Hay-on-Wye

The clock tower in Hay-on-Wye

One of my favourite places to visit in Wales is the small market town of Hay-on-Wye. Straddling the Welsh-English border, and flanked by the River Wye and the Black Mountains, the attractive town is probably best known for its many bookshops and annual literary festival, which has attracted the likes of Salman Rushdie, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton over the years.

When I was growing up, my family and I used to make an annual pilgrimage to Hay, usually the week after Christmas, where we’d wander around the town, browsing in its shops (Hay used to be home to an amazing jigsaw shop, which has sadly closed) and scouring the shelves in the many bookshops on the lookout for interesting and unusual tomes. This year, for the first time in a number of years, we decided to carry on the family tradition and paid a visit on New Year’s Eve.

Millionaire shortbread at The Granary in Hay-on-Wye

We arrived in the town at lunchtime, and after parking the car, strolled down to The Granary Café and Restaurant for tea and cake. The café sells home-made traditional fare such as soups, jacket potatoes and toasties, and always has a good selection of cakes (above). The only downside is it’s often heaving, and on the day we visited, it was as busy as I’ve ever seen it, with the queue almost out the door. Luckily, we were able to get a table, and despite the huge queue, were served relatively quickly.

The Murder and Mayhem bookshop in Hay-on-Wye

Refreshments over, it was time to hit the bookshops, and as an avid bookworm, I made a beeline to my favourite bookshop, Murder and Mayhem, on Lion Street. The small second-hand bookshop specialises in murder mysteries and features classics from the golden age of detective fiction from the 1920s and 1930s, American hard-boiled detective fiction, as well as popular modern crime writers such as Ruth Rendell and Ben Aaronovitch’s River of London series.

I love raking through the shelves in the upstairs room and spent ages picking out books. I ended up with a massive pile that included one of Dorothy L Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries and a British Library Crime Classic by Mavis Doriel Hay. I also picked up a Lew Archer mystery by one of my favourite hard-boiled authors Ross MacDonald and a few novels from the Crime Masterworks series, including Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver. All in all, I was very pleased with my haul.

The Hay Cinema Bookshop in Hay-on-Wye

Laden with books, we strolled through the town, browsing in the many clothes shops, bookshops and food shops, before finishing up in another of my favourite bookshops, the Hay Cinema Bookshop, so named because it’s housed in an old cinema. The cavernous shop sells all manner of books and it’s great fun browsing the shelves, not knowing quite what you’re going to find. I ended up buying a couple of novels by Graham Greene and Alexandre Dumas that I haven’t read.

By now, we were thoroughly bookshopped out, so decided to make our way home. And I’m now armed to the rafters with enough books to last me until next Christmas.

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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.

Poitiers

Cathedrale Saint Pierre in Poitiers

With its ancient churches, numerous bookstores and fantastic shops, Poitiers is one of my favourite French cities. Its medieval centre is a delight to wander around, a maze of winding streets featuring charming timber-clad buildings and distractingly tempting food shops and cafés.

When we arrived in the city, we decided to take a self-guided walking tour around its medieval centre, which took in most of the city’s sights. After a quick cup of coffee near the university, we set off down the Rue Gambetta, stopping to look in the many shops that took our fancy – and there were quite a few! – along the way.

Our first destination was the Church of Saint Hilary the Great. The church is a short walk beyond the city centre, tucked away in a residential area, and as I followed the map to the church, I had to repeatedly reassure everyone that we were going the right way.

The church is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was built in the 11th century to honour the first Bishop of Poitiers, St Hilaire. The Romanesque church is a striking, weathered building, the highlight inside being its beautiful high vaulted ceiling, and I was glad we’d made the detour to go to the church as it was well worth seeing.

The back of the Palais de Justice in Poitiers

From the church, we walked back towards the city centre, where we passed the impressive town hall and carried on walking in the direction of the Palace of Justice. The palace was once the home of the counts and dukes of Aquitaine, and counts the legendary Eleanor of Aquitaine among its former inhabitants.

Its renowned for its dining hall, the Salle des Pas Perdus (the hall of the lost footsteps), which was commissioned by Eleanor of Aquitaine in the late 12th century and is so-called because it’s said to be so big you can’t hear any footsteps within. We weren’t able to go inside on the day we visited, so we stopped to admire the stunning view of the back of the palace instead (above).

Baptistery of St Jean in Poitiers

We then made our way to the Rue Jean-Jaures and carried on down the street to the Baptistery of St John (above). The Merovingian baptistery is said to be the oldest church in France and dates back to the 4th century. We had a quick look inside and found it to be a fascinating, unusual place with amazing medieval frescoes on the walls and random stone sarcophagi dotted around the place.

Saint Pierre Cathedral in Poitiers

From the baptistery, we headed over to the city’s cathedral, the Cathédrale de Saint Pierre (above). The impressive 12th century cathedral was commissioned by Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and was built on the site of a ruined Roman basilica. It’s a massive, imposing structure from the outside, while inside it’s an elegant space with creamy stone walls and a high vaulted ceiling.

An ornate doorway at the Saint Pierre Cathedral in Poitiers

We spent ages looking around the cathedral, admiring its many notable features including its 13th century wooden choir stalls, its bright, colourful stained glass windows and its grand 18th century organ. I was particularly taken by the intricate carvings above the main doors (above).

Having looked around the cathedral, we headed back to the town centre, passing some quirky and intriguing shops on the Rue de la Cathédrale and the large Notre-Dame la Grande church as we went.

Before leaving, I was keen to visit a large bookshop I’d passed earlier in the day on the Rue Gambetta, Gilbert Joseph. I’m a massive bibliophile and always on the look out for some new (French) children’s history books I can read, so I was keen to check out their selection. Despite having a very thorough rummage – much to everyone else’s consternation – I couldn’t find what I was looking for.

With its long and varied history, characterful buildings and excellent shopping, Poitiers is a wonderful city and I could easily have spent longer there. In fact, I probably could have done with a whole day just to browse in all the interesting shops I passed. The food shops in particular looked very enticing, especially the chocolate shops and patisseries, and I’d probably need a month to eat everything that took my fancy.  I thoroughly enjoyed my day trip to the city, so much so if I were ever to move to a French city, Poitiers would be at the top of my list.

London – Junkyard Golf, Brick Lane and Spitalfields

The evil clown hole at Junkyard Golf

After visiting the Winnie the Pooh exhibition at the V&A, which I wrote about in my last post, my friends and I headed east, stopping for lunch at Madame D, a Nepalese restaurant on Commercial Street.

The restaurant’s menu features a series of sharing plates so we each chose one and shared them between the four of us: Naga chilli beef puffs, hakka chilli paneer, vegetable momos and Kathmandu curry with steamed rice. I also ordered a glass of homemade chilly lemonade, aka lemonade with a chilli in it.

The food was really good. The chilli beef puff was delicious and gone far too quickly. The chilli paneer was by far the tastiest dish, but very hot, and even though I really enjoyed it, my mouth was on fire. I wasn’t too fond of the momos, they were a little tasteless and the dough too thick, but the curry was lovely and had a great flavour.

Happily sated, we wandered up Fournier Street, one of my favourite streets in London – I love the characterful period houses, which look like something out of a Dickens novel – to Brick Lane. Junkyard Golf is situated in the Old Truman Brewery quarter off Brick Lane and was heaving when we arrived on the Saturday afternoon.

The skull ferris wheel hole at Junkyard Golf

After having our bags searched and being made to get rid of our bottled water, we headed downstairs to the golf courses. Junkyard Golf is a trendy crazy golf club where all the courses are made out of what look like scrap materials. It has branches in London, Manchester and Oxford.

The Brick Lane branch has four themed nine-hole courses. We were on a course called Bozo, which had a fairground and circus theme, as well as its own bar selling beers, wines and cocktails with names such as Ribena Turner, Hotline Ting and Obi Wan Banoffee.

None of the holes required much skill – some were stupidly easy, others downright impossible. My favourite was the hole where you had to whack your ball through a cannon, which fired it through some star-shaped holes where it then dropped to the ground and rolled perfectly into the hole for a hole in one.

My least favourite was the hole where you had to hit your ball along a pipe from which it was supposed to drop into a skull-shaped carriage on a ferris wheel and tip into the hole. It was impossible. Nobody came close to completing it so everyone got frustrated (not just in our group, in the groups behind and ahead of us, too) and cheated.

Junkyard Golf is great fun and I enjoyed our visit, it was a relaxed, friendly game and no-one got too competitive. The only downsides are it doesn’t take long to complete the course, only an hour, and I’m not sure I’d like to be there at night when there were lots of groups drinking on the course.

Dark Sugars Cocoa House in Brick Lane

After all our exercise on the (crazy) golf course, we crossed Brick Lane to Dark Sugars, a shop selling exquisite and very expensive chocolates, as well as decadent hot chocolates. I couldn’t resist joining the queue of people ordering hot chocolates and opted for a hazelnut praline one for £5.50.

Staff making chocolate shavings to top my hot chocolate

Admittedly it’s rather a lot of money to pay for one hot chocolate, but it was expertly made, combining melted chocolate with foaming hot milk and topped with lashings of dark, milk and white chocolate shavings. It was fascinating watching the staff prepare the hot chocolates and artfully cutting the chocolate shavings. Most importantly, the hot chocolate was sublime and went down far too quickly, although it was so rich I couldn’t have managed more than one.

From Dark Sugars, we hopped back across Brick Lane to the Vintage Market. The cavernous market is filled with stalls selling vintage clothing, some of which is very unusual, and there are designer bargains to be had, too. The first piece I picked up was a 1980s pencil skirt by Alberta Ferretti and I saw numerous pairs of Jimmy Choo heels.

I had a good rake in a number of the stalls and bought an amazing 1980s-style black and gold bolero jacket. You can pick up some incredible finds in the market, in particular classic, elegant coats , quirky dresses and chic hats. I could have spent ages rummaging through all the rails. If you’re after some unusual pieces, the market is worth a visit.

By now it was early evening and time for me to make my way back to Paddington to catch my train home, so we walked towards Liverpool Street Station, stopping off at the Old Spitalfields Market along the way to browse in the shops and stalls. The area around the market is home to lots of quirky clothing and antique shops, as well as bars, cafés and restaurants. After a quick look around the market, I said goodbye to my friends and headed back west having enjoyed a fun, action-packed day.

Info

Madame D
76 Commercial Street, London E1 6LY
madame-d.com 

Junkyard Golf Club
Dray Walk, Old Truman Brewery, 91 Brick Lane, London E1 6QL
Open daily
£9.50 per person Sunday to Wednesday, £11.50 per person Thursday to Saturday
junkyardgolfclub.co.uk 

Dark Sugars Cocoa House
124-126 Brick Lane, London E1 6RU
Open daily, 10am to 10pm
darksugars.co.uk 

Milan – Top tips

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping arcade in Milan, Italy

Despite doing a lot of research before my trip to Milan, there were a few things I learned while I was there that I wish I’d known sooner. So I’ve put together some of my top tips for anyone planning a trip to the Lombard capital.

Getting there

Milan has three airports – Malpensa, Linate and Bergamo. I flew into Malpensa, which is some 30 miles from the centre of Milan. It’s really easy to get to Milan from the airport – there’s an express train that takes you to Central Station or Cadorna Station. But I chose to hop on the express bus, which leaves every 20 minutes from Gate 4 – it only costs €8 (I bought my ticket from a guard beside the bus) and takes around an hour to get to Central Station. Linate and Bergamo airports also have express bus services that take you to the centre of Milan.

Getting around

The city centre is very compact and all the main sights are within walking distance. But if your legs are tired or you want to get from A to B quickly, then the Metro is very reliable. The underground transit system has four lines – a red, yellow, purple and green one – and stops close to all the major sights.

You can buy your tickets from the ticket machines or kiosks in the Metro stations. But be warned, many of the ticket machines are old and aren’t in the best condition, and I found a lot of people struggled to use them so you can be queuing for a while to buy your ticket. A one-way ticket costs €1.50 and is valid for 90 minutes or you can buy a day ticket for €4.50.

Sightseeing

The Last Supper

Santa Maria delle Grazie Church and Convent

If you’re planning to see Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper while you’re in Milan, make sure you book your tickets weeks in advance. I booked my tickets two weeks before I went and the only tickets left on the Saturday morning were for slots that started before 9am.

Tickets cost €10 (plus a €2 booking fee) and you can buy them from the Vivaticket website or by phone on +39 02 9280 0360. Only 30 people are allowed in to see The Last Supper at any one time and visits last 15 minutes. You’ll need to pick up your tickets at least 20 minutes before your scheduled visit – the ticket office is in a separate building to the Santa Maria delle Grazie refectory, it’s the other side of the small garden next to the refectory entrance.

The Duomo

The Duomo in Milan, Italy

Milan’s magnificent cathedral is open every day from 8am and if you’re planning a visit, you’ll need to buy your tickets from the box office across the street or online from booking.duomomilano.it. You can buy tickets for the cathedral, its roof terraces or its archaeological area, or you can do as I did and buy a Duomo pass, which allows you to visit all three and will save you money.

I opted for the Duomo Pass B, which cost €12 and gave me access to the terraces by foot. If you want to take the lift to the roof terraces, you can buy a Duomo Pass A for €16, but unless you have mobility issues, you’re better off saving yourself the €4 and walking – it’s not a particularly arduous climb and you’re at the top before you know it.

Food

Dishes

Risotto alla Milanese

Milan’s most famous dish is probably osso bucco, which is a dish of slow-cooked veal shanks in a vegetable broth. It’s often served alongside risotto alla milanese (above), which is a saffron-based risotto. I made sure to try both during my trip to Milan and the osso bucco, in particular, was incredibly tender and tasty. I ordered it at a pleasant little restaurant called Momus on the Via Arco. Milan is also the home of Panettone.

Panzerotti

Luini Panzerotti in Milan

On my first day in Milan, I passed a small shop called Luini (above) selling panzerotti  that had a long line of people outside queuing to get inside.

Whenever I go anywhere and see a long line of people queuing for food, I take it as a good sign. So at lunchtime the next day I headed over to Luini’s, tucked away in a little side street between the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II arcade and the Duomo, only to find there were two enormous queues stretching down the street – in both directions!

Panzerotti look like pasties but are essentially small calzone pizzas – they’re made with dough and filled with typical pizza toppings such as tomato, mozzarella and hot salami. They also have sweet versions with fillings such as peaches, almond and amaretti, and figs, walnut and cocoa.

Tomato, mozzarella, olive and anchovy panzerotti

I joined the queue and it took around 20 minutes to get served, and I was amused to find there was a security guard near the front making sure no-one pushes in and that the queue moves efficiently.

I opted for a tomato, mozzarella, anchovy and olive panzerotto (above), as well as a chocolate and pistachio one, which I saved for later. I then copied my fellow diners and stood in the street opposite the shop tucking into my warm panzerotto. It was delicious and  worth the wait! The sweet panzerotto was also very good.

Restaurants

Before going to Milan, I’d read the Brera district (to the north of the Duomo) was a good place to go for dinner. So on my first night, I headed off on foot up the Via Brera only to find a number of places that looked like tourist traps. Famished, I stopped off at one where the food was good and reasonably priced, but not quite as nice as I was hoping for.

On my final night, I did a bit more digging and found I was in the right district, but at the wrong end. So I hopped on the Metro and got off at Lanza (on the green line), then headed in the direction of the Via Mercato and the neighbouring side streets where there were loads of great restaurants. If I was to visit Milan again, this is where I’d go for dinner.

Food shops

Passion fruit and raspberry eclair

Milan is renowned for its fashion boutiques, but the city also has some impressive food shops. The food hall on the seventh floor of La Rinascente department store is incredible with unbelievably pretty chocolates, desserts and patisserie (above), along with unusual pastas, pasta sauces, condiments and wines. It’s not cheap, but well worth a browse.

Window display at Peck, Milan

Peck is another of Milan’s famed food halls, it’s like the Milanese Fortnum & Mason’s. I had a great time wandering around and gawking at all the incredible food stuffs I couldn’t afford to buy. There’s a fish counter, a meat counter, a cheese counter and so on, all brimming with top quality produce, as well as chocolates and other sweet treats that are so pretty it would be a crime to eat them (above).

Have you been to Milan? If so and you have any more tips to share, I’d be really interested in reading them – please leave them in comments below.

Milan – Castles, churches and more da Vinci

Castle Sforza in Milan

As regular readers to my blog may have guessed, I’m a sucker for a castle and when I found out Milan has its very own castle, it ended up somewhere near the top of my must-visit list. Having spent the morning exploring every last inch of the city’s Duomo, I made my way to the castle.

The Sforza Castle, or Castello Sforzesco to give it it’s Italian name, was built between 1360 and 1370 on behalf of Galeazzo II Visconti, the then-ruler of Milan. It then passed into the hands of the famed Sforza dynasty, after whom the castle is named, who turned it into a great ducal residence. Over the centuries, the castle changed hands multiple times between Milan’s ruling powers and fell into decline, until it was rescued and restored by the architect Luca Beltrami in the late 19th century.

Courtyard inside the Castle Sforza in Milan

When I arrived at the castle, I walked through the massive gates into a huge courtyard, and it was then that I realised that the Sforza Castle isn’t a castle in a traditional sense with lots of rooms, and nooks and crannies, to explore. Instead various parts of the castle have been turned into museums – there’s an Egyptian museum, an art gallery, a museum of ancient art, as well as a museum dedicated to Michelangelo’s masterpiece Rondanini Pietà.

Smaller courtyard inside the Castle Sforza in Milan

Rather than explore the castle’s many museums, I spent time looking around the castle’s courtyards, taking photos of the different facets of this impressive building. It’s an imposing sight and must have been quite something during its heyday when the Sforza family held court.

Parco Sempione in Milan

Behind the castle, sits Milan’s Parco Sempione, and having seen all there was to see in the castle’s courtyards, I headed to the park through an exit at the rear of the castle. The 116-acre park used to be a hunting ground for the Sforza family but in the late 19th century it was turned into a landscaped park. At the far end of the park is a huge triumphal arch, commissioned by Napoleon, that was remodelled as an Arch of Peace by the Austro-Hungarian emperor Francis I in commemoration of the 1815 Congress of Vienna.

After making a quick detour to a nearby gelateria for some gelato, I headed back to the park where I took my time walking around it. The park is a large, attractive space, and although there isn’t anything particularly special or distinctive about it, it was nice to spend some quiet time away from the busy streets, ambling around the park’s pretty trees and lakes.

Basilica di Sant'Ambrogio in Milan

After a pleasant stroll, I headed off on foot to the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio, which I’d read was one of Milan’s most impressive churches. When I arrived, the church was closed for lunch so I hung around for 10 minutes or so until it opened, then headed inside.

The basilica was founded by the city’s patron saint, St Ambrose, in the 4th century and is notable for the two campaniles that stand either side of the church. Inside, the basilica is a fairly standard Milanese affair with a pretty patterned roof and lots of priceless-looking paintings hanging above the many altars that line the church’s sides. There’s also a striking marble pulpit decorated with delicate, intricate carvings.

The church’s crypt is the resting place of St Ambrose, along with two martyrs, the Roman soldiers Gervasius and Protasius, and I was somewhat taken aback to find their three skeletal corpses on display in a see-through casket, their bones clothed as though they were still alive. It was such an unexpected and unusual sight that I had to take a second glance to make sure I hadn’t imagined it.

Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan

From the basilica, I made my way through the back streets of Milan to the Pinacoteca and Biblioteca Ambrosiana. The art gallery and library is home to paintings, sculptures and artefacts from the 16th to the 19th centuries, and features artworks by the likes of Jan Brueghl, Paul Brill, Sandro Botticelli and Titian, as well as a number of Lombard artists. But the gallery’s pièce de résistance is Leonardo da Vinci’s Portrait of a Musician, as well as pages from a folio featuring sketches and notes by the great master.

The Pinacoteca and Biblioteca Ambrosiana has some 22 galleries to explore and is situated in a magnificent late 16th century building. I followed the suggested visitor route around the gallery, which at times took me outside to a balcony lined with statues, overlooking a spectacular courtyard (above).

The building itself is as much a work of art as the priceless pieces within and many of the rooms are spectacular. Room 12, for example, features a stunning marble staircase and mosaic, with a series of marble statues above it. While rooms 10 and 11 feature a fake wooden library above the artworks.

The lighting throughout is superb, too, and is possibly the best lighting I’ve come across in a museum or gallery. The artworks are showcased in dimly lit rooms with spotlights shining on them, which makes them pop and shows them at their best.

The Pinacoteca Ambrosiana is best known for its da Vincis but as I walked around I had yet to see them and was worried I’d missed them. But as I was leaving the gallery, I stepped into a room and there, taking pride of place, was da Vinci’s Portrait of a Musician. It’s a striking painting and dominates the room, and I spent quite a bit of time admiring it, as well as the other painting in the room, before moving into the library.

The library (above), which was commissioned by Cardinal Federico Borromeo in the early 17th century, is supposedly Italy’s first public library and is stacked high with thousands of books, but its main attraction is the Codex Atlanticus.

The Codex is a collection of sketches and notes by da Vinci, and pages from the Codex are on display in clear panels in the centre of the room. I took my time looking at all the pages, some of which are really impressive, others less impressive scraps and doodles, and I came away with the impression that da Vinci must have been a prolific doodler.

There’s one last masterpiece within the gallery, tucked away at the far end of the room, just before the exit – Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit. It’s a magnificent painting, and with this and the da Vincis, the gallery saved the best for last. I’m always amazed by how true to life so many still-life paintings are and Basket of Fruit is no exception. I have no idea how Caravaggio managed to paint such realistic looking grapes, apples and figs, it’s really clever and I was a little dumb stuck by how good it was. It’s a fabulous painting and a brilliant way to end a superb museum.

By now it was early evening, so I stopped off for a cup of tea in one of Milan’s many swanky cafés (bog standard Starbucks-type establishments seemed to be few and far between in Milan), then spent the rest of the evening wandering around the shops. I had another look around La Rinascente department store, then ambled up the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, a large shopping street, until I reached the fashion quarter.

There, I turned down the swanky Via della Spiga, aka Milan’s Bond Street, where I marvelled at the incredible window displays in the designer stores. Being a pauper, I avoided going inside any of the shops as I wasn’t too keen on having a Pretty Woman moment, but the window displays were so spectacular I was happy just gawking at them and the overpriced goods within.

Milan is very much a walking city and I enjoyed my day ambling around the city, mooching from one attraction to the other. From churches to priceless works of art, castles to parks, I visited so many varied places it made for a fun and eventful day. I was also glad I found time to fit in a spot of window shopping. I wasn’t sure I’d have time to fit in any shopping as I’d planned such an action-packed day, but I’m pleased I did as I couldn’t go to one of the world’s greatest fashion capitals without seeing a few sartorial masterpieces.

Sarlat le Caneda

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To the north of the Dordogne lies the pretty town of Sarlat le Caneda. Home to an abundance of picturesque medieval and renaissance buildings, the town is so renowned for its attractive architecture, it’s one of the most popular tourist spots in the region.

On arriving in Sarlat, we headed straight to the most photogenic part – the old town centre. There we walked around the maze of narrow cobbled streets and alleyways, admiring the beautiful buildings around us, and paying particular attention to the buildings’ intricate and eye-catching details such as turrets, carvings, and arched doors and windows.

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Sarlat is a foodie town and we were lucky enough to visit on a Wednesday, one of its two market days (the other being Saturday), when its narrow, winding streets are filled with stalls selling fresh produce such as fruits and vegetables, sausages, meats, cheeses and more. We spent quite a bit of time wandering around the food stalls, then stopped by the large covered market that’s filled with yet more food stalls, where I bought some lovely little macarons.

Having thoroughly checked out all the food stalls, we made our way to the Manoir de Gisson, a curious little museum housed in a couple of attractive townhouses that once belonged to high-ranking members of the Sarlat nobility. On going inside, we were greeted by strange and interesting artefacts, as well as some grisly and very painful looking torture instruments.

We carried on through the museum, which then turned into a tour of the living quarters showcasing how the rich townsfolk lived during the medieval and renaissance eras. The museum isn’t very big so it didn’t take long to see it all, but I did leave a little bemused by the two very distinct, contrasting sections. It’s the only museum I’ve been to that combines plushly-decorated living quarters with torture instruments and unusual curiosities.

By now we were getting hungry, so we stopped for lunch in one of the many cafes lining the town’s squares. The food was good, but nothing special, and tummies sated we headed up towards the main street where we carried on admiring the architecture, and popping in and out of the many shops.

As pretty as Sarlat is, I didn’t love it. I found it a little too touristy for my tastes and felt it was on that dangerous cusp of beginning to cater so much to tourists that it loses the charms that made it special in the first place. That being said, if you’re in the region, it’s worth visiting (for now) to see what the fuss is about – just make sure you visit on market day and take advantage of all the wonderful produce on sale.

Monpazier

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One of les plus beaux villages en France, the utterly delightful bastide town of Monpazier, south of the Dordogne, more than lives up to its billing as one of the country’s most beautiful villages. I adored it. So much so that if I were ever to move to France, this is where I’d want to live.

The town dates back to 1284 when it was founded by the English king, Edward I. Its one of a series of bastide towns and villages in south-western France built by the English during the Hundred Years War in the 13th and 14th centuries. A bastide town is a fortified town, surrounded by large, thick stone walls and built to a grid layout – and Monpazier is one of the best surviving examples.

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As a typical bastide town, Monpazier has a large square at its centre, a series of streets and alleyways leading off it, and fortified gates around the edges providing entrance to the town (today, three of the original six gates remain).

Around the central square is a series of covered walkways home to shops, including a tabac where I’d get my daily newspaper; restaurants; and a great little café, where I’d stop off for a hot chocolate in the morning. The square also hosts the town’s market on a Thursday, as well as a number of flea markets throughout the summer where I had great fun browsing (and buying) antiques.

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Monpazier is home to some excellent shopping. There’s a fantastic leather shop, where I bought a black leather handbag – everything in there was so nice, I could easily have bought half the shop. There are also a number of shops selling home furnishings, a butcher’s that sells portions of homemade lasagne and quichés, and stores selling local food stuffs, such as foie gras and pécharmant wine.

One of my favourite spots was the fabulous patisserie on the Rue Saint-Jacques. The cakes and desserts were so good I made a daily pilgrimage (apart from the day it was closed) to sample a different treat – the walnut tart was particularly good. By the end of the week, the lady who ran the patisserie must have thought “You, again?” as I enthusiastically sauntered through the doors.

Monpazier’s light coloured stone buildings are incredibly pretty and largely untouched since medieval times – it’s so charming, I found myself happily ambling around on a daily basis, somewhat in awe of its loveliness. Adding to its many charms, it has a relaxed vibe, and the people are warm and friendly, too. If you’re looking for somewhere to base yourself in the Dordogne, you could do a lot worse than Monpazier.

Ho Chi Minh City – Part 2

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Just before lunch we headed to the Reunification Palace in the centre of Ho Chi Minh City. Home to the president of South Vietnam in 1975 when the North’s tanks came rolling in, it’s stood in a virtual time warp ever since. To get to the palace, we walked through the large pale grey gates surrounding it and past an immaculate round lawn where we headed up a flight of steps to the main entrance.

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Inside, the palace is home to ceremonial spaces, a banqueting hall, meeting rooms, seating areas, a dining room, screening room and even an indoor rockery. And as befitting a presidential palace, it’s lavishly decorated in parts. The enormous Conference Hall (above), for example, is filled with chintzy red sofas and armchairs with a red patterned carpet. While the Ambassador’s Chamber is a large gold-themed room featuring Japanese-style laquered furnishings.

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While the entire palace is an ode to the 1970s, when I walked inside the National Security Council Chamber (above), I really felt as though I was stepping back in time. The room has maps all over the walls, basic furniture and an amazing series of pastel coloured phones in a row on a wooden cupboard.

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Downstairs in the basement is the war bunker, a claustrophobic space full of sparsely-furnished rooms. One of the rooms was empty bar a table, chair, filing cabinet and a series of phones; another just had a bed, a small table and a couple of phones. The Reunification Palace is perfectly preserved and there’s lots to see. I really felt as though I’d been transported back to the 1970s as I walked around and it offers an intriguing insight into what life was like at the palace at the time.

Having spent the morning sightseeing, we spent the rest of the day ambling around the city centre, taking a walking tour of the main sights, such as the elegant Municipal Theatre and the People’s Committee Building, and doing a spot of shopping.

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Ho Chi Minh City is great for shopping and it’s worth spending a little time exploring the shops around Union Square (above). Le Loi is home to some great boutiques, including my favourite, the Saigon Boutique, where I felt as though I bought half the shop. If you collect art, Union Square has some great galleries – I bought a striking painting in one of them. The central market, meanwhile, is packed with stalls selling all manner of goods, such as fruit and veg, coffee (including the infamous weasel coffee), souvenirs and clothing, while the Vincom Shopping Centre is a modern mall filled with big name high street stores.

In the evening, we headed back to Union Square to check out the People’s Committee Building. We’d read in a guidebook that the exterior is filled with geckos at dusk and we were keen to see if this was true. It turned out it was – there were loads of geckos all over the facade. The soldiers guarding the building, though, were less than impressed by our game of ‘spot the gecko’ and we were soon shooed away and told off for getting too close to the building, which isn’t open to the public.

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Just before dinner we made our way to the Saigon Skydeck in the Bitexco Financial Tower, one of the tallest buildings in the city. The Skydeck has incredible views in every direction over the city and we stayed there as the sun went down, before stopping off at the bar for a couple of ice-cold margaritas with a view. The perfect way to end a jam-packed day of sightseeing and shopping.

Hoi An

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The ancient trading port of Hoi An is utterly charming and its old town embodies traditional Vietnamese culture, as for the most part, it’s remained unchanged for centuries. In 1999, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the pretty port is the perfect place to spend a few days mooching around – which is exactly what I did.

Sights

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One of the town’s most notable sights is the Japanese Covered Bridge (above) in the old quarter near to the Thu Bon River. The beautifully ornate bridge was built by members of the town’s Japanese community in 1593 and connects the old quarter with the Chinese quarter. During my visit, the bridge was heaving with tourists, but the hordes of people couldn’t detract from how pretty it is.

Lanterns

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One of my favourite things about Hoi An was the colourful handmade lanterns hanging in the old quarter. The lanterns were delightful by day, but by night, when they were all lit up, they were simply spectacular. The town hosts regular lantern festivals throughout the year. Sadly, there wasn’t one taking place while I was there, but I should imagine it’s a magical sight.

Shopping

If you like shopping, Hoi An’s the place for you as the old quarter is teaming with shops selling all sorts of goods, from stationery to scarves, and crockery to clothing. I spent hours looking around the shops.

The town is also the place to go if you’re in the market for some bespoke clothing. There are a number of tailors in Hoi An and I had some trousers and a dress made at Yaly Couture, which has two branches in the old quarter.

I went in, chose a pattern and the fabric, then had a number of fittings over the course of the next few days. It was really affordable, especially for clothing that is made to  measure and fits perfectly, and definitely worth doing if you’re in Hoi An. It was also great fun watching everyone else having their clothes made and seeing how different everyone’s tastes were.

Film set

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As I spent my days wandering around Hoi An, I found myself stumbling across some interesting sights. On my first day in the town, I came across a film crew filming an action sequence next to the covered market. I joined the crowds for a bit to watch the filming as whatever they were filming looked very dramatic. The guy pictured above seemed to be the star of the film – so if anyone knows who he is, let me know in the comments!

River cruise

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Hoi An is situated around the Thu Bon River, so there are lots of people offering boat rides. On our second morning in the town, we decided to take one of the guys up on his offer and spent an hour or so touring the river. We sailed past lots of fields and other boats, and it was an enjoyable, relaxing experience.

About halfway into the journey, a couple of people fishing began putting on a display for us with their nets, before one of the fishermen clambered onto our boat and beckoned me to have a go. Now, I was aware before I said yes, that this was probably an arrangement between our boat driver and the fisherman, but I’d never tried fishing before so I decided to give it go.

When the fishermen put on their display, it looked really easy and quite spectacular. It turned out to be much harder than it looked, and my net went a pitifully short distance when I attempted to throw it. It’s safe to say I won’t make much of a fisherman, but I had fun and it was good to try my hand at a new skill.

Cua Dai Beach

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Just outside Hoi An is Cua Dai Beach, a popular beach resort on the South China Sea. We decided to spend an afternoon there, and it was really easy to get to, if a little monotonous as we just walked down Cua Dai Road for an hour or so past a never-ending series of fields until we eventually came to the resort (we got a taxi back to our hotel).

The beach is a long sandy stretch of coast that carries on as far as the eye can see. On the day we went, the sea was really choppy so unfortunately swimming was forbidden, but undeterred I had a refreshing waist-high paddle in the water. We spent a relaxing afternoon on the beach chilling out, reading and watching the world go by. There were also lots of teeny little crabs on the beach that kept us amused.