By Antonio Malara
The dream to visit California comes into reality in November 2012. To be honest my goal was to see Los Angels while my destination was actually San Diego. I had the chance to stay there for almost one month so I thought I had the time to visit even my dream city. The whole travel was actually an “invite” from one of my friend who went there for a six months work project so I could live with him in his house. I didn’t know anything about San Diego but I accepted the offer, I was also aware that once there I should have explored the city by myself because my friend would have been with me only during the weekends. I studied the city and I booked my flight but something went wrong. My itinerary was from Rome to New York then another plane to San Diego. Unfortunately there was an hurricane expected in New York right at the same time I should have arrived. In other words before to leave, the airline called me telling me that they canceled the flights and I had to postpone the departure. It was mid November and I was ready, once in New York I had to change terminal which hadn’t an indoor connection and I froze because I had clothes for the sunny California. I can’t forget the flight from New York to San Diego for two reasons; it was the first time for me in which I slept for the whole flight but when I woke up the captain said that the San Diego airport was closed because of fog, we would have landed in the Ontario airport. When we arrived I found out that Ontario airport was “only” two hours away from San Diego but it was ok, there’s were two bus waiting there to bring us to our destination.
Outside the airport in San Diego there was an organized taxi line and I waited my turn. My driver was a funny short men in his fifties, he set my baggages in the back and we left. That night was the Election Day in USA and when I asked to the taxi driver who won, he replied with disappointment: Mr. Obama. Beside talking about politics he also gave me some tricks and tips about San Diego. It was past dinner time when he dropped me outside the residence, I thanked him and I entered inside, it was big with real roads on both sides. I didn’t walk for so long and in a while I met my friend who was waiting for me outside the home. I set my stuff in the room and we had a long conversation with my friend, he also gave me others tips and I was ready to start the exploration the next day.
I lived in a residence near the SDCCU stadium and I was so lucky to have the trolley station just few steps away of it. The trolley is a public transportation which is nothing more than a modern tram, it was on the surface at my station but little bit ahead of it, was on pylons. Thanks to that it was possible to see all the neighborhoods of the valley. At some point before the interstate 5 the trolley turns on the left and it starts to go down to the city. I used to stop at the Santa Fe Depot station, it was there that I started my exploration. This station is a structure in Victorian style with a double dome on the front and arches all along one of its rectangular side. Has been built in 1915 and the style is so old fashion, really beautiful. I remember I saw it while was doing my research about San Diego and I’ve been so fascinated by it when I saw it for real. I have to say that I don’t like how they developed the area around it, even if there’s a small green space, the structure is between a big road with tracks all around. Personally I would have built a park, at least in one side so it was possible to enjoy a public space surrounded by this beautiful structure.
Broadway St. was one of biggest and central way, walking all along I saw skyscrapers here and there, they were not so tall but with a nice design. It was cool to see this buildings alternating by blocks made up only by one floor structures. One thing I noticed immediately when I turned to another street was the fact that the downtown was empty. Despite there were restaurants and offices there was no one around, just some people here and there. When I arrived to the Gaslamp Quarter same situation, no life at all, probably because it was late morning. In fact the Gaslamp Quarter (which is one of the oldest neighborhood), is more a place for entertainment so is populated during the night life. The neighborhood was full of stores, restaurants and clubs with many old “one floor” structures.
At the end of Gaslamp you’re right in front of the Convention Center which is separated by train and trolley tracks plus the road, is tricky to cross by walking because of the many stop lights. The cool thing is that there’s a modern bridge which is for the pedestrians only. What I notice there it was the opposite of was I saw at the Santa Fe Depart. On the corner of the fifth avenue with the tracks they developed a better urban space in my opinion. Here there’s more green, the trolley station has a nice design and many palm trees surrounded by green don’t let you notice the ugly tracks. The Convention Center which has the roads and tracks in one side, it has a big park on the other part of the structure. To get to the bridge I took a street which allowed me to go near the Petco Park. This was the stadium which host the baseball team, it is a structure built in visible bricks with some parts of the tribunes which have also a design function. The Harbor Drive (this is the name of the bridge) has a tall, inclined pillar in the center which look like a monolith fallen from the sky, it’s hard from me to understand under which principle it keeps the structure. When you’re on the bridge right in the center, is possible to see the tracks splits the Convention Center from the downtown on the north side and multiple train tracks with the Coronado Bridge in the background (little tiny view to be honest) to the south side. The inclined design is also present in some details on the bridge like the metal brackets that support the safety net. I crossed it taking pics in both sides and once I went down from the stairs I was in a big green park.
I spent some time walking around the Convention Center Park, but actually it wasn’t the only one there. Once I moved to the Embarcadero Marina Park it was full of green space, I spent time all near the Park South. Right in this areas is possible to see the biggest boats, they’re really luxurious, I took some pics here before to go right in the South Park. Here there’s a nice view over the other small boats, behind them the Convention Center and its large flight of steps. I was curious about it and I went right below to see them closer. I don’t know what they wanted to communicate with this tall and large flight of steps beyond its function but I have to say that it’s impressive. Looks like a tribute to something glorious, I think that someone could use this place to shoot a movie scene like the one in Rocky.
Even here at the Embarcadero there’s wasn’t so much people, someone was running someone was just walking, maybe I was one of the few tourists. Despite this I immediately liked the big area, step by step I arrived in a zone which was full of restaurants and stores, they were inside nice houses made out of wood. Alongside this tiny houses there were also skyscrapers but the “village” still had its personality.
I stopped here for lunch because it was really nice and calm, after that I started to walk again and I saw another cool structure. It was a house in wood which was entirely over the sea, like a pier. Even if the outside didn’t look so good, it was really cool even because it was a restaurant so I thought it was nice to have a date dinner there. Walking beside the port area, I was almost back to the station. Before to arrive to the main port I saw the USS San Diego Memorial, this is a monument made out of marble dedicated to a glorious war ship. If you look at it from a certain distance it resembles the front of a ship, when you’re close it’s just a series of monoliths with inscriptions on them.
The real big thing there was the USS Midway, this was an aircraft carrier of the United States Navy. It operated for almost fifty years since the WW II. The big ship which also have many aircrafts on top, is now a museum permanently docked in a pier at the San Diego downtown port. It was my first time in front of such ship, it was so big, I walked on both sides taking pics from different angles. The best part was the one on the rear because it possible to get really close to it and the edges of the ship almost covers you.
I was again at Santa Fe Station but I knew that there was something missing in the downtown. In other words I was looking for some people, some place where people meet each other. I started to take some parallel ways of the street I took in the morning, I tried many and I walked a lot till I found the Horton Plaza. This is a huge mall but not the one we normally see in other cities this was different because it was designed to spend time outside. Of course here it was full of people and later I understood the principles of this kind of structures. In Southern California is alway hot and sunny so they use to design malls that are actually some kind of small towns. The Horton Plaza had the facades in many different colors and two roads cut the structure in two pieces. There were like three squares, of course all around were stores, cafes and restaurants. I noticed that in San Diego people use to meet here, that place it was the artificial version of the old squares that we have in Italy, not for the design but for their function of places for interactions between people. So the downtown wasn’t a desert, it just had a different lifestyle, what I also noticed was the fact that people was open to conversations. Some people stopped me to talk and it was easy to have a smile back looking at someone.
Coronado is a big residential peninsula just in front of the downtown San Diego, it’s connected to the mainland by a strip of land (even if the land is all along the coast, the connection is in the south side of the city). This place is popular for hosting the famous Hotel Del Coronado and for its big Naval Base area.
From the downtown is possible to go to Coronado by the “Coronado Bridge” or in a classic way through the Ferris. For my first visit I decided to make a trip using the ferry which left from The Broadway Pier just near the Santa Fe Station. So even my new trip started in the same way as I visited downtown, once in Santa Fe, I just crossed the big road and I reached the pier.
Cruising by the sea is nice experience especially for pictures. When we left the pier I could have the best view about all the area, we started passing behind the USS Midway so I also saw the front side of the aircraft carrier. The cruising continued on the side of the San Diego Embarcadero, here I took pictures with this new view and in a short time the ferry was in the middle of the sea. Right here is possible to see the entire bridge from its side, there’s not other chance for this view. Before approaching the other side I completed my job taking pics to the beach and the structures near the pier in Coronado.
The area around the pier was really cool, lots of green and beautiful restaurants, I planned to visit those places on the return trip so after that, I went on Orange Avenue. This is a four-lane road with trees in the middle and it practically cut the peninsula in two from one side to the other. I walked stopping for pictures every time I saw a nice house. Along the way there was also the Spreckles Park, it was so green with tall trees and a nice gazebo in the middle.
At the corner with the 10th street I went straight through the Star Park to reach the beach. This place was huge, I reached right the part of dunes which were big. In that point it was possible to sea lots aircrafts due to the near base, they were really close and noisy. Despite was November there were some people in the middle of the beach but of course they were there for walking not for sunbathing.
Just a few step away from the dunes, you have on your left side the masterpiece of the “Hotel Del Coronado”. Few steps away because the hotel area is so big that it extends all along the visible beach. This hotel, built at the end of the nineteenth century, is a wooden Victorian style structure, all white with red roof. The hotel is not a “fort” so it is possible to see part of the structure just walking along the beach. The part which take more attention and identify the hotel is the “Rotunda”, this is a circular tower which breaks the linear design of the structure. I walked all around the the hotel and I end up at the Glorietta Bay which is it is a natural inlet turned into a tourist port.
Here I have to stop and tell a story about the Hotel Del Coronado: this place is featured in the movie “Gentleman Prefers Blondes”. I love so much Billy Wilder and that movie and I remember that I liked so much the scenes which take place in the hotel, that I really wanted to see the place. In the movie the hotel it supposed to be in Florida and maybe because is in black & white this confused me. The point is that after I watched the movie for the first time I forgot to investigate about the hotel. When I planned the trip to San Diego I saw this hotel as an attraction but I didn’t realize it was the one featured in the movie. You can imagine my reaction when time later I watched again “Gentleman Prefers Blondes”.
On my way back I decided to take the B Avenue, which ends at the Coronado beach, this street is a parallel of the Orange Avenue, the one I took at the beginning of my walk. I stopped here for lunch then I started again my exploration. Just there in the area there’s the Centennial Park, this place is cool not for the beauty itself but because from here is possible to have the best view over the San Diego skyline, I tried to do may best taking pics hoping to bring home the one that could identify the city.
From here I went back to the pier area and I took the sidewalk to reach the Tidelands Park. This walk is really beautiful you have the sea by one side and condos on the other side, lots of tall palm trees leads the way. On this path is also possible to have the best view over the Coronado bridge, this was probably better than the one from the ferry. The park impresses for is large green space but there’s nothing about design there, except for some fields for sport.
I decided that for my first visit to Coronado could be enough, I went back to the pier and I took the ferry to the downtown. Despite I walked all the time I back in the center that the sun was still up so I decided to see another place which was planned for another day.
Walking on broadway avenue I turned on the left on India St. going straight on this road you arrive in Little Italy. The place welcomes you with a sign like the one in Gaslamp but with “Little Italy” on it. All around there were one floor structures of different colors, most of them were restaurants of course. It was before sunset and this time I saw more people than the other places, I was curious to try one of those restaurants but I already had lunch and it was too early for dinner. Little Italy is near the airport or more precisely on the route of the plans so it’s easy to see lots of planes landing just above the houses, this was the most interesting thing there. After I finished my tour I back home taking the trolley on the near station.
Another famous thing about California are its roads especially the freeways. With my friend we decided to experience this, renting a car, in this way we could also have seen some of the places which were little far away from San Diego. I have to say that I felt uncomfortable driving on those big roads, I’m used to drive my car passing really close to the other ones even those which comes from the opposite direction. It’s was so strange for me to follow all the lines on the ground, I was too savage for that, I noticed that most of the time, being on the right line, it meant taking a new road without knowing it. This because the roads were so large. “Step by step” I understood the basics of the various signposting.
One of the destination to reach by car was La Jolla. This town it’s around 20 km away from San Diego, it’s a wealthy community, in which the beautiful homes dominates the ocean from a cliff. Fortunately the road to get there wasn’t so tricky, from our home we had to change freeways only a couple of times. We left the car in Prospect St. which was one of the Main Street then we started walking toward the beach. I immediately had a good impression about the town even while I was driving, lots of beautiful houses, clean streets, and everything organized. We went down on Girand Avenue, this street is large with tall palm trees on the sides but instead of following the road on the right we went straight to see the “Rocky Point” area. This park has a natural beauty, I mean it’s when nature shape the places in a perfect way. This park which is also wide, it extends on a cliff over the ocean, the view from here is simply perfect. In addition to this the park itself is well maintained, the grass was so green and cut at the right level. All around beside some big birds walking and flying, there were lots people. It was easy to spot the tourists like me who were there taking pictures and the locals who were enjoying the area reading, sunbathing or just walking on the grass.
We left the park and we keep walking to reach the “La Jolla Cove”, this is a large creek mixed of different things. There’s part of beach, there are rocks and the colors changes from beige to red and then green for the presence of large layers of seaweed. Looking the place from above, we cloud enjoy the view of dozens of sea lions. Most of them were on the rocky part of the place and they made such a strange but funny sound, I think I shoot a video just to record that. When we had enough view from above we decided to go down to explore a singular part of the area. In fact there was a part which looked like a moon landscape, it was that kind of rocky strips, with a sand color which looked soft due to its composition and shape. We spent time there taking pics because the place deserved and after that we went up again. We walked a little bit to north direction till another promontory. From there it was possible to see the other part of the cost, really beautiful with the hills perpendicular over the ocean. We went back to Prospect St. looking at the beautiful houses, which were full of windows, they had to have a wonderful view from there, I thought how cool it must have been to wake up in the morning with such landscape.
On Prospect St, there was “The La Jolla Historical Society Wisteria Cottage Museum”, I didn’t know about, I just saw it from the car when we were arriving. The museum had a beautiful modern design, on the entrance there were many short columns while the structure had a lots of windows. It looked like a one floor structures but it was on the edge of the hill so I thought that maybe it had other floors which weren’t visible from the street. I think that the interior it had to be nice too, unfortunately we hadn’t planned to visit it. Across the museum there was “St. James by the sea Episcopal Church”, it was a small and nice church with a single tower all white with some yellow stripes, it reminded me to some Spanish church, even here we just had a look from the outside.
Despite we had nice time in La Jolla, we left after we saw the church, I don’t remember if there was a reason or we just underestimated the place. It would have been smarter to stop there for lunch and after that walking from store to store for souvenirs.
Ocean Beach was the second place we went by car. It was closer than La Jolla so I thought easier to drive till there but I was wrong. This time we took the ramp and at least two other exits and raps till the town, so little bit tricky compared to La Jolla. The reason behind our visit there was the fact said by many people that in Ocean Beach there were unbelievable sunsets.
When we arrived we parked in Abbott St. which was just beside the beach. We didn’t know anything about Ocean Beach except that it was a beachfront neighborhood of San Diego famous for its sunset. When we left the car we immediately noticed the pier, this structure was behind my expectations compared to the view I saw on google maps. The pier was so long and it went deeply inside the sea, it was also large. Near the end, the pier split in other two “pieces” one on the left and one on the right, also this other two sections were long. While I was walking on it I realized the dimensions of this structure, probably normal for the people who lived there but insane for me. It was early for the sunset so we decided to walk the whole pier till the end. We turned on the left to the other section and here looking back to the city we had another proof about how long it was. The houses from there were jus tiny, it was possible to see the whole shining coast. We went back to find the best place where to stand for taking pictures of the sunset. I decided for half way of the main pier, in this way I could also feature in the frame the left side of the final part of the pier. Finally the the bright sun went in the sea making its transition into a sunset. At the beginning there was a four colors shades, light blue, orange, red in the sky and dark blue near the sea. The shades were beautiful but more or less the same thing that you can see during a sunset. The incredible thing about that sunset weren’t the colors but how wide they were. The view was incredible, the whole line of the horizon was filled with this colors, it was impossible to catch them in one sight, to see all the sunset you should choose one side and move you head to the other one. I live in city on the beach and we also have beautiful sunsets but normally it forms an arch on the horizon, it takes only a fraction of the landscape. So in Ocean Beach I learned another lesson, in this case the concept “beautiful sunset” had multiple interpretations and I was happy to find out that kind that I never saw before.
Before to left the neighborhood we had a walk to discover it. I immediately noticed that that part of Ocean Beach was more populated than other part of San Diego. Unfortunately the spirit of the town was too much bohemian, lots of people drinking and talking loudly outside the bar, the streets were little bit dirty and at some point a saw an hostel that seemed to come out of the seventies. A big “peace” sing was in the center of the structure and the facade looked in a bad condition.
For some strange reason I found easier to drive back home, maybe it was just a feeling or maybe I was starting to get familiar with that kind of roads.
The Balboa Park is a huge park in the heart of the city, here there are the major museums and also the San Diego Zoo. This was the last place we visited by the car. This was also the easiest way to drive through, only a couple of exits from our house. The access the park was through “El Prado”, a beautiful way which started as a bridge over the freeway and it went under one the main building of the park. We really went under the structure which is formed by the California Tower, The San Diego Museum of Man on the left and the St. Francis Chapel on the right. We turned on the right on the first corner and we left the car in a parking lots which was on the south side of the park. Here we saw a big outdoor theater named “Spreckels Organ Pavillon“, it had a strange effect because it was totally empty, just chairs all around. We went back to the Plaza de Panama Fountain, this square with the fountain in the middle, divides El Prado in two, one side it the access for cars and the other side is the street for pedestrians.
This way is so beautiful because the sidewalks are surrounded by colorful flowers, plants and trees, it was a nice effect to see. The first structure we saw in this area was the Botanical Building, a large lath structure, it had lots of green around and in front of it a big rectangular pond. After we stopped here for pictures and see it from the outside, we went on to see the others nearby buildings. These structures manly hosted museums and they were in Spanish Colonial Revival Architecture Style, really beautiful with a sand color tone and the reliefs on the facades. Thanks to this kind of architecture and all the colors around, the street in this part gave me an exotic mood, I had the impression to be in another place, like when I was on the roof of the Predera in Barcelona. We didn’t visit the museums in the inside but we just admired them and we kept going on the street. This ended on “The Bea Evenson Fountain”, a big and circular fountain with a “geyser” in the middle.
We went back through a parallel road which passed again in front of the Botanical Building, after a little time here we went to visit the “Alcazar Garder” which was near the entrance. This grades are really beautiful not only for the colorful plants. In fact along with the flowers and trees there was another perspective element which gave a unique beauty. The garden were rectangular and from one side the colorful view was improved by the California Tower in the background. We didn’t go close to the area of the tower but I think that the view from that angle of the garden was even better because of the various colors of the plants combined with the tower architecture.
Before to left the place we went to the entrance by walking. I wanted to see the view from the bridge over the freeway. From here looking from the south side there was a view of the downtown San Diego, it was partial and I have to say that the view impressed me more for its height, than the landscape itself.
I liked the visit to the Balboa Park, this place was full of people who was enjoying the park in many ways. This green space was cool for walking or jus relaxing but that kind of architecture merged with the green was a plus. Normally we have a different idea of park, with only grass and trees, this one was super colorful with asphalted roads and exotic architecture.
Old town San Diego is a neighborhood where was born the first European settlement, the architecture is in colonial style which reminds the old western movies. The place was relatively close to my home, I used to get there by trolley and the stop was after the long turn on the left that the trolley used to do to get to the Downtown. Old Town still maintains its original style and this is the reason why I like it so much. The main things inside this area (which is literally like one of those town you see in western movies) are the Old Town State Historic Park, The Presidio Park, almost all its buildings and “Festa de Reyes”.
Walking inside the town was a cool experience, near the entrance there was the big square “Plaza de Las Armas”, the road around it is in cement but it’s easy to find small street which are dirt road. For me was the first time in a town like that, the “western” building were restaurants, stores, while the big ones hosted museums. It was nice to explore the stores, most of them were about souvenirs but there were also some with interesting handicraft items. While I was walking I found the most beautiful building in my opinion, it was “The Cosmopolitan Hotel Restaurant”. This was a two floors rectangular structure surrounded by a patio, the nice thing was that the waitress was serving the tables in a nineteenth-century outfits. Just near the Cosmopolitan there was a small ranch with an ancient caravan on the outside. For a moment a felt in another century waiting for some sherif on his horse or for Rossella O’Hara to come out from the restaurant. Another building which seemed to come out from a movie was the “Seeley Stable Museum” but the best area of the town was the “Festa de Reyes”. An arch was at the entrance of this area which was a small town inside a the old town. Here it was full of restaurants, stores, there was also a stage for concert of representations. All this was surrounded by plants, flowers an tall palm trees, in the central part there were tables for dining. The place had colorful impact, it was full of people all around giving a peaceful mood in the area.
I visited Old Town many times all by myself. As I said, in San Diego was hard to find people in the city because of big spaces, people used to meet in malls and in some areas like the Old Town. This is one of the reasons why I liked this place, it was nice to come here for shopping, walking and have conversations inside the stores. The plus of doing all this was the design of the place, with a little bit of fantasy it was possible live it like if I was back in time, because the town didn’t look fake at all.
It seems stupid to mention a mall as one of the most important place of the city but not if it’s here in California. The Fashion Valley more than a huge mall, was a small shopping city. City because like the Horton Plaza, was designed to live it outside. Here there were also the big fashion designers stores so it was the main place even for wealthy people.
The fashion Valley was just a few trolley stops away from my house and I used to go there so often. The mall was big and well designed on multiple floors, like the other people I went there to meet people and have conversations with someone. The idea of this mall as a place for interactions between people wasn’t bad if I wasn’t the only option. What I mean is that this format should be a plus while it was the only solution. To be honest it was sad for me to see all the young generation coming to the Fashion Valley for interactions.
So if from one side the mall was beautiful for its design, it was bad as a concept, I still prefer real square in historical city as a place to meet people or hanging out.
The Mission San Diego de Alcalá
I don’t remember as I discovered the Mission, probably on my research about San Diego, despite this place was close to my home I decided to visit for last and I mean two days before to left the city. It was two trolley stops away from my place and once at the station, ten minutes of walking to reach it.
The Mission San Diego de Alcalá was the first Franciscan mission founded in California by a Spanish priest in the 1769. This mission has a long story and the actual one was rebuilt in the 19th century. I decided to visit it because I liked some pics of the facade which reminds me some old churches featured in old movies. The mission is on a hill and it’s really beautiful, it was possible to see its ancient for both its design and unfortunately for its conditions, which were not so good. The white facade has a tower bells on the left which reminds to a pyramid, there were a total of five bells positioned of group of two with one in top. On the right side a long patio brought till the end of its side. When I was under the patio I saw a sign which explained the Mission history and from some gates I could see a room, It was probably an old bedroom. Walking all along I saw that archaeological excavations were in progress in the gardens. Outside the mission and along the patio it was full of colorful flowers, plus there was the presence of long palm trees. The mission was really nice unfortunately the poetic view was interrupted by the parking lots full of cars which was beside the patio.
I didn’t plan to visit it inside but if I remember correctly it was closed or I was there in the wrong time. It was nice anyway because I remember that I visited the mission as my good bye to San Diego, as a last memories I wanted something ancient instead of a modern one.
During my time in San Diego I went out at evening and at night, sometimes to capture the city on pictures sometimes just for hanging out. Despite I’ve been there one month I didn’t take advantage about the nightlife. I went a couple of time in Gaslamp and for what I saw it was a good place for entertaining. Unfortunately I can’t give a good rate about it but I promise that if I’ll back in San Diego I will live mostly at night as I usually do in my trips.
What else to say about my time in this beautiful city? Well has been for me a wonderful experience, it felt great to explore San Diego by myself most of time, melting with the city and the people I met. This is exactly the way I like to visit a place, some destinations on a map, a camera and a lot of walking. Probably at that time I wasn’t so “savage” to push my limits, sometime I was afraid of visiting some places alone. If it was today with the experience I did in all this years of traveling, it would be different. I don’t have regrets, those were my limits at that time and I’m happy for what I did. I liked my time there and I really miss San Diego, I have not plans to go there again but I can back anytime just looking at my pictures.
Pictures: Antonio Malara
Camera: Nikon D800