Big Sur

The California diaries – Hiding in the woods and the Ketchup castle


Betty Draper’s romantic hideaway

We didn’t die after visiting Carmel, luckily enough. But we continued exploring the region after settling for the weekend in a wood cabin a few miles from Big Sur. It was cozy, eco-efficient and all decorated in a 50s spirit. I basically felt like Betty Draper minus the chronically unfaithful (first) husband and the noisy kids. (Mine can be noisy too but right now they are being noisy to their grandparents, thousands of miles from my cool cabin in the woods). The weather was warm during the day and rainy at nights so we made it through the bad forecasts without much damage.

On the way to L.A. (long, this was loooong) we stopped an undetermined number of times for vista points.


Driving along endless vista points

I didn’t even went out anymore after the first two. It’s beautiful, fine, but once you’ve seen it, you’ve seen it. Husband is affected by the viewpoint syndrome. He needs to stop as many times as the road signs tell him to and take so many photos that a whole bus of japanese retired ladies couldn’t even compete. Once he brought me to Ireland and insisted in doing the whole ring of Kerry on a Saturday morning with brief pauses to take pictures of the scenic views. Pictures I was supposed to smile and look happy in. But I am digressing here so let’s go back to the journey to L.A. Hearst Castle was our main stop on the way and it was definitely worth it. I can’t post any pictures because they have a strict policy on that  but if you don’t know it you can look it up here.

It’s….kitsch of course as can be the result of a rich man neurosis but it’s also beautiful and somehow moving. None could build anything like that nowadays. All the money in the world couldn’t buy whole Spanish abbeys and Canova statues (well, I have to admit that if Spain and Italy keep going this bad they might want to sell something again) and even the grandest man wouldn’t dare to invest all of his fortune and almost three decades in pursuing such an unreasonable dream. The somewhat childish pursuit of the craziest dream moved me. This world might do with a little more craziness and passion.

While I was lost in that outrageous display of wealth two things brought me back on earth:

1. Our extremely dynamic and enthusiastic guide kept saying of any piece of art :”Look at that!! It’s 400 years old!”. But then everything was, according to him, “400 years old”. In Europe we would say something like: “The tapestry on your right dates back to 1425…” and “The Venus statue on your left was sculpted by Canova in the early years of XIX century”. But none seemed to care so it’s maybe just us Europeans being know-it-all. The group attention seemed awakened by trivia though: when the guide said Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin had danced in that ballroom everybody started asking questions.

2. There is this grand dining room in the castle. Siena’s Palio contrades flags hanged from the wall while “400 years old” silver candelabras, caskets and other objects I don’t know the name or the use of were on display all around. Well, the table is set  – for the pleasure of the visitors – as it was when William R. Hearst was living there. So, it’s really interesting to see these precious dutch porcelaine plates and the ancient silver cutlery with….a jar of mayo and a bottle of plebeian Heinz’s ketchup. Yes. On the center of the table there’s mayo and ketchup. I wonder if the curators even realize how weird that is.


Plebeian details in the grand castle

The California Diaries – Through the Silicon Valley


almond flour pancake, lemon ricotta pancake, coffee and a side of fruit

My last day in San Francisco started at Plow, the city’s best spot for breakfast and brunch (according to local press and to our landlady) in Potrero Hill, a few blocks from our room. It’s cool, it’s cozy, it’s trendy, it’s…ORGANIC. Yet the menu isn’t for dieters or sensible stomachs…Image

I went for one almond-flour pancake (lacking taste without the maple syrup), one lemon ricotta pancake (good, really good) and one side of fresh fruit. The kitchen is on the other side of the counter so you see everything. And my European organic eyes were wide open when the cook flipped the gluten-free almond-flour pancake next to the bacon slices, removing the excess grease coming from the pork every now and then with a small spatula. Pancakes cooking on animal fat? Really? And then, of course, each pancake had a small nut of butter melting on top of it once presented at the table. I think that in Europe, in any fancy “organic” breakfast spot as popular as this one you could go to jail for that. But when in Rome…so I ate the whole thing not without repressing some anxiety regarding what all that trans-fat would do to my almost middle-aged body. The other customers were all ordering without the slightest sign of concern chinese breakfast and other eggs/pork/bacon/fried potatoes combinations and none looked terminally ill to be honest.

The sweetest part was a little girl of around 6, eating at the counter with her dad a poached egg and wearing amazing red cowboy boots under her very preppy grey coat. I took a picture because she looked adorable (and very fashion conscious).


Red boots for breakfast

Short before lunchtime we left the city to start our journey toward Los Angeles. First stop, the Silicon Valley. Husband was over excited by simply looking at street signs: Palo Alto, Sand Hill Road, Cupertino…it’s his personal Disneyland. He dropped me in the middle of nowhere to get to a meeting on time and I walked, and walked, surrounded by serious-looking office buildings and blossoming cherry trees (cheer up, Europeans, spring still exists). Some baseball (or was that football? I only know soccer so don’t be mad) fields later I spotted a Starbucks and basically ran there, my raft in this hi-tech sea.


Cherry blossoms and hi-tech offices

Then, suddenly, I was enlightened. Sitting in the corner of a Stanford Starbucks, I got it: flipping pancakes on bacon fat doesn’t matter here because none is thirty yet. Not even 25, I guess. For the past 4 days I had an hard time trying to spot anyone my age or older. They’re all super young, look super bright (I could feel an “underachiever and stupid” growing on my forehead just by listening at their conversations) and dress like Mark Zuckerberg. So I wondered: did he set a dirty-looking tee/bermudas/thong trend and all those young students and techies are just imitating him out of desperate hope to become as successful or he’s just the by-product of Silicon Valley nursing?

I still had one, simple question. What do you do to old people? Do you shoot them on their 30th birthday? Do you send them away on a special plane once they enter the reproductive phase of their life and start having concerns about clogged arteries, sagging skin and urban safety?

And a few miles later I got my answer. We stopped on the highway around Portola Valley and had something to eat before hitting the road again. We sat on the terrace and watched. Dozens of cars followed ours. Old people at the wheel. Old like white-hair/white poodle/fanny pack old. Here they are. Hidden somewhere on the hills, in low houses covered in green, sitting on a shabby-chic bench in the front garden. Big SUV filled with baseball-capped kids and hockey mums came in at the same time. I guess it was the friday afternoon errands time. I felt relieved (that they don’t shoot you after 30 in the Silicon Valley) and terrified (that they confine you in suburbs) at the same time. Wisteria Lane, it’s not exactly my thing.

A couple of hours of fog later we arrived in Big Sur and went for a Carmel Wheat beer. A beautiful 20 years old waitress warned us:

“Do you know that Carmel and Big Sur are among the 1001 places to see before you die?”.

Fine. We did it. Death may come today. 


Naples? No. The original say goes: “See Carmel, have a beer and die”. Cheers.