Category Archives: Going out

All the Hiking You’ve Been Missing in the East Bay

Get out there and start conquering the East Bay’s underused regional parks.

When you’re in the mood for a day hike, do you head over to Marin more often than not? Or even drive all the way to the Santa Cruz mountains, where you spend more time in traffic than outdoors?

Here’s a notion: You can easily avoid all the drama of these crowded, picked-over places by staying the East Bay. Within 20 miles of Oakland—the land of Oaks—there’s an abundance of sparsely populated hiking trails, with a great variety of terrain, all waiting to be trod by your hiking boots, still muddy and moldy from your humid hikes along the coast. And there’s no need to cross any bridges and pay tolls or sift through any traffic to get to there.

You’ll notice right away that East Bay hikes have more open and rougher terrain, drier land, plenty of oaks and great vistas, fewer people, and no problem finding free parking. So heed the call—Yes, In My Back Yard (YIMBY)—and get out there exploring.

Some regional parks to get started are Redwood Regional, Lake Chabot, Briones and Las Trampas. Once you’ve conquered those, you can move on to parks as distinct and diverse as Sunol, Black Diamond Mines and Morgan Territory.

If you’re looking for a particular route, you can always go to the Regional Park District’s website at for trail maps, but I tend to prefer, a private website that does an impeccable job of organizing 60 Bay Area hikes within 60 miles of San Francisco.

There are many great things about First of all, the map lets you see all of the locations, so you can find something close to you and waste as little time as possible in the car. Jane Huber, the author, provides a route that winds you through the highlights of each park, and gives important information such as the mileage, estimated time and standard weather conditions per season. The routes are mostly easy to follow, but there’s always some adventure involved, since most of the articles are over 10 years old. (And hiking guides in general seem to enjoy leaving a fair amount of ambiguity in the directions.)

For those of you who know of the site and haven’t visited it in a while, you’ll be surprised to know that it’s been updated. The browser version is a lot snazzier and the mobile version now readjusts to your device, so you can look forward to a lot less squinting and twisting your phone when attempting to follow the trails. On that note, if you’re relying on the phone to guide you, don’t forget that you’re bound to lose reception in most parks.

Happy trails. I hope to see you out there.

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Posted by on January 14, 2016 in California, Going out, Hiking, Tourism, Travel


Proposed demolition of San Francisco’s Elbo Room makes a NIMBY out of me

In the news today was an alarming story that San Francisco’s Elbo Room might be demolished to make way for a new condo development.

Of course, this one’s personal: Elbo Room is where I walked up to my future wife and made enough witty banter to get her to go to the next bar with me.


Living in San Francisco for this long, it’s not surprising that finally one of the many changes here will affect me personally and force me to become a stick-in-the-mud NIMBY.

Honestly, I’d really hate to lose Elbo Room. It’s quite possibly the only place in the city with strong $3 drinks from 5-9 every weekday. My kind of watering hole.

More details:

The owners of the two-story Mission district building at the corner of Valencia and Sycamore which is currently occupied by the Elbo Room have quietly drafted plans to raze the bar and construct a new five-story building in its place.

Early plans for the development include nine (9) residential units, three one-bedrooms and six two-bedrooms, ranging in size from 500 to 1,000 square feet over a 770 square-foot commercial space and parking for six (6) cars on the ground floor.

There’s only two types of housing they build in the mission: luxury housing and low-income housing. Regular working stiffs just don’t get new places to live in the city. I can’t really tell which one this is going to be, but either way, I’ll be shut out.

But wait, there’s a slight chance of blocking this development. The building might be deemed “historic.”

While the existing building at 645 Valencia Street wasn’t deemed to be historic when reviewed as part of the Inner Mission Historic Resource Survey in 2011, the Planning Department has since “received additional information that suggests that the subject property may have associations with the history of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) individuals in San Francisco.”

As a bar in San Francisco, that sounds reasonable. Let’s hope it works.


Joined the “Obscura Society”

So I’ve joined the so-called Obscura Society, which is devoted to exploring the curioser parts of the planet. From their About Us page:

In an age where everything seems to have been explored and there is nothing new to be found, we celebrate a different way of looking at the world. If you’re searching for MINIATURE CITIES,GLASS FLOWERSBOOKS BOUND IN HUMAN SKINGIGANTIC FLAMING HOLES IN THE GROUNDBONE CHURCHESBALANCING PAGODAS, or HOMES BUILT ENTIRELY OUT OF PAPER, the Atlas Obscura is where you’ll find them.

They write a lot of interesting travel articles on the odder places on the globe. The one that initially caught my eye was on Odessa’s Catacombs when I was researching the disturbing story of the girl who got lost somewhere in the 2,500 KM of underground tunnels:

On January 1st 2005, some Odessa teens decided to spend New Year’s night partying in the catacombs. However, in the drunken revelry a member of the group, a girl named Masha, became separated and lost in the catacombs. She spent three days wandering in the freezing cold and pitch black before she died of dehydration. It took two years before the police were able to locate her body and retrieve it from the catacombs.

Great story — I wish I’d got to it first.

Anyway, I haven’t yet gone on any of their trips. Although they look interesting there usual is a moderate cost. Depending on the tour, tickets are usually $20+ per person. I dunno, can anyone out there vouch for their SF tours? Am I missing out? Perhaps I’ll go and report back…

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Posted by on May 16, 2014 in Going out, Journalism, Weird



Cornerstone Sonoma: Gardens of Earthly Delights

This is an article I wrote for the Italian art magazine Look Lateral, which later decided to cancel their print version and my work along with it. Bummer, because it sounded like a great opportunity at the time. Having spent a fair amount of time preparing it, I’d feel it wasted effort to simply leave it filed away in a remote folder, so I’m sharing it with the world here. All pictures and text are my own copyright property.*

You see them, the huddled masses, bundled in their jackets, yearning to breathe clear air. Poor tourists, who voyaged so far to San Francisco, the pinnacle of California destinations, only to find that it’s not California. In summer, in particular, it’s smothered in an unending layer of dense fog. And, sad to say, it’s often like this during the other three seasons.

So where are Art Lovers, some of the most notorious visitants and bons vivants of San Francisco, to go for reprieve from the doldrums of a continuous white-gray existence and enjoy Artistic Experience, that essential to any life well lived?

The answer is to go north, to Cornerstone Sonoma.


I left just after breakfast. Getting out of The City was surprisingly harmless. Roaring over the Golden Gate I sped around the customary coterie of slow left-lane drivers, positioned just to annoy me. In no time I was rolling into the hills and valleys of the North Bay, a land known for its vineyards, climate, retirees, ample hiking and, last but not least, a population of well-to-do artists and intellectuals—not to mention their burnout hippie hangers-on.

The location was easy enough to find. Right on Highway 121 a large “Cornerstone Sonoma” sign appears, accompanied with a “Turn here” directional guide, for those too dense to read between the lines. An oversized blue chair also sits outside near the road and just at the entrance to the main plaza by the parking lot.

Shortly after arriving, I met Teresa Raffo, the co-founder. I immediately found her friendly, bubbly, warm and ready to tell me anything I wanted to know about Cornerstone.


What struck me first of all, as I basked in the warmth, was that the grounds were not limited to just the gardens; rather, it was almost like a small village, with shops, galleries, a restaurant and wine-tasting rooms. Telling her I was surprised all they had to offer, she said, “Yes, there’s something here for everyone. A lot of people get dragged along and don’t want to go to the gardens for some reason, and prefer to go wine tasting. A lot of people will also order lunch here and take it out to eat in the gardens to enjoy a picnic.”

Which is to say—don’t worry, you can even bring your philistine family members along and drop them off at the watering hole.

After heading out to explore gardens, Teresa cued me in to the history of Cornerstone.


Co-founded with her husband, Chris Hougie, the couple got their idea from a visit to the International Garden Festival at Chaumont during their honeymoon in ’96. Entranced by the spectacle of land art, they went on to buy a plot of desolate farmland and begin threading their way through the labyrinth of California’s zoning laws—a Borgesian process that lasted three years—while the artists were able to complete the first gardens in a couple of months.


Naturally, there were more than a few changes and bumps in the road. The idea of charging for an event and ripping out the gardens each year did not transplant from France to America very well. Instead, many gardens were left in place for several years, admission was free, and visitors would contribute simply through shopping, imbibing or making donations to the artists, as well as for usage in weddings and events. The grounds morphed into an embodiment of that Northern California ethos of “bourgeois bohemianism,” combining the contemporary art in the gardens and galleries with the entrepreneurial spirit in the artisanal shops.

However, I in no way want to dissuade the more anti-commercial or avant-garde among you from making a visit, as the gardens themselves are not a “commercialized” experience. Rather, as you stroll through them you are within the work of serious artists, recognized internationally for their exceptional craftsmanship, social consciousness and idiosyncratic artwork. I’ll touch on some of the current highlights and the impressions they made on me.

Red Lantern by Andy Cao and Xavier Perot features a gigantic lamp sunk into a pond with a railroad track leading down toward it. The garden symbolizes the exoticness of the Chinese in the old west and their role in constructing the American railroads. As I walked along the railroad toward the lamp, I felt as if I were descending a plank into the early American world as experienced by another culture.


Garden of Contrast by van Sweden and Associates meshes between three distinct environments, beginning with native, dry plants at the exterior, transitioning into semi-arid plants, and then, at the interior, to a moist, shaded environment. Over the course of a short walk, I felt a seamless alteration between the environments; once arrived, I felt peaceful, as if resting after a journey.

The Garden of Visceral Serenity by Yoji Sasaki, apparently styled on a very traditional Japanese design, is so simple and static that one can view the miniscule changes with ease. As I sat in the metal box in the interior—something all visitors should do, even if it feels a little like time-out—I viewed the feet of passers-by in relation to the trunks of trees, seeing both the rootedness of humans in the environment and their transitory existence in relation to trees.

And, of course, there was Ecology of Place for Phil Biaggi by Suzanne Biaggi, who gave me a personal tour.


Suzanne was radiant, a little shyer than Teresa at first, but talkative once we walked over to her garden and I posed her questions about her work.

Having started as a sculptor, how did you come to landscape architecture and what do you feel you can better express through this medium?

“I serendipitously found myself doing gardens a while after getting my MA in Sculpture. I enjoy the sculptural landscape you can create with gardens, as well as how interactive they are. I like that you can express ecological concerns more effectively and to a larger number of people through gardens, and that you have more elements at your disposal.”

Standing in her garden, she told me to listen in for a low sound in the background. I recognized it instantly. She told me it was a non-verbal track cycling through her deceased brother Phil’s voice, accompanied with Neil Young’s singing. She went on to say that the garden is dedicated to him and is her way of keeping him alive.

The garden also captures the importance of having a sense of place. Composed of two sections, the front contains the current ecology of the environs just around Cornerstone. A path curves over small puddles that represent the remaining wetlands. On both sides, amid a white terrain made of oyster shells, stand vineyards created with wire, which look gnarled and corrugated. Instead of grapes, rows of aluminum flaps, cut in identical rectangles, run over their tops in an equidistant, industrial pattern. When blown by the wind, they create a light sound that accompanies the low hum playing beneath.

Was your intention of the aluminum pieces to represent the effects of a massive monoculture imposed by the wine industry?

“You know, sometimes you do something and subconsciously it connects, but I was only thinking practically then—in terms of the sound. I should mention, though, that there are a lot of wineries that practice sustainable agriculture, and I think they should be recognized. My goal is to encourage us to move forward into a more sustainable future, which is represented by the second section of the garden.”

That area, hidden behind hedges, is oasis-like, with lush greenery abounding in it. At its center stands an enormous, stainless steel tree—product of the New Zealand artist Regan Gentry. Modeled on the California Buckeye, native to the area, the tree is a symbol of restoration as well as a sublime monument and superb work of craftsmanship.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe garden was still undergoing some changes. The brilliant plan to have a water pathway running along the sides of the walkway, 18 inches deep and capable of rising and falling in tune with the tide, had had to be filled in with rocks after visitors bumbling around with cameras fell into it on the first two days after opening. The only other option would be the usual clutter of bells, whistles, flashing warning lights and mandatory hazmat suits.

After the gardens, I went to A New Leaf Gallery where Brigitte MicMacker, the owner, gave me a walkthrough of the works in the current exhibit, Red, Black, White. Many works were from renowned artists, such as Mary Shaffer and Steve Maslach, though there were quite a few from upcoming artists as well. The only requirement was that they be “artists working in a contemporary mode, whether more experimental or classically inspired” and that they “demonstrate exceptional craftsmanship,” both of which were indeed true.

Having appreciated plenty of art, I found my stomach no less empty, so I decided it was time to wine and dine with Teresa and Suzanne.

Vegetarian and “light” options abounded at Park 121 restaurant, but I was feeling particularly sinful, so I went with a grass-fed hamburger and a glass of Pinot Noir, while Teresa and Suzanne nibbled on sushi rolls. It was pleasant to unwind after a few hours of discussing art and simply relax outside in the warmth.

All in all, I spent an extraordinary day at Cornerstone, a location that combines Northern California’s assortment of eco-consciousness, wine-drinking and bohemian funkiness. And not only was I away from the fog of Bay, I was among nature, art and some fascinating individuals, and enjoyed some spirits and food in the process—a trip well beyond the quotidian.

Daniel Bablinskas, August 2013

*Contact me at dbablin-at-gmail if you are interested in purchasing or republishing the article, or any of the content.

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Posted by on December 13, 2013 in Art, California, Culture, Going out, Tourism, Work


“Intercambios de idiomas” in Madrid

Intercambio roughly translates to “exchange.” An intercambio de lenguas is a language exchange, a meeting of people who speak diverse languages. Usually these events take place at bars (alcohol always facilitates language speaking), and usually are centered around English-Spanish conversation, although a good number of German, French and Chinese speakers tend to show up.

While they’re marketed toward foreigners, the majority of people I meet at intercambios are Spanish, and a good portion of the time they end up speaking in Spanish to foreigners wanting to learn Spanish. They’re usually a lot of fun and are a great way to meet people if you’re new to Madrid. Think of it is a bar where everyone is open to talk to everyone else in whichever language they feel like speaking at the moment. Oh yeah, it’s totally free, too.

I’ve compiled a small list of intercambios below, sorted by day. I’ll update them as I hear about more. Don’t fail to let me know if you know of more.

O’Neill’s, 22:00; Bacchus, 21:00


Beer Station, 22:00; J&J Books and coffee, 21:00

4D, 22:00; J&J Books and coffee (quiz night), 21:00


And apart from going out, there’s also the option of looking on loquo to meet one-on-one. Though I’d be careful with that. I’ve heard most people on there want to exchange more than languages.