San Francisco Days
Day 2 of our California road trip was spent relaxing in San Francisco after a much-needed long night's sleep.
The previous day, Friday, we landed in Los Angeles at 06:30, five hours earlier than we'd left Brisbane, after a 13-hour flight and barely half-an-hour's rest in the previous 30+. Months earlier, we had stupidly made the decision to drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco on busy, flat and straight Route 5 through the fruit trees and more fruit trees of the San Joaquin Valley. We left LA in the morning rush-hour, and our arrival in SanFran coincided with the Friday-evening commute. It was most certainly a drive too far for people too long without sleep.
Our house was on Grand View Avenue (and there was a fine vista), on the border of Twin Peaks and Noe Valley. The following misty morning, we walked down for breakfast on 24th Street, at the French bakery. We fancied a decent croissant and proper coffee, having not yet acquired the taste for American. The fire brigade popped in for coffee, too, leaving their extremely long vehicle double-parked on the corner.
All around there was colour, blossom and the city's famous and delightfully distinctive houses. There was no end to the photographic possibilities. But how I cursed the strung-out power cables. Just like home.
It was market day so Noe Valley was bustling. We wandered up and down 24th Street, several times. There was a phenomenal chocolate shop, where we spent a lot of time and not an inconsiderable amount of money.
San Francisco is a hilly city. Later, we walked up and down Castro Street to The Castro itself, where there was colour of a different variety. We caught a trolleybus back, however.
Our first night we ate tapas at Contigo kitchen and cava, on Castro Street in Noe Valley. It's Spanish and Catalan with a Michelin 'Bib Gourmand' and a philosophy driven by sustainability as well as a big love of Barcelona. We chose boquerones (white anchovies) and croqueta de jamón serrano, followed by pork, lamb and jamón albondigas (meatballs), coca (flatbread) of wild nettles, jamón and manchego, and wild mushroom and spinach canalones. We chatted to Andrew and Denise on the next table, locals who often dine at Contigo. We described the Australian Outback, which they have thought of visiting; and they suggested we would love the Alaskan wilderness. I'm sure we would.
They assured us California was solidly Democrat, always had been, always would be, which was oddly comforting; normal service amidst the Trump trainwreck. There had been young and eager canvassers on 24th Street earlier. Like everyone we talked to in the city, they welcomed us to their state and were happy to chat even though we weren't potential voters. We stated our preference for their party in any case.
For us, there were two absolute must-dos in SanFran: the Golden Gate Bridge and a cable car ride. Back in Bris, I'm having a little trouble with vehicle terminology: street cars, trams, trolley buses, cable cars? I have many pictures, and very pretty they are, too. But which is which?
We took the California Line cable car from one end of the line to the other. It climbed steeply, and quickly. Its speed was almost disconcerting at times, given that passengers hang off the sides, because that's what you do. We laughed about the fact that such a thing would never be allowed in Australia. Far too dangerous. In San Francisco, however, you can fall off beneath the wheels of a vehicle alongside and kill yourself; it's up to you, not the nanny state.
First glimpses of the Bridge from afar were tantalisingly beautiful. Up close, it was quite remarkable.
Constructed between 1933 and 1937, the Golden Gate was the first really large suspension bridge in the world. Its span of 4200 feet ranked it the world's longest until 1959. It was designed by Irving Morrow to withstand wind speeds of up to 100 mph (swinging by as much as 27 feet in strong gusts), and has only been closed three times because of weather conditions.
The Bridge needs to be able to move in response to an earthquake, of course, in a city famous for its biggie in 1906. Two retrofits have attempted to protect it: the structure has been strengthened in places to resist the force of a quake, and it has also been fitted with seismic isolators, which deform during a quake, softening the impact of tremors. Isolators were invented in New Zealand in the 1970s, and they commonly take the form of a cylinder consisting of layers of steel and rubber bonded together. There may be a hole in the middle of the cylinder with a lead plug to facilitate the dissipation of energy.
You can drive across the Golden Gate Bridge, of course, but you won't be able to look at it properly in traffic. You can walk across, but this takes time. We only had three days to 'do' San Francisco, so we cycled, my friend and I on a tandem. I would recommend this if you're a gal and you fancy a bit of help up the long hill from sea level to Bridge height. We hired from Sports Basement in the Presidio and not far from the bottom of that hill. But be warned, there was a lengthy queue to register and be allocated a bike; and running repairs were required halfway up. There were five of us, on three bikes, and two of them had chain problems. You can hire for three hours or a full day. Avoid weekends.
There are places you can pull into on the Bridge, for a rest, take a photo of the beautiful coastline beyond, or to turn around. Another warning is necessary, about the ultra-serious cyclists who give no truck to the slow or less experienced. One wonders why they choose a route that is bound to be fraught with idiots or aimless wanderers.
There's a gift shop at both the Warming Hut Cafe at the bottom of the hill climb and at the Welcome Centre at the southern end of the Bridge. They have good stuff, such as books about the Bridge, waterproof pocket guides to the birds of California, stylish hoodies, realistic rivets, pens and notebooks, and a snow globe that will long remain a souvenir favourite. We never got to see the Bridge looming out of mist, you see.
Our tram travels took us along Fisherman's Wharf, which was horribly crowded, and tacky. We didn't linger and walked quickly away from the waterfront to the 'Zig Zag Street', as we called it. This was a disappointment, too, being clogged with cars and impossible to photograph without silly tourists and vehicles. Lombard Street's tight curves – which have a speed limit of 5 mph – might be fun if you can get them to yourself in the early morning. There's certainly a good view from the top.
We walked up and down Lombard Street, and then up to Coit Tower, where the queue was too long and time too short. We decided the view from Telegraph Hill was good enough without an extra 210 feet of Tower; and then walked down to Washington Square, where we chilled in the stylish Park Tavern; I procured a black Guido Delgado Fedora from Goorin Bros; and we people-watched in the Park, while pretending not to notice black dudes in vintage convertibles or Hummers cruising round the Square to loud funky accompaniment.
We returned to Fisherman's Wharf that evening to eat at Scoma's, which had been recommended by friends who'd visited recently. This seafood classic dates from 1965, and it was a real treat. They describe how, 'Each morning local fishermen bring their catch to Scoma's pier. Our chef then selects the very best for our pier to plate menu.' I chose Scoma's famous clam chowder to start, followed by wild salmon with black rice, accompanied by a California Viognier. I hadn't enjoyed fish food as much in a long time.
On our last evening in SanFran we ate at Foreign Cinema in Mission district. This is a super-cool joint combining 'food, wine, cocktails, film, and art gallery into one harmonious ambience'. It has featured in the San Francisco Chronicle's Top 100 Restaurants for 16 consecutive years. I kicked off with A Poet's Blood cocktail, before ordering a salmon and prawn starter, pork chop main, and salted caramel pud. I was intrigued by the chop's description on the menu – Heritage pork chop, Umbrian farro (wheat grain), nettle, hen-of-the-woods, poached tart cherries, balsamica. This was the first time I'd come across 'hen-of-the-woods', which is a mushroom that clusters at the base of trees, particularly oaks. You live and learn.
Finally, I had to visit Haight Ashbury, for American comfort food at the unpretentious Pork Store Cafe, before we hit the road south. Originally a sausage butcher's established by Czech immigrants in 1916, Pork Store has become something of a breakfast institution in SF. Our waitress patiently explained 'grits' and 'biscuits', and suggested we share a large plate of hash browns in addition to our individual orders.
It was a bit early for most of The Haight to be awake and functioning, although two members of our party were offered something 'to make your day better' twice during our short walkabout after breakfast.
San Francisco has had countless lyrics, poems, fictions and non-fictions written about its colourful history and equally enthralling present. A week later, in a bookshop in Sonoma, I was to pick up Season of the Witch, by David Talbot, an account of the city from 1967 until 1982. I can't wait to dive into an era of the city's past that left an indelible mark on my youth. Talbot's first para of his introduction describes the city in this way:
San Francisco was built on a dare. The city was tossed up overnight on the shimmying, heaving, mischievous crust of the Pacific rim. A gold rush city of fortune seekers, gamblers, desperadoes and the flesh-peddling circus that caters to such men, San Francisco defied the laws of nature. It was a wide-open town, its thighs splayed wantonly for every vice damned in the bible and more than a few that were left out. San Francisco was the Last Chance Saloon for outcasts from every corner of the globe.
San Francisco is still defying the laws of nature. It's way overdue for another serious earthquake, and yet it exerts an extraordinary power over visitors that makes them long to return. Many people I told of my plans beforehand said it was the city in which they would love to live. As we left, my friend suggested we should come back soon for longer, just to live in it, chill in it, and be San Franciscans for some brief moments of indulgence. I had to keep pinching myself while I was there; I most certainly did not want to leave; and I felt renewed for having been there. The city and its inhabitants were strangely liberating from life's tedious little annoyances; they outpoured refreshingly new as well as beautiful old.
We could only follow that with something of epic proportions, right?