A Taste of Europe in San Diego

24 Jun,2016 By Jagabond

Balboa Park is one of the main attractions in San Diego. This is where the world famous zoo is, along with numerous museums, art galleries, and theatres. The park has a major Spanish theme to the architecture – at times I felt like I was walking through Sevilla or Cordoba – but it also diversifies by incorporating other motifs, such as Italian and Asian. Every time I come down here it brings back so many ‘first’ memories…the first date of my longest-lasting relationship, my first Navy officers ball, my first real job across the street at the Military Hospital…sometimes it’s depressing to reminisce but other times I welcome it.

When describing Balboa Park, images speak louder than words, so take a walk through the park with me.

A romantic central fountain like something I saw in Portugal

fountain in balboa park, san diego


Asian-style gardens and pond…

asian garden in balboa park, san diego


Spanish statue like those in Madrid’s Retiro Park….

spanish statue in balboa park, san diego


Alcazar garden similar to what you see in Andalusia

alcazar garden in balboa park, san diego


Classically beautiful Spanish architecture…

spanish architecture in balboa park, san diego


Albarino wine that brought me back to a medieval village in Spain…

enjoying albarino wine at balboa park, san diego


Violinist in the street that made me recall memories of Poland

violinist in balboa park, san diego


Other unique music that reminded me of nothing I’ve seen before…

There is an additional international flavor here, in that the park maintains the ‘International Houses’ exhibit, where many nations have a ‘house’ designated to them which basically acts as a cultural center. One day per week they are open for visitation, and once a year all of them open for the day to celebrate the annual Ethnic Food Festival…which was the purpose of my visit. Everyone gets together to share their country’s local cuisines and culture to a captive Southern California audience. Not surprisingly, I wasn’t the only person in San Diego interested in this event…the place was packed!

ethnic food fest at balboa park, san diego

I showed up very hungry, so I decided to get the food sampling out of the way early on. Many of the more popular houses – e.g. France, Germany, etc. – already had huge lines…even England, which made me wonder if these people waiting had ever tried British food. I focused primarily on Scandinavian houses for some reason. I think it has to do with their love for colors, as someone who recently commented on my Instagram feed noted the same thing about me. I was tempted early on at the Danish House…but then who wouldn’t be tempted by pancake balls?

pancake balls at balboa park, san diego

Not in the mood for something sweet, I meandered over to the House of Finland. Maybe I picked there because of guilt…while visiting Tallinn I did only a day ferry trip to Helsinki and still managed to write a scathing blog entry about it. I gave it another chance, and was pleasantly surprised by the Finnish split pea soup…perfect for an uncharacteristically chilly San Diego day!

finnish split pea soup at balboa park, san diego

I figured I’d round out my tour of Northern Europe. The House of Sweden had a nice display on the Vasa, the most well preserved shipwreck in the world…because the ship only sailed for a few minutes before sinking! I was lucky enough to catch this amazing museum while in Stockholm. The Norwegian House had traditional Lefse for sale, which is basically flatbread with butter, but I was distracted by the odd looking troll on the chair next to me.

norwegian troll at balboa park, san diego

Still hungry, I ventured east and visited the House of Ukraine. I’ve almost had two trips to Kiev, but both fell through at the last minute. I feel I’ll never get there, especially with the current political situation making travel a bit more tenuous. After chatting it up with one of the volunteers about her ancestry, I decided to try some Ukrainian sauerkraut, which was delicious!

ukrainian sauerkraut at balboa park, san diego

Finally satiated, I walked to the main stage area, which was at the time showcasing the House of Spain. I saw about fifteen minutes of nice dancing, including some pretty good flamenco and a kid who looks to have a bright future. The Spanish influence across San Diego runs very deep, so seeing performances like this isn’t as unique knowing that year-round you can find this at a variety of local clubs and restaurants.

spanish dancing at balboa park, san diego

As I walked from the stage, I ran into the strangest sight…one of those old-school bicycles with one big wheel in front. I had to look this up on the spot, and quickly educated myself on the ‘penny-farthing’. This crazy looking thing was created by a Frenchman in the late 19th century, the heart of the Victorian era, and was the first machine to ever be called a bicycle. Due to safety concerns, primarily riders taking ‘headers’ off the bike after hard braking or the wheel striking a rock, the model was eventually replaced with a less dangerous version.

old school bicycle at balboa park, san diego

I’m not the biggest fan of crowds, so as more people rolled in I was realizing I should leave while still having had a great time. What’s nice about these International Houses is they are open every Sunday throughout the year, and also have additional events typically corresponding to their country’s national day. So I can come back any Sunday? Why not? I seem to never have a bad time at Balboa Park, which always sparks fond memories of San Diego…and now of Europe as well.


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