Portland Oregon, capital of weird…..and Powell’s City of Books.

Many cities around the world have slogans that they identify with for example Los Angeles is “City of Angels”…..although I’m not sure how angelic L.A. is. Portland has a rather strange one – it’s “Keep Portland Weird!” Actually I found Portland quite delightful.

There you have it… the weird side of Portland.

First of all Portland is a foodie’s paradise. The food is some of the best, by which I mean locally grown, freshest and tastiest that I have had anywhere on my travels. Secondly they revere the art of making great coffee….and thirdly they have some awesome boutique breweries. Add to this trio, scenic surrounding natural wilderness, parks and formal gardens, a farmers market, a huge weekly art and craft market on the riverside and a great range of boutique shops and department stores to satisfy the most demanding shopper and you would think that Portland has it all.

BUT the crowning glory of Portland has to be the ultimate in bookstores – Powell’s City of Books – which occupies an entire city block and houses around a million books displayed in 3,500 sections in 9 colour-coded rooms, over several floors. When I say rooms I mean massive rooms of warehouse size.

I am a huge book lover….not that I am large and overweight….nor that I like over sized books….but you know what I mean. I’m a bibliophile. You’d think therefore that a store like Powell’s would have been a delight for me to wander through – right? Actually I was overwhelmed by the vastness of the place and the selection of books was mind blowing. It was sensory overload for book lovers. After a half hour of moving quickly – running like a headless chicken – with no real meaning or goal, I managed to calm down and slow down enough to start taking things in and having a proper look around. Up on the top floor…I think it was the top floor…was an amazing selection of books on photography, art, design and architecture. The phrase “spoiled for choice” doesn’t even cover it. Some of the prices were “up there”, but many were a lot cheaper than I’d be able to access at home in New Zealand. It was such a pity that having to fly home meant strict weight restrictions and so ruled out many of the large format picture books that I would otherwise have selected.

Powell’s have a computer screens and keyboards throughout the store enabling access to their huge catalogue of books. Key in the title of a book or an authors name and the computer will tell you the room and rack of books where they can be located. In the end I think I bought maybe 4 or 5 books from Powell’s, as did my wife. This sounds pitiful when there were a million titles at our disposal, but we’d already “shopped ’til we dropped” in the book stores of San Francisco so space, or more exactly weight, available for extra books in our suitcases was minimal. I’d love to take another trip there, this time with an empty case!

Unfortunately we were only there for one weekend, but if you read on you’ll see that we squeezed in quite a lot during our brief stay in the capital of weird.

One place we wanted to go to we pre-booked before leaving San Francisco. That was Stumptown Coffee Roastery. We’d booked in there for a guided coffee tasting….or coffee cupping also known as spooning….but not the cuddling kind.

We arrived early and were shown to a waiting area where we could sit on comfortable sofas and try hot coffee from a pumps….or iced coffees from the refrigerator. Wow what a choice there was. Also in the same area were a collection of old style coffee machines. All chrome and absolutely wonderful. By the time we were shown through to the “cupping” area I was already wired on caffeine.

We had maybe 15 people or so in our tasting group and the young lady who led the tasting was friendly and extremely knowledgeable. First of all she laid out about a dozen different coffee bean blends and we could examine the bean and smell it’s aroma. Next came the ground coffee…again to sniff at while dry. Then the hot water was added and we went along the line sniffing at each cup just after the water had been added and again after a few minutes…the difference in aroma was very noticeable. Finally we got to taste the various coffees. Some very mild…moving through mid range…to rich and strong. The tasting was done by taking a spoon – a cupping spoon…a little like a shallow soup spoon – and then slurping the coffee from it to make sure the flavour goes all around the mouth. You could choose to spit out the coffee or swallow….now where have I heard that before? We also got to know all about how they source their beans from all over the world – predominantly Africa and South America. It was quite a fascinating afternoon. My preference was toward the stronger, richer, chocolatey end. But having said that, I also liked a couple of the milder brews. The aftertaste flavours were almost peachy.

We hit a number of micro-breweries and bars to sample the amber nectar, and sometimes the almost chocolatey nectar too. One bar we went in, and I can’t for the life of me remember the name, had a deliciously rich chocolate Porter. Never have I tasted one so delicious. Another one called 10 Barrel Brewing had a tasting board where you could try all 10 brews. My son and daughter-in-law had a go at those while my wife and I settled for a pint. I must say, whilst in Portland, I didn’t meet a beer that wasn’t delicious.

The cafes were marvelous too – excellent coffees served at every single one we went to. Heart coffee/café was probably the best. But it would be a tight run thing as there were so many delicious cups of coffee consumed over the 3 days of our trip.

Another thing that Portland is famous for is donuts. If you want quality donuts try Blue Star Donuts, but if you want to put the weird into Portland’s donuts you have to go to Voodoo Doughnut. The choice of toppings for your donut is mind boggling. I went for the Portland Cream – basically a cream filled chocolate covered one. Very YUM! But you’ll see from the photo below that there are some odd toppings. They are very popular and we had to line up outside the shop for fifteen minutes or so before being served.

Evening dining saw us dining in a couple of restaurants. My favourite was Besaw’s. It was kind of 50’s style with high backed green leather booths. Excellent food…tasty and ample sizes…and the staff were attentive and friendly. I hate going to restaurants where you order your meal…a steak maybe, along with the several items that come with it…only for it to arrive at the table to look small and lost, sitting alone in the middle of a plate with swirls of ‘Jus’ around it and 3 little cubes of something, artistically placed to one side. The waiter comes along and asks “How did you find your steak sir?”….the reply – “I moved a pea and there it was!” They then sting you extra for ‘sides’ of potatoes and veg. Not here at Besaws. You order a meal and you get a meal. The bottle of 2014 Pinot Noir to accompany the meal, from Angela Estate in Oregon, was rich and delicious. And takes the award for best wine I tried whilst in Portland.

We never made it to the Farmers Market, but did get to the Saturday arts and crafts market by the riverside. Lot and lots of stalls to wander around all selling hand made items…plus the usual buskers and food stalls. Some of the prices were ‘up there’ though, due to the poor exchange rate with the NZ Dollar.

I was also very impressed by some of the murals on the side of buildings. Excellent quality art. And there was a wide range of architecture….the old and new sitting side by side.

The only thing that let Portland down was the weather. One day was sunny but two days showery and cloudy. I guess that’s what you get in the Pacific North West. Fortunately it was a fine day when we explored Portland’s parks and gardens. The Shakespeare gardens with it’s Rose Garden was beautiful, high on a hill overlooking the city….and would have been even better if the roses had been in bloom! We were maybe a month early. Afterwards we had a wander along a little trail through woodland back down to the city…..eating Blue Star Donuts along the way.

Weird or not, Portland Oregon is a great place to visit for a weekend…..but be warned, if you’re a book lover, you need a week to explore Powell’s Book Shop.

I saved the best to last. Cinque Terre. Part 3 – Vernazza. A photographic journey.

Vernazza village – Cinque Terre’s crown
Pastel houses cling to cliff tops
Steep streets take us down
Into the winding narrows
, of Vernazza’s heart
And from this place of beauty
You will never want to part.

Vernazza is a sight to behold. It’s a photographer’s dream and also a photographer’s nightmare. It’s such a lovely place, scenic, colourful – that it’s almost a sin if, as a photographer, you take a bad picture of it. Not even a bad picture….just a picture that doesn’t reflect the full beauty of the place. It’s so difficult to capture…my photos don’t do it justice (in reality the colours are so bright they “ping”)…you must go and visit yourself.

Sure it’s a little shabby in places. Some of the buildings have paint peeling from their facades but it’s a kind of shabby beauty….beauty with age maybe. I loved it here. I spent so long wandering the streets, in and out of alleys and buildings, that I missed out on the final 2 of the Cinque Terre’s villages. But it was worth it.

From the train station you can either wander straight down to the little harbour – the heart and soul of Vernazza – from which everything else radiates, OR do as we did and climb upwards instead. Up the steep stone stairways and narrow paths that bring you out on the hilltop above the village, with spectacular views over the church steeple and down to the harbour of this gorgeous little fishing village. It was exhausting but well worth the climb to the top. Only after drinking in the beauty of the place from this vantage point did we venture down into Vernazza proper.

When in a catholic country like Italy you can’t help but notice the churches and religious icons – especially in these small villages – dotted here and there in quiet corners. A chance to pass on your thanks to the powers that be…..if that’s what your beliefs are….or just enjoy the moments solitude away from the tourist throngs.

Of all 5 villages of Cinque Terre, Vernazza is the only one with a natural port. It has no car traffic either which, if you can get there early and beat the other eager tourists, adds a special tranquility to the place.

Cinque Terre part 2 – Riomaggiore village – a photographic journey.

Riomaggiore is the first of the villages you’ll meet if you approach Cinque Terre from La Spezia. It isn’t, in my opinion, the most beautiful of the villages but is still very pretty and very much worth visiting.

From the railway station you can either, follow the coastal path around a headland to get to the village, or take a short cut through a pedestrian tunnel that takes you directly into the heart of the village. Although the coastal path is picturesque and rugged, on a hot day like it was when we visited, the cool of the tunnel is the preferred route.

The villages of Cinque Terra. Part 1. Manarola – A photographic journey.

Since my last post – a black and white photographic journey through Paris – was so well supported I thought I’d try you all with some colour photos of the villages of Italy’s Cinque Terre. The villages are such a riot of colour that it would not do justice to their beauty if I presented photos in black and white.

The villages of Cinque Terre cling to the rocky cliff face along the north west coast of Italy. The can be accessed either by rail – from the nearby city of La Spezia – just 10 minutes by train to the south, or by following the pathway cut into the cliff face. The railway and the pathway link all five villages that make up the Cinque Terre. I thought that I’d be able to get some spectacular photos from the train as we made our way along the rugged coastline…..BUT – there’s always a BUT – because of the physical limitations of the geography here, the railway cuts through many, many tunnels so glimpses of the ocean are few and far between. However, the villages, as we discovered on departing the train, more than made up for the disappointment of the journey.

The buildings are close together due to the physical limits of the geography of the area and are painted in beautiful pastel colours. We spent a day exploring just 3 of the 5 villages. Here is a look in pictures at the second smallest of the five villages – Manarola.

Photography gallery at Pier 24 – San Francisco.

Those of you who followed the blog of my backpacking trip around the UK and Europe will know that I usually have no luck at all when it comes to visiting photography galleries. I either visit on a day that they are closed, are between exhibits…or in one case… had moved premises. However thanks to the internet and Mr Google….and making an on-line booking I was able to visit and view photos at Pier 24 Photography.

Pier 24 Photography is a non-profit art museum located on the Port of San Francisco directly under the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge. The organization houses the permanent collection of the Pilara Foundation, which collects, preserves and exhibits photography. It’s free to visit and view the exhibitions here, but to limit overcrowding they only allow a restricted number of visitors each day, so an on-line reservation is needed. See their website for details –
https://pier24.org/visit/

The current exhibition is called “This Land” which is a snapshot of life in the USA. The exhibition’s title is drawn from Woody Guthrie’s song “This Land Is Your Land” (1940) and features work by some of the best and most well known photographers around – such as Bruce Gilden, who is not only one of America’s best street photographers, but he is also a member of the prestigious Magnum Photo Agency.

The exhibition is housed in a collection of around 18 different rooms, is very well lit and displayed, but still left me feeling a little flat. There were very few photos that I thought were extraordinary…in fact I thought the majority were very ordinary indeed. Bruce Gilden’s contribution was a wall of faces – portraits – of the…and I hate to be unkind here or to be seen to mock the afflicted, but it seemed like he wanted to highlight the freakiest people he could find. He claims that the photos were taken “to try to capture the souls” of those who were captured by his camera.

I’ll pause here and post a few photos of the exterior of the building, the general area, and of course the exhibition and exhibition space its self. Pier 24 is directly underneath the Bay Bridge – I’d hate to be in there during a big earthquake.

Even though they were not -in my opinion – exceptional photos, they do give an insight into the people and places of ordinary America. I’m glad I took the time to visit the gallery but hope that next time…if there is a next time…that I visit, there will be something more inspirational. I am glad and grateful that such a place exists that is dedicated to photography.

I also paid a visit to the galleries at 49 Geary Street – there are round 2 dozen free to visit galleries of various sizes – many of which have the kind of art that I just don’t understand at prices I understand even less. BUT 2 of them have photographic displays. Robert Koch Gallery featured a number of black and white photographs from across the years and by numerous photographers. They were just in the one smallish room but of really good quality and content. The other photo gallery is Fraenkel Gallery currently featuring coloured photos by Alec Soth. They were OK but nothing marvelous. I just wish we were going to be in San Francisco in July for the Lee Friedlander exhibition.

On a mission in the Mission District. Mural Central!

Murals are on just about every building in the Mission District. It’s a bright and colourful, if somewhat run-down part of the city. There are a cross-section of people living here, but it’s a predominantly Hispanic neighbourhood.

There are a few homeless people on the streets and a few “crazies” or people down on their luck talking to themselves. Some of the alleyways have a strong aroma of urine, but over all we felt quite safe walking there and chatted to a few friendly locals along the way. We took the bus from 22nd and Iowa Streets in the Dogpatch to 24th and Bryant Streets in the Mission. Each bus ride costs $2.75 if you pay cash, or you can buy a “Clipper Card”, load it with money and use that on the buses, trains and trams at a discounted $2.50 per ride.

The mission District got its name from the Roman Catholic Mission and Church – the oldest in San Francisco – which can be found on the corner of Dolores and 16th Streets. There is a suggested donation of $7 per adult to take a look inside the original mission building, the gorgeous church next door and the garden and cemetery…..end exit via the obligatory gift shop of course. Photos of the Mission and Church are below.

But now, back to the murals. Our walk took us along 24th Street past Alley Cat Books – which of course we felt the need to explore – and purchase a couple of books. From there we went in and out of side streets and alleys until we turned into Valencia Street. We then followed Valencia all the way down to a small park sandwiched between 19th and 20th Streets. I chose this route because it took us past another two bookshops – Dogeared Books and Borderland’s Books…..but this post is meant to be about the murals. Almost opposite Alley Cat books is Balmy Alley which is literally wall to wall with murals so here are a few of our favourites. There’s even a motorbike that’s covered in paintings.

Here are a few more of the murals from along our walk. Click on the individual photos to expand the photo.

After trudging around the streets and alleys in search of murals, we needed a break to recharge our batteries in a nice green space known as Mission Dolores Park – often shortened to Dolores Park. Bounded by 18th and 20th Streets, we entered off 19th and climbed up the main pathway that divides the park in two. Boy was it steep! The park is very popular for locals and tourists and has views over the central business district. It’s also a popular hangout for the homeless so be on your guard. Most of them are harmless and only looking for somewhere to lay their heads for a while.

We had prepared a picnic lunch, so sat on one of the many benches in the park, ate lunch, enjoyed the views, the occasional aroma of weed wafting by on the breeze and read our books. I will do a separate post about the bookshops in this area and books we bought. Weed, cannabis, marijuana – although still illegal in the USA by Federal law, IS legal in some states (including California) by State law – so plenty of people take advantage of that and use the park to get “mellow”. Here’s a few shots of the park to finish off this post.