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I haven’t always been obsessed with San Francisco.

There was a time when I was obsessed with Italy.

My affection has never diminished for the land of olives, arias and elections. It’s just that since we first – belatedly – discovered the United States, and San Francisco in particular, the siren call from across the Atlantic has invariably proved too hard to resist.

But for a decade in the eighties and nineties, it was Italy that held us in its thrall.

Our first date, however, did not go well.

Midway through a twelve day cheese and wine driving tour of France, we made a short detour into Italy via the Mont Blanc Tunnel. That excursion might have lasted a little longer had it not been for the fact that, having realised we had the taken a wrong turn on the outskirts of Courmayeur, we reversed onto the newly laid tarmac driveway of the startled, and more worryingly, burly owner.

Fortunately, our hire car had sufficient power to outpace him, his even sturdier wife, three small children and fearsome German shepherd dog as they gesticulated in a manner that seems to be every Italian’s birthright.

Having lain low from Interpol for a couple of years,  diplomatic relations were restored when we snuck back on a ten day coach tour that included Rome, Florence, Pisa, Venice and Assisi (our earliest encounter with San Francisco?).

Over the next few years we took short breaks to Florence, Venice and Milan. Longer holidays followed to Sorrento (twice), Lakes Garda and Como and, loveliest of all, Taormina in Sicily. We even abandoned France one year to base ourselves in the Aosta Valley resort of La Thuile, from whence we could ski over the border to La Rosiere.

No matter that public life was mired in scandal and corruption, and that television was a boorish blend of babes, boobs and Berlusconi baloney. We were now besotted with the breathtaking natural beauty, history, sense of style and the ravenous appetite for life of the people. We enjoyed la dolce vita, worshipped la bella figura, and did our best to blend seamlessly into la passeggiata every evening. Puccini, Giotto and Michelangelo became my cultural icons. The whole country was one large show and we loved it.

Climbing up from Piazzetta Michelangelo to San Miniato al Monte in Florence, coming upon the Campo dei Miracoli in Pisa for the first time, getting lost among the remoter calle in Venice, gazing on Santa Lucia in Naples, walking the Circus Maximus……the list goes on.

In 1992 I began to learn the language (that, acording to Lord Byron, ” sounds as if it should be written on satin”) in earnest, and attained a Royal Society of Arts Level 1 diploma with distinction.

And then there was the calcio.

Serie A was at that time the most glamorous football (soccer) league in Europe. Real Madrid and Barcelona may still have attracted many of the bigger names, but La Liga was not televised on British television as it is now, or if it was, only to a miniscule satellite audience. And the Premier League in England was only in its infancy.

But Sunday afternoon on Channel 4 was one of the highlights of my week, when a top Italian league game was televised live. The Saturday morning magazine show, Gazzetta Football Italia, presented by the witty and well informed James Richardson (did he ever drink that cappuccino or eat that gelato that shimmered on the table in front of him?), showed highlights of all the previous week’s games and featured interviews with the top players, including Paul Gascoigne and Paul Ince, who took the rare route of moving from England to Europe.

It was bliss to an Italophile like me.

Roberto Baggio with his languid style, pony tail and hip Buddhist beliefs, and Franco Baresi, the epitome of the Italian hard man defender, became my footballing heroes. We even named our pet rabbits, Baggio and Schilacci after their namesakes’ exploits in Italia ’90. The spectacle and drama of that World Cup tournament only endeared me to the country more. I could not even get downhearted when the host country beat England 1-0 in the third place play-off.

And then, five years later, I realised an ambition and attended the San Siro where, in front of 83,000 fans, AC Milan “welcomed” eventual Scudetto winners, Juventus. I’d always thought that English football supporters were passionate, but the fervour and fanaticism in that stadium that evening was astonishing. One elderly gentleman next to me spent the entire game clutching his prayer beads and yelling at Milan’s mercurial Yugoslav playmaker, Dejan Savicevic, to produce a moment of magic for the hosts, but to no avail.

Discretion being the better part of valour, I kept my allegiance to La Vecchia Signora (Juventus) firmly under wraps as they strolled to a 2-0 victory with goals from Gianluca Vialli and Fabrizio Ravanelli, both later to star in the Premier League. The contrast with the last match I had been to, between Gillingham and Bury four nights previously in front of little over 3,000, could not have been more striking.

It was later in that year that we made our first fateful trip to the American West. We didn’t abandon Italy immediately as we visited Lake Como two years later. But it was another decade before we renewed acquaintance with La Serenissima as part of my wife’s fiftieth birthday celebrations.

And now, another seven years later, we are finally returning for a third time to Sorrento. We may only be there for a week, but that will be enough to enable us to go back to Capri, Pompeii, Naples and the Amalfi Coast (Positano, Amalfi and Ravello).

Torna a Surriento!

 

 

 


Shortly after the publication of my first book, A Half-Forgotten Triumph, I outlined my initial thoughts on what was already being referred to as “the San Francisco book”:

http://tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2013/08/07/the-next-book/

At that time, I was considering various options on its subject matter and format:

  • standard travel diary;
  • guide book;
  • reflections on aspects of life in the city;
  • features on some of its larger than life characters; and
  • analysis of the British influence on the City.

A year on, all of those options still appeal to me, and I would fully intend to tackle them all in the future. But if I am to make progress with this first book in the series, the time has come to set aside doubts and decide which course to take.

I keep returning to the idea of a combination of the first three options. Indeed, the material that I have written already has adopted that approach.

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The book will follow an English couple on a month long vacation in the City. From their rental cottage in Bernal Heights, they will explore both the most celebrated and lesser known locations, reflecting, not only on their experiences, but also the issues affecting tourists and residents alike in modern day San Francisco.

Those reflections will inevitably carry an English flavour, similar to the style of both my blog and the Tony Quarrington: An Englishman’s Love Affair with San Francisco Facebook page.

I have had an acceptable working title for some time – Smiling on a Cloudy Day Some readers may recognise the direct quote which, I think, reflects neatly my habitual engagement with the “City by the Bay”.

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I’ll confess that even reaching this point has not been easy, and progress has been slow.

Perhaps it’s laziness, perhaps lack of imagination – or, more likely, both – but I struggle to write authentically about San Francisco when I am domiciled most of the time more than five thousand miles away.

There is so much support material available online – not only websites and other resources, but hundreds of videos online on every aspect of life in the City.

Want to ride the Powell and Hyde cable car line?

Click on the one of several YouTube videos.

Want to know what it’s really like living in the Mission district?

Click on one of the many “vox pop” interviews with residents on YouTube.

Want to absorb yourself in one of the many festivals that abound in San Francisco on almost any given weekend?

I think you know the answer.

Easy then isn’t it?

No. It’s very hard – well, at least for me.

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James Joyce may have been able to capture the essence of daily life in Dublin despite only occasionally, and then briefly, returning to his native city a handful of times after first leaving it in the year in which Ulysses is set.

It helps, of course, if you have spent the first twenty two years of your life in that environment. Being a genius and a master of the English language too are hardly handicaps.

I can claim neither of those advantages.

So I’m left with memories from a dozen visits, bolstered by notes and blog articles at the time, and those YouTube videos to convey the spirit of life in the city.

Ultimately, the readers will be the judge of how successful I have been.

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Finally, there are a number of practical decisions to make over the coming months as the book comes together, notably the projected publication date and form the book will take (print or e-version).

On timing, my current plans are to publish midway between my planned trips to the City in May and September of next year, enabling me to promote it locally.

I will continue to use this blog to relay my emerging thoughts, and, where appropriate, trail some of the content.

 

 


For years we had avoided San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood.

On our second trip we had walked from 17th Street along Mission to 5th where, leg weary, deafened by traffic noise and not a little relieved that we’d survived the ordeal, we slumped into Lori’s Diner on Powell and Geary. All I can really recall from that morning was a wary wander down Balmy Alley, home to the largest collection of murals in the city.

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And for several trips after that, we kept away from the area, spending our time in the northern and western parts of the city, with only occasional forays into the adjoining Castro district and Dolores Park.

Why?

It was not as if we did not like the culture or food of the area – indeed, burritos, enchiladas and margaritas might just be our favourite culinary combination.

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No, our reluctance to set foot east / south of Market stemmed from an anxiety that we might not be as safe, especially after dark, as in other parts of the city. Violent gangs and gun crime were – and remain (a man was killed near 16th and Guerrero only three days ago) – a constant feature of life in the Mission.

So we stayed away.

We actually considered renting an apartment on Valencia three years ago, because apart from being edgy, the neighborhood was also meant to be “hip”, San Francisco’s party capital. But, once again, we were deterred by its negative reputation.

So we stayed away.

But this continuing omission on our San Francisco CV was no longer tenable, especially as we have rented apartments in the adjacent neighborhoods of Noe Valley and Bernal Heights in recent years.

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How could we convince ourselves, and others, that we were locals in spirit if we did not embrace the Latino and Hispanic heart of the city on our doorstep?

So, finally a year ago, we ventured tentatively into the area again by taking a delightful sunny Sunday afternoon stroll down Valencia from 24th Street, crossing to Mission at 16th and walking back up to 28th Street and our apartment.

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A political demonstration outside the BART station on 24th Street was winning the battle for the attention of passers by with a handful of religious preachers on the opposite corner, but the atmosphere was restrained rather than confrontational. Cafes and restaurants were overflowing and Latin rhythms abounded. Coffee at the Borderlands bookstore was followed by a margarita at West of Pecos, where we were tempted to reconsider our plans for dinner that evening. A mariachi band serenaded the sidewalk diners.

We marveled at the murals on Clarion Alley, many of which reflected the current tensions in the city over gentrification (not least in the Mission), sky-rocketing housing prices and the closure of public parks at night.

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We repeated the expedition again this year, starting with a hike over Bernal Heights Hill, descending Alabama Street to the vibrant Precita Park Café for a Mitchell’s ice cream before crossing Cesar Chavez Street and into the neighborhood.

Next year, we will be staying in the same Bernal Heights cottage for a total of six weeks, and look forward to renewing acquaintance with the Mission district regularly. Several restaurants, including Taqueria La Cuembre and Cha Cha Cha, have taken our fancy. 

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We might even eat there after dark too.

And it is time we met the Tamale Lady.


A little over six months ago I produced a potted guide for first time visitors to San Francisco. It was so well received that, following my recent visit, I thought it might be helpful to update and expand it to keep it fresh. I have also included a number of new photographs to supplement the text.

As before, it is arranged in  no particular order.

 

1. Golden Gate Bridge

  • The most iconic sight in a city where there are many attractions to compete with that title;
  • Drive it and take in the views from Vista Point (where the tour buses go), but for the killer photos, cross under Highway 101 at the end of the bridge to climb up the Marin Headlands (below) – you may need to wait for a parking space, and the walk up to the nearest point to the bridge can be challenging for some, but you would regret it if you did not attempt it;

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  • If driving, you have to register in advance for the toll (credit card is charged when you return to city);
  • Walk it or bike it too for more wonderful photo opportunities – and for the health-giving properties, naturally;

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  • Approach it by walking from Aquatic Park at the western end of Fisherman’s Wharf, past Fort Mason and along Marina Green and Crissy Field – it’s quite a trek and usually very bracing, but it affords great views of the bridge and Alcatraz;
  • If time permits, take a side detour to the former army post of the Presidio with its fine, preserved military buildings, many converted for modern use such as the Walt Disney Family Museum, and hikes through the woods with yet more stunning views of Karl the Fog lurking over the bridge.

 

2.  Golden Gate Park

  • Much to offer in a park that it is a fifth larger than New York’s Central Park;
  • Two splendid museums: the California Academy of Sciences with its resident aquarium, planetarium  and rainforest and the modern art de Young Museum where the building is as interesting as the exhibits it contains;
  • Japanese Tea Garden: it may be twee and not the cheapest gig in town, but it is undeniably beautiful and provides tasty oriental teas and snacks in the café;

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  • Walk round lovely Stow Lake and admire the Chinese Pagoda, the bridges and bird life, and climb Strawberry Hill for excellent northerly views;
  • Grab a hot dog or ice cream at the boat house and take  a pedal boat ride;

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  • Linger among the trees in the moving National AIDS Memorial Grove and sweat a few pounds sauntering through the steamy Conservatory of Flowers (pictured below);

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  • The buffalo paddock (don’t expect the creatures to acknowledge you, they are rather shy) and the Dutch Windmill (pictured below) are also worth exploring at the western end of the park;
  • If you crave refreshment when you reach the beach, grab a table in the Beach Chalet, ensuring you enjoy the murals depicting life in San Francisco in the thirties on the ground floor before you do so.

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3. Ferry Building

  • There is a gleaming new cruise terminal nearby but ferries still use it;
  • Its huge popularity, however, stems from the fantastic selection of indoor food and gift stores, including an attractive, independent bookstore and urbane wine bar;
  • Celebrated local restaurateurs demonstrate their skills at the Farmers’ Market, recently voted the best in the United States and the sixth best in the world, outside on certain days of the week;

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4. Cliff House

  • Drive or take the 38 Muni bus from downtown to Ocean Beach for two fine restaurants with stunning views over the Pacific;
  • Stroll along the beach for miles;
  • Explore the remains of Adolph Sutro’s great public baths and watch the endlessly fascinating display of sea birds on Seal Rock (via the fascinating camera obscura if it is open);

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  • Take the short walk to the western end of Golden Gate Park or, if you’re feeling energetic and haven’t forgotten your camera (to catch tantalising glimpses of the Golden Gate Bridge en route), walk back to the city along the coastal trail that leads from Sutro Baths, descending to China and Baker beaches to get close to the Pacific lashing the shoreline;
  • If you have time, call in for coffee and pastries with Rodin at the Palace of the Legion of Honour.

 

5. Chinatown

  • Witness the largest Chinese community outside Asia going about its daily business;
  • Grant Avenue, though touristy, is best for gifts whilst Stockton contains the markets at which the Chinese women shop for produce not seen anywhere else!;

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  • You must eat here at least once during your stay – I recommend the Great Eastern, after all the President and First Lady eat there when in town, and the R & G Lounge;

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  • Don’t forget to glance to your right as you walk along Grant for views of the Bay Bridge and the Transamerica Pyramid;
  • Amble through Portsmouth Square, where Captain Montgomery raised the American flag for the first time in San Francisco in 1846, and watch the dozens of card and mahjong games being played by the elderly male residents in “Chinatown’s living room”;
  • Dip into Ross Alley and buy an inexpensive bag of the goodies produced in the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory.

 

6. North Beach

  • As befits its traditional status as the Italian quarter, it is full of excellent cafés and restaurants – Trieste with its powerful espresso and live opera the most famous but Greco and Puccini are recommended too;

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  • We have also had good meals at the North Beach Restaurant, Calzone, Sotto Mare, Rose Pistola, Firenze at Night;
  • Rest awhile at Washington Square Park watching the dogs and their humans at play under the watchful eye of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul and Coit Tower;

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  • If you’re looking for breakfast or brunch, join the line outside Mama’s on Washington Square, or if it’s a little later in the day, take your place in a similarly long queue for Tony’s Pizza Napoletana on Stockton and Union.

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  • Have a glass or two of Anchor Steam or Sierra Nevada beer at the Vesuvio Café,  historic haunt of the Beats, including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, in the fifties and sixties;
  • Pore over the framed newspaper cuttings and visit the state of the art gents restroom downstairs (I cannot vouch for the ladies, unfortunately);

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  • Peruse the unique shelves of the City Lights Bookstore, one of the most famous in the world, a few steps across Jack Kerouac Alley;

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  • On the opposite corner on Columbus, Broadway is – or, arguably, was – home to many of San Francisco’s more famous fleshpots and the fascinating Beat Museum;
  • If you want to see a cheeky rather than bawdy show, you can do no better than take in long running revue Beach Blanket Babylon - best to book in advance.

 

7. Palace of Fine Arts

  • The only remaining building from the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition celebrating the resurrection of San Francisco from the Earthquake and Fire of nine years before;

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  • It is a beautiful classical structure set alongside a tranquil swan-filed lagoon attached;

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8. Haight Ashbury

  • Whether you’re an old hippie or not, it’s a fascinating place with lots of “head” shops, stores selling retro clothes, good cafés, a massive record shop (Amoeba) and not a few “characters”;
  • Close to Golden Gate Park, it is possible to visit both on the same day.

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9. Alcatraz

  • It may be touristy but no visit to the city is complete without an excursion to the most feared federal penitentiary of them all;
  • In view of its popularity, it’s best to book in advance, preferably before you travel;
  • The day tour is good but the evening (sunset) one is even better, though perhaps not for those of a nervous disposition!

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10. Bay Cruise

  • Sit back and rest those weary feet for an hour or two on the bay, remembering to take suncream, required as much for the wind as the sun;
  • Stop off at Sausalito for a drink and a promenade, taking in those shimmering views from the original “dock of the bay”;
  • The Rocket Boat, with its raucous rock and roll soundtrack, juddering high-speed turns and close-up views of AT & T Park, is tremendous fun, though not for the faint- hearted!

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11. Castro

  • Ground zero for San Francisco’s large gay and lesbian community, with rainbow flags are fluttering everywhere;
  • Many eclectic and unique stores;
  • Beautifully restored Victorian houses rivalling those in Haight Ashbury and Pacific Heights;
  • Good cafes and bars, with an especially vibrant night secene;

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  • Perhaps its most famous building is the great movie house, the Castro Theatre, complete with its own wurlitzer;  if you can, book tickets for a film, many of which come as double bills;

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  • You might even get lucky and be able to participate in a sing-a-long version of either The Sound of Music, Grease or The Wizard of Oz. Or if not, Frozen!

 

12. Alamo Square

  • Position yourself to take the perfect picture of the famous Painted Ladies Victorian houses with the modern city looming behind.

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  • The recent ban on tourist buses should make the perennial wait for the photo unencumbered by human or vehicular traffic a less annoying one.

 

13.  Mission

  • Boisterous, funky, traditionally Latino and Hispanic neighbourhood, increasingly subject to gentrification;
  • Great for cheap clothing and inexpensive Central and South American food;
  • Take the pilgrimage to the original Mission Dolores church, the oldest surviving building in the city;
  • Take a picnic to adjacent Dolores Park and savour the great views, not only of the city but also of your fellow humans (some of which may be naked – you have been warned!;
  • Difficult enough on a warm day to find a spare square inch, the current re-modeling and upgrade to facilities means that half of the park is closed to the public.

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14. Coit Tower

  • Fire nozzle shaped monument provided for the city by Lillian Hitchcock Coit in honour of the brave firefighters of the Earthquake and Fire of 1906;
  • Take in the wonderful views over the bay, including Alcatraz;
  • See and hear the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill (though you are just as likely to encounter them elsewhere in the city nowadays);
  • Don’t bypass the wonderful murals in the rush to the tiny escalator to the viewing stage.

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  • Climb up at least one set of steps – Filbert and Greenwich are the best – past lovingly tended urban gardens.

 

15.  Twin Peaks

  • If you take an organised tour of the city, this is likely to be the first place you are taken for its splendid panoramic views of the city;
  • I will take this opportunity, however, to put the case for my adopted neighbourhood of Bernal Heights..

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16. Civic Center

  • Home to magnificent City Hall and several other public buildings, including the symphony/opera and library;
  • Good, cheap farmer’s market on Wednesdays.

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  • You should be aware that this area, along with the adjoining Mid-Market (rapidly being gentrified) and Tenderloin districts, is where you are most likely to be accosted by vagrants.

 

17. Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39

  • The most popular tourist spots on the bay, where I, along with many thousands before me, fell in love with the city, bedazzled not only by the bay views but the fun and energy of the area;
  • For me, that love may have faded as I have gravitated towards the inland neighbourhoods, but I can rarely resist spending my last full day absorbing the atmosphere;
  • See,  listen and laugh at the crazy sea lions on Pier 39, long since now migrated from Ocean Beach;

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  • Wander round the myriad of gift shops for presents for those back home;
  • Sample seafood at the many restaurants and wharfside stalls – we have eaten well at the Franciscan, Neptune’s Palace and McKormick & Kuleto’s;

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  • The Hard Rock  Cafe is here too if that is more your scene;
  • The Gold Dust Lounge, relocated from Union Square, is a good watering hole with live music;
  • The Musée Mecanique (vintage amusement arcade) and Hyde Street Pier (collection of classic ships, pictured), are two of the best deals, not only on the waterfront, but in the whole of the city; 

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  • Beware the World Famous Bushman!

 

18. Union Square

  • San Francisco’s “modern” shopping heart is very popular with tourists and locals alike, and I am slowly warming to it, though I still prefer to use it more as a thoroughfare from Market to Chinatown and North Beach;
  • The Westfield Shopping Center, Macy’s flagship branch, Saks Fifth Avenue and many more designer stores account for its huge popularity;
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  • There are a number of good diners and grills in the vicinity, including John’s Grill, Daily Grill and the daddy of them all, the Tadich Grill;
  • It borders both the Tenderloin and Civic Center, so don’t be surprised by the number of homeless people, some of whom may approach you for money, or at least to persuade you to buy a copy of Street Sheet, or they may just open the door at Starbuck’s on Powell for you.

 

19. Bay Bridge

  • Many, including my wife, prefer this to the Golden Gate Bridge and love driving on both its upper and lower decks;

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  • The new span that replaced the old one destroyed by 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake has recently opened and is stunning;
  • It is spectacularly lit up at night.

 

20. MUNI

  • San Francisco’s public transit system is loved and hated in equal measure by both locals and visitors;
  • The cable cars, one of only two moving National Historic Landmarks, are not merely tourist toys, many locals use them too, and you must ride them;

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  • The lines on the Powell and Hyde and Powell and Mason routes may be long but it’s well worth the wait – hurtling down Nob or Russian Hill, especially if you nab the lead rail, is a thrilling experience;
  • If you’re averse to waiting in line, take the less busy California Line which starts in the Financial District and runs up Nob Hill before descending to Van Ness
  • The historic F Streetcar, with its colourful fleet transplanted not only from other American cities but from around the globe, runs from the Castro along Market and the Embarcadero to Fisherman’s Wharf, is a charming if uncomfortable ride. Don’t expect, however, to get anywhere quickly;

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  • Very few bus rides on Muni are boring – you’re almost certain to be entertained, amused and horrified – or all three, on any journey – after all, all human life is there!

 

21. Sports

  • If you’re in town between April and October, get seats for a game at AT & T Park to watch the San Francisco Giants baseball team, twice World Champions in the past four years and currently leading the Majors by a distance;
  • Even off-season, a tour of the ballpark, dubbed the most beautiful sports stadium in the country, is a treat;

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  • The San Francisco 49ers football team have vacated windswept Candlestick Park, bound for their new home in Santa Clara in Silicon Valley!
  • You can also get your (ice) hockey fix too between the months of October and April by taking the train from the Caltrain station at 4th and King to San Jose where the Sharks will be waiting to entertain you.

 

This is not an exhaustive list – I have not even mentioned the many day trips out of the city that can be made, for example to the wine country (Napa and Sonoma), Muir Woods, Berkeley, Monterey and Carmel. But I think what I have included will keep any first time visitor occupied for a couple of weeks at least!

I would be happy to answer any questions arising from this post.


There are many reasons why I am grateful to have been born and educated in Rochester, notably the imposing castle keep, atmospheric cathedral and the close association with Charles Dickens.

The town also hosts a series of festivals and concerts throughout the year within its ancient high street and environs. Whilst the Dickens Festival, held on the weekend after the late May holiday is the oldest and biggest, it is the Sweeps Festival over the May Day weekend that I look forward to the most.

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For three days the town reverberates to the sound of accordions, bells, fiddles, clattering clogs and crunching sticks in one of the largest May Day celebrations in the UK.

But why sweeps?

Well, Dickens is again the inspiration for this extravaganza of music, dance and street theatre.  May Day was the one day’s holiday a year for chimney sweeps  or “boys” in Victorian England, and the novelist highlighted their plight.

The festivities actually begin earlier – at 5.32am on 1st May to be precise.  At the picnic site near Bluebell Hill, the principal road between Chatham / Rochester and Maidstone, the slumbering Jack-in-the-Green is brought back to life by sweeps, Morris Men and anyone else dedicated or foolhardy enough to rise at such an early hour.

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Back in Rochester, the narrow and sleepy high street stirs at around 11 o’clock each morning as shops and stall holders prepare their pitches against a backdrop of  Morris sides jingling into position for their first dance. Many of the pubs host live folk acts too. As you walk from one end of the street to the other you will hear snatches from every strand of the folk tradition.

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Already impassable to vehicular traffic, the street soon becomes clogged (pun intended) with human onlookers, some regular devotees but many others, local residents making their annual pilgrimage to gawp at the strange people from eight to eighty dressed in waistcoats adorned with badges, hats, handkerchiefs, bells and carrying the obligatory personalised beer mug (usually pewter).

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The 2014 Festival, blessed with the fine weather that can make or break such an outdoors event in spring in England, was the 35th since the tradition was revived. More than sixty “sides” from as far afield as Nottingham and Warwickshire performed the full gamut of Morris dances – Cotswold, Border, North West Clog and Black Face.

Kent was understandably well represented with, among others, festival favourites such as Bishop Gundulfs, Kits Coty and the Loose Women. Less traditional forms of dance, notably Gothic (the Screeming Banshees) and Sand (the Fabulous Fezheads), provided added spice.

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The entertainment was not confined to the crowded high street. The War Memorial was home to “Busker’s Corner” and stages behind the City Wall bar and on Boley Hill leading up to the Castle allowed further opportunities for singers. The car park adjacent to the castle moat was abuzz with enthusiasts trawling through the treasures in the record and musical instrument tents.

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The main stage in front of the Castle was permanently in use with a succession of folk acts, and the gardens contained a food, drink and lifestyle fair, children’s fun fair and a number of other craft marquees.

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Back in the high street again, the music – and the drinking – never stopped.

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And the dances – and fashion  – got weirder.

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It had barely been a fortnight since, empty and depressed, I’d left San Francisco. But there can have been few better tonics than a day at the Rochester Sweeps Festival, which was rounded off by a fine concert from the original English folk-rock band, Fairport Convention that evening at Chatham’s Central Theatre.

Moreover, it heralded the start of the English summer – light evenings, more festivals, cricket, seaside trips.

And even the prospect of some warm sunshine.

Now that’s not something San Francisco can guarantee is it?


Untroubled by any afternoon fog, the sun slides towards the Golden Gate before retiring for the night.

White swans glide across the placid lagoon. A small boy runs after a ball, inadvertently kicking it forwards each time he reaches down to pick it up, whilst his mother checks her e mails on her new smart phone. Even the ubiquitous dogs and joggers appear to float past as if in a dream.

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I glance to my left at the crippling climb up Lyon Street to privileged Pacific Heights, and feel that I could not be more blessed sat here on this bench, watching the day draw serenely to its close, than if I were observing it from above in the manicured garden of a multi-million dollar Victorian.

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Built, along with ten other structures, on land created with sand dredged up from the bay for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915, the Palace of Fine Arts was designed to commemorate the opening of the Panama Canal, but it quickly became a demonstration of San Francisco’s stunning revival after the devastating earthquake and fire of nine years earlier.

A wonderful place to re-charge your energies, meditate or wind down, especially in the final hour of daylight, the reflecting lagoon, once a frog pond, and the structures that tower over it, form a beautiful classical harmony.

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The forty metre high rotunda with its golden dome, visible from both the hill above and the Golden Gate Bridge to the west, may appear incongruous in a city still so young, but it is a nonetheless glorious sight, beloved of residents and visitors alike. The adjoining colonnade, with its groups of columns depicting weeping maidens “crying over the sadness of art”, and decorated with incomplete stairways and funeral urns, complements it perfectly.

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The work of Berkeley architect Bernard Maybeck, who aimed to convey a sense of “sadness, modified by the feeling that beauty has a soothing influence”, it was built of plaster over wood fashioned to resemble stone or marble. Intended to represent a Roman ruin, ironically it survived alone of all those buildings of the much lauded Exposition.

It was allowed to stand for decades whilst crumbling into decay, befitting the air of “timeless melancholy” that its founders had aimed for. It helped too that, unlike the remaining edifices, it was built on Army land and escaped the prompt demolition that befell those in the dash to create the Marina residential district.

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Over the intervening decades it served as tennis courts, a motor pool for army vehicles and diplomatic limousines, a warehouse for city park supplies, telephone books, flags and tents, and as a temporary headquarters for the Fire Department.

And then in 1957 Assemblyman Caspar Weinberger succeeded in securing $2 million from the state, which was matched two years later by philanthropist, Walter S. Johnson, who lived across the street. This roused further latent public, private and City support for its restoration. It was torn down and replaced by one in reinforced concrete at a cost of $7.5 million, and was re-dedicated on 30th September 1967.

However, lumps of concrete subsequently fell from the rotunda, necessitating nets being built to protect visitors, and the lagoon became a swamp-like dump. Prompted by then Mayor Willie Brown, Donna Ewald Huggins, a historian and publicist, led a further project to restore it once more. As a result, the Palace as we see it today was dedicated on 14th January 2011.

It takes little suspension of disbelief to understand why it is so popular as a location for wedding shoots and film sets.

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As the balmy bay breeze gives way to the chill of twilight, I rise to leave. The tranquility is temporarily interrupted by another small boy, this time in a toy car chasing a pair of understandably agitated ducks around the perimeter of the lagoon. Needless to say, he loses, and peace is restored as darkness falls.


All things must pass

All things must pass away

And so, little more than a week ago, we had to leave our temporary residence in Bernal Heights for “home” in the UK.

But I do not want to put that experience to one side just yet (and we will be returning next year), without paying one final tribute to the neighborhood.

So here, in this fifth and final article in the series, are this visiting Englishman’s ten reasons for loving Bernal Heights.

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A cautionary note for residents before I start.

In a little under a fortnight we could neither cover every blade of grass, trip over every upturned pavement slab, nor eat at every café or restaurant, so this will be no more nor less than a personal account of those people and places we actually encountered.

Where I have written on a subject in one of the previous posts in this series, I have tried to keep it short.

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For ease of reference they are listed in alphabetical order.

1. Accessibility

A few years ago, the thought of staying so far from Fisherman’s Wharf or Union Square would have been unthinkable. After all, many of the maps produced by the Convention and Visitors’ Bureau do not stretch as far as Bernal Heights. And few guide books even make passing reference to the neighborhood (the Alemany Farmer’s Market might just get a mention).

But once we had swapped hotel for apartment living, we have moved progressively further out. Hayes Valley begat the Western Addition begat Noe Valley begat Noe Valley again. The gentle hike up to Bernal Heights Hill from Precita Park last year, followed by lunch in Progressive Grounds, was enough to convince us that this is where we wanted to base ourselves next time.

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Accessibility was not the problem it might have seemed. The 101 and 280 freeways were barely three minutes drive from our cottage, the 24 Divisadero Muni bus ran along the bottom of our street and there were several other lines operating through the adjacent Mission district. Having become attached to the J Church Muni Metro line during our stays in Noe Valley, we often walked over to 29th Street to catch a direct line downtown.

 

2. Architecture 

One of the things that most charmed us about Bernal was the sheer variety of housing. No long rows of Queen Annes, Bay Windowed Italianates or Sticks here, but a real diversity of property. Their relative smallness and, in many cases, quirkiness, made wandering around the area a fascinating and often surprising adventure.

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The fact that Bernal Heights featured as low as nineteenth in a recent survey of the number of single millionaires living in each San Francisco neighborhood (Noe Valley next door came third, and even the Mission, evidence of its growing gentrification, was sixth), reinforced this impression of the relative modesty and affordability of the area.

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Though it would still be out of our price bracket!

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3. Cafés

Having seduced us to stay in Bernal Heights in the first place, Progressive Grounds was first on our list of watering (and feeding) holes on our arrival.

And it was also the last!

Our final meal in the city – scrumptious grilled lavash wraps and coffee – was bought there and carried ceremoniously up to the hill where we consumed it whilst continuing the perennial debate about the identity of each downtown building – now you see Coit Tower and the Transamerica Pyramid, now you don’t.

We had encountered Martha’s, or Martha and Brothers to give it its official name, on both 24th Street and Church Street during our stays in Noe Valley, and were delighted to find that there was a branch on Cortland. Strong coffee, excellent pastries and outstanding service were on offer, and the tables outside were perfect spots for watching Bernal go about its business (and counting the number of 24 buses that passed by in each direction).

It would be a real shame if Starbuck’s was to take over the Badger Books site or any other vacant lot in the neighborhood in the future.

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We ate good, wholesome breakfasts at both the Liberty Café and Moonlight Café (the interior of which is pictured above). Although the former enjoys a stronger, city-wide reputation, we were particularly impressed with the latter. Perhaps our expectations had been lower (you order at the counter rather than be served at your table), but we were pleasantly surprised.

And last, but by no means, least, we called in at the Precita Park Café for Mitchell’s ice cream during a Sunday afternoon walk around the northern slope. This is undoubtedly somewhere to explore further on our next visit – the food looked delicious.

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4. Diversity

The traditional equation of a single ethnic grouping with many of San Francisco’s neighborhoods has been diluted in recent times. I have already mentioned the influx of affluent white tech workers in the historically Hispanic and Latino dominated Mission. And the edges of the boundary between North Beach and Chinatown have become increasingly blurred.

In the past three hundred years, Bernal Heights has been inhabited by Native Americans (the Ohlone), Latin Americans, Irish, Italians, Scandinavians, African Americans, Filipinos and other Asian nationalities, so it is hardly surprising that there is a refreshing ethnic mix in the community, one that hasn’t been quite so evident to us anywhere else in the city.

And this diversity was not only about ethnicity.  Young families, the elderly and lesbian and gay couples were all in evidence.

The visible contrast in the demographic between Bernal and neighboring Noe (“Stroller”) Valley, was especially dramatic.

 

5. Dogs

I wrote about the apparent “dogs rule” phenomenon on Bernal Heights Park in my article last year, and we were able to enjoy it at close hand on this trip. The top of the hill must sometimes seem like the canine community center for all of San Francisco.

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But it was the excitement of those tied up outside the Good Life Grocery every time I called in that provided the most entertainment and could not pass without stroking them. I can report that I still have all my fingers.

The absence of a doggie companion was the only thing that prevented us from feeling truly at home during our stay. In fact, at one point I feared we might be contravening some by-law by not owning one of our own, at least, walking half a dozen of somebody else’s.

 

6. Friendliness

I referred to the warm greeting we received everywhere we went in one of my earlier articles, and I’m pleased to report that we continued to be treated well throughout the remainder of our stay. The only establishment that we didn’t feel entirely welcome was the Wild Side West, though we liked the quirky back garden.   

I should add that we had been a little apprehensive about staying in the neighborhood before arriving in the light of the shooting of Alex Nieto only a few days before we left the UK. However, we detected none of the tension (perhaps we were too far away), and felt completely safe at all times, including late at night when we often walked back from Mission Street.

 

7. Hill

We could while away hours on the hill, picking out landmarks in all directions, having a picnic and watching the dogs at play. For us, it is a far superior viewing point than Twin Peaks, which most of our compatriots, and many residents for that matter, will only have visited.

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Our only regret is that we omitted, as we had planned, to go up onto the hill at night – another reason for returning as soon as possible!

 

8.Library 

Again, I have already recounted the story of my visit to the library to print some documents. This is somewhere else I would want to spend more time in the future.

 

9. Restaurants

We only ate out twice in the evening in the neighborhood, but both were outstanding experiences.

On the recommendation of Emperor Norton himself, who lives in the neighborhood, we dined at Piqueo’s Peruvian restaurant on Cortland on our second night. It was fortunate we had made a reservation as it was packed, even though it was Wednesday. Granted that it is small and intimate (and just, perhaps, a little too dark), but we were, nonetheless, impressed by its popularity.

And rightly so.

Service was attentive and professional and our food was excellent. It took a lot of convincing to persuade my wife that we shouldn’t return there rather than try somewhere else.

But we did eat somewhere else.

Acting on another local resident’s recommendation, we had our last meal at Vega, a family-run Italian, again on Cortland. We had made a reservation for 8pm. On arrival, we were told that we might have to wait a few minutes while previous diners finished off. We were offered the small table by the front desk (and the open front door!) which we politely declined, preferring to wait for a table in the main dining room.

For that we received a free glass of wine each!

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After we had finished our starters, we were asked by the waiter if we would mind moving to another table for two for the remainder of the meal in order to accommodate a larger party that would necessitate putting tables together. We were happy to do so.

Our reward this time – a free glass of sparkling wine each!

Sadly, we weren’t inconvenienced any further and so had to pay for the bottle of wine – and food – we had actually ordered.

The meal was excellent, though the short walk back up the hill to the cottage was somewhat less enjoyable in the circumstances.

 

10. Stairways

Again, I have already written about these in a previous post. Suffice to say that this was another charming feature of the neighborhood, offering stunning views and keeping us fit (if I keep saying/writing that I might just believe it).

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The only thing we don’t miss?

Climbing up from Mission Street via the Eugenia Stairway late at night to get back to the cottage.

No, I lied.

We do miss it!

Au revoir, Bernal.

A bientôt.

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