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We just returned from a great trip to the Napa Valley.  Although known as the home of many rich and famous, it is possible to travel there on a budget–we did splurge a bit  for us, but after all we don’t do this often.

I knew there were several vineyards in the area, but I had no idea how many–every road, every town, every square inch of land almost, is taken up with vineyards or wineries. Many of the vineyards here are very small with no distribution outside of the local area. I understand why their wines are expensive. As we were there in November, the picking was mostly finished and the vines were a mix of green and yellow. The dry hills were drier than usual due to a two year drought and late start to the rainy season.

When I lived in California for graduate school ( a few ,ugh, many years ago) I was fascinated by these hills. The coastal range is full of scattered trees on dry grassland. Even in this dry season, they are beautiful, contrasted against the vineyards which fill the valley and climb their slopes. Curvy, steep, dead end roads lead up to gated estates high in the hills. Much of the hill land is still vacant and somehow a bit forbidding. Where houses have been built it is easy to see how a fire could sweep through acres of dry grass and timber and fires are a natural feature of chaparral climates like California’s. Some of the buildings are tied to rock, but others are not, and one can picture the results of a devastating flood and mudslides in the hills–should it ever rain again. While most locations used dry weather landscaping with succulents and drought tolerant plants, there were a few watered lawns–a seeming blot on the landscape of our dry produce basket state.

In the town of Napa, many downtown businesses are still closed and boarded up due to earthquake damage from the August quake which had its epicenter in American Canyon, a few miles to the south. Earthquakes, fires and mudslides are endemic to California, but residents consider them part of the cost of living in a year round paradise.

Due to the population density, mass transportation is everywhere and growing. I think we could have managed most of our trip without a rental car, using buses, ferries and light rail.  The traffic is horrible by our standards.  Much of the wine country has only two lane roads. Most of the vineyard and winery workers live to the south and the daily commute out of the valley and into it from the southern urban areas cause major jams.

Within the towns themselves, those not entrapped by hills have wide streets and easy driving.  We visited the town of Santa Rosa with downtown streets full of quaint shops and restaurants. Local food is big here, as it should be and the bar is set high on food quality. While there weren’t many cheap places to eat, there were a lot of excellent mid-priced places. My Sunday lunch included a wonderful fresh crisp salad of romaine,cauliflower, red onions and house made gorgonzola dressing, fresh sourdough bread and a chicken basil panini for about $12. Our first night I had a cup of roasted chicken soup–full of peppers, tomatoes, cheese and cilantro for $5 and it was accompanied by good bread, chips and salsa.

All of the towns were pedestrian friendly with great sidewalks and crosswalks and of course wide bike lanes as well.

Santa Rosa was the final home of Luther Burbank and his gardens live on, free for the viewing thanks to a cadre of volunteers.

Being a bread lover in sourdough country was wonderful. One day we bought a fresh loaf, still warm, along with salami, cheese and grapes from a local market. We had several picnics of such foods, although I was tempted to eat the entire loaf in the car.

I loved the town of Sonoma with its lovely shops. We picnicked in the town square before touring the Mission Museum there. Sonoma was the last and furthest north of the mission settlements.

We went on a San Francisco tour so as to see the maximum and I think it was worth the price. I was ignorant of the Palace of fine Arts–a magnificent structure build for a World’s Fair.

We also visited peninsula towns and toured a bit of the Stanford University campus and the museum there, again having a picnic in a square.

One of the highlights of our trip was visiting our niece and her husband in Redwood City. The house they remodeled is the masterpiece you would expect from a building professional and an interior designer–Northbrook Design is well represented in their warm and welcoming abode.

We returned home on schedule, all flights on time. We were glad to return to our cozy home, but the next day’s cold rain made us just a little bit envious of the climate we had left behind.

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