Category Archives: Uncategorized

A Visit to the Battersea Power Station

The Battersea Power Station was one of London’s most imposing structures in its heyday, which lasted for much of the twentieth century. In the US, and maybe everywhere outside of the UK (and for many people in the UK), it’s most known for its grim, almost fearsome image on the cover of Pink Floyd’s 1977 album Animals. It also has a less high-profile, almost cameo role in classic rock when it can be seen in a shot behind the fictional main character of Quadrophenia in the booklet of photos that accompanied that record.

The cover of Pink Floyd’s Animals.

The Battersea Power Station wasn’t just a prop. It did provide a lot of power for the area from around the 1930s through the 1970s, though by the early 1980s it—or more properly, the two stations comprising what was called Battersea Power Station—was closed. The details are pretty technical and not of such great interest to me and, probably, most readers of this blog, though they’re out there if anyone wants them. Basically technological changes had made the station obsolete, but it was so visually striking that many wanted it preserved somehow.

Again the details of how it endured threats to its survival are available, but I think most rock fans, or even general history fans, are more interested in what it’s like today, and what you can see of it if you’re in London. I’ve been to London more than a dozen times, but didn’t actually visit until July 2023, figuring I should check another landmark off my list.

The Battersea Power Station is still there and does look much like it used to, although it’s nothing to do with power anymore. While it probably owes its survival to hopes to preserve it as an architectural landmark, it’s not quite that now. It’s part landmark with one tourist attraction, but more a supermall of sorts, surrounded by almost frighteningly postmodern buildings that I’m guessing are aiming for high-rent residents and businesses.

Some of the buildings near Battersea Power Station.
Some of the multi-story mall now occupying much of Battersea Power Station.

The four chimneys are still there, but the building’s so big you have a hard time fitting them into one photo, let alone make it look like Animals, unless you have a helicopter or some such thing. I just about fit all four in walking out of the nearby Battersea tube/underground station:

Battersea Power Station as seen from where you exit Battersea tube station.
A different angle from closer to the building can only fit three chimneys.

Something you can do that’s more exciting than checking out the mall—full of retailers offering expensive items of no interest to me—or what remains of its vintage architecture is take an elevator to the top of one of the chimneys. Probably most visitors will find the price (just over fifteen pounds, if you reserve a ticket online) not worth the relatively brief ascent and seven minutes you get for a panoramic view at the top. There’s a small display of the history of the power plant while you wait for the ride that probably holds little interest for most visitors.

As you leave the small history display area and go into the area to start waiting for elevators, flashy graphics show on the wall to ward off impatient boredom.
View looking up as you ascend/descend the elevator.

But hey, you’re in London, you’re interested in Pink Floyd and the Who, and why not do it once, even if you might feel better about spending five pounds instead of fifteen pounds. The panoramic view at the top is nice, even if Battersea Power Station isn’t high enough, and London not riddled with enough skyscrapers or scenic hills and water, to compete with panoramic views in the likes of New York and San Francisco. 

The Thames, as seen from the top of the Battersea chimney.
View of two chimneys from the top of another one. Note swimming pool on the roof of a nearby building, just to the bottom right of the right chimney.

San Francisco Books/Films/Records: The Rest

In my new book San Francisco: Portrait of a City, I briefly review notable books, films, and records related to the city. There are forty noted in each category, and particularly as these had to cover several different styles and eras, inevitably some titles of interest weren’t included.

Here are the ones that didn’t make the cut. If you don’t see a favorite item, remember that it could be in the “Top Forty” lists in the book itself. These are offered as a kind of supplement to what did make the book.


Altamont, Joel Selvin (2016)

The most complete book-length account of 1969’s violence-marred Altamont rock festival, drawing on accounts from musicians, concertgoers, law enforcement officials, camera operators for the Gimme Shelter movie, and the girlfriend of Meredith Hunter, the teenager murdered in the audience.

Berkeley U.S.A., Anne Moose (1981)

Several dozen residents from all walks of Berkeley life tell their stories in this oral history anthology, from booksellers and authors to street poets, punks, activists, veterans, panhandlers, and Hare Krishnas.

Bill Graham Presents, Bill Graham & Robert Greenfield (1992)

The legendary rock promoter’s autobiographical oral history has extended, oft-self-aggrandizing quotes from both Graham and numerous musicians and associates, testifying to his central importance in both the San Francisco scene and the global development of rock promotion into a huge industry.

The Complete Crumb Comics Vol. 4: Mr. Sixties!, R. Crumb (1989)

These 1966-1967 comics by the leading underground comics artist are mostly taken from just after he moved to Haight-Ashbury, with jaded portrayals of the hippie counterculture, plenty of raunchy free love, and early strips with his famous characters Mr. Natural and Fritz the Cat.

The Complete Zap Comix, Gary Groth (ed.) (2014)

Bound multi-volume reprint of all seventeen late-1960s issues of the first widely read underground comic has plenty of early work by Robert Crumb, as well as other top early cartoonists like Victor Moscoso, Rick Griffin, and S. Clay Wilson; one volume features a 225-page history of Zap, with extensive comments from the artists.

Got a Revolution, Jeff Tamarkin (2003)

The most comprehensive biography of Jefferson Airplane, the band most responsible for popularizing the San Francisco acid rock sound, drawing on first-hand interviews with all the members and key associates.

Heart of the Rock, Adam Fortunate Eagle (2002)

Combination memoir-history of the Native American occupation of Alcatraz in 1969-71 by one of the activists involved in taking the island, celebrating its long-term impact but also detailing the movement’s problems and divisions.

The Iron Heel, Jack London (1907)

Genteel daughter of a UC Berkeley professor is radicalized by her new firebrand husband, both playing leading roles in a failed socialist revolt against oligarchs that takes them from San Francisco to Washington, DC, in a departure from the Yukon adventure stories for which London was most celebrated.

Janis: Her Life and Music, Holly George-Warren (2019)

The best biography of Joplin, covering her years with Big Brother & the Holding Company and as a solo artist, as well as her troubled personal life and half-decade of struggle as a folk-blues singer before moving from Texas to San Francisco.

A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead, Dennis McNally (2003)

The numerous books about the Grateful Dead tend to be very specialized or only of appeal to serious Deadheads, but this 700- page volume is the most thorough account of the band likely to be written for the general reader, authored by a longtime official historian/publicist for the group.

Notes from a Revolution: Com/Co, The Diggers & The Haight, Kristine McKenna & David Hollander (eds.) (2012)

Compilation of the agitprop leaflets/handbills (reproduced with the original artwork) distributed by the Diggers as Haight-Ashbury psychedelic culture peaked in 1967, collaging calls for free love and food with antiwar protest, drug use advisories, and colorfully chaotic announcements of rock festivals and other community events.

A Perfect Haze: The Illustrated History of the Monterey Pop Festival, Harvey Kubernik & Kenneth Kubernik (2011)

Fine, heavily illustrated coffee table book about the June 1967 rock festival that was crucial to the onset of psychedelic rock’s heyday, with numerous first-hand memories from Monterey’s musicians and organizers.

Ringolevio, Emmett Grogan (1972)

Much of the semi-autobiographical novel of this peripatetic activist and all-around hellraiser takes place in the Haight-Ashbury Summer of Love, documenting the arrogant zeal Grogan and other Diggers brought to dispensing free goods and bucking authorities.

The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, Jeff Guinn (2017)

Meticulously researched, and very readably related, story of Jones and his temple from their early years in Indianapolis through their brief time of influence on San Francisco politics and their final, progressively horrific days in Guyana.

Rolling Stone Magazine, Robert Draper (1990)

Although this covers the first twenty years or so of the history of the most famous rock music magazine, much of it’s devoted to the publication’s beginnings in San Francisco in the late 1960s and early 1970s, heavy on entertaining anecdotes about major musicians and rock journalists, especially Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner.

San Francisco Oracle (1991)

Facsimile reprints of all twelve issues of the legendary Haight-Ashbury underground paper published between 1966 and 1968, more noteworthy for its wildly freewheeling graphics than its oft-impenetrable prose.

Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin, Alice Echols (2000)

The only seriously worthwhile biography of Joplin, covering her years with Big Brother & the Holding Company and as a solo artist. It documents her musical and personal lives, as well as her significance to the counterculture and feminism.

Un-American: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II, Richard Cahan & Michael Williams (2016)

Coffee table book spotlights government pictures of Japanese Americans, often from San Francisco and the Bay Area, being sent to and living in detention centers, taken by notable photographers including Dorothy Lange, Ansel Adams, and Clem Alberts.

World Film Locations: San Francisco, Scott Jordan Harris (ed.) (2013)

Compact illustrated overview of nearly a hundred films set in San Francisco from the 1906 earthquake to the early twenty-first century, with guides to where to find specific scenes with striking location shots.

You Can’t Win, Jack Black (1926)

Almost disturbingly matter-of-fact autobiography of a small-time criminal’s travels throughout Western North America includes chapters on San Francisco stints in thievery and jail; originally serialized in the San Francisco Call-Bulletin, and a significant influence on William Burroughs.


Alcatraz Is Not an Island, James M. Fortier (2001)

Hour-long public television special on the 1969-71 Native American occupation of Alcatraz, interspersing clips from the time with memories from key activists involved in its planning.

And Then They Came For Us, Abby Ginzberg and Ken Schneider (2017)

In 45 minutes, this documentary effectively pinpoints the most disturbing aspects of the incarceration of Japanese-Americans (many from the Bay Area) during World War II, aided by stills from major photographers like Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams, and interviews with those whose families were affected (notably Star Trek’s George Takei).

Berkeley in the Sixties, Mark Kitchell (1990)

Compelling two-hour documentary follows Berkeley activism from the free speech movement through anti-Vietnam War protests and 1969 riots at People’s Park, mixing archival footage and interviews with many of the participants.

Birdman of Alcatraz, John Frankenheimer (1962)

Melodramatic biopic of Robert Stroud, who became a renowned expert on bird diseases while serving a lifetime prison sentence, actually takes place only partially on Alcatraz (where he wasn’t allowed to keep birds), though it’s bolstered by a strong performance by Burt Lancaster as the Birdman.

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, Stanley Nelson (2015)

The tumultuous history of the Black Panthers, from their Oakland roots and economic/social justice programs to their battles with the FBI and chaotic breakdown, told with an abundance of gripping ‘60s/’70s film clips and decades-later interviews with surviving Panthers.

The Cockettes, David Weissman & Bill Weber (2002) Documentary on the definitely San Franciscan comedy-theatrical troupe of the late 1960s and early 1970s mixes intriguing period footage and interviews with many of its key players, although they were more gay-oriented amateur camp than high art.

Experiment in Terror, Blake Edwards (1962)

Deranged killer’s scheme to force teller Lee Remick to rob a bank on his behalf gets derailed by a bumbling FBI chase in this average suspense thriller, elevated by a Henry Mancini score and shootout finale at a Giants game in Candlestick Parik.

Fog City Mavericks, Gary Leva (2007)

Rather too-proud-of-itself, yet informative, look at the work and influence of the most famous San Francisco-based filmmakers, particularly Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, though less titanic figures like Philip Kaufman and Chris Columbus also get some screen time.

Fog Over Frisco, William Dieterle (1934)

A young Bette Davis gets snared into a murder/kidnapping scheme in this slight mystery yarn, redeemed by some of the earliest location footage of city streets and the bay in a sound film, along with one of the earliest San Francisco car chases. 

Golden Gate Bridge, Ben Loeterman (2004)

Crisp hour-long PBS program uses plenty of vintage photos in its look on how the bridge was constructed, as well as its cost in human lives and the political maneuvering that went into funding and engineering it. 

Jack Kerouac: King of the Beats, John Antonelli (1985)

A look at the life of the beat giant who put San Francisco settings into much of his writing (particularly On the Road), mixing a few TV interviews of Kerouac with observations by literary peers like Allen Ginsberg and ex-wives/girlfriends.

Jonestown, Stanley Nelson (2007)

Documentary on the meteoric rise of Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, and its horrific end in mass suicide in Jonestown, with shocking vintage footage and numerous interviews with Peoples Temple survivors and insiders.

The Man Who Cheated Himself, Felix E. Feist (1950)

Detective Lee J. Cobb frames himself when he covers up a murder by wealthy Nob Hill girlfriend Jane Wyatt in this economic, tense thriller, with stops in several city parks and landmarks, ending with a hideout in Fort Point under the Golden Gate Bridge.

Psych-Out, Richard Rush (1968)

Scruffy Haight-Ashbury hedonism gets the Hollywood psychsploitation treatment in this thin and laughably exaggerated flick, worth catching for a just-pre-stardom Jack Nicholson in the starring role as a ponytailed aspiring rock musician.

Silicon Valley, Randall MacLowry (2013)

PBS documentary on the roots of the Silicon Valley tech community in the 1950s and 1960s, when the invention of the integrated circuit and Fairchild Semiconductor laid the foundation for the microprocessor and many other giant companies to follow in its wake.

Summer of Love, Gail Dolgin & Vicente Franco (2007)

Hour-long overview of Haight-Ashbury in the ‘60s, originally broadcast on PBS’ American Experience series, mixing hippie clips from the era with recollections from some of the participants.

The Times of Harvey Milk, Robert Epstein (1984)

Widely and deservedly acclaimed documentary on the pioneering gay San Franciscan politician, examining his heartening rise to political power, tragic assassination, and its repercussions in the community he represented.

A Trip Down Market Street, The Miles Brothers (1906)

Filmed just days before the 1906 earthquake, this 13-minute silent recorded scenes on downtown’s main thoroughfare by putting a camera in front of a cable car as it chugged from the city center to the Ferry Building, capturing a hurly-burly of automobiles, bicycles, horse-drawn carriages, pedestrians, about-to-perish buildings, and excited newsboys.

Turn It Around: The East Bay Punk Scene, Corbett Redford (2018)

Exhaustive Iggy Pop-narrated documentary on the genesis and heyday of the East Bay punk scene, whose prime saw the establishment of one of the world’s most celebrated punk clubs, Berkeley’s 924 Gilman Street, and the launch of one of the world’s most successful pop-punk bands, Green Day.

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, Judy Irving (2003)

Sentimental documentary of Mark Bittner—a kind of unofficial caretaker of wild parrots on North Beach’s Telegraph Hill before losing his tenancy in a rent-free cottage—benefits from spectacular shots of the legendarily steep neighborhood and its views of the bay. 


“Theme from San Francisco,” Jeanette MacDonald (1936)

Performed by star Jeanette MacDonald in the MGM movie musical San Francisco, this overtly melodramatic, operatic theme was the first song in honor of the city to gain wide mass media exposure.

Anthology of American Folk Songs, Barbara Dane (1959)

If you hungered for more down-to-earth folk than the Kingston Trio offered at the hungry i, this clutch of plaintive but grittier folk standards like “Girl of Constant Sorrow” and “Nine Hundred Miles” captured what you might have seen at North Beach’s hipper beat haunts.

Time Out, The Dave Brubeck Quartet (1959)

Honed in part in San Francisco nightclubs like the Black Hawk, Brubeck’s clean, sharp brand of West Coast cool jazz reached its apogee on this huge seller, spearheaded by one of the biggest jazz hits of all time, “Take Five.”

“Little Boxes,” Pete Seeger (1963)

Bay Area folkie Malvina Reynolds was inspired to pen this sarcastic satire of cookie-cutter post-war housing on a drive through Daly City just south of San Francisco, though Pete Seeger was the singer who made it into a minor hit single.

Electric Music for the Mind and Body, Country Joe & the Fish (1967)

The top Berkeley psychedelic band’s debut celebrated drugs, free love, and political protest with an eclectic exuberance, paced by piercing organ, stinging bluesy guitar, and Country Joe McDonald’s witty words and droll vocals.

Quicksilver Messenger Service, Quicksilver Messenger Service (1968)

Most known for marathon jams on blues-rockers like “Who Do You Love,” Quicksilver were actually better served by the concise folk-rockers with mournful vocal harmonies that dominated this debut LP, though John Cipollina’s thrilling quavering guitar powered the hypnotic instrumental “Gold and Silver.”

Striking It Rich, Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks (1972)

Country swing with a Marin County hippie twist, Hicks and pseudo-Andrews Sisters-like backup singers delivering his droll takes on “Canned Music,” accident-prone oddballs, and the like with tongue-in-cheek, sardonic wit.

Quah, Jorma Kaukonen (1974)

Jefferson Airplane/Hot Tuna guitarist turns in some haunting original folky tunes that occasionally use subtle orchestration, with a relaxed intimacy that has the “end of an era” or “morning after the party” feel of a counterculture who’d been through a rousing decade, exhausted but happier and wiser for the experience.

Birdboys, Penelope Houston (1988)

Avengers singer (and longtime librarian at the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library) Houston turned in an almost entirely opposite direction with her solo debut, replacing scabrous anthemic rants with gentle, haunting folk-rock with an acoustic base, probing the struggles of growing into adulthood with affecting melancholy.

Thanksgiving in Porto

Portugal’s a small country, and if people can name one of its cities, it’s almost always bound to be its biggest, Lisbon. The second biggest city in Portugal, Porto, isn’t actually that much smaller than Lisbon, with a population of about 1.7 million in its metropolitan area. I visited Portugal (just Lisbon and the beach town of Sagres) about thirty years ago, but admit I gave little thought to Porto then or since.

The Duoro River in Porto, Portugal.

That changed in November 2021, when I unexpectedly visited the city for a few days after an equally unexpected invitation to give a presentation on the Velvet Underground at the Porto Pop Festival. I hadn’t been out of Northern California for three years, though I love to travel internationally, and hadn’t been on a plane in all of that time either. Yet here I was in Porto over Thanksgiving weekend, knowing little about it beforehand, though I got to see a lot in my regrettably short four days there.

Poster for the Porto Pop festival, hoped to be the first of many

Porto isn’t just any old second city. Its core, as its looks-like-it-was-written-by-a-publicist Wikipedia entry quickly informs you, was proclaimed a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1996, and those designations aren’t just given out to any location with a lot of history. On the Atlantic coast, the magnificent Duoro River runs right through the heart of town. I’m not an architecture expert or aficionado, but the old buildings both stately and humble, narrow pedestrian-friendly residential and commercial streets, and waterside views are enough to keep you entertained for several hours of walking. Should you be in decent shape, it should be added, since a lot of the streets and hills are steep.

Narrow street leading to the north side of the Duoro River, with the Louis I bridge in the background.
The Luis I bridge, as seen from the path along the river’s north side.

What of Porto’s modern culture? While what I could take in was limited by both my short stay and my need to be present at three nights of Porto Pop events, the city’s keen to put itself on both the international arts map and establish itself as a major tourist destination. There are hip esoteric record stores, if that’s your thing, as well as a wealth of restaurants, and while its native cuisine isn’t so vegetarian-heavy, there are plenty of places for vegetarians like myself to find something.

Oddities I picked up in Porto record stores: reissue of rare 1964 EP by British group the Clique, and a nearly ten-year-old esoteric fanzine

English is spoken fairly widely, or certainly by enough people to manage if you don’t speak Portuguese. Porto’s people are friendly, and the population already 90% vaccinated by the time of my visit, with most people still wearing masks outdoors as well as indoors. The calm atmosphere made for a welcome if temporary change from the US, where every day has seemed like Armageddon for the past five years or so.

In the center of Porto, near the biggest train station.

The standout cultural attraction has to be the Fundacao de Serrvalves contemporary art museum, though you have to take a 45-minute bus ride from the city center to reach it. The pretty huge space stages major exhibitions, but that’s not even the primary reason to visit. Its massive sculpture park — it’s way too big to call a garden — has a dozen equally large-scale impressive modern sculptures, Claes Oldenburg being the biggest name represented. Sculptures aside, it takes a good one or two hours to take in the multi-level park itself, highlighted by an elevated “treetop walk.”

Claes Oldenburg “Plantoir” sculpture in Serralves park
Sky Mirror sculpture in Serralves park
Maman spider sculpture in Serralves Park
Treetop walk in Serralves park

On the way back, the multi-floor Portuguese Centre of Photography is a worthwhile stop right on the bus route, and not just for its impressive exhibitions of pictures and photographic equipment. Unusually, it’s housed in a former prison:

Interior view in the ex-prison housing the photography museum.
Some of the museum’s ancient equipment.

This was, incidentally, the first of what’s hoped to be an annual Porto Pop festival. Unusually, these exclusively featured presentations by authors of rock music books. Here are a couple of the other authors at the event, which was entirely conducted in English:

Don Letts being interviewed about his memoir There and Black Again
Longtime British music critic and author Vivien Goldman (although she’s now been based in New York for many years)
John Cale on screen during part of my Velvet Underground presentation

I didn’t get to see everything I would have liked in Porto, missing one of its most-hyped sites, the Lello Bookstore (famed for its unusual and unusually large interior architecture). I’ll also want to check out the large Agramonte Cemetery if I’m able to make it back, though at least I got to check out a much smaller one about halfway between my hotel and the festival:

Odd gravesites in Porto.

Porto, with the Luis I bridge in the foreground. Only streetcars and pedestrians are permitted on the bridge.

Père Lachaise Cemetery: Jim Morrison and the Graves Beyond

Most of my posts about hikes and bike outings are for relatively untouristed spots in the Bay Area. So what’s a piece about Père Lachaise  Cemetery doing here? It’s the biggest cemetery in one of the most heavily touristed places in the world, Paris, drawing more than 3.5 million annual visitors. That makes it the most visited cemetery in the world, let alone Paris.

The main entrance to Père Lachaise Cemetery.

The main entrance to Père Lachaise Cemetery.

Well, I was there in July, and while I’ve been there a few times before, I didn’t have a camera with me then. And there is a music connection to some of the numerous celebrities buried here, most famously Jim Morrison, the only one with a strong (and it’s extremely strong) connection to rock history. So why not a post with photos from Père Lachaise, emphasizing some of the lesser known and less celebrity-oriented corners of this massive space?

That noted, I’m starting with a picture of Morrison’s grave, the most popular attraction within one of the most popular attractions in Paris:


As even many Doors fans who haven’t been here know, the grave has frequently had to been cleaned, as it’s been overrun by graffiti and countless mementoes left here — not all of which are the pretty innocuous ones you see in my picture. I’ve never seen hard drugs left here, but I’ve heard they have, in addition to the marijuana joints you might well spot depending on when you come. I’ve also heard that unruly partiers disturb the peace here, especially at night, when you have to make unauthorized climbs to get in the grounds. 

I must say that on each of my visits dating back to the early 1990s, the crowds gathered at the grave — and there are usually a dozen to two dozen or so — have been quite respectful. Even when there was a tape machine playing Doors music, fans were just smiling and bopping along to songs like “The Soft Parade,” and not in any way creating disturbance. There’s still controversy about whether Morrison should remain here, and the site has to be guarded, even in the broad daylight of late afternoon, which is when I took this photo. And yes, the grave isn’t all that easy to find (get a map inside the gates for the specifics), though if you follow the paths that more people seem to be taking than any others, you can likely get there without one.

Beyond the celebrities, however, Père Lachaise is simply an amazing place to visit, even if it didn’t hold any famous names. It’s kind of a mini-city in itself, with streets of sorts both leafy and haunting:



I especially like the many picturesque graves of people who aren’t at all famous, often embellished with tasteful and moving keepsakes. Here’s one of a woman who died in her early thirties in 2014:


Some of the more ancient ones are shells of their former selves:


Some of the structures surrounding the graves are as or more elaborate than the gravestones:


And the varied landscapes make for some haunting hillsides of sorts:


Some of the most affecting parts of the cemetery, however, commemorate incidents in French history that are among the nation’s most troubling from the past 150 years. Most famously, the Communards’ Wall marks where more than a hundred communists were shot in May 1871:



Just as soberly, several monuments mark the deportation and deaths of French Jews in World War II:






Getting back to the famous people buried here, Jim Morrison’s grave hasn’t been the only one defaced. Here’s Oscar Wilde’s grave, and below that, the sign that’s posted nearby:



Of the non-rock recording artists, the most internationally famous is Edith Piaf:


Sometimes missed is the nearby grave for her daughter Marcelle Dupont, who died at the age of two: 


Piaf is famous throughout the world, but French cemeteries carry reminders that many of the country’s stars are primarily known in France. Such as Gilbert Bécaud, whose grave is quite ornate:



“Thanks,” reads the inscription in the above picture. “Your public won’t forget you.” Which you could also say, many times over, for the memorials to Morrison, Wilde, Piaf, and the victims of government atrocities elsewhere in Père Lachaise.

Swimming in Sicily

Sicily’s known for its cuisine, its Greek ruins, and its beautiful landscapes. As a large island, it has also has many beaches, some of which are spectacular. Quite a few others are, if not spectacular, certainly good. I’m not a great swimmer, but I love to swim outdoors and snorkel, and swimming in the ocean was one of the main reasons I went to Sicily for a few weeks in July.

The beach at Isola Bella, near Taormina in Sicily.

The beach at Isola Bella, near Taormina in Sicily.

Even three weeks or so isn’t nearly enough time to sample everywhere worth swimming in Sicily. But we did manage to hit quite a few spots considering our limited time. Even the five we visited were pretty different from each other, but all are worth a dip  should you make it over.

There are many reasons to visit Palermo, the capital of Sicily, including its architecture and lively streetlife. Beaches are not at the top of the list, nor close to the city center, but you might find yourself dying to cool off if you visit when the temperatures are nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit, as we did. It’s a pretty short bus ride to Mondello beach a few miles outside the city.

Mondello beach, looking to the west.

Mondello beach, looking to the west.

Mondello isn’t a secret, and you’ll likely find it jammed in summer. But the water’s calm, its temperature moderate, and you’ll be able to wade out quite a ways without it getting so deep that you’ll lose your footing. And if the scenery isn’t as monumental as some other Sicilian beaches, it’s quite pleasing:

As with most beaches we visited, there are areas where visitors can plant themselves for free, and others where you’ll need to pay a fee for an umbrella and deck chair. Unless you’re traveling with a beach umbrella, it’s often worth it to spring for the paid spots, elitism be damned. The Mediterranean sun can be pretty searing — certainly more so than summer sun in California and New Jersey, the two states where I’ve done most of my ocean swimming in the US.

Mondello beach, looking to the east.

Mondello beach, looking to the east.

Agrigento is most famed for its Greek ruins, and we were lucky enough to also get caught up in a huge holiday parade and fireworks during our stay. South of Palermo and even hotter, you might again feel the need to cool off in the beach, even on a Sunday when few buses are running and little info on their departure stops and times is available.

Nonetheless we managed to catch one to San Leone, just a few miles outside town, not long before sundown. The manager of the umbrella/deck chair operation we patronized took pity on us and charged us about one-third of the going rate. It was quite a bargain for an hour or so of swimming in much choppier, more churning waters than Mondello. The beach is pretty narrow and stony, so you’re going more for the ocean than the lounging here.

The beach at San Leone.

The beach at San Leone.

Siracusa is another town whose beaches don’t dominate its image. (Anglicized as “Syracuse,” we referred to it by its Italian name Siracusa after the taxi driver taking us to Rome from the airport told us, “Syracuse is in New York.”) But this was one of my favorite places to swim, in part because the hot spot in the old historic town, Ortigia, wasn’t a beach or particularly dominated by tourists. Instead, you camp out on tall rocks in a site called the Solarium, with various points of entry, whether by stairs or slithering down the actual rocks:


Even if you enter by stairs (which are only installed in the summer months), this site might not be for the more casual swimmer. The water gets pretty deep pretty quickly just feet from shore, and some parts are quite rocky, especially the narrow channel connecting different parts of the swimming area. Even wearing beach shoes in the water, I got a few cuts bumping my knees and thighs against the irregularly spaced and shaped rock formations under the surface.

Most of the swimmers here and at other beaches-with-rocks we visited nonetheless swam barefoot. Their heartiness is admirable, but I’d really advise considering taking along a hardy pair of beach shoes to wear while you’re actually swimming in the water if you don’t want to come home limping, or worse. It’s no time to be macho (in a crowd where many women and girls, I hasten to note, were swimming barefoot) if you’re not feeling like a local expert in navigating the rocks. My traveling partner is a much better swimmer than I am, and even she couldn’t avoid a hip bruise. I got my efficient beach shoes for less than $50 at REI, and those or equivalents shouldn’t be hard to track down before you visit.

Overview of the rockiest parts of the Solarium beach in Ortigia, in Siracusa.

Overview of the rockiest parts of the Solarium beach in Ortigia, in Siracusa.

Also in Siracusa, we took a boat ride out to some grottoes a few miles away, taking us close to the rocks to see purple hues such as this. One of the crew took a couple minutes to free a bird that had somehow gotten stuck in one of the fissures:


On the same ride we passed by the rock below, off which people were jumping or diving into the sea (I can assure you I am not one of the divers in this picture). The captain of our small craft took this opportunity to swim to the rock and execute an impressive flip/dive into the water, nonchalantly swimmng back to the boat to pilot us back to Ortigia.


We were supposed to have a few minutes to swim in the grotto too, but the company selling the trip didn’t inform the boat crew, who were recruited spur of the moment after the original boatman didn’t make it. If you’ve seen Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, you’ll remember the scene where Eric Idle, playing a European waiter, leads us on a long walk through heavy traffic to the meaning of life, all the while intimating that it’s just around the corner. That’s how we felt when the young woman from the tour company led us to the boat, telling us all the while, “just two more minutes” before we ended up at a tourist office where we were asked if we could wait another hour. We couldn’t, so a substitute was hastily arranged, but apparently not informed that a grotto swim was part of the deal. Maybe next time.

There are a few places to swim near Taormina, including a small rocky one in Mazzaro where we went for brief immersions. The most celebrated by far, however, is Isola Bella, connected to a big beach by a sandbar through which you can wade even if you can’t swim:

Isola Bella, viewed on a bus ride down from Taormina.

Isola Bella, viewed on a bus ride down from Taormina.

Isola Bella is much photographed, and the opposite of unknown. Some things that have been heavily hyped — like Paris, the Beatles, or the seventh game of the 2016 World Series — are actually just as good as people say they’ll be, and Isola Bella is one of them. The swimming is varied and superb; there are shallow parts, deep ones, rocky areas, and rockless sections; there’s decent snorkeling, and patches several dozen feet deep, if you want; the clear water boasts stunning hues of blue, green, and purple; and the scenery is phenomenal:

Rocks to which we swam at Isola Bella.

Rocks to which we swam at Isola Bella.

That does mean you’ll never be alone on Isola Bella in the summer, and one day it was so crowded we couldn’t even rent one of the 20-Euro-per person umbrella-deck chair deals. But it’s worth  putting up with and then some, and once you get in the water, there’s space enough and more, especially as it’s not hard to get several hundred meters from shore in calm and safe conditions. You can also get a bit more breathing room by walking around Isola Bella itself, though there’s a small (four-Euro) fee for that, and much of the island remains off-limits to visitors.

If you’re staying in Taormina and using public transportation, taking the cable car down’s a must, with this view as you approach Isola Bella:


The last beach we visited was in Cefalu, which would be worth visiting even without the water owing to the stunning and relaxed maze of alleys forming its historic center. There is a beautiful, lengthy beach, however, from which you can see the city’s breathtaking old quarter:



The swimming’s quite different from Isola Bella, or Siracusa. In those places, you really need to swim, not wade, if you get more than a few feet from shore, so deep does it get so fast. In Cefalu, it’s almost impossible to get out far enough to where your feet won’t hit the sand. And for most of the beach, it is smooth sand in the water — smooth enough that you won’t need those beach shoes.

Sunset as viewed from the beach in Cefalu.

Sunset as viewed from the beach in Cefalu.

On the Road to the Summer of Love Exhibit

This story was first posted on the KQED Arts website. Reproduced courtesy of KQED.

Back in the late ’80s, I found Ralph J. Gleason’s paperback The Jefferson Airplane and the San Francisco Sound for $3 at San Francisco’s Green Apple Books. I never thought the next copy I’d see would be in a glass case in a Summer of Love exhibit at the California Historical Society — a testament not only to the book’s rarity, but to the sky-high esteem in which the era is now held as it marks its 50th anniversary.

Although more modest in scale than the de Young’s current Summer of Love extravaganza, the California Historical Society’s current exhibition On the Road to the Summer of Love, running through Sept. 10 in downtown San Francisco, offers important context through photos, memorabilia, and audiovisuals. (And at $5, the price is right.) Rooms on the Beats and the Free Speech Movement trace the Bay Area’s proudly rebellious bohemianism back to the late 1950s and early 1960s. The folk revival (check the pictures of a pre-rock Janis Joplin and short-haired Jerry Garcia and Jorma Kaukonen), the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and the experimental music of the San Francisco Tape Music Center all get their due as vital forces in the city’s simmering volcano.

Death of Money Parade, Haight Street, 1967.
The ‘Death of Money’ parade, Haight Street, 1967. (Photo: Gene Anthony; Collection of the California Historical Society)

Yet the heart of the displays focus on that brief time from around late 1965 to late 1967, when psychedelic rock and the counterculture made San Francisco the place to be. Smack in the middle of those two years, the Grateful Dead played a “Love Pageant Rally” in Golden Gate Park’s panhandle, held on the very day (October 6, 1966) LSD became illegal, as captured in one particularly vivid color shot. As Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner remembers in one of the interviews visitors can hear at audio stations, “It was just Halloween all the time.”

San Francisco Mime Troupe, c. 1966.
San Francisco Mime Troupe, c. 1966. (Gene Anthony; Collection of the California Historical Society)

Some of the images will be familiar to visitors well-versed in the time and place, whether it’s Joplin at the Monterey Pop Festival or the “Death of Hippie” procession down Haight Street in fall 1967. However, many pictures are uncommon, even some of the ones that are focused on celebrities. For instance, major collectors might not have seen the poster for a pre-Janis Big Brother & the Holding Company benefit show for Berkeley’s Open Theater, or an ad for the “Jefferson Airplane Loves You” fan club (housed at “Jefferson Airport” in Millbrae, $1 entitling members to a “Far-Out” Flight Card, among other goodies). The Free Speech section features not just the expected shot of Joan Baez, but also a couple shots of folkie Barbara Dane, who was probably even further to the left of Baez.

Both the Airplane and Big Brother made big splashes at the Monterey Pop Festival, and photographs of them and others in action at the event make their expected presence. But so do color shots from the Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival, a much smaller yet almost equally vibrant festival on Mount Tamalpais held the weekend before Monterey. Other artifacts remind us the new dawn was far from universally welcomed, whether it’s a somber Lawrence Ferlinghetti standing in front of a “Banned Books” window display at City Lights in 1958, or an issue of Record, the neighborhood Haight-Ashbury paper, headlined “SUPERVISORS FACE HIPPIE AVALANCHE” nearly a decade later.

If you have ample time on your visit, one screen shows the full-length documentary The Life and Times of the Red Dog Saloon, spotlighting the Virginia City venue that hosted a lengthy residency by one of San Francisco’s first psychedelic bands, the Charlatans. As a shorter audio soundbite, there’s a five-minute recording of the Grateful Dead jamming with jazz flutist Charles Lloyd on “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” at the January 1967 Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park’s Polo Fields. Paul Kantner’s seven-minute history of the launch of the Airplane is quite entertaining, too, revealing how the band considered naming themselves the Other Side before settling on “Jefferson Airplane, [which] was the name of somebody’s dog.”


For all the great music and charismatic figures around which the Summer of Love revolved, some of the most affecting relics remind us that many of the hundreds of thousands flocking to the Haight were ordinary, sometimes struggling youngsters. One shows a group of anonymous young guys – all with backs turned to the camera – looking over the city from a rooftop, some perhaps to make a big impression on the community, like the longhair on the left with a guitar. Others, perhaps, became some of the runaways who ended up on the streets, relying on free food giveaways by the Diggers to survive. A contact sheet of pedestrian traffic on Haight Street shows a mixture of such street kids and hippies, as well as the odd pair of straight businessmen in suits somehow caught in the sweet madness that this exhibit revives.

‘On the Road to the Summer of Love’ runs through Sept. 10, 2017, at the California Historical Society at 678 Mission Street in San Francisco. For more details about the exhibit and corresponding events, see here.

Biking and Hiking in Kauai

Since I started this blog, all of my posts about hiking and biking (except one for Reno) have been about places to do so in the San Francisco Bay Area. So why a post about where to do it in Kauai? It’s a five-hour flight away. True, but I was there in early September, I took a bunch of pictures, and San Francisco is about the closest US city to Kauai. And as pretty as San Francisco is, you’re not going to find pictures like these walking around the Bay Area:

Ke'e Beach, viewed from the Kalalau Trail.

Ke’e Beach, viewed from the Kalalau Trail.

That’s from the Kalalau Trail on the island’s northern shore, overlooking Ke’e Beach. It’s a popular trail, though not overcrowded. Since the parking lot at its southern entrance also serves Ke’e Beach, it’s pretty hard to find a space there—and you probably will need to drive, since public transportation doesn’t go this far north. There’s a very rough dirt parking lot a quarter mile south, and a few dozen other places to leave your car on the side of the road within a half mile.

The Kalalau Trail runs eleven miles in all, and it’s not going to be possible to go all the way out and back, unless you camp at the northern end. It’s enough of a challenge to go five miles in and five miles back, as I did. Walking ten miles isn’t a problem for me, but this is a hilly trail—it has to be to get high enough for views like this:



There are also a lot of rocks to clamber through at points; a stream to fjord (or just take off your shoes and wade through, as I did) after a couple miles or so; and a lot of mud. So much so that most hikers spend at least a couple minutes washing themselves off at the outdoor beach showerheads after coming out the Ke’e Beach end, as well as thoroughly dousing their shoes (and sometimes, other clothes). Unless you have high-end hiking boots, consider bringing a pair of worn-out shoes that won’t be good for many more hikes anyway, as I did. In fact, the shoes I wore won’t be good for any more hikes after this one.

Much of the trail cuts a narrow path through jungle-like terrain.

Much of the trail cuts a narrow path through jungle-like terrain.

There are other hikes on Kauai, but with only a week and so much swimming and snorkeling to do, I didn’t take any others. There are some in or near incredible canyons like this one that I’ll try if I go back:

Waimea Canyon.

Waimea Canyon.

Biking, like hiking, takes a distant place behind snorkeling and swimming on Kauai. You have to use a road that rings much of the island to get most places, and there’s a good amount of traffic, especially when it goes through the town of Kapaa, where I stayed. I did see some triathlete-types bicyling the road (really a highway), but most recreational cyclists stick to the Kapaa Bike Path, which runs about seven miles. Most of them stick to the four miles or so that run close by the ocean north of town.

A stretch of the Kapaa bike path.

A stretch of the Kapaa bike path.

The good news: there are plenty of bike rental places in Kapaa, and while I didn’t do a price survey, the one I used, the Kapaa Beach Shop (which is just yards away from the path on the northern edge of town), charged a very reasonable $10 for the entire day. The not as good news, though hardly bad news, is that the bikes rented by all establishments seem to be clunky three-speeds. If you’re used to eighteen or so speeds as you whiz around paths connecting to the Golden Gate Bridge, as I am, it’s slow going. That’s not a big problem, though, as the path is pretty level with only very mild gradations, and you don’t really want to be going that fast with the ocean views on your right anyway. (Or going that fast considering there are a lot of tourists on bikes who might not be able to handle higher speeds too well.)

Short shaded inland detour off the main bike path, at its northern end.

Short shaded inland detour off the main bike path, at its northern end.

Since it’s not that long, and not that much of a workout, I’ll consider actually walking the path (as many do, in part or whole) if I return. However you navigate it, there are periodic shaded shelters to lean your bike in, close to views like these:

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But as much as I hike and bike at home, I have to say you should prioritize swimming and snorkeling if you’re coming all this way. (The Kapaa Beach Shop also rents snorkeling gear at very reasonable rates, and the friendly, straightforward staff did not, like the first place I used, try to sell me things I didn’t ask for and in which I wasn’t interested.) Ke’e Beach, photographed below, and Tunnels Beach, which is only a mile or so south (though again presenting parking challenges), are the most highly recommended spots:


There’s other stuff to do and see in Kauai besides outdoor exercise, though I’d do that as breaks between the ocean. Here are a few:

The Hanapepe Swinging Bridge.

The Hanapepe Swinging Bridge.

The river the Hanapepe Swinging Bridge overlooks.

The river the Hanapepe Swinging Bridge overlooks.

Talk Story in Hanapepe, "The Westernmost Independent Bookstore of the United States" (as it proclaims on the lettering at the bottom of the awning).

Talk Story in Hanapepe, “The Westernmost Independent Bookstore of the United States” (as it proclaims on the lettering at the bottom of the awning).

Rock gardens in Kukuiolono Park.

Rock gardens in Kukuiolono Park.

Biking and Hiking in Reno

Time was when Reno, Nevada was known — like Las Vegas and the entire state of Nevada — for its casinos. A town where, as Richard & Mimi Fariña sang in their song “Reno, Nevada” (done better by Fairport Convention a few years later on the BBC and on French television), “The odds have been doubled, and it ain’t worth the trouble/And you’re never going nowhere at all.” And to look outside my hotel when I visited in late April, you’d think that nothing had changed.

The street scene in front of my non-smoking, non-gaming hotel.

The street scene in front of my non-smoking, non-gaming hotel.

Yet these days Reno, Nevada is a lot more than a casino city. In fact, you could easily visit, as I recently did, and not come across casino culture at all, most of it being contained within about three or four square blocks. Reno’s also a fairly liberal place where biking, hiking, and outdoor activities in general thrive, as does a decent arts scene.

Reno’s not too big, and it’s just a ten- or fifteen-minute drive to the Huffaker Park and Mountain Trail. No, these are not going to challenge the vistas and greenery of the many fine parks in the San Francisco Bay Area, my home base. On the other hand, it’s nice to walk around for an hour or so on a weekday morning, as I did, and come across no more than a couple other people. The trail’s narrow and rocky, but gives you some good looks at Reno’s compact downtown and the surrounding area, though the solitude’s sometimes interrupted by the sound of airplanes landing at the nearby airport:

Note airplane coming in for a landing at the far left.

Note airplane coming in for a landing at the far left.

If you want to get some biking miles in (I do) and don’t care to do some rugged mountain trails (I don’t), the flat and mostly well-paved Truckee River Bike Trail runs twelve miles, and can easily be picked up bang in the middle of downtown:

The bike trail in downtown Reno.

The bike trail in downtown Reno.

Opulent homes overlooking the river in downtown Reno.

Opulent homes overlooking the river in downtown Reno.

The best views are on the four miles or so that run west of downtown, passing through some of Reno’s well-to-do neighborhoods, including some small well-kept parks:

Near the western end of the bike trail.

Near the western end of the bike trail.

Bridge near the western end of the trail.

Bridge near the western end of the trail.

Idlewild Park, west of downtown.

Idlewild Park, west of downtown.

The eight miles east of town are a little rougher, both in physical character, as the paths are sometimes gravelly, and in physical appearance, often running right alongside industrial parks and trailer parks just to the north. There’s also a tent city of transients a mile or two to the east of downtown, near the Grand Resort and Casino skyscraper:


You wouldn’t guess that there are run-of-the-mill (to put it gently) industrial/trailer parks on the other side of this trail from some of the views of the south side:





Though the trail does come to an inglorious halt at its eastern end, butting right up against a highway and railroad tracks:


If you’re looking to watch sports as well as engage in them, Reno is home to the Arizona Diamondbacks’ AAA team. The stadium’s just a couple blocks walk from downtown, and $20 gets you a ticket eight rows back of the dugout. It looked like a good place to see a game, but I didn’t actually see a game here, though I had that ticket, as it got rained out:


Reno, viewed from a bridge just east of downtown.

Reno, viewed from a bridge just east of downtown.