Saturday, December 15, 2012

San Francisco, CA

Like most people who have the travel bug bad I do relatively pointless things like repeatedly making lists in my head, in discussion and, when particularly bored, on paper, of the 5 most [insert country/adventure/city…] I want to experience. For the last few years San Francisco has inexorably clung to the must do city list.

I note such tasks are “relatively” pointless rather than simply pointless as they do occasionally spur me on to go to such places and do such things. This then has the added bonus of opening up room on the aforementioned lists, triggering a whole lot more thought and discussion.

This is a drawn out way of saying I was excited to land in San Fran earlier this year.

Intercontinental travel over, I woke up with vicarious baby jet lag (7 month olds and 8 hour time difference are a sub-optimal mix) and stumbled out of our beat generation period ex-brothel hotel into a gloriously sunny morning in the hip suburb of North Beach. All laid back cosmopolitan cafes, retro book shops and the odd bit of red light district.  Nestled in between Downtown and the northerly bay facing docks and beaches, it is a perfect place from which to explore the city. 
A big pile of heart-attack inducing pancakes and multiple all you can drink coffees later, we wander off to see what the city has to offer. The answer is one heck of a lot. Like the best big cities, as you meander around you find yourself in one distinct and interesting neighbourhood after another. From the most extensive and “Chinese” China town I have seen outside of China (streets and streets where you would never know you were in the Americas – a product of gold rush immigration), via the affluence and beautiful views of Pacific Heights to the guide book stated “no-go” we stumbled into south of Market and 5th.

It is often the more gritty areas of a city that appeal to me, but I have to admit that the latter of these neighbourhoods shocked me. Walking through the not especially interesting Downtown (I am yet to go to a US city outside of New York with a standout downtown - a bunch of samey work buildings and shops only saved by the odd grand public building gem) we suddenly, without barely realising it, find ourselves in a different a very depressing world. Abject poverty. Boarded up shops, gangs on corners, shifty looks. We had entered the bloody projects only a couple of blocks from Gucci. OK, I’ve seen worse neighbourhoods in Bogota and Jo’berg, but these are in developing countries, not the richest county on earth. From a European’s perspective it is something very hard to understand.
Where is the basic social safety net? If poorer European countries can afford it then so can the States. That a society should actively choose not to look after its poorest citizens gives cause for some serious introspection. Rant over.  Back to how nice the rest of San Fran is…

What is the archetypical image that pops into the head when you think of San Francisco? Verging on vertical streets giving way to the deep blue bay? Antique cable-cars? The Golden Gate Bridge? Alcatraz? We saw the lot of it and it was gorgeous.
Street after street of ridiculous out of breath steepness. We wandered up and down (occasionally on the odd aforementioned cable car for the uphill part), taking in view after view. A particular highlight was the panoramic views of city and bay from Telegraph Hill on the north-eastern tip of the San Fran peninsula.
Once passed the unbelievable tack of the theme-park old fishing wharfs (all McDonalds and Bubba Shrimp only relieved by the awesome sight of dozens of Californian sea-lions barking the day away below Pier 39), the north coast is delightful. Brown pelicans skirting the waves just off-shore from the beach, the maritime park and an old crumbling pier which gives fantastic views of the city’s crowning glory. The Golden Gate Bridge is just as impressive as it should be, guarding the face of the bay from the wild Pacific.

With Alcatraz so visible from the high points, it lured us in for a closer look. Now part of a National Park, the infamous prison has been turned into a top rate museum full of fascinating tit bits from its dark days as a hard-core federal penitentiary. I highly recommend it. It even comes with strange in bred tourists from Arkansas!
That vital extra bit of colour to our experience was added by a couple of old mates currently residing in the city. Their warm words only added to our impression that this is a very likeable city indeed. Sure it has its rough unsightly underbelly, but what American city does not. It attracts a relatively open minded, liberal and friendly crowd who make you feel welcome. A place I could live if only I could convince a local company to give me 30 plus days holidays a year (I think the US average is 11 days). 

Very satisfied and with the start of a Californian glow, we jumped into our hugely over-sized Chevy Malibu and headed out of town through those famous San Fran morning mists. Route 101 to San Diego ahead! 
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