A Travellerspoint blog

February 2019

An Epicurean Odyssey: The Dordogne part II (Périgueux)

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Our Airbnb host in Périgueux was a very kind lady who insisted on giving us a tour of the town center. Our apartment was situated on the bank of the River L'Isle. which nestles the town in one of its many sinuous curves. Just a hundred meters away was a preserved 14th century watchtower that perched improbably on a narrow stone base.

Périgueux is the largest city in the Dordogne and also its capital. The center was as lively and commercial as Bergerac had been inert. Tables were filling up in the outdoor cafes, and numerous shops were doing a brisk business in local specialties such as foie gras and walnut oil.

We weren't in the mood for cafe food, but none of the restaurants we passed were ready to prepare a real meal yet. Eventually we found a gourmet store on a pretty square that had begun serving lunch. It was a little less substantial than what we were craving, but it was enough to launch us into our day's itinerary.

Many of the top attractions in the Périgord are clustered around a short segment of the River Dordogne near the cliffside village of La Roque Gageac. We started our exploration of the area at Les Jardins de Marqueyssac. There are several famous gardens in the Dordogne and my research indicated this one would be the most impressive. From the foot of the hill the gardens are perched on, we could see across the valley as far as Château de Beynac and Château de Castelnaud. Both were festooned with banners declaiming "Non au Massacre de la Vallée", a protest against a new road being built in the area.

The centerpiece of the gardens were the carefully contoured boxwood shrubs that formed layers of whimsical shapes.

The gardens gave way to a park which stretched to the east. From the paths we had gorgeous views of farmhouses along the southern bank of the Dordogne, which was littered with kayaks and small tourist barges.

In the middle of the park there was a crafts station and a playground to entertain the children. This provided some welcome relief from their complaints about there being "nothing for kids" that day.

At the summit at the eastern end of the gardens was a balcony from which we had an unparalleled view of our next destination, the village of La Roque Gageac.

The Dordogne is full of beautiful villages, but La Roque Gageac is one of the most unique. Most of the town consists of a row of similar-appearing stone houses that face the main road through town along the Dordogne. A few more houses are placed along the road that ascends the steep hillside, and behind the hillside is a sheer and formidable cliff. In the upper reaches of the cliff is a medieval fort built within a cave. At the riverside are the companies operating the tour barges, or gabarres. We arrived less than an hour before the last departure of the day so we didn't have time to climb the road up the hill. Instead we ordered some ice cream and let the kids play in the makeshift sprinkler on the town plaza.

The boat ride was a little out of character for us but I was determined to get up close and personal with the river that gave the Dordogne region its name. We cruised slowly a few kilometers downstream, passing the Château de la Malartrie at the western end of the town. If your dream is to stay in your very own Dordogne castle, this château is available to rent for about $5000 a week. Further down were campgrounds on the riverbank and rocky beaches with numerous sunbathers and waders. The river was clearly beloved by locals and tourists alike.

We were behind schedule so I decided we would change the evening's market from the popular one I had chosen previously to the one in Montignac, a village on the way back to Périgueux. Montignac was simply one name from a list of Monday night markets and I hadn't found a single reference to it elsewhere. The car was low on fuel and we stopped at a couple of gas stations around the town of Sarlat. The offices had already closed and the card readers at the pumps wouldn't accept any of my credit cards. We decided to press onward to Montignac, figuring dinner was the more immediate issue and we would eventually find a gas station where we could refuel.

Montignac was spectacular. The small village is bisected by the River Vézère, a branch of the Dordogne. Old-fashioned streetlamps cast a warm glow on the stone buildings as the sun fell. The northern bank upstream from the bridge was lined with outdoor cafes which were filled with patrons.

The night market was the best we were to experience. The selection and quality of food was enormous and the vendors were very friendly and attentive. The usual specialties of duck breast, foie gras, and walnut cakes were complemented by an unusual variety of red meats and seafood. The best part was the clientele, who were clearly almost all locals who knew which village to go to for the best food and ambiance. And the language? Nothing but glorious French, all around us.

Once we'd emptied our plates for the last time, we danced along with the other early arrivals to a very talented and energetic cover band. It was a jubilant conclusion to a great evening in the Dordogne.

During dinner we had put the issue of the gas tank out of our minds, but now that it was pitch dark we had to focus all our attention on solving that problem. Our gauge was telling us we would run dry in 28 kilometers, nowhere near enough to make it back to Périgueux. We found a sizable station just outside of Montignac but the office was once again closed and the pumps wouldn't accept our cards. I saw a man using the station's hose to wash his car and was able to communicate our problem to him, and he advised me that we needed some kind of special card to access the pumps. Could we use his and pay him back in cash? No, he didn't have one. I wondered how he filled up his own car. I saw another car pull up to the pumps adjacent to our own vehicle and raced over. The young driver was already filling his tank when I reached him. We were saved. Could he use his card to fill our tank if I paid him back in cash? I held the bills up, offering a substantial bonus over the cost of the gas. I can't, he answered. This is my mother's car. Ummm ... what? I repeated myself in disbelief, showing him every bill I was offering. He shook his head and hurriedly jumped back in his car and drove off. I had to wonder if it was a common scam in France for a couple to throw their three small kids in a car and head to a petrol station to trick people out of gas money.

We waited at the station another half hour but no one else pulled in. We'd been in gas trouble a couple of times before in our travels but this was the worst. We were looking at a serious possibility of spending the night in the station. I used the search function on Google Maps and found another station slightly off our route back to Périgueux, 13 kilometers away. That would surely be our last shot with 22 kilometers reading on the gauge. When we got close to the station, my spirits were lifted when I saw it seemed to be a different chain from those we had failed at earlier. The card reader looked completely different as well. I pushed the card in and waited a few breathless seconds until the card was accepted. I've never appreciated the comforting rumble of gas running through a fuel nozzle so much. The kids were all asleep at this point and I looked at their faces through the window of the car. I was astounded that we'd encountered this kind of problem with international credit cards in Western Europe in 2018, but I resolved to be extra careful about our safety and comfort for the rest of the journey. Even in a place like France, it can be very dangerous to become complacent.

We got a slow start the next morning and didn't arrive at the weekly market in Le Bugue until nearly eleven in the morning. We found the market exceptionally crowded and also with a preponderance of souvenirs and other merchandise aimed primarily at tourists. We did find one decent seafood stall where we bought some whole cooked crabs and bulots which we consumed at an outdoor cafe (with drinks we purchased there of course).

We returned to that same short stretch of the Dordogne we had visited the previous day. Les Jardins de L'Eau, also known as the Water Gardens of Carsac, was a stop for the kids more than anything else. The water gardens are probably a fairly recent creation to take advantage of the influx of tourists into the Dordogne. However, they've made it a very beautiful place and the kids really enjoyed feeding the koi. If we'd had one less day to explore the area I'm sure this wouldn't have been on the list, but as it was it made for a pleasant hour for everyone.

The hilltop village of Domme was just a few minutes from Carsac, on the other side of the Dordogne. The prime attraction is the promenade on the northern side of town with views of the Dordogne valley that are breathtaking and limitless.

The town itself was attractive enough but even more saturated with ice cream shops and souvenir stores than Monpazier had been. We didn't stick around for long. We had perhaps the most renowned city in the Dordogne to squeeze in before that evening's night market.

Posted by zzlangerhans 12:01 Archived in France Tagged travel blog tony dordogne domme la_roque_gageac perigord montignac friedman marqueyssac perigueux Comments (0)

An Epicurean Odyssey: The Dordogne part I (Bergerac)

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France is a country composed of smaller pieces, each with their own distinct renown. These regions to some extent correspond to the administrative divisions, but also have invisible boundaries that have been shaped by more than a thousand years of history. There's Paris and its surrounds. Provence, of course. Brittany and Normandy. Alsace. The Loire Valley, Bordeaux and Bourgogne. One of the smaller areas to enjoy this legendary status is the Périgord, more widely known outside of France by its departmental name of Dordogne. The Périgord epitomizes everything that is wonderful and unique about France, from the verdant countryside to the iconic towns and castles to the delicious cuisine. We were excited to have four entire days and part of a fifth to work our way through a long list of markets, villages, and historic landmarks.

Our previous forays into the Loire Valley and Provence had taught us well that France can't be approached in the same way as Spain. Whereas Spain has less to offer in the early morning and forces travelers into late bedtimes, France is very unforgiving of slow starts. A typical market in the summer has seen its best moments before ten in the morning and is basically over except for the tourist stragglers by noon. On Sunday morning we set our alarms as early as we could stand and raced a half hour southeast to the weekly market of Issigeac, one of the most heralded in the Périgord.

The first thing we saw as we walked into the center was a woman tending a counter with an array of enormous pans, each containing a different tantalizing preparation of meat or seafood. We resisted the temptation to begin eating right away, knowing that every minute that passed would bring larger crowds to impede our progress through the market.

Issigeac was a tiny village with narrow streets, stone and half-timbered houses, and the ancient Saint-Félicien Church overlooking the bustling central square. The atmosphere for our first Dordogne market couldn't have been better.

After a couple of circuits through the market, we'd selected our bread and cheese, strawberries, freshly-shucked oysters and other delicacies and retired to a park bench to enjoy a messy breakfast.

It turned out we'd escaped just in time. We ventured back into the market to let the kids play with the soap bubble guy and found it jam-packed. Arriving early had saved us from having to compete with crowds for the attention of every vendor.

We continued southeast to Château de Bonaguil, one of the most picturesque castles in the Périgord. This formidable medieval edifice suddenly appeared at the top of a hill as we approached on the access road, inspiring an immediate rush of traveler's euphoria.

A castle on a hill like Bonaguil is really two experiences in one, each with its own distinct pleasures. The first part is the climb up the winding path to the castle past ancient, crumbling stone walls and a carefully restored limestone church.

Once we reached the top of the hill it was time for the main event. A stone bridge crossed the crevasse between the hill and the rocky outcropping, or aigeulle, on which the castle is perched.

It took a half hour to explore the half-ruined fortress. The crumbling masonry created surreal, Escherian perspectives of the interior elements of the stronghold. We could only imagine the majesty of the castle during its heyday in the 18th century.

The views of the Périgord countryside from the tall castle keep were spectacular. We were getting a dramatic introduction to this extraordinary and singular corner of the world, and we were energized to continue onward to the other destinations in our day's itinerary.

Our next stop wouldn't have ideally been another castle, but the first sight on the way back from Bonaguil was Château de Biron. Like Bonaguil, this château was a spectacular sight both at a distance from the road and close up. Biron has been preserved and renovated to the extent that the main building can host art exhibitions. By the time we arrived, both the boys were sleeping so I took Cleo for a walk along the side of the enormous castle. I don't think we missed much by skipping a tour of the interior.

In the Périgord there are numerous villages that have been clearly designated for tourism. They are featured in every guidebook and they have a support system of cafes and souvenir shops for travelers. Are they truly the most picturesque of all the villages in the region, or simply the ones that prefer the financial boost of tourism to peace and quiet? We weren't going to be staying in the area long enough to uncover all the secret towns that the tour guides haven't discovered, so we followed the crowds to Monpazier.

Monpazier was certainly picturesque, a well-preserved bastide that was established in the 13th century in the run-up to the Hundred Years War. On the day of our visit they were having a book festival, and the central square was filled with vendors of old magazines and used books. Much to the kids' enjoyment, a craftsman was demonstrating the historic method of making paper from the pulp of old fabric.

We only spent another half hour in Monpazier, enough time to absorb the best examples of medieval architecture and the colorful decoration of the narrow pedestrian streets. In the end it was hard to overcome the feeling of Epcot Syndrome, the term I use for environments that feel more like a theme park pavilion than an authentic travel destination. Perhaps the best examples I can think of in France are Aix-en-Provence and the walled city of Carcassonne, but even central Paris suffers from it to some extent.

We had skipped lunch in anticipation of an early arrival to our chosen Sunday night market. Monbazillac is a small village just south of Bergerac best known for its château and sweet white wines. On the road approaching the village we encountered a whimsical art installation of colorful bicycles.

The roadside market wasn't as picturesque as the one in Audrix, but the selection of food was much larger and the vibe was more local. Whole farm animals roasted on spits and a woman tended to an enormous basin of simmering mussels. We ate reverentially in the shadow of the château.

On Monday morning it was already time to leave our first Dordogne Airbnb. We hoped we could replicate our success with the Pau daily market in Bergerac but it wasn't to be. The market was open in name only, with just a couple of stalls in business and nothing that could be considered a decent breakfast. There was no point in trying to make it to a weekly market as we still had to pack, so we walked around the largely deserted center of Bergerac. There were more than the usual number of attractive half-timbered houses and an intriguing little plaza where an upright piano had been converted into a miniature garden.

It was still far too early for any restaurants to be open for lunch, so we decided it would be best to head straight to our next Airbnb in Périgueux. Once we were settled there we wouldn't have to worry about rushing back in the evening to meet our host. We hadn't even made a dent so far in our list of destinations in the Dordogne.

Posted by zzlangerhans 14:27 Archived in France Comments (0)

An Epicurean Odyssey: Over the Pyrenees and into France

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This was our second time driving from Spain into France through the Pyrenees. Two years earlier we had gone through Andorra and the drive had been underwhelming, but the route via Spain's E-7 was a different story. After we passed Jaca, the road quickly ascended and began to wind through beautiful verdant mountains, with the occasional majestic crag projecting upward like a broken tooth.

The views from the road became even more breathtaking once we crossed the border into France. We were now about mid-level among the mountains, and on every side were steep, lush green slopes dotted with fluffy sheep. There was just enough mist to create an eerie ambience but not enough to obscure visibility. I was the only one awake at this point and I wanted someone to stir and share the moment with me so badly, but I figured we would be better off in the evening with everyone well-rested. One of my biggest regrets from the trip is that I didn't pull over and take some pictures, but there never seemed to be a good spot at the most beautiful locations. I figured that eventually someone would wake up and be able to pose in the foreground of my shots, and then suddenly it was over and we descended to nondescript flatlands. I never got my photo but I was able to find this one from the web that gives some idea of what I was seeing, without all the sheep.

Pau was an obvious choice for our first night in France despite the fact that I had never heard of the place before I planned the trip. It was the first mid-sized city between the border and the Dordogne which meant it probably had a decent daily market. There was also an old town with enough sights to occupy us for the morning before we got back on the road. We arrived at our Airbnb amidst a chilly drizzle in the early evening. Our host hustled everyone inside where we found a very pleasant and spacious loft-style apartment. Our good fortune with accommodations seemed to be continuing. Once the rain died down we went for a walk in search of dinner. I was surprised to find that we weren't encountering any restaurants, despite the fact that we were relatively close to the town center and the covered market. TripAdvisor only found us one good candidate within walking distance, and when we arrived I was a little disconcerted to see it was a rather dignified family-run restaurant with a prix fixe menu. At this point we had no good alternative and they just happened to have a free table the right size for us. I was very self-conscious with the three kids but they couldn't have been better. They quietly watched their iPads on low volume until the food came and then ate very peacefully. The staff and other patrons didn't even bat an eyelash at us.

The following morning it was Saturday, the best day for daily markets, so we walked to Les Halles de Pau with high spirits. We were initially crestfallen to see that the market was undergoing renovations, but it soon became apparent there was a lot of activity despite the disarray. I don't know if I can put it into words, but there's a clear difference between Spanish and French municipal markets. In Spain there's an emphasis on cured meats, olives, preserves, shrimp, dried fish, and similarly tangy and salty items. In France one sees much more roasted meat and rotisserie poultry, grilled vegetables, and more shellfish than crustaceans. Which do I prefer? Probably whichever country I happen to be in at the time.

We had a blast reacquainting ourselves with French culinary specialties and brought home a delicious and savory haul that included a roasted leg of lamb, grilled endives, a head cheese salad, yellow plums, and fresh bulots (whelks). We celebrated our first morning in France with an exemplary French market lunch.

After the listlessness of the area around our Airbnb and the market, we were surprised to find Pau's old town humming with activity just a few hundred meters away. The most well known sights are clustered in a small area adjacent to the Boulevard des Pyrénées, the town promenade that overlooks the valley of the Gave de Pau river and provides sweeping views as far as the mountains on a clear day.

The center of the old town had magnificent, perfectly preserved old buildings that looked as though they had leaped right off a postcard. The wrought-iron balconies, wooden shutters, and colorful flowerbeds in the window sills were quintessentially French and almost felt like a personal welcome to one of our favorite countries.

The Gothic Église Saint Martin dominates one square in the center. The angular, imposing bulk of the church is softened by the lush greenery that surrounds it.

A few steps from the church is Château de Pau, the city's most well-known attraction. There has been a castle at this site since the 11th century, but the existing Renaissance edition was built in the 16th century. The trapezoidal courtyard creates an optical illusion that the building is much longer than it actually is. Mindful of the long drive ahead, we passed up a tour of the interior. We've seen the inside of enough chateaus for a lifetime.

Outside of Pau my eye was caught by a colorful mural that was painted circumferentially around a water tower on a hill. We left the road for a closer look at the whimsical painting. Later I looked up the signature and learned that the mural depicts pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. This artistic cooperative called Ateliers Adeline has decorated countless water towers in the French countryside, and also specializes in remarkably lifelike trompe-l'œil paintings.

Our afternoon stop was Auch, another lesser known mid-sized city in an unheralded area of south-central France. Auch merited a visit mainly due to my philosophical opposition to driving long distances in Europe. In my experience, if you've driven more than three hours without stopping then you've missed something. Auch once played a more prominent role as the capital of the historic region of Gascony, which roughly approximates the French Basque territory. Like Pau, the old town of Auch is perched on a hill above its river which in this case was the brownish-green Le Gers. Instead of a funicular to the lower level, Auch has the Escalier Monumental. This 19th century stone staircase underwent a comprehensive renovation in 2017 and is supposed to be lined with vines representing Gascony's viticultural heritage, although none were visible from the top.

The most impressive sight in Auch is the Gothic-Renaissance Cathédrale Sainte-Marie, whose western facade dominates an open plaza at the highest point of the old town. The cathedral had a beautiful beige color and was pleasingly symmetric. Each of the three levels of the twin limestone towers is fronted by decorative Roman columns and clearly demarcated by balconies with stone balustrades.

Auch's old town was a pleasant place to wander around for an hour. Ancient limestone townhouses with classic French shutters lined the narrow streets, with the occasional half-timbered house disrupting the uniformity.

On the long drive north to the Dordogne, we passed through an undulating landscape of sunflower fields and farmland. Each new expanse of sunflowers seemed to be more golden and vast than the one before. There's not much written about this unusual love of the French for sunflowers, although one thing I hadn't realized was that the plant is native to the Americas and was only introduced to Europe in the 16th century.

One of the features that attracted us most to the Dordogne was the famous night markets. These aren't markets so much as communal dinners which have evolved to become commercial events. Assorted vendors provide the local culinary specialties and wine which is consumed by a variable medley of locals and tourists. As one might imagine, the more the mixture is constituted of locals the more authentic the food and the vibe. Of course, finding those night markets that have retained their authenticity is easier said than done. Most of the markets provide such amenities as dishes, cutlery, and cups but these may require a deposit and also tend to run out. It's much better to be prepared with one's own supplies, with the plates preferably sturdy enough to be laden repeatedly with juicy entrees. I would recommend buying inexpensive hard plastic plates and wine glasses that can be deposited into a plastic bag when used and then washed at home. It's also advisable to arrive early or you might find yourself forlornly circling the tables or sitting on a doorstep to eat.

Saturday doesn't have a one of the larger selection of night markets in the Dordogne, but we didn't have much difficulty finding a seat when we arrived in Audrix an hour after the official start time. It was clearly a more touristic market, with the predominant flavors of patrons being English and German. There were dishes and utensils available and the vendors were a little impatient. We didn't know it at that time, but it was also the smallest assemblage of vendors we would see at a Dordogne night market and the most limited variety of food. Nevertheless we ate well and were pleased with the communal atmosphere in the small, quaint village.

Our Airbnb was almost an hour away to the east in the larger town of Bergerac. I had rather carelessly chosen the two largest cities in the Dordogne as our pieds-a-terre without noting they were well to the east of the Dordogne's most attractive villages and castles. I'd also underestimated the travel time due to the paucity of major roads in the region. The results was an hour or so of extra driving most of our days in the Dordogne, but the sting was eased by the rich landscape of the region. Our apartment in Bergerac was also one of the best of the entire trip, with two spacious levels and a large pool that delighted the kids.

Posted by zzlangerhans 06:50 Archived in France Comments (0)

West Coast swing: San Diego II

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We kicked off our last full day in San Diego with another awesome breakfast, this time in the resort town of Coronado across the bay from San Diego. Whether Coronado is an island or not remains the subject of debate, since the town is connected to the city of Imperial Beach to the south by a long strip of sand called a tombolo. This technically makes Coronado a "tied island" but some locals refuse to consider it an island because one can drive there over land without a bridge. We arrived via the Coronado Bridge, which provides amazing views of the San Diego Marina and downtown.

More than half of Coronado is given over to a naval base. The remainder is a fairly sleepy resort town with pretty residential neighborhoods and lots of beaches. The main commercial area is Orange Avenue which has a lot of upscale boutiques and the occasional chain store. Our breakfast place was a crowded, old-fashioned diner style restaurant with a long counter and bright crimson vinyl upholstery. Each booth had a personalized jukebox, and once again the food was outstanding. Southern California seems to be one of those places, like Vermont and Napa Valley, that's just great for breakfast.

The only actual sight on Coronado Island is the historic Hotel del Coronado. This enormous 19th century wooden hotel was a frequent hangout for Hollywood celebrities in the 1920's and 30's. We had a lot more to see that day so we were satisfied with a close look at the exterior of the building.

One of our quirks when we travel is that we're more likely to visit an ethnic or specialty food store than a museum. Such was the case with our next destination in San Diego, Catalina Offshore Products. Mei Ling had put this wholesale seafood market on our schedule without even realizing that they are the origin of our regular shipments of California sea urchin. Catalina is considered one of California's premier online seafood retailers, and they also have a commanding physical presence in San Diego's industrial Morena neighborhood.

Aside from the seafood counters, there were a lot of interesting products on display including cuttlefish ink and a variety of fish eggs. The smell wasn't as bad as the kids seemed to think.

Although there weren't many retail customers in the store, one of the fishmongers was busy preparing sashimi samples at a small kitchen in the back of the store. We were curious about whether the Pacific fish opah could be eaten sashimi and he generously cut us a few delicious slices. Opah is almost unknown as a food fish in the US outside of Hawaii, but it's gradually making inroads thanks to the efforts of the fishmongers at Catalina and other California seafood promoters.

Just south of Catalina Offshore, Old Town San Diego is a miniature theme park that celebrates San Diego's colonial history and Mexican heritage. It is built on the site of the first Spanish settlement in California. There are a few historic homes and churches but most of the buildings are reconstructions. There's a large central square with majestic trees and picnic tables surrounded by small museums and stores selling local and Mexican goods and souvenirs. The kids got a kick out of dyeing candles at a crafts station we encountered. There's nothing like hot wax to keep kids entertained.

At one corner of the complex is an enclosed area designed to look like a Mexican hacienda, with an open central area for musical performances. In the periphery were a number of restaurants as well as stores selling Mexican art and ceramics. I was surprised by the high quality of the handmade ceramics on display after seeing all the souvenir shops around the square.

Overall we were happy with our visit to Old San Diego. It was touristy and just a little cheesy but also very pretty and pleasant to walk around in. We still had plenty of daylight for our next destination, La Jolla Cove. One of the great things about travel is the opportunity to see different animals in their natural habitats, and La Jolla Cove is one of the best and most accessible places to see seals and sea lions in the United States. Fortunately my interminable search for a parking spot in the commercial district of La Jolla Village coincided with the kids' naps, so they were fresh and ready to go once someone finally pulled out right in front of me. Just before the cove there's a beautiful, grassy park with great views over the Pacific.

I was expecting to see a lot of sea lions but I was still surprised at their abundance and how easy it was to approach them. There were a number of tourists on the rocks but there could have been far more, and no one was getting too close or bothering the animals. large_IMG_2335.JPGlarge_IMG_2337.JPG

I didn't want all three kids out on the rocks together so I brought them out one at a time to get close to the sea lions. Ian was the only one who seemed to mind the strong smell of animal waste. Fortunately there was a stiff breeze to keep the worst of it flowing away from us.

A little further east along the shoreline was a small beach and a few hardy souls were even swimming in the frigid ocean. Hundreds of cormorants were clustered along the rocks and cliffs behind the beach, as well as a few seagulls and pelicans.

The Friday evening market was in the inland suburb of La Mesa. The size and energy level were about midway between the two previous evening markets, and we concluded that Ocean Beach was the best of the bunch. That didn't stop the kids from breaking out some moves to a spirited bluegrass performance.

We sampled a few things at La Mesa, but we saved most of our room to eat at San Diego's outpost of the Korean supermarket chain Zion. There were three or four small restaurants in the supermarket's food court, and we had our second highly authentic Korean meal of the trip.

One very smart thing I did when I planned this trip was to schedule our return flight home from Los Angeles at 11 PM. That meant that we could take our time getting back to Los Angeles on Saturday and have a good dinner before going to the airport. It also meant the kids would be sleeping most of the flight and would get a jump on adjusting to the time change before school started Monday. We still had the Saturday morning market in Little Italy, which was gorgeous in the overcast morning. The streets were lined with colorful and sleek modern townhouses, with San Diego's attractive skyline providing the background to the south.

The market turned out to be the best of all the ones we had visited in Southern California. It was as big as the one in Santa Monica, but had a more local vibe and better crafts and artisanal food.

The highlight of the morning was a seafood stall which was stocked with enormous live purple sea urchins that they were splitting open and filling with ceviche. There's nothing more fulfilling for us when we travel than this kind of unique and exotic food experience.

We'd seen a little of San Diego's amazing Balboa Park two days earlier when we'd visited the zoo, but I didn't want to leave without a closer look. Aside from the sixteen museums, the park houses countless gardens and performance venues. We couldn't find a parking space when we arrived, so Cleo and I struck out on our own to explore the beautiful Alcazar Garden, which was like being transported to a palace courtyard in Granada or Seville.

Behind the Alcazar Garden is the majestic California Tower, constructed a hundred years ago for an exposition in a whimsical blend of architectural styles. The tower and the building it is attached to house the anthropologic Museum of Man.

We were able to find temporary parking long enough to explore the Palm Canyon together. A wooden walkway and staircase lead down to a narrow canyon with a distinct prehistoric vibe. Afterwards we walked as far as the Japanese Friendship Garden but decided we didn't have enough time to justify the price of admission.

Our last stop in San Diego was Liberty Public Market, where we put together our final food hall meal of our California road trip. After the exhausting zoo trip, we'd never summoned the motivation to go to SeaWorld but we didn't have any regrets. We'd found more than enough in San Diego in three days to entertain and amaze us. On our way back north towards Los Angeles, we eschewed the interstate for the coastal Highway 101. We slowly made our way through all the small seaside communities all the way back to Oceanside, detouring frequently into residential neighborhoods to admire the Southern California architectural styles.

We made it back to Los Angeles in time to spend an hour or so at the Museum of Jurassic Technology. I'd been warned it wasn't a good museum for kids but the descriptions I'd seen had made me very curious so we went for it. Naturally, the warnings were correct. The museum was a dark labyrinth of small rooms connected by narrow hallways and it was very crowded. The kids could barely understand any of the displays and honestly I couldn't figure out why most of the things I was seeing were worth exhibiting. The few things I found interesting I was unable to focus on because I was too busy keeping the kids from touching the stuff they weren't supposed to touch. So perhaps we'll go back when the kids are teenagers, or maybe not. Photographs were not permitted.

Our final task in California was to stuff ourselves before the flight back to Miami. We still hadn't seen Little Tokyo and I had a craving for authentic shabu shabu. Unfortunately, Little Tokyo was absolutely packed even at 6 PM and every restaurant we inquired at had a wait of over an hour. In the end, we drove back downtown to a Japanese restaurant we'd seen next to Grand Central Market which was practically empty and had excellent shabu shabu. Mission accomplished for dinner, but Little Tokyo would have to wait for the next visit. We carried onward to the airport, thoroughly exhausted and exhilarated after our whirlwind tour through Southern California.

Posted by zzlangerhans 18:56 Archived in USA Comments (0)

West Coast swing: San Diego I

View Southern California 2018 on zzlangerhans's travel map.

The drive south from Los Angeles to San Diego is one of the more pleasant we've made on an interstate highway in the US. The highway was lined on either side with housing developments whose units were eerily identical, except that they were often constructed on terraced hillsides that created a strange similarity with the ancient towns of Sicily. I had to wonder if I was the only person who ever saw the resemblance. Unfortunately it never occurred to me to pull the car over and take a picture of these peculiar planned communities, but here's what I was reminded of.

The other remarkable sight from the highway were the mountain ranges, always a formidable presence somewhere in the background. Being used to the east coast where the terrain is generally flat anywhere near the seaboard, the mountains seemed quite incongruous yet beautiful.

We spent New Year's Eve with friends of Mei Ling in one of those cookie cutter developments inland from the town of Oceanside. Oceanside itself had little worth seeing, but since we were there anyway we made a brief stop at Mission San Luis Rey, a two hundred year old Spanish church that was originally established as one of twenty-one California missions that served to extended the power of the Spanish kingdom to the new frontier.

The only other place we visited around Oceanside was the Museum of Making Music, in the neighboring coastal community of Carlsbad. This was quite a fun museum oriented towards kids, and I think ours learned quite a lot about instruments from the interactive exhibits and from experimenting in the small studio.

We'd had amazing success with food halls in Los Angeles, so naturally when we arrived in San Diego we made a beeline for lunch at Liberty Public Market, one of San Diego's two food halls. The hall opened in 2016 in the Liberty Station commercial area, and contains about twenty small restaurants. There was a lot of energy and a great variety of food although not quite to the degree of the big Los Angeles food halls. We mixed it up with some Italian arancini, seafood, and Cajun.

Our Airbnb was another great choice, an apartment in an incongruous complex of Victorian houses downtown wedged between the Gaslamp Quarter and Little Italy. The exterior was full of pleasant little touches like wicker furniture and a collection of succulents growing in creative pottery.

All the farmers markets from Wednesday through Friday were in the evenings, which worked out great with our schedule. On our first night we drove out to Ocean Beach, an eclectic residential neighborhood at the base of the Point Loma peninsula west of downtown. It was more like a night market than a farmers market, although there were a few produce stands. The emphasis was more on prepared foods and crafts, and there was a really good live band. The food stalls were very diverse and we had more than enough options to provide a satisfying dinner. It was probably the closest thing we'd encountered in the US to a Taiwan-style night market.

We still had a little energy left after the night market so we drove to Seaport Village, an outdoor shopping and dining complex by the San Diego Marina. There turned out not to be much going on at night, although a few interesting places were still open. The strangest was a store almost completely devoted to socks. How do they stay in business in San Diego where everyone wears sandals and flip-flops? We decided if we had time we'd return during daylight hours for the views of Coronado Island I'd read about.

The Gaslamp Quarter is San Diego's historic heart and soul. After decades of neglect, the neighborhood was revitalized in the 1980's and is now home to some of San Diego's best restaurants as well as numerous historic buildings and the eponymous lamps (which of course are electric).

The breakfast place I chose from TripAdvisor turned out to be outstanding, both in terms of food and decor. It was truly one of the most beautifully designed and ornate restaurants I can remember, down to the most minimal detail. Coupled with the magnificent buildings outside, it left a lasting impression of the Gaslight Quarter as having a very sophisticated design aesthetic.

A short walk from breakfast we encountered a splendid outdoor plaza called Horton Plaza Park, which had just completed a major renovation three years earlier. The design was magnificent with eight towering, angulated metal light supports arranged in a semi-circle around a sunken plaza with a pop-jet fountain in the center. Surrounding us was an interesting juxtaposition of modern skyscrapers and historic edifices. The plaza serves multiple purposes as a performance venue, relaxation spot, and unfortunately as a homeless hangout.

The San Diego Zoo is one of the largest and most famous zoos in the world, and shares top billing for local animal attractions with SeaWorld. I had figured we would have time for both and opted to do the zoo first, since it seemed easier to plan. After all, a zoo is a zoo, right? Of course, the logistics were a little more complicated than most zoos. For example, the parking lot alone was the size of some other zoos we've visited. Fortunately we found a ticket line that moved quickly but wow, those tickets were expensive. Two hundred bucks later we rolled through the turnstiles and began a very long journey that took us through maybe a quarter of the zoo. I'd recommend doing some research in advance if you're planning on visiting this zoo, because it is not possible to get small kids around the entire place in a day. Spenser got tired after about an hour and I loaded him on my back for a nap. This blog may be called Babies in Backpacks, but now that my youngest weighs over thirty pounds and I'm pushing fifty I might need to change up my brand. By the time Spenser had woken up an hour later, I was feeling a knife stabbing into each of my shoulder blades. I got a brief respite while we ate the sandwiches we had brought with us, and then it was time to load up Ian. The kids enjoyed some of the exhibits, but they're not really zoo lovers and at the end I was wishing we had chosen SeaWorld instead.

The highlights of the zoo were a very active troop of baboons in a large, natural-looking enclosure and the Skyfari aerial tram. By the time we stumbled on the tram and realized it would take us directly to the exit, we abandoned all thought of queuing up for the pandas. We'll catch them in Hunan one day. The Skyfari provided great views of the zoo, Balboa Park, and even downtown San Diego.


The Thursday afternoon farmers market was in North Park, another pleasant residential neighborhood northeast of the zoo. The market was a little bit of a letdown after the previous night's extravaganza at Ocean Beach. There was just a solitary musician instead of a rock band, and many of the booths were repeats from the previous night. However, I did get to try some food from Mozambique which was a first.

For dinner we went to the Little Italy Food Hall, on the short pedestrian street known as Piazza della Famiglia. The piazza was a beautiful sight with illuminated buildings and a colorful Christmas tree persisting from the previous month. The food hall itself was underwhelming and underpopulated, but we managed to put together enough of a dinner to carry us through to the next day.

Posted by zzlangerhans 09:39 Archived in USA Comments (0)

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