Sitting with our Trailfinders consultant Lee planning our Californian road trip we knew we wanted sixteen days heading south from San Francisco with the Pacific by our side, and he embraced this with a professional zeal and application that took up two and a half hours of an early Easter morning in Birmingham to plan. Lee’s deference to our wishes wavered just once when we allocated only two days of our time to San Francisco the city we were due to fly into. Looking back, I can see that he had tried to suppress his passion but that his admiration for San Francisco had got the better of him, and as true love is always loyal he could not betray her but had to speak.
“Can I ask,” he blurted out. “Why are you only spending two days in San Francisco?”
The change of tone stopped us in our tracks as it had speeded up as he spoke before ending in an indignant squeak that could not be suppressed; this was a man genuinely in pain. And then it came out; a splurge of superlatives for a city that had inspired such affection, so unable to resist such a charm offensive we immediately agreed to the necessity of four days.
Lee suggested Union Square as a good location for a hotel instead of the more obvious choice of Fisherman’s Wharf, and after dismissing the spectacular but excessive options we fixed on the King George Hotel on 334 Mason Street just one block from Union Square. The hotel was finished in 1915 to house visitors to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition a world fair held to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal (an 82km artificial waterway in Panama that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans) but also seen as an opportunity for San Francisco to showcase its recovery from the 1906 earthquake.
The King George is one of many examples of rapid and energetic change within a relatively short period of time with its’ accomplices of invention and enterprise that we were to regularly encounter on our road trip. Unfortunately, the negative impact of such change on Native Americans while acknowledged appears slow to a visitor’s eye to take its’ rightful place in the telling of America’s story.
So that was how we came to be coming into land at San Francisco Airport (SFO) to a city that we had been told demanded at least but no less than a quarter of our entire holiday, and as always it was the grand scale of America stretched out below that strikes you first. Five years previously it had been Las Vegas; toy- like and oddly out of place in a vast sandy expanse like a travelling fair long past its heyday pulled up in the corner of an isolated field in the openness of the countryside. With San Francisco it was the multiplies necessitated by the scale; the cars, lanes on freeways, expanses of water, tiers of housing and the mountains, all bedecked with a cloud filled sky dulled and scented by the forest fires that burnt out of control to the north of the city.
It was mid afternoon in California but late evening for us and the immigration queue soon sapped at what energy we had left. It took two hours trailing through a concertina of ropes to navigate it; parents sagged under the weight of children too tired to stand and eventually after many requests a heavily pregnant woman and her family were plucked from the queue and fast tracked through. The boredom was broken by jokes from British travellers about comparisons with our future lot post Brexit.
BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) was the choice of transport from the airport to Downtown as it drops on Market Street near Union Square and did not necessitate leaving the terminal building. The ticket machine was user friendly, but an American bedecked in a Manchester United scarf still helped demonstrate how to deduct five cents at a time from the notes you had paid until you reached the chosen fare with a self- assurance that could not conceive of a better machine that worked any other way.
Finally, feeling conspicuous with our suitcases we emerged onto the streets of San Francisco (sounds like a good name for a TV series) into “tall” land where your neck bends backwards beyond the norm so that your eyes can reach the tops of buildings that sharpen the lines of the streets into a model lesson on perspective. The noise and flow of people sapped what strength we had left, and confused our gaze moved from street map to road signs and back again struggling for a point of reference. A voice offering help rich, relaxed and so polite melted the moment pouring the very finest essential oil on troubled waters and renewed we set off for our hotel with residential confidence.
Our room and the hotel were perfect; we sailed from lobby to bedroom on a sea of professionalism and good manners. The age of the hotel was displayed in our bathroom generously sized to accommodate the more substantial plumbing of a bygone age and the room had surfaces insulated well by generations of gloss paint. A replacement battery for the safe arrived and was fitted in minutes with a contradictory combination of chilled efficiency that we were to frequently encounter during our stay.
We started our first morning in the city with a walk down to Fisherman’s Wharf for breakfast. It was the first of many trips on foot around the city not the American way but, despite the steep roads a choice we were glad we had made. At Fisherman’s Wharf the chowder pots were being heated up with the crabs and lobsters awaiting their fate nearby. The origin of this unique fast food was the fact that fishermen received their wages in fish and so would cook some of it to generate income.
The first thing that struck us were just how pretty and individual the houses were; one exclamation of pleasure instantly cancelled out by another(even when we stepped around the contents of a bedroom clearly thrown in anger from a window above us).The colours are mainly pastels either on board, render or concrete depending on their age with various gratuitous embellishments highlighted in contrasting colours.
A guide on the hop on hop off tour bus enlightened us more on the houses collectively called “Victorians” but covering many styles and influences. It was during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) that San Francisco transitioned from a one- horse gold rush town to an urban metropolis drawing in fortune hunters from near and far. The Victorian gothic revival is seen in castellated battlements and decorative gables sometimes all in timber reflecting the frontier style. Mainland European influences are reflected in the “Italianate” houses often pastel painted with overhanging eaves and elaborate window or door frames. There are also houses covered in decorative stick work as well as brightly painted rosettes and flowers.
By the early twentieth century these large family homes with servant quarters built on fortunes made, hit like all by changing work patterns and the Depression, were converted into flats or apartments and many were painted a dark corporation grey with their timber, too expensive to maintain, replaced by cheaper concrete render, brick or aluminium. In the 1960s artist Butch Kardum rebelled against this grey and painted his house in vibrant colours (like its’ Victorian predecessors) creating the first of a revival of what were to be called the “Painted Ladies”; a title most synonymous with those alongside Alamo Park and recognisable from many a movie.
We walked to Darren’s Café at 2731 Taylor Street just off Main Street by Fisherman’s Wharf. The city was just waking as was the café and we were the first in. Breakfast is serious business anywhere in the US even at its’ most- simplest (if you can accept such a concept exists) and other than being delicious is not straightforward: menus are long, portions are huge, and expectations are high. There’s a lot of sugar and dairy going on so prepare to queue at the best and enjoy. During our stay we enjoyed breakfast at Taylor Coffee Shop (375 Taylor Street) and Pinecrest Diner (401 Geary Street).
Pinecrest is 24/7 so we ate there in the evening too. It is a classic American diner narrowed in by booths with the compulsory counter for lone diners or coffee drinkers. In the second series of Fargo there is a massacre in the Waffle Hut and each time as we sat there, and the waitress filled our coffee cups it was all I thought of.
San Francisco works hard at every option. Within seconds of stepping onto the streets we met those enjoying their legal drugs; sometimes oblivious, sometimes unobtrusive and other times in danger or distress feeling an anger that is scary. A man shouts out for someone to fight him but as people move away the drugs push him into making inflammatory remarks that won’t be ignored for long- thankfully help arrives. The homeless are everywhere; identifiable by their dishevelment and accompanying shopping trolley packed and loaded beyond capacity with their worldly possessions. Alongside businesses open loudly; entrepreneurial zeal embodied in their exaggerated actions, and the streets fill with vehicles that tolerate mere seconds of delay before sounding their horns in frustration as between them dodge San Franciscans coffee in hand starting or ending their day.
A week before our holiday a newspaper article on the city caught our attention as it described growing concerns about the increasing amounts of human faeces on the streets of San Francisco linked to the closure of public toilets and the homelessness created by crippling property prices and rents in the city. Not obviously inclined to seek out the physical evidence for this claim it only became inescapable on an early morning walk towards City Hall. A week later a guide on board the Queen Mary spoke in lurid terms of the human filth on the streets of San Francisco that he had been told about and remained stubbornly resistant to our less extreme experience which shows how quickly mud or excrement can soon damage a reputation.
We took the trip to Alcatraz; a well-oiled operation that even after countless repetitions has the Disney freshness and enthusiasm that Americans do so well. Alcatraz is significant historically for Native Americans and while mentioned in the commentary that accompanies the boat trip over it is still the island’s twentieth century prison that is what the trip is all about. As the boat manoeuvres into the landing stage a guide pointed out by the on- board commentary waves enthusiastically before welcoming us ashore and explaining how to make the most of our visit as tourists buy the dollar guides and queue to have their photo taken in front of the island sign.
The road winds up to the prison entrance where you enter a cavernous hall laid out to cater for prisoner arrivals with showers and medical checks alongside neatly laid out regulation clothing and equipment. The tour has a complimentary audio guide which is provided in endless languages with its workings explained as if for the first time ever by polite and enthusiastic guides. The building has an almost tangible presence (there is no doubt about its purpose) even without the audio, but once each visitor presses play the prison comes alive with the voices, tales and experiences of the staff and inmates. We all move around each other and the prison under the power of our audios in a zombie like state acknowledging no one and existing in two worlds.
The world of Alcatraz the prison is conveyed by the cavernous physically empty building shook into life by the sounds and voices of the audio that fills your ears throwing you about through a rattle bag of thoughts and emotions. Sometimes there seems almost to be a sense of camaraderie amongst the inmates you listen to until you realise the minute details of their repetitive daily routines were more about institutionalisation than enjoyment. The segregation, the murderous violence of a failed escape and the continuous rolling boil of tension in the dining room where the cutlery was the provided weapon of choice reflected the inmates that sailed over to Alcatraz whether serial, gang, addict, abused or lost cause. Most vivid was the exercise area hewn roughly out of the rock and lashed continually by the waves of the island’s watery prison walls, the happy sounds of the Yacht Club New Year celebrations which carried on the wind from the mainland to tease the inmates and the pictures of the children of the wardens who played happily on the prison island they knew as home.
There is no lack of transport options around San Francisco but perhaps the most iconic are the cable cars that first tackled the hills in 1873 and now tackle the endless stream of tourists that queue patiently to ride them. At the Cable Car Museum, we were to learn about Friedel Klussmann who successfully campaigned to save the cable cars when their electric counterparts were judged to have surpassed them and whose name is immortalised in the turnaround at Fisherman’s wharf that is named after her.
A visit to the Cable Car Museum is a must so that you can appreciate the skill and artistry behind the cable cars and the sheer beauty of the engineering feat that created them. The cable car grip literally grabs a cable moving under the road and originally powered by steam; the cable can be heard grumbling underground slowly but tirelessly ascending and descending the city’s hills. You can queue at the Friedel Klaussmann Memorial Turnaround or at various stops en route and race to secure an outside seat or strap to hold onto. As we descend at speed into Union Square or take a sharp turn at a junction near the curvaceous Lombard Street the wooden brakes are put through their paces.
The San Francisco hop on hop off city tour buses took us further afield to Golden Gate Bridge and Park as well as Cliffe House at Land’s End. We walked the bridge which gave us time to stop and take in the scale and views as well as catch sight of seals and dolphins. There is a rolling road block of cyclists on the bridge which makes it difficult for them to stop or take in the views although they all looked like they were enjoying the experience and achievement.
We took the bus from the bridge to Golden Gate Park where we waited for the promised Green Ocean Beach Trolley Bus, but as the time wore on, we filled it by taking the lift to the top of the tower in the DeYoung Museum where an audio artwork filled the space as we took in the views. Suddenly we saw the elusive green trolley bus entering the park and after assuring the curator that the booms of the artwork hadn’t prompted our rapid departure, we sprinted for the bus stop as the bus slowly navigated the square we were sprinting across.
“I saw you running, didn’t know it was for the bus,” said the driver as we climbed aboard. It soon became clear why we had waited so long for this bus; the driver had taken it upon himself to customise the journey removing the hop on hop off option: he drove around the “Legion of Honor” declaring it was not worth a stop and waited fifteen minutes at Land’s End rather than dropping us off.
Land’s End forms part of the aboriginal lands of the Ohlone and Coast Miwok tribes who did not cultivate the land but moved annually between temporary and permanent village sites in a seasonal round of hunting, fishing, and gathering. Periodic burning of the landscape was conducted to promote the growth of native grasses for seed gathering and to create forage for deer and elk.
In the nineteenth century in the spirit of the rapid rate of change in the city the area was developed into a pleasure ground for San Franciscans by Adolf Sutro with a steam train, aquarium, swimming pool and restaurants. In 1897 Sutro was successfully sued by John Harris over the colour bar at the baths when refused admission after paying his entrance fee alongside his white friends. By the 1960s the baths partially converted into a skating rink burnt down and today are like a mock Greek ruin hewn out of the rock. The place is atmospheric perched as it is on the furthest outcrop of the city and it is unsurprising to find it was a favourite place of the eccentric author and journalist Hunter S Thompson.
On the edge of Golden Gate Park is the neighbourhood of Haight- Ashbury famous as the birthplace of the counter culture hippy movement in the Sixties and the “Summer of Love”. Today the area still has a buzz, powered by a combination of the institutionalisation or commercialisation of its alternative lifestyle and a real continuation of the dream from new arrivals and those who never left. The area has an edge too with plenty of “characters”; some of whom live their lives with the support of an alcoholic or narcotic crutch and others who push the obligatory homeless shopping trolley. Like other districts and cities “gentrification” has made its mark with bars and restaurants full of workers on lunch breaks and affluent “baby boomers” far removed from their flower power days. San Franciscans like their beers too, and there is no lack of choice with plenty of micro- breweries in the burgeoning craft-beer scene. Magnolia Micro Brewery at 1398 Haight serves organic bar food and their own homebrews in a people friendly atmosphere.
We did a lot of walking in San Francisco and usually our route from the hotel would take us past The Fairmont Hotel on Mason Street where the legendary Tony Bennett first sang,” I left my heart in San Francisco” and where his statue now celebrates this event. Along from the Fairmont on California Street next to Huntington Park is Grace Cathedral which is described as a house of prayer for all people without exception. Their inclusive approach embraces everyone and welcomes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT)people who have often been historically oppressed within the church and society.
When the AIDS crisis emerged in the early 1980s in San Francisco the cathedral immediately and compassionately opened its doors to support those affected when society and opinion was hostile, confused and judgmental. The cathedral offered funeral services for AIDS victims and supported their families. Today their Aids Interface Memorial Chapel is dedicated to people impacted by AIDS and the family memories and celebrations of those lost to AIDS fills the space with warmth and promise. At night a light filled with the colours of the rainbow flag shines out as a beacon of welcome and inclusion.
Grace Cathedral is in the Nob Hill neighbourhood. Rising high above the city below and originally called California Hill it got its name from the families who having made their fortunes in the West in the mid-1980s in gold, silver and the Central Pacific Railroad built huge mansions there to reflect their status and wealth. “Nob” comes from the Hindu word “nawab” or “nabob” which means a powerful person usually European who has made a large fortune.
Lee was so right about San Francisco it is a great city and so worth so much of our holiday and so capable of filling it all. As with all great cities you can mention landmarks, fine buildings and great places to eat but what makes it work is something I felt but cannot capture. It’s the people, the buzz, the work and the attitude mixed up with a whole lot of plain speaking, plenty of enterprise and a generous serving of “edge”.
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