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.
You know — kind of like Berkeley, but with cows.
Sebastopol, Calif., a town of about 7,800, has been home to various Grateful Dead members, free-speech frontman 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 Hwys. 12 and 116.
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 getaway.
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.”
Hwy. 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 hybrid and crossbreed plants.
Then cruise the back roads by car or bike, winding through orchards and vineyards. You will spot handmade signs for fresh eggs, jams and lavender. Another 5 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. 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 crêpes.
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 back-yard 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.
At least 200 of their characters live in Sebastopol. The best place to see the bulk of them is on the artists’ street: Florence Avenue (their house is the one with the massive Godzilla out front). This four-block stretch has become an open-air gallery over the years, as neighbors also began displaying Amiot-Laurent sculptures.
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.”