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Welcome to the online blog for traveler/writer/photographer Steven Barber. Come in. Relax. Take off your shoes and socks -- or any other article of clothing, this is the internet. Have a look around. I hope to intrigue, amuse, entertain, and maybe provoke you just a little. I love to find adventure. All I need is a change of clothes, my Nikon, an open mind and a strong cup of coffee.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Good Life

As I write this, it's Tuesday, the middle day of an all-too- short stay in California's amazing Napa Valley wine country.

I'm sitting in the Calistoga Village Bakery, sipping at a triple shot latte, watching the world go by. This is the second of what will eventually be three stops in which I begin my day this way. It's crazy busy for this early morning in a relatively small city. At least six other patrons sit, stand or wander around in a pre-caffeine daze trying to decide what to order. While I'm sipping at my coffee, seven more hit and run workers come in, get their coffee and leave, headed for their day. Starbuck's might consider this a good day, I don't know. I'm too wrapped up in the wonderful gentility of it all. Some people obviously know each other, while others are simply friendly.
The Village Bakery

Despite the expected heat of the coming day, the predawn temperature outside would be described by most of us as chilly. The sun isn't quite up, but the sky is a beautiful pale blue. I'm sitting at a table adjacent to the front window and just outside a dog lies resting, securely leashed to a pillar on the sidewalk. She seems to be at ease, indicating this is perhaps a regular event.

As far as I can tell, I seem to be the only out of towner. A group of people at the table next to me clearly know each other, as do most of the folks who wander in. The owner of the dog in question tells a friend that she's recently had the dog groomed, then excuses herself to go outside for a moment to share a treat of some kind which the pup readily consumes.

One of the other patrons at the table makes note that the music of the morning is French in origin, beautiful haunting ballads to set the mood for the morning. Songs of love, and loss, and gentle thoughts.

This is why Calistoga ranks among my favorite places in the world. It's unashamedly relaxed, unashamedly small town yet also quite worldly. It comes as no surprise, really. The century old spa town is built around taking life quietly and easily, a respite from the restlessness of the rest of the world. The point of the town seems to be, specifically, to step back and remember what it was to stroll streets, window shopping and smelling the gentle aromas of the various coffee houses and restaurants that dot the street.

Lincoln Avenue shops before sunrise
Located at the northern end of the legendary Napa Valley at the highway crossroads of what will eventually open out into the slightly less famous but equally notable wine country of Sonoma County, Calistoga boasts numerous spas, hot springs, restaurants, inns and even a few wineries. The local culture is based on the simple and best things in life, seemingly at odds with the wealth of the rest of the valley. Calistoga finds its own vibe and marches along, seemingly oblivious to the call of the outside world. Here in the center of the California wine country it sets itself apart, yet is still part of the unified whole. It isn't so much that time has left the town behind, it's that the town ignores the pressure of time and makes its own pace. It knows the rest of the world is there, but the rest of the world must come to Calistoga and relax, not the other way around.

Tyra, the bakery's friendly counterperson, engages everyone who comes through the door with a bright smile and conversation. Yesterday she shared with me that she's lived in Calistoga her entire life. Apparently she's studying psychology at the local junior college (I'm getting much of this from her interactions with her patrons).  She adds just the proper dash of morning energy to the otherwise calm shop, and makes the difference between just a regular coffee house, and one with a friendly soul that makes you want to come back.

Hot Springs and Hotels
(The music has just shifted to more of a southern ragtime, changing the background mood to an almost Disneyesque atmosphere...in a good way. Oddly enough, the change in tempo nearly matches the increasing light coming in from the windows. The town and coffee house are growing steadily more awake under the guise of a triple shot latte. Or is it that I'm finally waking up myself?)

Have I convinced you of the town's unique nature? Even in its mid-1800s birth, the town had to do things differently. Its beautiful location, coupled with natural hot springs with a high sulfur content, attracted the attention of the nearby gold-addled town of San Francisco.

Cafe Sarafornia
Calistoga was essentially founded In 1859 as a spa resort, though it didn't officially incorporate until 1886. The name, perhaps apocryphally, is reported to come from a quote from Samuel Brannan, the wealthy owner of the first spa to open in town, when he tried to refer to it as "The Saratoga of California" at a public gathering. The story goes that he was overly indulged (inebriated) while speaking at an event announcing the creation of the resort -- and managed to blurt out the description of the new spa town as "the Calistoga of Sarafornia". 

(A much more likely recounting is that Brannan named the place as a mash up of California and Saratoga, but the legend is far more fitting of the town's disposition.)

(BTW - Regardless of the origin of the name, there is an excellent family diner in town by the name of Cafe Sarafornia. Have to love a place with a sense of humor.)

The sun finally peeks over the Vaca Mountains east of town, lighting up Lincoln Ave in a new day. Almost all of the patrons have gone on to their lives, leaving the Village Bakery quiet again, save for the thrum of the refrigeration units and the music, which has now returned to the original gentle French ballads, again echoing the drop off the bakery's energy level. Tyra busies herself with tasks behind the counter, readying for what will be the next wave of guests in an hour or so.

It's a good life, here in Calistoga.

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