Golden Gates and Steep Streets
Our continued journey along U.S. Highway 101 took us inland at the town of Eureka, an unremarkable town save for the fact it was the only port of any size along the 700 miles of coast between Portland and San Francisco. We overnighted in yet another Motel 6 in Ukiah, which straddles the 101, before continuing through the vineyards of the green valleys north of SF. Our proximity to the City of 49ers was not particularly marked by an increase in a built-up area, but only by a widening of the 101's lanes from 4 to 8. With very little warning, we passed through a tunnel, and out the other side, the Golden Gate Bridge appeared, giant and graceful, out of nowhere. Before we knew it, we were on it's expansive deck, driving between cable curtains and the absurdly tall main towers that in concert held up the thousands of tonnes of tarmac, concrete and steel.
Very swiftly, the 101 took us into the heart of the city north of downtown, and thinking of food, we headed straight to the Fisherman's Wharf, 'Frisco's own tourist trap. Frankly, it was a disappointment. Here are the tourist shops, uninspiring bland stodge-restaurants, and street entertainers you find in London (Leicester Square), LA (Hollywood Blvd), New York (Times Square) and in a multitude of world cities that experience tourism. What I don't understand is why they attract tourists. As a tourist, you go to another country to find new sights, tastes and experiences. And yet these tourist-traps are the same the world over. So what is there new that you're experiencing in them? The only thing you can come away with after visiting such a place is that you can tell you're friends you've been there, and of course they'll be "impressed" because they've heard of it. Frankly, on that score, I think it's far more impressive to tell your friends you've been somewhere not so famous, where no-one you know has been (like the Oregon Coast for instance). And usually such places come with the beneficial side-effect of being new to one's experience.
Rants aside, Fisherman's Wharf does have a few notable attractions. You can catch the famous cable car trams from here into downtown, or visit the USS Pampanito, a genuine WW2 U.S. submarine. The sub has a more than interesting history, in that put it's own safety at great risk to rescue a hundred allied prisoners of war from the South China Sea in 1942, having sunk the ship they were being transported in by the Japanese (it was unmarked, when international convention demanded that such transports be clearly signed as PoW carrying). And of course, most of the sightseeing ferries depart from this area, including the ones to Alcatraz Island, the world's most famous prison. Unfortunately (and somewhat unsurprisingly), these tours are extremely popular, requiring a booking several days in advance, which meant we were screwed. With these notable exceptions in Fisherman's Wharf, you'd really use any tightly budgeted time better in exploring other parts of this unique and beautiful city.
As well known in character as New York, Paris or London, San Francisco really has the status of a world city. It has the perfect combination of heritage, unique geographical setting and buzzing sophistication that make it once of the most desirable places to live in the world's superpower. It now outbids New York as having the most expensive property values in the U.S., with the old city standing at the centre of a conurbation of urban centres such as Oakland and San Jose, which now exceeds 7 million in population. The perfect setting for California's main harbour and port since it's beginning in the early-to-mid 1800's, San Francisco grew (particularly during the Gold Rush that started in 1849) in stature, fame and commercial prosperity to become the most important city in the whole west of North America through well into the twentieth century, making the tragedy of the 1906 Earthquake and the subsequent fire that engulfed the city all the more significant. The city rebuilt itself, and continued to grow and prosper, expanding down the peninsula on which it sits and out across the Bay throughout the twentieth century. Its latest contribution to the world has, of course, been in the world of computers and internet. Here lies Silicon Valley, birth of the microcomputer revolution and home to innumerable high-tech companies, and the world largest concentration of computer and software engineers anywhere. With so much to see, what on earth do you do in just two days?
Well, driving or walking around the old parts of Frisco town is one way to capture a taste of the city's heritage. The beautiful victorian town houses around Nob Hill are a real surprise to European eyes - we simply didn't expect to see such Old World splendour on the West Coast. Lombard Street, the ziggiest-zaggiest street in the world (and witnessed in countless films) is a must see. And simply taking your car up and down ridiculously steep streets in the heart of a city just has to be done to be believed. It's as if the American Grid system for planning city layouts will know no obstacle to its implementation, not even the steep natural contours of the San Francisco peninsula. I mean, why didn't they just work with the contours for heaven's sake? Downtown is an impressive sight, particularly when lit up at night and viewed from the Bay Bridge coming over from Oakland. It's like someone has planted a glowing block of pleasingly jagged concrete onto the side of the bay, such is the concentration of skyscrapers in such a small area. Whilst I'm not a shopper, there did look to be some pretty cool shopping here too. One place not to go, however, is Soma. Abbreviated from South of Market (Street), it lies immediately to the South of Downtown and is a centre for cheapo supermarkets and liquor stores, crazies and dodgy looking types hanging around street corners. Do what I did, and accidently venture into it from Downtown, and you may need to change your underwear (again). One of the best sides of the city is to the west however, wherein lies three square miles of parkland known as the Golden Gate Park. What is amazing about this place is not its enormity within an urban environment (Richmond Park and Wimbledon Common in London are bigger), but that so much acreage is entirely landscaped. Exotic species of trees and plants can be found, together with carefully followed streams, and attractive lakes, in an area greater than plain old Hyde Park in London.
So it all sounds pretty impressive doesn't it? You must be thinking, whoa! these cats must have had a whale of a time soaking up the West Coast's finest city... Well in truth, I particularly wasn't at my best at the time we drove in to SF. After over a week on the road, and a week in LA prior to that, I was knacked-out and ready for home, and if that wasn't bad enough, the not-so-hot clam chowder I had Fisherman's Wharf turned to clam-chunder. It couldn't get any worse, surely? Oh yes - we made the mistake of not booking any accomodation prior to our arrival. This, we soon learnt, is very important. Motels don't exists within at least five miles of the city centre, such is the prohibitive cost of land, and the one's within fifteen miles were full. Tim suggested one of the hostels in Downtown, but instinct warned me against it (being so cheap and in the middle of the most expensive city in the US meant there had to be a catch). In the end we had to spend over a hundred dollars for a twin room in a Comfort Inn somewhere in Oakland Airport, and this was after nearly two hours of looking. Three of our favoured Motel 6's were all full, so advice is, once again, book ahead! This, surely, had to be rock-bottom.
Well we decided to spend the second day doing our own thing separately, as we both wanted to see different things, and just after we split up, I headed on a cable car into Downtown, with only three dollars in my pocket. And of course, when I got to the bank, I learned that my credit card limit had been reached, and the prospect of a day in this wonderful city without any money loomed like the grapes of Tantalus ahead of me. I hadn't even had any breakfast, such was my plight. Deciding avoidance was a less painful experience than the temptation of so many things I could have seen/tasted/experienced had I had money, I walked back to the car (luckily I was the one with the keys!) and drove back over the Golden Gate into Marin County. There I had a pleasant walk along the cliffs over the Pacific, watching the afternoon fog roll in, literally, out of the sea and into the Bay. A very unusual experience on what was otherwise a clear and perfectly sunny day. But the fogs, a result of moist Pacific air rolling in and condensing over the cold coastal current from the north, is another famous aspect of Frisco that makes this city just that bit more unique.
When the time came, I drove back over the bridge, spending my final three dollars in the toll, to meet up with Tim. In contrast, he'd had rather a good day, hiring a bike to visit the Presidio Park, a vast area of green land just to the south of the Golden Gate, that once belonged to the U.S. Navy, and then cycled on to the Legion of Honour Art Gallery and Museum (the City Art Museum was closed that day - being home to many of the world's finest and famous paintings, Tim was consequently miffed). The day carried on as it had started, we drove into Chinatown to sample one of Frisco's famous Chinese restaurants, but there was absolutely nowhere to park and in frustration we just settled for a mediocre pizza in my favourite place, Fisherman's Wharf. A sad end to what could have been a much better day. But I know I'll get another chance. San Francisco, is just too good to only see once in a lifetime!
After leaving San Francisco, we stayed at our last Motel 6 in Salinas, on the 101, then took that road back to LA, passing through crop dominated valleys where only Spanish words and Salsa could be heard on the airwaves. If you have the time, then a diversion onto California Route 1, along the coast past Carmel and Big Sur is highly recommended (I'm told). But be warned that it is a lot longer in reality than appears on the map, as the road follows every wind and twist in the rugged coastline, with hairpins aplenty over sheer cliff faces. Take route 1. Take plenty of spare underpants. Route 101 took a faster, more conservative route, bypassing the coastal range and emerging onto the Pacific near pristine Santa Barbara. Soon after we arrived back in LA (in time for tea).