“We decided not to go to Europe this year but come to Santa Barbara instead” Oucch! Just the type of comment that the cynical Brit loves to exploit when grumbling about their maybe somewhat less travelled American cousins……………. But having spent a delightful evening meandering the streets of Santa Barbara, striking architecture everywhere you look, people spilling onto the sidewalks, music filling the air, life still vibrant even after 11pm, I think perhaps that comment can be forgiven, for Santa Barbara truly has an authentic European ambience.
Even the history is respectfully old. The stunning Santa Barbara Mission, often aptly called the ‘Queen of the Missions’ was founded on the feast of St Barbara, December 4th 1786. It was the tenth of the 21 Californian Missions established by the Spanish Franciscans. Padre Juniper Serra who established 9 of the missions, envisaged its building but sadly died before work commenced. His successor Padre Fermin Francisco de Lasuen, raised the cross here and placed Padre Antonio Paterna, a companion of Serra, in charge. The Mission’s original purpose was to bring Christianity to the local Chumash Indians, the original inhabitants of the coastline from Malibu to San Luis Obispo. The Chumash were hunters and gatherers oriented to the sea, their manufacturing abilities were regarded highly by early explorers and their skilled handiwork greatly contributed to the Mission’s success. Over the years the Mission has been used for schooling, as a seminary and as a base for Friar’s work in various apostolates in the western states. The Mission church today is used by the Parish of St. Barbara.
The first time I was charmed by Santa Barbara, nearly 30 years ago, I remember my very first impression was that it did indeed feel like being in Europe. A charming, beautiful, small town, stretching along a main street, reminiscent of places I had visited far away. I fell in love with it then and it’s appeal has never faded. So hey, why not experience ‘Europe in California’, without the cost of the plane ticket and even better no jet lag, the bane of my life!!
A short drive away there one can be forgiven for thinking you are in Denmark, the somewhat Disney style ‘charms’ of Solvang await you! Despite it’s somewhat gauche appearance, Solvang is genuinely Danish and was actually settled by a group of Danes in 1911, wishing to escape the harsh midwestern winters. Its architecture is traditional Danish in style and there is both a copy of Copenhagen’s famous Little Mermaid Statue and a bust of Hans Christian Anderson, the author of so many beloved children’s stories
The journey to get to Solvang, through the Santa Ynez Valley, rivals many I have done on the other side of the ‘Pond’. As you climb the twisting curves up into the hills, the breathtaking, sweeping views across the ocean and over lush vineyards provide a true cornice Riviera experience. And what could be more delightful after your 30 minute ‘Grace Kelley, scarf blowing in the wind experience’ than then beguiling small town of Los Olivos. Straight out of an American picture book! Quite entrancing with its numerous vintners offering you generous samples from their local vines, gorgeous little gift stores selling a multitude of tasteful temptations, scrumptious restaurants enticing places to stay…ohh for more time to meander!
This tiny house in Belmont Shore is where our life in California began. A pretty, Mediterranean style, beach community near Long Beach. One way streets, packed with brightly stuccoed, terracotta tiled, ‘dolls house’ sized homes, sandwiched between Ocean Avenue, with its miles of deep, seemingly endless, sundrenched beaches and the vibrant shopping and dining community of 2nd Street. Both a five minute stroll away, and which 28 years later seemed little changed and just as charming. We meandered and reminisced for a while then continued our drive east, preparing to embrace the scorching temperatures of the Inland Empire and Palm Desert.
As we left the quaintness of Belmont Shore behind us, the massive petticoats of Los Angeles seemed to fan further than ever, like a huge crinoline, encompassing the ribbons of freeways and densely built up suburbs beneath its vast folds. The L.A. metropolis billowing outwards, almost to Palm Springs itself.
As the landscape gradually became more barren and desolate it was initially hard to understand how or why the Palm Springs, Palm Desert region had ever developed. The baked up earth seemed incapable of farming anything other than pristine, white windmills which dominated the terrain either side of the freeway. They stretched for miles and miles in immaculate, sentry like rows, as if over the years they had self-seeded. Their 40 or so foot blades twirling furiously, producing energy in defiance of the relentless heat, whose all encompassing aura seemed incapable of nurturing anything from this dry, exhausted land! Yet this region, its climate so harsh in summer had developed and thrived.
Native Americans discovered the sparkling waters of the area’s tree-lined canyons over a thousand years ago. They learned to cope with the climate extremities and survived from the multitude of its desert plants. In the 1800’s the region was named after one of these tribes, the Agua Caliente, whose association with the white people led to the their near total demise from smallpox by the turn of the twentieth century. At a similar time, as the area became an important stage stop enroute to Arizona it stared to expand and grow. Old town La Quinta provides a little of the history of this bygone era.
However, it was its popularity with the Hollywood elite, years later which allowed it to really flourish and turned it into a destination.
Today, many of its street names attest to its famous residences, Bob Hope Drive, Gene Autry Trail, Frank Sinatra Drive, to name but a few. From the freeway edges you can see the clear demarcation of where man’s irrigation and landscaping begins ~ one side a barren desert, the other lush and green. A testament to how the life giving miracle of water has turned a desolate, tumbleweed dustbowl into a beautifully manicured, palm tree clad, winter playground, often favoured by the rich and famous. Pristine golf courses, gated communities and vacation resorts, set against an almost moonscape like backdrop of the stunning, pale pink, Santa Rosa Mountains, bathing themselves just below an azure blue sky. A winter haven to escape to, although in August with temperatures well over 110 degrees, perhaps a place to escape from!! However, as we approached this fascinating, fearsome, yet fragile region, the last remnants of day light disappearing, its strange beauty and allure was not difficult to embrace.
Why would anyone be reduced to tears in the hazy, virtually standstill, 6 lanes of gas guzzling 405, San Diego Freeway? A Los Angeles freeway that I always think of as ‘mine’. A road full of so many memories and where my California love affair began 28 years ago.
‘If’, ‘what’ and ‘maybe’, all put together have the power to change your life, they certainly changed ours. They bought us to Los Angeles where our eyes were opened to a different way of life; a sundrenched, carefree, beach existence full of ‘beautiful people’…….. The opportunity to shop 24 hours, where you never paid to park your car, where you could drive through to do almost everything ~ to eat, deposit your money, collect your laundry; in a time when this was not the ‘American norm’ but certainly the Californian norm! A crazy place where you thought nothing of sitting in traffic for 2 hours and driving 70 miles to go to dinner. A world so unlike England, so unreal, that it actually felt sometimes that we were living in a sort of Disneyland. A world which could be both intoxicating and yet repugnant in its excesses, (‘he who dies with the most toys wins’, ughhhhh!) but a world where ‘dreams really can come true’ and an experience that changed the course of our lives forever.
Despite living back in England for 7 years, it was a world that we never really left, that we yearned to experience again and when the opportunity arose to live in its more sober, more ‘real’ neighbor, Northern California, in1993, now with 2 small children in tow, we grasped at it eagerly. There we found a different life, still Californian with all that we loved but a life that was more tangible. The gentle, leafy suburbs of Danville, 30 miles east of the dazzling city of San Francisco, became home. Within one to three hours of the stunning destinations of the Napa Valley, Carmel and Lake Tahoe…Places which have all become a treasured part of our lives.
So now stuck in bumper to bumper LA traffic what is all my emotion about? It is remembering how it felt to be here when my Californian story began, on the 405 freeway, arriving at LAX in July 1984. Naive, green, young, carefree, with no children and few complications. Where already in love, we fell in love together with California. A place where in 2005 our lovely girl chose to go to university; UCLA, where the streets of Westwood, Wilshire and Santa Monica became her home. UCLA, a place of academic prowess and learning where she was able to excel and then be able to secure a highly
sought after position at Bristol University, UK to study for her PhD.
A place you sought of love to hate or hate to love …….but a place where both my Kate, now older than I when I first arrived in 1984 has enfolded us into its embrace. And those tears, what where they about? Sentimental ties, the agony and the ecstasy of a Brit living overseas, loving bits of it all and wondering what exactly she is looking for and where is home…………..
Cars have always featured heavily in my life, or more to the point in the lives of the men in my life.
So imagine an event brimming with exotic cars, historic cars, luxury cars, concourse ‘trailered’ cars ~ by that I mean cars, which are trailered in to special events, whose engines rarely turn but sparkle beneath their bonnets like the well-cared for pristine ‘jewels’ that they are!! And all these cars displayed in one of the most beautiful locations in California, arguably in the entire US and possibly in my opinion, in the words of Jeremy Clarkson ‘in the world’ ~ Carmel California. An event full of beautiful people displaying their even more beautiful prized pocessions……….affluence spilling onto the pavement, sexy, glamorous and alluring……..even if you are not into cars it is a heady atmosphere.
For me however beyond the ‘glitter and gold’ what is more intoxicating is the shared passion and enthusiasm. Something that could be found at an entirely different venue, an equestrian event, an antiques show, an art museum but here the passion is for the automobile. Pure delight and avid interest whipped into a frenzy, when a group of people gather from all corners of the globe to froth and exude like a bubbling cocktail, their combined fervor becomes quite intoxicating. And no one could be more enthused, eyes glowing, than my lovely son James, aided and abetted by his Dad!
How lucky am I to share in their pure unadulterated, joy and passion. In one year to have watched their delight at the Monaco F1 Grand Prix, ‘24 heures du Mans’, the Sonoma Raceway where James squealed round the corners in his Mazda Miata race car and now strolling the ever picturesque streets of Carmel.
A stunning backdrop for an amazing collection of simply stunning automobiles! An event peppered with all sorts of ‘car meets’ and excitement, including the music, margaritas and engine roars at the Baja Cantina car display near Carmel Valley.
James’ knowledge and passion secured him a job working at the auctioneers Bonhams. Bonhams had coordinated a splendid collection of automobile temptations. A pre-auction display of automoblia magnificence, hoping to entice the most reluctant of notes from our wallets….
The eloquent authority of the auctioneer “do hurry up ladies and gentlemen, this car will sell to night………..and do I have 2 million? Ahhh yes, 2 million, sold over there, gentleman on the telephone!!!”
For us, our bank notes safely secure, once the hubbub had faded we were able to gasp once again at the simple but breathtaking beauty of the Carmel coastline. A beauty that never fades or tires but always succeeds in captivating that part of my heart that didn’t get left behind on the cobblestones of France or within the enfolds of an English village………….the gift and joy of travel, lucky lucky me!
Another Saturday, another farmer’s market in the vibrant but somewhat sleepy suburb which we call home, Danville, 30 miles east of San Francisco. In the shadows of the old railway station, market holders have gathered. More sunflowers, lavender, olive oil and a wide array of luscious orchard fruit, exotic orchids, field grown flowers, which look as they have just been gathered from the meadow, ripe local corn and a splendid assortment of vegetables.
To the strumming’s of a local guitarist, people wander happily down the aisles, trailing an assortment of baskets and packages, toddlers, buggies and brightly coloured plastic tricycles. Small children, and sometimes not so small children, are treated to freshly popped kettle corn as their parents try to avoid the temptations of the bakeries, home baked pot pies and buttery pastry enfolded bri cheeses!! Friends gather on corners and happy shoppers meander away in to the small town’s streets to share a coffee and catch up on the week’s events.
The old station looks proudly on, the bustle of its former steam train life long since gone, replaced with the different rhythms of market days and exhibitions. Now a local museum, it proudly displays constantly changing and fascinating stories of the region’s historical heritage. Elementary school children chattering excitedly, scribbling answers on worksheets which haphazardly hang off their clip boards, small groups of pensioners listening intently to the local curator and people like us, casually wandering by gathering information about the excitement of the Californian Gold Rush, the museum’s current exhibit.
Laden with orchids, sunflowers and heirloom tomatoes we also seek our morning coffee, avoiding the hubub surrounding one favorite spot, clearly the meeting place for ‘The Tour de France’, or so it seems! Grubby faced, somewhat weary cyclists of all ages, awkward in their too tight pants and bike shoes, clip clop their way across the courtyard to rest over steaming coffees, cappuccinos, lattes, non-fat this and low-fat that! We sit outside ‘La Boulange’…..French in name and sort of French in style. Resisting all the pastries and baked delights we smile at each other thinking of different coffee shops far away but agree this isn’t such a bad place to be after all!!!
Cars, speed, racing and male testosterone………those same components that consumed the atmosphere at ’24 Heures du Mans’, were just as effervescent when I watched my lovely son, James, racing in the Sports Club of America, (SCCA), Mazda Spec Miata, series at Sonoma Raceway, California.
About 70 specially spec Mazda Miatas, growling like hungry tigers, eagerly snarling on the starting grid. Impatiently reeving their engines, waiting for the flag to drop, signaling their permission to screech onto the track.
Ready to scream up through the gears, ‘pedal to the metal’ and hurtle themselves into the chicanes. Jostling for position, daring to take the ‘racing line’ into the corners as tightly as possible……
Roaring engines, gears shifting, clouds of brake dust and complete exhilaration!
People across the globe love an outdoor market, to purchase hand grown, freshly picked flowers and produce. Lavender, sunflowers and hydrangeas, beautiful wherever they are displayed for sale. These were at last Saturday’s San Francisco, Ferry Building, Farmers Market. Standing beside my dear friend Michelle, we remembered fondly the last time we stood together at a market, 4 months earlier, 5000 miles away in our beloved Provence.
Lusciously ripe tomatoes, lemons, peaches, plums, cherries, strawberries, the sort that squirt their delicious flavor of summer into your mouth, all temptingly displayed and soon weighing down my market basket.
The sun warming our backs, tantalizing smells of coffee and freshly cooked hot sandwich fillings, a gentle breeze coming off the Bay, we were enfolded as part of the bustling crowd, shuffling down each market aisle.
Canopied under a cornflower blue, cloudless sky, set against a backdrop of the breathtaking San Francisco skyline. On one side, the gently lapping waters of the Bay dominated by the Bay Bridge and on the other, the proud soaring, skyscrapers of the city.
The Ferry building opened in 1898 becoming the transportation focal point for anyone arriving by train to the city. From the Gold Rush until the 1930s, arrival by ferryboat became the only way travelers and commuters—except those coming from the Peninsula—could reach the city. Surviving two earthquakes (1906 and1989), the Ferry Building has been restored to its original grandeur as one of San Francisco’s most cherished landmarks. Inside it is a marvel of tempting produce; from small olive oil producers, mushroom growers, bespoke cheese makers, charcuteries and bakery products to name but a few. So inspiring to look at the hard work and craft from artisans who succeed in making a living by following their passion, producing the highest quality of specialist culinary delights.
Seemingly so far away from the broad, leafy shadows of the trees shading the market sellers in Place aux Herbes, Uzès, yet actually not so far. People who appreciate sumptious, fresh produce mingling together in markets across many different continents, including San Francisco and Uzès, joined by a shared desire to savor and create superb flavors and taste. What a lovely way to spend a Saturday morning, wherever you may be!
I called my blog ‘sunflowers and shutters’ because they are a few of the images embedded in my heart when I think of southern France. In my 6 months there I actually never saw any sunflowers but I did yesterday, not in Provence but in the beautiful Napa Valley, California.
sipping my favourite bold, oakey, buttery and I realize very passé Californian Chardonnay (a deliciousness you can only get here!) – with special friends, I remembered why we moved to California so long ago.
True, no shutters or medieval streets, 1874 was as old as it got yesterday, (but still impressive!), it really gives you pause for thought!
The lush and bountiful vineyards of the Napa Valley, flanked either side by the rolling golden Californian hills are just a 45 minute drive from my Californian home. As I sat there discussing plans to visit Carmel, another very much beloved Californian stunner, I could see my lovely daughter’s smiling face……”Yes Mummy it is pretty special here!”
It doesn’t in any way dilute my passion for those ancient cobbled streets guarding their age old secrets between the shutters. Neither can that unique beguiling atmosphere be found here, it belongs there………
but where do I belong……….?
What a question to ponder, I’ll keep you posted!!!
This is the day that Americans remember gaining their independence from the British in 1776. Had history unfolded differently maybe today they would still be more officially joined to us as part of the Commonwealth. There are many Americans who, like their Canadian neighbours would love to claim our Queen as theirs too. Having lived in this amazing country for over a third of my life I am always so touched by the American’s love and support of our wonderful monarch and their love of we Brits.
Thank you America for always making me feel special (well apart from at Immigration and the DMV!) I will never tire of being asked “oh are you English or “where in England are you from?” Thank you for your positive attitude, your warmth, your generosity and your greetings full of smiles, thank you for making me feel welcome in your country. ‘Home’ for me will always be England, as much as I love both France and California but how lucky am I to be made to feel so loved and special in this my ‘adopted country’.
On July 4th God Bless America, I am so glad that since 1776 we have become each others greatest friends!