It’s a little known fact that, had Warner Brothers not gone cool on the idea in the 1980’s, San Francisco would have been destroyed by Godzilla. That this didn’t happen may have been a great relief to the 800,000 citizens who call San Francisco home, if they had been aware of the peril in the first place, but the truth is that they have more tangible things to worry about. Residents know that they are sitting on a time bomb – more specifically they are sitting on the San Andreas fault.
The 1906 earthquake was a defining moment in the city’s history while another lesser quake in 1989 claimed 63 lives. It can be no surprise then that the urban landscape consists almost exclusively of low-rise buildings and that since building vertically isn’t a popular option the metropolis has spread into a seemingly endless horizontal expanse of concrete and tarmac.
A quick glimpse of google maps however reveals that concrete does not define this region. The wider Bay Area is dominated by water and, beyond that, much wild and rugged landscape. San Francisco itself is surrounded by water on three sides so it wasn’t going to be long before I saw the bay…
The iconic Ferry Building on the Embarcadero was once a major passenger transport hub. That role diminished with the development of the Bay and Golden Gate road bridges and now it is home to high quality food outlets.
The produce here is attractive but exorbitantly priced, and as I graze on the tasters I can’t help wonder what kind of customer they are targeting.
I’m guessing it’s not the commuters queuing outside for the decidedly exotic catamaran service to Oakland. Why don’t we have catamaran services in England. Derby City Council – are you listening?
A sunny stroll westward leads you past numerous piers in various states of use. There’s a slightly tired feel to some of the waterfront and I get the feeling I am 30 years too late, or 20 years too early, to see the best of this prime real estate. It’s still a busy area as queues for the Alcatraz ferry testify and there is a hive of activity around the cruise terminal where a colossal liner waits to collect its passengers for the next leg of its journey. I wonder where the next stop-off point is? Perhaps these wealthy passengers are hoovering up the comestibles on the Embarcadero.
Finally onto something I recognise. My expectations for Pier 39 were based entirely on an episode of Columbo where the downbeat detective sinks his teeth into a murderous boat owner against a backdrop of sea lions who are regular guests here. And here they are, sunning themselves on pontoons, making an awful lot of noise and generally playing up to a healthy crowd of spectators who are enjoying the show. No sign of Peter Falk however.
Another curiosity to be found here is Forbes Island, an eccentric floating restaurant conceived and operated by the idiosyncratic Forbes Thor Kiddoo. A boat service operates to ferry patrons across the water and based on the exterior I dread to imagine what the inside looks like.
It’s altogether busier at adjoining Fisherman’s Wharf which can only be described as California’s answer to Skegness, with its gaudy amusement arcades and tacky souvenir shops. It’s sobering to observe the tour buses and realise some people have chosen to visit San Francisco just for this.
A plethora of restaurants appear to be dishing out poor quality seafood, at least it looks poor and the disappointed expressions of clientele would appear to echo this view. Come to think of it this is the only place I visited in SF where I saw the kind of tourist that wears baseball caps, money belts and loud t-shirts around overly fed bodies. That’s not to say there weren’t plenty of tourists around Union Square but they would be tastefully clothed and drink latte as opposed to gallon buckets of coke. You get the drift – not really my kind of place, but a curiosity at least.
At the centre of Fishermans Wharf is a Boudin bakery, famed for its sourdough and clam chowder – and that’s what everyone there is consuming. It looked like a poor cousin of the sort of food they probably once did well before Lonely Planet latched onto them and they became a pastiche of themselves. I suspect that in 100 years time a subspecies of sea gull will have evolved whose diet consists solely of discarded clam chowder bread pots as that’s all they seem to eat here. At least nobody at Boudin was eating them.
Affairs improve as the walk continues west along a picturesque sandy beached harbour where an old classic schooner is moored. Beyond it the omnipresent island of Alcatraz – at least it appears to be visible from so many vantage points along the coast and inland. A lady asks me to take a photo of her and two friends. It’s that kind of place. Twenty yards on she asks me to take another photo of her. Afterwards I consider drawing up a contract but instead increase my pace, only to see her badgering some other guy for a third shot. He’s probably washing her dishes right now.
The afternoon has become decidedly warm, legs are weary and continuation along the coast entails an incline. We almost don’t carry on – but that would have been a mistake. The apex of this coastal road reveals a park to the left and a panoramic vista through trees to the right over Fort Mason and ultimately to the Golden Gate bridge. The “Fort” has a WW2 military history but today the bay side buildings are home to thriving arts and community ventures. More to the point there’s some kind of “to do” in the car park and it seems to involve food. A jaunt down the hill reveals all.
In one of those happy discoveries you can only hope to make when travelling we have stumbled upon a weekly food extravaganza appropriately called Off the grid given that it was unheralded for tourists. What a find – there are dozens of food stalls each specialising in a cuisine, and not a jacket potato in sight.
There is so much exotic choice but in the end a Jewish food truck gets the nod and it was a good choice. Can there be a mobile food van in Britain serving pierogi? And just to cap things off there’s a very welcome Creme Caramel store selling as many as they can make. What a sensational business idea!
There are a couple of bars and some live music but really it’s just nice to feel like a local for the evening – especially after the tourist overdose at Fisherman’s Wharf. Great food in a social environment underneath a cooling night sky as the fog rolls in – what could be more San Fransican?
All of this has of course been preamble for The Big One. Nothing defines the bay more than the Golden Gate Bridge and on a sunny day I catch a bus to the waterfront a little west of Fort Mason. I could share a few historical titbits with you about the history or dimensions of the bridge but I wouldn’t do it justice and there are a whole load of stats out there. As a point of social history there was a generally held opinion prior to construction that there was no need to build the bridge at all. Two billion cars later I think we can say that the project was justified.
I approached the GGB via Crissy Field – a former airfield which played a defining role in the early days of powered flight. Now the area is a tranquil nature reserve and today it is proving popular to exotic birds, joggers, cyclists and (inevitably) dog walkers. The scale of the bridge becomes apparent when you realise you are walking towards it but it doesn’t seem to be getting any closer, although seeing as the temperature is 20 degrees higher than at home that’s not a hardship.
This area seems to be mercifully undeveloped. There are a couple of cafe’s and tourist shops beneath the bridge but not the plethora of junk outlets one might fear to encounter when visiting one of the world’s most recognised landmarks. A flight of stairs takes me up to road level and the toll booths that featured in international news this week due to the closure of the final manned payment barrier. Now they are all automated.
A turn of 180 degrees reveals the full majesty of this epic construction. Close up it looks very well made and there is no rust in sight. Perhaps they painted over that.
Yet again this city plays tricks on my sense of proportion. Having decided to walk half way across I come to realise that the first tower will be quite far enough thank you very much. Besides, the views are tremendous already with a 65m drop to the water that does not bear contemplation.
Sightseeing ferries are dwarfed beneath the main span while a vast container ship is made to look rather average in size as it cruises beneath. The bay opens out to the east like some scale model. I can see Coit Tower on the mainland the Alcatraz, Angel and Treasure Islands (fabulous name!) and then Oakland where the water ends.
To the west there’s just the vast remoteness of the Pacific beneath a blinding sun. Do we believe there is anything beyond the Golden Gate? Does the edge of the world await just beyond the horizon?