Clam Chowder, Cable Cars & the Golden Gate Bridge

Trip Start Mar 15, 2008
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Trip End Oct 02, 2009


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Flag of United States  , California
Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Ben Reporting: If New York and Los Angeles are America's most famous cities, generally seen to symbolise the dreams and devastation that can be the universal impression of the United States, then surely San Francisco is the middle ground, a quieter, more stable type of paradise. San Francisco meets the preconceptions more than Los Angeles, and perhaps exceeds them. The steep streets are steeper, the bookshops and record stores more left wing and off the mainstream cuff. But then there's a side to San Francisco that's unexpected. Filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock loved this city and used it as a setting in at least a few of his films. Most famously is 'Vertigo', which sees James Steward as a private detective, tailing his female subject, Kim Novak, around the city, and discovering a city layered with both rich scenery and dark secrets. And so we have San Francisco.

Hitchcock was right in one certain regard: San Francisco is a very picturesque city, a filmmaker's paradise. Leah and I arrived on a typically sunny day, after our drive up the Californian coast. We fought our way down the choked highway to find ourselves Downtown, which is what most US cities call their CBD areas. Quickly, we learn, San Francisco is not a city designed for motorists; it's a place that encourages those on foot, public transport and bicycle. This is refreshing, unless you're a tourist in a hire car, driving up a one-way street that's stretching away at an angle probably greater than 45 degrees. As the driver, I'm thankful I wasn't still in my old Ford Telstar, which I'd probably have had to abandon at the bottom of the hill to walk.

We eventually found our Hostel, a place warmly named 'Adelaide Hostel', apparently named after the alley it was in, which used to be called Adelaide Lane, but was now called Isadora Duncan Lane, just to confuse us old Adelaidians. The hostel was a very nice place, big and old, with a lot of interesting people around, and, even more appealing, free breakfast!!

So, on our first full day in San Francisco, stomachs full, we ventured out to a perfectly warm Saturday afternoon. We walked down to Union Square, in the city centre, and found a nice public space in between all the stuffy office buildings. There wasn't too much to see there, it was more a corporate lunchtime retreat, so we decided to head down to the waterfront, where all the action was reputed to be. The first thing we noticed about San Francisco, as we ventured, were the distinctive homes. The city is filled with two-storey wooden houses, in what creates the impression of the early 1900's style, just back in fashion. More notably, each house seemed almost identical in its design to the next, with rows of horizontal wood boards, flat and tiny gardens and simple pitched rooves. Such symmetry can create both a sense of idyllic neatness or a sort of dull loathing. You wondered if the only way you could choose your abode in San Francisco is by colour and location. It did remind me, however, of Osaka, whose neat design was attributed to the cities complete and quick rebuilding after bombing during WWII. I can't help but wonder if the famous San Francisco earthquake of the early 1900's had something to do with the current look.

We eventually found ourselves on the waterfront, Pier 39, which was absolutely swarming with tourists. We found a small van at the edge of the Pier car park and got our first true taste of the San Francisco experience: clam chowder, served in a bread bowl. This impressive San Franciscan cuisine involves a huge bread bowl; top lopped off, hollowed out and filled with locally produced clam chowder. For those who are wondering, as I was: clam chowder is a sort of thick, creamy seafood based stew, very tasty indeed. We shared a bread bowl of clam chowder and one of chilli, both delicious, and found that we couldn't even finish them, the portions typically excessive.

After our amazing chowder experience, we wandered down the Pier and found a mass of tourists crowded at one particular spot. We followed the general gaze and looked down into the harbour. There, we saw a couple of wooden platforms literally covered in a mass of lazing Sea Lions, all basking in the glow of the perfect sun, and in the light of a thousand tourist cameras. It was all too wonderfully neat really, you can't help but ponder whether the San Francisco tourist board had paid these immense sea animals to perch and pose their in their impressive numbers. It was truly a sight, though, with the odd Lion diving into the water to swim and cool (or show) off.

So we ventured down to the end of the Pier to spot the next big attraction the city had to offer: Alcatraz. The famous Alcatraz prison sits on an island, clearly visible from the waterfront, the prison house and lighthouse parallel with the bay, giving you a perfect view of the prison and allowing visitors to ponder on the dangerous criminals who must've roamed around the island, clearly visible to the whole of San Francisco. The Alcatraz prison ceased use in 1963 but has become a popular tourist attraction since; so popular in fact, all the tours were booked out during the time we were there. Our fault for not booking ahead, sadly, and arriving in San Francisco on a weekend. Still, we got a good look at Alcatraz, the former home of such criminals as Al Capone, and the birdman of Alcatraz, who was some kind of X-Men villain or something, I'm not really sure. Disappointed, we hung around the bay and took pictures, but eventually wandered off in search of views of Golden Gate Bridge.

The Golden Gate Bridge itself is located at the far north end of San Francisco bay, not really walking distance, so we had put off any decent viewing opportunities until the following day. We wandered amongst the masses down the Pier, checking out a small beach, a public marine museum and a famous San Francisco sourdough company that had run it's last tour for the weekend about a an hour before we'd rocked up.

Just as we were getting tired from all the walking, and just as we thought we'd never get a glimpse of the true San Francisco tourist experience, we came across two interesting things. First, was famous Lombard Street, which has an unusual section of street known in tourist circles as: the crookedest street in the world. This bit one-way street has eight sharp turns known as switchbacks that make driving through that section of street at any speed beyond Shopping Centre Cark Park impossible. The funny thing about this section of Lombard Street was, it was so famous it was almost choked with cars trying to drive down it, just for the experience. I've never seen so many motorists go out of their way to drive slower. Oh, of course, what was I thinking? There's Rundle Street in Adelaide on a Saturday night!

After Lombard Street we caught a ride on San Francisco's famous cable car. Now, you may think you know what a cable car is: a tram right? Well, not quite. This particular cable car doesn't run on external wires above the road. Instead, it's pulled along the street by cables that run under the road, and that are attached to the trolley by nothing more than a hook that the driver sticks through the rear floor of the car, down into the road to hook up the car from underneath. This mechanical simplicity, along with San Francisco's incredibly steep streets, gives people riding on the cable trolley an experience similar to riding on a slow roller coaster. To make things even more (slightly) intense, some of the passengers can ride the trolley by simply standing on the platforms that jut out the side of the vehicle. Considering the trolley runs through major traffic, this can actually be a little unnerving for those hanging onto the sides. It's certainly different riding the boring old train to work, though. The trolley climbs slowly up the streets from it's starting point near the bay, and as trolley pitches at the top of the hilly San Francisco streets, you look down and there's over a mile of steep road laid out before you. At that point, you come to appreciate there's merely a cables-break between you and a runaway tramcar full of overweight tourists. It certainly beats the O-bahn for casual, sunny afternoon thrills.

The following day we battled the very confusing San Francisco public transport system to make our way out to Golden Gate Bridge. The famous red/orange Bridge is quite a sight to see, stretching across the already picturesque San Francisco harbour and reaching Marin County on the other side. The Bridge has a hazy look about it from most angles, a sort of smog-covered look to it, giving it a celluloid-era movie quality. Even on a bright day like the day we visited, the Bridge had a technicolour picture-book quality about it, like you were remembering it, not actually seeing it. The Bridge is famous for it's recognisability more than anything, though. Golden Gate was, at one point, the longest suspension bridge in the world, until 1963, when a Bridge in New York took that title. Since then seven other longer suspension bridges have been built. Still, Golden Gate is over 2 kilometres long, more than twice the length of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and each section of the Bridge's cable is nearly a metre thick. On top of that, there are approximately 1.2 million rivets holding the Bridge up and it's estimated that 120,000 people travel across the bridge a day. With the south-bound bridge toll being $5, times by half those 120,000 people a day... times by 365 day in a year... that equal enough money for San Francisco to get a better public transport system to get people to and from the bridge!!

After visiting the Bridge, we decided not to wrestle with the buses again, and instead began walking back towards the city. It took us close to four hours to venture back to the cable car line, but this lengthy walk did give us an opportunity to see more of San Francisco. We wandered along the northern part of the bay area, which was less a tourist section, and had a very descent amount of public spaces for locals to enjoy. The San Franciscoans were out in their droves, enjoying the warmer climate and showing they are a bunch that likes to get outdoors and keep fit. The beaches saw many people relaxing and the parks saw an abundance of kites and picnics. There's clearly a higher standard of living in San Francisco, we never, in our long walks stumbled across what you'd term a derelict area. That being said, the Downtown region of the city had a hard-to-ignore population of homeless people, higher even than Los Angeles. This added to the two faces of the city we seemed to see everywhere.

So when we finally flew out of San Francisco, bound for the more mysterious Seattle, we were left a little cold. Even the tourist books we read in San Francisco told of famous architecture, a wonderful lifestyle and unique overall design, but I couldn't help but feel that the impression was a little overdone. I was probably tainted by the masses of tourists that seemed to pour out of each of the cities corners like termites from a wood-board house, but I also think I missed seeing the charm that was supposedly implanted during the 60's. I was probably so busy being a tourist myself, I hadn't had the time to appreciate the quiet dives and the unique side streets that make San Francisco an individual. In my mind, it will forever be hard to separate the San Francisco I visited from the movies about San Francisco.
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