Category Archives: Travel Stories

Holland: Dutch Castles and Country Houses


Up early, past the Banksy and onto the ferry at Dover before 8am to eat Eggs Benedict off linen-imitating paper placemats in the tranquillity and comfort of the DFDS Premium Lounge. A good way to start the day.

We drove through France and Belgium to the Netherlands, stopping at the motorway services for snacks and 70¢ loo stops (thank you Polly for paying for my pees!) At one place there was a cockerel chilling in the picnic area, so I took a few minutes to share a stroopwafel with him.

When I was invited on a mini tour of Dutch Castles and Country Houses I squealed with joy. You’ll never hear me turn down a nose around someone else’s house.

There was one time where I thought I was being lured into a house by a sturdy old man, but his William Morris wallpaper and spiral staircase won over my fears of being murdered, and it was only when I entered the living room and saw the naked bodies on the tele that I feared I’d been sucked into a pensioners porn den. All was well, he had an amazing collection of art books and it turned out to be an advert for Dove.

Slot Loevestein. First stop. A Medieval castle dating back to 1361, which in the 16th Century, during the Eighty Years’ War, became a State Prison. One of the prisoners was a chap called Hugo Grotius (known to be a founding father of international law) who was given a life sentence (and also allowed to take his wife, children and maid to prison with him). He escaped in a book chest and became the Queen of Sweden’s ambassador to France.

Later additions to the castle in the 1800s included bomb-proof bunkers and military housing. Loevestein’s role as an army stronghold finally came to an end after World War II in 1951.

These days you can explore the castle at ease, stay the night in the Officers house, or rent out a little soldiers’ cottage, have lunch in the Taverne, get a boat to a local restaurant in the evening, see a child’s skeleton in the museum, visit the shop and even get married. All areas covered.


We sat outside in the garrisons’ street, breeze rustling in the trees, sun streaking through the leaves. Cakes with strawberries, and chocolates, and tea in nice packets.

Someone asked, ‘Which are the most popular castles?’ and I couldn’t help but answer, ‘Bouncy’.

Landgoed Hotel Groot Warnsborn for the night, after a wander in the grounds and a four-course dinner. A beautiful ‘18th Century’ mansion set in magical gardens, within an ancient forest. In 1932, after full renovation, the house was opened as a hotel. Anne Frank stayed at Groot Warnsborn in September 1941; they think that was her last holiday.

Throughout World War II the hotel was a recreation resort for German soldiers, but during a party the whole house was burnt to the ground. The orangery, icehouse, and terraced gardens remained, but the house we now see was built in 1952.


Acres and acres of towering trees. Ferns and foxgloves, and beautiful scented roses. Somewhere there were burial mounds and crayfish in freshwater, but it was time for dinner.

Drinks on the terrace, then into the private dining room. The sunlight cast shadows from candelabras. Asparagus amuse bouche. Piglet with sweet onion, citrusy balsamic, crisp brown rice. Venison sausage and mashed potatoes. Beef with white asparagus and green bean puree. Hibiscus, rhubarb, matcha pudding.


Then bedtime, in my very wooden bed. A central wall in the room acted as a divider between the bedroom and the open bathroom. I only learnt that the table moved up and down the bed when I leant on it and it slid away from me. Split-second poltergeist moment there. After all the excitement I slept like a log (must have been all that wood!)


Huis Middachten was a delight to see. A fully working family estate, owned by the 25th Lord of Middachten, Count zu Ortenburg. Above the entrance the coat of arms reads ‘Malo Mori Quam Foedari’ (‘rather death than disgrace’).


Inside, a pair of beautiful wooden staircases swept upwards, luring us to look up at the Italian ceiling and take in its glorious form – like an elaborate blancmange mould. Rooms of traditional furniture, china, panelling and family portraits. Middachten happens to house the largest portrait collection in the Netherlands.

The gardens are very lovely, three centuries worth of design and care, and a dog cemetery. The Cedar of Lebanon, Weeping Chestnut, and male and female Ginkgo Biloba trees are a real treat to see. More roses – beautiful roses (54 varieties), rhododendrons, and so many lily pads on the moat, where frogs chirruped away at maximum volume. (Apparently the head gardener brought the frogs from home as they’d been bothering her husband).

We ate sponge cake with hot tea in the orangery. I got told off by the Count and his dog tried to put its football in my bag. A morning well spent.

Landgoed Hotel Rhederoord for lunch. I felt immediately at home, the hotel was luxuriously serene and welcoming. In the dining room the rain pelted the windows, blurring the view of the trees. We gathered round the long table and ate the best pork belly I’ve ever had, followed by veal and beef with broccoli puree. All absolutely delicious.

We went to one of the balconies and looked across the garden. Beautiful, even in the horizontal rain. Set in 15 acres of park and woodlands, the estate has its own farm and provides fresh vegetables through a Food Bank for 1500 families.

Not only does Rhederoord have an almost totally organic kitchen, but they also produce their own range of products – Water 159, bottled from their own spring (159m below ground), a blonde beer Het Geheim (The Secret) made using their spring water and delicate, smooth and delicious honey.

I definitely intend to go back. Come with me?

Kasteel de Haar is branded as Hollands’ one and only jet-set castle, aside from being the largest castle in the Netherlands, it’s selling point is that Brigitte Bardot, Coco Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent used to party here.

As we walked towards the ‘Medieval’ castle I couldn’t believe how immaculate it was, how polished and new it looked, like it was from a film-set, almost Disney. Turns out it was built in 1892. Yes, I could be a detective.

Baron Etienne van Zuylen van Nijevelt inherited the ruins of De Haar and when he married Hélène de Rothschild they decided to rebuild the castle. It is not known exactly what the original castle looked like (not like this!) but they brought in architect Pierre Cuypers (Rijksmuseum and Central Station Amsterdam) who went at it with elaborate Neogothic aplomb. The family threw in all mod cons (central heating, hot water, and electricity) and the castle became a place to entertain and party, used only one month each year.


240 rooms, huge fake fireplaces, 16th Century tapestries, ornate brass chandeliers, tiles and patterns and wood panelling. And an interesting bathroom with what looks like a cigarette burn on the bathroom scales (I blame Brigitte).

It’s a fascinating display of wealth and workmanship, but give me frayed edges and faded grandeur any day. Or maybe – just give me the garden.


Kasteel Kerckebosch for dinner and sleeping. Both a success.

Owner Ingmar Sloothaak dubbed it the ‘Culinary Castle’ and I like that. Best kind of castle (after ‘bouncy’, of course). Kerckebosch is a lovely building, not overstated, not oversized, just lovely and made up of a mixture of period and reclaimed materials from other buildings including churches, abbeys and castles.


The original owner, Egbert Lintelo de Greer, finished building in 1911, then in 1940 the castle became a hotel. Over time it became less cared for, and in 2015 the main facilities were refurbished and Kerckebosch was reopened, much to everyone’s delight.

Dinner in the orangery – a new addition to the building, and perfectly, simply, in-keeping. The menu was eclectic, something for everyone – lobster rolls, Gado Gado, Rendang, salmon poppadums’, and short rib beef with whiskey cola sorbet. Tasty.


A wonderful evening and a peaceful night’s sleep. I sleep best in castles after big dinners.

In the morning I was ready for croissants and more castles, but it was time to go home already. 48 hours of castles and country houses – not an endurance contest, but, if it was, I think I could be quite successfully placed in the rankings.

Back on the ferry, back to the peace and pastries of the DFDS Premium Lounge. We went up to the bridge, met the captain, watched the waves through the glass floor, asked questions about engines and fuel tank capacity. We looked at the refurbished public areas, the cakes and the healthy lunches, and mostly the carpets.

Always looking for carpets, cats, or combs, sometimes castles, cars and stray croissants.

DFDS operates services from Dover to Dunkirk and Dover to Calais, offering up to 54 daily sailings, with prices from £49 each way. All Dover-France ships feature a Premium Lounge, which can be booked for an additional £12 per person each way. Priority boarding is also available from £10 per car each way.

Slot Loevestein Loevestein 1, Poederoijen 5307 TG Gelderland

Landgoed Hotel Groot Warnsborn Bakenbergseweg 277, 6816 VP Arnhem

Landgoed Huis Middachten Middachten 3, 6994 JC De Steeg, Gelderland

Landgoed Hotel Rhederoord Parkweg 19, 6994 CM De Steeg

Kasteel de Haar Kasteellaan 1, 3455 RR Haarzuilens

Kasteel Kerckebosch Arnhemse Bovenweg 31, 3708 AA Zeist

More information on Dutch castles and country houses: www.holland.com/castles

With the greatest thanks to DFDS anVisit Holland for making this trip possible, and with whom I was a guest. As always, my opinions are my own (and my ability to lure other peoples dogs, something I might rely on for a future career).

Holland: Return to Haarlem (Rotterdam, & Amsterdam)

The man behind me struggled to open his bottle of drink, knees digging hard into the back of my seat as he strained. ‘Shall we open the smoky bacon or the prawn cocktail?’ his companion asked, whilst rustling away with her grab-bags. Smokey bacon. The crunches and slurps were interspersed with a conversation on whether the pilot might actually be a woman. The consensus, before the slimming world recipes were discussed, was that they couldn’t possibly have a female pilot – because she would have mood swings.

Remind me something for the future – take noise cancelling headphones, even for short flights. Or, alternatively, some kind of appealing snacks laced with sedatives.

From Schiphol – two trains, full – to Haarlem. Lovely, kind and comfortable Haarlem.

Straight out of the station and into the sanctuary of Hotel Lion D’or. Relief. Soft bed, calm tones, clean air, and… what is this? Helma had left me a box of chocolate crayons in my room. Chocolate crayons. Heart eyes.

I chose to have a Tuesday night supermarket dinner – chicken salad, orange, chocomel (Someone had already had a go on my chocomel. Chocolate milk dreams ruined), and get an early night.

I slept well. I’ve been here before (one year and one week ago) and I settled back in nicely. I could live here. Contented hotel room dweller.

Observations on a Wednesday:

Breakfast ring doughnut (with jam inside).
Raining but not raining.
Joyful walking.
Hair clip purchase (in honour of Polly).
Good windows.
Quality pigeons.
Successful meeting (exhibition planning, sticky tape discussions).
Dinner with Ioana in Zandvoort.

On Thursday I took the train to Amsterdam. Last time I was here it was for the Shutter Hub OPEN, I walked past 5&33 Gallery, peeked in the windows at the people installing their exhibition, remembered we’ll be back there with another exhibition, sooner than we know it.

I walked across the city, comfortable with my inner compass, directing me toward my destination, where in just the last half a kilometre I needed my phones map for fine-tuned information. I know Amsterdam better than I know my closest city at home. I could live here – the Netherlands.

I reached the stone steps of LAB111, a cool cinema and restaurant venue, once a pathology laboratory for the university hospital. An art deco delight. We ate sweet potato fries with curry mayonnaise whilst a ginger cat did the rounds of the laps at our table. And then, I gave a talk about photography in the marble-lined former chapel of rest. These are the days.


In the morning we headed over to Rotterdam. Meetings full of excitement and promise, and eggs benedict at La Buvette. To the outskirts of the city to look at empty buildings, and then back to Amsterdam for my evening engagement – a talk at Paper Fetish. Chips and mayonnaise, good chats and hugs.


It was late when we drove out of the city and into the darkness of Amstelveen. Having checked out of the beautiful Hotel Lion d’Or in Haarlem, I’d been booked in at a surprise location.

I was dropped off at my room for the night, in a terraced house owned by Hotel Café Abina. Definitely not a hotel.

Abina hovel was unwelcomingly bleak, with stained carpets, and a stale scent of tobacco. The only thing that settled me was the smell of bread in the street.

In my room, a narrow corridor of two single beds, with a toilet and mouldy shower in the same space, I looked at my watch. Less than 7 hours to daylight. It’ll be fine. I slid the bed in front of the door and ‘slept’ in my clothes. As soon as it was light I was out, wandering the streets, breathing the fresh air, smiling at dogs, queueing for pastries at the French bakery on the corner.

I was relieved when Ioana came to meet me. We drove into Amsterdam and walked through Vondelpark before eating lunch in the sun. She showed me how as a child she would stick blossom petals to her finger nails as ‘nail varnish’, and then we watched two cyclists have an argument – shouting in Dutch, swearing in English. The Dutch swear in English! (I am already part way to speaking the language).

I came home with my brain full, a to-do list as long as my arm, and a great feeling joy and contentment. Lucky to do the work I love.

With the greatest thanks to Hotel Lion d’Or for hosting me for three nights in their beautiful hotel. As always, my opinions are my own (and my excitement over a ring doughnut with jam inside, expressed with absolute understatement).

Mallorca: Mirabo de Valldemossa – A Hillside Finca


We turned off the main road. Up the drive. Nine hairpins to the top.

Mirabo de Valldemossaan old farmhouse, high on the hillside. Lived in for five generations, and now a small family hotel.

We’d had no idea what to expect. It was the most idyllic spot. Every window framed the perfect view of Autumn in Mallorca. Had we not been booked  for dinner at Fera in Palma, we would have just stayed by the window and looked out in awe.

After the peace and quiet of the countryside, and driving the mountain roads for just two days, being in the city seemed a shock. So many cars, so many lights.

At Fera we ate rustic bread with apricot and kimchi aioli, followed by course after course of unusual dishes – Nori rolls with Aberdeen Angus beef tartare and truffle emulsion, corn mousse with pumpkin and crisped corn pieces, re-constituted olive with orange, suckling pig dumplings with Shimeji mushrooms, duck with carrot and yuzu, chocolate pudding with smooth olivey ganache.

Full to the brim. Back to the Finca.


In the morning, at breakfast, we sat across the room from a couple who’d caught the ferry from Germany so that their dog could travel with them. When no one was looking she, a velvety soft Weimaraner, sidled up to Adam and leant heavily against his leg. I think he was secretly pleased.

Everything inside the house was lovely. Furniture, paintings, glass and ceramics, dream Bang & Olufsen speaker. Just lovely.

We wandered outside, yellow leaves falling in the Autumn sun. Palm trees standing tall. Swimming pool bright blue and falsely alluring (I’ll never be fooled again) and the most beautiful and open view across the hills, olive trees and Holme oaks.

And all too soon it was time to get back in the blackcurrant berry of a Fiat 500 hire car, and drive down what must be Mallorca’s only motorway. Back to the airport, back to the other Autumn we’d temporarily retreated from.

Mallorca: Son Brull – A Rural Sanctuary

I brushed the crumbs from the seat, clues of previous passenger’s snack trolley delights. The best thing about the Ryanair flight was the oversized house fly that had hitched a lift and was bombing up and down the aisles, racing between the headrests.

After picking up the blackcurrant berry of a Fiat 500 hire car, and driving down what must be Mallorca’s only motorway, we arrived at Son Brull. A beautiful rural sanctuary on the north of the island.

I’ve been to Mallorca before, accidentally. I told my friend we could do anything she liked for her birthday, she suggested a comedy club, I suggested Eurostar to Paris, she suggested 3 nights in a hotel near Magaluf which was powered by a petrol generator on the roof and had yellowed plastic sheets on the bed. To be fair, those weren’t her search requirements, they were just by-products.

We were shown to our room, a light and airy junior suite. Champagne, oranges and fresh flowers greeted us. Tall shuttered windows with long white linen drapes, high above my head. Washed oak beams and dark concrete floors. A Jacuzzi bath in the corner, and sun hats at the end of the bed. What an absolute dream.

We found our way to the bar and bistro, through the cobbled courtyard of the old monastery, passed the pelargoniums and ferns.

Two enormous olive presses lined the walls either side of the room, and above the large copper bath that would have boiled the olives for their second pressing, a wispy wire sculpture representing steam.

Millstones and big white sofas, like heavy clouds. Good dinner. Nice atmosphere.


The shutters kept the sun out, room pitch black and cool. Outside the window, sunshine and strawberry bushes, palms, and bottlebrush trees with neon fronds.

We took our breakfast on the terrace. Blueberry juice. Eggs benedict. Swimming pool lapping, sparrows darting in for crumbs.

Later, I wandered around, looking at fruit, taking pictures. A woman (from Jersey) stopped to talk to me. Whilst I looked away, she discreetly held up her mobile phone and took a photo of me. Except, it wasn’t discreet, the loud ‘kercher’of the iPhone camera alerted me to it. She didn’t say anything. I didn’t say anything.

Adam and I sat in the shade, listened to goats and to the wind in the leaves. Looked at the mountains.

We drove into the mountains. Zipping around in the little Fiat 500, looking for somewhere to pull in, to take in the views. Adam said, ‘We can stop here if you like?’ and I read the sign, ‘prohibited military zone’. We drove on.

At the top of Es Colomer we stopped, walked up to the viewing point, blown by the warm wind, ate Patatas Fritas at the café Mirador.

In the evening we ate at Son Brull. 365 Restaurant, understated and comfortable. Cobbled floors, white linen, subtle lighting, and on the tables, little wound-wire lamps that looked like they were modelled on potatoes.

Often before a meal I begin to feel a little nervous. I have a strange array of allergies and sometimes it’s hard to get that across. I was once told (in a rather unusual restaurant) that, although allergic, I had to eat the ‘gift of almond’ because it was what the chef wanted.

At 365 I didn’t even need to ask. Every member of staff knew who I was and told me what I could or couldn’t have. It was the most attentive and kind response to allergies that I’ve ever experienced.


Sweet, soft, Cannelloni with duck and dark chanterelle mushroom.
Suckling pig with apricots and sweet Tokaji wine.
Prickly pear and fennel sorbet.

All delicious, but then, dessert.

On my list of things which I wish I could eat again (including rice pudding at Neemrana Fort and Sunday dinner at Nanny and Grandad’s), this incredible dessert.

Pine nuts. Soft pine nut brownies. Tiny, beautiful, dark pine cones soaked in honey, rich with the sweet taste of the Mediterranean forest, like fresh cut wood. Creamy pine nut parfait. Pine infused cream.

This may be the most beautiful dessert I have ever tasted. If woodland fairies exist, then this is what they feed on.

In the morning, after a breakfast of eggs, and fresh fruit, and a lot of wishing it wasn’t time to leave, we packed up our bags and headed west.

More mountain driving. Slender curved roads, hairpins, steep drops. Holme oak trees. Goats crossing. We stopped at lakes, listened to lapping water and bird song. Chased velvety chocolate-brown donkeys.


Around every corner was a view to behold. Warm air and the sense of freedom. We turned off the main road, to our next stop. Up the drive. Nine hairpins to the top.

With the greatest thanks to the team at Son Brull for making this trip possible, for hosting us for two nights, and for the power of Chef Rafael Perelló and his puddings.  As always, my opinions are my own.

Holland: Make It Happen – Rotterdam in 24 Hours

If you know me, you’ll know, I don’t like to rush. I get plenty done, but under the deceptive guise of a tortoise, meandering from distraction to distraction, taking in the details, finding joy in the small things.

There was a time when I would have told you that you can’t get a feel for a place in just 24 hours, but I’ve  proved myself wrong.

Rotterdam is a fascinating city, having been almost completely destroyed in World War II, it has been rebuilt with aplomb and continues to develop and grow with  adventurous modernist architecture.

I walked out of the station, past the sharp angles and high gloss of the tall buildings, and headed to Op het Dak.

This trip, although brief, was to be full. I had several places to be, and things to see, all centred around thoughts on the environment – how we live, and what we do to the earth. I’m in the process of researching for an exhibition on the modern landscape, and Rotterdam gave me food for thought… and food… back to Op het Dak.

Ten minutes from the Central Station is Op het Dak, a simple café serving healthy local food. We ate flowers, hummus and tabbouleh, before exploring their outdoor space – the largest urban roof garden in Europe.

One of the main reasons I was in Rotterdam was to visit the studio of Daan Roosegaarde. It’s not easy to describe what Daan does, but I’d say he’s a socially led artist, thinker, conservationist, and innovator. His projects are brilliant and varied, but to me the best thing is the Smog Free Project – air purifying towers that filter particulates. This ring is full of smog from 1000 m3 of Beijing air.


After a presentation at the Rotterdam Food Garden on De Urbanisten’s new research project, Sponge Garden, we stopped off at Kaapse Maria, where I ate a bowl of olives and drank homemade cherry cola. Nice.

Then we headed to the Kunsthal for the opening of Waterlicht, Daan Roosegaarde’s latest  work. Described as a virtual flood made of LEDs, software and lenses, Waterlicht shows how high the water could reach without human intervention and gives space for thought about rising water levels caused by global warming. I’m interested in the connections between Holland and the drained area I live in, here in the UK, so the idea behind this really resonated with me.


After a brilliant and relaxed dinner at Ayla it was time to retire to the perfumed aircon comfort of The James Hotel. I woke to the 16th floor view over the city, in the distance, the glow of C&A.

I skipped breakfast (The James have a food market where you can buy yourself a mini baguette for one euro) and made my way back to the Kunsthal for a muffin and ginger tea, and to see Stephan Vanfleteren’s Surf Tribe. I couldn’t not – Shutter Hub had listed it in the top exhibitions to see this month. It was brilliant. The photography was amazing, beautifully executed, emotionally relatable, and the scale of the images too, brilliant. But for me, without wanting to sound like an exhibition weirdo, it was the lighting that really made it. Best exhibition lighting I’ve seen.


Have you visited the famous Cube Houses in Rotterdam?  I’d seen so many similar images on Instagram that I just  wasn’t that interested, but, with all the hype, I thought I should have a look – I was pleasantly surprised.

Designed by Piet Blom in 1984 as a kind of village within the city, inspired by the woods –  futuristic tree houses in modernist urbanity. Structurally they’re just bizarre. Like those paper folded fortune-tellers you used to make as kids.

They look like a collage. All snippets of 80s style. Great colour combinations, and a shop offering hair removal services. Why did the ‘influencers’ not show me this on the gram?

I stopped  in Sint Laurenskerk, the church beautifully restored after the war, light glass windows, and chandeliers. On the big bronze doors, (designed by Giacomo Manzu) the distressing scene of war. When the doors are opened, the light floods in and this beautiful dove is revealed.


Heading back to the station I stopped and ate chips at the Markthal, I noticed it looks like a grown-up bouncy castle, made up of luxury apartments and delicious food offerings.

Other things I noticed  in Rotterdam:
A statue of santa holding a butt plug.
Very healthy looking pigeons.

On my way home, in the queue to board my flight, I met a plastic packaging saleswomen. She told me that she did feel sad that the dolphins are dying and the plastic is getting round the necks of turtles, but plastic is environmentally friendly as it’s made out of waste oil, and if we don’t use it our peppers will go off.


I didn’t make it to the Nederland’s Fotomuseum, but there’s so much to see and do in Rotterdam, I don’t have any excuses not to go back.

With the greatest thanks to Rotterdam Partners for making this trip possible. As always, my opinions are my own (and my ability to meet the ‘interesting’ people whilst travelling is something that should be investigated!)