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No visit to San Francisco would be complete without a trip to the prison island of Alcatraz – a curious emblem for a city whose brand is based on freedom and opportunity.

My journey starts at Pier 33 and the queues at the ticket office confirm that pre-booking was essential. The Alcatraz Flyer completes the short journey within 20 minutes and on a clear sunny day like today it’s a pleasure to sit on deck and watch the now familiar shoreline fronted by the Embarcadero and topped by the Coit Tower, from a different perspective.

Go directly to jail

Go directly to jail

As Alcatraz looms large it appears to take on a Tracey Island look. At 12 acres the island isn’t massive but is dominated by purposeful looking construction. The water tower in particular has the look of a 1950’s conceived rocket ship.

Thunderbirds are Go!

Thunderbirds are Go!

On arrival I’m surprised to see graffiti daubed on the dockside building. This dates back to 1960s when, following the closure of the penitentiary, the island was occupied by American Indians demanding the return of the land to native peoples. This makes more sense when you understand the long history of displacement of indigenous tribes by latter-day settlers in this area.

Can we have it back please?

Can we have it back please?

After an inordinately long rambling introduction speech from a tour guide visitors are issued with an audio guide and headphones.

The prison was built to inter the hardest criminals and opened in 1934. Incarcerates were hand picked to serve their time here if they had caused problems at other jails or if they were high profile criminals deemed worthy of the tightest level of security. Mobster Al Capone was the highest profile inmate to fall into this category.

I haven’t seen inside any other prisons (honest!) so my judgement may be skewed but the prison experience can’t have been a good one. Three levels of closely packed cells must have made for a hot-house of intensity.

Life on the Jailhouse Rock

Life on the Jailhouse Rock

There was no privacy with “just” bars separating inmates and guards.

Nowhere to hide

Nowhere to hide

The cells themselves were spartan and, should an inmate to be allowed to keep a cat, swinging it would only have made it angry due to the tight dimensions on offer. Of course, nowadays your average London estate agent would pass this accommodation off as offering minimalist light-rich open-plan living in an exclusive location, but, like your average London flat, a spell inside here cannot have been fun.

One bedroom en-suite studio

One bedroom en-suite studio

Given the excitement and dynamism of “America’s favourite city” incarceration on Alcatraz island – a modest giant’s stride from the mainland – must have been incredibly tough on the criminals. They would have clearly seen the harbour lights across the water and at new year wine-soaked celebratory voices would be carried across the water on a favourable wind. Few prisons can have taunted their inmates so much with what they were missing.

So near yet so far

So near yet so far

Everyone knows that Alcatraz’s great claim to fame was its supposed inescapability. A number of attempts were made but the reputation for security was well deserved. Cells have walls on three sides and thick bars on the other. The cell block is secure and the complex surrounded by high walls, barbed wire fences and scrutinised by armed guards posted in lookout towers. Then there’s the fact that the Island is separated from the mainland by treacherous currents. So nobody escaped then…

No Escape?

No Escape?

The authorities would claim so but in 1962 an ingenious escape attempt was made. Three inmates, Frank Morris, John Anglin and Clarence Anglin used modified spoons to remove air vents from their cells and enlarge the holes so they could squeeze their bodies through. Preparations for this must have taken place over some considerable time and cardboard grate covers were made to disguise the ongoing deception while accordion playing drowned out the chiselling.

On the night of the escape papier-mache heads with real hair were positioned in their beds and after squeezing through the air vents the escapees climbed the network of pipes behind their cells to gain access to the rooftop.

They made it as far as the water where they departed the island on improvised rafts fashioned out of a waterproof rain coats. The official line is that they drowned in the bay but the bodies were never found and a popular theory is that they made it ashore and fled to Mexico. We don’t know what happened but without any evidence Alcatraz still claims to have never lost a prisoner. Group 4 should take note.

In an effort to prevent prisoners planning breakouts some measures were taken to make life inside tolerable for the “guests”.

Letting off steam

Letting off steam

The recreation yard was cramped but afforded inmates fresh air and exercise – much valued privileges. All sorts of games were invented in an environment where boredom was the enemy. A policy was adopted to provide a superior quality of prison food in order to maintain morale.

Diet of crime

Diet of crime

This simple measure probably made a lot of difference to lifers who would have had experienced worse fare in other joints. The menu was undoubtedly better than the inedible guff doled out on my American Airlines flight UA0959 a few days earlier. That said, unlike the canteen at Alcatraz, my aircraft wasn’t equipped with tear gas cannisters that the flight attendants could set off at the first sign of unrest. It’s my guess that American Airlines only baulked at this on the basis of cost however.

Still better than airline food

Still better than airline food

The island wasn’t just home to the criminals. A community of prison guards and their families also lived here and children would catch a boat to the mainland each day to attend school. The old staff houses are in a varying state of repair but gardens testify to the contrasting existences for these two communities, separated in freedom and lifestyle like peoples either side of the Berlin Wall.

Guardeners World (a criminal pun...)

Guardeners World (a criminal pun…)

It’s hard to imagine life on the domestic side of the divide now that the island is populated only by colonies of sea birds. People say the complex feels spooky. I don’t know about that but it certainly doesn’t lack in atmosphere and any visitor would be leaden hearted not to visualise life as an inmate and feel a pang of hopelessness.

Abandon all hope...

Abandon all hope…

My visit has lived up to the hype and this is certainly a must-do activity if you are in the area. I can’t help thinking that Alcatraz was intended more as a statement of authority by the government ahead of a truly efficient addition to the prison system infrastructure. The irony is that since closing in 1963 its re-emergence as a film set and tourist attraction has transformed it into a true asset for San Francisco. I wonder what the old lags think of that…

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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.

Vulnerable to acts of God

Vulnerable to acts of God

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…

Ferry Building on the Embarcadero

Ferry Building on the Embarcadero

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.

SF's premier mouse tourist attraction

SF’s premier mouse tourist attraction

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.

For this price they should be magic

For this price they should be magic

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?

Another way to cross the bay

Another way to cross the bay

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.

Floating city

Floating city

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.

Known locally as Sea Lebrities

Known locally as Sea Lebrities

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.

Fantasy island

Fantasy island

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.

Here be tack

Here be tack

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.

Thanks but you can keep it

Thanks but you can keep it

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.

On the menu - Off The Grid

On the menu – Off The Grid

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.

Philippine street food

Philippine street food

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!

Sweet memories

Sweet memories

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.

Dunes of Crissy Field

Dunes of Crissy Field

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.

Enjoying sight and sun

Enjoying sight and sun

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.

$5 to drive across. Walking is free

$5 to drive across. Walking is free

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.

In good shape for a 76 year old

In good shape for a 76 year old

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.

A shadow of itself

A shadow of itself

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.

What lies beyond?

What lies beyond?

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?

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In a former life I had the curious experience of living in Milton Keynes for 14 months. Curious because as a New Town it was built from scratch 45 years ago around the American grid and block system of town planning, in stark contrast to the windy roads and mish-mash of housing you typically find in Britain owing to a millennia of urban evolution.

On this basis alone the archetypal San Francisco grid system should have seemed familiar to me, but not so. The districts of Milton Keynes differed quite subtly to this outsider in terms of demographic and if you had dropped me somewhere blindfolded I would not have known which district I was in. The regions I visited in SF on the other hand seemed to have much stronger identities, perhaps owing to their relative maturity.

In my previous San Francisco blog I described my experiences in Chinatown and the Italian North Beach district – areas defined by their distinct national identity. I followed them up with visits to areas strongly defined by other demographics such as sexual identity and wealth. Come on MK – get with it! (Cue the complaints…)

Tram to Castro

Tram to Castro

On arrival in Castro it turns out I knew more about the place than I had realised. Castro can arguably claim to be not only the LGBT capital of SF but the gay capital of America. Having watched the excellent film Milk a few years ago I should probably have remembered this. The film documents the life of Harvey Milk, America’s first openly gay politician who lived in Castro and championed gay rights in the 70’s, becoming a figurehead for the community until his assassination in 1978.

The famous Castro Theatre

The famous Castro Theatre

His legacy is there to be seen. Over four decades later and the largest gay community in the country just seem to get on with their lives without a whole lot of fuss, and shouldn’t that be the end-game for any revolution? Sure I saw plenty of LBGT businesses but not so many rainbow flags and I was left wondering whether they had just simply moved on. After all, in a gay community where acceptance is the norm who needs a flag? What statement do you need to make and to whom? I found it all most reassuring.

More quacks than a duck pond

More quacks than a duck pond

A few blocks to the north you become aware of a gradual hippification. This is the Mission District, once described as The New Bohemia on account of the increasing number of creative types and alternative lifestylers setting up home there. Here it seems, anything goes. Many street corners in SF carry the aroma of cannabis and it took a while to realise that the drug is legal here. In The Mission you can inhale it for free by just standing still.

Theres something in the air

Theres something in the air

We visited this laid back area on a Sunday but I can imagine that every day might feel like a Sunday here. Carmen thought she saw Carlos Santana during our visit and my doubts were quashed when uncle google later confirmed that the musical superstar is in fact a local resident. Shakira and Beck also hail from these parts, while artists of the visual kind also ply their trade here.

Clarion call

Clarion call

A chance encounter with Clarion Alley literally illustrated the artistic leanings within the local community. This feature sums up the communal intent quite succinctly.

Failed democracy?

Failed democracy?

The murals were attracting a lot of viewers and a camera crew were taking an interest around the corner.

What we want

What we want

Political statements mingled with … well, who knows…

A haunting picture

A haunting picture

This one would have made a decent Yes album cover

Yes?

Yes?

The artwork wasn’t restricted to Clarion Alley. The Woman’s Building – a female owned and operated community centre – was adorned with what they themselves call a MaestraPeace. I found the artwork OTT but there is no doubt that it has certainly put the building on he map.

Crikey!

Crikey!

Onwards and upwards (everywhere is upwards in this city) to the neighbourhood of Alamo Square. Once again in SF you enter a different district and the character changes from one side of the road to the next. Gentrification has attracted the upwardly mobile set – or possibly vice versa. Either way the area feels distinctly middle class and a local bylaw seems to make dog ownership compulsory. Carmen was excited by this.

A dogs dinner

A dogs dinner

I can’t over-state the dogginess encountered here up through to Pacific Heights and then down into Cow Hollow toward the bay. This event nicely sums up the local passion for canine company:

Coming to a park near you...

Coming to a park near you…

…so much so that it was clearly too much for some people. Time for action…

Please don’t let your dog pee here! We want to live!

…suitably polite for the respectable residents of these streets, lined with fine wooden Victorian houses and well tended gardens.

Taking pride in appearances

Taking pride in appearances

As if to cement the area’s pedigree I came across these globe artichokes – growing out of a bed in the sidewalk. I can’t think of a more visual stamp to signify “upper middle class”.

Now that is posh

Now that is posh

By far the most famous houses here can be found at the summit of the hill next to Alamo Square Park, not to mention on any number of fridge doors around the globe courtesy of their postcard depictions. Aptly coined “Postcard Row” this picturesque line of Victorian homes (also known more decorously as the Painted Ladies) provides a pretty foreground to the high rise skyline of downtown beyond in the distance.

Painted Ladies

Painted Ladies

Typically for this roller coaster of a town just when you think you are at the top of the highest summit looking down on the poshest houses a higher and posher neighbourhood comes along.

Haas-Lilienthal house and museum

Haas-Lilienthal house and museum

The wealthy complexion of Pacific Heights is plain to see. Grand period houses are spotlessly maintained and there are a number of foreign embassies and elite schools here.

These are $2m houses

These are $2m houses

For all of its polish I can’t really take to Pacific Heights. It’s too perfect. There are too few people on the streets. It’s just too manicured – a place for show rather than for living in. The shops are pretentious and the sort of places that bored wives of stupidly rich men go to for emotionless retail therapy when they aren’t having an affair with their young tennis instructors.

Carmen spotted a pedestrian she recognised from a band and that’s no surprise given the number of successful actors and musicians who call Pacific Heights home. Danielle Steele has a mansion here and with some of the worlds most expensive real estate it’s no wonder there’s a “Billionaires Row”. Pity the poor folk who can only afford to live on Millionaires Row…

..the world has gone mad

..the world has gone mad

Just down the hill towards the bay in Cow Hollow (affluent, but not in the unimaginable realms of Pacific Heights wealth) there are more signs of the dog worship I mentioned earlier. Not one but two bakeries for dogs – bonkers. A number of dog outfitters also…

It's not a dogs life

It’s not a dogs life

It seems that people here must have everything they need and so a market has developed for things they really don’t need to satisfy their desire to spend dollars and keep up with the neighbours. I have my own opinion on this…

Refreshingly honest at least

Refreshingly honest at least

You may conclude that I’m some embittered socialist for begrudging affluent people their vices but having seen the abject poverty of the tenderloin district a mere 2 miles away I can’t help thinking that they could put their disposable wealth to more compassionate use.

Based on my wanderings it seems that the higher you rise in society here the higher you live. Can physical altitude be proportional to social standing? Maybe it’s as simple as saying that the richest people can afford the best views. Those with money get to live high up. Those without just get high.

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Once every year or two I make it to some place so overwhelmingly fascinating that there isn’t enough time to transcribe all of my collected thoughts and feelings into any organised blog format. Last year I was completely blown away by my visit to South Tyrol and that never made it online. This April having found myself in San Francisco I pledged to try to carve out some lucid narratives from this immersive pea soup of a city.

Pea soup is a good place to start seeing that SF is referred to locally as “Fog City” on account of its routine morning envelopment in the clouds that roll across the bay. This moniker seemed apt even as my plane descended over the bay, although it was actually cloud cover that lent the effect of glowing circuit boards through a dry ice mist, like some opening sequence to a film in the Blade Runner genre.

San Francisco opening credits

San Francisco opening credits

Prior to my departure I realised that I was casually aware of more points of interest in this city than almost any other US city, perhaps barring New York – my only previous US destination. Here’s a list of things most people in a British high street might have heard about:

WordCloud

About how many other US cities can you name eight defining characteristics? This is a multidimensional city in the truest sense, and over the week I came to realise that these headlines barely scratch the surface. I’ll aim to share some of my experiences with you…

As a visitor the first thing that strikes you is the hills. Having studied in Sheffield I know what a hill looks like but SF seems to consist entirely of them and they can be crampon necessitatingly steep. It takes a stubborn insistence to persevere with the US grid system in such terrain but I’m glad they did because of the many fabulous viewpoints you get from hilltops down the plumb-line straight Romanesque roads.

All roads lead to Alcatraz

All roads lead to Alcatraz

Another side effect of “mountain living” is a local regulation that requires all parked cars to point their wheels into the curb, as a failed hand break here is going to end badly.

Hand brakes need a hand

Hand brakes need a hand

Not that there’s necessarily a need for a car here as there’s a pretty good public transport system within the city area at least. Aside from the regular bus and tram options there are three charming “Cable Car” routes whereby 100 year old wooden Street Cars are hauled along rails via a subterranean moving cable that the driver engages to or disengages from to effect movement. It’s astonishingly simple and effective.

Rules of engagement

Rules of engagement

Once a staple of public transport but now used mostly by tourists a trip on these venerable old timers is certain to plant a broad smile on your face.

The old ways are best

The old ways are best

The service started 140 years ago and it is remarkable to think that the United States didn’t exist 100 years prior to the opening of this line. Just as impressive is that the cars manage to ascend these inclines at all and what a pleasure to be able to stand on a running board with the wind in your hair as the car clangs it’s way from Union Square and on up toward Chinatown.

Springtime cherry blossom in Union Square

Springtime cherry blossom in Union Square

The sun is out in Union Square and so is the cherry blossom. This is the kind of urban escape that so attracts city workers, offering a space to unwind during a lunch break, meet friends, read a book or sit down with a coffee and watch the world go by. The clang of the street car bell is meant to alert pedestrians but I suspect locals consider it more a comforting anchor to the history of this resilient city – a soundtrack to San Francisco.

Welcome to Chinatown

Welcome to Chinatown

As the street car hauls itself up the hillside I know we are approaching Chinatown before the red lanterns come into view because there are strained strains of what turns out to be an old man attempting to play unsuitable western music on his Ehru stringed instrument. It’s charming for the first 3 seconds but he sticks at it. Even in the depths of the most awful tat shops selling alcatraz fridge magnets I can make out the refrains of Happy Birthday and (inexplicably in April) We wish you a merry Christmas. Then there’s a gunshot followed by silence. In my murderous head.

The cat strangler of Chinatown

The cat strangler of Chinatown

Chinatown is kind of what I expect, and highlights for me were the grotesquely tasteless furniture shops (glass table suspended on dolphins anyone?) and the elderly Chinese people chatting away in the street. The fruit and fish shops were a fascination also, although I remain mystified that a community can sustain so many self service laundries…

Kitty heaven

Kitty heaven

Onwards and upwards, the steep incline leads onto the North Beach district which has an altogether different feel. The area has packed in a lot of history. It once attracted leading figures from the beatnik generation including Jack Kerouac and though these times are long gone they are not forgotten. Many famous people have lived here including celebrity couple Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe. Today it’s the strong Italian character that dominates although not in the same overtly tacky way I experienced in Manhattan three years ago.

A strong cultural identity

A strong cultural identity

The Italian community has been here for many generations and it’s just like any other pleasant neighbourhood except with cafes, restaurants and churches you might expect in the grandmother country.

St Peter and Paul catholic church

St Peter and Paul catholic church

The coffee houses and pizza outlets here are superior and numerous. They provide fuel for the final ascent up the now impossibly steep Filbert Street leading to Telegraph Hill. Here you can catch far reaching views between the trees to skyscrapers, endless blocks of low-rise, the bay bridges and – just about – Alcatraz. Atop the hill stands the iconic Coit Tower built in 1933, a lookout post funded by the remarkable Lillie Coit who left funds for the development in thanks to SF fire fighters.

Vying for attention, a hippy lady interspersing flute music with poetry reading in the vain attempt to connect to bemused tourists onlookers who weren’t really getting it. Sharing her astral plain nearby a bearded man tries to engage passers by in environmental discussion while wearing a cardboard tree secured to his head with a band. This side show makes for an entertaining departure and hints at an environmental subculture in these parts. It may also be a sign that light drug use has finally caught up with these two.

If you're going to San Francisco...

If you’re going to San Francisco…

A steep walk down the steps leading east of Telegraph Hill reveals an unexpected delight and perhaps the highlight of an already dazzling day. A tree shrouded corridor links the gardens of beautiful wooden hillside homes into a hidden kingdom of tranquillity, light years from the hustle and bustle of metropolitan life. A local man encourages me to explore a small communal garden and as I sit on a bench amidst flowers interspersed with quirky ornamentation a cacophonous series of squawks herald the arrival of vivid green and red parrots. My, what a racket, but they are as beautiful and characterful as they are rumbustious.

House on the hillside

House on the hillside

I later learn that these are famous fellows, immortalised in Mark Bittner’s film “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill”. This retrospective research also leads me to think that the man who welcomed me to this magic grotto was – Mark Bittner. And then – a sublime moment to cap it all. The parrots have departed leaving only the sound of wind in the trees and a shaft of warm sunlight beams generously through the treetops into my little world, where I am joined by the tiniest lightest hummingbird. It hovers for a few seconds, wings ablur, body stationary, as if pausing for thought, before darting off in pursuit of early afternoon nectar from the intensely perfumed orchids dotted around in the undergrowth. Did that just happen?

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