Travel Columns

Stomping Grounds of San Francisco

Copyright Landing Page Interactive and Krista Johnson, 2009

Many American cities were created for the automobile, but San Francisco is unmistakably pre-model T. Navigating Lombard Street or attempting to park after 6 PM, explains why there are 0.6 vehicles for every San Franciscan, while that number triples to 1.8 in Los Angeles. Like the cool fog, San Franciscans aren’t afraid to traverse the city, by buzzing electric busses, trams, bikes, skateboards or Bart. Despite the diversity of public transportation, San Francisco’s best-kept secret is that walking is the only way to see some of the city’s quirkiest places. For anyone adventurous enough to brave the hills, the city’s mysteries are revealed by taking the extra step.

Two Steps Forward

Buses alight daily at Alamo Square, unloading passengers for photographs of the city’s most famous painted ladies cuddlingDSC01632 with St. Mary’s church and the Transamerica Building. On a tree trunk beneath the green canopy in the center of the park sits a cowboy boot with a plant peaking out of the worn leather.  Nearby, a primrose escapes from a child’s Mary Jane. Ski boots, slippers, mint green heels and 30 more pairs of shoes turned planters comprise this haven created by city gardener David Clifton. Proving the old adage that trash is someone’s treasure, the shoe garden is worth a look, if not a whiff.

Two Steps Back

Descending the Hayes Street hill is as rewarding as the garden at the top. To the East lies newly opened Café Altano http://www.cafealtanosf.com/ . The fare is Italian with fresh California ingredients. Flank steak, Osso Bucco and butternut squash ravioli are delicious at a bargain price, but the wine soaked pear is the star of the menu. Co-owner Kazim Altan opened the restaurant intentionally at a crossroads of travelers and locals. “Look at this spot. It’s perfect for people watching,” Altan said.

Past the dog park and one block to the west of Alamo Square is a watering hole worth the walk. In a setting that would feel at home in Prague or Paris, the Bean Bag Café serves local microbrews like Prohibition Ale and Watermelon Wheat from 3 to 10 PM for only $1.97—although between 6 and 7 PM, a seat is hard to come by.

The Next Step

Another spot where local treasures and food meet footpath is below Coit tower. Telegraph Hill’s stone stairs guide you past the home of the feral parrots that call it home. Greeting you at the bottom of the hill is a cocktail and macaroni and cheese at the famous Fog City Diner.

A map in hand goes a long way, but the secret to San Francisco lies in the soul of the foot.

Best Places to See in Paris France

Online Content, Non-disclosure Client,  2008 

Je te présente “Paris.” Outgoing, provocative and secretive, these destinations allow you to witness the beauty that inspires her haughty pride as the capital of art.

Il de la Cite

The teardrop shaped island is Paris’ historical heart and soul and much more than the site of Notre Dame. Believed by most historians to be home of the Gaelic tribe, the Parisi, in 52 BC, it is one of two natural islands along with the Ile Saint-Louis.

The Palais de Justice houses both Sainte Chapelle and the Conciergerie. Built by King Louis IX to house his Crown of Thorns and piece of the True Cross, Sainte Chapelle is a small, magnificent gothic Cathedral. (Admission is 7.50 €, discounted for  25 and under).

Also in the Palais, the Conciergerie was the “Antichambre de la guillotine,” or waiting room for the guillotine, where Marie Antoinette and Robespierre awaited their final curtain during the reign of terror.

After seeing the Notre Dame Cathedral don’t forget to step over Point-Zero, where the distance is calculated for all the highways leaving Paris. Legend has it that if you traverse this spot, you will one-day return to Paris.

Musée D’Orsay

If the Louvre is the main course of art museums, the impressionist-filled Musée D’Orsay is the crème brûlée. Concentrated with some of the most recognizable works of the modern era, you stand face to face with Van Gogh wondering why the impressionist works were deemed unworthy for the Louvre, but appreciating that the old railway station has created such a sweet combination of craft, content and accessibility.  Thank goodness you saved room for desert.

Pere-LaChaise Cemetery

The largest cemetery in Paris on the Boulevard de Ménilmontant is a site of pilgrimage. It invokes the feeling of a pharaoh’s tomb with its detailed engravings and statues. The kings and queens buried here are royalty of the art and political worlds, including Honoré de Balzac, Marcel Proust and Moliere.

Taking the line 3 Metro to the Gambetta Station, will allow you to enter near Oscar Wilde’s grave and continue down the hill through the cemetery. Although Jim Morrison’s bust has been removed, worshipers bring offerings of beer and artwork every day and leave them for the renowned musician. Although the cemetery was named after Louis XIV’s confessor, it holds many more French secrets that you can coerce out of the monuments and plaques.

Musée Rodin

If your breath hasn’t been taken by the artwork, you can collect your thoughts next to “Le Penseur,” Auguste Rodin’s famous sculpture, which he created to think with his toes and arms as well as his brain. For 6 €, the former Hotel Biron shows his works on period furniture when the artist once lived. For 1 € it won’t be hard to contemplate your meeting with beautiful Paris and you’ll likely find yourself “Enchanté.”

Not your Mom’s Masquerade

The Philipsburg Mail, March 2006

Recently, I stepped into a different world where people ate sharks, where jeweled bikinis were appropriate attire and where adults still took their breakfast from a bottle.  Perhaps it isn’t the material of H.G. Wells; however the Trinidad Carnival will go down in impolite company as the stuff of legends.

In a country just 11 kilometers off the coast of Venezuela, its influences are dominantly South American, Indian, and African. However, it seems the French flare for pre-lent purge found its way out of Europe and into Trini genes. They added their original music-calypso, steel pan and soca (so-kah), and it became the second largest annual Carnival in the world.

Starting months before, parties, called “Fêtes” and Steel Pan competitions usher in the last week of February. Mas (masquerade) camps plan and organize groups of parade participants, called bands. They choose a theme such as “Enchanted Forest” or “Poison” and illustrate them in costumes.

For $300 or 1,800 Trinidad and Tobago dollars, Victoria’s Secret models to Mamma Cass look-alikes can enter into a band and receive a skimpy costume, drinks and food for two days of Carnival.  At 10 degrees north of the equator, I would have paid to wear my birthday suit.

On Fat Sunday, the kids claim the streets, while parents follow with juice boxes and super glue for costume casualties as they belly dance down the street.

Some bands don eight-foot tall doll costumes with synthetic smiles and guitars in hand, creating the illusion of giants on parade.

The remaining two days of carnival are not child’s play, but they are all fun and games. At 4 a.m. on Monday “J’Ouvert (Ju-vee),” the official opening ceremony, begins with a mud, paint, and oil fight. In the infamous words of a friend, “I got covered in mud. I ruined my clothes. It was great.”

Otherwise known as Dirty Mas, the grimy gathering parades around until noon, when they collapse on the sidelines to treat their thirst and hunger.

Local Stag and Carib beers flow from booths more numerous than trash cans. Shark and Bake, or fried shark in fried bread with a sweet Tamarind sauce, is the only food with enough caloric content to keep thousands of participants and sunburned spectators dancing for three days.

On the heels of Dirty Mas, Pretty Mas is the main event, an elaborate 800,000-strong costumed parade. The average woman’s outfit is a bright bejeweled swimsuit and headdress covered in feathers, sequins, and beads that strategically accentuate her gyrations. The men wear bright shorts and sometimes painfully tight gold spandex.

Other costumes are wearable floats. Reaching 10 feet in height and diameter, most come equipped with wheels and a chair for easing the burden.

The dancers are serenaded by steel-pan groups or flatbed trucks filled with speakers and blasting musical coffee—Soca. As they cross several judges’ stands on the circuit in Port of Spain, bands dance feverishly amidst confetti while a clock counts down their allotted time.

Although Trinidad has more crime than most of its neighboring islands, the locals are hospitable, caring and protective to tourists.

When Ash Wednesday arrives at midnight, the slow pace of the islands returns and the Trinis head to the beach for some well-deserved rest. They’ve just shown the world how hard a country can work for pleasure.

A surprise on many levels, from extreme beauty, to the lack of clothing, to the unexpected geniality of the people, my travels in the Caribbean opened my eyes. Trinidad dropped my jaw.