They came to Pacifica this past weekend and brought Hwy One to a jammed up stop and wait. They parked on the streets all the way up the hill to our place, and clogged the neighborhoods within a half mile of Pacifica State Beach. My son stopped by, and was not heading home unless he wanted to spend an hour in stop-and-go traffic.
We lathered on sunscreen and walked to the beach where we witnessed dog after dog leading their owners away from the beach. We chatted up a couple with a pair of retrievers in tow, who said the tandem contest was about to start so we hustled. Thirty people stood in line for the restrooms, hundreds stood on the sand watching the last of the entries paddling out. It was a guy with a blue mohawk riding a large board with a small dog on the nose. The dog had great balance, sticky feet that did not let go, and the surfer dude with blue hair knew what he was doing.
We wandered the crowd, rapt with attention for these last two rides, and seemed pretty darn well behaved. We got a couple of shots of the surfing duo then headed to the Pedro Point shopping complex to see if the new Cafe, Soul Grind, was open and it was. This was day one, and they were swamped, but it’s a great space, a cool owner, Jimmy, and has views of the ocean. AND they are going to roast their own coffee. Can’t wait to sip a double espresso in front of the fireplace while coffee roasts in the back and rain coats the parking lot outside.
I’ve started a short story asking where are the black surfers, and there they were among a line of yellow boards, yellow jerseys, learning the ropes. The story is morphing into an old white guy getting schooled by a young black girl with powers beyond his grasp.
I think it was spawned from working with Mat Johnson at the Napa Valley Writer’s Conference last week. A man with a black mom and white dad, Mat’s spent a bit of time bumping up against, and flowing to the other side of the divide that we’ve created. More in another article.
I’ll tell you how to do Point Reyes. First ya gotta get outa bed. Hit the road by 9, and drive straight to Fairfax. I like the back road out of San Anselmo, Central Blvd I think it’s called, near where Andronicos was, but wow, now it’s a Safeway. That road is so old-school Marin; bamboo hedges, bikes on the street. A few stop signs toward Fairfax, there’s a statuary on the right with Buddhas scattered outside, inside, and down to the creek below.
In Fairfax, park in the lot, a block west of Good Earth, a wonderful memory of what SF Real Foods was like in the day. But now for breakfast at Barefoot Cafe. They serve a good cup of espresso and fine egg dishes. The art work cycles through and I like to spend a moment in the restroom where some of their older works are on display. There are many cute little shops within a block or two of the cafe.
On to Point Reyes Station. First thing is go straight to the Station House and book a dinner reservation. OK, you could call or even go online, but I love to see the place, maybe use one of their two restrooms. Station House has a great burger and the bar-b-qued Oysters are a serious local treat. They serve hot turnovers to every table. The perfect vehicle for butter. There might be a musical group playing weekend nights.
Depending on your energy, I’d head down the street to Bovine Bakery for coffee and a sweet treat. The chocolate cherry things in the right display are so sweet they make my teeth hurt, but they are tasty. On sunny days there’ll be bikers on the street, sipping caffeine and carbo loading for the ride home.
If you need gear hit up Cabaline Country Emporium & Saddlery, where we’ve bought shoes, boots, socks, inserts, belts and a hat or two. It’s packed floor to ceiling with outdoor clothing slanted a bit to those who ride horses.
We usually stroll by the Marty Napp’s Photography Gallery who has iconic images of the area with a few surprises each time we visit. There’s also Point Reyes Books whose well-stocked shelves can keep you engrossed. If I could only have one book store, this would be a finalist.
If you like cheese, Cow Girl Creamery. It’s a big store, a little over crowded and over priced but it’s locally sourced, and there’s more than cheese in the shop.
You’ll see Marin Organic written on many Point Reyes restaurants, grocery stores, and farmer’s markets. There’s are options to the Station House. From time to time we’ve selected an Italian place called OSTERIA STELLINA a bit more upscale, with locally sourced food. Not a lot of elbow room.
And then there’s Coyoche. Go across the street from Station House and turn left. There’s a little outdoor mall area with interesting shops, our favorite being, well, actually, I’m not sure which is OUR favorite but we usually shop Coyoche for sales on bath sheets and bedding. All cotton, subtle tones, a little expensive, but a cool place.
There’s more to Point Reyes Station but I need a hike and my favorite without hesitation is the Estero Trail. Getting there is part of the charm. Head out of Point Reyes, like you’re going back to Olema, and make the right just past the bridge over Laugunitas Creek (by the way, Donna and I paddled up that creek where we saw turtles and had a ball. You can read about that trip here.)
Bruges is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s old with so much new. We found the town pronounced and spelled several different ways. Bruges, like rouge with a B in front is how most tourists pronounced the quaint Belgian city, but the locals called it Brugggghhh, like starting to say blue in french, but then moving the G sound to the back of the throat and kind of squeezing the finish. I never got it right.
One of my friends at the San Francisco Writers Studio told me about Bruges. “It’s ok if you like medieval towns,” she’d said. “What with cobble stone streets, canals, quaint cafes, and boutique clothing stores,” and we did like all of that.
The trip from Amsterdam to Bruges was relaxing, if a bit underwhelming, until we got off the train in Antwerp. I remember being stunned to a stand still looking up at the massive train station clock. It had been decorated to fill the entire end of the station. It didn’t seem real. We both took photos hoping to capture the elegance of the structure. We probably have 15 images, none show the full grandeur. But our commuter train to Bruges was late so we got to sit in the station, sip coffee, and watch people coming and going in the afternoon glow. We’ve since watched Hugo, to visit that feeling again. There’s something about a train station.
The train to Bruges moved along at a snail’s pace, past Ghent and several other small towns. Medieval architecture sprung from the skyline, like pillars of inspiration.
In Bruges we found the bus to our AirBnB and sat for the 10 minute ride to our new hood. It was a quiet little street, with several homes sporting sculpted gardens. Our place came with two bikes that we rode into town for groceries and dinner. We rode home in the dark, feeling alive and quite free.
In Bruges, we walked down narrow streets, and from time to time could see the spires of one of several church steeples. We managed a stop at each.
There’s something about these old churches. Structures that are built over centuries, over generations. Who had the original concept? How did it change as time changed, as wars were fought, as sons died, as children became adults, and they too died.
Someone suggested that we see the Colin Ferrell movie In Bruges. I’d tried it some years back and didn’t make it very far. I found Ferrell’s constant negativity hard to swallow, but in the movie’s defense, the photography is stunning. There are shots from the water, from towers. It’s really a great overview of the city. And there’s a seriously twisted relationship between Ferrell and the guy who played Mad-Eye Moody in Harry Potter movies.
What I didn’t see was the well-developed retail scene. As we approached the city our first day we saw shoppers carrying bags from the well-known shops you might see in San Francisco, Milan, or Rome. There were great little cafes, cobble-stone streets plazas, bicycles nestled in ivy. Reflections in the water,and church towers framed by a maddening sky.
We had a snack at the Pigeon House. Great little stop for local color. They honor the pigeons who race from as far away as Spain, all the way back to Belgium. The bird is stamped into chocolate medallions.
Speaking of which, Belgian waffles. We only had one, but what a treat. We sat in the back of a little cafe, watched what a nearby table was eating and ordered what they had, one waffle with creme fresh and dark chocolate. The waffle was large but light. We filled a corner with cream and another with chocolate. We took our time. We shared. Donna took her spoon, and with the delicacy of a fine surgeon poured a teaspoon full of chocolate and ate it in one bite.
I gotta say that the town held me from the first steps. Narrow streets, cool old doors, and canals.
One afternoon we were drawn to a bridge by a sound that I couldn’t place. It was musical, like a steel drum, but nuanced with a humming sound. We came across this troubadour playing a Hang Pan and blowing into a diggerydo. He provided a sound that seemed both primitive and contemporary all at once. Since our return we hear Hangman on our streaming stations just about every day.
I could go on and on about Bruges, but our next stop is Paris. So you gotta move on.
We took Norwegian Air out of Copenhagen and landed in Amsterdam a bit late in the day. The train station was a bustling hub of diverse humanity. People looked to come from every corner of the globe. Outside central station it was crowded, rushed, and dirty. By the time we got to our AirBnB, via a 15 minute bus ride, we were sure we’d made a poor decision on where to stay…until we met our host and saw our apartment. Until we woke in the morning to find a green parrot perched in an Elm outside our bedroom window. Until we found the local grocery store had fresh organic produce, eggs with bright yellow yolks, and found the Danish nut and seed bread we’d eaten in Copenhagen. We continued to eat our mostly raw breakfast. I was loving it.
The buses ran prompt and got us around town quite easily. But the streets are the places we found most charming. Strolling hand in hand along quiet canals, as bikes cruised around corners, horse-drawn carriages clopped along the cobblestones, and musicians played music here and there.
And of course the Coffeeshops, not to be confused with Cafes. Both are plentiful in Amsterdam.We talked with the proprietor of one of Amsterdam’s oldest coffeeshops, The Bulldog, about cannabis edibles and discovered that it’s against the law to make anything with cannabis. Even the lollipops and Spacecake are made with some kind of cannabis oil, with little to no psychoactive properties. He said that once upon a time, Amsterdam was the world leader in progressive medicine, but now they are trailing the likes of California, Colorado, and other US Cities.
We hooked up with a friend of a friend, Lorand, who lives in the hip neighborhood of Kinnerbuurt. They have a farmers market that runs the length of a pretty long street, and is open every day of the year. Fresh everything. Lorand guided us through enormous food courts inside a refurbished tram repair center. It’s called Foodhallen. It’s spacious rooms, varied aromas, music, and people made it an interesting place to get a bite and feel the vibe. We also discovered a fantastic cafe where I tried fried goat cheese. I thought it was fish. Our cafe host even got in the action.
We spent hours touring the Nine streets area where we found cafes, retail stores, canals and reflections, plus the ever-presence of bikes, locked and being ridden.
We walked many streets more than once, and it didn’t seem to matter. There was always something to see, taste, smell. We tried to go to the red light district, but each time we tried, the way there was crowded, and the energy was more than we wanted to handle, so we’d mosey on over to the nine streets area and relax into the non-stop shops and cafes.
The only activity we planned in advance was Ann Frank’s house, and if I had one word of advice for that tour, see the movie first. We streamed it on Netflix and it gave such a great sense of the cramped quarters, the difficulty of being quiet, and how personality conflicts are amplified by war and confinement. The place is tiny, the stairs narrow, and with wooden floors, it’s practically impossible to keep quiet.
Our second day in Amsterdam we wandered into a souvenir shop to purchase refrigerator magnets and gaze over all the shiny objects.
What a fun store. I thought it must be hard on a shop owner trying to sell high volumes of tiny items to make ends meet. While doing our transaction we asked if he could point us to the Van Gough museum. He asked if we had tickets, and said that it’s quite helpful to purchase in advance, and it’s great to go late in the afternoon to avoid the crowds. He said he could sell us tickets which turned out to be such a great move.
My lack of art history knowledge caught up with me the next day. We took the tram to the museum area when I got the feeling that Amsterdam was bigger than I’d thought. Much bigger. It’s almost twice the area of San Francisco, and larger than all the cities we visited, Copenhagen, Brugge, and Paris.
We walked by the Rijksmuseum and sat in the sun at an outdoor food court with coffee and a nibble. When it was our designated museum entry time we walked a hundred meters or so to the Van Gogh museum. We’d asked about its location a couple of times and were corrected on our pronunciation each time. It’s not Van-Go, it’s Dutch, Van-gawk, but you have to slur the second syllable through the back of your mouth. An acquired skill I think.
We picked up our audio tour gear, and agreed on when and where we’d meet, since we have vastly different attention spans for museum tours. I started the exhibit and was greeted by a large, say 8×12 foot painting of peasants in the field, some mostly sitting, eating, sharpening blades. I’d seen it in art appreciation class in junior college. I moved on to a series of self portraits and learned that he taught himself many techniques by painting himself, as he did not have money for models. I searched for that image when drafting this blog post but never found it. I did find dozens and dozens of peasant paintings, little studies of faces, feet, and folks at work. He was a prolific painter, who took great pleasure in painting the simple life. When I got to the timeline display of his life, I was shocked to tears when I discovered he’d taken his own life.
We spent a bit of time in the tulip museum, in the Nine Streets area, where Donna learned that many of the varieties of tulips they sell won’t do well in our climate, so we waited for home to buy our bulbs. They went in the soil this past weekend. We’ll wait for Amsterdam in our spring garden.
Outside the tulip museum we discussed a book we’d read. Donna confused All the Light We Cannot See, with bits from The Goldfinch. I’ve had a fear that I might lose my wife to dementia. In that moment, I thought it was happening. I started to cry. Donna took me onto the bridge where I tried to talk about it. She reassured me that she is not losing her mind.
I’d love to spend more time in Amsterdam. Such a vibrant city with more to see than can be done in four days. When we returned home I told Donna I wanted to visit Ikea and get a little hit of Scandinavia. We came home with a few odds and ends to keep our trip alive along with a mounted and framed black and white photo of the same image that got me interested in Amsterdam a few years ago. I’d seen it at an executive office on Sutter Street in San Francisco. It was one of several framed images, all done in black and white, of various cities around the world. Each had one element of color. We brought it home from Ikea. It’s lovely next to our fireplace.
Until we return, we have a photo, we buy aged Gouda cheese, and we recount stories real and imagined.
We explored Copenhagen through collaboration and feel. Donna was in charge of direction and I set the pace. And the pace was, for the most part, No Time: no time constraints, no rush, no firm planning, except here and there.
The Danes and their bikes are part of the landscape as they mend and flow through the city, around corners, all seemingly going at the same pace, all giving way to one another. I have not a single shot of a Dane on a bike, like it intrusive to take a photo. But I did not feel that way in Amsterdam. I don’t know why.
I was fascinated with the details in Copenhagen architecture. Even in the house there were simple window closures, that looked fragile, but were not.
Woodwork from airport floors to the water front, boasted clean, tight lines.
Along Nyhavn we ran into a carpenter who was making a sturdy bench with gentle curving lines, providing a place for people to take a pint, or sit and talk. I thought of my dad and how he built in the same way.
Further along, near Paper Island, wood walkways looked like a fine craftsman had made them. Not the treated lumber we see along the California coast, but tight-grained hardwoods and connections that were made to last.
At the tram station, we’d find angles to take shots. Especially Fredericksberg station. This one was our fav, with the symmetry, the strong horizontal green line. I never got tired of it. I understand there is a new tram being built around the city that has been in planning/construction for the past seven years.
We planned one outing to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. We hooked up with a friend of a friend who lived in town and rode her bike to the train station. She took us a level below the tram where we caught the train to Louisiana, a town named by the original land owner who’d had three wives, all named Louise. The museum looked like a residence when we approached via a ten minute stroll from the train station.
The main exhibit featured a Dutch photographer, Rineke Dijkstra, who’d done a series of large, sometimes life size, portraits. The images were personal in that each maintained eye contact with the photographer, which meant each maintained eye contact with the viewer. It was haunting, like each person said it was ok to see them in all their frailty, uncertainty, or pride. There were longitunal studies showing young people growing into themselves. I had to take a break mid-way through the exhibit to regain my footing. Having that much eye contact with people I did not know demanded attention.
Our last day in Copenhagen we logged 17,000 steps, the most walking we did on the entire trip. I think we were trying to fill ourselves with the energy of the place. Simple, sturdy, steady. We fit in a visit to the Design Museum Denmark where I had the feeling that someone from Denmark had played a role in Apple’s designs.
They created an outdoor garden with many Danish designs you could sit in or play on. Here’s Donna with her new grey boots. Can you imagine walking into a vintage store, buying slightly used shoes, and wearing them all day long?
We wandered into what looked like an old fortress, a short stroll from the museum, and discovered St. Alban’s Anglican Church.
So many things make Copenhagen special to me. The bread, the bikes, getting confused for a local, and the pace. More than anything though, it was having time to wander around with Donna. She’s a perfect travel companion.
It was Donna’s idea to start in Copenhagen and work our way south to Paris. She wanted to check out her heritage since she’s an 85% Denmark DNA match. I was neutral about the place until I started researching, and once we landed I was met with friendly people, a fast running tram, utilitarian architecture, muted tones, and bikes: the blood in the veins of the city, pumping the place full of life.
Donna got a tip from a friend about inexpensive flights to Scandinavia on Norwegian Air. Out of Oakland, round trip air for two, including a checked bag and four vegan meals (which we might pass on next time) was $1,260. We flew on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner. It’s a pretty nice airplane with long skinny wings, big windows that can be dimmed with a button, lots of free entertainment, and leg room for a 6 foot 1 inch guy.
Our home for the first five days was an AirBnB on the top floor of a three story residence in the borough of Fredericksberg. “Frecksberg” is how it’s pronounced if you slur the middle bits. It had lovely white floors that creaked in a nice way. The place was once the studio of our host’s mom Jo Selsing, a professional photographer.
It’s hard to do the place justice. It wasn’t fancy, but it was spacious, clean, and had the artist’s touch. Plus a Bosch toaster that we used every morning. I did not want to leave.
We started the day just like at home, with me getting up first, doing my morning core exercise routine, a little stretching while my tea water boiled. Then into wake Donna and start our chatter about what was going to happen next.
We bought local groceries and ate breakfast like love-crazed hippies. Eggs, cucumbers, smoked salmon, red onions, avocados, cheese, snap peas, toasted almonds, and tomatoes. The bread turned out to be my favorite. Dark rye, full of seeds and nuts. A small loaf weights over a pound and it just made me smile. Organic produce in all our stops was labeled biologique.
We did the walk from the Norreport station, past Nyhavn, and on toward Paper Island, which was mobbed. It felt a bit like Fisherman’s Wharf except the buildings were older, and of course the cobblestone streets.
We kept walking to Christiania where it’s kind of legal to smoke pot. There were colorful buildings, many gardens, and a sense of Berkeley or the Haight in the 60s. Vendors on both sides of the foot path selling bud, like a farmers market. There were multiple restaurants and lots of people sitting at tables, chatting, laughing, and nibbling on their food stuffs. While it seems quaint as I type, it felt a little dark at the time. Not the people at the tables, but the vendors selling bud. Perhaps my 6 foot frame, black clothing, and grey hair brought police to mind. We’d heard not to take photos, so I didn’t take one until we were out of the neighborhood.
One of our goals for the trip was to find spiritual places. We didn’t plan when or where we’d find them, but as we poked around Christianhavn Donna spotted a steeple, and asked if we could go in. We walked up steps and were greeted by a stern looking man in his sixties who I thought would turn us away. He explained that an orchestra was practicing inside and that we were welcome to go in. This orchestra was rehearsing for a performance that night and the lead violinist had us by the ears and would not let go for the next half hour, though Donna I’m sure would say that it was more like 15 minutes. The maestro was barking out commands as the group went through their paces. It was the last time I’d witness extraordinary sound and not record it. I can only tell you that it was my awakening that this was a special trip, that something different was happening. I left the church with a smile in my heart and a warm glow on my face.
My wife and I get a lot of mileage out of our vacations. From pre-trip planning to the embrace of each city as we’d get to explore them, and then basking in the memories through photos and story telling after we’re home and back to business.
This year, as part of our pre-trip planning, we dove into WordPress Reader posts every morning, before going to work. We continued looking at Reader posts during the trip. We discovered things like the giant wooden sculptures outside Copenhagen, or how best to get to Chatres to visit their famous cathedral.
We booked all our rentals through AirBnB and enjoyed getting acquainted with each city through their photos, maps, descriptions, and tenant critiques. The units got smaller as we headed south. The Paris apartment was very small but what it lacked in size made up for in efficiency, proximity to services and the metro.
I’d say the world is a better place than it was 10 years ago though there is strife, in our own back yard. But we found plenty of heart, plenty of light. Now Anaïs Nin might disagree, since she did not like this image displayed in the Irving Penn exhibit in the Grand Palais, but I found the photo engaging, personal, and it was my favorite.
But how on earth did we get to Irving Penn? We stumbled upon him in Paris, the same way we found ourselves in Chartres, laughed with Chinese tourists in Amsterdam, and got a museum recommendation from an Iranian in Copenhagen. Our guides were out there and we kept running into them.
Even in Paris, where it’s big and fast, guides would materialize with a regularity that we started to expect. Paris was the only destination where we saw signs of terrorism. Not terrorists, per se, but the vestiges of anti-terror. Police patrol in groups of four, machine guns at the ready and no-nonsense looks.
The Eiffel Tower was completely fenced off. If you didn’t have a ticket and cleared security, you didn’t get in. At train stations, large parks, and Notre Dame we saw baret-clad police patrolling the grounds. In Chartres and other prime terrorist targets there were large stone slabs around the perimeter to prevent cars and trucks from getting too close.
I just love train stations like Amsterdam, Antwerp, Montparnasse and Gare de Lyon. The symmetry and size of the old stations is worth a coffee and a few photos. The vanishing lines, the repetition of simple themes to adorn large structures that house the likes of all electric trains that can travel 170 k/h. They leave the station, rolling smooth, gaining speed as the city shrinks from view, and accelerating to love-on-a-fast-train speed through the countryside.
I wasn’t prepared for Copenhagen, but I say that in a good way. I’d done research to find attractions like Tivolie Gardens, Nyhavn, and Paper Island for food choices galore. We walked through Nyhavn and it was a vibrating place with boats and outdoor cafes.
The day after we arrived we decided to let our senses guide us and what guides they were. We found photo ops everywhere, a metro system that connected us with lots of exploration, and a city that has made bike riding an art form. There may be more bikes in Amsterdam, but there are more bikes on the road in Copenhagen, and the bicyclists move along as a well-oiled machine.
I had issues with Musee D’Orsay. People with smart phones and cameras were getting selfies in front of Monet, Renoir, and Manet. But it’s still a feast for the senses with all those impressionist paintings in one place. I had an awakening there a few years back, when I started to cry and couldn’t stop. It started as I approached the Renior painting of Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette.
I started to get emotional, like the work meant more than paint on canvas or a name on the painting. I’d seen it in books during college, and never thought I’d see it in person. When I walked around the corner there was an enormous painting of a woman on the hill with a white flowing dress and parasol. It overwhelmed me, in a way that I could not then, and can’t quite now, explain. I’ve recounted the story of seeing this painting many times. When I entered the room this year, I found the painting smaller than I’d remembered and there were two, like it had been a study of the same woman in the same dress on the same hill and then I thought that there’s probably more to the story. BUT, this year, after looking over paintings, I was shocked to find that they were not Renoir paintings, but Monet. MONET.
We spent three weeks on this trip. A good amount of time to be gone without breaking the bank, or overdoing my capacity to play from late morning until ten or eleven at night. We walked between three and seven miles a day. We’d keep my injured knee happy with a stop for a coffee or a perusal in a charming shop; there were plenty of both.
In the countries we visited, Denmark, The Netherlands, Belgium, and France we felt a sense of unity; like we belonged to each in our own way. In each country I was mistaken for a local. And it was fun to fit in. But as with all our vacations, it came to a close, and we came home to jet lag, stacks of email, and colds. Tune in as I traverse those steps again, with photo and motion pictures. Let me make my vacation last a bit longer and perhaps give you a short one in your office or home.