Weekend getaway to scenic Sebastopol

March 2, 2015

Whimsical sculptures, constructed of steel with many repurposed and recycled parts, decorate many front yards on Florence Avenue in Sebastopol, Calif., on Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015.

Gotta love a town that supposedly earned its name in an 1850s bar fight — something about likening the brawl to the British siege of the seaport of Sevastopol during the Crimean War. Clearly, folks were up on global events back then, despite no broadband service.

It was a suitably sassy way to launch this offbeat place. These days, politicians duke it out at city meetings, and free spirits of the art and/or wine kind flow freely through town, alongside old hippies and young hipsters, organic farmers, hermit holdouts and whimsical sculptures (more on those later).

You know — kinda like Berkeley, but with cows.

Sebastopol, Calif., a town of about 7,800, has been home to various Grateful Dead members, free-speech front man Mario Savio and cartooning icon Charles Schulz, and it has long sported cute shops, good eats and pastoral scenery. But it’s usually viewed as a mere pass-through at the junction of highways 12 and 116, on the way to Bodega Bay or the Russian River.

That began changing in 2013 with the opening of The Barlow — a hip, happening hub of art galleries, wine-tasting rooms and foodie shops (think liquid-nitrogen ice cream) set in a cluster of old produce warehouses. And there’s bounty beyond The Barlow. In short, Sebastopol and the surrounding areas offer a great weekend getaway.

Granted, the town is not laid out in perfect, tourist-friendly, town-square fashion, so part of the fun is the search for the singular, the quest for the quirk. Wander through Mockingbird Used Books on Sebastopol Avenue and check out some of their intriguing categories, such as "Western True Crime" or "Paranormal Romance." Next door is the Toyworks toy store, two stories of Play-Doh, magic sets and Etch A Sketches. Stop in at Screamin’ Mimi’s Ice Cream (no liquid nitrogen here), or grab a minty mocha at the walk-up stand of Friendly Joe’s Coffee that touts its treats as organic, sustainable and "dang tasty."

Highway 12 becomes Bodega Avenue, so head west a few blocks for a stroll through the historic Luther Burbank Experimental Farm, where in the late 1800s, the famed horticulturist developed and grew thousands of new hybrid and crossbreed plants.

Then cruise the curvaceous backroads by car or bike, winding through orchards and vineyards. You will spot handmade signs for fresh eggs, jams, lavender. Bloomfield Bees Honey has a roadside shed on Bloomfield Road selling raw creamed honey and candles.

Another five miles out, Bodega Avenue leads to the blink-and-miss, 26-house village of Freestone and the not-to-miss Wild Flour Bakery, with sticky buns bigger than your head and steaming hot breads. Warning: highly addictive. A loaf’s throw away (although you’d never want to throw away those loaves) is Freestone Artisan Cheese in a tiny yellow house offering cheesy crepes. Get a massage and a cedar enzyme bath at Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary.

But the Sebastopol area’s main — and quirkiest — attraction has to be the wild and wonderful sculptures sprinkled all about town, the result, one might guess, of Tim Burton, Edward Gorey and Salvador Dali getting drunk, tumbling down a rabbit hole and ending up in Oz.

Instead, the giant, colorful, cartoonish dogs, fish, cars, people, trains, mermaids, witches, baseball players, superheroes and more are treasured "junk art" from the magical minds and backyard studio of husband-and-wife artists Patrick Amiot and Brigitte Laurent. Since 2001, Amiot has been wielding his welder on old water heaters, wheelbarrows, alarm clocks, oil cans, shovels, you name it, with Laurent brushing on garish grins, outrageous outfits and bulging eyeballs in bold, brash colors.

In fact, one of the first sights when heading toward Sebastopol along Highway 12 is a huge, 10-foot-tall Holstein, made of a semi truck’s sleeper cab and pieces of scrap metal, poised pensively out in the fields next to a cud-chewing cluster of bona fide bovine. She is simply titled "Cow."

Amiot, who calls himself a happy-go-lucky guy, says these works have no deep meaning. They’re just for fun. Still, he does appreciate the "journey" of found objects.

"I have this thing in my little artist mind, that things have a spirit and have something to say," he said when I caught him on the phone as he took a break from working on a postman being chased by a dog. "Most were on their way to the landfill. I just happen to intercept them at some point in their lives in the process. I like to think this hubcap has seen prairies and cows and accidents and hot asphalt and snow. I try to imagine every little piece and what it’s been through."

He’s imagined a lot. At least 200 of these characters live in Sebastopol — some in public spots, but many on private property and hidden from street view. The best place to see the bulk of them is on the artists’ residential street: Florence Avenue (their house is the one with the massive Godzilla out front). This four-block stretch of mostly bungalow-style homes between Bodega and Healdsburg avenues has become an open-air gallery over the years, as neighbors also began displaying Amiot-Laurent sculptures.

There’s a Babe Ruth in pinstripe Yankees uniform, and a Batman made up of a toaster, flashlight and what looks like a meat grinder. "The Zucchini Brothers" are three trash-can jugglers stacked on each other’s shoulders. There’s the Wicked Witch of the West and a mermaid with a sultry blue tail, her scales formed from overlapping paint-can lids; a ship captain and a small-scale pickup truck marked "Three Little Pigs Construction," stuffed with pigs.

It makes for a great stroll and even a game, trying to guess which parts are what. You might consider parking on a nearby street and walking to Florence to ease traffic. But Amiot says that’s really not a problem.

"Actually, this used to be a shortcut with people speeding through between 116 and 12. Now, because of people driving really slowly, pointing out their windows at the artwork, it’s slowed everybody down. It’s much safer for cats."

Getting there: There are at least two ways to get to the quirky West Sonoma County town from San Francisco. Take Highway 101 north to Highway 116 west near Cotati, or remain on 101 until Santa Rosa and take Highway 12 west — and be sure to watch for the giant cow sculpture.Junk art sculptures: Must-sees are the many junk art sculptures around town by Sebastopol artists Patrick Amiot and Brigitte Laurent. A concentration of them can be found along Florence Avenue between Bodega and Healdsburg avenues; www.patrickamiot.com.

Apple fest: The 69th Apple Blossom Festival and Parade takes place April 18-19 on Main Street; www.appleblossomfest.com.




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