#11 The USA: Golden Gate City – San Francisco

‘Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.’

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

A blog post on the US? As soon as I started pondering this, I realised it was impossible. It’s such a huge, varied country and could merit a blog series all of its own. I’ve visited it many times, and been to about 16 states so where to start? Since I’m in San Francisco, California as I write this, I’ve decided to start here!

Like New York, so many images of San Francisco have become iconic. The rusty red sweeps and struts of the Golden Gate Bridge, often draped in fog; the wooden trolley cars clattering up and down the city’s steep hills; the bleak rock of Alcatraz; the Embarcadero, the waterside promenade fronting the Bay; the pastel elegance of the ‘painted ladies’ houses of the Haight district and on Alamo Square; the welcoming Dragon Gate to Chinatown; the spiky tower of the TransAmerica Building and the commanding sturdiness of Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill.

Revelling in my time in California’s most popular city, I visited all these and more. One of my favourite things here is watching the sea lions basking and cavorting on the floating wooden pontoons near Fisherman’s Wharf. Collectively, they present an imposing mass of muscle, some glistening wet and dark, others dry and brown . Some lie prone, cuddled together and soaking up the sun’s rays. Others writhe and duck and fight, barking loudly and sliding in and out of the water with ease, despite their size. I also love browsing the upmarket delicacies of Market Place in the old Ferry Building, sipping artisan coffee from Blue Bottle and sampling Californian wines at Wine Merchant.

The first time I came to SF I missed out on a visit to Alcatraz, so this time I made sure to book ahead. A forbidding place, both because of its history and the decaying, dilapidated buildings on the island, it made for a fascinating outing. It was a cool, cloudy, windy day when I made the 12-minute, one and a half mile ferry crossing to the infamous maximum security prison. It could have been a world away. The cell-house is where the prisoners lived, with an average of 260 locked up there at any one time. Painted in the drab colours of institutional green, grey and sludgy cream, as a tourist you can peek into bare, gloomy cells and walk the barred concrete corridors. Listening to the audio guide I was immersed in the tales of attempted escape, such as the violent Battle of Alcatraz in 1946, when a group of aspiring escapees took a group of prison guards hostage. They failed to obtain the keys to unlock the door to their freedom; several guards were killed in the fighting that followed and several prisoners were executed afterwards for their role in the deaths. The only possibly successful escape was made by brothers Clarence and John Anglin and two of their fellow inmates, Frank Morris and Allen West. The four managed to dupe the guards into thinking they were sleeping quietly in their cells using cleverly made papier mâché replicas of their heads. They carved their way out of their cells through the ventilation outlets at the back, into the service tunnel behind, out onto the prison roof and from there … nobody knows! They have never been found or accounted for, either dead or alive, and so add to the sense of intrigue and mystery surrounding the island.

These tales of desperation are inevitably captivating, but I was struck just as much by the soul-shuddering reality of what routine life here must have been like, with isolation, deprivation and boredom forming a lethal cocktail to corrode hope like acid. One person who knows what that was like from grim personal experience is Bill Baker, a former inmate of Alcatraz, now the author of a book about his time on The Rock. On the day of my visit he was sitting calmly in the bookstore on the site of his former imprisonment, wearing a cheery red T-shirt and signing copies of his book, Alcatraz 1259 (which was also his prison number) for tourists. He reminded me of the guides on Robben Island in South Africa, who had also been incarcerated there as political prisoners.

More cheerful activities include watching the shifting views from the Embarcadero, with the coast across the Bay sometimes gilded in sunlight, sometimes (often!) dappled with mist and usually taking in the graceful red swoops of the emblematic Golden Gate Bridge or its paler sister, the Bay Bridge. Travelling on the trams is fun too, listening to the fairground ring of their bells and their doors growling closed like dogs, their passengers a muddled mess of humanity. I spent hours exploring the city’s neighbourhoods, all with their own distinct characteristics. From the expensive mansions and monied hills of Pacific Heights, to the buzzing streets of the Castro, milling with muscled men leading cute little dogs, and the cut and thrust of the Financial District, thronging with tech workers and entrepreneurs, San Francisco is buzzing with life. Upbeat and laid back, it has a darker side as well, in the large numbers of homeless people visible throughout the city. They number nearly 7000, in a city with a population of around 830,000 and their plight is a constant reminder of the city’s vast disparities in wealth. Naturally this is topic is subject to vigorous discussion – see this article on the SF Gate website that seeks to examine some of the conventional wisdom and this Guardian article looking at the scale of the crisis.

This pressing social issue aside, San Francisco has the feel of a place where things are happening. It’s busy and vibrant but without the manic frenzy of New York. It’s filled with screeching seagulls, the salty tang of the ocean, bracing breezes, dazzling sunlight and of course, the more-than-occasional damp mists and the unique views of the Golden Gate Bridge. Casual and lively, gritty and gorgeous, this place is fast becoming one of my favourite cities.

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HIGHLIGHTS

Cultural highlightsSF MOMA; the self-guided cellhouse audio tour on Alcatraz; the De Young Museum

Architectural highlights – Golden Gate Bridge; Trans America Building; Coit Tower; 434 Sansome because it has a public terrace on the 15th floor from which you can take in views of the city; the painted ladies of Alamo Square

Natural highlights – the Bay itself; the sea lions; stunning beach views from Route 1, the Pacific Highway; Golden Gate Park

Food & drink highlightsBlue Bottle Coffee for artisan coffee; Dottie’s True Blue Café for delicious French toast and massive portions of many other breakfast items – ignore the gritty surroundings of Sixth Street and get there as early as you can to beat the queue; Calzone’s in Little Italy for tasty food including homemade pasta and amazing salads, with pavement tables for fantastic people watching when the weather’s kind enough; Salthouse for trendy warehouse dining in a buzzy atmosphere and the most amazing caramelized onion bread; Pier 23 Café for traditional fish dishes (try the crab and prawn sourdough sandwich) and a beachside atmosphere); La Capra Coffee for the best avocado toast ever; Stones Throw for a fun, casual meal with great food in the lively Russian Hill neighbourhood; Barbacco for excellent modern Italian food in a stylish but informal setting; Mazarine for great coffee and brunch (including avocado toast to rival that of La Capra; Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant for a brilliant selection of wines, including flight tastings from local producers on Wednesday evenings; Noah’s Bagels for a wide range of classic and contemporary bagels and fillings on the run – they’re cheap too!; Napa Valley Burgers in San Francisco for the most fantastic truffle fries (I love their kale and quinoa salad too)

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