Angles-sur-l’Anglin

View of the cliff-top fortress and a mill on the river bank in Angles-sur-l'Anglin

One of the plus beaux villages de France (most beautiful villages in France), the village of Angles-sur-l’Anglin is, as its label suggests, ridiculously pretty. Situated around the idyllic River Anglin, the charming village boasts picture-perfect medieval buildings, breathtaking views and a ruined cliff-top castle. It’s also home to a series of 14,000-year-old Paleolithic cave sculptures.

The medieval streets in Angles-sur-l'Anglin

We arrived in Angles-sur-l’Anglin at lunchtime and after a spot of lunch, spent a couple of hours ambling around the village’s winding, narrow streets, admiring the attractive architecture, taking lots of photos and looking in the occasional shop we passed along the way.

The village was quiet when we visited, which added to its idyllic charms. It also meant I could take my time playing with the settings on my camera and have a little fun with my photography as I didn’t have to worry about people stepping into my shot.

Angles-sur-l'Anglin fortress

With it’s dramatic position high on the cliff overlooking the River Anglin, one building in the village stands out from all the rest – the castle. The ruined fortress, which was originally built between the 12th and 15th centuries for the bishops of Poitiers, is now in such a precarious state it’s closed to the public for safety reasons. But you can still look around the outside, which is what we did after walking around the centre of the village.

The castle is located in a strategic position between the ancient regions of Berry, Poitou and Touraine, which were hotly contested by the French and the English during the Middle Ages. When we were up at the castle, it was easy to see why the bishops of Poitiers would build a fortress here as it’s elevated position makes it a great place from which to detect an invading army.

After seeing what we could of the ruined castle, we made our way to the highest point on the cliff, which is home to the Saint Pierre Chapel. The tiny, unassuming and abandoned-looking chapel was closed, so we couldn’t look inside, but the views over the village, the castle and the river were fantastic and well-worth the climb.

River Anglin in Angles-sur-l'Anglin

From the chapel, we strolled back down the hill, past the castle, to the river. There we ambled along the picturesque river bank, stopping to look at an old water mill along the way. After a short walk, we turned back and made our way to Roc-aux-Sorciers.

Roc-aux-Sorciers, or Sorcerers’ Rock as it’s known in English, is a rock shelter featuring 14,000-year-old cave sculptures of animals. The sculptures are closed to the public for conservation reasons, but the site is home to an interpretation centre where you can view replicas of the sculptures and find out more about their Paleolithic creators.

Unfortunately when we got to Roc-aux-Sorciers, we found we’d made that rookie mistake of not checking the opening times before we visited and the centre was closed. We might not have seen the replicas of the Paleolithic sculptures, but we nevertheless had a lovely day out in Angles-sur-l’Anglin, which more than lived up to its billing as one of France’s most beautiful villages.

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Montreuil-Bellay

Chateau de Montreuil-Bellay in France

As regular readers to my blog likely know by now, I love a castle, and if there’s one close by when I’m travelling, I have to visit it. During our stay in Parthenay, our hosts had told us the best castle nearby was in the town of Montreuil-Bellay, so that’s where we headed on our second day in the region.

When we arrived in Montreuil-Bellay, we found the castle was closed for lunch, so we found a café where we had a bite to eat and then spent some time wandering around the town until 2pm when the castle was set to reopen. The town of Montreuil-Bellay has a long history as it’s strategically placed between the historic areas of Anjou, Poitou and Touraine (all former Plantagenet strongholds). As a result, it’s home to lots of attractive, old buildings.

The 15th century St John's Gate in Montreuil-Bellay

We spent a pleasant half hour or so ambling around the town’s streets, admiring the old buildings and fortifications (including the 15th century St John’s Gate, above) and looking in the odd shop, before making our way back to the castle. The huge, beautiful castle is still inhabited so it can only be visited by guided tour at certain times throughout the day.

Chateau de Montreuil-Bellay in France

The current castle was built between the 13th and 15th centuries, but there’s been a castle on the site since the 11th century. It has quite the storied history, too. Its moat sheltered starving peasants during the Hundred Years War between England and France, women thought to be sympathetic to the royalist cause were imprisoned here during the revolution of the 1790s, and it served as a hospital for wounded soldiers during the First World War.

View of the River Thouet from the gardens at the Chateau de Montreuil-Bellay

After buying our tickets, we had time to spare before our tour began so we set off to explore the castle’s gardens and ramparts. The castle, which overlooks the River Thouet, boasts 13 towers and some 650m of ramparts, and I had great fun climbing the garden’s towers, exploring the ramparts, from which I had fantastic views of the river below, and strolling around the landscaped grounds.

The gardens were really pretty with beautifully manicured lawns and hedges, and flower beds filled with red, pink and white flowers. There’s also an enormous, elegant chapel. After spending a good half hour roaming the grounds and taking lots of photos, it was finally time for our guided tour.

The guided tour, which takes you around the castle’s ground floor and the cellars, was carried out in French and English, and lasted just under an hour. Among the rooms on display were the music room, dining room and the Duchess of Longueville’s bedroom, as well as the impressive medieval kitchen and the huge cellars where they used to make wine. We weren’t allowed to take any photos inside, hence the lack of indoor pics, but the tour was interesting and our guide knowledgeable.

Montreuil-Bellay is a beautiful château and an interesting place to spend an hour or so, but I’m not sure it was worth the hour or so drive there and back from Parthenay. Unfortunately, you can’t see much of the castle other than those few rooms on the ground floor and the cellars, which is understandable when people still live there, but it felt as though it was lacking something, especially given its long and fascinating history. It’s lovely and all, but if I’m honest, it’s not the most interesting castle I’ve visited in France.

Jordan travel guide

Wadi Mujib in Jordan

If I had to guess, I’d wager that Petra is the reason most people visit Jordan and it was certainly why I booked my trip. I’d long been keen to visit the ancient Nabatean city, but little did I realise it’s just one of a number of incredible places to see in this fascinating country.

Jordan is home to wonderfully preserved Roman ruins, the lowest and saltiest point on Earth and Moses’s alleged burial site, as well as cracking Crusader castles, spectacular deserts, and relaxing beach resorts. It’s also one of the most beautiful countries I’ve seen and boasts breathtaking scenery that rivals the great American vistas of Zion and Arches national parks.

Jordan has a long and fascinating history, playing host to a number of cultures and peoples over the millennia; the food is delicious; and the people are warm, friendly and hospitable. I spent a week travelling around the country last year and needless to say, I loved every minute of it. Here’s my mini travel guide to Jordan

Sightseeing

Amman

I wasn’t hugely impressed by Jordan’s capital city Amman, it didn’t seem to have much of a centre to it and you needed to drive everywhere, so it felt a little soulless. But there are some impressive places to visit, including the old Citadel (above) on top of a hill in the centre of the city and the Roman amphitheatre below it. The Jordan Museum, which is home to some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, is also worth a visit – it’s small, so only takes an hour or so to look around, but it’s full of interesting exhibits about the country, its history and its culture, and has an excellent display about the origins of language.

Jerash

One of the largest and best preserved Roman sites in the world, Jerash is a fascinating place. The ancient city is much bigger than I was expecting and even though we spent a good two-and-a-half hours there, I still felt as though we rushed our trip and didn’t quite see everything there was to see. The spectacular ruins include two almost perfectly preserved amphitheatres, numerous temples and an intriguing mosaic on the floor of an old church.

Dead Sea

The mineral-rich lake that lies between Jordan and Israel is 411m below sea level, making it the lowest point on Earth. There are a number of resorts dotted along the edge of the Dead Sea where you can while away an afternoon floating in the thick salty waters.

Make sure you don’t spend longer than 20 minutes in the sea at any one time before washing all the minerals off your body and avoid getting the sea water in your eyes or other sensitive parts of your body. Look out for small pockets of mud along the shore, which you can use to slather over your body, then wait for the mud to dry before washing it off in the sea – it will leave your skin super soft!

Biblical sites

As part of the Holy Land, Jordan is home to a number of important Biblical sites. Mount Nebo, for example, is home to the Memorial Church of Moses, which commemorates the prophet Moses who reportedly saw the promised land from the spot, and features Moses’s reputed burial site, as well as some fantastic mosaics. The mountain, which lies at the top end of the Dead Sea, also boasts fantastic views over Israel (you can just make out Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem in the distance, above).

St George’s Church in the town of Madaba, meanwhile, features an incredible 6th century mosaic map of the Holy Land (above). Only parts of the map remain, but what’s there is fairly topographically accurate and it’s possible to make out the Jordan River, the Dead Sea and Jerusalem.

Kerak

Perched high on a hill and dominating its namesake town, the crusader castle at Kerak is enormous. The sandstone structure is an imposing and formidable fortress. Much of it is now in ruins, but you can clamber about inside the dark chambers and passages, exploring what remains and there are fantastic views over the nearby valleys.

Petra

The jewel in Jordan’s crown and one of the seven wonders of the world, Petra does not disappoint and is a must for anyone visiting the country. The most surprising thing  about Petra is its size, it’s enormous, and you’ll need at least two, if not three, days to see it all. I spent two full days in Petra and could have done with an extra day.

Petra is famed for its ancient tombs, but surprisingly, they’re not the most spectacular part of the city. Rather I was blown away by its incredible landscapes – it’s one of the most beautiful places on earth. The colours in the rocks – greens, reds, whites, purples, blacks, even bright blues – are like nothing I’ve seen before.

Petra gets very busy, especially the area around the Treasury (above), so it’s worth getting there as early as possible. It was incredibly hot and sunny when I visited in May, so we did the bulk of our sightseeing in the morning before the temperatures became unbearable.

Petra’s very hilly so you’ll need to do a lot of hiking to reach some of the more interesting parts of the city. My favourite place was the Monastery (above), high on top of one of the city’s hills, and for me, more spectacular than the iconic Treasury. My surprise when I turned around and saw it after a long hike to the top of the mountain will stay with me forever.

It’s also worth carrying on past the Monastery to the look-out points on the rocks nearby. There’s one overlooking the Monastery and one further on with a Bedouin tent on top of a precarious-looking rock – don’t miss either highest point and stay for tea with the friendly Bedouin. The view from the rock over the Wadi al Araba is extraordinary and one of my favourite travel moments.

Wadi Rum

The beautiful desert of Wadi Rum was immortalised by Lawrence of Arabia in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his detailed account of his time in the Middle East helping unite the Arab tribes. The Seven Pillars of Wisdom is named after a rock formation in the wadi (an Arabic term for valley) and there’s even a carving of TE Lawrence on a rock in the desert. Wadi Rum is also home to an old, unused train station with a train you can clamber aboard, as well as ancient Nabatean carvings. You can also spend the night sleeping under the stars in a Bedouin camp where you’ll be treated to great food, music and dancing.

Aqaba

Aqaba lies at the top of the Red Sea and is the only port in this otherwise landlocked country. I spent a day on a glass-bottomed boat on the sea, snorkelling in the coral reefs. The current in the sea can be very strong, but the marine life is incredible – I was lucky enough to find myself snorkelling with a turtle, which was definitely a pinch-myself moment.

Food and drink

Jordanian food is fairly typical Middle Eastern fare – think lots of delicious salads, hummus, baba ghanoush, pickled vegetables, tabbouleh, falafel and flatbreads. Other foods to look out for include kibbe, which are little meat croquettes; mansaf, a dish of goat or lamb served with rice and topped with a yoghurt sauce; and mussakhan, a chicken wrap with onions.

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Alcohol is rare in Jordan – the only places I saw it for sale were in Petra and Aqaba – and instead you’ll find lots of fantastic fruit juices in the restaurants. My favourite was lemon and mint juice, which you’ll find everywhere, although it varied in taste depending on where I had it. Sometimes it was sweet, other times really sour. I also drank lots of mint tea while I was there and tried some fermented goat’s milk, an interesting local delicacy, during a picnic in Wadi Mujib.

Climate

Wadi Rum

Jordan is in the heart of the Middle East and so is a hot, dry country. It’s baking hot in the summer, but cooler in winter, around 5°C to 10°C in January. I visited in May when the sun was searingly strong, so I tried my best to avoid the midday sun, venturing out in the morning or late afternoon and seeking as much shade as possible. I still struggled with headaches and overheating though, despite taking every precaution to protect myself.

Safety

“Is it safe?” was the one question everyone asked when I told them I was going to Jordan. “Yes,” I’d reply wearily, “it’s perfectly safe.” And it is. I didn’t have any concerns about my safety during my trip, and if anything, I probably felt safer there than I do in most European countries.

The Jordanians take their security seriously, so every tourist site has a police presence and there were numerous police checks along the roads. There was also airport-style security at the entrance to a number of hotels. I didn’t find this scary, rather I found it reassuring that the Jordanians know the country’s a likely target for terrorists given its location and are taking the necessary steps to keep everyone safe.

Share your experiences

Have you been to Jordan? If so, I’d love to hear what you thought of it and if you have any tips I haven’t covered here, please share them in the comments.

Turin – Mole Antonelliana and the Egyptian Museum

Mole Antonelliana, Turin

During my afternoon in Turin, I’d decided to visit Turin’s tallest building, the Mole Antonelliana (above), as well as the city’s renowned Egyptian Museum. So after having a spot of lunch, I wandered along Turin’s elegant covered streets, past lots of shops and cafés, on my way to the Mole Antonelliana.

The Mole Antonelliana is an enormous late 19th century building with a 550ft spire – in its heyday, it was the tallest brick building in Europe. It was designed by the architect Antonio Antonelli in the 1860s when he was commissioned by Turin’s Jewish community to build them a synagogue. As Antonelli’s plans became more elaborate and the costs spiralled, the Jewish community pulled out of the project and the city of Turin took over. The Mole Antonelliana was finally finished in 1889 and today is home to the National Museum of Cinema.

The Mole Antonelliana is a stunning building with an unusual and distinctive shape. You can take a panoramic lift to a viewing platform, which is 278ft from the ground, and I was keen to do this until I saw the queue and the hour-long wait for it. As I was planning to visit the Egyptian Museum before I left, I didn’t think I had time to do both so I decided to skip the viewing platform, even though the views across the city and the Alps must be incredible.

Egyptian Museum, Turin

From the Mole Antonelliana, I walked through Turin’s streets to the Egyptian Museum, which is housed in a gorgeous palazzo-style building in the centre of the city (above), admiring the sights and window shopping as I went.

Turin’s renowned Egyptian Museum is the only museum outside Cairo dedicated to ancient Egypt and boasts the second largest collection of ancient Egyptian artefacts in the world. Only a fraction of the museum’s 32,500-piece collection is on display, with some 6,500 artefacts on show and the remaining 26,000 in storage.

I visited in early December 2017 and there was an interesting temporary exhibition on the ground floor about the men and women who were responsible for amassing, curating and preserving the museum’s collection. It was interesting to read about the people behind the collection, their motives for collecting the artefacts and the impact it had on their lives. So often you visit museums or art galleries and admire the amazing objects within, but it’s rare to learn about the people responsible for those collections.

From there, I followed the visitor route around the museum. Starting on the second floor, it told the story of ancient Egypt from its prehistoric origins all the way through to the later dynasties of pharaohs. There were lots of artefacts on display, the most impressive being the scrolls from the Book of the Dead. They looked as good as new – the colours were vivid and not at all faded, and it was hard to believe they were thousands of years old. I would have loved to have been able to read the hieroglyphics so I could understand what they said.

There were also lots of mummies and coffins (some with brightly painted exteriors), statues, pieces of pottery, steles and more on display, as well as a net made from turquoise beads, which had been found wrapped around a mummy. It’s an extraordinary and extensive collection, and very well curated. I spent a good two hours looking around the museum and could easily have spent longer as it’s a fascinating place.

One of the more interesting aspects of the museum was the exhibit of material culture on the balcony above one of the galleries on the second floor. The display brought together lots of similar objects, such as head rests, grave goods and so on, in one cabinet. It was an unusual but effective approach to displaying lots of similar artefacts, and one I’d like to see repeated in other museums.

The only slight downside was the huge number of tour groups who blocked paths and access to the display cases for long periods of time. I found a few of them quite rude and unwilling to let people past, and it would be good if the museum restricted the number of tour groups it allowed on busy weekends so that all the visitors could enjoy the attractions.

Piazza Carlo Alberto, Turin

I really enjoyed my day trip to Turin, although I could have done with a lot longer to look around. The few attractions I visited – the royal palace and the Egyptian Museum – were enormous and world-class, with lots to see, and there were many more attractions I didn’t get chance to visit. A day isn’t long enough in Turin and I could have done with at least three or four days. I’ll have to go back one day to see all the attractions, as well as the parts of the royal palace and the Egyptian Museum, I missed on my whistle stop tour.

Turin – Cathedral and the Royal Palace

View over Turin

Famous for its sports cars and chocolate, the elegant Italian city of Turin is only an hour from Milan by train, so I decided to spend a day there during my recent Italian jaunt. With its large charming squares, tree-lined avenues, covered walkways, palazzo-style buildings and Alpine backdrop, Turin is a picturesque city to explore.

As the capital of the Duchy of Savoy from 1572 and the first capital of Italy between 1861 and 1865, Turin has a long and interesting history, and as a result there’s lots to see and do. The city is home to numerous museums, a huge royal palace and a cathedral, as well as churches, grand cafés and an architectural gem of a tower. The capital of the Piedmont region also hosted the Winter Olympics in 2006.

Piazza San Carlo in Turin

When I arrived in Turin, I was cheered to find it had been snowing overnight, and while most of the snow had melted, there were still some pockets around, which added to the city’s wintery charms. After leaving the train station, I picked up a map from the tourist information office, then set off through the city via a series of palatial squares and handsome walkways.

A giant advent calendar and Christmas market in the Piazza Castello

When I reached the Piazza Castello, I was delighted to find it playing host to a silvery white Christmas tree, as well as a giant advent calendar (above). There was also a small Christmas market to the side. I love a good Christmas market and hadn’t found one in Milan, so I was pleased to come across it – although I was a little disappointed to find there was no mulled wine nor many Christmas-themed stalls.

From the market, I walked the short distance to Turin’s cathedral. The late 15th century cathedral is the home of the Turin shroud, the linen cloth that bears the outline of a crucified man and may or may not have been used to wrap Jesus’s dead body. Despite carbon dating suggesting the cloth is a clever medieval fake, there’s still much debate about the authenticity and the origins of the cloth.

Turin cathedral and bell tower

The cathedral sits in a small square next to the royal palace beside a 15th century bell tower. After the magnificence of Milan’s Duomo, Turin’s fairly plain cathedral somewhat paled in comparison and inside there wasn’t much to see other than a massive display case, which I think contained the Turin shroud.

The home of the Turin shroud on display

The shroud itself isn’t on display – the last time the public was allowed to view it was in 2015 – and I can only presume it’s inside the coffin-like structure that’s covered by the cloth (above). There were a few people sitting opposite in quiet contemplation and prayer, but if I’m honest, I found it a little weird. I’m not religious so the symbolism was lost on me and there was nothing to tell me what I was looking at, which I found confusing.

After looking around the cathedral, I headed to the bell tower where you can walk to the top for stunning views across the city for just €3. I climbed the rickety wooden and metal staircase, and when I got to the top, walked out onto the platform only to start slipping. The centre of the platform was covered with ice and snow – which at 272ft in the air, wasn’t the safest place to be sliding around!

View over Turin and the Alps

Luckily, the edges around the bell tower were free from snow, so I kept to the edges and avoided the icy middle. Minor drama aside, the views from the top were incredible and well worth the climb. I could see right across Turin in all directions, but the view towards the snow-capped Alps was the best (above). It was stunning and I could have spent ages looking at it.

Royal Palace, Turin

From the bell tower, I walked to the royal palace where I stopped off at the café for a cup of thick hot chocolate before looking around the royal apartments.

Home to the dukes of Savoy, the royal palace was commissioned in the mid-17th century by the regent at the time, Maria Cristina. The palace was built on the site of the city’s old bishops’ palace and construction continued until the 19th century. It is now, along with the city’s other royal residences, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Ballroom in the Royal Palace, Turin

The grand palace is enormous and the royal apartments within impressive, with ornate gilding, sumptuous fabrics, eye-popping chandeliers and magnificent works of art everywhere you look. My favourite room was the beautiful ballroom (above). I also really liked the Chinese room, so-called because of its black lacquer and floral print walls, and the council room, with its spectacular green furnishings.

Armoury in the Royal Palace, Turin

The palace is also home to an massive armoury (above) that’s set over two rooms. The first room is a long hall with armoured soldiers and taxidermied horses, as well as display cases filled with helmets, guns, daggers, shields and more. The second room is much smaller, with a magnificent piece of Chinese armour that was gifted to one of the dukes of Savoy.

The royal palace is free to visit the first Sunday of every month – the day I visited – so it was heaving. It was great to have free entry, but it did mean it was so busy it was difficult to look around.

The armoury, in particular, was crammed with people taking photos and selfies. It was annoying trying to squeeze past so many people who were too busy taking photos to look at the exhibits and I didn’t find it a pleasant experience. It’s a shame as the armoury is such as grand and impressive room it must be a spectacular sight when it’s empty.

Courtyard inside the Royal Palace in Turin

Once I finished touring the royal apartments, I followed the path through the building to the Galleria Sabauda, an enormous art gallery that’s housed within one of the palace’s wings.

The gallery features art works by Brueghl (Jan the elder, Jan the younger and Abraham), Anthony van Dyck and Rembrandt van Rijn. It also had a temporary exhibition about biscuit porcelain, so named because it’s twice baked. The gallery is extensive – in the two hours I was there, I didn’t manage to see everything – and the numerous works of art remarkable.

On the ground floor, underneath the gallery, there’s an archaeological museum, which tells the story of Turin’s origins and showcases archaeological finds from the city. The artefacts on display include coins, pieces of pottery, as well as an extraordinary bronze head of a young man. The museum was interesting and informative, and I learned a lot about Turin’s history.

The royal palace was fantastic, with lots to see, and it was much bigger than I had been anticipating. I hadn’t expected it to also house an art gallery and an archaeological museum, so I spent hours there, and it was so interesting and well curated, I was reluctant to skip any of it. The only downside, as I’ve already mentioned, was the hoards of people, which is to be expected when there’s free entry. I’d love to go back when it’s quieter so I can take my time seeing it all.

Milan – Duomo

The Duomo in Milan, Italy

I’ve visited a lot of cathedrals over the years, but Milan’s Duomo is one of the most impressive cathedrals I’ve ever seen. Commissioned by Gian Galeazzo Visconti in 1386, the 157m-long Gothic cathedral took an astonishing five centuries to complete.

This fact is less surprising when you see how detailed and elaborate the building is. Its façade features some 2,300(!) statues and there are a further 1,100 statues inside. While its highest spire stands at 108m tall and is topped by a 4m-high gold leaf statue of the Madonna. Having briefly laid eyes on the Duomo the previous evening, I was keen to have a proper look around, so it was my first port of call on my second day in Milan.

Inside, I was struck by how big the Duomo is. It’s the third largest cathedral in the world (after Seville Cathedral and St Peter’s in Rome) but I hadn’t appreciated just how enormous or how wide it was from the outside.

In contrast to the ornate façade, the inside of the cathedral felt quite plain. I was expecting the cathedral’s walls and ceiling to be adorned with colourful frescoes and elaborate gilded decorations like you see in a lot of Italian churches. But the grey stone walls and high-vaulted ceilings were left largely untouched, aside from the obligatory statues, and the cathedral’s paintings hung from the ceiling instead (above).

I made my way down the right side of the cathedral, stopping as I went to look at the many altars off to the side and the impressive artworks within. One of the altars featured the remains of Pope Paul VI, who was Archbishop of Milan until he became pope in 1963.

Saint Charles Borromeo's tomb

I carried on going as far as the crypt, where I stopped to have a look inside. At either end of the crypt, behind locked gates, were opulent alcoves housing the cathedral’s treasury and the rock crystal tomb of Saint Charles Borromeo, a 16th-century Archbishop of Milan (above). The alcoves were amazing and I was taken aback by the riches and splendour within. It was by far and away the most lavish crypt I’ve ever seen.

Replica of the Madonnina statue inside Milan's Duomo

From the crypt, I walked back to the main body of the cathedral, where I continued walking until I reached the replica of the Madonnina of the Duomo di Milano (above), the statue that sits atop the cathedral’s main spire. The glamorous Madonnina was covered in gold leaf and it was good to see a close-up replica of the statue, as the original sits so high above the cathedral it’s almost impossible to make out.

The archaeological site at Milan's Duomo

I then turned around and walked back towards the main entrance, where I followed a narrow staircase down into the archaeological area beneath the Duomo (above).

The archaeological area showcases the remains of the ancient buildings that once occupied the site, among them the baptistery of Ambroses and the old Santa Tecla Cathedral, along with display cases featuring artefacts unearthed at the site. The archaeological area is quite small and doesn’t take long to look around, but it was interesting and I enjoyed learning about the site’s history.

Spires on the Duomo's roof terrace in Milan

Having seen all there was to see inside the cathedral, I walked outside and turned down the left side of the Duomo towards the entrance to the roof terraces. You can either walk the 250 steps to the Duomo’s roof or pay an extra €4 to take the lift – I chose to give my legs a good work out and walked. Luckily, the climb didn’t take as long as I was expecting, and before I knew it, I was on the roof.

The Duomo’s roof terraces are incredible. The architecture is superb – even better than the façade – with elaborate spires, intriguing shapes and intricate carvings everywhere you look. The views across Milan are fantastic, too – and it was a clear enough day that I could make out the Alps in the distance, their pale blue snow-capped peaks contrasting beautifully with the cathedral’s creamy, pale pink marble.

I made my way along the outer edge of the terrace, stopping every so often to admire the architecture and the views, and dodging the many people who were blocking the path to take selfies.

From the outer terrace, I climbed a very narrow staircase (there wasn’t room for two, above left) to the roof. I spent quite a bit of time clambering over the enormous sloping roof, making sure I stopped to take in the wonderful views over Milan from as many angles as possible.

The roof terraces were fantastic and I was glad I made the effort to go up there. I had great fun exploring all there was to see, and the views and the architecture, as I’ve already mentioned, were breathtaking. Milan’s Duomo is an exceptional world-class building, but clambering over the roof and seeing its architecture up close was a fantastic experience. It’s easily one of the best and most interesting cathedrals I’ve visited.

Info

View from the roof terraces of the magnificent architecture of the Duomo in Milan

The Duomo’s ticket office is situated across the street from the cathedral and there are a number of ticket types on offer, depending on what you want to see. You can pay to go inside, visit the roof terraces (above) or buy a combined ticket that provides access to the cathedral, the roof terraces, the archaeological site and the Duomo museum. Wanting to see all this impressive building had to offer, I chose the latter.

Lisbon – Castelo de Sao Jorge and the Alfama

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The Castelo de São Jorge and the Alfama are among the oldest parts of Lisbon. This ancient, hilly district is home to a warren of winding cobbled streets and characterful old buildings, and it’s where I decided to spend my final morning in the city.

The Castelo de São Jorge is perched high on a hill, and to get to it, I had to put my thigh muscles to good use as I climbed the steep cobbled streets that twisted and turned in all directions. It would be easy to get lost in this labyrinthine part of Lisbon, but luckily there are signposts en route to show you the way to the castle. The stream of tourists heading up the hill also provided a handy clue that I was going the right way.

View over Lisbon and the River Tagus from the Castelo de Sao Jorge

The castle was built by the Moors in the middle of the 11th century. Unlike most castles in Europe, the Castelo de São Jorge was built as a base to house troops and wasn’t intended to be a home. But the following century, the castle was captured during the country’s Christian reconquest and it became a royal residence. It’s easy to see why the royal family would want to live here. From its vantage point on top of one of the city’s seven hills, it boasts fantastic views over Lisbon and the River Tagus (above).

Castelo de Sao Jorge in Lisbon

The area around the Castelo de São Jorge is enormous, home to the castle itself, the remains of a former palace and an archaeological site featuring buildings that date back as far as the Iron Age. When I arrived at the castle, I passed through an outer courtyard then spent some time walking around the outer perimeter of the castle. This gave me an idea of the scale of the fortress – it’s huge, with tall formidable sandstone walls linking a series of square towers.

Inside the Castelo de Sao Jorge in Lisbon

After exploring the castle’s exterior, I went inside, crossing a stone bridge and passing a huge stone tower that once housed the royal treasury and a couple of bare stone rooms to reach a large courtyard. The courtyard is a big space, but like the rooms that preceded it, empty. So after having a quick look around, I climbed a flight of stairs that led to the ramparts above.

It’s possible to walk all the way around the ramparts, going inside the towers and admiring the spectacular views over Lisbon. There isn’t a huge amount to see inside the castle, it’s essentially an empty shell as there aren’t any furnished rooms to give you an idea of what it looked like when it was in use. So the ramparts, with their incredible views, were by far the best part of the castle and I enjoyed walking around them, stopping here and there to look out over the city.

Having explored it all, I made my way back down to a second courtyard, which was also pretty bare but had a few features, including a couple of wells and some trees.

Archaeological site at the Castelo de Sao Jorge in Lisbon

By now I’d seen everything there was to see in the castle, so I headed over to the archaeological site. The excavations have uncovered a number of ruins from different eras, including Iron Age structures, a couple of Moorish houses and part of the Palace of the Counts of Santiago, which was destroyed during the 1755 earthquake.

You can’t walk in between the excavated buildings but you can walk around the edge of the site and there’s a guide that shows you what you’re looking at. It was interesting to see remains from such varied points in Lisbon’s history so close together, and it brought home how old the city is and the richness of its history.

From the archaeological site, I made my way back towards the entrance, passing the ruins of the old royal palace (also destroyed by the 1755 earthquake). The area around the ruined palace is a relaxing and attractive space with fragments of columns, trees and statues dotted around, as well as a strutting peacock (above).

Alfama district of Lisbon

After leaving the castle, I decided to explore the Alfama district. The Alfama is home to many of Lisbon’s oldest buildings and it was a pleasant place to spend a couple of hours, ambling up and down its narrow, winding alleyways and soaking up its sights and sounds. As I neared the waterfront, I stumbled upon a fantastic market selling all sorts of crafts including jewellery and leather goods, and I bought a pretty bracelet and a small bag made from cork.

My morning at the castle and the Alfama was enjoyable. The castle was enormous, and even though there wasn’t much to see inside, the views from the ramparts made up for the lack of attractions and the archaeological site was interesting. The Alfama neighbourhood, meanwhile, was a cool, relaxing place, a far cry from the hustle and bustle of the city centre. An agreeable way to spend my final morning in Lisbon.

Sintra – Moors’ Castle

View of the Moors' Castle in Sintra from the Pena Palace

It’s almost impossible to miss the Castelo dos Mouros or Moors’ Castle in Sintra. The striking fortress, which sits high on a hill overlooking the town, dominates the surrounding landscape and is visible for miles. Its stone ramparts, towers and battlements are sprawled across the hilltop making it a formidable defensive structure.

The castle was built by the Moors in the 10th century following their successful conquest of Portugal and Spain, but it subsequently fell into a state of disrepair until it was restored by King Ferdinand II in the 19th century.

Tomb beside the Moors' Castle in Sintra

The Moors’ Castle was my last port of call in Sintra and after my visit to Pena Palace, I followed a trail through the woods that links the two sites. Along the way, I passed various stone structures, such as the small stone tomb above.

The tomb was built to house a number of human remains that were uncovered when King Ferdinand II’s restoration works damaged part of the necropolis at the Church of São Pedro de Canaferrim opposite. The church, which is open to the public, now houses an exhibition about the castle’s history, as well as artefacts found during archaeological excavations.

When I reached the Moors’ Castle, I made my way inside and headed towards the Castle Keep (above) where I had great fun climbing the towers, clambering over walls, and going up and down various steps. There are lots of nooks and crannies to explore, and I was in my element seeing all there was to see.

View of the ramparts at the Moors' Castle in Sintra

From the area around the Castle Keep, I wandered down towards the outer walls of the castle. The walls form a defensive ring around the hilltop, connecting the castle’s towers and the mountain’s various rocky outcrops. I ventured down onto the walkway from one of the towers (above) but it had become very windy and I found myself struggling to hold my ground. The gaps between the ramparts are quite large with a sheer cliff the other side of the wall, and as the strong gusts became increasingly frequent, I didn’t feel safe carrying on so I decided to skip the walk.

Instead I headed back down to the centre of the castle where I set about exploring the rest of it including the Royal Tower, which was one of King Ferdinand II’s favourite places. I meandered up the hill to the Royal Tower where I had a good look around, admiring the phenomenal views. The wind though was really strong here, too, and at one point, I was caught by a massive gust and had to grab hold of the stone wall at the top of the steps to avoid being blown over.

With the wind increasing in its ferocity, I decided to stay away from the towers, too, and spent the rest of my visit looking around the lower parts of the castle before making my way back down the mountain to Sintra’s old town.

View over Sintra and the Atlantic Ocean from the Royal Tower in Sintra

It’s a shame the wind was so strong as the views from the castle were incredible. From the Castle Keep, I had a great view over Sintra, and from the Royal Tower I could see for miles and could even make out the Atlantic Ocean in the distance (above). The castle was built on one of the highest points in the Sintra hills to protect Sintra and nearby Lisbon, and with its fantastic vantage points, it’s easy to see why the Moors decided to build a castle here.

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The castle is a fascinating place to explore and very different to the many castles I’ve visited elsewhere in Europe. The only disappointment was the wind – it was so strong I didn’t feel safe looking around some of the more exposed parts of the castle. But I’d love to go back on a less windy day and see all the parts I missed.

Sintra – Pena Palace

Pena Palace Sintra

High on the hills overlooking Sintra is the kitsch, brightly painted Pena Palace. It’s a magnificent, romantic building surrounded by 85 hectares of gardens and like so many buildings in Sintra, unique. It’s one of the quirkiest, most unusual palaces I’ve visited.

Pena Palace Sintra

The palace was originally a monastery built by King Manuel I in the early 16th century. But four years after it was abandoned in 1834, it fell into the hands of King Ferdinand II. The Austrian-born king was keen to turn the old monastery into a romanticist castle, which he did with the help of the German geologist, architect and engineer Baron Wilhem Ludwig von Eschwege in the mid-1800s.

Walking trail in the Sintra hills

There are a few ways to get to the distinctive palace from Sintra – you can either catch the number 434 bus, or you can do as I did and climb to the top of the mountain. From the bottom, the palace looks as though it’s miles away and an arduous climb, but in reality it only takes 20 minutes or so along a stone path that’s carved out of the hillside. It’s a fun climb and not too taxing, with lots of steps and stone archways to pass through, and spectacular views over Sintra.

View of the Pena Palace from the Moors' Castle in Sintra

When I arrived at the palace, I headed through the main entrance and spent some time walking around the outer parts of the palace. There are lots of battlements, terraces and towers you can explore while soaking up the fantastic views. The palace is built on the second highest point in the Sintra hills and is the perfect location for a defensive structure as you can see for miles around.

Old monastery at the Pena Palace in Sintra

The palace is divided into two wings – the red wing represents the old 16th century monastery, while the parts painted a deep yellow denote the newer parts of the castle built by King Ferdinand II.

Pena Palace cloisters

My first port of call inside the palace was the magnificent cloisters. The two-storey cloisters are decorated with beautiful Moorish tiles and there’s a massive plant in what looks like an upturned stone shell in the centre. The interior of the palace has been left as it was when the Portuguese royal family fled into exile following the revolution of 1910 and looking around, it felt as though I’d stepped back in time. Everything has been perfectly preserved.

From the lower floor of the cloisters, I toured the scullery, the dining room and King Carlos’s apartments, all exquisitely furnished and decorated. Upstairs, I wandered around Queen Amélia’s apartments (above), which included her bedroom and a little tea room between her private rooms and her office where she met with her closest friends and family members.

Ceiling in the reception room at the Pena Palace in Sintra

The palace’s reception room is an astonishing space with a scene of Islamic architecture painted on the walls by the Italian scenographer Paolo Pizzi in 1854 and an intricate vaulted ceiling featuring a plant design (above). The way the room has been decorated makes it look much bigger than it is and it’s quite striking.

Chandelier in the smoking room at the Pena Palace in Sintra

I continued through a couple of galleries where there were some nice pieces of porcelain on display and then ventured inside the smoking room, which boasted an amazing chandelier (above). The eye-catching 19th century chandelier had a replica of a climbing plant wrapped around it.

The noble hall at the Pena Palace in Sintra

Continuing with my tour, I stepped inside the noble hall, a huge rectangular room with dark red furniture and brilliant statues of men holding a chandelier-like lamp (above), and the stag room, a small round room with lots of antlers on the walls. The last notable room I visited was the royal kitchen, an enormous room with lots of wooden furniture and tons of copper cooking utensils.

Gate at the Pena Palace in Sintra

Having looked around the palace, I decided it was time to explore the extensive gardens that surround it. Pena Park covers some 85 hectares in the Sintra hills and boasts more than 500 tree species from all over the world, waterfalls, lakes, hidden paths, grottoes, statues and follies.

I didn’t have time to see everything in the gardens as it was almost 3pm and I still wanted to visit the Moors’ Castle before it closed. So I decided to head up to the Cruz Alta, the highest peak in the Sintra hills. The park was a peaceful place for a stroll, and it was fun ambling around and stumbling upon its many random features, such as the statue of a warrior perched high on a rock or the classical round temple with lots of columns.

Alta Cruz in Pena Park in Sintra

The Cruz Alta is 529m above sea level and is marked by a stone cross (above). The cross is a replica installed in 2008 as the original one laid by King Ferdinand II in the mid-19th century was destroyed by lightning in 1997. By the time I reached the Cruz Alta, it was getting really windy but I made it to the top and was pleased to be able to say I’d climbed to the highest point in the Sintra hills.

Queen Amélia's garden at the Pena Palace in Sintra

I made my way out of the park and before I left, stopped off at Queen Amélia’s garden. The garden is located below the Pena Palace and is a small rectangular space featuring formal plant beds and trees. It’s a pretty little spot and was used as a vegetable garden when it was a monastery.

19th century wing at the Pena Palace in Sintra

I really enjoyed my visit to Pena Palace. Visually, it’s an unusual, quirky architectural delight and I’m not sure I’ve seen another palace that’s been painted in such vivid colours. The decor inside the palace was also quite unconventional and it was fascinating to see the palace as it was when the royal family fled in 1910.

The extensive grounds, meanwhile, were a great place for a relaxing stroll with lots of interesting features. The only disappointment I had was not having enough time to see everything. If I came again, I’d leave myself more time so I could fully explore the park.

Lisbon

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Cool, laid-back, friendly are just some of the words I’d use to describe Portugal’s capital city Lisbon. It’s home to fantastic food, beautiful buildings and delightful views, and there’s loads of culture, both old and new, to soak up. As such, the hilly city is the perfect place for a long weekend.

I’d been dying to go to Lisbon for a long time, partly because I’d never really been to Portugal before (the day trip across the Galician border doesn’t count) and partly because I’d heard excellent things from friends and colleagues. Needless to say, I was very excited about my four-day city break.

After flying into the city from Bristol, I hopped on the metro and headed to my hotel, the Hotel Lisboa Plaza. Having checked in, I then set off exploring. My hotel was just off the Avenida da Liberdade, the large tree-lined boulevard that cuts a swathe through the city centre, connecting the Parque Eduardo VII to the central Rossio district.

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I followed the avenue down to Rossio Square, the city’s most famous square, where I stopped to admire the large fountain and the enormously tall statue of Dom Pedro IV, after whom the square is officially named. The square is surrounded by lots of grand cafés, as well as Rossio train station, and is a good place to orientate yourself.

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I then headed south towards the Baixa district. The area is laid out in a regimented grid pattern, the original district having been destroyed by the massive 1755 earthquake and subsequent tsunami, so it’s almost impossible to get lost. The buildings are beautiful and I enjoyed walking around, getting my bearings and admiring the classical architecture. Bright yellow trams are everywhere in the streets around the Rossio and Baixa districts and I learned pretty quickly to keep an eye out for them when crossing the roads.

By now it was early evening, so I decided to walk up to the Bairro Alto district, up the hill to the right. The Bairro Alto district is home to lots of narrow winding streets – and I found myself getting a little lost here. There are lots of unusual shops, as well as tons of bars and restaurants, and I ambled around soaking up the atmosphere and casing out possible places to eat.

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With my tummy rumbling, I decided on Petiscos no Bairro (above), a small hip-looking restaurant on the Rua da Atalaia, for dinner. The restaurant is teeny – it’s not the sort of place you could take a large group of people. But it had a cosy feel, the staff were really friendly and they had clams on the menu.

Clams are one of Lisbon’s speciality dishes and I was keen to try them. The clams, which came in a garlicky coriander sauce, were amazing. It was one of the best restaurant dishes I’ve ever eaten and I was so happy with my choice! I had quite a large bread basket with my meal and I happily polished off the whole lot, using the bread to soak up every last drop of the delicious sauce. For dessert, I had a Portuguese rice pudding, a cold rice pudding with cinnamon on top, which was nice, but didn’t quite match the perfection of my main. If you’re ever in Lisbon and like seafood, I can’t recommend Petiscos no Bairro highly enough.

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Feeling suitably full and happy, I wandered up the hill to the Miradouro de Sao Pedro de Alcantara, a small park high on the hill with great views of the city. I then meandered back down to my hotel where I stopped off for a nightcap of dry port, along with tea and homemade biscuits (above), in the bar before bed.

Top tips

  • The easiest way to get from the airport to the city centre is to take the metro – it’s really easy to navigate (there are only four lines) and cheap!
  • Lots of the pavements around central Lisbon are polished cobblestones and they’re quite slippery. So wear shoes with a suitable grip as I kept sliding all over the place in my sandals.
  • I found Lisbon sunny but very windy, so I wore suntan lotion every day because the sun was strong enough to burn even though it didn’t feel particularly warm. The wind also meant I had a few ‘Marilyn’ moments in the summer dresses I’d packed – in hindsight, shorts would’ve been better!
  • I visited Lisbon as a solo traveller and found some bars and restaurants were unwilling to serve me because I was by myself. Some went out of their way to accommodate me and were fantastic and I’ll mention those as I write about my trip, but it’s the one place I’ve travelled in Europe where people were taken aback I was travelling alone. One bar I went to would only serve me the beer they had on tap because letting me have any other drink (eg a glass of wine) wasn’t worth the hassle for them as I was by myself. So if you are travelling to Lisbon by yourself, be aware you may need to try a few bars or restaurants before you’ll find one that will serve you.