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Gilroy Garlic Festival

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

Start with 10 tons of beef, add four tons of calamari, four tons of pasta, a few hundred
kegs of beer, a few barrels of choice wine, hire 45 bands for entertainment – and mix in
four tons of garlic for flavor – and you wind up with the recipe for the party to end all
parties. It’s no wonder that more than 130,000 people have been showing up of late for the
annual Gilroy Garlic Festival. For most of the year, Gilroy, California, is exactly what it
appears to be: a sleepy California farming town-turned-bedroom community for the Silicon
Valley, just south of San Jose. For one weekend each summer, however, the town transforms
itself, hosting what has become one of America’s premier food festivals. We actually spent
more than a weekend exploring California’s central coast – Gilroy is less than an hour
inland from Monterey Bay and all that it offers – but during the festival to the stinking
rose, even John Steinbeck’s former stomping ground places a distant second in popularity.
We arrived early to grab a good parking spot, noting that most of the 4,000 volunteers that
organize and run the event were already at work and the air was filled with the aromas of
roasted garlic, grilled sausage and peppersteak and the sweet smell of fresh pesto. As we
wandered, map in hand, through the sprawl of tents, craft and food vendors and arenas, it
seemed there was something going on everywhere at once. Eventually we were drawn to Gourmet
Alley, a 5,500-square-foot tent kitchen that was in full swing. Knives were frantically
chopping parsley and other herbs, huge vats of pasta were boiling, monster grills were
piled high with stir-fry vegetables, mountains of garlic bread were toasting over the coals
and the spectacular calamari chefs were wowing the crowd with their show of pyrotechnics.
We sampled a few items – you could never try everything – and found refuge in the relative
calm of the wine tent, where a dozen local wineries were offering samples and information
about their vintages. Then it was back out into the melee. We couldn’t miss the seminar on
planting garlic, nor the class on braiding garlic. Sometime between the lamb shish kebab
and the garlic ginger chicken stir-fry, we had to catch the garlic-cleaning contest. When
the winner had been declared, the crowd was invited to jump into the arena and grab as much
garlic as they wished. We came away with several pounds! Cold drink in hand, we found a
seat at one of the three stages to listen to the ongoing concerts – I think it was Motown’s
Souled Out or the Siberian rock ‘n roll legends, The Red Elvises. The music ended just in
time for us to run over to the grandstand to watch the Great Garlic Cook-Off. A thousand
submissions had been pared down to eight finalists, vying for the $1,000 first prize. Joann
Donangelo ultimately captured the coveted Crown of Cloves with her Grilled Candied-Garlic
Salmon on Crispy Rice Noodles and Baby Asian Greens. If it hasn’t yet become apparent, the
Garlic Festival is one great big foodfest; if you leave hungry, you know whose fault it is.
And the food is served up in every way imaginable. At one point, we’d had our fill – or so
we thought – and managed to inch past the garlic fries and the fresh scampi, only to be
trapped by garlic ice cream. Once you’ve paid tribute to the stinking rose, there are other
flowers to smell. No trip to Gilroy should omit a visit to the famous Bonfante Gardens.
Started more than 23 years ago, this horticulturally based theme park combines the beauty
of magnificent gardens with the excitement of rides and exhibits. The rides are unique
because they have been designed for both children and adults, often with a touch of
education and a hint of the ’50s. With names like Mushroom Swing, Artichoke Dip and Garlic
Twirl, many of the park’s 19 rides are keyed to local agriculture. There also are Learning
Sheds throughout the park, which show short videos on a variety of subjects. The gardens’
biggest draws, however, are the amazing Circus Trees. Begun in the 1920s when a Hilmar,
California, farmer, Axel Erlandson, grafted four separate Sycamore saplings into a single
entity fashioned into the shape of a cupola, these living wonders became more ornate as
Erlandson perfected his ability to shape the trees. When he died in 1964, however, the
trees – then numbering 74 – began to wither and die. A local architect, Mark Primack,
helped to save many of the trees before another tree-lover, Michael Bonfante, bought the 29
trees still alive for his Gilroy-based theme park. Today, 19 of these coiled, scalloped and
spiral-shaped wonders thrive on public display at Bonfante Gardens. Another highlight on a
hot summer day is the Splash & Squirt Plaza, where dancing water fountains and
squirting frogs invite young and old to cool off. For a bit of nostalgia, the 1927 Supreme
Carousel is the only one remaining by the renowned master carver, Marcus C. Illions. The
Rainbow Garden Round Boat Ride floats you gently through a spectacular display of annual
color, while, back on asphalt, you can drive a roadster from the 1920s or a Chevy Corvette
of 1950s-vintage on South County backroads. An authentic narrow-gauge steam engine will
pull you on a ground-level tour. The Sky Trail tram gives you a bird’s-eye view and cruises
through a tropical greenhouse. Always and everywhere, there are the manicured gardens,
interlaced with beautiful streams and waterfalls. By now it was becoming apparent that just
about anything grows well in this fertile valley – and that includes grapes. There are no
less than 15 wineries scattered through the rolling hills that push into the Santa Cruz
Mountains. Many are small, family run operations, where you might meet the winemaker, his
wife and son (and maybe the grandfather), all at the tasting bar. Samples are oftentimes
complimentary and prices are reasonable for some excellent varietals. To our delight, these
little wineries often had some excellent vinegars. Additionally, many have cozy picnic
areas for a mid-day break – all we needed was a hunk of cheese and a loaf of fresh, crusty
bread. If wine and flowers aren’t your thing, we should mention the Gilroy Premium Outlet
Center. There are more than 145 stores, so you have no excuse for going home empty-handed.
There are plenty of RV parks in the area; check the 2004 Trailer Life Directory for
information. The Gilroy Garlic Festival takes place the last full weekend of July (this
year’s dates are July 23-24). Admission is $10; seniors and kids get in for $5. Our advice:
Come a few days early and stay a few days late – there’s more here than meets the nose.

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