What Makes San Francisco Enchanting?
Anyone who talks about the L.A. Freeways as being tough has not navigated the spaghetti of higher and lower ramps, bridges and right and left exits as a stranger in San Francisco after dark on the Friday evening of a long weekend rush hour. Rush hour on the L.A. freeways is a matter of patience and a good sing along radio station.
We had taken two days to travel from Hollywood to San Francisco stopping off at Avila Beach for an overnight and great meal on a gas lamp heated patio overlooking the pier. The second day we had a late lunch in Carmel and had fallen in love with the towering pines and the sloping beach of the finest sand ever. Dogs played, childrencalled out, surfers surfed and all this rode on the melody of the shushing waves. The sun was warm and, fingers laced, we gave into the lure of a snooze.
Realty woke us and we picked up the faster highway, missing Big Sur, so that we would make better time. But two hours is two hours and rush hour is rush hour. From San Jose to San Francisco we alternatively whizzed and crept and counted down the exit numbers with anxiety lest we take the wrong exit and end up you know where – the tenderloin – or the wrong side of the bay altogether where darkness possibly waits like a spider for unsuspecting tourists!
With relief we arrived at our exit and yes, it was named differently from the map and we had to cross three lanes from right to left just as the speed picked up. Okay – we made it and the blood has long since returned to my knuckles. From there it was easy – left on Van Ness along to our destined street, right – to the top. Our host through Airbnb had gotten us a parking permit which she instructed us to pick up from the desk in the apartment and then go find a spot. I didn’t get the import of her comment ‘bring your best parking karma’ until later.
Van Ness is a remarkably stable street – straight and level – that runs from stem to gudgeon (can’t really get lost) but when we turned on our street we were met with our first reality that we knew, but we didn’t really know. Maps can’t capture that streets run straight up – and by up I mean by what seemed like a 45 degree incline or better. You have to belt it to get up the incline only to hit the crest at the cross street and the abrupt stop sign. Numbers ran down and not up and we took a few tries before our final precarious U turn and stop – hazards flashing – near the front of the house. We quickly tossed suitcases onto the sidewalk and weren’t quite done before a trolley bus came sailing over the upper crest and bore down on our tiny little Jeep.
Athan jumped the car into gear and took off around the corner while I stood guarding our luggage, feet planted on the sloping sidewalk. No sooner had Athan left when, there directly in front of the apartment, a car pulled away. Just as I was about to leap off the curb and claim it, a waiting car slipped in and turned his tires to the curb, jumped out and locked up with a sheepish ‘finders keepers’ smile that we would come to know and adopt. That first night, I locked up the apartment and joined Athan for the hunt, tired and hungry, in search of our night’s parking spot. Date night in San Francisco. Forty minutes later after traversing some of the most harrowing tilts and curves outside of Disneyland, we were parked. Perpendicular to the curb, near the crest of the hill – Athan nearly fell out his opened door while I had to climb out, keeping my foot on the door so it wouldn’t slam shut.
It was now after nine and that experience deserved a dinner out and we found one of a great number of super restaurants on Polk Street – within walking distance down the hill. We had a light meal and a glass of wine – okay, two – which was just as well, because as you know – the hill we walked down was the same one we were going to walk up. Breathy but exhilarated, we spied the lights of the Golden Gate Bridge sparkling between lovely old century buildings clustered and stacked like wedding cakes. In the morning light we would see that these low rise apartments were macaroon coloured and frosted in white. Hand in hand, we continued our plodding (one foot in front of the other – we’re almost there) stride that took us toward Hyde Street. We paused at the top of the first long block pretending it was to enjoy the view, but it was pretty much to catch our breath. Just as we neared the crest “ding ding dinga ding ding” – the darling, brightly painted, brightly lit cable car with the happy conductor shot across the spine of the hill – people hanging on and jumping off at the stop steps from our door. It was a night that was salty and sweet and immediately opened our hearts to this unique and amazing city.
Had we walked up to the line of the tracks that night and followed the downhill path of the cable car we would have seen the famous Fisherman’s Wharf there in the near distance. Where we were was the stately Russian Hill district. Mansions on Hyde Street overlooked the harbour, the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz and shared space with elegant townhouses, and low rise apartments richly festooned with climbing vines and bougainvillea , quiet behind curling wrought iron gates.
Our apartment was circa 1920’s. It is home to a professional couple who have efficiently combined the charm of its history with the comforts of modern style and technology. We fell into the kingsize bed that night with childlike anticipation for the morning when we would see the city in her light. The morning fog we were warned of never materialized and most mornings dawned bright and blue and warm.
The reason I’m going into such detail about the geography of the hills is not about what it is in terms of picturesque or problematic but how it inevitably shapes the spirit of this city. There is an undeniable vitality and robustness that is palpable. We chuckled that we seemed to exceed the median age demographic in Russian Hill by about a third. It is truly topography for the fit, if walking, and the undaunted, if driving. The streets were always busy with walkers – diners, dogs, shoppers and clearly those going to or from their workout or yoga class. Dress was casual and leaned toward the athletic. This is not platform pump territory and fashion that complement flats or runners tends to be casual.
And if I were to take a hypothetical social perspective gaze from the top of Russian Hill and do a three sixty I would see three dominant and converging character themes. One is very old money and the one is very new riches. The first is a society of a polish and panache that is feels very patrician and the other is Internet/Silicon Valley driven professionals with no children and high disposable income. Entwining these two worlds is the third influence is academia – drawn to this hub of progressive research and learning at Stanford, Berkeley and UC Davis.
Unlike the raw creativity of Hollywood or the marketed glam of Beverley Hills, what we have here is entertainment dipped in the patina of time and tradition – that which has become culture. The ballet and the opera share the magnificent French Renaissance style War Memorial Opera House. The Orpheum Theatre is a monument to 1920’s with a 12th century French cathedral persuasion. Gorgeous buildings dominate the downtown core. There is no mistaking that the Financial District is over there. The Civic Center is here on all these corners. Even the City Hall vies for presence in its golden dome and treed allée designed by the same architect as the War Memorial, Arthur Brown, Jr.
When art meets intellect and falls in love the marriage is culture and that appears to be the feast for the senses that San Francisco serves up. Buildings dedicated to the various arts are regal and massive reverently spaced from one another for emphasis. Banners waving from neighbourhood street lamp standards (the standards themselves reminiscent or actual carryovers of Victorian times) discretely share the local and current fare for view: Njinsky by the Hamburg Ballet; the coming exhibit of Renaissance Art at the SFMOMA.
It wasn’t until days later and seven hours after leaving San Francisco by way of the I-5 and descending down the Hollywood Freeway toward L.A. that I noticed the billboards and realized that they are not to be found in San Francisco. Someone suggested it was a space issue. But I disagree. San Francisco just doesn’t ‘do’ billboards. They are much too crass – like a shout at a cocktail party. I imagine San Francisco would take to billboards the way the Dowager Countess Violet Crawley of Downton Abbey would take to cornflakes.
Not far away, the massive Moscone Center is designed for global business and offers expansive and welcoming floorspace as well as comfortable gathering pods on the entrance level to regroup and rest and text. We spent three wonderful days at the Winter Fancy Foods show where the world had gathered and offered samples of delicacies; caviar from Russia, propolis from Argentina, chocolate from Belgium, salami from Italy, olive oil from Greece, saffron from Afghanistan and cheeses from the four corners.
Dining out at a Greek restaurant Kokkari Estiatorio was an experience in refinement where dishes sounded familiar and traditional but were served with an élan more suited to Epicurus than what most of us are accustomed to in the rough Greek presentation of Zorba. Our finely groomed, black-bearded, white-shirted server offered superb Greek wines and referred to the roasted and spitted goat traversing the restaurant on the shoulders of two Adonises as a recalcitrant employee. The mood was lighthearted, intimate and elegant.
Even our first night experience at a spot, Polkers, know best for hamburgers served up marinated grilled salmon on a bed of greens and grilled shrimp with the best risotto ever according to Athan. Wine was California and excellent by the glass.
And then there was lunch at the Wharf. It was raining and foggy the day we ventured down. It was a twenty minute walk and a delight with bright umbrellas. Well, mine was bright and tiny, barely covering my head and Athan’s was large and black but we made it – only barely damp with all eyes in tact. Every restaurant menu shouted out about the best clam chowder – tomatoey Manhattan and creamy New England. Down on the wharf a dozen venders were standing in stalls side by side presiding over steaming pots with lidded bread bowls at the ready. Crabs and lobsters tumbled over each other and the seagulls shouted for curb side service.
Nearby a whole courtyard is dedicated to chocolate at the Ghirardelli Square. The antique apparatus is still at work grinding and mixing and begging you to dip in a finger! We opted for hot chocolate and were not disappointed. Spoiled for sure!
All of our encounters were supreme. Including the day we got lost on our way to find the Hyde/Powell cable car turntable. Cutting across streets, we passed the high glass wall of a bookstore with racks of gorgeous books lovingly displayed in the window. Our attention was hooked and we walked back to check on a title we were searching only to find this was the actual Chronicle Publishing‘s store.
It was full – full of elegant hardcover books of every description from Greek recipes to gardening. A complete wall was dedicated to children’s works. On hearing that they only carried their own titles I joked with the two clerks that I should dust off my manuscripts and bring them in. Much to my astonishment the clerk said, “Absolutely!” and printed out the website.
Many an artist comes up against the ‘can’t get there from here’ and I am not alone. Rarely to publishers take unsolicited work. Believe it, I shot back to our apartment, purloined a large envelope and paper from our Airbnb host and printed off my stories. Before I left this magical town I was determined to leave my submissions. And so I did. For those wondering – they have been delivered, but the jury remains quiet (they say up to six month for a response).
Another compelling and I think telling feature in this eclectic city is the enormous enclosed carrousel at Yerba Buena which vision is to ‘through creative expression to passionately engage with each other ant he world around us’. It is right next to the Moscone Center. Sitting high on a raised platform beyond terraced rows of fountains a block long and spouting rapturously sits this lavish nod to the child in us all. Gorgeously restored, this 1906 carrousel with prancing gilded horses is $3.00 for two rides and marks the Children’s Creativity Museum.
This city is a marvel of sensibilities that prodded my heart and soul. Chocolate factories, carrousels, cable cars and the epitome of culture and global presence blend with a freshness of youthful spirit resting in the trusted arms of staid historic architecture. San Francisco has my heart and I will be back. And if the gods are listening, it will be for a book signing!
Watch for our adventures in Hollywood and Newport Beach!