Monday, 31 August 2015

San Francisco

In the hour between our midnight arrival and reaching our hotel room we were already taken by San Francisco's charm. From the retro neon Coca-Cola signs to the charismatic clerk and the antique elevator, it was like we had stepped inside a movie.

In the light of the next morning the city only grew in character. Each building had its own idiosyncrasies, each storefront had a hand-painted sign, each busy person was going in their own direction. Nothing blurs together in San Francisco, it is a landscape of distinct edges, densely packed and thriving on diversity.

We had breakfast in Union Square and watched the tour bus operators hustle to make a living. After haggling down the price we joined the circuit with a bold and hilarious guide. The fog had cleared by the time our bus reached the Golden Gate Bridge, but that didn't save us from being blasted by a strong cold wind as we passed through the magnificent structure. We were warned about staying on the exposed top deck, but it was more than worth it for the view.

At Pier 39 we hopped off for lunch and a walk along the waterfront. This bustling and vibrant sidewalk must be destination number one for tourists, judging by all the pedicabs, hotdog stands and buskers. The weather was really heating up as we got in line for the ferry over to Alcatraz Island.

It's a short ride across the bay to the famous abandoned prison. From there you get a wonderful view of the city from a different perspective, and the freedom to explore the grounds inside and out. The audio tour begins just past the communal showers and is absolutely worth listening to. It guides you through the concrete citadel step by step as testimonies from both guards and inmates echo around you. The bloody and chilling history is told with a flair for the dramatic, and really instils an oppressive, eerie atmosphere.

With a few hours left in the afternoon we headed to the curious and photogenic Haight-Ashbury district. Famous for being the birthplace of the hippie subculture, it seems not much has changed since the 1960s, except perhaps the cost of living there. The area is filled with flamboyant artwork and eccentric shops, as well as rows of beautiful Victorian houses. From there we walked to Japantown and had sushi at a tiny restaurant with a comically rude, elderly waitress. Never mind her though, everyone else we met was exceedingly friendly and happy to talk to strangers in a way we have not experienced anywhere else.

At 6am the next day we were picked up and began the three-and-a-half-hour journey across California to Yosemite National Park. The first three hours are little more than rolling yellow fields of wind turbines and almond trees. Once we hit the mountain range the ascent began and the scenery quickly turned green and blue. This must be where they get the water from to grow all those almonds. Our first stop gave us the opportunity to visit a few giant sequoia trees. Their size and colour are stunning up close, and the trail through the forest was a pleasant shaded walk in the hot weather.

It turns out the redwoods were just an appetizer. As we wound further into the park we occasionally caught glimpses of the peaks that make this glacial valley so well known. And then we reached Tunnel View, and it all made sense. It is an awe-inspiring panorama, with El Capitan imposing on the left and Half Dome nestled away in the distance. Photographs do not do justice to the scope of this outlook. We spent the rest of the afternoon surrounded by incredible views as we explored the Yosemite Falls area. If we squinted just right we could even make out two climbers halfway up the face of El Capitan, looking no bigger than ants.

As we left the park a forest fire could be seen developing in the distance. Not an unusual occurrence, especially not in the last few years of constant drought. It was dark by the time we reached Oakland, but there was still one last stop to make, at the man-made Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. Here we took in a beautiful, albeit very windy, view of the city at dusk, with its lights beginning to sparkle. That must be a romantic spot to park up on a date.

With one day left there was a lot we still wanted to see. We rode the metro up to Golden Gate Park, and after an hour of walking through the grounds we reached the small herd of bison sleeping way back in their enclosure. We probably should have brought some binoculars. On a bus back downtown we came to appreciate just how steep the hills are. It is no surprise the city has multiple transit companies operating in parallel. Our bus driver was no nonsense when it came to keeping the riffraff on the street as we passed through the aptly named Tenderloin neighbourhood.

San Francisco's Chinatown is almost a caricature. Every inch is packed with red lanterns, jade statues, flea markets and tiled roofs with upturned eaves. It makes for a crowded but entertaining walk up Grant Avenue. We came out the other end in Little Italy and stopped for lunch near the eye-catching Saints Peter and Paul Church. Unfortunately we missed the restaurant with garlic ice cream on the menu. Next time.

Our final hours were spent walking the piers and relaxing near the Bay Bridge where we admired Cupid's Span, a giant sculpture of a bow and arrow shooting into the ground. A fitting location from which to say goodbye. As our plane headed north we once again saw smoke clouds billowing into the sky. Maybe the rain will finally return next year.

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