North & South America

Experiencing San Francisco

Experiencing San Francisco

The city by the bay is a contradiction. There is a touch of the Old World about the streets, covered by a criss-cross of tram lines overhead, the tarmac marked by streetcar grooves. It is cool when we arrive, chilly, almost, a cold that sends us running into the nearest Goodwill shop to buy cashmere and cotton long sleeved jumpers. We catch a full cable car up Powell Street, past Union Square and its incongruous palm trees, clutching desperately onto the side railings, our feet mere inches away from passing traffic.

The streets of San Francisco rise and fall, steep and fog touched at their peaks. The fog is an animal all its own, stalking us from outside the bay, drifting across the bridge, covering the hills and diffusing the light to a soft, golden greyness. I like this city by the bay – there is good, organic, seasonal food, fresh seafood, the smell of the Pacific. And the light! A photographers dream, or nightmare, as I struggle with my camera settings, the fog making it challenging to capture the right exposure, the perfect shot. But it is also the fog that makes the light so glorious, a cloud of gold and silver annointing the sea with flashes of brilliance.

We walk up Lombard Street, our knees protesting every step of the way. The view from the top is that of Coit Tower, built on the fortunes of an eccentric heiress. We have dinner and drinks in the Tenderloin, where I have a reservation for Bourbon & Branch. Amazing cocktails, great speakeasy vibe, dodgy area. The fog closes in on us as we walk home in the dark, the neon lights of Market Street screaming out commercial wares at us, pin pricks of mist and precipitation on our faces.

The blue skies and sunshine next day are short lived, and we make the most of it, starting our day in the colourful streets of the Mission with a cup of Phil’s coffee. There are cheap vintage shops lining the streets and Jeff drags me out of each one before I overdose on deals. We have brunch in the Mission with a friend – the cafe is lovely, with an antler chandelier and fresh lilies on the bar; the food delicious and the company divine.

Later, we promenade up the wharves to Pier 39 where I sit, enraptured by the seals. They are a rollicking, roaring mess of sleek, shiny bodies, their clumsiness on the wooden decks belying their grace underwater. By the time we reach Fisherman’s Wharf and the Buena Vista cafe, the fog has rolled in and the Golden Gate Bridge is hidden from view. We escape into the warmth and order – Irish coffee, clam chowder, crab salad sandwich, a tuna melt. The food and whisky drive away the cold a little, but the greyness of the fog remains.

We have booked a tour for Alcatraz at night. The buildings are henpecked by the wind, the tiles loose. The haunted windows look towards the bright lights of San Francisco, the noise of the city drifting across the restless sea. The prison is atmospheric at night, and the fog makes for a dramatic lightscape. The audio tour includes interviews with former guards and prisoners, with daredevil tales of escape attempts and details of daily life at the prison.

The next day we wander around Crissy Park at the Marina, where the locals are out in force, walking dogs, running or enjoying the sun. It is a long trek out to Golden Gate Bridge Park, and we content ourselves with the view from the Marina. The Bridge is wreathed in fog, but it is the clearest we have seen it so far. After we’ve had our fill of the view, we walk back to Ghirardelli Square for an ice-cream, raspberry and dark chocolate shake and onwards to San Francisco’s Chinatown, probably the oldest in the US. It is a confection of pagodas, sloping roofs, Chinese lanterns, lion and dragon motifs running rampart across and on the buildings.

I light incense sticks at Tien Hou temple, on the 3rd level of a nondescript shop along Waverly Place. We visit fortune cookie makers, interrupt youths practicing with blunted sword blades and spears in an alleyway, trot down towards a restaurant for dim sum. In the golden light of afternoon we stop by the Painted Ladies on our way’s walk to the Haight.