Category Archives: Travel

Guernsey Museum at Candie – Unseen World, Evolution and Folklore Exhibitions

Guernsey Museum at Candie

Guernsey Museum at Candie

When you live somewhere it’s very easy to overlook and almost forget about some of the things right on your doorstep that are generally considered as something for tourists.

So, having seen the latest exhibition at the Guernsey Museum at Candie Gardens was coming to an end and that they’d just opened a new section of their standing exhibit about the islands folklore, I thought I’d go and take a look around.

The museum is relatively small, but, divided in to several sections, they pack a lot in with three spaces for changing exhibitions and an area for a standing display of art related to the island and exploring its history and folklore.

The main exhibition space, and my main inspiration to visit, was given over to look at part of the museum’s collection of historical photographs by F.W. Guerin, a renowned documentarian of the island in the early 20th century, under the name Unseen World.

The Swansea aground at Vazon

The Swansea aground at Vazon

Split into sections looking at people, places, events and (given the choice of Edwardian era and inclusion of photos from the coronation celebrations) King and Country, the exhibition focussed on the years from the coronation of Edward VII to the start of the First World War, 1902 to 1914.

Along with the rather excellent photography, reprinted from the original glass plate negatives which gave some of the images a surprisingly modern quality despite the subject matter, was a commentary on the events including quotes from the newspapers of the day that really helped highlight the differences, and similarities, between then and now.

To my mind the most striking images were of the High Street, Albert Pier and States Chamber which remain in many ways unchanged and are instantly recognisable, and those of a ship run aground at Vazon and scenes from the southwest of the island that really look like a different world – one that in places looked like it could as easily have been from 200 or 300 years ago as a century.

Opposite the main exhibition gallery is a smaller space that has been given over to the Guernsey Arts Commission for the continuation of their greenhouse gallery that previously existed in the Information Centre building on the seafront.

The Greenhouse

The Greenhouse

This space has, over the years, featured a range of art from local artists, or those working locally, spanning all sides of the visual media from traditional paintings to video work and more.

This visit the exhibition, called Evolution, showcased some of the highlights of the island’s schools’ end of year art shows.

I must confess a little bias toward this exhibition as I was involved with originating these kind of shows during my time at the Commission and they have consistently acted a great way for a wider audience to see the great talent coming through the island’s schools.

As with previous versions the work here was diverse and highly impressive spanning photography to sculpture and drawing to video games as art. Particularly striking was a piece called The Greenhouse as well as the captivating sculpture in the middle of the gallery.

The rest of the museum features a standing display of art from the island which includes some interesting pieces ranging from historic landscapes to modern works from the likes of Chris Foss and Peter Le Vasseur, as well as a an exploration of the history and folklore of Guernsey.

Guernsey Museum history section

The history section of the museum

While the history part is a longstanding feature charting everything from Neolithic burial sites to Roman trade routes to the, comparatively, recent links with Britain, the folklore section is a new addition.

With much of Guernsey’s traditional history having only been recorded verbally, this draws on three sources attempting to collate some of the stories told in Guernésiais (aka Guernsey French or Patois) into written English.

The exhibition contains newly created artwork (similar in style to some from locally made comic Zone 1 but I didn’t see any names of artists), artefacts from the museum’s collection and newly written versions of the stories to explore everything from the faerie caves dotted around the island to the local werewolf stories to the real life tales of those convicted of witchcraft and how that bleeds into the more fantastic.

Guernsey folklore art display

Some of the folklore art

While designed to be understood by all with simple layouts and use of interactive elements, the displays are created to offer something to everyone from children to adults and, whatever your previous knowledge of the subject might be, added a new dimension to the already fascinating story of the island.

In all this made for an enjoyable hour or so (I could easily have stayed longer if I’d had the time) exploring some aspects of the island’s history I wasn’t so aware of, as well as some I was, and demonstrated quite how good Guernsey Museums (which span other sites around the island like Castle Cornet and Fort Grey, amongst others) can be.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Torteval Scarecrow Festival 2017

Ernie the scarecrow

Ernie the scarecrow

This is a slightly strange one as it feels a bit like a travel blog more than anything else though I only travelled five or six miles from home, to Guernsey’s most south-westerly parish, for the 14th annual Torteval Scarecrow Festival.

For clarity I’ll add that, in many ways, Torteval is something of a home away from home for me being the parish where my grandparents have lived for more than half a century and where I spent a fair amount of my childhood exploring its lanes and fields. 

For those who don’t know Torteval is generally regarded as Guernsey’s most country parish and, while that means it has some of the island’s best and most varied scenery from rolling green fields and hills, to dramatic cliffs, to a couple of the most picturesque beaches you’ll find anywhere, it also means it has come in for more than its share of ridicule over the years.

What the Scarecrow Festival seems to have done, fairly brilliantly, is take some of this and combine it into a celebratory and slightly surreal weekend that at its best moments marries an old-fashioned country show with a streak of dark satire that I’ve not seen anywhere else locally, along with a lot of good fun.

Torteval Church under scaffolding

Torteval Church under scaffolding

The event begins in the shadow of the parish’s church, a rather unique structure with a round spire that provides a real central landmark for the community (though it’s currently covered by scaffolding).

This field feels like it could be the central part of a small country show anywhere with a tea tent (and bar), book stall, bric-a-brac, vintage cars, of a sort, and of course a raffle (to be drawn at an indeterminate point later in the afternoon) all run by people from the area.

As I arrived, shortly after lunch, this area was packed with people soaking in the atmosphere and sun and meeting up with friends in a way that, despite the trappings of modernity, felt like it would have been the same whether it was 2017, 1957 or 1927.

Heading out into the lanes for the trail of scarecrows (or les babouains, to use the Guernsey French name) this feeling largely persists, in general if not maybe in the specific details of the entries.

The scarecrows themselves are all in competition for a range of prizes and, with 51 official entries this year, it’s fair to say competition is fairly stiff.

Winning entry Trumplestiltskin

Winning entry Trumplestiltskin

I’ll get to some of the more striking entries shortly but it’s clear right away that there is a real mix of subjects being tackled in varyingly elaborate ways with just a glance at the guide map suggesting this with names ranging from Teddy Bear’s Picnic to Jonah & The Whale to Trumplestilskin

The trail itself is a relatively gentle stroll through the parish’s back lanes with only one particularly treacherous hill for which a diversion is well signposted and, while a little more circuitous, means you don’t miss any of the entries. The other bonus of this is that, with it closed to traffic it makes walking the lanes far more relaxing than normal and allows everyone to go at their own pace.

The scarecrows themselves are, of course, the main attraction and didn’t disappoint. For me the highlights came with the more political and darker edged entries which stared out by the church with Warning! Do Not Climb The Scaffolding laid out like something from an episode of CSI.

Warning Do Not Climb The Scaffolding

Warning! Do Not Climb The Scaffolding

A strong theme this year was the current President of the USA with many and varied effigies of ‘The Donald’ dotted around the lanes with varying takes on his time in office so far.

English politics wasn’t far behind with a spooky looking Jeremy Corbin lurking in the trees at one point and, in my favourite entry, an interactive Theresa May running through the Fields of Wheat, complete with a specially recorded soundtrack that you can listen to by clicking here.

The most locally controversial and political entry went by the name of Emilie and was a rather pointed comment on one of the newer members of the States assembly who, it’s fair to say, has ruffled some feathers since the last election.

With more lighthearted entries including a Star Wars themed entry and what felt like a slightly outdated reference to the late 90s Budweiser frog commercials it’s safe to say the whole event is a mixed bag but the effort that goes in to the entries is hugely impressive.

Fields of Wheat

Fields of Wheat

This makes it something genuinely unique that combines a lot of traditional countryside type things with a modern, and in many cases almost post-modern, twist to make a perfect way to spend an afternoon either with a family or friends in what is an event that genuinely has something for everyone.

Tagged , , , , ,

Los Angeles – November 2015 – Part 4

Venice Beach

Venice Beach

My final full day in LA started out in the small coastal city of Venice, north of LAX and south of Santa Monica. While more famous for its long, sandy beach, the area takes it’s name from the canals that run between the houses and streets at its southern end near the enormous Marina Del Ray.

Today though I stuck to the beachfront areas. At the southern most point, where a breakwater creates an entrance to the marina, the beachfront buildings are a string of houses that look like slightly rundown versions of those I’d previously seen at Manhattan Beach, while to the north the beach side path was lined with small shops selling everything from souvenir t-shirts, to food, to medicinal cannabis (assuming you ‘passed’ the required test – similar outlets were dotted around the city and all looked, at best, sketchy).

The beach itself is wide and made of deep, soft sand that made walking along it nearly impossible away from the shoreline, so I stuck to the footpath which had the odd feel of a combination of Camden High Street and a sunnier version of the seafront walk at Vazon (though clouds were looming on this particular day).

Venice mural

Venice mural

One thing that stands out around Venice are the large murals on the walls of some of the buildings. With great attention to detail they all have their own style and character but add something unique to the area.

Also somewhat iconic (thanks largely to Baywatch) are the lifeguard stations dotted along the beach, the palm trees and the ‘muscle beach’ out door gym (largely deserted in the mid-morning).

While all of this sounds fairly tropical the whole place has something of a tired feel and, while famous as hangout for ‘the beautiful people’ it seems this is no longer the case and I think you’d be more likely to bump into homeless people than a Pamela Anderson lookalike.

The busiest area on the beachfront on this morning surrounded a kind of recreation centre which showed the city’s more glamourously bohemian past with its wall dedicated to poets and writers who based themselves in the area in the 1960s and 70s, including The Doors’ frontman Jim Morrison. Next to this was a small but busy skate park and ‘V’ shaped sculpture giving this area the feel of being the beach’s ‘town centre’.

Venice beach prom

Venice beach prom

Heading north the tired and quiet feel began to change as Venice became Santa Monica and the beach front buildings, set further back were clearly far more high end.

Much like beach resorts in the UK those that line the Coast of LA have piers with various attractions on and, of the ones I’ve seen, Santa Monica was by far the busiest.

Much of this was similar to the restaurants and gift shops found on Pier 39 in San Francisco with a fun fair added in as well. For me the best part of the pier was simply the views from the end looking north towards Malibu and Santa Monica Mountains and south along Venice and down towards the other beach resorts of Manhattan and Hermosa.

Also interesting was a gift shop dedicated to Route 66, while typically ‘all American’ in style it demonstrates something of the vastness of the country of which this is the westernmost region. On top of that it continued to feed the wanderlust I have for the US…

The view north from Santa Monica pier

The view north from Santa Monica pier

Away from the seafront, Santa Monica’s city centre features a clearly recently redeveloped shopping area, the Third Street Promenade, with stores ranging from more day-to-day ‘high street’ brands to higher end designer fare. A particular highlight for me was the Barnes and Noble bookstore, which was enormous and featured a wide selection of surprisingly different stuff for a big chain store.

With the wind starting to blow up and the clouds that had been lurking on the horizon all day finally heading nearer, I met up with my cousin and we headed home via a supermarket. As we left the forecast weather really began to hit and it was impressive to see the tropical palm trees and usually calmly hanging road signs being battered by the wind.

The TV news later added a somewhat hysterical (and entertaining) edge to this as the ‘storm’, which ended up really constituting a few heavy showers and some strong wind that passed fairly quickly, was treated by the reporters like some kind of natural disaster (and surely LA knows natural disasters), despite being little more than what we get fairly regularly at home – though I’d imagine heavy rain on a busy eight lane freeway could cause more problems than a two lane road in Guernsey.

The Getty Museum

The Getty Museum

With only a few hours in the morning before having to be at the airport for my flight back to the UK we headed out to the Getty Museum in the hills over looking the city.

Despite being a tourist attraction the whole place has a somewhat secretive feel to it. Located off the freeway on a steep sided hill, after parking the car we got onto a minibus which drove the narrow path up the rear of the impressive museum.

The Getty houses a range of art from pre-rennaisance painting and sculpture through to contemporary photography in a collection of impressively designed buildings and gardens perched between Santa Monica and Hollywood.

This early in the day the place felt like we almost had it to ourselves as we explored the gardens (somewhat half finished at this time of year due to seasonal changes and drought) before heading into the museum. While the older items in the first gallery are impressive for their age and style what really stood out to me was the photographic exhibitions, including several feature ones by post-war Japanese photographers looking at the recent history of the people and the country.

View from the Getty Museum

View from the Getty Museum

As we headed down the hill on the monorail (this final touch completed the feeling of Roger Moore-era Bond villain HQ that the Getty has) I had the feeling we had only scratched the surface of what’s on show here and if I’m back in LA I’ll do my best visit with more time.

From the Getty we headed to the Tom Bradley terminal at LAX rounding off my travels with a mostly smooth flight back across the US, Canada and the Atlantic, including an impressive view of the lights of Las Vegas standing out in the idle of the dark desert.

You can read my previous travel blogs about this trip at the links below:

San Francisco (including Ghost at the Warfield)

Coast Starlight

Los Angeles (including Tiger Army’s Octoberflame)

And you can see my photos on Facebook

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Los Angeles – October/November 2015 – Part 3

Downtown LA from Griffith Park

Downtown LA from Griffith Park

After a packed couple of days my weekend in Los Angeles was set to be a comparatively relaxed one, though still with some interesting things to do.

After a more relaxed Saturday morning we headed toward Chinatown for lunch. Located adjacent to Downtown what I saw of LA’s Chinatown looked far smaller and less ingrained than its counterpart in San Francisco, with a couple of shopping centres, markets and restaurants (and I assume some housing too).

For lunch we headed into a bustling, and in many ways baffling, dim sum restaurant. Upon arrival we were whisked to a table by one of the seemingly hundreds of waiting staff and almost before we’d sat down we were set upon by a few with a selection of dishes. Rather than ordering specific items waiters constantly circulated through the tables offering whatever it was they had, while a little disconcerting at first this did mean we had the chance to try a huge range of food I’d not really had before. From dumplings and meat dishes to fish and deserts it seemed, if you wanted it, the food was never-ending.

Particularly enjoyable were some eggy, doughy dumplings contained some kind of unspecified meaty stuff, along a with steamed prawn variety, but in general it was all very nice once I got into the swing of things and I got the impression was actually fairly legitimately Chinese judging by the clientele.

Amoeba Music on Sunset

Amoeba Music on Sunset

After a look around some of the nearby shops, mostly featuring the same kind of stuff as those on Grant Avenue in San Francisco, we headed over to the Hollywood section of Sunset Boulevard.

Here we parked up behind the spectacular looking Cinerama Dome Arclight Cinema (if I’m back here again I must make a point to try to see a movie there), and headed to the third Amoeba Records store of my trip.

Even when compared to the San Francisco branch this is a huge store with countless CD, vinyl and tapes spanning all genres I could think of along with books, souvenirs, novelties and, upstairs, a huge range of DVD and Blu-ray. Much like the other branches there was a lot could have come away with but limited myself to a few selections including an album by one of the bands we’d seen the previous night, James Intveld.

It might sound odd to talk so much and in such positive ways about a shop, but in a place that feels like a mecca of commercialism Amoeba Records does something impressive in having a genuinely great atmosphere reminiscent of smaller local record shops just expanded to a huge scale with enthusiastic, knowledgeable staff and a great, varied selection of offer. If retailers want people back in their shops and not shopping online there are far worse models to follow than this.

1953 Telecaster

1953 Telecaster

From Amoeba we headed along Sunset to Guitar Centre. This huge store is much like the record shop but selling instruments. As the name suggests the majority of the store is taken up with a huge range of guitars but it also sells drums, keyboards and studio recording equipment.

The range of instruments is frankly bewildering though most are actually fairly standard fare until you head down through the acoustic rooms and into an area at the very back of the building housing a range of rare and collectible instruments and amps.

Amongst these were some frankly amazing vintage Gretsch guitars from the 1950s, Fender amps from the same era and, most notably, an original 1953 Fender Telecaster with a price tag well exceeding $30,000!

Compared to the UK, the USA does a lot more to celebrate Halloween and throughout my trip there had been plenty of signs it was coming up, but, on the day itself the City of West Hollywood goes all out and stages a huge street party, second only in scale to their annual Pride event. We arrived in West Hollywood early so as to be able to find a place to park and headed past the rainbow crosswalks to the mile long stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard that had been closed for the event.

With stages set up at either end and a few others in between we wandered down the wide street, some of the first to arrive, and it was clear everyone in the area was getting in on the celebrations from packed bars and restaurants to those starting to arrive in a range of costumes.

WeHo Halloween Festival

WeHo Halloween Festival

There were already some dancing in the streets early on but as the sun began to set things really began to fill up and the costumes became more elaborate. These ranged from more conventional horror movie related fare (including a particularly elaborate Ringu one that allowed the wearer, as Sadako, to appear as if she were crawling from a TV) to many other things.

Some were a bit on the risqué side too, including a pair of skimpily clad Mario Brothers and a young man wearing little more than a pair of black angel wings, while others were simply impressive for various reasons including a Caitlyn/Bruce Jenner lookalike, Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous (it could have been Joanna Lumley!) and a full size dinosaur skeleton puppet outfit.

WeHo Halloween Festival

Dinosaur puppet costume

After having a look around for a few hours and getting some food we headed home for the day and I think were all slightly disappointed the next morning when we found out the surprise special guest at the end of the night had been Boy George!

We didn’t let that effect things too much as, after another relaxing start to the day we headed down to Manhattan Beach for a bit of a walk on the pier.

The beaches that stretch from Malibu in the north to Palos Verdes in the south are hugely impressive and strongly remind me of bigger, sunnier, versions of Vazon in Guernsey, but with towns and cities backing right up to their promenades and oil tankers moored offshore filling themselves up from the offshore oil rigs dotted just beyond the horizon.

In a change from the weather so far mist and clouds were beginning to gather around the Santa Monica Mountains in the north but at Manhattan it was still hot and sunny so the ice cream and cookie sandwich from the Manhattan Beach Creamery really hit the spot.

Manhattan Beach

Manhattan Beach

From there we headed north, once more, towards Hollywood though this time, rather than the city our destination was the hills behind and the Griffith Park Observatory.

Parking just down the hill from the summit led to some great views over the trails and paths that wind their way up the hills as well as the iconic Hollywood sign on the opposite peak. As well as that the sight of the early 20th century, art deco styled observatory, perched on its hillside plateau were spectacular.

The Griffith Park Observatory is now much more a museum and tourist attraction than working observatory, unsurprising considering the amount of light pollution rising from the plain below, and features a great planetarium at its centre.

Griffith Observatory

Griffith Observatory

The show today focused on how water is crucial to the development of life and it took us from Los Angeles to the distant moons of the outer planets of the solar system exploring where there might be water, and where extraterrestrial life might exist, with stunning visuals projected onto the huge domed roof.

The rest of the complex is a museum focusing on astronomy with examples of space debris that has crashed into the Earth, a whole gallery dedicated to the differences between the planets and a section about the history of telescopes from Galileo to Hubble to the current vast arrays being built.

Tesla Coil

Tesla Coil

A highlight of all of this is a working Tesla Coil that we saw demonstrated with arcs of lightning flying from its domed top to the edges of the Faraday cage surrounding it and causing a neon sign to illuminate without the need of any power cables – genuinely a spectacular sight.

While inside the observatory was impressive the views it affords across a majority of the vast metropolis of Los Angeles are something else.

With the sun beginning to set and fog rolling in from the sea these views were even further enhanced as the city began to twinkle like a star field below us (even if its light knocked out any chance of seeing the actual stars above). Anyway its impossible to really describe the views of the city from here but you can see some in my photo gallery over on Facebook.

The Rainbow

The Rainbow

Famed as a hangout for LA’s rock star royalty our next stop was the Rainbow Bar & Grill on the Sunset Strip. While there were many likely rockers dotted about the bar, being an early Sunday evening meant the place was relatively quiet so we didn’t see its most famed regular, Motorhead’s Lemmy, but none the less were treated to a great meal.

While my steak was one of the best I’ve had (and very reasonably priced) and the pizzas looked amazing, the place really sold itself with its decor and atmosphere which were something like a less corporate, more legitimate feeling Hard Rock Café.

With its location near famous venues like the Troubadour, The Viper Room and The Whisky-A-Go-Go (basically listen to some Motley Crue and you’ll get a surprisingly good idea of the Strip) its obvious why this area is a mecca for rock ‘n’ roll bands from around the world and why the Rainbow is at its centre and it rounded off our day in fine fashion.

Read about the final part of my trip here

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Los Angeles – October 2015 – Part 2

Melrose Avenue

Melrose Avenue

Much like my first day in ‘The City of Angels’ (something I have never seen, heard or said actually in the city) my second was set to be a hyper touristy one thanks to my two-day bus tour pass. Having left the tour in Hollywood the previous day I thought I’d start the morning on the section of Melrose Avenue I passed through previously and have a look at some of the shops.

Getting there at about 10 I had a chance to explore a little as most of the shops didn’t open until nearer 11 so I walked the length of this section of the street passed The Groundlings Theatre that I visited on my last trip to LA and their new, soon to open school. Most of the street is taken up by clothes shops of different varieties from minor designer style boutiques (none of which I’d ever heard of) along with a few other shops including a comic book store, Japanese novelty & memorabilia store and a toys & games shop.

My first port of call was Mega City One comic book store, on my last visit it went by the name Melrose Music And Comics, but despite the name change the friendly atmosphere, gaming area and great selection was the same. As ever there were many things I could have come away with but settled on a couple of Batman collections and the next in the Transmetropolitan series I am gradually working through.

Further along the street a few of the clothes shops piqued my interest, one in particular, going by the name of Posers, with a great selection of largely British punk, mod and rocker style clothing that was about as far from the Hot Topics and such that sell the mass-produced equivalent of this as you can get. With such a great selection it was all I could do not to leave with a new pair of creepers or ‘Harrington’ jacket.

Dave Lombardo art

Dave Lombardo art

While the clothes in the front of Forgotten Saints looked both overpriced and like they were trying a bit too hard to show their punk credentials, the gallery area hidden at the back of the store held a few things of much more interest.

While only small the walls were lined with artwork created by two of Los Angeles metals most well-known drummers, former Guns ‘n’ Roses member Steven Adler and on-again-off-again Slayer percussion monster Dave Lombardo. Both sets of art were based around their day jobs but showed an interesting new side to the performers and it would have been nice to be able to see more in a slightly more easy to view situation.

From Melrose I repeated part of the bus tour loop up to the junction of Hollywood and Vine where I hopped off to walk along the more easterly end of Hollywood Boulevard. While less notable in terms of tourist attractions this section did feature some notable buildings from the Capitol Records buildings to yet another Scientology centre (there are three or four, including their main ‘celebrity HQ’ within a few blocks) to the huge but seemingly abandoned Pacific Radio building topped with a pair of huge radio transmission masts.

Capitol Records Building

Capitol Records Building

The third loop of the bus tour headed from Hollywood to Downtown Los Angeles. The first chunk of this was a long section with no stops along Sunset Boulevard, passed Amoeba Records, Crossroads of the World (former) Mall and the Cinerama Dome cinema. This was followed by trips through the city’s Armenian neighbourhoods (the area System of a Down originated from) and the Korean community, again showing the diversity of the city.

As we neared downtown we passed through MacArthur Park and I would have quite liked the chance to disembark here and have a look around as, with its lake and fountains, it looked like a nice area. The bus continued though on its route into the man-made canyons between the high rises and skyscrapers at the heart of the city.

I stayed on the bus until we pulled up alongside the elaborate and unique Walt Disney Concert Hall and I headed next door to the newly opened Broad art gallery. Recently built to house the art collection of philanthropist Eli Broad it is itself a striking edifice and free to get in as well. With only three floors I wondered quite how much there would be to see but I was far from disappointed.

Entering the gallery you are directed up a long, tunnel-like, escalator to the top floor where you emerge into a wide, open, white gallery that stretches out all around through various smaller rooms all of which you can see hints of from this central space. Arbitrarily heading right I was confronted by a room of works by Andy Warhol and continuing in a clockwise direction there were hundreds more pieces by artists whose names I recognised and (mostly) ones I didn’t, but all the work was incredibly striking and impressive.

Warhol's Elvis and Marilyn

Warhol’s Elvis and Marilyn

While it was, at points, too busy to easily take in detail, as a collection The Broad was hugely impressive and well worth a visit.

Also fascinating was, on the way out, as I descended the central staircase, I could see into the buildings middle floor where the remainder of the museum’s vast collection is housed in storage.

Back outside I realised that the downtown loop of the bus tour was far from convenient in comparison to the others and I had missed the next bus and there wasn’t one for another hour, so I headed down the hill from The Broad and into the heart of the city.

Walking between the skyscrapers always has an odd feeling and I was surprised by quite how steep some of the hills were in this area, which only amplified the height of some of the buildings. At the bottom of the hill though I headed around a corner and stumbled upon the LA public library, it’s oddly Egyptian styled exterior and gardens entirely out-of-place in this location but all the more striking for it and echoing something of the mall in Hollywood and the old Grauman’s theatre which, I assume, dated from a similar era.

LA Public Library

LA Public Library

From there I headed further into Downtown and got a flavour of what the city must have been like before the evident gentrification began. Heading to Pershing Square and a couple of blocks over to South Broadway the buildings were very dated and, while the architecture could have been striking it all had something of a tired air and I got the impression I probably wouldn’t have wanted to be in the area after dark – though I may have got entirely the wrong idea…

At this stage I met up with my cousins again and we began the drive down to Santa Ana (another of LA counties 40+ cities) where we had tickets to the first night of Tiger Army’s Octoberflame Halloween show. The venue was nicely compact with a unique layout that I wasn’t at first convinced by but was glad of once Tiger Army took to the stage and the pit kicked off. Before the show I didn’t know who the support acts were as I had brought the tickets on pre-sale back in June as I knew it would sell out quickly, so I was more than pleasantly surprised by both The Limit Club (a psychobilly band from Phoenix) and James Intveld (a country performer who produced Nick 13’s solo record).

Tiger Army

Tiger Army

You can read my full review of the Octoberflame gig here but suffice to say it has entered my top 10, and possibly top 5, shows I’ve attended while The Limit Club have since turned out to be a thoroughly nice bunch going by our interactions on social media.

Once again the drive ‘home’ went by with surprising swift and it wasn’t long before I fell asleep exhausted in the early hours of Halloween.

Read about my next two days in LA here

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Los Angeles – October 2015 – Part 1

Palisades Park at Santa Monica

Palisades Park at Santa Monica

Following my day on the Coast Starlight travelling down from San Francisco, my first day in Los Angeles couldn’t have started in much more typical fashion as my cousin dropped me off at Santa Monica Pier under palm trees, blues skies and a blazing hot sun.

For my first two days in the city I had planned for a couple of days of hyper-touristy activity with a ticket for one of the many open top bus tours that crisscross the northern section of the city in the shadow of the Santa Monica Mountains and Hollywood Hills and head into Downtown. ‘Hopping’ onto the bus at its first stop in Santa Monica it wound its way through the wide palm-tree-lined streets and boulevards of the beach side city making it abundantly clear that this is one of the more up market areas of Los Angeles County.

From Santa Monica the tour headed into Westwood Village. The compact area of high-rise buildings next to a freeway was hardly what I’d picture when someone said village but, the explanation that it was built to serve the nearby university campus, gave it a little more context and we caught glimpses of the open park areas that lead up to the campus behind the buildings. While not quite as picturesque as its Berkeley counterpart the idea was obviously similar and did looked entirely different to any image of LA one might have.

Glamourous Beverly Hills

‘Glamorous’ Beverly Hills

‘Glamorous’ Beverley Hills was up next and the tour guide, a recording in a strangely false, over the top, British accent, made a point of highlighting the ‘Beverley Hills’ signs that welcome people to the area. Ironically the one we passed sat in the forecourt of a petrol station somewhat destroying the supposed mystique.

Despite that the surrounding area was clearly exceptionally well off with big houses set back from the widest streets I saw in the city, most with richly green central reservations that we were told were often used by ‘famous residents’ for jogging, though we didn’t see any of course.

It was here the two most frustrating elements of an otherwise enjoyable tour first cropped up. First were the constant references to the fact we might spot someone famous, despite the deserted streets and the fact that anyone with a reasonable level of fame would likely make sure to never buy property on a tour bus route. Secondly, and slightly more disturbingly, were the stories of celebrity murders and deaths – these cropped up throughout the tour but started here with the OJ Simpson case as we passed the street on which his former property lay.

While these kind of stories possibly combine to offer a fair reflection of the tourist appeal of Los Angeles, the glee with which the darker ones were recounted was somewhat disturbing – though I did notice we were spared the less celebrity events such as the Black Dahlia, possibly only because we didn’t pass close enough to the scene though.

La Brea Tar Pits

La Brea Tar Pits

After a change of bus, onto the tour’s Hollywood loop, on a back street behind Beverley Hills City Hall – again not showing the city’s best side – we headed through the shopping heart of Beverley Hills where it borders onto West Hollywood (more of that later) and towards LACMA and the Le Brea Tar Pits, where I ‘hopped off’.

Having been to LACMA last time I was here I headed around it into the park that contains the tar pits and I was surprised at quite how literal the name is. Entering the park the first thing I encountered was a small lake that was black with tar just under the surface and, in one corner, protruding from the water, along with the very noticeable smell. To illustrate just what the whole idea of the tar pits is, in the lake is a model of a trapped mammoth along with another on the bank as if trying to rescue it – while a little hokey looking these statues illustrate things well and set up what’s to come in the rest of the museum.

La Brea Tar PitsInside the first thing you see is a cross-section block of tar full of the bones of several animals giving an idea of quite what has been unearthed here. This is followed by a wall-sized photo of the same site in the early 1900s with oil wells and barren earth in place of the green park and Beverly Hills, showing just how this area has changed in the last century.

A family friendly 3D film then introduces us to the changing landscapes from prehistory to now that led to the formation of the tar pits and how quite so many animals came to be found in one place from mammoths, to sabre tooth cats to dire wolves to, hinted at but less explicitly demonstrated, ancient humans. While simple in tone it set the scene well and had some nice touches and surprisingly good production values.

The rest of the museum was fairly simple with skeletons, animatronic dioramas and recreated statues of the various creatures that roamed the planes of this area as man was first staking his claim on the planet

Wall of dire wolf skulls

Wall of dire wolf skulls

Amongst this was a chance to see some of the sites archaeologists at work cleaning and analyzing some of the objects unearthed, while the most striking display was a wall of dire wolf skulls showing just how many skeletons had been pulled from the pits over the years, with more still being unearthed.

Back out in the park a few more tar pits are visible with one open to view ongoing excavations, showing just how near the surface some of these things are being found and making clear quite how much oil must still sit beneath the city.

From the tar pits it was only a few blocks to the Los Angeles Farmers Market, so I thought I’d walk over that way for lunch. As is typical with LA, despite the short walk between the two relatively well-known attractions (yes the Farmers Market is marketed as an attraction), I saw only two other pedestrians on the street between the two.

The market itself was a covered area with many small shops and stalls inside, mostly cafes and eateries with shared seating in between. The range of food available was astounding and speaks volumes about the city’s varied nature in terms of ethnic communities and all of it had at least some hint of being a genuine version of the cuisine rather than a strictly Americanised take.

Fairfax High School

Fairfax High School

After a snack I rejoined the bus tour for a drive along Melrose Avenue passed the High School apparently attended by Slash and members of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and a supposedly world-famous hot dog restaurant – in keeping with the tours use of hyperbole, I’d never heard of it.

More interestingly as we turned off Melrose it was clear we were now firmly in Hollywood as several studios were visible a block or so off the main streets we were navigating with one having housed RKO pictures at one stage of its history and now being used for several internationally popular TV shows.

From there we joined Hollywood Boulevard and its strange mix of ostentatious architecture, history and some of the most crass tourist baiting I’ve ever seen.

Leaving the bus at the junction of Hollywood and Highlands I made my way along the north side of the boulevard where the sidewalk is lined with stars baring the names of (at least) hundreds of stars of stage, screen, radio, music and theatre. While some of the names, particularly those on this stretch, are household names around the world, others are a real mix of known names and some who I have no idea who they were and if it weren’t for the symbol on their star I wouldn’t even know what they did.

Graumans Chinese Theatre

Grauman’s Chinese Theatre

These stars stretch up and down this and several adjoining streets with more being added all the time, though its hard to really discern quite why as they don’t really seem to be awarded for any particular reason other than to mark donations to the city – hence the hodgepodge nature of those featured I guess.

Graunman’s Chinese Theatre on the other hand features some more instantly recognisable names alongside their handprints in its courtyard, though I was again left wondering quite why they are there and what they mean.

While exploring the area I did my best to avoid the Scientology propaganda being handed out near one of several buildings associated with the alleged ‘church’ and in doing so stumbled across the other, lesser known, Grauman’s theatre location – the Egyptian. More modest in size and location than the Chinese counterpart it was in many ways more interesting to see as its typical Egyptian-style design added another layer to the confusing mish-mash that is Hollywood.

Hollywood and Highlands Mall

Hollywood and Highlands Mall

There was more Egyptian themed design in the Hollywood and Highlands mall where I spent a few minutes before meeting up with my cousin again and heading towards Pasadena for dinner and a movie.

The drive took us through Silverlake and a few other more residential areas and again showing just how different each of the cities that make up greater Los Angeles manage to be despite the fact they flow into one another without a break.

In Pasadena the venue for the movie was the Laemmle Playhouse 7 a real, old cinema, originally dating back to the early days of Hollywood, though obviously renovated since, but it still maintained something of the flavour of an older cinema and, as a small independent venue, had a great atmosphere to it that is sadly lacking from many cinemas today.

The film we came to see was All Things Must Pass, a history of Tower Records that was a genuinely fascinating story about the chain of record stores that started in Northern California and, by the mid-90s, was a worldwide brand. The movie is directed by Colin Hanks (son of Tom) and is currently on something of a roadshow type tour of independent cinemas and festivals, following a Kickstarter funding project and I would certainly recommend it if you have the chance to see it.

After the movie the drive back across the city was again surprisingly quick considering the distance covered rounding up my first of several very busy days in LA.

Read about my second day in LA here

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Coast Starlight: San Francisco to Los Angeles – October 2015

Coast Starlight

The front of the Coast Starlight

Read about my last day in San Francisco here

Heading out into San Francisco at dawn shows it in a different light, with Broadway all but silent and the streets quiet before rush hour begins, it genuinely felt as if it was sleeping. The yellow cab I had booked stood out against this starkly; especially considering the slowly lightening sky was clearly a steely grey.

The temporary trans-bay bus transit terminal was about as clinical as they come. Replacing the dilapidated Amtrak terminal by the ferry building it was certainly more organised, although long haul land travel in the US still feels like the poor relative when compared to air travel.

Thankfully the coach driver was a cheerful soul, albeit with a slightly world-weary edge, as we boarded his coach for the trip across the bay. Quickly joining the freeway that becomes the Bay Bridge it was clear we were, traffic-wise at least, going the right way as the four lanes of traffic heading into the city were already jammed.

It wasn’t long until we were over the bridge and off the freeway, into the narrow streets of Oakland, which at points I was surprised the coach could even navigate, as we headed into the city’s more gentrified area around Jack London Square.

Jack London Square Station

Jack London Square Station

As with my last visit I was still surprised by quite how small the train station here is considering it lies on the main line route that runs from Vancouver in the north to San Diego in the south.

With just two platforms and a modest, if fairly well designed, waiting room/ticket office, it just adds to the notion that America really doesn’t do passenger rail travel anymore and is the land of the plane and, to a much greater extent, the car.

Following a stop at the nearby maintenance yard the Amtrak Coast Starlight finally pulled in about two hours late and we were rushed aboard the (at least) 11-double-decker-carriage-long train and were soon slowly trundling through Oakland and the rest of the east bay sprawl towards San Jose.

While Oakland remains as rundown as I remember and again its southern regions back up its northern ones in its image as the less well to do of the cities on the bay, as it gives way to open land there are interesting things to see, so I soon made my way to the train’s viewing/café car, where I stayed for the best part of the next 12 hours.

Abandoned houses

Abandoned houses

South of Oakland a stretch of track runs through an area that lays below sea level. Amongst the swampy ground and tidal pools were a surprising number of long abandoned shacks and small houses – I don’t know the history of these dwellings but I’m sure there are stories to be told there – they certainly look like it

Heading into the outskirts of San Jose the train passed right by the Levi Stadium, home to Wrestlemania 31 earlier in 2015, that I had investigated attending. On the other side of San Jose, after a brief stop at the city’s station, we found ourselves stopped for a lengthy period in a small timber yard and passing point, waiting for a freight train to go by, thanks to the logistical nightmare that is the single track system used up and down this line.

The next chunk of the journey, about six hours worth at an estimate, stretches down to the hills before San Luis Obispo so is, for the most part fairly repetitive, however the views across the at times arid farm land and small communities we passed through brought their own interest. Some of the hamlets (if Americans use that word) were run down and looked barely lived in while others were, in contrast, clearly quite well to do. Along with this the train passed through the Elkhorn Slough Marine Reserve near Salinas, which gave the chance to see some fairly impressive seabirds in the estuary.

South of San Jose

South of San Jose

Most of the trip I spent lost in the views and various podcasts, occasionally separated by friendly chat with some of the other passengers who ranged from other relaxed tourists to anxious travellers hoping to meet connecting trains in LA, meaning their journeys would last well over 24 hours on the Amtrak network.

The second half of the journey became more visually interesting as we passed through oilfields down a long, increasingly deep valley, before the three engines at the head of the train really did their work as we wound up the hills and moutains to San Luis Obispo. As we did so there was a lot of talk of how dry the surrounding countryside was and the ongoing drought which all the Californians onboard were hoping would break soon thanks to El Nino.

The plateau on which San Luis Obispo lies is punctuated by the peaks of a series of extinct volcanoes, today with clouds gathering around them, while the train snaked around a remote prison in what felt like the middle of nowhere.

Mountains at San Luis Obispo

Mountains at San Luis Obispo

As we headed down the other side of the mountains there was more farmland and small clusters of houses before we entered the vast airforce base that lies on the coast and we soon got our, long-awaited, first view since Salinas of the Pacific Ocean as the sun began to set.

The waves crashed onto undisturbed beaches, accessible only from the sea, in the twilight making for some impressive sights while the runways used for Space-X, and previously the Space Shuttle programme, lay on the landward side.

This area also brought the first faint traces of Hollywood as these were the beaches and dunes used in the likes of Planet of the Apes and, much earlier, the epics of the silent movie era.

As darkness fell in earnest I made my way back to my seat in the coach cabin for the final hour or so through the beginnings of the vast sprawl of Los Angeles.

The rough Pacific

The rough Pacific

Union Station, in the city’s ‘Downtown’ district, is a grand looking place with a 1930s style vibe, though its nine platforms felt somewhat meagre for a station in the centre of a city this size.

The baggage reclaim hall offered the same meagre feeling as mine and only a handful of other cases tumbled down the chute onto the dated conveyor (I was amazed the vinyl in my case survived this fall).

Heading outside with my cousin I was struck instantly by the warm air, despite the fact it was now nearing 11pm. The other thing that struck me, once again, was the size of Los Angeles and the sky scrapers of Downtown.

We were soon past these though and on the freeway heading towards the coast making for a surprisingly quick journey to El Segundo, a suburb near LAX with an amazingly small town feel considering its location.

After a much-needed welcoming cup of tea it didn’t take long for the day of travel to catch up with me and sleep called in preparation of my time exploring the mind-boggling hugeness that is Los Angeles.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

San Francisco – October 2015 – Part 4

Berkeley campus

Berkeley campus

After a busy Sunday, that you can read about by clicking here, my penultimate day was one to take it a little more easily, so, with that in mind, we decided that after something of a lie in, we’d head over the Berkeley.

Again this is where the bay area’s public transport system comes into its own as we took the BART across the bay.

Acting something like London’s underground rail network, albeit with fewer lines, the BART stretches from Richmond and Pittsburg in the north to Millbrae and Fremont in the south, with work taking place to extend it as far as San Jose. This gives rapid access to all parts of the bay area for amazingly reasonable fares.

We joined the BART beneath Market Street and were soon on the east side of the bay emerging above ground in the industrial heart of Oakland. Famously one of the less desirable cities on the bay the section of Oakland seen from this train is predominantly warehouses and industrial buildings, that give way to rundown looking neighbourhoods of old wooden housing.

One thing that struck me here, as it had in other areas but was even more obvious in this setting, is how literally crossing the street can lead from major industrial works to housing with no kind of division, something that is rarely seen in other cities I’ve visited – outside the US anyway.

Continuing through the conurbation Oakland gives way, through a few other towns, to Berkeley, by which point the BART line is back underground. Exiting the station into the heart of Berkeley’s downtown shopping district the place has a much more relaxed, small-town, feel with, aside from the ever-present Starbucks, few of the major chains found in San Francisco.

Berkeley University campus gates

University campus gates

Backing onto this area is the famous Berkeley campus of the University of California that, from the outside, looks like someone dropped a forest in the middle of the town.

Walking along its wooded paths its clear why this is such a popular college as it feels a world apart from its surroundings. With faux-classical buildings and an impressive bell tower at its centre it has exactly the feel one would expect from an American university campus and I could see why it is such a sought after institution, aesthetically at least.

To its south is another shopping area more clearly geared towards the captive student audience with many independent coffee shops, veggie and vegan restaurants and the like. However, unlike my past trip here in 2006 a lot of the other shops in between these seemed closed or on their last legs, no doubt further evidence of the past 10 years of economic trouble and giving the area something of a dilapidated and tired feeling at points in great contrast to the campus.

Also in this area we found the Berkeley branch of Amoeba Records that, while the smallest of the three, is still an impressive store with some great hidden gems amongst its racks of music, though I made the decision to leave them where they were on this occasion.

After a bit more time checking out games stores in search of some specifically patterned dice we headed back across the bay. On the journey back I was struck by the way the houses around the outskirts of the sprawl stretch up on the hills making for some rather precariously placed buildings and show just how quick and uncontrolled the development of these cities has been from virtually nothing 150 years ago to what we see now. While very apparent here the scale of this is even huger elsewhere but something about the precarious looking structures on the side of distant hills here made it somehow more striking.

Back in San Francisco, after a look around the fairly impressive Westfield shopping mall and a few others stores, we headed back up to North Beach for a meal at Calzone’s, which was far more enjoyable this time thanks to my body not thinking it was 4am and as well as the great pizza we discovered their garlic fries, and the fact that even a side was plenty enough to share as a main meal!


Golden Gate from Pier 39

Golden Gate from Pier 39

My last day in San Francisco was another comparatively quiet one that started out with a walk down Columbus towards Fisherman’s Wharf to have a look around the city’s tourist mecca on a slightly less busy day.

We started at In ‘n’ Out Burger which, while busier than any fast food restaurant I’ve seen, was worth the wait for their burgers which are clearly superior to other brands I’ve had and, while I should have asked them to hold the onions on the ‘Animal Style’ was very enjoyable if fast food is your thing.

Moving along to Pier 39 my memories of it were pretty much true as it is simply made up of a bunch of naff looking restaurants and gift shops, some of which match the seaside theme and others that don’t even fit that.

Sea lions at Pier 39

Sea lions at Pier 39

The best thing about the pier is the views across the bay from the end and the sea lions that lie on pontoons specially set up for them in the adjacent marina. Though this didn’t stop a few of their number attempting to get up on one of the nearby boats moored nearby.

Next to the pier is the Aquarium Of The Bay, which, on my last visit, I had very much enjoyed for its insight into the life under the nearby waters.

This time however, while I got to see a little more there, including sea otters which were as fun and adorable as I expected, I couldn’t help but feel that after the California Academy of Science this was over priced and not nearly as informative as it could be, making it disappointingly much more in keeping with the vibe of Pier 39.

To round off my last day in the city by the bay we headed back to Mikaku sushi bar for yet more very enjoyable sushi before walking my friend to the nearest BART station.

Ashley and the Octopus

Ashley has a close encounter with an octopus

After that I thought it might be a good idea to see if I could find the coach station I would need to be at by 7am the next morning but drew something of a blank. Checking a map later I was only a block away at one point but the huge construction sites South of Market that will eventually become a faster route across the bay made it at best challenging to navigate.

Making my way back through Chinatown I returned to the apartment and booked a cab for 6:30 the following morning before my final night in the cosy, homely, AirBnB in the shadow of Telegraph Hill.

You can read the next of my travel blogs here

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

San Francisco – October 2015 – Part 3

Haight Street

Haight Street

Click here to read the part 2 of my blog on my trip

Much like most cities, Sundays in San Francisco are just like a slightly toned version of every other day, though its obvious most of the big office buildings and the area around them is far quieter.

I started my Sunday with the intention of catching a bus on Stockton Street and making my way to Haight Street out by Golden Gate Park. Stockton is one of two parallel main streets that run through Chinatown – while it’s neighbour Grant Avenue is the more tourist focused of the pair, with novelty and gift shops, restaurants and the like Stockton feels like the real Chinatown.

Anyway, I reached the bus stop just in time to see the bus I was after pull away, so, while there would be another bus along in a matter of minutes, I thought this was a fine opportunity to walk the 15 minutes or so down to Market Street instead. Walking down this section of Stockton is like entering a different city – while the buildings are clearly those of San Francisco, in the middle of a Sunday morning I seemed to be one of very few non-Chinese people on the street and the grocers, supermarkets and any other kind of shop you care to mention were bustling.

Stockton Street, Chinatown

The view north from the Stockton Tunnel (taken on my last trip)

All along the street from its junction with Columbus to the tunnel that leads into Union Square there is the unique smell I can only assume come from the various shops selling fresh produce or traditional Chinese medicine that I’ve only encountered in Chinatown.

Along with this I don’t think I heard a single phrase of English as I made my way along the street where more elderly people sat on makeshift seats outside stores and young children weaved around the legs of those making their way along the pavements.

All of this combines to give Chinatown the real feeling of being a different place entirely, though with this being the largest in the US and one of the oldest, that probably shouldn’t be surprising.

After passing through the short tunnel at the lower end of Stockton I was suddenly thrust back into a centre of American hyper-commericialism in the form of Union Square. Centre of San Francisco’s higher-end shopping district, the square features all the big chains you’d expect from Macy’s department store (spread across three buildings) to Apple, Disney and the like, along with a few rather fancy looking hotels.

Shop window on Haight Street

Shop window on Haight Street

During my visit the easterly side of the square was something of a building site due to the combination of some fairly serious looking road works and the construction of a new flagship Apple Store. Despite this the small ‘park’ area in the centre was still fairly nice and busy with people resting mid-shopping trip or eating breakfast at one of the outdoor cafes – though I couldn’t see much of the appeal so I continued on down to Market Street where, this time, I managed to catch the bus heading west.

As always in San Francisco there were a few ‘characters’ (to use a typical British euphemism) on the bus but, none-the-less, it was a pleasant ride seeing a bit more of the Tenderloin and then out into ‘The Haight’ where I hopped off by Buena Vista park and made my way into the area famed as the centre of the 1960s ‘hippy’ counterculture movement.

Since I first visited the city in 2006 it seems some of the bigger chains that had taken up residence on the street have receded from The Haight giving back a bit more of the bohemian feeling its reputation suggests it had in days gone by. Either way most of the shops are small stand alone business covering everything from obscure books, custom t-shirts, retro toys and games to a plethora of vintage clothes stores.

Amoeba Records on Haight

Amoeba Records on Haight

While I found the vintage clothes stores somewhat overwhelming (I’m bad enough at clothes shopping at the best of times) I did find some unique items in one shop that dealt in t-shirts and vintage (to me) toys including a hand-held SNES console and a classic giant Transformer – if only I had more room in my suitcase!

One of the highlights of a visit to Haight Street for any music fan is Amoeba Records. Situated at the western end of the street it is probably the second biggest dedicated music store I’ve ever been to (its LA cousin being first) with rack upon rack of CDs, vinyl and even still a fair few cassette tapes covering all genres and ranging from brand new to classic vintage to ‘very used but a bit of a bargain’ type fare.

I spent a fair chunk of time browsing the aisles and working out just what few items I should leave with, an exceptionally hard choice, but just browsing in a place like this is something of an experience and a highlight of my trip.

Zelda street art on Haight

Zelda street art

Making my way back up the other side of Haight I popped into a few more stores, including a nice independent book store where I discovered I’d missed a Travis Barker signing event by 24 hours, before again reaching Buena Vista Park and spotting a cool NES cartridge piece of street art complete with Triforce motif.

At Buena Vista park I found a bus stop with a full route map on the side with the intent of catching a bus down to Castro and Market, but, upon having a look at the map I realised it would probably be a fairly easy walk, even in the rather hot lunchtime sun.

Heading up the southernmost, fairly steep, section of Divisadero Street at the Eastern side of Ashbury Heights it dawned on me I may have been able to take a more scenic route a few blocks further up the hill, but, while the road may have not been much to write home about, it did afford yet more views across the city, this time looking up the length of Market Street with the bay in the distance beyond the fairly impressive sprawl of San Francisco city.

At its summit the road takes a bend and becomes Castro Street and begins its downward incline, again this is a fairly unremarkable stretch of road but I always enjoy seeing new places just in case something leaps out.

Castro and Market

Castro and Market

A block away from the bottom of the hill Market Street cuts across Castro at one of the cities most famous intersections where a huge rainbow flag flies over the junction marking the official entrance to San Francisco’s famed ‘gay district’.

Having really earned its reputation in the 1970s the area now feels remarkably sedate and, aside from the flags and the suggestive names of a few of the establishments along the two blocks ‘south of Market’ it is just like any other part of the city – albeit, at the risk of sounding stereotypical, a rather well-kept bit.

Ok, that’s not strictly true, most parts of the city don’t have a couple of ‘construction workers’ (think The Village People but a bit less disco) sat atop a junction box at an intersection with rainbow stripped crosswalks, jokily cat-calling passersby.

Compared to London’s Soho the vibe around the place was far more relaxed and friendly and the same seemed to be true for the whole Eureka Valley area that lies in the shadow of, the today fog shrouded, Twin Peaks.

Rainbow crosswalk at Castro and 18th

Rainbow crosswalk at Castro and 18th

While in ‘The Castro’ I took a look at the GLBT Historical Society Museum on 18th Street that, while small, offers some interesting insights into the historical relationship between the city and the GLBT(etc) community.

I got the feeling that with more time there could have been a lot more information to glean but the museum’s layout made and arrangement made it feel like a lot was crammed in and it was hard to work out the focus. That said for an independently run and funded museum it was very interesting.

Amongst other things the junction of Castro and Market Streets is one of the main hubs of the public transport network so I took the chance to hop on one of the vintage street cars, I guess we’d call them trams, that trundle from Castro to Fisherman’s Wharf, via the Ferry Building, and back. Despite the trappings of modern public transport the trip up Market Street in these vintage vehicles is something of a novelty as they also retain markings and remnants of their time in service in cities all over the world and they are still used by locals to get around as much as by tourists looking for the novelty factor.

Stairs to the City Lights poetry room

Stairs to the City Lights poetry room

On my way back to the apartment, back in North Beach, I took the chance to pop into City Lights Bookstore and, as I have been every time I’ve visited, was amazed by the place.

Though only comparatively small the shop packs more into three floors than almost any bookstore I’ve seen, while also being home to the publications of the ongoing Beat Movement and maintaining the spirit it had when it opened in the early 1950s.

I started upstairs in the poetry room, up a flight of stairs lined with memorabilia from the Beat Generation it is like stepping back in time as the photos on the wall are arranged in such a way as if they were only just taken and put up, while the room features tables and chairs that may have been their since the store opened allowing people the chance to sit and read at their leisure before or after purchasing.

The middle floor is the more mainstream of the three and is organised like a more conventional bookshop (though some of the books on offer you would never find in a Waterstones or Barnes & Noble) while the basement is packed with reference books and writing on all conceivable subjects divided in a particularly unique City Lights fashion.

Book categories at City Lights

Book categories at City Lights

I couldn’t leave without picking up a few books myself so came away with a book on Neal Cassady, Bukowski’s Ham On Rye and volume one of the City Lights’ trademark Pocket Poets series, Pictures of the Gone World, by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Meeting up again with a friend we headed to a small sushi bar on Grant we discovered on my last visit, Mikaku, where once again we had some amazing sushi (despite missing ‘happy hour’ this time) followed by a walk through the Grant Avenue side of Chinatown.

As I said previously this side of the area is far more novelty and tourist oriented and it was fairly amazing how many of the shops sold various swords and knives from the decorative kind to genuinely scary looking weapons – I have to admit though, part of me still wants a Game of Thrones great-sword or Hyrulian Master Sword to hang on the wall.

Heading back to the apartment we rounded off the day by watching a film my friend highly recommended, Silver Linings Playbook, that was available thanks to the Apple TV and Netflix provided in the AirBnB which made for a very enjoyable, relaxing evening after a day on my feet exploring the city.

Read the next part of my San Francisco travel blog here

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

San Francisco – October 2015 – Part 2

Coit Tower from Alcatraz Boat

Coit Tower atop Telegraph Hill

Click here to read the first part of my blog on my trip to San Francisco

I started my second day in San Francisco intent on taking things a little more easy. So often when holidaying in a big city things become so hectic any sense of relaxation is lost and this time round I aimed for that not to happen. So, after a comparative lie in (by my standards), I took a stroll around North Beach in the direction of Telegraph Hill.

As I’ve said previously North Beach is an old neighbourhood, famous as traditional home to San Francisco’s Italian population and, on the blocks east of Columbus Avenue this is thoroughly evident. Mixed in amongst the townhouses and small apartment buildings are any number of restaurants, cafes and delis with a distinctly Italian flavour; from the obvious red, white and green bedecked facades to more modest (and generally far superior) establishments.

All of this centres on Washington Square Park and the adjacent St Peter and St Paul Church and its impressive edifice. The park is only the size of a city block but offers respite from the bustling Columbus Avenue that cuts through its south-west corner and is surrounded by many of the aforementioned bars and cafes that, even mid morning on a Friday, were busy with a few famous examples having queues out the door awaiting their reportedly impressive breakfasts.

Telegraph Hill view Lombard Street

Looking down Lombard from Telegraph Hill towards Russian Hill

I didn’t linger long here though and instead continued a further two blocks up Stockton Street before turning on Lombard. Famed for its steep twisty section on the slopes of Russian Hill a few blocks to the west, Lombard is also the main road that allows vehicle access to Telegraph Hill, and, by the time I joined it, I was already a fair way up the steady but impressive incline.

As the street reaches the more pronounced outcrop near the hilltop (on the other two sides it’s a sheer cliff) it takes a winding route but here the footpath deviates through a small wooded area, complete with coyote warning signs.

Once surrounded by the trees it is again easy to forget this is in the heart of a city as its comparative altitude over the surrounding coastal area separates it from any but the loudest traffic noise.

Once clear of the ‘forest’ I found myself at the base of the Coit Tower monument from which there are yet more impressive views of the city from Russian Hill to the west across Alcatraz and the North Bay as far round as Yerba Buena Island.

The hill itself takes it name from the fact it housed the city’s original telegraph point to communicate the arrival of ships into the bay across the network of docks that stretch around much of the southern shore. The tower meanwhile stands as a monument to the fire fighters who lost their lives during the 1906 earthquake that destroyed much of the eastern side of the city.

Coit Tower

Coit Tower

I had hoped to head up to the top of the tower but with a long queue and surprisingly high cost for what is, essentially a short elevator ride, I skipped that content with taking a look at the murals inside the tower’s lower floor and having time to further explore some of the streets of North Beach.

Heading back down to sea level I past what I later discovered was the site of San Francisco’s Tower Records and is now a chain pharmacy, though knowing this makes the mural of Bob Marley and other musicians along the wall of the car park make slightly more sense.

After a relaxing afternoon during which I was introduced to the Geek And Sundry YouTube channel, and specifically the LARPS and Critical Role series, we headed out to The Warfield on Market Street to watch doomy metallers Ghost and psychedelic hard rockers Purson, which you can read more about here.

Saturday was another day for taking it easy so in the late morning I took the opportunity to head down Columbus Avenue until I hit the coast and have a look around the Ghirardelli Square shopping centre. While mostly taken up with bars, restaurants and slightly twee gift shops, the main feature of the ‘square’ is the Ghirardelli shop and café selling more chocolate and chocolate based food and drink than I’d seen outside of Cadbury World in what was once the chocolatier’s main factory.

Naked Lunch SignLater in the day we headed out to a bar a few doors down from the apartment that had first grabbed my attention with its name, Naked Lunch – taken, of course, from the William S. Burroughs book and evoking something of the areas’ association with the Beat Generation. The bar itself, while only comparatively small, offered a great atmosphere whether you wanted a drink or, as we did, something to eat, in the form of small but impressive range of ‘sandwiches’ (what we’d call burgers on this side of the Atlantic).

Alongside some great, simple, food Naked Lunch also had a selection of board games and old school arcade games free to play and, while I didn’t have a chance to go back there a second time, would strongly advise anyone visiting San Francisco to check it out if you want a surprisingly unpretentious bar with a great atmosphere.

We followed the meal up with trip to the cinema, my first in the US, to see The Last Witch Hunter, and I have to admit to being somewhat overwhelmed at first by the scale of the multiplex. Spread over four floors it was enormous compared to the four small-screen cinema we have at home, but, unlike similar large-scale movie theatres I’ve visited in the UK, there was still a sense that the whole place was geared to watching movies not just selling food and ‘concessions’ with movies as a sideline.

Part three of my travel can be found here

You can see more of my photos from the trip on Facebook by clicking here

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,