Saturday, 30 August 2014

Universal Studios

I’m not a big fan of theme parks, so when we’d planned our holiday I‘d thought of Universal Studios as something we would do if we had time, but we’d probably miss it out. Once we were in L.A., Sarah convinced me that it was worth a look and Vincent convinced me even more by getting very excited by the whole thing the day before, so we woke up early on Wednesday morning and quickly headed over there to beat the queues.  I’m so grateful that we did, because writing this now in the airport at the end of the holiday, I can attest that Universal Studios was the best part of our entire trip, beating even Yosemite to second place, which I didn’t think would be possible. 

Spot the odd one out on the Apollo 13 mission
If you go to Universal Studios, you have to be prepared for the fact that everything is fake. There’s a fake Parisian street, a fake London street, and a fake New York street; there are fake cars, fake animals, and fake people – but then, Hollywood pretty much invented fake, at least on this scale, so it’s kind of an authentic fake, and it is done with such creativity, enthusiasm and attention to detail, that I warmed to it very quickly. I love the fact that they turn everything into a fully immersive Hollywood experience.  It begins even when you first arrive and you get to walk down a red carpet, with the Universal Studios theme tune music playing and photographers waiting to take your picture. It’s so glamorous, even the toilets are glitzy, with shiny doors and stars painted on the walls and floors. 

Once inside the park itself, we zoomed straight over to the famous Universal Studios tram tour.  At this point I still felt slightly sceptical of the whole enterprise, and I felt like a bit of a mug sitting on the tram whilst our over-enthusiastic tour guide tried to warm up the crowd by getting us all to cheer and shout about what a good time we were having. Once on the tour however, all my scepticism evaporated, and I soaked it all up. 
village before flash flood
village during flash flood
The tram takes you around the outside of various different studios where live filming is taking place and then round to the outdoor sets of films like Jaws, Psycho and The Grinch. They’ve put a lot of effort into making sure that the tour is really interesting, so they turn on the weather effects to show you not just rain, but a full on flash flood (which gave me a shock even though the tour guide warned us it was about to happen).  They also pretend to set fire to oil cans at one point and you feel intense heat from the huge, controlled bursts of flame that erupt next to the tram. 

Clearly this isn't a photo that I took myself!
Anyone who knows anything about the tour (which was a category of person that did not include myself until I went on it), knows that there is a King Kong section, where the tram goes inside a studio and you put on 3D glasses whilst a scene from King Kong is enacted all around you. It’s absolutely incredible. Not only is the 3D imagery so realistic because it is displayed literally everywhere you look, so you are fully immersed in it, but they also make the tram shudder and slide about when the dinosaurs appear to hit it, so you feel like you’re actually being thrown around by the colossal creatures. Everyone screams, and everyone has a great time. 

The giant splash at the end of the Jurassic Park ride
It is the concept of immersing the audience in a story that really makes universal studios an absolutely incredible and unmissable experience.  There are some fairly standard theme park rides, such as the Jurassic Park ride which is a twist on the classic log flume ride, introducing 50ft moving, roaring, spitting dinosaurs alongside an 80ft drop that gets everyone soaked. But quite a few of the rides don’t involve moving very far at all. In the Simpsons ride (which is incredible) your small car of about 8 people stays in one room and is tipped and turned to simulate movement, without actually going anywhere. What makes it absolutely spectacular, is that the story of the ride is played all around you in 3D, so you feel like you are actually inside a crazy episode of the Simpsons. For someone who has been watching the Simpsons for pretty much the last 20 years, this was an amazing experience. You can look above you and all around to each side and everywhere you look you see the world they have created. I absolutely loved it and I was very impressed.  Other rides do a similar thing and thanks to Vincent’s ruthless organisation in the morning and his dedication to visiting all the most popular rides before the large crowds turned up, we got to go on all of them. 

Alongside the rides there are also shows, with the top rated attraction being the Waterworld show. Ironically, the movie Waterworld was such a flop that it nearly bankrupted Universal Studios when they made it, but the live stunt show they have created using the original set is now a huge crowd pleaser at Universal Studios and is a roaring success. During the show, the cast members perform some incredible stunts, mainly involving hurling themselves off the set and plunging around 40-50ft into the water below, sometimes whilst on fire, at other times whilst appearing to be tied up. Some of them come back up again, others disappear under the water, so they must have to do the stunt and then swim underwater to somewhere beyond the set where they can’t be seen. The men and women who do it are incredibly brave and talented. It really struck me that a lot of hard work goes into creating scenes like that and I thought: fair play to Hollywood. It’s easy to be sceptical about it all and to point out that, among other things, Hollywood plotlines can sometimes be quite weak and there is lots of institutional sexism, but a trip to Universal Studios highlights the time and effort, the skill and the sheer guts that goes into making a movie. Leaving aside various criticisms for the moment, I now have newfound respect for the whole industry and (thanks to the Despicable Me ride) I also have a toy minion.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Los Angeles: The City of the Angels

After a day and a half of chilling out, relaxing and not doing very much in Pismo Beach, we hit the road again and headed down Highway 101, singing along happily to possibly the best driving music ever: Bruce Springsteen’s Greatest Hits. And I do not jest when I say this. If you haven’t listened to Springsteen on a road trip, you’re really missing out. And if you’re going to America on a road trip, you need to seriously prioritise bringing some Springsteen with you. In fact, if you’re travelling with a spouse, it’s more important to pack Springsteen than it is to bring your driving licence because, bizarrely, in California, husbands and wives can drive on each other’s licence. 

Soon the dusty hills of the San Rafael mountains gave way to palm-lined avenues and we knew we’d made it to L.A.  We checked in to our hotel in the downtown district and went for a walk around. We approached one street corner and found lots of people shouting in Spanish, holding signs that were indecipherable to me because I don’t speak any Spanish and indecipherable to Vincent because he couldn’t see very far. There were lots of police officers waiting around, so Vincent put on his best confused English tourist voice and went over to ask what was going on. They told us that the Mexican president was coming through and soon enough, a motorcade of about 30 cars and motorbikes came speeding past, all looking very official. Sadly, they didn’t stop to chat to the protestors. 

In a very exciting turn of events, an old friend of mine from university called Sarah had messaged me before our honeymoon started to remind me that she lived in LA and to ask if we would like to meet up when we were there. Of course we would! I was super-excited to see her again and even more excited when we got to the spot she’d chosen for us to meet up: the roof-top bar of the Standard hotel in downtown L.A. It was a really cool spot for soaking up the glamorous L.A. atmosphere and we had a fantastic evening. Sarah is a really interesting and entertaining person and she indulged us by answering lots of questions about America. We learned that we should have been asking for the restroom not the toilet and that we weren’t on holiday, we were on vacation. She had a good laugh when we explained that we’d asked for a plaster instead of a band aid earlier in the holiday and she explained lots of things about driving in America that we probably should have researched before taking to the road. 

Sarah grew up in L.A. and has been working in the T.V. and film industries there, so she was the perfect person to give us an introduction to the second biggest city in the US.  Bowing to her far-superior knowledge, we based our whole itinerary on her advice. As a result, the following morning saw us getting up bright and early to head over to Sunset Boulevard for breakfast at Griddle Cakes, a pancake shop serving delicious but ENOURMOUS pancakes. Even Vincent couldn’t make it through more than a third of his breakfast. We then headed further up into the Hollywood hills to walk up to the top of Runyon Canyon, where true Angelenos go for a workout. It turned out that the day we’d picked to visit was street cleaning day, so parking was pretty tricky and we had to drive through a maze of beautifully manicured streets before finding somewhere to park.  When we got out of the car, a cheerful Hollywood bus tour came past and we could clearly hear that we’d parked outside Laurence Fishburn’s house – an actor from the Matrix. Not particularly interesting I thought, and soon forgot his name. 

Once we got to the canyon, we found that nearly everyone was wearing sports clothes, apart from a small but distinct minority of women who opted for the alternative outfit of very short shorts and a bikini top. It was a scorching hot day and the hills were very steep, but we were rewarded with a great view of the famous Hollywood sign and some fantastic people watching. My favourite people to watch were the really burly men walking teeny tiny dogs, some of which were dressed in extravagant outfits including sunglasses and even a superman cape. Hilariously, once we got back down to the entrance to the park, we found ourselves in trouble because ..... we’d lost the car! Feeling a bit foolish, we headed off in the general direction of the car and hoped for the best. Vincent had remembered the name of the actor whose house we had parked in front of earlier, which was very useful but I didn’t fancy having to explain to someone that we needed to find Laurence Fishburn’s house because we’d lost our car in front of it. Thankfully, after a few minutes of searching, we rounded a corner and found the car. It was a big relief!

We divided the rest of the afternoon between the Griffiths Observatory, which was really interesting to explore and very educational, and Venice Beach, a.k.a Muscle Beach, which was educational in a different way. I have to admit that Venice Beach wasn’t really my scene, but it was definitely interesting to look around. We headed back to get an early night to prepare for the most exciting stop in our trip..... Universal Studios.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Pismo Beach

After ten nights on our road-trip honeymoon, we arrived at Pismo Beach which was our scheduled pit stop. Pismo isn't a particularly exciting town, it just has a glorious beach, but after all the racing around we did in San Francisco, Yosemite and Monterey, a beach was all we wanted. Our hotel was perfectly situated right on the beach front so all we had to do was stroll outside and put our feet in the sand. Unlike the other destinations on our road trip, we only heard American accents in Pismo Beach, which is probably because there wasn't a lot to do there, but a day of doing nothing much on the beach suited us just fine.

We arrived late on Saturday night and then spent Sunday just sun-bathing on the beach. After a while, we thought we'd go for a dip in the Pacific, so we ran into the sea. We soon discovered that it was not the kind of gentle sea you can swim in. Even the small waves were very powerful and once I got to knee high water it was all I could do to keep standing when a new wave hit. Vincent, imbued with an atypical sense of adventure, decided to go further and further into the ocean until the waves were at about head height, at which point he lost both his footing and his glasses. Bearing in mind his earlier experiences on the whale watching tour, it was now Vincent nil, Pacific 2.

From Monterey to Pismo Beach via the Pacific Coastal Highway

On Saturday morning, we said a long lingering goodbye to Monterey by spending about three hours in the fabulous aquarium. During our whale watching expedition on the previous day, the tour-guide on the boat explained that there is an enormous underwater canyon off the coast of Monterey, which is about twice the size of the Grand Canyon. She explained that this under-water canyon has an amazing eco-system that supports a huge variety of plants and fish under the sea and this is what attracts the unusually large gatherings of mammals such as whales, sea lions and sea otters that we can see above the surface. Looking over the dull grey ocean, it was difficult to imagine that much was going on beneath the surface, but a visit to the aquarium brought it all to life.

I haven't got many photos because flash photography is not allowed in the aquarium so that it doesn't disturb the fish, but I can assure you that it was a really fascinating place.  The photo above is an egg-yolk jellyfish, which is a pretty scary jellyfish because it goes around eating smaller jellyfish. The photo on the right shows a chambered nautilus, with its pretty creepy eye staring right atcha. I don't have any photos of them, but some of the other highlights of the aquarium include giant octopus, hammerhead sharks, leopard sharks, stingrays, giant bluefin tuna (which can grow up to 3m long), puffins, sea turtles and, best of all, four adorable sea otters.

After Monterey we ignored the sat nav's desperate attempts to get us to take Highway 101 down to our next stop at Pismo Beach and instead we opted for the slower but much more scenic coastal road: Highway 1. Highway 1 runs right along the pacific coastline of California. On one side of the road is a jagged cliff face, on the other side is a sheer drop into the ocean. Just like in Yosemite, this is not a road to be rushed. In the photo on the left you can see one of the many bridges that forms part of Highway 1 and you can just about make out the road as it runs along the side of the cliff.

For the first couple of hours on the road, I was in charge of driving, so I didn't pay much attention to the scenery.  Then Vincent took over for another couple of hours and I took the opportunity to look around. What really struck me was the number of large birds that kept coming in to sight. My favourite were the pelicans, with their comically long beaks. At one point, four pelicans flew alongside our car in formation, with their magnificent beaks pointing high into the air. They looked both superior and ridiculous at the same time.

The pelicans were best to watch when they were catching fish from the ocean. Each time was the same. A pelican would be flying steadily about 15ft above the ocean, then suddenly it would take a dramatic and ungainly nosedive, corkscrewing around with its wings outstretched, making a giant splash as it hit the water. The pelican would soon resurface, with or without fish (I couldn't really tell) and bob along quite calmly on the surface of the water as though it had made an utterly nonchalant catch. I wasn't quick enough to take a photo of these aerial acrobatics so the picture above and to the right is just a photo I took of a pelican sitting on a rock next to some black cormorants.  The picture to the left however, is by a much more talented photographer than myself, and it captures the moment when a pelican crashes into the water, making the huge splash.

Pelicans are now my new favourite birds (sorry Puffins, you're in second place now) so to finish the post, here is a bonus picture of a pelican from Monterey bay.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Monterey: The Marine Paradise

On Thursday Morning, after spending two days exploring Yosemite, we hit the road again and drove back to the Pacific coast, this time a little bit further south than San Francisco, to the town of Monterey. On the way, we decided to stop for a coffee and we plumped for the familiar and ubiquitous Starbucks. We told the nice American lady at the counter that our names were Charlotte and Vincent, and she clearly felt these weren't proper American names, so she translated them onto our coffee cups as "Charolette and Victor". I quite liked being Char-o-lette, which is a name that can only be pronounced in the drawl of a Deep South accent, but I think Vincent was less enamoured of the appellation Victor.

Anyway, back to Monterey, In the first half of the 20th century, Monterey was one of America's biggest fishing ports and the sardine canning industry in particular was big business. John Steinbeck wrote a novel about it called Cannery Row and described industrial Monterey as "a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream". Today, little of that industrial past remains intact except for the fact that Cannery Row now packs tourists in so tightly that you sometimes feel like a sardine. The reason for it's enduring popularity remains constant however: the spectacular marine life in Monterey Bay.

When we first arrived in the bay, we knew there was a famous aquarium, which we intended to explore, but what we didn't expect was that the wildlife in and around the bay would be so bold and so plentiful. Within minutes of walking down the peer, we saw and heard the first sea lion, honking away happily under the peer. Then, just moments later, we saw a pelican preening itself on a shop roof. Realising that the wildlife in the bay was incredibly cool, we quickly booked ourselves onto a little boat that did a short tour of the bay.

During the boat tour, we got to hang out with about a hundred male sea lions all sunning themselves on a stretch of rocks and we saw lots of beautiful black cormorants flying elegantly over the top of the sea. The best bit however, was getting close to one of the rare sea otters that live in the bay. They are incredibly beautiful, fun and adorable animals and it is very sad to think that they were nearly hunted to extinction in the 19th century for their beautiful fur coats. The otters sleep floating on the surface of the sea, wrapping themselves in sea-weed so that they don't float away and holding hands with each other so that they can huddle together for warmth. The often have their paws out of the cold water because their paws aren't very well insulated, and they generally lie on the backs so they look like the are waving at you and saying hi. The photo here shows an otter tucking in to a tasty clam. They bash the clam shell open by hitting it against the side of a boat or a big stone first, and then eat the flesh inside.

For our second day in Monterey, we took a 3 hour boat tour further out into the pacific ocean in the hopes of seeing some of the enormous humpback whales that frequent the bay. Luckily we saw one near the very beginning of the trip, which jumped high above the sea right near our boat. As with the bear, I didn't get chance to take a photo, so you'll have to take my word for it, but here is a photo of a similar sort of whale jump, courtesy of google images.

Prior to the boat trip, I had been a bit worried about getting sea sick and Vincent had taken great pleasure in teasing me about it, making much of the word play between "chowder" (which was being sold everywhere) and chunder, which he suggested I would soon be doing. The universe was on my side however and I surprised myself by finding my sea legs quite quickly and even enjoying the jolting motion of the boat as it skimmed over some pretty big waves. The same could not be said for Vincent however, who soon found that the tables had turned and in fact he was the one feeling sick. Actually, poor old Vincent spent nearly the entire 3 hour trip hanging off the back of the boat feeling really ill. It's not something I would wish on anyone, but at least Vincent appreciated the irony of the situation and has now pledged never to make fun of me feeling travel sick again. Thankfully, although I saw several whales during the course of the trip, none of them jumped as spectacularly as the first whale, so Vincent got to see the best bit.

The world of the very big, the very old and the very beautiful

For our second day in Yosemite, we drove about 30 miles away from the main valley to a small village called Wawona, which was the historic centre of the park. Today Wawona is a tiny settlement of about 160 people. It has a large Victorian hotel, a golf course and a visitor centre with log cabins from the old pioneer days of the mid 19th century. (On the right is a photo of one of the old log cabins) Although it's only 30 miles away, it takes about an hour an a quarter to drive to Wawona from Yosemite valley because the precarious road that hugs tightly to the side of the colossal mountains kinda slows things down. The national park authorities have thoughtfully failed to place any crash barriers on the 300 degree corners, which boomerang you out to the edge of the mountain, giving you a few moments to teeter on the edge before the road pulls you back in. Presumably this is so that everyone can get a good view.

So why did we chose to leave beautiful Yosemite valley, with it's highly organised shuttle-bus system and plethora of signposts that greatly appealed to Vincent's desire for order and organisation? Because at Wawona, we would find something just as good: The Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. I've mentioned Giant Redwoods in a few blog posts and they deserve the mentions - they are very impressive trees. But Giant Sequoias are something else. The Giant Sequoias we saw were about 1,500 to 2,000 years old and about 200ft tall. Just ponder that for a moment. They are living things. They are up to 2,000 years old. That's much older than you and me. It's even older than the United States of America. Two thousand years. They have lived through fires, earth quakes, a mini-ice age or two, and they are still going.

This is before I get onto the size of the Giant Sequoias. Giant truly is the right word. If you look at the base of the tree in the picture above, you might be able to just see me and Vincent with our arms stretched out, trying to make ourselves as big as possible. (Which, incidentally, is what the signs in the park advise you to do if you see a bear or a mountain lion). If you find us in the photo (I'm wearing a red T-shirt and Vincent is in white) you might start to get a sense for how big these trees are. In the photo on the right, we're standing at the foot of a particularly tall Giant Sequoia called "The Grizzly Giant", because part of its base has been blackened by fire. These trees are so big though, that they can withstand forest fires, and they actually thrive when there are fairly regular fires because the fires keep the forest floor clear of other vegetation.

I like the way that several trees have names and defining features that seem to give them personalities. I really liked the pair of trees called "the faithful couple", who have grown together so closely  that their roots have fused together and over the last millennia or so, they have essentially become one tree. This is very cheesy, but seen as I'm on honeymoon and allowed to be a bit romantic, I'm going to point it out anyway: in our wedding ceremony our friend Mona read an excerpt from Captain Corelli's Mandolin  which said that true love was like having "roots that grow towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossom has fallen from your branches, you find that you are one tree and not two". It seemed to us that it was a good omen to have come on honeymoon and found a pair of old trees that had actually done this. 

Once we'd trekked around the Mariposa Grove, we headed back to Yosemite valley again. On the way, we drove up to a famous viewing station called Glacier Point where we found spectacular views of the park. As we drove along through the wilderness, there were other cars on the road, but not that many and we were alone in the forest quite a lot. Suddenly, as we rounded a corner, we were confronted by.....a bear! A real live bear! I don't think it's name was Yogi and it definitely didn't look like the sort of bear that would join in with a civilised picnic, but it was a very cool bear nonetheless. It lolloped across the road with an undulating, but deceptively speedy gait, before trundling off into the woods. We'd already seen plenty of videos of bears breaking cars apart to get at food, so we were quite pleased that it didn't stop to say hello and we simply drove on, intermittently exclaiming - "It was a bear! We just saw a bear!"

Unfortunately, I did not think to take a photo of the bear and I didn't really have time to anyway. So in case you feel short changed by the lack of bear photos on this post, here is a picture of a similar bear, that I found on google.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Into the Wilderness

Water cascades over 600ft falls, trees grow to around 200ft and live for thousands of years, and giant, 8,000ft granite monoliths stand guard over the valley floor. Welcome to Yosemite National Park, where nature rules on a grand scale.

We drove from San Francisco to the outskirts of Yosemite on Monday and entered the park itself on Tuesday. We knew that it was going to be dramatic and we'd seen pictures of the most famous landmarks already, but photographs and videos simply cannot prepare you for how big everything is. We have nothing to compare it to in the UK. I've put photos on this blog post, but none of them do it justice - you have to go and visit for yourself!

When you first enter the park you drive along the valley floor, which is carpeted with Giant Redwood trees, most of which stand over 200ft tall. So you're already feeling pretty small when you round a corner to be suddenly confronted with El Capitan, a granite monolith that stands at around 8,000ft. When me and Vincent first saw it we both started exclaiming: "What! Wow! Oh my god! Oh my god!" And Vincent, who claims that he will never be interested in fantasy literature, immediately compared it to The Wall in Game of Thrones. This photo is a picture of El Capitan, but it doesn't do it justice. It's so much more impressive in real life!

Once we had parked in the main valley and wandered up to the visitor centre to get our bearings, we began by learning how to pronounce Yosemite in an American accent. I had been pronouncing it yu-sem-it-ee, which is an OK pronunciation, but to be all-american about it, you need to say Yo! at the start, then "semit" really quickly, then an elongated "eeee" at the end. Kinda like this: "Yo-semiteee". Once you've got the hang of that, Yo-semiteee is pretty much foolproof. All the trails are very well signposted and there is a free shuttle bus that goes around the valley floor in a loop, dropping off hikers at the start of various different trails. We went for the Mist Trail which takes you past two stunning waterfalls on the way up to Clark's Point, which is 5,400 ft above sea level.The photo here is of Vernal Falls, which is about 1 1/2 hours climb from the valley floor. To give you a sense of scale, look closely at the rock to the top right of the waterfall. Believe it or not, there are people standing there. They are miniscule in comparison to the waterfall.

As you climb the Mist Trail from the valley floor up to Vernal Falls, you start to hear the roar and crash of the water as it thunders down the mountainside into the pool below. For us, as we experienced the power of this waterfall first hand, it was incredible to know that the flow this August is just a trickle compared to what it is typically like in early spring. At the moment, California is currently experiencing a severe drought and some of the largest falls and lakes in Yosemite have actually dried up completely. The park only received about 20% of it's usual level of snowfall this year, meaning that there is only 20% of the usual amount of snowmelt to create the waterfalls.

The photo here shows me and Vincent at the top of Clark Point, which we hiked to from the valley floor. I was very grateful that I remembered to pack my hiking boots as we climbed the trail!  From this point we could see the back of "Half Dome" which is the most famous granite mountain in Yosemite. We could also see the Nevada falls, which are over 600ft long. The temperature was a pretty toasty 30 degrees C, but the Giant Redwoods provide much needed shade most of the way up and down, so it didn't feel too hot.

We made our way back down via part of the 211 mile long John Muir Trail, named after the famous 19th/early 20th century Scottish-American conservationist who persuaded President Theodore Roosevelt to put the Yosemite valley under federal protection as part of America's first National Park. We stopped here for our picnic in the woods (thanks to mum and dad for contributing to this as part of our wedding present!) and we were so dwarfed by the giant trees and rocks that I felt that we'd fallen through Lewis Carroll's rabbit hole and taken shrinking pills. You can now try playing Where's Wally and look for where I am in the photograph.

As we ate lunch I thought more about the differences between the American National Parks which were first created in the mid 19th century, and British National Parks, which were created in the mid 20th century. The American parks are predicated on the need to conserve the wilderness for future generations and prevent over-commercialisation, but National Parks in the UK, specifically the Peak District National Park, have slightly different origins based on pressure from ordinary people who wanted to have access to mountain and moorland that was hitherto held by the landed gentry. When Yosemite National Park was first created in the mid 19th century, America was still a frontier society, where the wildnerness belonged to any man bold enough and grasping enough to claim it from it's original inhabitants - the Native Americans. In contrast, northern England in the 19th and early 20th century was a much more static society, still affected by the process of enclosure which had begun in the 16th century and had stripped working class people of their rights to common land.

It was quite amusing for me to see how commercial Yosemite was when it was first "discovered" by white Americans in the 1860s. They built a cinema, a dance hall, a music hall and various hotels, with lots of enterprising American entrepreneurs hoping to cash in on the magnificent scenery. In contrast, the Peak District in the 19th and early 20th centuries was jealously guarded by the landed aristocracy who wanted to maintain the grouse moors as a playground for the elite. However, despite their slightly different beginnings, one rooted in conservation, the other in access for ordinary people, both Yosemite and the Peak District National Park are based on the recognition that areas of outstanding natural beauty should not be subject to usual property laws: they are heirlooms of the whole nation and everyone deserves access to them. As the Sheffield socialist and freedom to roam campaigner G.H.B. Ward said: "The mountain has no master save the lonely man who stands upon it's highest crag". Or, as demonstrated in the fantastic picture on the cover of this book I saw in the gift shop: "The mountain has no master save the two crazy ladies dancing the cancan on it's highest and scariest crag".

Friday, 22 August 2014


Having been so impressed with the first Wild SF walking tour, on Sunday we went on another one. This time the tour took us around the Castro and Mission districts which are two of the cultural centres of San Francisco and home to the LGBT community. These areas are slightly off the beaten path for most tourists, but if you take the time to go up there, you are rewarded with some fantastic views, incredible murals and really interesting history. The tour began with our friendly and humorous tour guide J Jo singing a song in Union Square, then we all had a chance to chat with our fellow travellers as we took the underground up to the Castro area. 

LGBT history in San Francisco is both devastating and uplifting. For the first stop on the tour, J Jo took us to a sculpture dedicated to the homosexual victims of the holocaust. He pointed out that the gay prisoners were the only group of people who were put straight back into prison after being freed from the Nazi internment camps and he talked to us about the terrible persecution that the lesbian and gay communities suffered during and after the second world war. It was all very poignant.

Things never stay downcast for long in San Francisco however, and we were soon on our way with other stops on the tour that gave us an insight into more positive chapters in LGBT history. We stopped at the house where Harvey Milk lived when he became the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California and we walked through the really vibrant area called the Castro district, which is the centre of the LGBT community in San Francisco today and is a really lively and colourful place. After climbing to the top of the hill in this district, we reached the sunny and beautiful Dolores Park, in the mission district. It was beautiful, so it deserves an extra-large photo!

The history of the LGBT community in San Francisco is the history of a community finding its voice and gaining a basic human right: the right to self determination. It is not surprising that this happened in the same city that hosted prominant members of the beat generation, such as Allen Ginsberg (who I mentioned in another post) and Jack Kerouac. Other groups of people have had similar struggles and triumphs in San Francisco and the art and architecture of the city is a testament to their perseverance and creative endeavour. In the mission district, there are many murals on the walls celebrating the life and culture of different ethnic groups. This photo shows the women's building. It's a dramatic and inspiring place that houses several different women's organisations, but was the subject of intense hostility when it was first founded. The murals covering the building are called the "meastra peace" rather than a masterpiece.

Sadly, by Monday morning it was time for us to leave San Francisco. Vincent charmed some Italian tourists into taking this photo of us by the heart in union square. Hasta La Vista San Francisco! We hope to return again.