Jordan

The Treasury in Petra

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

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

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

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

The long colonnaded Cardo in Jerash

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

The desert and rock formations of Wadi Rum in Jordan

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

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

Wadi Mujib in Jordan

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

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

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

Meze at the Don Quichotte Restaurant in Amman

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

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

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

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

The Monastery in Petra

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

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Cuba travel guide

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

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

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

Havana

The outdoor book market at the Plaza de Armas in Havana

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

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

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

Pinar del Río

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

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

Viñales

The countryside around Vinales in Cuba

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

Cienfuegos

Sunset by the beach in Cienfuegos, Cuba

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

Trinidad

Plaza Mayor in Trinidad, Cuba

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

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

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

Santa Clara

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

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

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

Food and drink

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

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

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

Where to stay

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

Currency

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

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

Have your say

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

Chapelle Notre-Dame at Bétharram

Chapelle Notre-Dame de Betharram

On the way to the Grottes de Bétharram, we spied an unusual church by the side of the road in Lestelle-Bétharram. So on the way back from the caves, we stopped to take a look.

The Chapelle Notre-Dame, which lies on the banks of the Gave de Pau, was built in the 17th century on what has been a popular site with Christian pilgrims for centuries. The chapel’s unusual shape and blue-grey hue was eye-catching and intriguing in itself, but inside I was blown away by how opulent the road-side chapel was. It’s one of the most lavishly decorated churches I’ve visited.

The area around the chancel was filled with an elaborately carved gold display with lots of statues, while the walls and ceiling were painted teal with a gold star pattern. There were marble columns, huge paintings framed in gold that looked as though they cost a fortune, as well as two ginormous crystal chandeliers. It was amazing and looked like something that belonged in Naples rather than a small chapel in a rural town in the Pyrenees.

Tomb of Saint Michel Garicotis inside the Chapelle Notre-Dame de Betharram

After our surprising experience in the main body of the chapel, we wandered down a corridor to another small chapel. This chapel was much simpler and home to a shrine dedicated to St Michel Garicotis, featuring a plush gold and glass tomb just behind the altar (above).

Shrine, part of the Way of the Cross, beside the Chapelle Notre-Dame de Betharram

Having seen all there was to see inside the incredible chapel, we ventured back outside to have a look at the shrine in a small building (above) to the right of the chapel. Inside, behind locked gates, there was a marble statue depicting an episode from Jesus’s life. We could see more of these unusual shrines dotted along a walking trail on the nearby hillside, so our curiosity piqued, we decided to follow the trail up the hill.

Church on top of the hill along the Way of the Cross in Betharram

As we climbed up the hill, we came across more and more shrines, and realised the trail – the Way of the Cross – led all the way to the top of the hill. We carried on until we reached the top, where we  found a simple church (above). Opposite the church, there were yet more shrines, as well as three statues depicting the crucifixion of Jesus in front of a graveyard (below).

Statues depicting the crucifixion of Jesus beside a graveyard in Betharram

For the second time that day, we were stunned by the scene in front of us as we hadn’t expected to find such an elaborate display when we started out. It was a little eerie on the mountain top as it was completely deserted, until a keep-fit class emerged towards the end of our visit. I really enjoyed our impromptu hike up the hill and our visit to the Chapelle Notre-Dame. The chapel was exquisite and the shrines oddly fascinating, and it was a wonderful, random and unexpected ending to our final day in Béarn.

Grottes de Bétharram

Stalagmites and stalactites inside one of the caverns at the Grottes de Betharram

On our final day in Béarn, we decided to spend the day exploring one of the region’s subterranean delights – the Grottes de Bétharram. The Grottes de Bétharram are a series of caves underneath the Pyrenees that can be visited on a guided tour, which allows you to explore the complex on foot, by boat and by train.

During the low season, the caves are closed between midday and 1.30pm, and as it was around lunchtime when we arrived at Bétharram, we decided to have a spot of lunch before the caves opened for the afternoon.

We stopped at a small shack nearby, which was run by an eccentric older couple who seemed thrown by having customers. When I asked for a cheese sandwich (one of the few sandwiches listed on the menu), the lady had to run to the fridge to check they had any cheese.

Preparing our food seemed to be a painstaking process, too, but 20 minutes later we had two sandwiches, a small portion of fries, two coffees and one earl grey tea. There were picnic benches on the grass near the shack, so we sat down at one to enjoy our meal.

Lunch over, we made our way back to the caves and found we had to wait until 2pm for more people to arrive before we could begin our guided tour. Once 2pm rolled around, we all piled on a coach, which took us to the caves’ entrance some 1km away, where we bought our tickets.

Looking down at the many flights of steps inside the Grottes de Betharram

Inside the cave complex, we were greeted by the sight of an enormous cavern featuring a series of steps that led down five storeys, as the caves are split over five levels (above). It was a cool 14° inside the caves, and our enthusiastic and friendly tour guide told us that the cave complex was home to another 12km of caves that were off limits to the public.

Stalagmites and stalactites in one of the incredible caves at the Grottes de Betharram

Rather than follow the steps down into the chamber, we were guided to the right, where we were taken on a tour of a gigantic cavern. The cave was spectacular with lots of stalagmites and stalactites, including a few gargantuan ones that had merged over the centuries.

The incredible mottled ceiling inside the Grottes de Betharram

The cave was full of beautiful and weirdly-shaped rocks, including ones that resembled a woman, Scooby Doo, a bear and a marmot. There were lots of pools, too, and an incredible mottled ceiling (above) that was unlike anything I’ve seen in a cave. It was a spectacular cave with lots of weird and wonderful features, and it was fascinating to walk through it.

Stalactites hang from the ceiling in the Grottes de Betharram

After thoroughly exploring the huge chamber, we came back on ourselves and made our way down the five levels of steps, taking note of the many incredible sights along the way. After a little while exploring the lower levels of the caves, we were ushered onto a long boat with a dragon’s head on each end, which took us on a 100m journey across a large pool of water.

On the other side of the pool, we continued walking through the caves, and for a time, were walking on a path alongside a small river that flowed through the cave complex.  Having followed the underground path for a while, we came to the final part of our tour – the train journey.

The little train at the Grottes de Betharram

The train was a small, multicoloured engine, similar to those you get in theme parks (above). We all clambered aboard, put on our seat belts and were off! We whizzed along the tracks at quite a speed and I was taken a back at how quickly we were going. I’d expected it to be slow and cumbersome, but the train was rather nippy. The train came to a stop above ground, and at the train station, there was a small shop and an excellent café housed in a grand early-20th century building.

I really enjoyed our visit to the Grottes de Bétharram. The caves were unbelievably beautiful and some of the best caves I’ve been to, with lots of interesting and unusual features. Our guide was friendly and welcoming, and the short boat trip and train ride at the end were great fun, too. Well worth visiting.

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.

Ossau Valley

View from the top of the mountain at Artouste-Fabreges in the Pyrenees

I couldn’t very well spend a week in Béarn, in the shadow of the Pyrenees, without spending at least one day exploring the majestic mountain range. So we set off on a road trip that would take us through the Ossau Valley, one of a number of valleys cutting a swathe through the Pyrenees.

The Ossau Valley is the third largest Pyrenean valley in Béarn, starting just south of the regional capital Pau and running all the way to the Spanish border. We followed the D920 and then the D934 into the valley, passing a number of small towns along the way, the most notable being the charming town of Laruns.

After Laruns, we began steadily climbing as we continued to follow the road along the side of the mountain.

The spa village of Eaux-Chaudes on the banks of the Gave d'Ossau

At Eaux-Chaudes (above), we stopped briefly to stretch our legs. The small village is situated on the side of a mountain above the Gave d’Ossau, and in the 19th century was renowned for its hot springs. The pretty, peaceful village is still home to a spa, but there were few signs of life during our visit.

With no cafés or bars open, we hopped back in the car and continued our journey, passing the town of Gabas and a fair few hydro-electric stations, before reaching our destination, Artouste-Fabrèges. The Pyrenean village is essentially a mini-tourist resort and is home to a large dammed lake (below), shops, restaurants, a cable car and a tourist train.

Artouste Dam and Lac de Fabreges in the Pyrenees

The village was busy, far busier than anywhere else we’d been in Béarn, and there were quite a few bus loads of tourists milling about. Our plan, after we’d had a spot of lunch (goat’s cheese and tomato crêpe), was to take the cable car to the top of the mountain and to hop on the tourist train. The little yellow train claims to be the highest train in Europe and runs from the top of the mountain to the picturesque Lac d’Artouste, which is otherwise only accessible via a three-hour long walk.

The only snag in the plan came when I went to buy the tickets and found they were sold out for the day – at 1pm! Undaunted, we decided to take the cable car to the top of the mountain and have a look around instead.

The mountain was very steep and I was glad the cable car was doing all the hard work for us as I wouldn’t have wanted to climb it. From the window, I spotted a number of furry creatures, which looked like mountain beavers, running along the side of the mountain. They were super cute and I later found out they were marmots, which are a familiar sight in the Pyrenees.

View from top of the mountain at Artouste-Fabreges in the Pyrenees

After alighting the cable car near the top of the mountain, we decided to keep going until we reached the top so we could get an even better view of the valleys and peaks around us. The views were spectacular and it was an incredible sight. The mountains and lakes were stunningly beautiful, and we spent quite a while soaking up the sights and watching the cows and horses milling around the mountain top.

We then made our way back down to the café next to the cable car station, where we stopped for a hot chocolate, which we sipped on the outdoor terrace overlooking the valley below. Having soaked up our fair share of glorious mountain views, we travelled back down the mountain in the cable car (and saw more marmots), before making our way back up the Ossau Valley and home.

Looking ahead to 2019

The Monastery at Petra

New Year’s Day is that time of the year when I like to look ahead to the forthcoming year, and make a lot of travel and blogging predictions that probably won’t come true.

Last year, I made a number of predictions and a surprising number materialised. I passed my driving test and bought a car, I made it to Brittany (below) and spent four days in the glorious city of Porto. I also blogged about my trip to Costa Rica and the area around Poitiers in France, and wrote a couple more travel guides (Jordan and Edinburgh).

The Cote Sauvage on the Presqu'ile de Quiberon in Brittany

Predictions that failed to come true included buying a house (still on the cards for this year but Brexit has a lot to answer for), lots of blogging plans and trips to far flung destinations.

What’s coming up in 2019?

On the travel front in 2019, I’m off to Malaysia in March, as well as the Loire and possibly Paris in June. I’d then like to round out the year with a city break somewhere in Europe, and now that I have a car, spend some time exploring parts of the UK I rarely visit. Any tips on where to go, what to eat, etc, in Malaysia, the Loire, Paris or the UK will be greatly appreciated.

In March, I’ll be spending a fortnight in Malaysia, starting in Borneo, where I’m hoping to see lots of incredible wildlife (orangutans! tarsiers! sun bears!) and spectacular geology, before moving onto the Malay peninsula, where I’ll be taking in Kuala Lumpur, Malacca and Georgetown, before finishing in Langkawi.

In June, I’ll be touring the Loire region of France for a week, where I expect I shall gorge myself silly on splendid chateaux, patisserie, cheese and wine. I’m also toying with the idea of flying home from Paris and using that as an excuse to spend a few days in the French capital. I’m not the biggest fan of Paris, so we shall see whether that happens.

Regular readers may have clocked that I’m ridiculously slow at blogging my trips (thankfully I keep super detailed diaries while I travel), so if you’d like to keep up-to-date with my comings and goings, check out my Instagram (@thislittleoldworld).

The Douro River at dusk in Porto

Because of the above, I’m also really behind on blogging a number of my big trips, so first up this year will be a series based around my week long trip to Jordan. I’ll also hopefully get around to blogging about my city break in Porto (above) and my 10-day long stay in Brittany. I’ll probably also put together a couple more travel guides (Cuba is likely, as is Vietnam). If anyone has any preferences, let me know in the comments.

Thank you!

Finally, I’d like to say a big thank you to everyone who has read, liked, shared or commented on my posts over the past year. I write my blog for my own amusement, so I’m still gobsmacked that other people take the time to read and comment on what I write. It’s very much appreciated and I really enjoy reading your comments.

I’d also like to thank a number of other bloggers whose blogs I read on a regular basis and who provide a lot of travel and food inspiration. I’m forever reading other people’s posts and thinking I have to go there or try that restaurant/dish. So thanks for the inspiration!

Happy New Year! Have a wonderful 2019!

Bx

Madiran

Grapes growing on the vines at Aydie in the Madiran wine region

Being partial to the odd glass of red wine, I was keen to spend some time touring the Madiran wine region while I was in Béarn. The area is known for its full-bodied, robust red wines, and produces a less well known white, the Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh, too. Following a map of the Madiran wine region in my guide book, we set out for a road trip around the vineyards.

Grapes growing on the vine at Aydie

Our trip started in the small bastide town of Lembeye and followed the D13 through the villages of Castillon, Arricau-Bordes, Cadillon and Conchez-de-Béarn. The countryside was pleasant enough during this part of the route, but I was surprised by how few vineyards we saw. There was field after field of corn, but only the occasional grape vine, and if it wasn’t for my trusty map, I wouldn’t have known we were in wine country.

A field full of grape vines at Aydie in the Madiran wine region

After the first leg of our journey, we crossed the hills to the village of Aydie and we finally started to see lots of vineyards (above). We briefly stopped in the tiny village to look around, only to find there wasn’t much more to it than a few houses, a church and a château, but it was very quaint and delightful. Plus the outskirts were full of vineyards!

The charming 11th century church in Madiran

We continued along the route and decided to stop again in the region’s namesake town, Madiran, which turned out to be a very charming little place. Sadly, pretty much everything in the town was closed when we arrived, including the lovely looking church that dated from the 11th century (above). So after a brief tour of the deserted town, we hopped back in the car and continued our journey.

The wine merchants at Crouseilles

Our next and final stop was Crouseilles where the Crouseilles-Madiran wine co-op is based, and where we planned to sample and buy some wine – the only problem was finding it. We got horribly lost following the D648 as instructed by the map, when the road seemingly turned into a dirt track with lots of crossroads and no signposts. After a few wrong turns, we eventually made our way to Crouseilles and found the local wine merchant in the château (above).

A bottle of Madiran wine bought from the wine merchants in Crouseilles

The wine shop was full of bottles of Madiran and Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh at prices to suit all budgets – some were cheap, others were wildly expensive. The wine merchant was really friendly and let us try various wines while we decided which ones to buy. Armed with a good few bottles of Madiran (above) and Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh, our road trip was over, and it was time to head back towards the main road and our gîte.

Matsushima

Fukuura Island off the coast of Matsushima

The pretty, coastal town of Matsushima is one of the nihon sankei, aka the three most scenic places in Japan (the others are the island of Miyajima near Hiroshima and Amanohashidate, a pine-tree topped sandbank in Miyazu Bay). Nestled on the coast in the centre of Miyagi prefecture, the town’s beautiful bay is dotted with more than 250 small islands.

Browsing the shops and cafés that line the shore front, it’s hard to imagine that five years ago this peaceful, picture-perfect spot witnessed one of the worst natural disasters in recent memory – the massive 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck off Japan’s north-east coast on 11 March 2011.

Matsushima, unlike its neighbouring towns and villages along the coast, was spared the full devastating effects of the enormous tsunami thanks to the islands in the bay, which acted as a buffer against the huge waves, reducing the tsunami’s impact on the town. Nevertheless, the wall of water that hit the town was immense – I visited one shop on the shore front that had a sign in its window indicating the water level, which reached my shoulders.

A boat sits on the quayside waiting for passengers in Matsushima Bay

During my visit, the sea is calm, it’s a warm day and the serene bay is full of people enjoying the sunshine, the sights and the weird and wonderful Japanese snacks (wasabi, jellyfish or whitebait ice cream anyone?). We decided to take a boat trip around the bay, in and around the many islands, to fully appreciate the spectacular natural defences before us, and so we hopped on a relaxing cruise that lasted around three-quarters of an hour. The oddly shaped, tree-topped islands were spectacular and the bay very much deserves its scenic reputation, it’s an incredibly pretty part of the world.

The wooden Godaido Temple in Matushima

Following the boat ride, we headed over to Godaido Temple (above), a small temple on a little island just off the shore, accessible via little wooden bridges filled with small stalls selling souvenirs and kitsch toys. The teeny island was teeming with tourists taking pictures of the ancient wooden temple and having joined the hoards and snapped our own photos, we headed back to the mainland to visit the Zuigan-ji temple.

A shrine at the Zuigan-ji Temple in Matsushima

The temple itself was closed as it was undergoing an extensive, years-long renovation, but we were still able to walk around the tree-lined grounds and admire the sights. Chief among these were the small caves underneath the cliffs that overlook the park, which were home to lots of interesting shrines and statues (above).

On leaving the temple, we passed a couple of small shops selling fresh oysters. I’d never tried oysters before, but my brother-in-law promptly handed me a rather large, raw oyster. “Swallow it whole,” came the order from my father. But it was alarmingly big and I couldn’t bring myself to swallow it, so I stood there, chewing for a good five minutes – much to my family’s amusement – before I got any of it down my throat. It certainly wasn’t one of my most glamorous moments.

A small rowing boat on the shore of Fukuura Island in Matsushima

We finished our day with a trip to Fukuura Island, a largish island off the coast accessible by a long red footbridge. The island was full of picturesque little coves and beaches, some of which we had to clamber down fairly precarious paths to get to, and there was a small wooden temple on the island, too. It’s incredibly idyllic and was the perfect place to while away the remainder of the afternoon.

Matsushima is a world away from Japan’s frenetic big cities and made for a fantastic day trip from Sendai, where we were staying. It was easy to see why it’s revered as one of the three most scenic places in the country and I will definitely be adding the other two nihon sankei to my itinerary on future trips to Japan.

Japan – travel tips

Fukuura Island off the coast of Matsushima

If you’re planning to visit the Land of the Rising Sun, here are some of my top tips:

Climate

Japan tends to be mild in spring and autumn, very hot in summer (temperatures often hit the mid-30°Cs) and colder in winter (although it remains mild in the southern parts of the country).

There’s also a six week rainy season during June and July, which is best avoided if possible. The first time I went to Japan, we unwittingly arrived in the middle of an extended rainy period and it was very, very wet. Autumn and spring are great times to visit – plan a trip around March/April time and you may be lucky enough to catch the country’s famed cherry blossoms.

Currency

The currency is the Yen and I’ve found it’s worth taking quite a bit of cash to Japan as it can be hard to find cash machines that accept foreign bank cards, even in some of the major cities. If you do get stuck, the cash machines in the 7-Eleven stores and post offices usually accept foreign credit/debit cards, and I found that major stores tended to accept my debit card, too.

Travel

If you’re planning to travel around Japan, it’s worth investing in a JR pass before you leave as it usually works out much cheaper than buying train tickets while you’re there. The rail passes, which can only be used by foreign travellers and must be purchased outside Japan, can be used on most of the country’s trains, including the Shinkansen bullet trains, and you can choose between a seven-, 14- and 21-day pass. When you buy your JR pass you’ll receive an exchange order that you’ll have to swap for your pass once you’re in Japan – you can do this in the country’s major railway stations.

Accommodation

Be warned, Japanese hotel rooms are, on the whole, tiny. I could barely squeeze my average-sized suitcase into my hotel room in Kyoto. Love hotels, meanwhile, may be cheaper, but they’re designed to be discreet short-stay hotels for couples looking for some privacy.

Language

It goes without saying, but make the effort to speak some Japanese – it really is appreciated. My (very poor) attempts at the language were welcomed everywhere and I’d often be met with beaming smiles, even when all I’d uttered was arigato gozaimasu (thank you very much).

Technology

Have fun embracing all the incredible gadgets and technology. Everyone looks at me like I’m nuts when I say this, but my favourite is the heated toilet seats – and the little tap on top of the toilet that automatically comes on when you flush it. Genius.