Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the month “October, 2019”

Freeway-Free in California: Exploring the Castle on the Empty Coast (Day 2)

IMG_0260docWe had perfectly an ordinary breakfast at Cambria’s Creekside Garden Diner,  which we would probably have liked a lot better if it had been warmer and we had eaten on their attractive creekside patio. There are two breakfast/lunch places in the same Redwood Square shopping center, both  recommended by a local as the best options for breakfast – next time we will try the other one. No complaints about the French toast with strawberries I had – but it was ordinary, as was the hole-in-the-wall decor.

Then, for a complete contrast, we headed up the coast for the Grand Rooms Tour of Hearst Castle at San Simeon.  We had last visited the Castle several decades ago.  Things have changed.  There is now an elaborate Visitor’s Center with a movie theater and a number of exhibits relating to Hearst’s parents, the Hearst fortune, Hearst’s travels, and more.

 

Previously we  had been able to drive up close to the castle;  now there is a large parking lot near the Visitor’s Center and a shuttle bus which follows a loop driveway through the estate, with a recorded commentary on Hearst’s wildlife collection, riding trails, and so on. We had perfect weather to enjoy the spectacular views  of ocean and mountains from inside the bus and from the patios surrounding the castle.

At the steps of the castle we met our excellent guide.  We were asked to imagine ourselves as guests just arriving on the front patio of the Castle.  Our host might or might not be there to greet us. Meanwhile we  marveled at the fountains and statues which surrounded the entry, and the famous Roman swimming pool.

Inside, we saw the tapestry-clad reception room, the expansive dining room with its regal beamed ceilings and proletarian catsup bottles on the table.

The whole place is like a combination of Versailles and San Jose’s Winchester Mystery House. Hearst was constantly acquiring antiquities, constantly planning more building. Only the collapse of his publishing fortune during the Depression halted the expansion of his plans. Some of the items he purchased were never used;  some, like the room bought from Gwydir Castle in Wales in a bankruptcy sale,  (see my earlier article “Freeway- Free in Wales”) have even been lost.

20191002_110452webSome of the acquisitions were puzzling – what was the meaning of the Arabic writing in mosaic tile positioned over the player piano in the alcove off the billiard room? The guide was too far away to ask, so this remans a mystery.

Questions had to be asked fast, as the tours are carefully timed – a group could be spied leaving each of the rooms just as we entered, and after  the final room (the spectacular indoor swimming pool)  we had an option of getting on a bus to descend the hill or wandering a bit more about the grounds.  I’d like to go back for a second tour, to see the bedrooms (42)  and bathrooms (61)where the guests could stay and relax. But that’s the secret of a great host, to keep you wanting to come back.IMG_0274doc

 

Freeway Free in CAlifornia – Adventures on the Empty Coast (Day 1)

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What’s the empty coast? Where Highway 1 clings to the cliff faces south of Carmel, with basically no left turns and few habitations until it regains civilization and a few crossroads south of San Simeon.

We needed a fall getaway, so D and I headed lickety-split down US-101, aiming for a calm coastal stay in Cambria, followed by a visit to Hearst San Simeon National Monument, and a scenic trip back up through Big Sur and the stretch of California Highway 1 that had been cut off by landslides and fires for several of the past years.

We stopped for lunch in Paso Robles, one of my favorite pauses for trips south and north on Historic El Camino Real. There are several good restaurants in Paso. This time we stopped at the Berry Hill Bistro, where the paninis are huge, the salads ample, and the servers slim and smiling. (I always think it’s a good sign if a restaurant’s waitresses are thin. It means they are running off the calories serving customers as fast as they can, rather than sitting around eating the leftovers.)

Just past Paso we found our exit on CA Highway 46, and sailed along a well maintained road through San Luis Obispo wine country. Acres of grapevines in fall colors cloaked the dry hills, and each winery seemed to be vying with the next to have the most oddly memorable name (my favorite: Tooth and Nail Winery.)

Only a half hour later we were cruising along Cambria’s Main Street. To our delight, we discovered that the entire month of October in Cambria is devoted to a Scarecrow Festival, and each retail, educational, and many private establishments compete for the notice of passers-by. There were Mexican-themed flamenco scarecrows for the Mexican restaurants, a Victorian lady in blue and white next to the blue and white Chase bank logo, and my favorite Raggedy Ann and Andy from my childhood next to a toy and gift store.

After checking into our beachfront motel, the Little Sur Inn,  we walked along the boardwalk bordering Moonstone Beach to check out the Moonstone Beach Bar and Grill as a dinner prospect, but although it has a lovely front veranda with a stunning sunset view,  and seemed to have a lively patronage, we would have been walking back in the dark, and it seemed a bit far.

We has our traditional champagne on the balcony of our room, looking out over Moonstone Beach. The sunset looked like a banana skin shading around the curve from pale yellow to golden brown.   We lingered until we both thought we saw the green flash accompanying the last rays of the sun. Lovely.20191001_190339web

As long as we would be getting in the car anyway, we decided to try Robin’s Restaurant in Cambria’s east village, a recommendation from a friend. It is a beautiful adapted home just a block from the Main Street, with a quiet ambiance, excellent service and good food (roasted Brussels sprouts with pine nuts and blue cheese, miso sea bass, firecracker shrimp).

One caveat: As we watched, there were maybe three younger couples coming in or leaving during the evening, but this is definitely a quiet restaurant for an older crowd.  D and I are used to upping the average age of the customer base by 10 years when we enter a restaurant. In this case we were right on average. D observed thatRobin’s does not have high chairs or booster seats, but they do seem to have an ample supply of walkers and supplemental oxygen bottles.  I guess the younger crowd was still quaffing brewskis on the Moonstone Beach Bar and Grill veranda.

IMG_0247webWe took the remains of a bottle of local Pinot Noir back to our balcony to finish off the evening with the complimentary chocolate chip cookies from our check- in desk. We sat on our balcony again to watch the crescent moon setting near where the sun had set before our dinner. Suddenly stars! The Milky Way! D even saw a shooting star. Only one spotlight shining on the entry sign for our hotel spoiled the dark sky.

 

Freeway-Free in Spain: Assorted Basque Specialties

20190529_111016doc.jpgDid I mention that Bilbao is the unofficial capital of the Basque region of Spain?   I am a little bit familiar with Basque family-style dining due to the heritage of Basque shepherds which has been perpetuated in part of northern California.  But nothing had prepared me for the pintxos (appetizer plate) bars which are the pride of Bilbao and San Sebastian.  Above you see a typical spread (pardon me and my spouse for having partially blocked the view).

The idea is to browse from one pintxos bar to the next, sampling a glass of wine and a small plate delicacy in each.  As you might guess from the decor, many of the pintxos feature the local ham, a delicacy all by itself.

One evening we were fortunate to dine at Aspaldiko, a historic country estate featuring Basque cuisine.  This was our first exposure to Spanish formal dining, which involves aperitivos,  several flavors of wine, at least five courses, with coffee and cheeses and a digestif of local sherry or port following the dessert.   Be prepared.

Another long historic tradition of the Basque country is seafaring and shipbuilding.  If you have a chance, take a short boat ride from San Sebastian to visit the  Albaola Factory and Museum  , where you can watch experts on maritime heritage and boat building working on building a replica of a 16th century Basque whaling ship.  What I know about whaling is from reading Moby Dick, and I couldn’t help but imagine Ahab facing the leviathan in one of these carefully crafted boats.

The museum also partners with local cider makers, so don’t forget to make a donation to the museum by purchasing at least a glass of cider to sip while you watch. It blends wonderfully with the smells of fresh-sawn wood.

 

 

 

Freeway-Free in Spain: Old Bilbao Explored

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When you are tired of looking at indoor and outdoor art along the Abandoibarra between Bilbao’s two world-class museums, go for a different vibe in Bilbao’s Old Town and Warehouse District.

On a weekday, you can browse the Mercado de la Ribera, one of the largest and oldest indoor markets in Spain. (I was there on a Sunday, but I did get to see some of the lovely stained glass windows in the guild hall.)

In the Warehouse District you will find the Alhondiga a multi-story public library  built on pillars within an old warehouse, with a glass-bottomed swimming pool on the roof.  It’s a wonderful re-imagining of how to use space. (Notice that no two of the supporting pillars are alike.)

In the Old Town are the usual medieval cathedral, narrow cobbled streets, and slightly skewed medieval buildings.

And if you explore the side streets, you will find some amazing, funky shops offering  exotic (and painful-looking) piercings, gothic wear, and many other oddities.

If you want an overview, don’t omit visiting the park atop Mount Artxanda, the hilltop overlooking Bilbao, for a panorama which takes in both old and new Bilbao. 20190528_124541doc

And then maybe you’ll want to take in the art scene just one more time before you leave.

 

Freeway-Free in Spain: A Tale of Two Museums

Bilbao’s Promenade along the Estuary is anchored at each end by a world-class museum.  The Bilbao Fine Arts Museum looks like a traditional museum from the outside – a blockish building with a fountain courtyard,  a lobby with a gift shop.  Ho hum. But the museum has re-invented itself in competition with its more famous colleague at the other end of the promenade and its exhibit space, when I visited, was among the most interesting and inventive I have seen.

20190526_160456webAt the time of my visit, the museum had thrown the traditional chronological arrangement of its art right out the window, and had rearranged its El Greco’s, its Goyas, its Gauguin in alphabetical order by subject.  So the Gauguin was exhibited under A for ART, taken out of its frame and put between glass panels so you could see the paint smudges on the edges of the canvas, and some scribbles by the artist on the back of the canvas.  In the same room were examples of art by paleolithic artists as well as moderns ones.  It made me think about the Gauguan in a completely different way.

Here’s a sample of the many pieces of Spanish and European art on view at the Fine Arts Museum:

(The picture on the lower left was taken, of course, in the room labeled “P for Portrait”.)

It was a rainy day when I visited, and I could have happily stayed for hours.

The next day I visited the other end of the Promenade, the Guggenheim Bilbao.  This museum is really all about the building.  The architecture inside and out is so curvaceously fascinating that the art pieces serve as much to enhance the building as to display themselves. Here’s a sample:

Of course, Bilbao is more than the sum of two museums and a promenade along the estuary.  There is an old town. There are modern buildings. I’ll give you a glimpse of that Bilbao next time.

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