Wednesday, 21 September 2011

California, Day 3

The thing I love about flying west is it makes getting up relatively early in the morning wonderfully easy: this Monday morning I woke up effortlessly at 8am after a good night's sleep. After a shower and some blog-writing, I headed out about 11am for a tour of San Francisco's parks.

After grabbing some lunch to take with me, I walked to Powell Street to catch another cable car, this time down Powell and Hyde Streets to Fort Mason. Yesterday, however, I'd caught the cable car from its third stop; today I was getting on at the terminus and boy, was there a queue.

I queued for a full half-hour, but it was worth the wait; the ride up and down the hills was even more spectacular than yesterday; this time, rather than hanging off the side, I was inside the car right at the back, so I had a pretty good view, but I could still brace and take photographs without fear of falling off.

I arrived on the north waterfront at the west end of Fisherman's Wharf, and headed for Fort Mason, a former US military base turned into parkland sitting right on the shoreline, with great views out into the bay. I walked to the end of the municipal pier, from where you could see Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge.

I walked up the hill to the upper part of Fort Mason and sat on the grass under the shade of a palm tree eating my lunch. By now it was getting pretty hot, but being on the Pacific side of the hills of San Francisco made it a little fresher and just right, rather than overbearingly hot.

After lunch, I wandered down to Lower Fort Mason, once a military installation but now used by theatres, charities and various non-profit organisations. I caught a #28 bus from there to the Golden Gate Bridge toll plaza.

The Golden Gate Bridge connects San Francisco to the peninsula of Marin County to the north; the two peninsulas come within just two miles of each other and form the Golden Gate, the entrance to one of the world's greatest natural harbours.

In 1937, after four years construction and nearly a hundred years since the idea was first suggested, a suspension bridge connected the two peninsulas for the first time. It was originally painted first with an orange undercoat, and was to be finished in the usual grey colour; but the residents of San Francisco so liked the orange that they lobbied the builders to keep it that way; and so the bridge remains in International Orange.

On a clear day, the bridge is reportedly breathtaking. Today, however, the only breathtaking thing was the wind and the fog: at the toll plaza (on the San Francisco side) there was perhaps 100m visibility.

More annoyingly, part of the footpath for pedestrians was closed, so I couldn't walk across to the other side. I hesitated about bothering to walk on it at all, such was my pessimism at seeing anything, but eventually I decided I should at least step out onto it.

As I walked out onto the bridge, I noticed I could see a little further, and then when I got on a little further I could see even further still... Soon the fog was not at bridge height, but rather below the bridge. Gradually as I walked further and further I found myself discovering previously unseen views.

Indeed, by the time I got to the first tower of the bridge, I could see most of San Francisco and the bay, except of course looking back along the bridge towards the toll plaza I couldn't see a thing. What was most unnerving, though, was hearing boats below us, sounding their foghorns, which were completely invisible.

The fog was truly incredible - though perfectly normal for the Golden Gate, even in the fine weather we had - and actually it added to the views; if I'd seen it all at once it wouldn't have been nearly as wonderful a walk of discovery across the bridge in the fog.

After nearly an hour on and around the bridge, I decided to forgo the walk down to Fort Point, under the bridge, since it was completely shrouded in fog. Instead, I caught the #28 bus from Golden Gate Bridge to Golden Gate Park.

Golden Gate Park, planned and planted long before the housing that now surrounds it on three sides (the Pacific being the fourth side) is San Francisco's lungs: over 1500 acres of parkland nestled right in the city provide a getaway for locals and tourists alike. I entered in the middle of the park and headed east, past Strawberry Hill and Stow Lake.

Because the park was planned, it incorporates a number of museums, gardens and memorials that in any European city would be dotted around the place and never seen unless you made the effort to go. One of the most popular attractions is the Japanese tea garden, but since I don't drink tea I decided to save the $7 and look elsewhere.

Nearby is the Music Concourse, an arena dotted with trees and flanked by the two most important buildings in the park: the M. H. de Young Museum, a major art museum, and the California Academy of Science, the state's science museum. Both are housed in beautiful buildings, but both were closed on Mondays.

Instead, I simply sat and let the world go by: the Spreckel Temple of Music provides the stage for this vast arena, and even without any musicians it is a sight to behold. I enjoyed an ice cream while watching locals cycling and skateboarding, as well as fellow tourists admiring the architecture.

Eventually, I wandered on: I passed some baseball fields, from where one could clearly see the juxtaposition of green space and city buildings, and the use to which the locals put the space. This is a living, breathing park which is used by all ages.

I came across the National AIDS Memorial Grove, the first national memorial to the victims of AIDS. The sheer number of names carved in the stone goes to show just how many people have been touched by this horrible disease.

Finally, I found myself outside the Conservatory of Flowers, a San Franciscan Kew Gardens, with an explosion of colour in the grounds outside making for a wonderful feast for the eyes while I sat and relaxed.

Eventually, I headed out of the park and caught the #71 bus from Haight and Stanyan to Market and 7th St, from where I walked back to the apartment. For dinner we headed out to a local Italian place, la Briciola, which had good food and good wine, before eventually retiring for a good night's sleep.

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