The Surprising Hills Of Berkeley, California

We were in Berkeley for a week recently, visiting a lifelong friend of Tamara’s – a lovely woman named Judy who is ill.

After a short flight from Edinburgh (where we live) to London Heathrow, and a couple of hours wandering around the airport shops, it was onwards with a non-stop flight to San Francisco.

It was late afternoon when we landed and somewhat later when we arrived via the AirTrain at the car hire counter at the airport.

After we did the paperwork, we walked through to the car park. “Pick any one of those,” said the woman in the booth and we looked at a long row of very big cars.

We chose the smallest one.

I was slightly tense about driving because I hadn’t driven on the right (wrong) side of the road for a while. And after an eleven-hour flight and feeling a bit dazed, I had to ask directions to get out of the car park…

In fact, the route to Berkeley is pretty straightforward – just take the highway to the Bay Bridge.

The Bay Bridge towards Berkely, California

The Bay Bridge

The Bay Bridge is one of the longest bridges in the world at four and a half miles excluding the approaches. And the traffic is four lanes wide – and as you can see, it is all going one way.

I did wonder at one point where the oncoming traffic was.

In fact the traffic coming the other way is on the upper deck of the bridge (above all the ironwork in this photo), as we found out when we drove from Berkeley into San Francisco one day.

Finding Berkeley

Driving off the bridge and then eventually on to the Berkeley off-ramp led us to a winding spaghetti of roads filled with commuter traffic all seeming to be heading for one converging spot.

The sheer volume of traffic plus the early evening California sun made the whole journey hyper-real.

Then we turned off into Berkeley and it was like stepping off the world.

The houses are low lying and there are trees and flowering bushes growing in gardens – and all under the rich blue of the California sky.

It is not all beautiful, and there are rougher spots in the town, but all in all it is quite beguiling.

Tamara worked in San Francisco years ago and she lived in Berkeley. She tells me that Berkeley has grown a lot in the intervening years – with more people and more buzz.

And Tamara and I visited San Francisco for a week or so about ten years ago, and we spent a day in Berkeley.

My only clear memory of Berkeley, however, is of the short-stack pancake breakfast we had in a cafe nestled against the hills. That also was in the company of my wife’s friend, Judy.

First Impressions Of Berkeley

It’s not easy to accurately encapsulate a town in a few sentences, of course.

One thing I noticed though is that besides the university students, Berkeley has its share of alternative lifestyle seekers, and its down-and-outs and its crazy people.

One thing you don’t see, however, is people hurrying along. They might be jogging – and there were a lot of people doing that – but you don’t see commuter-style hurrying.

I Go Grab A Coffee

Having driven from the airport and checked in to our hotel, I was feeling very lively even after the eleven hour flight, so I walked up the street to get a coffee.

The cafe section of the Au Coquelet cafe is a big open-plan room and it was wall to wall with people with their laptops open.

There were some couples and small groups, but mostly people were on their own. They were buried in the laptops and the cafe was quiet, like a study hall rather than a cafe.

I wondered – was this Berkeley? Had America moved into the cocooned world of online reality?

Thankfully no, but it is pretty quiet in there.

By the way, I plan to write an article shortly about how we got on line with our computer and how we made telephone calls without breaking the bank.

The Hills Beckon

We stayed at a hotel on University Avenue, which is a very long street – and over the coming days I kept looking at the tree-covered hills that seemed to begin just at the top of the street.

And one afternoon, Tamara and I started driving up the street towards the hills.

It seemed that wherever we branched off and whichever street we took, it eventually petered out into a private road leading to a lab or some other building belonging to the university.

A couple of times we asked directions for how to circumnavigate the university grounds, and eventually we got directions to how to find a clear road that would lead to higher ground.

This next photo is a shot looking back into the town from after we had just received directions. At this point we were not very high up, and I had not idea how much more of the hills lay above us.

Looking down the road in Berkeley

I am not quite sure what we were expecting – certainly not that we would be up in the clouds, surrounded by trees in a misty atmosphere that reminded me of forests in South America (where I travelled some years ago).

‘What a nice surprise: Welcome to the New World,’ I thought to myself as we drove along sandy roads through forest-covered hills.

Mist Above Berkeley

Eventually we got a bit lost, and after a long descent we found ourselves headed for the on-ramp to join a highway heading towards somewhere or other far from Berkeley.

So we turned around and headed back up until we came to a mist-shrouded crossroads. We pulled to the side and waited for a car to pull alongside so we could ask directions.

Commuting, Northern California Style

Eventually an upmarket car pulled up and we asked directions. The woman driving the car was smartly dressed and she had the air of someone who had just finished a day’s work.

She gave us directions and we drove on.

As we drove, I pondered what a lovely way it must be to finish a day at the office by commuting home over these hills and into Berkeley.