There’s a metro stop in Budapest named Astoria. It’s right by the Astoria Hotel, a lovely French-Empire-style building that first opened to guests in March 1914. I wondered briefly if there was a connection between it and Astoria, OR, but sadly not. The hotel got its name because Mihály Gellér, the first General Manager of the hotel, had worked in the Waldorf Astoria in New York . Astoria, OR was named after America’s first millionaire, John Jacob Astor. No story there. Still, I was curious to see Astoria, OR, as I’d heard all sorts of tales of an underground city and nefarious types who made it a dangerous place for a fella to have a drink. The city dates back to 1811, making it the oldest city in the state and, interestingly, the first American settlement west of the Rockies. On the banks of the Columbia River and close to the Pacific Ocean, it has a salty feel to it but for all its quaint fisher-folk fashioning, it’s just as famous for the movies filmed there. Back in 1908, when people were still being shanghaied (drugged and taken aboard a ship to wake up at sea resigned to working out their voyage), Hollywood decided to be brave and film The Fisherman’s Bride in the city. It would be the first of many films shot on location in Astoria: Remember Kindergarten Cop? Free Willy? Into the Wild? All shot in Astoria.
The wooden walkway that runs by the river is a lovely walk, populated as it is with old murals, seafood restaurants, and buildings built on wooden pylons. It’s imbued with a fabulous smell of old wood and a heady sense of atmosphere. It didn’t take much imagination to go back in time a little, to the days when drinking too much didn’t just mean a hangover – it could mean waking up on a ship you never planned on boarding. Walking above ground on the city’s streets, you’d be forgiven for not knowing that below you lies a warren of tunnels dating back 100 and more years.
Built Astoria still has old buildings in use today, like the fabulous Liberty Theater and City Hall. The theatre was restored to its former glory back in 2006 and still has that vaudeville look about it. City Hall was built in the 1920s as the Astoria Savings Bank, which went out of business in the 1929 crash. Other shops show the city’s quirky side with plenty by way of galleries and old antique stands. Had we had more time and didn’t have weight restrictions on our transatlantic flight, I could have done some serious damage. I was quite taken by the colourful rubbish bins, testimony to the city’s maritime history and the famous Columbia River salmon. The City governors have their act together, with a riverfront trolley catering for the seasonal tourists who come en masse in the summer months.
The city has a palpable sense of tradition, of longevity, of tenacity. Third-generation immigrants still run family businesses. Names engraved on tombstones in the local cemetery testify to the reach of its forefathers with family names from all over Europe dating back a couple of hundred years, old as it goes in America. Perhaps the most touted sight to see is the Astoria Column, built apparently to rival the Eiffel Tower.
Astoria, Oregon is both a gateway and the hub in a region steeped in history. Standing at the top of the Astoria Column, you can envision the hardships, bravery, and awe experienced by the first people to live in this corner of the world. Dedicated by the Great Northern Railway in 1926, the Astoria Column stands today as a monument to those people. The Column is a unique work of Northwest art offering an unparalleled view of the meeting of many roads.
The frescoes were painted by an Italian immigrant artist, Attilio Pusterla, and tell the story of the city’s history. The views from the top are spectacular (or so himself told me – I didn’t make the climb myself). I was happy enough with my view of the river and the Astoria-Megler Bridge, the longest 3-truss bridge in the world. It runs for just over 6.5 km (4.1 miles) and is quite something.
Astoria is a lovely spot to spend a day in – highly recommended. [Aside: I am confused by America’s city thing… were Astoria in Europe, it’d be a town, not a city.]
Further up the coast to Seaside
I couldn’t decide if I’d ever been to the coastal town of Seaside before. I was hankering for a bit of beach and a dip in the ocean and our intrepid guide TJ was very obliging. We got there late afternoon on an unseasonably hot day. Temperatures hit 95 F (35 C) and it was baking. I’d expected it to be thronged but this late in the season (it was late August) most of the holidaymakers had gone home. Schools were getting ready to start back and those with families had books to buy and pencils to sharpen.
Seaside reminded me of Tramore in Ireland. It’s like any seaside town with a bevvy of souvenir shops, ice-cream stands, and amusement arcades. Restaurants favoured fast food and the coffee shops offered unlimited refills of tap water, once you bought the first one. It’s famous for its saltwater Taffy, a chewy sweet that came to be in the 1880s on the other side of America on the Jersey Shore.
Taffy is made by stretching or pulling a sticky mass of boiled sugar, butter or vegetable oil, flavorings, and colorings until it becomes aerated. When this process is complete, the taffy is rolled, cut into small pastel-colored pieces and wrapped in wax paper to keep it soft.
I brought bags of it home. All flavours: vanilla, lemon, maple, banana, watermelon, raspberry, apple, mint, chocolate. Strangely, it’s not made of saltwater (as in from the sea) but does have both salt and water in it. Jerky is another favourite take-home. Back in my jerky days, I was a fan of moose, elk, and salmon; I was quite surprised to see alligator and kangaroo making the cut.
At what’s known as the Turnaround, there’s statue of Lewis and Clark, who, together with the Corps of Discovery and their dog Seaman, set out from St Louis, MO, in the early nineteenth century to map the western part of the USA – they ended up in Seaside where they ran into the Pacific Ocean. What a job that must have been: So, what do you do for a living? I’m an expeditioner. I think I was born after my time.
We walked what seemed like miles to get to the water on hot, hot sand. The water was bloody freezing. After about 3 minutes, I lost all feeling in my feet. But I did get down and I did swim a couple of metres before giving in. No wonder people were wearing wetsuits. On the beach, we lay and read. It was so hot that I was seriously considering a second immersion. But then, in 30 seconds flat, the temperature dropped 10 degrees. It was as if someone had turned on the aircon. I’m sure there’s a science behind it all – something to do with a setting sun and moisture in the air. It was the first time I’d experienced it though and it was remarkable.
Note to self for next time I’m in Astoria
- Go to Stevens State Park at low tide and walk out to see the wreck of the Peter Iredale, a British ship that ran aground in 1906.
- Go back to Hurricane Ron’s Bar and Grill for more fried clams
- Book a show at the Liberty Theatre
- Take a tour of the old Astoria underground city
Note to self for next time I’m in Seaside
By the time they reached the lower Columbia River region, the Corps had run out of valuable salt for seasoning food, and, perhaps more important, preserving meat. Capt. Clark didn’t care if his food was salty, but many other Corps members did. Good food meant good spirits, and keeping morale up during the rainy winter of 1805 was key. On the other hand, meat preservation was a matter of life or death for the Corps. […] To make salt, the Corps had to find rocks to build a furnace, wood to burn, ocean water to boil, fresh water to drink and game animals. […] Five men traveled to the beach site, built the camp and set five kettles to boiling, 24 hours a day, to produce salt. According to their records, they set out from Fort Clatsop on Dec. 28, 1805, and left the camp Feb. 20, 1806, with 3 ½ bushels or about 28 gallons of “Excellent, fine, strong & white” salt.
It’s an area replete with history and one worth visiting, preferably off-season though, as I’d imagine that at the height of the summer, both places would be thronged.