As soon as I knew I was doing this trip, San Francisco was the first place that I started looking at for places to visit. There were just so many things about the city that I was looking forward to visiting and find out more about. With this in mind its very hard to write about San francisco as anything other then a disappointment. However, this would probably be doing this city an injustice. Mainly the disappointment came from my own building up of the city in my mind as to be the icing on the cake for the entire journey. Possibly to a level it could never live up to.
My overriding impression of San Francisco is that it is a city that cannot be judged on the first impression. I don’t feel that I even began to scratch the surface and I have the feeling that what I was hoping to find has either moved on or has now far deeper below the surface then it previously was.
I have a sinking feeling that I arrived here 40 years too late.
After the previous nights late arrival and journey into a city illuminated in spectacular fashion the first impression after waking could best be described as ominous.
Standing in the shower trying to shake the desire to crawl right back into bed there came almighty boom, the rumbling continuing for a good 5 seconds or so. The building trembled and then the air was filled with the melody of the car alarm concerto. My reaction was quite obvious. Stifle a yawn and ask the question – “what the fuck was that”? It was of course thunder, but the other options running through the mind were earthquake, plane crash or bomb.
Grabbing a towel and running to the window, I pulled back the curtains to get my first view of San Francisco. Except that there was nothing to see. Only a blanket of fog that would have made Hitchcock or Herbert weep with joy. My view was so obscured that I could barely make out the cafes and restaurants across the street. Given that my reason for being awake at this hour was to join a tour a of the city taking in the Golden Gate Bridge my hopes this was was not filing me with much hope for the tour to come.
The tour began badly. Our tour guide was a German lady who has apparently lived in the city for the last 40 years. I can only imagine how severe her accent must have been all those years ago prior to the softening that comes with living in a foreign country for so long. When I think of accents that have changed over the years, my mind immediately springs to two – Jan Molby the Danish Scouser and Peter Schmeichel and the Danish Mancunian. Over ten years or so their accents amalgamated with the local dialect creating a whole new accent of their own. Todays guide was nothing like this at all. In fact she must be made from the same stuff as the worlds most Scottish man – Sean Connery. No matter what the part – American, Russian, Spanish – you know what you’re going to get with Connery and that is a Scottish accent. Over the years I’ve worked with Germans, and I’ve been to Germany – twice. This was without doubt the harshest German accent I have ever heard. Some sentences actually caused physical pain.
After 15 minutes the coach broke down. We waited an hour for a replacement coach to be sent from the depot. In my mind this was the time for damage limitation from our guide. The time to tell us some facts about the area that we had broken down in, or tell us her impressions of the city. After all she decided to live her and has spent four decades here. Surely she must have formed an opinion or two by now. Instead the hour passed in silence.
When we did get going I quickly realised that I really was not going to enjoy this tour. The weather was poor – something of course completely out of the hands of the guide – and fog obscured everything. She seemed to have no backup for this, continuing to give a canned tour exactly as though we could not even begin to see what was being pointed out. Instead we were helpfully told that the weather was beautiful yesterday and that San Francisco had one of the most stable climates in the world and that you almost never get rain at this time of year. Again just part of a canned performance paying no head to the fact that right outside the window was fog and drizzle. Instead we carried on listening to how great the weather is here as though we were in midst of a glorious summers day.
In a city this large and with one of the most interesting histories in the 20th century, what our professional guide felt would be of most interest to us as travelers were the trees – because “I know the English like gardens”…… At least 5 times were eucalyptus trees pointed out in different locations around the city.
Finally she moved onto those subjects that this city is most famous for. The counter culture revolution – dismissed as “hippies”. The peace movement – dismissed as “drug addicts” and of course the gay rights movements. “we have a large population of gay people here in San Francisco. Around 14%, and thats enough”. All three subjects dismissed out of hand without any relevant information. No mention of the Castro district and the first elected gay official. Dismissing as drug takers the seeds of the Vietnam war protests sown at Berkeley, which would eventually see marches on Washington and the fall of Lyndon Johnson.
We crossed the Golden Gate Bridge. Or at least I was told that we did. I have no proof of this, so thick was the fog that that I could barely make out the bridge itself!
The tour ended down at Fishermans Wharf, where we were scheduled to to catch the ferry over to Alcatraz island. As I departed the coach, I noticed that our guide was was not exactly being blessed with tips. Most people walking straight past, not even offering a goodbye. So that was that, a tour of one of the worlds most well known cities reduced to the pointing out of various trees and delivered with as much passion as I would muster for a triple maths lesson on a Friday afternoon at school. Its hard not to sound petty or bitter, but over the last month I seem to have gained some experience with guides, and this was a very poor showing.
Visiting San Francisco without visiting Alcatraz would be like traveling to Egypt and not seeing the pyramids. It is somewhere that demands to be seen, and it does not disappoint.
It is one of those places whose name conjures a different image dependent upon your age. To some, it is the jail that housed Al Capone. To another generation it was where Clint Eastwood escaped from. To me it is synonymous with Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery. Stepping off the ferry, I couldn’t help myself slipping into a faux-Scottish accent and proclaiming “Welcome to the Rock”.
This really is another place where history just pours from every surface. You have that strange feeling of familiarity as though you have been here before having seen parts of the island in so many films over the years.
Two things struck me as I wondered around Alcatraz. First and most obvious the state of disrepair. It is very surprising just how poor condition the majority of the buildings are in. However this is easily explained by the second thing that struck me – just how exposed to the elements that you are. Living on an island, I’m well used to coastal winds. But being battered by a biting wind when just a few miles away in San Francisco barely a breeze could be felt was something of a shock. I walked through the prisoners exercise yard, with the wind whipping around my clothes and realised that the only escape from this was the cover of a dark and dank cell house. I could imagine what conditions must be like for inmates. This was a fairly pleasant, if foggy, day. Conditions in the worst winter weather must have been intolerable.
Some impressions of the conditions were provided by the rather excellent cell audio tour. Narrated by former inmates and guards this was an entertaining and informative introduction to the Alcatraz as a living community and not a collection of buildings with a history as I have always known it.
I returned to San Francisco with my rucksack weighing a little heavier on my back. This thanks to a lump of concrete from one of the demolished buildings. The National Parks now sell these ‘Rocks from the Rock’ to raise money for their restoration problems. My immediate thoughts range from ‘sucker’ to ‘how cool’, ‘customs will have a field day’ and ‘can I attach a magnet to it?’
I went for a walk along Fishermans Wharf in search of the Aquarium of the Bay. Another thing that I’d been looking forward to seeing since my initial search of San Francisco. The website for the Aquarium showed that they had two walk through tunnels filled with all kinds of species of fish that can be found around the bay. This was entirely accurate and really very good. What I wasn’t expecting was for this to be all that there was. I was expecting something more akin to the aquarium in Chicago. So despite what was available looking fantastic, I again could not shake that feeling of disappointment.
Fishermans Wharf was for me my least favourite place of everywhere that I have visited. As strange as my reasoning will will sound given that I’ve been to places like the Statue of Liberty, Times Square and the Washington monuments – I just found the whole area to be far too touristy. The entire place was crawling, and felt even more crowded then Times Square. Seagull swooped overheard hoping to get the bread bowls in which clam chowder was served that people discarded, mainly in the street it appeared. I find that I don’t mind the crowds so much when there is something to be learnt. Or like myself at the monuments, just wanting to get a feeling for the history of the area. the Wharf just did not appear to have any of these things. It was a collection of gift shops and food outlets. I’ve read that the Wharf is now the 3rd most visited destination in America. I cannot see why personally. It is lightweight and I had the feeling that many people where there simply because they had been told that was the place to go.
After making my way back to the hotel for a short rest and to drop off my big lump of concrete. I went to Union Square.
The main shopping district and where most of the ‘name’ stores are. I actually quite enjoyed the area. Other people I spoke to disliked it as much as I disliked the Wharf. I think that the difference was that I visited fairly late in the evening. Shopping is not my forte, and most stores were now closed. Most that is except the Apple store which was my reason for visiting Union Square in the first place. When I was in New York Apple released Snow Leopard. The latest version of the OSX operating system. Rather then have to baby a DVD across the country, I resolved to pick up my copy here in San Francisco. I entered the store with the intention of spending the $29 that Snow Leopard would cost. I left having spent rather more then that. A couple of days earlier Apple had held an even and released new iPods, including a new Nano with a video camera. Honestly, I just meant to look but when the assistant asked ‘and is there anything else?’ when I asked for Snow Leopard the words “Orange 16gb Nano” just kind of slipped out.
It is very pretty though.
Walking though the Union Square to the sounds of buskers and later a saxophonist that had me checking I wasn’t wearing a trilby and overcoat so spooky was the feeling that I was now on a film noir set. I walked back towards the hotel taking a pretty major detour through Chinatown. The sights and the smells reminded me, more specifically my stomach that todays food has consisted solely of a bun at the Alcatraz ferry terminal a good 10 hours earlier. Rather then doing the sensible thing and reading menus, I decided to pop right into the next establishment that I saw.
I walked in, to be greeted with a friendly “takeaway for you?”. Looking at the empty tables and chairs I asked if I could sit in. There was a moments hesitation before being shown to a chair. After taking my drinks order I was handed a menu. I now realised two things – first despite being in the middle of Chinatown, I’d just walked into a Thai restaurant. Secondly the opening hours for the sit-in part of the restaurant where quite clearly stated to close at 9pm. It was now 10:45pm. Realisation dawned that they had just opened up the seating area just for me. I felt a little foolish, but the hosts just laughed it off. Given I’ve been in pubs in Guernsey where they are putting chairs on tables around you a good couple of hours before closing. I can’t quite imagine the same reaction happening at home. The food was excellent, and despite being the smallest portions I’ve yet to see in America, were still much to large for me. Of course I left a healthy tip. I mean they opened up the seating area, served an excellent meal and despite the late hour I didn’t feel as though I was being rushed to the door.
I tried waddling back to the hotel. But a combination of the food and the now falling rain decreed against it. I stuck out my thumb and caught a cab back to the hotel to finish my first night in the city by the bay.