Notes from a trip to Northern California

There are flowers every which way one looks: roses, foxgloves, California poppies, snapdragons grow in wild profusion, even in the vineyards. The rose bushes planted at the end of each vine row not only serve an important purpose (as a kind of fungus alert), they make a beautiful place even more beautiful. All the wineries we visited had gorgeously manicured gardens and the sides of the cliffs, hills and roads were covered on a carpet of California poppies and lampranthhus (which I know as rayito de sol, a ray of sunshine. A fitting name for such a beautiful flower).

Gorgeous! Wild California poppies

Wine versus olive oil. The climate of Northern California is also ideal for growing olives and some wineries produce olive oil as well. In one particular winery, while my husband and friends were busy tasting wines, I drifted to the olive oil area and spent a delightful half hour stuffing my face with crusty bread dipped in different kinds of olive oil. After all, there’s so much wine one can drink.

All my life I’ve lived far away from seismic areas. Visiting Grgrich Hills Estate and seeing the clever way in which they store their oak casks and the cracked floor brought home to me the damaging potential of earthquakes.

Cask "cradles" at Grgrich Hills Estate

Highway 1 is an incredibly beautiful and at time hair-raising coastal drive. Hairpin turns, sheer cliffs, boulders down below in the cold blue Pacific tested my nerves even though I wasn’t driving. One of our stops was Bodega Bay, the setting for Hitchcock’s The Birds. I had wrongly assumed that the area was named after the wineries (bodega is Spanish for winery) but it’s actually named after the Spanish explorer Don Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra Mollineda.

Somewhere along Pacific Highway 1

Point Reyes was another place I wanted to check out because it’s mentioned in one of James Patterson’s Women’s Murder Club novels. There’s not much going on in Point Reyes but at least it was a pleasant drive.

I’ve wanted to take the Napa Valley Wine Train ever since I saw it on a Top Chef episode. We chose to do the Grgrich Hills Estate tour that included a gourmet lunch on the way to the winery and coffee and dessert on the way back, as well as a guided tour. It wasn’t cheap but it was for our 6th wedding anniversary. The food and the service were very good and the inside of the old train had an old-world elegance that appealed to me. We shared a table with another couple. His facial features reminded me of the men in my mother’s side of the family. We struck up a conversation (kind of difficult not to) and at one point I asked whether he was of Catalan descent. He was. Since all four of us at the table love Spanish food and travelling, that’s all we talked about over lunch. However, my favourite part of the trip was sitting on a plush chair, sipping coffee and eating a delicious crème brulee while watching the grapevines roll past. A very special and decadent way to celebrate our wedding anniversary.

View from the trainInside th trainVine rows rolling past

We spent one night in the lovely historic La Rose Inn in Santa Rosa. The town is quite pretty but what sets it apart are the statues of all the Peanuts characters dotted about. Charles M. Schultz, its creator, was living in Santa Rosa when he died and these statues are a tribute to him.

Snoopy and me

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An impromptu walking tour in San Francisco

 Achy feet. Time to sit down and rest. Sean had been waiting for me in this quaint coffee shop in the Mission District while I visited Mission Dolores. We had a window seat and I people-watched while eating my slice of delicious vegan lemon and poppy seed pound cake. Although I’m not a vegan, it seemed appropriate that I eat that while in San Francisco.

The Mission was the morning’s walk final destination. We had a big breakfast at Sears Fine Food on Powell Street and set off down Sutter. We hadn’t realised we were in the Theater District until we saw the signs. There didn’t seem to be too many theatres in the area to warrant the name. However, the whole area had a neighbourhood feel to it, very relaxed and welcoming.

An old-fashioned cafe in the Theater District

We turned left at Laguna Street in the heart of Japantown, the first Japanese American community in the country. The architectural style of some buildings, the signs in Japanese characters and the pagoda definitely sets the neighbourhood apart. It seemed like the right place to go for sushi.

Japantown

We pushed on uphill towards Alamo Square. Beautiful Victorian homes (whether genuine or inspired by that style, I don’t know) line the streets of this area, The Fillmore. The most famous ones are the Painted Ladies, a row of cheerful Victorian houses opposite Alamo Square on Steiner Street.

They are so famous that tour buses stop here for tourists to take photos. I’m sure the people who there aren’t amused. There was an episode of House Hunters set in San Francisco in which the potential buyers were looking at an apartment across the street from the Painted Ladies. If I remember correctly, one of the things that put them off was the noise from the tour buses.

We stopped for a breather at Alamo Square. It is such a beautiful park; and as it sits on top of a hill, the 360 ̊views of San Francisco are amazing. At that point, I regretted my choice of footwear. My boots were stylish but were not made for walkin’. Comfort trumps fashion sometimes.

I look stylish but at what price? Oh, yes, and those are the Painted Ladies in the background

We shuffled uphill towards 16th Street in the Mission District. This is where Sean and I parted ways. I was intent on visiting Misión San Francisco de Asís, also known as Mission Dolores. Sean wanted to sit down, read his book and drink coffee.

Dating from 1776, the mission is the oldest intact building in San Francisco.  The original church feels cosy and welcoming and the gilded altar is gorgeous; whereas the Dolores Basilica next door seems grand and overpowering in comparison. I struck up a conversation with another visitor, who turned out to be a Californian history buff. The information he shared with me about the mission gave the visit a different perspective.

Mission Dolores

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