Hiking Little Yosemite Valley

One of the classic Yosemite hikes is to Half Dome passing through Little Yosemite Valley. I’d have dearly liked to have done the hike, but a return day trip to the top of Half Dome from the Yosemite Valley floor seemed a little out of reach. Following the same route takes you to Little Yosemite Valley – which is definitely manageable in a day – and must count as one of the most beautiful walks I’ve done.

Jumping off the national park bus at the Happy Isles Bridge, the well-marked John Muir Trail led off between the trees and alongside the Merced River. Not too far along, the trail crosses the river and gives you beautiful views up towards Vernal Falls. There’s probably not a bad time to view the falls, but they are at their best in late spring when swelled by snow melt.

Liberty Cap, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Liberty Cap, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Nevada Falls, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Nevada Falls, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

So far, so good, but shortly after crossing the river the trail cuts steeply up the cliff to reach a spectacular view point at the top of Nevada Falls. It’s a challenging but steady climb, and I was surprised to find myself alone on the trail. This is one of the most popular routes in the park, to be enjoying it in splendid isolation was very fortunate. Strangely, I only saw a handful of people all day, perhaps the bears had got them all?

Every turn of the climb seems to offer better views than the last, and I found myself stopping to appreciate the landscapes. About half way up the climb, I heard something approaching behind me on the trail. My mind turned to bears, but it was a line of pack horses led by a park ranger. It was a scene straight out of the Gold Rush era, but this is how they transport materials for repairs in the park.

The John Muir trail, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

The John Muir trail, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Horses on the John Muir trail, Yosemite, California, United States

Horses on the John Muir trail, Yosemite, California, United States

Horses on the John Muir trail, Yosemite, California, United States

Horses on the John Muir trail, Yosemite, California, United States

The John Muir trail, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

The John Muir trail, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Nevada Falls is worth the trek. The views back down towards the valley are incredible. I stood at the top of the falls, water rushing over the edge, and had the entire landscape to myself. Nearby there’s a small bridge and the John Muir Trail heads into Little Yosemite Valley. The whole scene is overshadowed by a massive granite monolith called Liberty Cap.

Away from the waterfall the landscape suddenly becomes eerily quiet and calm, or at least as calm as it’s possible to be if you are walking along imagining that every shadow in the trees is a hungry black bear.  The route follows the Merced River through to a camp ground in Little Yosemite Valley. I’d clearly arrived after most people had set off for the morning as there were only a couple of tents there.

The John Muir trail, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

The John Muir trail, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

The John Muir trail, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

The John Muir trail, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Little Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Little Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Little Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Little Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Little Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Little Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Little Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Little Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Little Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Little Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

I carried on the trail for a little while further before deciding to return to the valley floor. On the return journey I took the Mist Trail route down from Nevada Falls. This route passes close to Vernal Falls and offers great views back up to NevadaFalls. It also crosses an area known as the Silver Apron. It looks innocuous, but the river flows fast here and it’s easy to be swept away when in flood.

It was here that I finally found all the people that had been conspicuous by their absence further up the trail. The hike to Vernal Falls isn’t very demanding and is rightly popular. After three or four hours of solitude, I suddenly found myself in a traffic jam. Bizarrely, given the ease of reaching it, and how close it is to the valley floor, the Mist Trail accounts for an unusually high number of deaths.

Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

The John Muir trail, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

The John Muir trail, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Silver Apron, Mist Trail, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Silver Apron, Mist Trail, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Merced River, Mist Trail, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Merced River, Mist Trail, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Vernal Falls, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Vernal Falls, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Back down in the valley floor again, I walked to where I could catch a bus back to Half Dome Village. If there’s one thing you can say about Yosemite, it is that it’s very well organised. Something I was grateful for as I wearily climbed the steps unto the bus. I was looking forward to having a cold beer to celebrate not having a close shave with a bear.

Into the wild, Yosemite National Park

I’ve never stayed anywhere with a ‘Bear Policy’ before, but since our accommodation was in the middle of Yosemite National Park it seemed like a sensible precaution. They take Bear Policies seriously in these parts. Leave even a crumb of food, or anything that may resemble food to a bear (soap, sunscreen, unopened bottles), in your car and it may be towed, and you may be fined up to $5,000 for the privilege.

That may seem a bit draconian, but it’s probably a bargain compared to having a bear smash its way into your car. I’m pretty sure ‘bear invasion’ invalidates the insurance. The average black bear (there are no Grizzlies left in California) needs around 20,000 calories each day. Basically they’re hungry all the time. We made certain that there was nothing in our car that might convince a 300 pound black bear to break and enter.

Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Yosemite National Park, California, United States

The Bear Policy may have been to blame for the fact that every time I saw, or thought I saw, something moving in the undergrowth, I assumed a bear was about to jump out on me. In reality, that’s a bit fanciful. Having learned the hard way, bears tend to avoid humans, and you’d be quite lucky to spot one while walking in the park. What isn’t hard to spot is the majestic, utterly sublime landscapes of Yosemite.

Our first proper sight of Yosemite came thanks to the spectacular views to be had from Glacier Point. The viewing area stands some 3,214 feet above the floor of Yosemite Valley, the sweeping vistas take in Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, Vernal Falls and Yosemite’s high country. It’s magnificent and I could have spent hours drinking in the views. I have about a million photos to prove the point.

Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Yosemite National Park, California, United States

The California of the popular imagination is often defined by its cities: Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Sacramento. The reality is that almost half of all the land in the state is owned by the Federal Government, much of it protected as national parks or national preserves. This remarkable fact is driven home when trying to decide which parks to visit on a short trip

Yosemite is, however, a ‘must see before you died’ destination. I say that with some confidence, it’s spectacular. A pre-dawn start from San Francisco saw us driving over the Bay Bridge in the dark and watching the sun rise in the Central Valley en route to Merced. We were on our way to Yosemite Valley, and a log cabin at one of the few accommodations in the park, but first we made a detour.

Deer, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Deer, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Log cabin, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Log cabin, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Knowing we didn’t have time to appreciate the glories of Sequoia National Park, but wanting to see some of the Sierra Nevada’s legendary Sequoias, we got our ‘big tree fix’ at the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias (currently closed for restoration). It’s all in the name really, but this is a fantastic area that contains the largest sequoia grove in Yosemite.

There are trees here that are over 1,800 years old, including the famous Grizzly Giant. There are trails that make big tree spotting easy, and which take you through the middle of the California Tunnel Tree. Yet another giant Sequoia, it had a hole carved into it in 1895 that allowed horse drawn carriages to pass through. Today you can walk through the gap.

Mariposa Grove, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Mariposa Grove, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Human for scale...Mariposa Grove, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Human for scale…Mariposa Grove, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Mariposa Grove, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Mariposa Grove, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Human for scale...Mariposa Grove, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Human for scale…Mariposa Grove, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Mariposa Grove, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Mariposa Grove, Yosemite National Park, California, United States

When we finally descended into Yosemite Valley it was a little like entering a dream world. This is a remarkable place, a lush green valley surrounded by vast granite monoliths and vertical valley walls. At the far end of this Wonderland was our home for the next couple of days, a log cabin (equipped with bear-proof everything) in Half Dome Village.

We arrived in daylight and the valley floor was beautiful bathed in sunshine. We took a walk on a nearby trail to take a look around the neighbourhood. Soon though, the sun dipped behind the surrounding mountains. The temperature plunged sending us scuttling back to our cabin to wait for the morning and a chance to explore a bit more…

Icon in Red, a homage to the Golden Gate Bridge

It was once known as “the bridge that couldn’t be built” and its proposed construction was met with fierce opposition. Thankfully, the Golden Gate was bridged and the result is a majestic piece of architecture. You can see the iconic red of the bridge from lots of different places in San Francisco, but my favourite was from Baker Beach as the sun set. Today the Golden Gate Bridge is taken for granted, but that wasn’t always the case.

Its many early opponents claimed it would destroy the natural beauty of San Francisco Bay, others believed that it wouldn’t survive an earthquake similar to the one that flattened San Francisco in 1906. The people who worked the ferry that existed before the bridge probably weren’t too pleased either.

Despite this, the momentum to span the Golden Gate and connect the city with its northern peninsula continued to build. In 1919, the tender to design a bridge was won by a Chicago-based engineer, Joseph Strauss. Strauss was a man capable of dreaming big, in fact he’d already made designs for a 55-mile long bridge across the Baring Straight to connect Alaska with Russia.

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California, United States

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California, United States

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California, United States

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California, United States

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California, United States

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California, United States

At a mile wide, the Golden Gate was a less daunting prospect and Strauss promised to build the bridge to a budget of $35 million. For over a decade progress was mired in litigation and opposition, but the drive to build became overwhelming during the Depression of the 1930s.

On January 5th, 1933, construction of the monumental Golden Gate Bridge finally began. The excavation of 3.25 million cubic feet of earth necessary to support the twin towers that stretch 746 feet into the air, employed thousands made redundant in the Depression. The two cables that support the road below are 7,000 feet in length and contain 80,000 miles of wire. 1.2 million steel rivets hold all the pieces of the bridge together.

The designs for the graceful suspension bridge that emerged after four years of construction was the work of many hands, and have stood the test of time. Since then the bridge has won many accolades, none less than the fact that in its first 75-years of operation it only closed three times due to bad weather.

Today it’s considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers, it’s one of the most recognisable buildings on the planet, and is a truly awe inspiring sight viewed from far away or close up. It does hold some less fortunate accolades, including as a popular site for suicides.

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California, United States

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California, United States

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California, United States

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California, United States

Sunset from Baker Beach, San Francisco, California, United States

Sunset from Baker Beach, San Francisco, California, United States

As for the iconic red colour … it’s officially an orange vermillion known as International Orange. It’s supposed to aid visibility for shipping in poor weather conditions. A team of 38 painters maintain the bridge’s paintwork.

The City by the Bay, San Francisco

Where to start about San Francisco? How to describe a city that has had more words written about it than one human being could read in a lifetime? Our starting point was arriving into the city in a hire car at rush hour, crawling through traffic while trying to find our hotel following  20 hours of travelling, including 11 hours in a plane. We really needed to find our hotel.

We’d booked something ’boutique’ that was shoehorned into an old, narrow building in a fashionable part of town. It cost a small fortune for a room that wasn’t big enough to accommodate two people, two bags and tea and coffee-making facilities. We were woken daily at 6am by garbage trucks picking up bins in the alleyway behind the hotel. Value for money is highly speculative in San francisco.

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California, United States

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California, United States

Sunset from Baker Beach, San Francisco, California, United States

Sunset from Baker Beach, San Francisco, California, United States

We checked in, just glad to have somewhere to stay after a gruelling journey, but this city has an energising effect. It wasn’t long before our excitement got the better of us and we headed out to sample our first bit of San Francisco’s famed nightlife and culinary scene.

If its origins were inauspicious, as an impoverished Spanish colonial mission, today San Francisco is a small town with a fully deserved global reputation. Founded in 1776, the mission was built at great cost in lives by the indigenous Ohlone and Miwok who lived around the bay before Europeans arrived. Things didn’t improve much when it became a neglected Mexican outpost in 1821.

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California, United States

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California, United States

Sea Lion, San Francisco, California, United States

Sea Lion, San Francisco, California, United States

Alcatraz, San Francisco, California, United States

Alcatraz, San Francisco, California, United States

San Francisco, California, United States

San Francisco, California, United States

A year after being incorporated into the United States in 1847, gold was discovered in the Californian hinterland. This village of 800 people literally exploded over night. San Francisco became the disembarkation point for hundreds of thousands of gold prospectors. By the mid-1850s its population had grown to over 30,000; by the end of the century that number was ten times greater.

The arrival of the ‘Forty Niners’ saw San Francisco became a byword for iniquity. If you had money you could buy anything you wanted in the dozens of bars, gaming houses and brothels. This wild and irreverent history has left its mark on this remarkable city as it’s journeyed from insignificant speck on a map, to a socially liberal, non-conformist icon, to tech hub and unicorn startup epicentre.

San Francisco, California, United States

San Francisco, California, United States

San Francisco, California, United States

San Francisco, California, United States

Hungry I Club, San Fracisco, California, USA

Hungry I Club, San Fracisco, California, USA

San Francisco, California, United States

San Francisco, California, United States

With so many world-famous landmarks, it’s almost impossible to decide what to see and what to do when you only have a few days. We decided to abandon any itinerary and to explore the city streets on foot – which was just as well, you can wait an eternity for one of the fabled cable cars to arrive and to not be packed with people.

On our first day we went down to the Fisherman’s Wharf area, stopping for food at Pier 39. This area has some great eateries but it feels a bit like being in a theme park. Far more interesting was the stroll along the waterfront towards Crissy Field and the Golden Gate Bridge. The views over the bay to Alcatraz and the northern shore are beautiful, but the views from the Golden Gate Bridge are even more impressive.

San Francisco, California, United States

San Francisco, California, United States

The Castro, San Francisco, California, United States

The Castro, San Francisco, California, United States

Street car, San Francisco, California, United States

Street car, San Francisco, California, United States

Needing more perspective, we headed to Twin Peaks for vast sweeping views over San Francisco and the Bay. This is a city of hills but few offer such magnificent vistas. Afterwards we walked  down through Eureka Valley to the Castro, to have a brunch accompanied by unlimited Bellini cocktails in the epicentre of the fight for gay rights in the United States.

There was a time when a Sunday visit to the Castro would have meant naked people exercising their right to be naked in the streets. Creeping social conservatism and changing demographics saw public nakedness in the area banned in 2012. Despite widespread protests, local politicians have yet to relent.

Alcatraz, San Francisco, California, United States

Alcatraz, San Francisco, California, United States

San Francisco Bay, California, United States

San Francisco Bay, California, United States

San Francisco, California, United States

San Francisco, California, United States

San Francisco, California, United States

San Francisco, California, United States

We spent a lot of our time wandering around central districts like Nob Hill, Pacific Heights, the Tenderloin, Russian Hill and Cow Hollow. All names that are known the world over. It’s a fascinating city to stroll around, and people are remarkably friendly as you do so. Most fascinating for me was the diversity of the city, and the fact that there are so many small independent shops, bars and restaurants.

We ate superb Mexican food at tiny places without names, had cocktails made by a biker/barman who sliced the limes with a huge bowie knife, watched cars drive down Lombard Street, walked past naked badminton players on Baker Beach, and sampled delicious dim sum in China Town. We planned to spend more time in San Francisco on our way back, but in the end ran out of time. This short visit whetted our appetites for more though.

California Dreaming, a Golden State road trip remembered

No wonder California plays such a huge part in the collective psyche of the United States and beyond. It’s a place that seems to have it all: cosmopolitan cities filled with diverse populations, stunning national parks, perfect golden beaches, rugged wild coastlines, giant redwood forests, mountain ranges, vast tracts of silent desert, some of the finest vineyards and some of the most productive agricultural land on the planet.

If that wasn’t enough, it has the best Mexican food outside of Mexico, and there are only a handful of States in the country that have lower gun-related death rates. It also has terrible traffic, is prone to devastating droughts, earthquakes, and chronic inequality; plus the roads don’t seem to have been repaired for a couple of decades, and someone has removed most of the useful road signs.

Golden Gate Bridge, San Fracisco, California, USA

Golden Gate Bridge, San Fracisco, California, USA

Yosemite National Park, California, USA

Yosemite National Park, California, USA

Eureka Dunes, California, USA

Eureka Dunes, California, USA

To many, the California narrative is forever as a mythical ‘land of opportunity’. A quintessential part of the American Dream, where gold rushes, vast open spaces and available land attracted millions from around the world to settle and seek a better life. Obviously, a ‘better life’ was possible only by disinheriting and killing tens of thousands of the indigenous peoples who called California home before Europeans arrived. California is filled with the legacy of this history.

For anyone brought up on tales of the Wild West, the names you pass as you drive around California recall just about every film or TV series about the ‘taming’ of the West. Whether it’s Big Pine, Last Chance Mountain, Bodie, Eureka, Dry Mountain or False Hot Springs, you could only be in one place. There are plenty of more familiar names though: Aberdeen, Swansea, Zurich and Dublin, to name but a few.

Bodie, California, USA

Bodie, California, USA

Death Valley Road, California, USA

Death Valley Road, California, USA

Hungry I Club, San Fracisco, California, USA

Hungry I Club, San Fracisco, California, USA

Yosemite National Park, California, USA

Yosemite National Park, California, USA

Morro Bay, California, USA

Morro Bay, California, USA

We visited California some time ago now, and I’ve been wanting to write about it for a while. On a short trip it’s hard to choose which of California’s many attractions to visit. Flying to San Francisco, we had a couple of days to explore one of the world’s great cities, and then we hired a car and headed east through Yosemite National Park and Sequoia National Park, to Death Valley and a quick side trip to Las Vegas.

We rolled the dice but kept our shirts to make it through the epic Mojave Desert on a mad dash for the coast at Morro Bay. It was a long day of endless miles of blasted desert, over a mountain range to the Pacific Coast. From Morro we turned north and followed the sublime coast road through Big Sur National Park to Carmel and Monterey, before hiding away amongst the vineyards of Carmel Valley for a couple of days’ wine tasting.

Mojave Desert, California, USA

Mojave Desert, California, USA

Bixby Creek Bridge, Big Sur National Park, California, USA

Bixby Creek Bridge, Big Sur National Park, California, USA

Sea Lions, Monterey, California, USA

Sea Lions, Monterey, California, USA

Aquarium, Monterey, California, USA

Aquarium, Monterey, California, USA

Big Sur National Park, California, USA

Big Sur National Park, California, USA

Lee Vining, California, USA

Lee Vining, California, USA

Yosemite National Park, California, USA

Yosemite National Park, California, USA

Returning to San Francisco after a couple of weeks touring around in the Californian countryside was like arriving on another planet. It may be a place with some of the most famous cities on earth, but it was only travelling through this vast State that the remoteness and diversity of its landscapes really dawned on me. Road trips are something of an American invention, and this was a road trip to remember …

Giethoorn, the Venice of the Netherlands (apparently)

I went to Giethoorn because a colleague who’d visited told me it was a “lovely little village”. The village website temptingly describes it as “quiet”, “serene” and “remote”, a place where the loudest sound is the “quacking of a duck”. I’m sure Geithoorn is wonderful under normal circumstances, but a sunny weekend in August is far from normal … at least I hope so for the sake of everyone who lives there.

There’s no doubting Giethoorn’s appeal. Beautiful wooden houses, with thatched roofs and perfectly manicured gardens, are built on dozens of narrow canals. There are no roads through the village and the only footpaths are too narrow to walk in anything other than single file. In the past, farmers moved their livestock by rowing them around in boats. As advertised, there are a lot of ducks, some of them even quack.

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Much of the surrounding countryside is a national park and is criss-crossed with cycle and walking routes. I was lulled into a false sense of security by the calm and picturesque landscape as I cycled from Meppel to Geithoorn, but my arrival in the village was a rude and unpleasant awakening. Tourists, from all over the world, had overrun the village.

I never thought I’d say this, but Giethoorn was almost as touristy as Amsterdam’s central Canal Belt. There weren’t any British stag parties but, like Amsterdam, there were boatloads of tourists careering around like lunatics. I stood and watched with a mixture of shock and bemusement as dozens of tourist boats, crammed into tiny canals, crashed into bankings, into bridges and into each other.

Church in Meppel, Netherlands

Church in Meppel, Netherlands

Dutch countryside near Giethoorn, Netherlands

Dutch countryside near Giethoorn, Netherlands

Dutch countryside near Giethoorn, Netherlands

Dutch countryside near Giethoorn, Netherlands

Dutch countryside near Giethoorn, Netherlands

Dutch countryside near Giethoorn, Netherlands

It was mayhem on the water, and it wasn’t much better on land. Large, noisy groups of domestic and foreign tourists crowded down the narrow paths, and across even narrower bridges, creating pedestrian bottlenecks and traffic jams all around the village. That didn’t stop self righteous and aggressive Dutch cyclists from trying to cycle through the crowds – a display of wilful disregard for their fellow human beings.

On days like this, it must be impossible for residents to do even the simplest of tasks. I saw a lot of “For Sale” signs, perhaps a dozen houses in total. In a village this size that’s an awful lot of people trying to move away. I watched the antics of tourists, and realised that if this was what summer in Giethoorn was like I’d not want to live here either. Not for nothing are there ‘Private’ and ‘No Entry’ signs in a variety of languages.

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

I’d planned to visit the museum, ‘T Olde Maat Uus, a well preserved example of a traditional farm and fisherman’s cottage where there were people in period dress reenacting life from 150 years ago. This is normally catnip to me, but the whole place was swamped with tourists and tour groups. I made a mental note to come back in the depths of winter.

Geithoorn itself dates back to the early 13th century. The name means Goat Horn, because goat horns were discovered buried in the peat near here. Peat was a major industry for the village and, in the surrounding area, there are dozens of man made lakes created by the digging of peat for fuel. The village canals were dug so the peat could be transported more easily by boat.

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Today, this village of 3,000 people is connected by around 180 bridges, joining the many parcels of land that form Geithoorn. That probably gives Geithoorn more bridges per capita than almost anywhere else on the planet. Sadly, that achievement looks likely to be rivalled by the village’s tourist to resident ratio.

A Rotterdam street art jamboree (inside)

The contrast between the bright sunlight, pounding music and creative frenzy of street artists outside a crumbling old factory in Rotterdam, and the calm, dark interior of the very same abandoned building couldn’t have been more striking. Stepping through the doorway into the cavernous interior was like entering an alien world, one not meant to be discovered by most of humanity.

You can almost imagine future generations of archaeologists excavating this site with their tiny brushes and trowels, pondering over the meaning of artworks this elaborate in a location this obscure, far from the heart of the city. Was it a religious site? Were rituals performed here to the gods? Which gods? What do these paintings tell us of a civilisation long vanished?

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Inside, the building was transformed into a world populated by creations as weird, wonderful and elusive of meaning as the Nazca Lines or Lascaux Cave paintings. As I wandered around, it struck me that not unlike the stained glass windows of churches, the bright and bizarre paintings inside this decaying building made it into a street art cathedral. There was probably more pigeon crap on the floor, but that’s also found in cathedrals.

Some graffiti inside the building dated from well before the street art event happened outside. Some pieces were tagged from 2015, others from 2012, although judging by the state of decay, the building had been abandoned for much longer. This will only add to the confusion of future archaeologists.

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

We’d come to this anonymous part of Rotterdam because of a promotional event for a tattoo shop. Walls and Skin were hosting a street art party to celebrate the opening of their new shop, and numerous well known Dutch street artists were taking part. While everyone else was painting, we were just hanging around drinking free cocktails, and watching the artworks transform the brick exterior of the building.

The funny thing about all of this is that none of the creativity on display in the old factory would ever see the light of day. Even the works on the outside of the building wouldn’t be seen by many. This isn’t art for public consumption. Instead it seems intended for personal satisfaction, or for the community of artists and followers who know where to find it.

One of the most interesting things about seeing all these different artists and artworks side-by-side, was just how varied the styles are. For someone whose street art education only began when they moved to London’s Shoreditch – where Banksy made his name painting anarchist rats and ecstasy-faced policemen – it’s fascinating to see this collision of different work.

It may be that I don’t understand the subtleties of the work, but most street art I’ve seen in the Netherlands doesn’t seem overtly political, or to be making any obvious social commentary. It’s a striking difference between the work I knew in East London and here, but maybe that’s just because Britons have more to be pessimistic about …

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

A Rotterdam street art jamboree (outside)

I enjoy street art, or graffiti if you prefer, but beyond a casual appreciation of what I see on walls as I wander around, I’m not very knowledgeable about it. Like most people, I’m more street art voyeur than active participant. That hasn’t changed, but a recent afternoon in Rotterdam has given me a new perspective on spray can art, and the artistry and skill required to make it.

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

The abandoned factory which formed the crumbling canvas for a street art event, held near Rotterdam’s Marconiplein, was as obscure a location as the average person could hope to find … or not. We knew about it through friends (thanks Heather and Martijn) who are in the know, and even then it took some finding.

Created over hot a day in July, the event and the pieces of art were ‘commissioned’ to celebrate the opening of a new branch of Walls and Skin, a tattoo shop and street art supporter, in Rotterdam. Tattoos and spray cans seem to go hand-in-hand, and it brought some of the Netherlands’ best known graffiti artists out to perform.

Walls and Skin sell spray paint cans in their tattoo shop, and as part of the launch, all the paint was free. It was street art as spectacle, and the spectacle was not a little mesmerising to watch. The delicacy and intricacy with which the artworks are created was eye-opening. Plus there was a live DJ pumping out suitably loud and pounding music, a barbecue and a free cocktail bar.

Here, in the midst of an abandoned industrial relic, was a professional mixologist turning out very respectable bourbon-based cocktails, while the smell of barbecue wafted across the empty space in front of an abandoned factory. What’s not to love? If you want to get a sense of the event there are some videos on Facebook. The event even made the news.

Free cocktails, Street art event, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Free cocktails, Street art event, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

It underscores, if that is needed, that the once subversive and socially unacceptable – tattoos and graffiti – are perfectly acceptable in the  21st century. That is something to celebrate, and people did … although it wasn’t exactly a surprise to discover some earlier, more traditional graffiti done by a less skilled hand. I believe it’s affectionately known as ‘cock and balls’.

'Cock and balls', Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

‘Cock and balls’, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

A medieval fake, majestic Kasteel de Haar

Think ‘class system’, and you’ll likely think of Britain, with its obsessive classifications of social status and increasingly fragile social mobility. Yet, according to a diplomatic corps insider here in The Hague, ‘class’ is very much alive and well in Dutch society. The Netherlands, a country renowned for its Calvinist frugality, is not a place you’d imagine to be stratified along lines of class. Perceptions can be misleading apparently.

A visit to the extraordinary Kasteel de Haar brings you face-to-face with the Dutch aristocracy. As if anticipating that very observation, the castle’s own website states: “You will be amazed at the very un-Dutch luxury in which the Van Zuylen family and their guests lived amidst a wealth of history and art.” It’s certainly a very different Netherlands that you encounter once inside the grounds of this sumptuous place.

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar looks and feels like the perfect medieval castle. There are towers, turrets, drawbridges and a moat, but a little like the deception of a classless society, it too is a fake. There was a castle here in medieval times, and the current castle is built on its foundations, but the building you see so elegantly reflected in the moated waters is almost wholly from the 19th century.

The original castle dates from the late 14th century, when it was in the hands of the De Haar family. In 1440, the De Haar’s ran out of male heirs and it passed to the Van Zuylen family. In the 18th century the castle was only rarely lived in and had little military importance, and it fell into disrepair. In which state it remained until inherited in 1890 by Etienne Gustave Frédéric Baron van Zuylen van Nyevelt van de Haar (try saying after a couple of glasses of Jenever).

Over twenty-years, between 1892 and 1912, the castle was rebuilt. It took no less an architect than Pierre Cuypers (who built Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and Centraal Station) to complete the job. It also took a small fortune to finance the rebuilding. Conveniently, Baron van Zuylen was married to an heir of the Rothschild banking dynasty, Baroness Hélène de Rothschild. Presumably money wasn’t an issue.

Inconveniently, when the castle was in ruins the village of Haarzuilens had grown up in the area surrounding it. Having a village on his doorstep was definitely not in Baron van Zuylen’s plans. Haarzuilens was demolished and rebuilt a kilometre away, making space for Kasteel de Haar’s picturesque formal gardens in its place. The only building that remains is the former village church.

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

The castle has been owned and managed by the Foundation Kasteel de Haar since 2000, but the family still have rooms for when they’re in residence. The interior of the castle, which you can visit independently or on a tour, has an odd collection of genuine medieval tapestries, paintings from the Dutch Golden Age, and all the mod-cons of the early 20th century. They make for strange bedfellows.

Not many rooms in the castle are open to the public, but it still gives you a sense of the lifestyle of the owners. As do the photos of the parties that were held here. Over the years guests have included, rather improbably, a mixture of European aristocracy, American high society and a range of celebrities – Joan Collins, Coco Chanel, Roger Moore and Yves Saint Laurent to name but a few.

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

The interior doesn’t take long to look around, which leaves more time for wandering the pleasant grounds and drinking in the majestic vistas across the countryside or towards the castle … just try to block out the fact that an entire village was demolished to create those vistas.

A town with a big heart, historic Troyes

Troyes was an absolute revelation. I knew little about it before going, and only when there did I learn of the designation that has been bestowed upon it: Ville d’Art et d’Histoire, City of Art and History. That, at least, gives an indication of the delights that await when you get there. Even then most tourists seem to stay further north in the heartlands of the champagne-making region, near Reims and Épernay. Troyes was completely underwhelmed by tourism.

Sculpture, Troyes, Champagne, France

Sculpture, Troyes, Champagne, France

Heart-shaped sculpture, Troyes, Champagne, France

Heart-shaped sculpture, Troyes, Champagne, France

Sculpture, Troyes, Champagne, France

Sculpture, Troyes, Champagne, France

The best way to discover Troyes’ art and history is to walk the compact medieval centre. Diving down narrow alleys between the timber-framed houses that are emblematic of the town. There are small courtyards and squares to discover, and 12th and 13th Century churches hidden amongst the tangle of streets to find. Amongst these pedestrianised streets the past seems to come alive.

Historic Troyes is said to be shaped like a champagne cork. A shape formed originally by defensive walls, and today by elegant boulevards and the River Seine as it twists around the town. The resemblance to a champagne cork can still be seen today despite the town’s expansion. Equally, it could be a mushroom or, if you’re a teenage boy, a more phallic object. I doubt the tourist board will adopt that interpretation any time soon though.

The stem of the cork is where the medieval old town is found. In the bulbous head of the cork can be found the early 13th Century Cathédrale Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul, surrounded by a collection of timber-framed medieval houses. Next to the cathedral in former church buildings is the Musée d’Art Moderne with a pretty sculpture garden, and a treasure trove of works by Cézanne, Degas, Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso.

The walk between the two areas takes you through lovely squares flanked by 17th and 18th Century buildings, and over the Canal des Trevois. The route is dotted with public art, statues and fountains. On a warm sunny day, Troyes is a fantastic place to stroll around. When you’re done strolling, my advice is to head to Le Millésimé on Place Saint-Rémy, near the food market. Relax with a glass of local champagne and watch the world go by.

Troyes, Champagne, France

Troyes, Champagne, France

Troyes, Champagne, France

Troyes, Champagne, France

Troyes, Champagne, France

Troyes, Champagne, France

Musée d'Art Moderne, Troyes, Champagne, France

Musée d’Art Moderne, Troyes, Champagne, France

Sculpture, Troyes, Champagne, France

Sculpture, Troyes, Champagne, France

The historic wealth of art and culture can be traced back well over two thousand years, to when Troyes was founded by Celtic tribes. It became a centre of trade between Northern France and Italy following the Roman conquest of Gaul. Trade links made Troyes wealthy and, in the medieval period, famous for its great trade fairs which established it as an international trading centre.

The decline of Troyes began with the persecution of the many Protestants who had founded industries there, particularly cloth making industries based first on the wool trade and later cotton. A massacre of Calvinist Huguenots in 1572, and a century of occasional persecution, culminated in Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.

Sculpture, Troyes, Champagne, France

Sculpture, Troyes, Champagne, France

Troyes, Champagne, France

Troyes, Champagne, France

Cathedral, Troyes, Champagne, France

Cathedral, Troyes, Champagne, France

Troyes, Champagne, France

Troyes, Champagne, France

By guaranteeing Protestants equal rights the Edit of Nantes brought an end to the French Wars of Religion. The ending of religious, civil and legal protections saw a wave of persecution unleashed on the Huguenots, and a flood of skilled Huguenot workers leave the city. Many of the refugees established themselves in Protestant England and the Netherlands, both of which benefitted economically while the economy of Troyes, and France, was severely damaged.

Troyes went from being a centre of trade to a relative backwater. Something modern visitors should should be grateful for: it’s one of the reasons why its collection of medieval buildings has made it into the 21st Century.

Brexit is just English humour, Troyes, Champagne, France

Brexit is just English humour, Troyes, Champagne, France