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A prominent San Francisco property website’s guide to the best sixteen neighborhoods in San Francisco does not feature it.

Only the “Rough Guide” of all of the most popular tourist guide books makes reference to it.

Even the “San Francisco Visitors Planning Guide”, the “Official Guide to the City by the Bay”, fails to regard it as worthy of mention.

Cole Valley, tucked beneath Twin Peaks, close to the south eastern corner of Golden Gate Park and virtually holding hands with the Haight, remains a well-kept secret to visitors and many city dwellers alike.

And that is my excuse for having neglected it too during a dozen visits spanning two decades, aside from one lunch at “Cafe Cole” following a t-shirt safari along Haight Street around three years ago. It never occurred to me to venture just a couple of blocks further south to the bustling but relaxed intersection with Carl Street because, after all, nobody ever advised me I should do so.

Until last month.

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Now, Cole Valley residents might quite like to leave it that way, but I wonder how long it will be before it gains wider recognition and joins the first division of neighborhoods for which San Francisco is noted. I doubt that this modest paeon will have tourists flocking to join the line outside “Zazie” or hike up to the prehistoric feeling Tank Hill, but Cole Valley is beginning to get noticed – and not only by me.

Indeed, within a fortnight of my visit, the “Sacramento Bee” published an article asking whether it might be the “friendliest neighborhood in San Francisco?”

http://www.sacbee.com/entertainment/living/travel/article22534629.html

I rest my case.

Despatched by a combination of the 24 and 7 Muni buses from our Bernal Heights rental cottage on a mild, breezy May morning, my wife and I arrived at the corner of Haight and Cole and set off in pursuit of breakfast.

We were struck immediately by the frequency and availability of public transportation in the area. We were accustomed to riding the buses that served Haight Street, but there seemed to be vehicles crisscrossing the intersection of Carl and Cole almost continually.

Not only did the N Judah light rail rattle past every few minutes, carrying passengers from ballpark to ocean via downtown, but the more prosaic 6, 33, 37 and 43 Muni lines were equally regular sights on the street.

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We had planned to eat at “Zazie”, a famed French restaurant that attracted brunch devotees from all over the Bay Area, but the line, or rather the ragged scrum congregating outside, made it clear that we might have to wait until Tuesday week to bag a table.

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So we opted for our second choice of “Crepes on Cole” which boasted tables free inside – at least when we arrived. We ordered eggs sunny side up with sausage and bacon respectively, accompanied by the customary fried potatoes and the obligatory nod to healthy eating in the form of a slice of fruit. The dish was good, though the eggs might have been warmer. Like (hot) tea, this seems to be a not uncommon issue in the States. We Brits do like our tea to be hot! I regretted not having plumped for my habitual order of Eggs Benedict as it looked especially enticing as plate after plate wafted past. The locals clearly knew something we didn’t!

The “Rough Guide” remarks that there is “little to see or do here other than eat” and the preponderance of cafes and dining places is exceptional for the size of the neighborhood. But I, for one, don’t regard that as a bad thing. The only problem is one of choice. In the space of a couple of blocks, the discerning foodie can eat Italian, Mexican, French and Japanese. And each of the many cafes appeared to offer its own speciality lines (though, sadly, as I write this, the attractive “La Boulange” branch may be about to be closed by its parent company, Starbucks). And the “Ice Cream Bar Soda Fountain” and “Say Cheese” are two of the most celebrated shops of their kind in the Bay Area.

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A relaxed and civilised atmosphere, combined with lovely and diverse architecture and the aforementioned public transport and dining options make this a tempting proposition for us to stay in in the future.

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The streets were relatively flat too!

With one notable exception.

That just happened to be the highlight of our inaugural visit.

That was the sight that befell us at the top of the steps that snaked upwards from the end of Belgrave Street, beneath Sutro Forest or, to give it its mundane official title, the Mount Sutro Open Space Preserve (whose lush vegetation and wildlife we intend to explore on our next visit). As an honorary Bernalite, I had argued for the past two years that the views from the top of its hill of downtown, the bay, the bridges and the surrounding area trumped even those of Twin Peaks, where it seems it is the lot of all first time visitors, including ourselves twenty years ago, to be hauled.

I know that there are advocates for several other peaks, including Buena Vista Park which we had hiked only seven days before. But the panorama that emerged as we climbed those last few steps up to Tank Hill, so named for the late nineteenth century water tank stationed there, was a worthy rival to any. All that remains of that tank is a concrete base adorned with eucalyptus planted to divert the Japanese bombers after Peal Harbor. Among the stunning vistas visible from every vantage point, the best for me was the appearance of a hazy downtown lurking behind the equally dramatic Corona Heights.

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Although the space atop the hill is small enough to fit into a corner of Bernal Heights Hill’s undulating expanse, we were surprised and thrilled to find a vacant bench that virtually teetered over the precipice. In fact, our only companions during our half hour meditation were a couple of youthful Dutch amateur photographers, hopping from one stunning spot to another, and the ubiquitous procession of canines, though they will have been disappointed that the lack of room did not lend itself to off leash frolicking. For one moment, I swore that I witnessed a cherry-headed conure, one of the famed “Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill”flit by noisily, but I suspect it was a consequence of the romantic reverie I had sunk into.

To the north, the view was dominated by St Ignatius Chatholic Church at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), where many of the denizens of Cole Valley either studied or worked.

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Cole Valley’s cosy but smart small town feel is reinforced by the presence of several family owned stores, some reflecting its proximity to Hippie Haight, such as the pharmacy focusing on alternative remedies and “The Sword and Rose” which specialises in oils, crystals and incense and gives tarot and astrology readings. “Cole Hardware” is one of the most popular and well stocked stores (it also boasts a fine backyard nursery) in the Bay Area.

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We had arranged to call in on one of the friends we had made during our last visit, the manager of the “Land of the Sun” store on Haight Street and spend a fortune on her lovely “Summer of Love” merchandise. Reluctantly, therefore, we had to burst through the Cole Street bubble and re-emerge on its earthier, spikier neighbor’s patch.

The line for “Zazie” was, if anything, longer than it had been two hours previously. It occurred to me that we would probably have to find a place to live In Cole Valley if we ever wanted to have any chance of dining there before it closed in mid-afternoon!

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In a little over a month my wife and I will be returning to the place we regard as our second home (financial considerations dictate that it will never be our first) – San Francisco. In fact, this will be our twentieth anniversary since we first laid eyes on the imperious Golden Gate Bridge, sampled clam chowder in a sourdough bowl or cracked open a fortune cookie in a Chinatown restaurant.

After our initial trip in 1995 ( http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2014/11/04/you-were-so-right-louis/ ), it would be another three and a half years, and a further three years after that, before we settled into what became a routine of bi-annual visits. We would combine our stay in the city with a skiing trip to Tahoe and a few days elsewhere, such as Las Vegas, San Diego, Death Valley and Yosemite.

Invariably, after the eleven hour flight, we would stay the first night in a budget hotel, having dinner at Calzone’s on Columbus Avenue (but not without a visit to Tower Records first), followed by drinks at the Vesuvio Café nearby. Breakfast would be taken at the Eagle Café on Pier 39 the next morning, and I would buy my holiday reading at the Barnes and Noble bookstore (now long since closed) in Fisherman’s Wharf before driving over the Bay Bridge.

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On returning to the city we would stay in a hotel, making the small step up (or was it down) from the Tenderloin to the Civic Center on our second trip before heading to the Holiday Inn at the Wharf for three of the next four vacations.

With each passing visit, we became less inclined to rush around ticking off the guidebook highlights, and began to venture off the beaten path and discover those places, within the city and wider Bay Area, where the only (other) tourists we might encounter were getting wind burn from the top of a tour bus.

It didn’t concern us that we hadn’t jumped a cable car for five years, stepped foot in Nordstrom or Macy’s or taken the rough ride across the bay to Alcatraz. Of course, we didn’t avoid all of the more celebrated spots, always finding time, however short the vacation, to eat at the Cliff House, shop on Haight Street, drink in North Beach and ramble round Golden Gate Park on a Sunday afternoon.

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San Francisco quickly became the place where we wanted to live. Without the riches required to buy our way into residency, we would have to content ourselves with alternating between staying in the city (spring and autumn) and the UK (winter and summer) for three months at a time – and only then when we had both retired.

For now, it was a matter of a week here and a fortnight, and, more recently a month, there.

We wanted to “live like locals”, and staying in someone’s (second) home was a good starting point. There would be no maids knocking at the door in the morning anxious to clean the room, no loud, drunken conversations outside the room at 3am and no lift bells ringing or washer / driers humming at all hours.

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So in 2010 we abandoned the lazy predictability of hotel living and rented an apartment in Hayes Valley, following that up a year later with similar accommodation in the Western Addition, a short stroll from Alamo Square. The migration west from downtown, however, took a sunny south easterly turn in 2012 when we chose Noe Valley for our base. It was during our second residence there that we discovered Bernal Heights ( http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2013/06/16/a-hike-up-bernal-heights-hill/ ).

Much as we had enjoyed living in the other neighborhoods, we immediately felt an affinity with the quirky, artsy, small town feel of Bernal and rented a cottage there last year. Our first impressions confirmed, we will be returning to that same cottage twice this year for a total of six weeks.

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It might not have gone unnoticed that our original bi-annual visit strategy has now become annual – and, at least for this year, twice a year!

Over the past two decades, our time in the city has taken on a different, more relaxed tenor. It has become a familiar and habitual part of our lives, somewhere we have now spent more of our time than anywhere else, other than our permanent UK address.

Moreover, we try, as befitting aspiring locals, to engage  more with the city and its residents on a regular, deeper level. During those interminable months in which we are incarcerated nearly six thousand miles away. we maintain a daily interest in the life of the city, and indeed, I comment on it in a number of online forums.

In addition to my Facebook presence, through which I now enjoy a number of personal as well as virtual friendships (even bumming (pun intended) prime seats at AT & T Park to see “our” Giants), I started a blog on the last day of 2010 which focuses on the history, culture and characters of San Francisco.

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And I plan to explore our experiences in more depth in my upcoming book Smiling on a Cloudy Day: An Englishman’s Love Affair with San Francisco, scheduled to be published towards the end of this year.

In our temporary home in the city we neither have to pretend to be what we are not, nor do what we or others feel we ought to do. We can watch the Bay Area news on KRON4 while catching up on household chores in the morning, stroll out to a neighborhood café for brunch, swing by the local wholefoods store and return to the apartment for a bottle of wine on the patio.

All dining options are also possible. We might have dinner in the apartment or we might try out one of the local restaurants. Or we might brave Muni on a trip downtown and eat in Chinatown or North Beach – or even Union Square. We are under no pressure to conform to a set tourist pattern.

What has happened is that our version of San Francisco has shifted, not only geographically but also psychologically, from the waterfront to the southern neighborhoods. In a sense, our journey has mirrored the historical expansion of the earlier city residents from Yerba Buena Cove to the hills.

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But, of course, there is still room for those sights that first enthralled us as much as they have millions of others. They are still only a short drive, bus or taxi ride – or even walk – away. We still make a conscious effort to revisit those attractions we might have neglected on recent trips – for example we plan to explore Coit Tower and Grand View Park again after an absence of a few years – as well as sampling new locations altogether such as Glen Canyon, Dogpatch and Potrero Hill.

If that sounds as if living in San Francisco has become routine, less exciting, even a chore, that could not be further from the truth. We have become, in a modest way, San Franciscans, interested in its history, politics, culture and, undeniably, its sport (Go Giants!) – just as we do at home.

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I invariably turn to legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Herb Caen, for an authoritative, maybe definitive, view on such matters. Here he ruminates on what makes a San Franciscan:

I don’t think that place of origin or number of years on the scene have anything to do with it really. There are newcomers who become San Franciscans overnight – delighted with and interested in the city’s traditions and history. They can see the Ferry Building for what it represents (not for what it is), they are fascinated with the sagas of Sharons, Ralstons, Floods and Crockers, they savor the uniqueness of cable car and foghorn. By the same token, I know natives who will never be San Franciscans if they outlive Methusalah. To them a cable car is a traffic obstruction, the fog is something that keeps them from getting a tan, and Los Angeles is where they really know how to Get Things Done.

Increasingly, our hosts  marvel at our knowledge of, and adoration for, the city. I doubt, however, that the more strident members of online forums would agree with Caen’s loose, but characteristically generous, sentiments here, but I like to feel that we have moved beyond being “sophisticated tourists” who are “charmed and fascinated” by the city to warrant that title of “honorary San Franciscans”.

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‘Tis the night before the start of our our tenth – and longest – stay in San Francisco. And the first to be spent in summer in the enchanted city.

We spent a week in the southern neighbourhood of Noe Valley last spring, and whilst much of that time we were elsewhere, we enjoyed its relaxing, civilised atmosphere so much that, when we had to decide where to rent an apartment for four weeks in June this year, we chose it above other likely candidates such as the Mission and the Sunset . This will enable us to acquaint ourselves more with the neighbourhood and adjoining districts as well as providing a good base for visiting other parts of the Bay Area, familiar and previously unexplored alike.

So where is Noe Valley? And what we have let ourselves in for by living there? It sits immediately south of the Castro and east of the Mission in a sunny spot protected from the fog by steep hills on three sides. Its borders are broadly defined as between 20th and 22nd Street to the north, 30th Street to the south, Dolores to the east and Grand View Avenue to the west. Our apartment is on 28th Street between Church and Dolores.

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A look at a map of the greater San Francisco area would suggest that it is relatively remote, and it is undeniably off the tourist trail. But public transit and local roads render it easily accessible to downtown and the South Bay respectively. The J Church MUNI Metro line was our constant companion on our previous trip and will be so again, at least for the first half of our stay before we hire a car for the trip to Tahoe.

Noe Valley is a quiet but cosmopolitan residential neighbourhood with a classy small town feel. Its preponderance of comfortable, even affluent, young families has lead to a change in its nickname from the hippie-inspired “Granola Valley” in the seventies to “Stroller Alley” today. But it also attracts couples and singles of all persuasions, notably gay and lesbian migrants from the Castro. A healthy number of artists and writers complete a sophisticated demographic. The population of approximately 21,000 comprises 70% white, 15% Hispanic and 7% Asian, with the remaining 8% coming from all corners of the globe.

It is blessed with a significant number of classic two storey Victorian and Edwardian homes. Broad streets and brightly coloured exteriors have the writers of guidebooks reaching for words like “cute” and “quaint”. Property prices are inevitably expensive.

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The neighbourhood gets its name from José de Jésus Noé, the last Mexican alcade (Mayor) of Yerba Buena, the original name for San Francisco. He owned the land as part of his Rancho San Miguel but sold it to John Meirs Horner in 1854. Horner laid out many of the wide streets we enjoy today, and the name “Horner’s Addition” is still used for tax purposes by the city assessor’s office.

The main development of what was traditionally a working class neighbourhood came in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, notably after the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. Today, its interest for outsiders lies essentially in the eclectic shopping and dining experience to be found along the stretches of 24th Street from Castro to Church and Diamond to Dolores. Coffee shops, restaurants, one of a kind clothing and gift stores and bookshops abound, along with one of the best farmers’ markets in the city.

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This will be our fourth apartment – the first two were in Hayes Valley and North of the Panhandle (NOPA) – and, as with previous years, our aim is to blend as far as possible into the local community for the duration. With four weeks at our disposal on this occasion, our “live like locals” strategy has more chance of success than in previous years where we have stayed for no more than a fortnight. We are particularly looking forward to hiking up Bernal Heights, Twin Peaks and Buena Vista Park, as well as reacquainting ourselves with the Mission.

But the extended stay still enables us to satisfy our tourist cravings and revisit the usual suspects such as Golden Gate Bridge, the Palace of Fine Arts, Golden Gate Park , Beach Blanket Babylon and Haight Ashbury, and, of course, three pilgrimages to AT & T Park to support the Giants in their (currently faltering~) hunt for back to back World Series titles. Any trip would not be complete without expanding our understanding of the Bay Area, so Berkeley, the Zoo, Castro Theater and the de Young Museum, all places we have criminally neglected until now, are on our list.

Having always , with the exception of our first visit in October, visited in spring, we will be also be able to throw ourselves into four of San Francisco’s celebrated annual events – the Haight Ashbury Street Fair, North Beach Festival, Stern Grove Festival and San Francisco Pride.

Our last two vacations have coincided with Crosby and Nash and Elvis Costello gigs at the Warfield. This year, we move to the waterfront at Pier 27/29 where we have tickets for the concert being given by the Steve Miller Band and the Doobie Brothers at the America’s Cup Pavilion. And finally, a short detour to Tahoe is also scheduled.

I hadn’t actually realised until I wrote this just how busy we are going to be!

San Francisco – your “wandering one” is coming home again.  

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