When we hear the word “California”, we usually think of golden beaches, surfers and large American villas, not Monterey or Carmel. But California is many things. First of all, we should make a distinction between the seaside towns near San Francisco Bay, where the sun doesn’t always shine and the beaches are not so golden, and the area around Los Angeles, which is more similar to the classic picture of sunny California. Talking with a friend who, like me, likes on the road trips, I thought about the journey I did some time ago, which started in the West and continued to Yosemite and San Francisco, and I found myself writing.
California should be visited by car, driving along US Route 101 and stopping at towns and beaches the name of which is familiar to us from books and movies. Or on the contrary, we’ve never heard of it and so we’re curious to see what is down there. From San Francisco, under a sky threatening rain, we take the 101 and drive along the coast line, excited by the panoramic view. In Palo Alto, Silicon Valley, we head south, passing by wild beaches and seaside towns.
It might be the clouds covering the sun and darkening the sky, or the rain falling on the sand, or the rocks emerging from the sea, but Santa Cruz looks gloomy and even sad to me. Anyways, I’m positively surprised as I find out that Santa Cruz has been home to a community of sailors and fishermen from Sestri Levante, or rather, Riva Trigoso in Italy, who made the town thrive. The wind make surfers happy, while those who try – like us – to walk on the beach have to give up and sit in a café to warm up a bit. Yes, in full summer. The light changes how we see a place; from here, with this cloudy sky, it seems like we’re in a Hitchcock movie.
As we reach Monterey, the sun finally appears. Monterey, the first capital city of California under Spain and Mexico, is an interesting place to visit, linked to literature and history. The first thing you’ll notice is the pier, with its many shops and restaurants that remind me of other piers turned into tourist hubs (San Francisco, New York).
But in the town center there are Spanish and Mexican colonial style buildings, and the atmosphere feels more authentic. White courtyards with fountains and fruit trees, purple and saffron flowers, buzzing streets and farm markets selling fresh fruit and vegetables. The American writer John Steinbeck had an emotional connection with Monterey: his book Tortilla Flat portrays a group of paisanos (countrymen) inspired to a small Monterey community of errant friends enjoying life and food.
On the very tip of the scenic Monterey Peninsula is Pacific Grove, an area of golf courses and villas. My feeling is that everything is “too much”; places like this, built for the wealthy, risk looking fake and somewhat sad. A young man from Los Angeles told us that movie stars have large, lavish residences built even though they never come here, just to add another property to their list of houses around the world. In fact all villas look empty; there are no children playing in the gardens or returning home after school, no couples chatting by the sea. It looks like a disused movie set that someone keeps clean every day.
Much more lively is the nearby Carmel, a queer town the mayor of which was Clint Eastwood. Small, green, with perpendicular streets home to a mix of shops and restaurants, Carmel is one of those picturesque places which verge on the kitsch. Have a look at the shops. One is even dedicated to Jane Austen, housed in an English-style cottage with a sloping roof.
Actually there are many references to the British tradition. Teapots, biscuits, cups and lace, books and trinkets featuring the Union Jack can be seen in several windows along the street that leads to the ocean. And to be consistent with this bizarre European cauldron, we have dinner with a group of people in a Swiss-style restaurant, housed in a chalet.
We stay in a hotel surrounded by golf courses and we get up at dawn, in desperate need of coffee. Breakfast is served in a room overlooking the well-kept garden. It’s excellent, with fresh fruit, oatmeal, yogurt, muffins and plumcake. And American coffee, of course.
Back on the road, we head south and again we feel like we’re in Europe: Solvang is a Danish village that still shows the architectural features and the typical atmosphere of Scandinavia. Houses have sloping roofs and wooden beams, bakeries and cafes look like witches’ huts. Instead of the classic burger, here you find veggie burger made with beans, soy, grains and spices, served with white bread that can be replaced by seed and dried fruit bun.
The weather is definitely improving as we continue our journey towards Los Angeles. The sun peeps through the clouds, warm and bright. In Santa Barbara, we feel like we’re in Spain (Europe again!) as we walk along the road leading to the beach, fringed with palm trees, and we stop at the shops and outdoor cafés, among coloured houses and historical buildings. I reluctantly give up the idea of sitting under a cozy gazebo and settle for a muffin and takeaway coffee. Later, I’m tempted by salad at Natural Café, a nice restaurant that serves healthy food which has become so trendy in California.
I like Santa Barbara, with its strong personality and cheerful atmosphere. In some ways, though, it reminds me of some chic Italian vacation spots, which unsettles me a little. I’ve got different memories from many years ago when I visited the Old Mission, an eighteenth-century mission founded by Franciscan friars with beautiful botanical gardens and vestiges of the past. I would recommend booking a guided tour (for more information, read here).
The journey from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles is short. You might decide to drive along the coast line and pass by Malibu, where the mountains meet the sea, flower and farm markets fill the streets. It already feels like we’re on a film set. Many students choose to live here to go to Pepperdine University, as well as professionals working in LA who buy a house on the beach.
A few miles south there’s Santa Monica, with its lively Pier and relaxed atmosphere, contemporary art galleries, outdoor cafes, fashionable shops (especially on the 3rd Street Promenade), bicycles and city lights. A full immersion in the movie-like California we picture in our dreams.