Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

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.

Freeway-Free in Spain: Bilbao Re-Imagined – Day 1

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All I knew of Bilbao before arriving was what I learned from Andy Williams in the song about “that old Bilbao moon/I shan’t forget it soon…/While Tony’s beach saloon/Rocked with an old-time tune”.

Whatever Bilbao Andy was singing about has gone, if it ever existed. For one thing, there is no beach at Bilbao; it gained its success as a port because it was situated on a wide river inlet, well away from storms AND sand.

Bilbao was the Pittsburg of Spain, a busy port located near iron deposits, and thus steel mills and manufacturing plants. Like Pittsburg, when the iron gave out, the city verged on collapse.   The warehouses emptied, the port facilities were allowed to become outmoded, and manufacturing jobs left for cheaper labor pools.

City visionaries hit on the idea of re-positioning Bilbao as a cultural center, and reclaiming its idle port as a riverside sculpture park and promenade. Someone heard that the Guggenheims were thinking of establishing a satellite museum in Europe, and Bilbao pulled out all the stops to secure this prize. The result: a voluptuously curved Frank Gehry–designed building which is a destination in itself, supplemented by The Museum of Fine Arts (the second largest museum of Spanish art in the country after El Prado in Madrid) at the other end of the promenade,, and between them a lovely open green space bordering the reclaimed river, studded with sculptures, bridges, fountains, playgrounds, and outdoor performance spaces.

Sculptures vary from realistic to very abstract:

The fountains bubble graciously from traditional to naturalistic:

And the playgrounds are well-used (note: the red-capped youth on the rope net are the same ones you can spot starting their school field trip in the first photo above).

20190526_172636webSo – come to Bilbao for the walk, the outdoor art, the architecture, the parks… and that’s only the first day!

Freeway Free in Colorado: The Headwaters Center in Winter Park – a GEM

20190821_101138webThe Headwaters Center in Winter Park, Colorado is a small delight, featuring creative audio, visuals, and interactive displays to immerse the visitor in the history and hazards of water and water management along the Continental Divide.  It opened in July 2019.

As you walk through the museum, you can use your finger along a time line to change the waterflow and scenery along the walls,  You can put yourself into a kayak or onto a mountain bike as you explore the recreation options around the river.  You can fly like an osprey over the Continental Divide, searching out the watersheds of the Fraser, the Colorado, and other major rivers. You can (if you are small) crawl inside a beaver dam and commune with a beaver.

The Center is full of “I never thought of that!” moments.  For example, I kinda knew that most of the rain along the Divide falls on the west side of the Rockies, while most of the people live on the east side.  So massive tunnels have been build to divert water flow from west to east.  (an interactive display allows you to turn a valve wheel to see the impact of this diversion on the ecology of the western slope). An unexplored consequence is that the water that would have run into the Pacific from the western watershed now eventually runs into the Atlantic.  Long-term effects? We’re not sure.

The Center itself is designed to be completely off the grid, with solar panels and a back-up generator providing clean power.  It is, of course, designed for advocacy.  From the souvenir shelf (no full-size gift shop yet) a visitor can buy eco-bricks to lessen the water flow in toilets, re-fillable water bottles to make bottled water unnecessary, and other water-conservation tools.20190821_113644doc

A take-away flyer suggests action items which a visitor can take to become more aware and informed about Western water usage.  The Center is a mind-changing, mind-expanding experiment in the power of information.  Don’t miss it.

Freeway Free in California: San Jose’s Japantown

20190713_144402docSan Jose’s Japantown, centered around the intersection of Jackson and Fifth Restaurant, is one of only three remaining  centers of Japanese culture in the US (the other two being in San Francisco and in Los Angeles.)  Almost destroyed by the forced internment of most of its citizens during World War II, it has bounced back as a nucleus of Japanese restaurants, shops, and community organizations.

If you go to Japantown, it’s best to start with a good meal.  Kubota’s on 5th is an upscale favorite of local Japanese businessmen and their visitors from Japan.  I’m a big fan of their chirashi, which comes with a really good tofu salad along with a sizable bowl of rice topped with generous slices of raw fish.  If you want a more casual meal you might try Gombei,  the sister restaurant around the corner on Jackson, which specializes in sushi.

20190713_134425webAfter lunch, a stroll along 5th street on the other side from Kubota’s will lead you to the San Jose Betsuin Buddhist Temple, with its serene garden inviting some digestive meditation.  If you can, enter the temple and admire its beautiful sliding shoji screens, gilded lanterns, and handsome icons.

From the intersection of 5th and Jackson, a stroll up and down Fifth Street gives you a chance to browse in shops featuring Japanese anime action figures and bobble-head toys,  music stores featuring Japanese stringed instruments and taiko drums, houseware stores, and a variety of Japanese and Korean restaurants and tea shops.

My favorite is Nichi Bei Bussan – a gift shop which has been in business over 100 years, featuring all things Japanese, including kimono fabric and patterns, whimsically decorated socks designed to be worn with flip-flops or Japanese sandals, beautiful tea sets and platters, origami paper, craft books, gift wraps, Japanese graphic novels and magazines and charming, helpful sales people who will gladly help you find the perfect item.

After shopping, time to reflect on the history of Japantown. Go back down Fifth street past Kubota’s and find the memorial sculpture and garden next to the Nissei Memorial Building housing the Japanese American Citizens League.  It’s worth studying each face of the three-sided memorial before visiting the Japanese American Museum just a few doors further down.

The Japanese-American Museum traces the history of Japanese immigrants in the US, from their being imported as easy-to-exploit agricultural laborers to their forced removal to concentration camps during World War II.  The museum includes videos, recorded intreviews, and a replica of a family’s space at Manzanar, one of the relocation camps.  You cannot spend time in this museum without feeling a bit queasy at how easy it seemed to have been to deprive thousands of U.S. citizens of their rights, even as our country  fought against the same arbitrary cruelty as seen in Nazi Germany.

On a lighter note, try to schedule your visit to coincide with one of the special festivals.  I recently happened to arrive during the summer Obon Festival, which featured dancers, taiko drummers, men and women in traditional costumes, lots of food and crafts booths, and an open house at the Buddhist temple offering one-hour classes in “Buddhism 101”.

 

 

Freeway Free in California: Exploring Pt. Reyes Seashore (Day 2)

20190711_120353docWe got the fog we had hoped for on our second day at Point Reyes.  Since we had part of the area south of our home base on our first day, we decided to head north from our base at the Cottages along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard.  We stopped at the first trailhead aiming for Abbotts Lagoon, which the Pt Reyes website trail guide recommends as “an easy stroll with good spring wildflowers and excellent birdwatching in fall and winter.” Since we were visiting in summer, we lowered our expectations, but the “easy stroll” part seemed very attractive.

Near the entrance to the trail, a posted sign advised us that a family of river otters might be seen from the bridge across Abbotts Lagoon.  We set off eagerly, as we had not scored any exotic wildlife the previous day.  But we were soon distracted from the possibility of otters by the very real abundance of wildflowers.  I often count how many different sorts of wildflowers I encounter on a hike, but this time I simply lost track.  So many colors and varieties, inhabiting every niche from wetland to sand dune!  What must it have been like in spring?

OK, we struck out with the otter family – they must have been fishing up a different creek.  But we couldn’t feel deprived.

Back at the car we were beginning to feel a bit peckish, and decided to have our picnic lunch at the Historic Pierce Point Ranch at the end of the road before exploring the Tule Elk Reserve at Tomales Point, the northernmost finger of the National Seashore. 20190711_133853web

By early afternoon it was quite windy, and there were no visible picnic tables at the Ranch. Fortunately, we had thrown a couple of folding chairs and a small folding table into the trunk. We set up our small feast in the lee of the raised trunk lid, and managed to feast on crackers, cheese, and fruit without seeing our lunch blown away.

Having missed out on sea lions and river otters, we were not sanguine about the prospects of viewing elk at the Tule Elk Reserve. But we set off on the Tomales Point Trail, and almost as soon as we got past the last of the farm’s outbuildings, W pointed out our first elk, a cow moving slowly across the slope ahead.  W got out the binoculars and cried “There’s another one, a buck with antlers!”  I looked but could see nothing where she pointed but a large sandstone boulder.  Then with the binoculars I was able to make out a dark head and antlers attached – the “rock” was the light tan body of a massive stag. tule-elk

As we continued along the trail, the wind picked up, and the chill factor increased, but every time we thought of turning back, we would come upon another group of elk down in the valley, or trooping across the road ahead.  Finally we reached the point where the sign warned us that the trail ahead was “unmaintained.”  We took that as a turnaround indicator.

Tired but thrilled by our success at elk viewing, we ended our day at a local eatery touted as having “a beautiful location on Tomales Bay”.  Tony’s Seafood Restaurant‘s bayside location was pretty much moot, as the fog was thick and low by dinner time.  Still, we enjoyed the :very good food” and “nice casual atmosphere” as a reward for our wind-blown tenacity at the elk reserve.

Freeway Free in California: Exploring Pt. Reyes Seashore (Day One)

20190710_133631webWe fled the South Bay expecting a foggy few days on the Marin coast.  To our surprise, the fog held off on our arrival, so we took advantage of the sunshine before we even checked into our lodgings.  Our first stop was the Visitors Center at Point Reyes National Seashore, and to clear the cobwebs from our two-hour drive we decided to hike the Earthquake Trail which heads off from the Center parking lot.

20190710_132654webThe Earthquake trail follows the natural escarpment where the San Andreas Fault skirts the edges of the California coastline before disappearing into the sea towards Alaska.  It’s a shady stroll through pastureland and underneath gian twisted bay trees.  Along the trail are interpretive placards explaining earthquake geology, plate tectonics, and the effect of the Fault on California geology.  A line of blue posts marking the center line of the fault marches along the ridge above the trail.  The high point of the walk is a point where two halves of a fence have been offset by almost 15 feet – the result of the ground movement in 1907, when action on the Fault caused the disastrous San Francisco Earthquake and Fire.

After checking in at The Cottages at Pt. Reyes Seashore,  we decided to head for the beach.  The brochure from the Visitors Center promised sea lions hauled out on the spit at the end of Limantour Beach.  We decided to walk on the beach rather than on the Limantour Spit Trail along the ridge, allowing us to admire the endless stretch of almost perfect tubular rollers coming in and breaking in one thundering roar, one after another. 20190710_145316doc

We didn’t make it to the end of the beach, nor did we spot any sea lions (or even hear them.)  But we did enjoy the traces of human artistry in the sand dunes by the beach.

Feeling exhausted by the overwhelming visual and audial of sun and surf, we retreated to our quiet cottage and a supper from the grocery sack.  We somehow could not feel too badly about having missed the fog, though we did regret the sea lions.

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