Nov 15, 2021

Seeking the serendipity of foreign travel on a trip closer to home


San Diego's Little Italy

The best foreign travel incorporates adventure. Not knowing everything that lies ahead comes with challenges along with unexpected rewards.

 My husband and I usually use public transportation instead of renting a car, knowing that while we might miss a connection, we're more likely to run into locals ready to share tips about what to see or where to eat as well as tell us where to get off.

We look for lodging in a neighborhood rather than in town centers, usually in a bed and breakfast, small hotel or Airbnb, then scout out a cafe where we'll be recognized as regulars on the second visit. Etched into my memory is the tea shop with a dirt floor in Myanmar where we sat each morning on miniature plastic stools and the lakeside cafe in Bukara, Uzbekistan where students surrounded us each afternoon to practice their English. 

 With Covid temporarily restricting our foreign travels, I've begun to think about how we could seek out that same sense of serendipity closer to home. Our recent five-day getaway to San Diego was the test case.  

Embracing public transportation in Europe or Asia is easy. Buses and trains go everywhere. But how would this work in car-centric Southern California? 

Neighborhood Airbnbs tempted us more than hotels in the downtown Gaslamp Quarter, but without a car, how practical would it be to get around?

Some quick research on San Diego's bus and light rail system showed us that except for using Uber to get to and from the airport, we would be able to go everywhere by downloading the city's digital Pronto app on our phones. The San Diego Metropolitan Transit System, with  95 bus routes and three light rail lines, operates it entire fleet on electric and natural gas.  With fares capped at $6 per day, all we had to do use our credit card to pre-load money onto the pass, then scan it each time we road. 

Our Airbnb in Bankers Hill

Confident we could get around easily, we settled on a charming garden studio, newly converted from a carriage house, on a quiet residential street in Bankers Hill in the elegant Uptown neighborhood near Balboa Park.

 The Airbnb checked all the boxes for unique accommodations. The owners managed to squeeze a patio, full kitchen, bath and a working fireplace into a tiny amount of space. The secret was a surprisingly comfortable Murphy bed hidden behind a bookshelf which we pulled down following video instructions supplied at check-in.

Research on pointed us in the direction fo Cafe Bassam, two blocks away via the pedestrian Quince Street Bridge, originally built in 1905 to give Uptown residents better access to a trolley line.

The Quince Street footbridge

So far, the neighborhood was living up to our expectations for adventure. The long, narrow footbridge spans Maple Canyon, a park with walking trails leading downhill to Little Italy in Midtown and San Diego's Waterfront Park.

 Cafe Bassam became our regular spot for coffee or a glass of wine sipped at cozy tables surrounded by an assortment of antiques, pharmaceutical jars, vintage hats and bins filled with help-yourself bags of loose tea. 

Cafe Bassam

We felt as if we had wandered into a cafe in Cairo or Paris. That's because before Cafe Bassam was a cafe, it was an antique shop where customers enjoyed free coffee brewed by owner Shamma Bassam. They loved the coffee and the antique atmosphere so much, he decided to combine both into a cafe with a European vibe unique to Southern California. 

We latched onto other neighborhood spots in the coming days, including a few in nearby Hillcrest, the center of San Diego's LQBTQ scene, and our favorite, Jimmy Carter's, a bright yellow and red Mexican cantina named not for the former president but for the building's original owner. Dinner our first night was not in crowded Little Italy, but at Mia Trattoria, a family-owned Italian restaurant a few blocks from our Airbnb.

Just as we do when we're in another country, we didn't pay much attention to how long it would take us to get around, either by walking or riding the bus.

The museums and gardens of Balboa Park were just a mile away via the Cabrillo Bridge, built for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition to provide access to the park from Uptown.

Getting to other parts of the city might have been faster by car, but riding the buses and light rail (called the trolley) was more relaxing. It never took more than one transfer to get where we were going, including across town to Mission Beach for a bike ride, and to Old Town, the location of the first European settlement in California and the terminus for several bus lines. 

Freeway murals in Barrio Logan

In pre-Covid times, we might have used the light rail to cross the Mexican border at San Ysidro. Instead, we swapped out a visit to Barrio Logan, a lively Latino community where the local brewery turns out a Horchata golden stout, and street artists have painted the concrete freeway underpasses with dozens of colorful murals.

Closer to Bankers Hill, via the walking path though Maple Canyon, was Little Italy, touristy yes, but still authentic and fun.

 When we found the front doors locked at Our Lady of the Rosary church, a caretaker let us in a side entrance to view the murals painted by Italian artist Fausto Tasca. We found my favorite Sicilian lemon soda in an Italian grocery store, and tried the beet and sweet potato hash browns and pumpkin pancakes at Harbor Breakfast.

Morning meal at Harbor Breakfast

 In nearby Amici Park, men raked the bocce ball courts next to the Little Italy Dog Park. My regret now is that we didn't accept their offer to join in a game. Had we been in Italy, we would have done so. But as sometimes happens when traveling in familiar surroundings, it's easy to let the serendipity slip by. Lesson for next time: Never turn down an invitation. 


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