the soldiers and their experiences. One display, for example, looked at six men who were awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery, why they were awarded the medal and what happened to them afterwards (which in some cases was quite tragic). There was also a hands-on display where you could dress up in the regiments’ uniforms.

All in all I enjoyed my visit to Cardiff Castle – even if I didn’t get a chance to explore the entire house. I know I’m biased as I’m from Cardiff, but I do think the castle is one of the best and most unusual castles in the UK as there are so many varied things to see and do. It’s a strange mix of a traditional, ruined Norman castle, Roman walls, a wacky, ornate stately home, air-raid shelters and a military museum. I’ve now been to the castle several times and never get bored of it, it’s a fascinating place.

Info
Cardiff Castle, Castle Street, Cardiff CF10 3RB
Open daily, 9am-6pm (March to October), 9am-5pm (November to February)
Adults £12.50 (plus an extra £3.25 for the house tour), children £9 (plus £2 for the house tour)
cardiffcastle.com