Out of all of the temples in Angkor, I was most looking forward to visiting Ta Prohm. From what I had seen online, it looked like an abandoned temple, left for the trees and vegetation of the area to consume it.
Ta Prohm was constructed in 1186 as a Buddhist monastery and temple dedicated to the mother of Khmer king Jayavarman VII. As Khmer rule moved elsewhere, Ta Prohm, like some of the other temple complexes in the area, succumbed to nature, leading to what we see now: the stones of the temple dislodged by the roots of large trees.
It is these trees and their spectacular root systems that set Ta Prohm apart from its neighbouring temples, which have been better maintained over the years. At Ta Prohm, the trees appear to be growing on the roof of the temple itself, their roots stretching over the stonework, clawing their way to the ground.
As you move through the temple complex, you see the effects of nature reclaiming the buildings as you come across walkways and corridors blocked off by rubble – fallen stones dislodged a long time ago as the tree roots fought their way through the temple walls. While restoration efforts by both Indian and Cambodian organisations are preventing further deterioration from occurring to Ta Prohm, you still feel like you have stumbled over a forgotten place (if you ignore the other visitors exploring the complex!).
When you do visit Ta Prohm, make sure to glance to your left as you walk back to the carpark. There you’ll see a somewhat out-of-place carving of what on first glance appears to be a stegosaurus. Whether it’s intended to be a dinosaur or something else entirely is up to you to decide!
Ever since I heard that the movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was partly filmed at Sycamore Gap, a section along Hadrian’s Wall, I have wanted to visit it. When I was in the UK last year, I almost booked a day tour that went there, but chose one that went to Alnwick Castle instead. This year, we had a hire car from Europcar, and discovered that it’s quite easy to get to Sycamore Gap – if you know where you’re going.
Hadrian’s Wall and Sycamore Gap in particular, appear in the movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves as Robin and Azeem (played by Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman) make their way from the English coastline to Nottingham, where Robin first encounters the Sheriff’s men as they trap Little John’s son Wolf up the tree at Sycamore Gap.
Unfortunately, there’s not a great deal of information online, and doing a Google search combining ‘Robin Hood’ and ‘Hadrian’s Wall’ returned plenty of photos but no directions.
Northumberland National Park does offer a brochure that includes it in one of their Hadrian’s Wall walks, but doesn’t tell you how to get there.
Driving to Steel Rigg Carpark
The easiest place to begin your walk to Sycamore Gap is by parking in the Steel Rigg carpark. (A four pound fee applies but the same all-day ticket can be used in six of the Hadrian’s Wall carparks)
To get there, you need to get on the A69 that runs between Carlisle and Hexham.
Look out for signs for Haltwhistle and Once Brewed. If you follow those signs you should end up in front of the Once Brewed Visitor Information Centre at the stem of a T-Junction. Turn right and then immediately left and follow the road up to the Steel Rigg carpark. (Note: turning left from Once Brewed will take you past Twice Brewed)
How to get from Steel Rigg Carpark to Sycamore Gap
Once you are in Steel Rigg carpark, you will find a gate at the back of the carpark that will take you through to the walking trail. To your left, you will see a lake partially hidden by some hills – if you see this you are in the right place!
Follow the trail (note at some points the dirt and gravel trail disappears and turns to grass) over the first two hills. You should come across a ruin of a Roman fort known as Milecastle 39.
Sycamore Gap is just over the next hill (if you have gone past the lake you have gone too far). The walking trail winds right around the lone tree, so don’t worry, you won’t miss it!
It took about half an hour for us to walk from Steel Rigg Carpark to Sycamore Gap.
Whether or not you’re a fan of the movie, Hadrian’s Wall and the surrounding countryside is beautiful (even in low light with winds strong enough to stop you from climbing down a hill!). A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is definitely worth the effort of all of those hill climbs!
The Paris Museum Pass gives you free access to over forty museums and monuments in Paris and the surrounding region. We decided to purchase a four day pass, thinking that with our planned visits to the Chateau de Versailles, the Louvre, the Towers of Notre Dame and the Arc de Triomphe, we would eventually come out ahead after paying the 56 Euros per pass.
Buying the Paris Museum Pass
The first challenge we faced was where to buy the pass. The stall by Notre Dame where I had bought them before was closed, so we wandered over to the Louvre, having read on the Paris Museum Pass website that they could be bought at the attraction’s ticket desks or online. At the Louvre, we were directed to an information office halfway between the inverted pyramid and the information desk at the Louvre. They sold passes as well as memberships to the Louvre, and were very helpful.
Armed with our Museum Passes, we caught the metro to Gare Montparnasse and then hopped on a suburban train to Versailles-Chantiers. It took about fifteen minutes to get there, and the way from the Versailles-Chantiers train station to the Chateau de Versailles is well signed.
The displays at Versailles had been updated since I was last there four years ago. There were audio visual presentations about how the chateau had been extended over the years, which seemed to be new.
Versailles is one extravagant room after another, culminating in the Hall of Mirrors.
On this visit, we also went in to the Mesdames Apartments, which with their white walls and ceilings, were a good antidote to the wall-to-ceiling paintings of the state apartments (I especially liked Madame Adelaide’s library nook).
The Gardens of Versailles
It was a beautiful day for strolling around the gardens. Blue skies and bright sunshine made me forget it was only 12 degrees!
As we walked through the gardens from the chateau to the Trianons, we had fun getting lost in the maze of terraced gardens. Unfortunately, because we were there in November, the statues all had protective covers over them in preparation for winter, and construction and restoration works were taking place on many of the fountains, so the walk through the gardens and along the Grand Canal lost some of its idyll.
The Petit Trianon and Marie-Antoinette’s Hamlet
I could happily make the Petit Trianon and its grounds my home. The rooms inside are cosy and not too grand. (The theatre was closed while we were there).
This visit I had more time to wander around the hamlet and look at the buildings. My brother asked me what the purpose of it all was. When I told him it was Marie Antoinette’s place to escape and pretend she was someone else, he thought it was made for her when she was a little girl. I corrected him, and when I asked him if he could imagine me at the same age having a place like this, he admitted that he could!
The Grand Trianon
It was 4:30pm by the time we reached the Grand Trianon. The sun was already beginning to set, but the lights hadn’t been turned on in any of the rooms, making them dark. I think that the reason that I struggled to like the Grand Trianon during my last visit was a combination of the rooms being dark, there being no real information about the rooms or their historical significance, and the fact that as the last place you visit during your time at Versailles, you are genuinely tired.
The Cotelle Gallery and the portico were still my favourite parts of the Grand Trianon (and you could walk through the Gallery – the last time I visited it was roped off).
Overall, we were very lucky with the weather and had a near-perfect day to visit Versailles!
Is the Paris Museum Pass worth it?
Cost of Paris Museum Pass: 56 Euros
Cost of entry into Versailles, the Gardens, the Grand Trianon and the Petit Trianon: 18 Euros
The sun had already disappeared below the horizon as we drove in to Caenarfon for an overnight stay. While arriving late and leaving early meant I had little time for exploring, I walked alongside the town walls and sought out Caenarfon Castle.
Caenarfon Castle was built in the reign of the English king Edward I for his eldest son Edward of Caernarfon, the first Prince of Wales, to gain a strategic English foothold in Wales. It has since been used for the investiture of Prince Charles, the current Prince of Wales.
The walk back to the accommodation was peaceful, with a beautiful view over the River Seiont. While disappointed that we hadn’t timed our visit so we could go inside one of the most impressive castles in Wales, I consoled myself with the thought: you can always come back.
It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the first time I heard the name of Thomas Telford.
Thomas Telford is a bit of a hero in the British civil engineering scene, and the further I travelled throughout Britain, the more it felt like he was responsible for most of the roads, canals and bridges that I saw.
The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct is one of Telford’s many creations. Standing thirty-eight metres above the River Dee and spanning a width of 300 metres, the aqueduct is the highest and longest aqueduct in Great Britain and has rather appropriately been dubbed the ‘stream in the sky’.
Just look at the views from the top of the aqueduct!
You can even walk across the aqueduct yourself – there is a footpath that runs alongside the canal that feels very safe (I was more worried about dropping my camera in to the canal than anything else!), and if you’ve got good timing, you might even see one of the canal boats pass by as they venture across the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.
I had no expectations about the Île de Ré. All I knew was that it was an island to the west of La Rochelle, and to bring my bathers because there would be a beach. As the bus drove across the causeway that links the island to mainland France, the scenery changed. Gone were the quaint villages, green fields and endless forests. Now we were driving past campgrounds perched on the water’s edge, by salt marshes and through seaside towns as the bus made its way towards Saint-Martin-de-Ré.
The French come to the Île de Ré for summer holidays, and there is everything from large camping grounds to fancy hotels to accommodate the holiday-makers. In Saint-Martin, restaurants are clustered together along the harbour, while behind them the laneways lined with souvenir stores, clothes shops and antique sellers lead up the hill to the ruins and bell tower of Église Saint-Martin de Saint-Martin-de-Ré.
The Église Saint-Martin de Saint-Martin-de-Ré stands at the top of the hill and looks over the town. Visitors to the church can climb the belfry for a better look over the citadel and fortifications of Saint-Martin-de-Ré (part of the Fortifications of Vauban, a UNESCO World Heritage Site).
A stroll back down the hill through narrow laneways that shield you from the hot sun brings you back to the water’s edge, where you can walk along the fortifications of Saint-Martin-de-Ré, or make your way back to the harbour.
If you find yourself down in the Parc de la Barbette, you might come across a sight unique to the Île de Ré: donkeys who look like they’re wearing striped pyjama bottoms. While now a tourist attraction, the donkeys were originally dressed in trousers to help protect them from mosquito and other insect bites while they were put to work harvesting salt.
The laid-back atmosphere of Saint-Martin-de-Ré lets you unwind and have a holiday away from your hurried sightseeing of your mainland ventures. Breathe in the salty air, find yourself a spot to gaze at the view and enjoy letting go.
What you need to know:
The bus to the Île de Ré leaves from the Place de Verdun in La Rochelle. The bus schedule is posted at the bus stop. Tickets can be purchased from the driver.
Staring up at the tower of Notre-Dame de Paris, you think of the bell ringer. The hunchback. Quasimodo.
Victor Hugo’s novel Notre-Dame de Paris and its protagonist Quasimodo, the “Hunchback of Notre-Dame” helped to raise awareness of the importance of maintaining significant medieval buildings and in 1845 brought about a restoration effort by Viollet-le-Duc to revive the neglected cathedral. Ever since, climbing the towers of Notre-Dame has been a must-do for visitors to Paris.
As you climb the narrow steps up to the top of the tower, look around at the windows and the stairs and feel the cold tower wall. When Victor Hugo came here and explored the towers, he came across the Greek word ANAKH, which means ‘fate’. It was one of the sources of inspiration for his novel, and if you pay attention perhaps you can find your own story inspiration carved into the stone.
After you reach the top of the first staircase, you find yourself in the Chimera Gallery. Here, you can see why Disney chose to use the chimeras as Quasimodo’s companions in their 1996 animated film The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. They all seem to have their own unique characters as they stare out past the cathedral and over the city of Paris. Each is carved in such detail, it’s like they were meant to be on display for people to climb the towers to see them.
As you move slowly along the Chimera Gallery, they’re everywhere. It’s a testament to the skill of the stonemasons, who must have spent months and years following Viollet-le-Duc’s designs. You could become so absorbed in picking out the different animals that you could forget to look at the view!
After you’ve taken in the Chimera Gallery (and ducked in to the South Tower’s belfry – mind your step! – to see Emmanuel, the cathedral’s largest bell weighing in at over 13 tonnes!), you have another staircase to ascend, which takes you to the very top of the South Tower for a 360 degree view of Paris.
The view of Paris changes depending on where you are. From the Towers of Notre-Dame, higgledy-piggledy rooftops hide streets and almost take over the Seine. Only the spires of churches, domes of palaces and the very tops of towers can be seen.
Don’t forget to look down over the cathedral itself and admire the architecture of the catchments that carry rain water to spout from the mouths of the gargoyles, to the flying buttresses that support the cathedral walls.
Whether or not you find story inspiration and go on to write a bestseller like Victor Hugo, take the time to climb the Towers of Notre-Dame and you will find one of the best views over Paris.
Do you have a favourite view of Paris? Share it in the comments!
What you need to know:
If you’re standing in front of Notre-Dame de Paris, the entrance to the towers is to the left of the cathedral
Get there early and be prepared to wait – in summer (June – August) you could be queuing for up to two hours
The Wartburg is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and if its walls could speak they would draw their tales from hundreds of years of history and talk of people who passed through the Wartburg from Saint Elisabeth, to Wagner and Goethe, to Martin Luther. From spurious beginnings, the castle has been added to throughout the centuries, and was much admired by King Ludwig II, who took influences from the Wartburg to design Neuschwanstein Castle.
The Stolen Mountain
The Wartburg’s history begins with Ludwig Springer, who came across the hill that the Wartburg now stands on, and decided it would be an ideal location for a fortress. He said: “Wart Berg! Du sollst mein Burg sein!” (Wait, mountain! You will be my fortress!”) and went off to make it happen.
Unfortunately for Springer, he didn’t own the land. But where there is a will there is always a way. Springer transported soil from his own lands, deposited it on the hill, and then began building the fortifications on top of that – therefore no one could dispute that he had built the Wartburg on his own land.
The Exterior of the Wartburg
The exterior of the Wartburg shows the different architectural influences utilised over the years. There are also several lookouts over the town of Eisenach, the surrounding countryside and the Thuringian Forest. From the Wartburg you can see the Burschenschaftsdenkmal, a monument to students who lost their lives fighting for a united Germany in the late nineteenth century.
After going through the main gate, you enter the charming cobble-stoned inner courtyard, where you can buy tickets for the guided tours and also souvenirs at the castle’s gift shop. The courtyard leads out to the rear of the castle, where the Knight’s Baths (a small pool) is located.
The Knight’s Room and the Kitchen
The Knight’s Room and adjoining Dining Hall date back to the 12th century, and are sparsely furnished. The Knight’s Room is the first room you see on the guided tour of the Wartburg. The adjoining Dining Hall displays a kitchen and table dating from the Middle Ages.
The Elisabeth Bower
One of the most spectacular rooms in the Wartburg is the Elisabeth Bower. Named after Saint Elisabeth, a Hungarian princess sent to live in the Wartburg during the thirteenth century, the walls and ceiling of the room consist of mosaics depicting the stories of the castle’s inhabitants. Although the mosaic is a more recent addition to the castle (it was done in the 1900s), it is a memorable sight.
In the thirteenth century, Princess Elisabeth of Hungary was sent to live at the Wartburg at the age of four, where she would stay until she was old enough to marry her betrothed and become the castle’s Landgravine. She was canonised in 1235 for such events as the Miracle of the Roses, which is depicted in paintings in the Elisabeth Hallway. Upon being caught by her disapproving brother-in-law taking bread to the poor at the local hospital, she was questioned about what was in her basket. Elisabeth replied “flowers”. When the basket was uncovered, the bread that had originally been put in the basket had indeed turned into roses.
The Singer’s Hall
If you’ve visited Neuschwanstein, this room may look familiar. Upon his visit to the Wartburg, King Ludwig II admired the Singer’s Hall so much that he had a replica (though on a larger scale!) added to his dream castle. A tapestry depicts the legend of the minstrel competition held in this hall, where the loser’s penalty was death.
Adapted by Wagner for his opera Tannhäuser and not confirmed to be out of the realm of legend, the singer’s competition at the Wartburg was a battle between six minstrels whose aim was to entertain the landgrave and his family. With the penalty for losing being death, each singer praised the landgrave in the hopes of winning his approval. One, however, decided against this scheme and sang about the Duke of Austria instead. This earned him defeat and he risked death until the landgravine appealed for him. The contest was agreed to be re-scheduled for a year’s time. This time, an unbiased judge was brought in, and no one was executed for losing the contest. The competition is said to have taken place in the Singer’s Hall, where a large wall painting depicts the event.
The Festival Hall
The final room in the tour is the Festival Hall. Originally used as a banqueting room, the Festival Hall played host to student fraternities. These days, the large space is used for concerts and ceremonies, including the graduation ceremonies of the local schools.
The tour finishes in the Festival Hall. You are then left to your own devices to explore the rooms of the museum – a collection of paintings, furniture, armour, weaponry and everyday household items. I loved the leadlight windows and curiosities on display. (Standing next to the suits of armour made me feel very tall!)
Martin Luther’s Buchstube
During the 15th century, while in exile, Martin Luther spent some time at the Wartburg. Here he worked on his ideas of the reformation, as well as projects that included translating the New Testament into German.
What you need to know:
It is free to walk around the castle grounds, but you have to pay for a guided tour in order to view the castle’s interior. Tours are offered in German and English, and show visitors through the minimalist rooms of the Knight’s Rooms and the Dining Hall, the beautifully decorated Elisabeth Bower, the Wartburg’s Chapel, and the Festival Hall, before allowing you to explore the Museum and rooms where Martin Luther stayed.