It’s been a few weeks since my return from California so this will take a slightly different approach to my blogs from my previous trip (which can be found here) and will, possibly, come with something of a sense of hindsight.
Flying into San Francisco in late October it was clear that the much reported drought the region was experiencing had had a great effect on the landscape with fields and open spaces that, on my last visit had been green, appearing parched under the tropical paradise like blue skies.
Once out in the open after a surprisingly quick stop at immigration it was clear why, as rarely did the temperature drop below the mid 20s day or night for the duration of my stay – while not great in environmental terms this made for a particularly good climate for exploring the city.
Taking a taxi from the airport (located south of the city and right on the bay) gave me the chance to get my bearings and take in some impressive urban vistas (for an island boy like me) as the Twin Peaks mountains looked down over the sprawl of San Francisco.
Entering by freeway from the south, after some more industrial surroundings, you soon find yourself surrounded by smaller wooden houses of Bernal Heights, Mission District and Potrero Hill before entering the city’s street system ‘South of Market’ by the AT&T Park baseball stadium and surrounded by high-rise offices that give way to the city’s few skyscrapers in its Financial District.
Within two or three blocks of that though the city really comes to life and, as I was dropped off on Broadway, bustling centre of the original city’s nightlife for over a hundred years, I already felt as if I’d caught a taste of the contrasts San Francisco offers.
Despite being my third trip to ‘the city by the bay’ this was first time staying in what felt like the living city thanks to the AirBnB service through which I had rented a cosy and well-appointed top (fourth) floor apartment for the week.
Having briefly spoken to him on the phone on the way from the airport the owner of the apartment, Jason, popped in shortly after my arrival to say hello and check all was ok and I couldn’t have asked for a friendlier welcome.
Following a few notes about the small apartment block we were in from Jason and a few no doubt stupid post-long-haul flight questions from me, he uttered the sentence that I think summed up Broadway, the street that really divides the Financial District and the more ‘real’ North Beach area perfectly for me: “When you head out, if you want strippers or weed go left, if you want liquor or groceries head right.”
Whether this was a piece of standard patter or not it hit the nail on the head and captured something g of the bohemian spirit that has been a fixture of this area since the city was first settled. Close to the old docks, North Beach welcomed sailors from around the world, followed in the 1950s by the still clearly evident ‘Beat Generation’ and now a wide range of pretty much everyone as Chinatown and Little Italy merge and hipsters and vagrants share the streets – all it seems with little hassle from any higher authority.
Despite this description I’ve rarely felt safer in a city than I did here and it was clear this was a feeling held by the locals as well with a communal spirit pervading.
Following a trip to find the nearest supermarket where, despite living the old idiom “two countries divided by a common language”, I got hold of some suitable tea and breakfast food, and an attempt at eating a fairly amazing pizza at Calzones, at what my body was screaming was about 4:30 in the morning, I settled in for an early night before beginning my holiday in earnest.
There are few things that come to mind when San Francisco is mentioned; there’s the fog, the Golden Gate Bridge, counterculture, and, of course, Alcatraz.
Despite this being my third trip I’d still yet to visit the former prison island so I got up early(ish) on my first morning and headed down to Pier 33 to catch the ferry across to the island. For those with knowledge of the Channel Islands the ferry reminded of a slightly larger version of those that service Herm and Sark. I was particularly impressed by the hybrid diesel, solar and wind-driven engines – such use of renewable energy being far more evident throughout this trip than even two years ago.
The short trip across to Alcatraz was a fascinating one in itself as the various rushing tides and currents of the bay were clearly evident, even on this calmest of days, and the views of the San Francisco skyline from ‘treasure island’ and the Bay Bridge round to the Golden Gate were tremendous.
As we docked at the island’s small jetty and the infamous cellblock loomed above us atop the steep-sided ‘rock’, what really caught my eye was the large sign on the facade of the old admin building. Detailing the basic features of the island and the rules for admission from its prison days above the sign, in large red, hand painted letters are the words ‘Indians welcome’.
This instantly sparked my curiosity and revealed one of several fascinating stories of Alcatraz not associated with its time as a prison. When the island was all but abandoned and derelict in the early 1970s a group of native Americans occupied the island under the name ‘Indians of all Nations’. While they were eventually evicted from the then still government-owned facility their protest, which lasted almost two years, set in motion the ongoing programme returning lands and rights to native people of the USA and the marks of it are evident all over Alcatraz adding an extra layer to it’s already rich history.
This layered history is at once figurative and literal as you explore the island. Under the current admin building are the remains of a Civil War era fort that was the first structure built here, it’s mid 19th century brick work giving way to the blocks of the more modern construction.
The cellblock itself has a similarly layered physical history and the former fort parade ground is lined with the ruins of mid 20th century houses built to home the prison guards and their families. This all combines to make the islands whole 22 acres worth taking the time to explore separate to the famous prison.
Of course, the tour of the cellblock is the island’s centerpiece attraction and it is genuinely fascinating. Featuring audio recordings for former guards and inmates it conjures a real sense of quite how isolated life was for the inmates and why it gained the reputation it did.
This is highlighted in a part of the tour that takes you past the big, single glazed, heavily barred, external windows through which, on the right day, the sounds of the bustling and vibrant city could be clearly heard across the short stretch of water acting as a constant reminder to inmates of what they were missing during their incarceration.
The other highlights come in the stories of the escape attempts which ended with varying levels of success, the most fascinating of which involved a trio escaping into the sea never to be seen again – though authorities still regularly receive information on the men (now at least in their 80s) and there is still a multi-million dollar reward should any of that lead to their arrest!
My visit happened to fall on one of the clearest and calmest days possible so the 360 degree panoramic views of the Bay Area afforded by Alcatraz’s position were a fine bonus and added some context to the inner city urban geography. I can heartily recommend taking at least half a day to explore Alcatraz should you find yourself in the Bay Area as it is an experience like no other.
After a slightly bumpier crossing back, which seemed to surprise a few on the ferry despite being calmer than the average trip to Sark, I headed down The Embarcadero, past the occasional ‘Tsunami evacuation route’ signs towards, The Ferry Building. Though this footpath lines one of the cities major roads – six lanes of traffic and two tramlines – The Embarcadero from Pier 39 to The Ferry Building is a pleasant place for a stroll with views across the bay toward Oakland and Berkeley and several restaurants and bars it’s clearly well maintained for visitors but without the intense tourist feel of Pier 39.
Heading inland at The Ferry Building (now more market and boutique shopping mall than actual ferry terminal) takes you into the city’s main thoroughfare of Market Street, though not before a chance to browse the stalls of a small local arts and crafts market where you could pick up anything from typical naff souvenirs to hand-made jewellery and photographs.
Though only made up of maybe 20 or 30 stalls in the small junction plaza at the top of the street it had its own atmosphere with traders, visitors and the inevitable and ever-present homeless contingent all chatting about anything that happened to come to mind – and I’m sure some sales were made too, though that was less obvious.
Barely a block down market street though and the feel was very much that of a bustling financial centre with high-rise office building on all sides representing a range of banks and financial institutions and after meeting up with a friend we walked around the feet of a few of these Titans, topped by the Transamerica Pyramid, as we headed back toward Broadway.
After a brief rest we headed out to navigate the bus system to Golden Gate Park and the California Academy of Sciences. Thankfully, San Francisco has a great public transport system that is fairly easy to understand, once you get the hang of it, and is surprisingly quick at taking you from one side of the city to the other and even across the bay if you use the underground BART network.
Thursday evenings at the Academy, the city’s main science museum, is Nightlife, where the museum reopens exclusively for over 18s to explore the exhibits, see some special attractions and have some food and drink. This particular Thursday the theme was all things space related so I was in my element!
The centerpiece highlight for me was the show in the museum’s spectacular Imax-like planetarium. Narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson it explored the universe from Earth to the far reaches 14 billion light years away with a focus on dark matter and dark energy.
While the show was clearly aimed at an audience with only a superficial understanding of the subject (like me) it was still somewhat brain-melting in its scope but enthralling throughout and the visuals alone would have been breathtaking – I could easily have sat watching the flying star fields all night if given the chance!
As well as the usual science museum type exhibits the Academy features a subterranean aquarium that for the purposes of tonight was doubling as a kind of nightclub (the fish didn’t seem to mind one bit) and it was quite an experience exploring its dark tunnel-like structures with a specialty cocktail in hand listening to vaguely psychedelic trance beats.
After taking part in the fun pub-style quiz, themed to match the night, and exploring the inevitable gift shop it was time to head home, but I would strongly recommend that you check out Nightlife if you’re in San Francisco on a Thursday night as no matter the theme I imagine it would be a fascinating experience and a chance to explore the museum away from the school parties and family holiday groups during the day.