Photography by Yuri Krasov
A city of Saratoga, found in the vicinity of Silicon Valley, is not your typical hi-tech hub with drafty office buildings and green organic fast food joints for lunching pros. In fact, it is not a high-tech hub at all. Besides, it is not an industrial valley town, but rather a romantic hilly retreat surrounded by mossy oak groves and glossy vineyards turning from emerald to gold on the brink of winter. And when it comes to food, you better prepare to enjoy it as slowly as you can, because the food, as well as wine, is exceptionally good in Saratoga. Hardly an hour drive away from San Francisco, Saratoga is a little known weekend travel destination, where all the major attractions are located in a walking distance from each other, along Big Basin Way, and where taking short rides to more remote sites is a pleasure due to the amazing beauty of the verdant mountainous surroundings.
Our weekend trip to Saratoga my husband and I started at Villa Montalvo, built in 1912 by the then U.S. Senator and San Francisco Mayor James Duval Phelan. He built his summer residence in Italianate style suitable for the Mediterranean climate of California, and surrounded the two-story airy building with gardens, lawns, and flowerbeds, and even an outdoor theater.
Senator Phelan named his villa after a Spanish novelist of the 16th century, Garci Ordonez de Montalvo, who used the word “California” for the first time in his fantastical fiction. To Montalvo, California was a paradise island, populated by Amazons riding gryphons and guarding their countless treasures. To Phelan, American California was a Spaniard’s dream-come-true and an incarnation of the terrestrial paradise he envisioned. The patriotic senator even wrote a poem inscribed on his patio wall, stating, “…her name foretold, her gold a paradise for eager eyes. His dream came true for me and you.” There is plenty to see with eager eyes at Villa Montalvo. Free and open to the public, the entrance to the site is at the end of a winding forest road adorned with contemporary art pieces coming from the resident Montalvo Arts Center. A great green lawn in front of the villa serves as a community picnic ground at the foot of which lies Italian Garden, surrounded by pyramidal Tuscan cypresses and rose bushes.
In the garden, there is an exquisitely preserved white marble statue depicting Adam and Eve, that Senator Phelan brought from Italy. There is also a white-columned Love Temple, with a strange sculpture – formerly a fountain – in its center.
A rectangular colored marble basin, now a planter, is surrounded on four corners by macabre-looking satyrs who peer inside with their tongues stuck out. Underneath, a shallow fountain bed has a wave pattern and four distorted faces looking up from under the waves. Dumbfounded, I was circling the construction trying to connect the dots.
Later, with the kind help from the Montalvo Arts Center’s historians I’ve learned the Love Temple’s own fascinating history.
According to the experts, the decorative motif of the Love Temple once revolved around the Roman goddess Venus, whose statue stood in the center of the fountain. Below, there were the faces of the four winds that blew Venus to shore after her birth. The original satyrs around the fountain were destroyed during the 1989 earthquake, and have been replaced with the “much more ghoulish-looking” versions that are on view today. By 1925, as shown in a dated historical photo, the fountain had been converted into a planter. At some point during the 1940s, the Venus statue was vandalized and removed (as was, unfortunately, much of the statuary on the grounds during that period).
Back in 1930, before Senator Phelan passed away, he left Villa Montalvo to the San Francisco Art Association as a charitable trust “to be used as far as possible for the development of Art, Literature, Music, and Architecture.” Today, according to his wishes, Montalvo Arts Center implements a variety of public programs – musical and theatrical performances, visual arts exhibitions, artists’ residency, lectures, classes, and literary events (www.montalvoarts.org).
Our next stop was at Hakone – the oldest Japanese garden in the Western Hemisphere, established in 1917 by a family of San Francisco arts patrons, Oliver and Isabel Stine. Designed by a descendent of the imperial gardening family and spread over the 18 acres of mountainside covered with bamboo, red maple, and black pine, Hakone is a replica of Japanese samurai or shogun’s estate gardens, where rocks, plants, ponds, and bridges are arranged in heavenly harmony.
The Moon-viewing House on a hill above the Moon Bridge and koi pond, and other structures are built for quiet contemplation, Zen meditation, and tea ceremonies. In the layout and architecture of Hakone it is easy to see the difference between the Western attitude toward nature – the one of conquest and domination, and the Eastern desire to blend with it and appreciate everything that surrounds us. Stone lanterns next to gray stones, bamboo banisters in a bamboo grove, and wisteria blossoms hanging from an arbor made of dry wisteria trunks – everything here looks like a part of a landscape – with the exception of the ancient colorful koi in the pond.
One fish looks like a blue-and-white Japanese porcelain vase, another – like a silk kimono sleeve, the third one – like a flag of Japan with a red round symbol of rising sun upon its white head. One of the prime landmarks by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Hakone was a film site for the “Memoirs of a Geisha” and continues to host multiple international historic and cultural events (www.hakone.us).
After an eventful and educational morning, we lunched at Bella Saratoga – an Italian restaurant located in a beautiful Victorian and serving fresh Californian produce and seafood – a favorite place for local romantic dining. We felt very refreshed after consuming delectable bruschetta, polenta, and caprese.
Next, our route led us to Mountain Winery, founded in 1905 by a famous French winemaker, Paul Masson, who is considered a father of California champagne and whose name is still inscribed on the giant wine barrels that decorate the property. Excellent chardonnay and pinot noir produced here following Paul Masson’s original choice of grapes is not the only attraction of the winery.
One of the major tourist destinations, Mountain Winery boasts unparalleled views of the surrounding hills (with a San-Francisco skyline visible on a clear day) and hosts world-famous seasonal concert series. Over the years, a hillside amphitheater built in 1958, welcomed Diane Ross, The Beach Boys, Donna Summer, Ray Charles, BB King, Willie Nelson, and a long list of other celebrities. A celebrity photographer Ansel Adams worked at Mountain Winery, inspired by the beauty of this place, and some of his artwork can be seen today on the walls of an elegantly appointed tasting room inside the main building (www.mountainwinery.com).
After all the walking on Saratoga hills, we were looking forward to our massage appointments at the award-winning Preston Wynne Spa known for its skilled personnel and serene relaxing ambiance. Every masseuse at Preston Wynne is an expert in some particular kind of treatment, therefore the list of services is long and varied, and includes everything from organic sugar scrub and detoxifying sea mineral wrap to rose oil massage and warm seaweed back pack. Peggy Wynn Borgman, the spa founder, authored a book, “Four Seasons of Inner and Outer Beauty” dedicated to the rituals and recipes for well-being throughout the year (www.prestonwynne.com).
The next door hair salon, James Craig, specializing in haircolor and design, impressed me with its friendly staff and the best scalp treatment and blowout I had in years. On a busy weekend afternoon, the salon’s youthful and efficient team of workers found the time to exchange jokes with the customers while transforming and improving their appearances (www.jamescraig.com).
Feeling beautiful and energized, I didn’t mind visiting more places and acquainting myself further with the city of Saratoga.
At Cooper Garrod Estate Vineyard we tried some wonderful viognier, cabernet Franc, and signature Test Pilot blends from the estate grapes. We also took a good look at the gorgeous riding horses and ponies from the Garrod Frms Riding Stables (www.cgv.com, http://www.garrodfarms.com).
At Cinnabar Winery we celebrated new releases of 2011 Grenach from Paso Robles, 2010 Tempranillo from Lodi, and 2009 Malbec from Clear Lake with the Alchemist Wine Society (www.cinnabarwine.com).
At Saratoga Chocolates we enjoyed delicate truffles flavored with espresso and Kahlua, lime and mint, cinnamon and cayenne (www.saratogachocolates.com).
At Deja and Co Exquisite Jewels we got an eyeful of designer gems and a glass of champagne offered to the shopping public on a weekend night (www.dejaandco.com).
Finally, by dinner time we walked to the Plumed Horse restaurant, where Chef/Owner Peter Armellino tirelessly wows his patrons with his outstanding creativity and sophistication. Our tasting menu started with a fresh tuna tartar topped with brioche toast, quail egg yolk, and black caviar, followed by a miniature presentation of black pepper and Parmesan soufflé and uni and Dungeness crab fondue. Rabbit loin, wrapped in bacon, was garnished with silky Gruyere and onion flan, while an antelope sausage came in a company of sweet potato puree and wheat berries. Pear sorbet with pomegranate seeds arrived before dessert to cleanse the palate. For a sweet finale, chocolate mousse was sharing a plate with whipped crème fraiche, port gelee drops, and coffee nibs. Our lavish feast was paired with delicate wines from the restaurant’s glass-walled wine cellar (www.plumedhorse.com). When we finished our state-of-the-art meal, it was dark and rather late. Good that our hotel, Saratoga Oaks Lodge was literally steps away from the restaurant on the same main drag as everything else in this blessed city.
Cozy cottages with all the modern conveniences, snuggly nestled under the century-old oaks, formed a little quiet zone around a flowering courtyard. A living room with a fireplace, a kitchenette with a coffeemaker, and a very comfortable bed provided a good night sleep. In the morning, we picked up our freshly-brewed coffee, pastries and fruit from the office, and took our sweet time having breakfast on a terrace surrounded by potted banana plants and tropical flowers (www.saratogaoakslodge.com).