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We had three full days in New Orleans, one of which would be largely given over to organised sightseeing tours, so we had to make the most of the remaining time.

Having ticked Pat O’Brien’s off our “must indulge” list, it was time on our first morning to sample the revered breakfast dish of beignets, deep fried doughnuts sprayed with powdered sugar. This would not have been my first choice – eggs, bacon, sausage and toast will always lay claim to that title – but we acknowledged that it was incumbent upon any new visitor to the city to try them at least once.

Mindful of the long lines that accumulate outside Cafe du Monde in the morning, combined with fact that, following the previous night’s drinking, we had not risen early, we decided to tuck into them at the first opportunity, which turned out to be Cafe Beignet on Decatur Street. Ironically, by the time we had reached the flagship branch later, there was no line at all, though a healthy crowd were being entertained by a lively jazz band.

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At Jackson Square, former military drill field, “Place d’Armes”, we explored both the magnificent St Louis Cathedral and the statue of Andrew Jackson, seventh President of the United States and previously military leader responsible for defeating the British in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815.

One thing that struck me – though it really shouldn’t have – was the number of walking tours being delivered in the area, some well supported, others less so. There were several underway of the French Quarter, but this only scratched the surface as, amongst others, there were tours available to cover the New Orleans’s history, ghosts, voodoo, cemeteries, food and drink as well as for other parts of the city, for example the Garden District, home to the Lafayette Cemetery and dozens of monumental antebellum mansions.

There were several conspicuous reminders around the area that the city was celebrating its 300th anniversary.

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I called into the visitor centre and was greeted with that genuine, warm southern hospitality that we were already becoming accustomed to. Two delightful ladies of undoubted pensionable age directed me to the impressive, free official visitors guides to the city and state. As I turned to leave, they exclaimed in unison, “y’all have a nice day, now”.

After such a cheerful salutation, how could I not?

We wanted to make the most of the improvement in the weather (the sun had even made an occasional appearance), so decided against visiting any museums, much as we may have wanted to. These will have to wait for our return (for return we shall) on a later date.

And we were getting peckish again.

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One and a half beignets each was hardly going to fill us up, so we were, or rather I was, delighted shortly afterwards to spot the Central Grocery, home to the equally legendary muffuletta, a massive layered olive salad, meats and cheese sandwich drizzled with olive oil. We sat in the store and devoured one half of the half sized muffuletta (not cheap at $11.50) before moving on.

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We continued to stroll along Decatur Street until it met Esplanade Avenue, the boundary between the French Quarter and the Faubourg Marigny district. With light rain falling again, it was reassuring to discover the indoor French Market which ran alongside the riverfront.

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Given the number of jewellery, as well as craft, stalls available, it was only a matter of time before Janet purchased her first earrings of the trip.

Although there is no substitute to eating the fabulous food that New Orleans has to offer, just reading the menu boards, as at this stall in the French Market can be almost as satisfying – I repeat almost.


It certainly served to remind us that we still had half a muffuletta left, which we devoured in triangular shaped Latrobe Park after first having had cocktails at the Gazebo Cafe (we had fully sobered up by now), whilst being thoroughly entertained by another accomplished band playing a number of New Orleans classics.

Our intention all along today had been to saunter back along the riverfront, or “Moon Walk”, from the furthest reaches of the French Quarter, and we were not going to allow the steady drizzle to deter us. Our first glimpse of the Mississippi River, which is to feature so prominently on this trip, was framed by the Greater New Orleans Bridge.

The pretty red Riverfront streetcar pulled into Toulouse Station, evoking memories of those rattling, cranky vehicles in San Francisco that we had ridden so many times before (and sometimes seemed we had spent half our lives on). We planned to travel the three main lines here on our final day.

The riverfront amble also gave us the opportunity to compare the two paddlewheel steamboats that we had considered for our dinner jazz cruise on the next evening. As we approached, the Natchez, images of which, including a giant mural, we had already witnessed around the city was herding its latest group of passengers off the boat. It looked a little chaotic to be honest.

We had already booked the Creole Queen for the following evening, a decision that already looked vindicated. It appeared smaller and more intimate. The Mardi Gras character pictured below seemed to be promoting it too.

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A brief exploration of the Outlet Collection at Riverfront, including a coffee at another branch of Cafe du Monde, prefaced a return to the hotel, negotiating the noisy and substantial building works that were upgrading the area still further.

We returned to the French Quarter in the evening, enjoying another outstanding seafood meal at Oceana on Conti Street, a few yards from the intersection with Bourbon Street. Bypassing the growing drunkenness and debauchery infecting the whole area, we returned to the Red Fish Grill where we had eaten the previous night, for a nightcap in their quiet, civilised bar.

Tomorrow would be a different day with water having the starring role. We had booked a swamp and bayou sightseeing tour for the morning/afternoon and the aforementioned jazz dinner cruise in the evening.

And the weather forecast was for heavy rain and thunderstorms!

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One of these days I might manage to walk past this place.

But it’s not likely to be anytime soon.

For a start, you can’t miss it. The attractive magenta, cyan and yellow (you can tell I use Epson printer cartridges) frontage in itself will cause all but the most rushed tourist or day tripper to stop momentarily, smile and ponder whether they should while away an hour inside.

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Ready for the Big Switch On!

The huge picture window of the upper (magenta) level of this independent coffee house near the top of the Old High Street in Folkestone allows that unsuspecting passer by to peer more closely at the interior, and marvel at the walls crammed with books of all ages and sizes. They will also observe the VIPs among the clientele who have snagged the settee and armchair in that window. Despite the fact that many complain that they feel in a goldfish bowl once they are ensconced there, they are never in a hurry to vacate the space, and when they do, there is always a civilised clamour to assume residency.

And after all, it is the best people watching spot in Folkestone!

The scholarly feel continues when you place your order with the welcoming staff. You become temporary custodian of part of the book collection with a number on the cover to identify your order, a twist on the ubiquitous wooden spoon. This morning I am handed a copy of The Faithless Lover and other Poems by Leonard Ley – no intended reflection, I’m sure, on my character, but, nonetheless, I shall move swiftly on.

I take my seat at the small table behind the settee. This is the best place to write as it provides an element of privacy and just enough space for laptop, phone, coffee and plate. And there is a tasteful lamp for reading purposes and the beautiful double-sided screen made exclusively for Steep Street by Zimbabwean born local artist Thurle Wright to stare at for inspiration and worth the visit alone – perfect.

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Beautiful centrepiece

I await my ethnically sourced cappuccino and brie, parmesan and tomato quiche, just one scrumptious item on a menu that includes the most luscious cakes as well as tasty paninis, salads and sandwiches, all  prepared, baked and cooked on the premises. There are plenty of vegan options too.

I spot a small girl, maybe three years old, dressed head to toe in pink, hurtling excitedly down the cobbled hill, while her frantic father strains to grasp her hand before she rolls down into the harbour. Should he fail, I am at least reassured that it is low tide at the moment.

Civilised, animated conversation is another attractive feature of life at Steep Street, and today is no different as it reverberates around the split level layout. Leonard Cohen’s untimely death, announced earlier this morning, vies with Trump, Brexit and the imminent new series of I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here (I made this last one up) as the main topics of discourse. All is calm and unhurried. Even the background music (Paul Simon as I write this) is soulful and unobtrusive.

A bedraggled mutt (I think he must have been for an early morning dip in the Pent Stream) sidles up to me and engages in a couple of minutes’ foreplay that entails the licking of hands and coyly turning its head away when I try to stroke it, before settling at my feet and catching the crumbs of my quiche as they – accidentally on purpose – escape from my plate.

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Gates of Paradise!

Spotting the Grateful Dead lightning bolt and teddy bear stickers on my laptop, his owner begins to reminisce (as far as he can remember) about his involvement with the Deadhead community in the U.S. in the eighties. This leads to a conversation about his attempts to bring traditional Irish music to the town. We debate the respective merits as venues of the Leas Cliff Hall, with whom he already has a meeting arranged, and the Quarterhouse on Tontine Street. I assure him that there is an audience within Kent and recommend the latter as the more appropriate (and crucially smaller) venue.

On his departure, his place at the adjoining table is taken by the Member of Parliament for Folkestone and Hythe, Damian Collins, whom I had only come across the previous day at the Folkestone Jobs Fair. I introduce myself as one of his new constituents and exchange a few words about the recently launched business hub on West Terrace.

As a fellow devotee of Steep Street the man clearly has some taste, and his campaigning for Remain in the EU Referendum endears him to me still further.

But I wouldn’t vote for him.

A young couple with extensive facial piercings sit at the corner table and extract their laptops from their satchels, rendering the upper level a scene from an Apple interns’ breakout room. Or at least it would if Mr Collins, and especially I, didn’t double the average age.

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A great study space

As I stand and rummage in my trouser pockets for £2.60 for another cappuccino, one of the young women serving behind the counter informs me (and the customers around me) that the man that I had been talking to previously had, on leaving the cafe, paid for a large drink for me. I am delighted and humbled by the gesture, or at least I would be if I weren’t so darn embarrassed too.

The charming owners, Stephen and Alice, are committed supporters of the upcoming Folkestone Book Festival, sponsoring illustration, flash fiction and “short and tweet” competitions, as well as publishing a magazine containing the best five entries in each category. During the event itself, they are hosting creative writing and poetry workshops. In many ways they will be the epicentre of the entire festival.

Steep Street’s reputation as literary linchpin of a town increasingly defined by its artistic offering (the next internationally celebrated Triennial is scheduled for next year), is enhanced by the provision of “blackboard” tables upon which customers, primarily, but not exclusively of the milkshake rather than flat white persuasion, can chalk their own artworks.

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A rare opportunity to nab the best people watching seats!

The same pink-spattered child observed earlier had thankfully avoided a watery, or rather muddy, grave following her hair raising downhill run on the cobbles, courtesy of a relieved Daddy carrying her back up the hill. In celebration, she tips the tumbler of coloured crayons on the table and sets to work.

Witnessing the resulting, naturally pink (or is it magenta?), Christmas tree exposes my own artistic shortcomings and I resolve to offer to pay a surcharge next time I’m obliged to sit at that table. My signature art piece since the age of three, and still serving me well / ill (delete as appropriate) are matchstick men and women wearing top hats, and in the case of the latter, the additional, creative touch of equilateral triangle shaped skirts.

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My book is in there somewhere!

The self-styled Folkestone Poet stands stoically in his accustomed spot outside the Big Boys Fine Burger Co. restaurant directly opposite Steep Street. His sales technique entails whispering to passers by while waving three copies of his verse collections gently in the air, hardly likely to secure him a retail job, but quietly appropriate for his role in the town’s life . Most of those who stop tend to smile sheepishly and scurry off without making a purchase, deterred by a combination of price and content, but I find his work refreshingly direct, full of gallows humour and the most idiosyncratic spelling. And there are occasional flashes of heart rending poignancy.

My incipient bromance with Damian Collins attains a new level of intimacy as he buys a copy, though a cynical fellow patron speculates loudly whether he will claim the £3 back on his parliamentary expenses.

Oh ye of little faith.

But he could be right.

Regardless, I think he’s a “top bloke”.

But I still wouldn’t vote for him.

After two large cappuccinos and a (small) bottle of Pinot Grigio, I resolve to take advantage of the fast improving weather outside and drag myself away. My decision is rendered even  easier by the arrival of three young mothers with babies and associated paraphernalia who pounce on the settee / armchair combination in the window vacated by an elderly couple and begin to spread out.

It may be a long time before those coveted seats become available again.

Stephen and Alice

My final duty is to adjudicate among two middle aged ladies who cannot decide which of the enticing cakes adorning the counter they should indulge in. After some discussion about the relative merits of the blueberry vanilla sponge and raspberry and chocolate cake, they take my advice and plump for the lemon cheesecake, which, judging by the moaning and smacking of lips I hear as I open the door to leave, has been one of my better decisions.

If you live in or near Folkestone, are a young mum, aspiring writer or lady that lunches (other socio-economic groups are available), and have not tottered down the Old High Street in the past year, you are missing a treat.

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This post first appeared two years ago as “My Ten Favourite Christmas Songs”. It had a mixed reception, some accounting it a “great list” whilst others, as is their right, rubbishing certain selections and offering their own alternatives.

I stated at the beginning of the earlier post:

there’s the thankless challenge of breaking down an initial list approaching fifty into ten. That said, after much soul searching, I’d like to think that the ten I have chosen – at least for today would be broadly similar to those I would have plumped for last year and will do next year, and in the years to come. The order may differ slightly but the contenders will remain the same. I make that assertion in the full expectation that the future is unlikely to unearth some sensational new numbers that will threaten the current status quo (those old rockers are not in it by the way.

That statement still rings true, and I have re-released that same list today, with only minor textual amendments.

A word of warning first.

One type of “music” you will not find in this list are the aggravating seventies pop confections of Slade, Wizzard, Mud, Shakin’ Stevens and many others that are heard everywhere at this time of year – TV programmes, shopping malls, parties. So if they’re your favourites, I’d stop reading now. And don’t expect to see any of the annual serving of mush served up by Cliff Richard either.

I am also unmoved by those songs that may or may not have a Christmas theme and content, but are forever associated with the holiday period purely because that is the time of year when they first came to our attention, often for commercial reasons. This is why I don’t share the almost universal idolatry of “Fairytale of New York”, despite the fact that I love both Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl. I don’t dislike Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas” and you cannot knock the tremendous work it has done in addressing famine in Africa. But these are false friends and do not, for me, carry that indefinable spirit and “feel” of Christmas.

I’m an unashamed traditionalist, even sentimentalist, when it comes to Christmas music, indeed Christmas per se. So the list is essentially nostalgic, redolent of past times, especially childhood. And yes, I’m prepared to concede that, on this occasion, age is a contributory factor to this outlook. Maybe it also derives from being surrounded by Dickens from a young age.

Am I saying then that, for a Christmas song to earn my respect or adulation, it must either serve a lengthy apprenticeship – at least half a century – or evoke a romanticised version of a bygone age?

Perhaps I am.

But enough of this – let’s get on with my selection. Cue immediate quizzical looks with number ten.

10. Must Be Santa – Bob Dylan 

Bob Dylan doing a Christmas song? You must be mad, or you’ve clearly had too much egg nog – or both, I hear you scream in disbelief. Well, maybe, but he produced a whole album of them back in 2009. And some of it is rather good. The grizzled near seventy year old voice, ravaged by red wine, cigarettes and constant touring, lends itself rather nicely to some of the old standards like “Do You Hear What I Hear? Winter Wonderland” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, though perhaps less so to the assortment of Christmas carols he tackles.

But this is my particular favourite – a rollicking, boisterous romp with some less than traditional lyrics.

So who’s had too much egg nog now?

9. Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow  Dean Martin

Another standard sung in a more conventional manner. Recorded countless times but, for me, this is the best version. Deano’s lascivious, martini-soaked croon nails it for me.

8. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear – The Choir of Winchester Cathedral

Initially, this slot was filled by “In the Bleak Midwinter”, a lovely carol but perhaps just a little too familiar for inclusion here. I was then reminded, on hearing it for the first time this year, of this beautiful and too little heard melody. But, in truth, it could have been any number of other carols.

7. Here We Come A-Wassailing Kate Rusby

The first of two – there could again have been more – offerings from the Barnsley Belle. It may only be number seven – at least for today – but it tends to be the first song I listen to each December to kick start the festive season with its atmosphere of celebration and community. A song ripe too for inclusion in an adaptation of any Thomas Hardy novel.

6. Angels From the Realms of Glory King’s College, Cambridge

And glorious this indeed is. Truly thrilling. As a child, this would fill Rochester Cathedral at the school’s end of term concert more satisfyingly than any other carol, even if I and my school friends were more interested in our card and dice games beneath the pews. But we always found time to join in with our own version of the last line of each verse – something to do with a West London football team if I recall correctly.

5. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas Ella Fitzgerald

“The Voice” has to have a place on this list. Warm, vibrant, nostalgic – everything that makes Christmas special. Along with Al Jolson, the Andrews Sisters and Tennessee Ernie Ford, Ella dominated the soundtrack to my earliest years. She has subsequently survived Elvis, the Beatles, Dylan, psychedelia and country rock to maintain a similarly central place in my affections.

4. See Amid the Winter’s Snow King’s College Cambridge

The more discerning reader might have observed that my carol selections are not the most frequently heard, hence popular. I have not developed the measure of contempt that the more familiar carols might be thought to have bred – far from it, but “See Amid the Winter’s Snow” and the achingly beautiful melodies of my other selections carry the day for me.

A passing nod too to the two carols that I most associate with my childhood – “Rocking” and “Away in a Manger” which we “sang”, sat cross-legged on the frozen wooden floor of Glencoe Road Primary School when, apparently, we’d never had it so good (well, for a six year old, perhaps we hadn’t).

“See Amid the Winters Snow” has added resonance too in that this was my father and his eldest brothers’ party piece at the end of the annual freemasonry lodge Christmas dinner and dance. They would – so I’m told, I never witnessed the spectacle myself – bring the house down with their heartfelt, drunken duet.

3. The Holly and the Ivy – Kate Rusby

This should have been “The First Tree in the Greenwood” but I could not find a video of Kate’s performance. Instead, I returned to the song of which it and many others are variants. Again, I could have filled this list with Kate’s lovely renditions of traditional carols, supported by the mellow tones of the Grimethorpe Colliery Brass Band.  

2. Run Run Rudolph Chuck Berry

The nearest thing to a “pop” song in this collection, even though it was recorded more than half a century ago. But what drive, energy, excitement and humour – classic Chuck, the godfather of rock ‘n’ roll. He may not have written it but he gave it its life.

1. For Unto Us A Child is Born from Handel’s Messiah – Sir Colin Davis & the London Symphony Orchestra

Probably heard – and certainly sung – more often as part of a carol concert, the opening bars of Handel’s sublime oratorio evoke Christmas for me more than any other piece of music, hence its pre-eminent position. A perfect accompaniment to a big breakfast and the exchanging of gifts.

But surely, you say, isn’t this one of those “false friends” you sneered about earlier in this article? After all, wasn’t Messiah” first performed in the Great Music Hall, Fishamble Street, Dublin on 13th April 1742. It’s a Easter, not Christmas song goddamit!

Fair point, but I contend that not only does it fit my “spirit and feel” test, but it has become so inextricably associated with the Christmas season in the public consciousness that it is the most glorious expression of the life, and in this instance, birth of Christ.

I rest my case.

By the end of this journey through the last four centuries of western music you may be wondering if I have “got religion”, and specifically Christianity, so drenched in the christian tradition are my selections. It is an understandable question, to which I can only respond that, though the inherited faith, if not the latent spirituality, be long gone, the thrill of listening, and indeed reading, how gloriously others have expressed that faith, endures.

And, of course, they evoke that most precious period of our lives – childhood.

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Stretching from Pier 45, home to the marvellous Musée Mecanique and historic ships, the US Jeremiah O’Brien and USS Pampanito, to AT & T Park at 2nd and King, San Francisco’s Embarcadero waterfront thoroughfare is one of the city’s crowning jewels.

Its most prized asset is the great San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge, or as it is more affectionately known by locals and other supplicants, the Bay Bridge. The widest bridge in the world, and also one of the longest at more than seven miles, its two decks carry nearly a quarter of a million passengers each day. It may not command the same celebrity status as the Golden Gate Bridge shimmering on the opposite side of Alcatraz, but the views, especially from the recently reopened east span, are stunning.

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But the Embarcadero is not all about the Bay Bridge as the following photographs demonstrate. Sinbad’s at Pier 2 is a fine seafood restaurant.

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One of its more unusual features is Cupid’s Span, a quirky but imposing sculpture, in the two acre Rincon Park, a welcome spot to rest feet wearied by the unforbidding pavement along the water’s edge.

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The main rival to the Bay Bridge in the affections of locals and visitors alike is the Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street.

Once the City’s principal transportation hub and beautifully restored between 2003 and 2007, it is now home not only to two storeys of premium office space, but also a permanent gallery of stalls selling locally produced fresh fruit and vegetables, cheeses, wines, meats, flowers, chocolate and pastries, as well as one of a kind gift items, many related to the kitchen and garden.

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The historic streetcars trundle along the Embarcadero with their packed hoardes of tourists seeking fun at Fisherman’s Wharf, bargains at Union Square and Westfield or vintage movie going at the Castro Theatre.

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Apartment blocks and offices loom above the constant traffic.

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In a city renowned for the quality of its restaurants, Red’s Java House is never going to attract any Michelin stars, but it provides good honest fare for fans heading for or returning from a Giants game. It may be basic and unpretentious, but it boasts as many passionate advocates as Michael Mina at the Westin St. Francis Hotel or Quince in Pacific Heights.

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In summer, extravagantly colourful hanging baskets complement the profusion of palms along the roadside.

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Back to the Bay Bridge with a SFFD fire boat sailing under it.

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Finally we reach AT & T Park at the end of the stretch of the roadway named after legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Herb Caen who wrote extensively about the Embarcadero and his beloved Giants.

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Brilliant post about a great San Francisco tradition. And wonderful to see Wavy Gravy – last and most venerable of the Pranksters – in such fine fettle.

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Fantastic salute to a great city with sentiments that I can share wholeheartedly.

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(This is a long post about my love affair with San Francisco which started in 1965)

San Francisco first hit my radar way back in 1965 when “California Dreamin’ ” by the Mamas and the Papas hit the British charts. Knowing nothing about LA or indeed California, anywhere that offered warmth in winter seemed like a good place to be to me. By the time Scott McKenzie was singing “San Francisco(be sure to wear some flowers in your hair)” a hit in the spring of 1967, I was hooked. This was one USA state I had to visit. Haight-Ashbury frequently featured on the television with its flower-power, incense-burning, acid-dropping, tie-dye-wearing, peace-and-love-vibe hippies during the summer of love (1967) and I fell in love with the whole enchilada. As the ‘60s turned into the ‘70s I too became an incense burning, peace-loving hippy myself, though it was an…

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These are some of the most stunning photos of San Francisco I’ve seen.

Tom Fitzgerald - Photography Blog

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