Alas­dair Palmer finds much to cel­e­brate in won­der­ful San Fran­cisco

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Us Holidays -

‘ G OD cre­ated the world in seven days . . . San Fran­cisco took a lit­tle longer.’’ You can for­give San Fran­cis­cans a lit­tle blas­phemy. Well, you sort of have to, be­cause it’s printed in large let­ters on the post­cards of the Golden Gate Bridge for sale ev­ery­where. But then San Fran­cisco is an ex­traor­di­nar­ily beau­ti­ful place, and its na­tives are un­der­stand­ably proud of their won­der­ful city.

Built on a penin­sula where the Pa­cific cuts deep into the Cal­i­for­nia coast, and ris­ing from the ocean on a se­ries of steep hills, San Fran­cisco is blessed with many nat­u­ral ad­van­tages. If you ar­rive by air, the view as you cir­cle the city be­fore land­ing should per­suade you that the many hours you have just spent cooped up un­com­fort­ably in a metal tube have been worth­while.

Of course, the place has its draw­backs. It can be cold in ev­ery sea­son, and the fog can ar­rive un­ex­pect­edly, then stay far longer than any­one could pos­si­bly wish. But the thick mist can also lift un­ex­pect­edly and, when it does, the sud­den vi­sions of deep blue sea, bright sky and mul­ti­coloured build­ings can take your breath away.

The steep­ness of San Fran­cisco’s hills makes for some very un­com­fort­able walk­ing. On the other hand, those hills also make pos­si­ble the won­der­ful views, not to men­tion some great car chases in movies (re­mem­ber Bul­litt and What’sUp,Doc? ). Still, if you hire a car to drive around San Fran­cisco, the last thing on your mind will be em­u­lat­ing Steve McQueen: your first and pos­si­bly your only thought will be to pray that your brakes work, be­cause just com­ing over the top of some of those hills and see­ing the drop on the other side is enough to make you wish you were walk­ing rather than driv­ing.

San Fran­cisco has an­other draw­back: earth­quakes. The last big one was in 1989. The Em­bar­cadero Free­way, which used to stand on stilts along San Fran­cisco’s wa­ter­front, col­lapsed, and the top tier of the Bay Bridge fell on to the bot­tom tier. Hun­dreds of peo­ple could have been killed but, mirac­u­lously, only nine peo­ple in the city died. The de­struc­tion of the Em­bar­cadero Free­way was an un­ex­pected boon: the wa­ter­front area had been blighted by the mo­tor­way, was run down and felt threat­en­ing. Since the mo­tor­way has gone, the wa­ter­front has blos­somed: it has be­come a pleas­ant place for a stroll, with great views of Trea­sure and An­gel is­lands.

An­gel Is­land is un­in­hab­ited and a state park, and you can take a ferry there from the old Ferry Build­ing, a mag­nif­i­cent con­struc­tion from the early 20th cen­tury that has been de­vel­oped into a mar­ket, with cafes, shops and restau­rants. It is cer­tainly worth a visit.

Not far from that build­ing is an­other ex­am­ple of San Fran­cisco re­vi­tal­is­ing one of its more dis­mal dis­tricts. Yerba Buena Gar­dens, which used to be a hang­out for drunks, drug ad­dicts and mug­gers, now con­tains a stun­ning walk-through foun­tain ded­i­cated to Martin Luther King and there’s a large chil­dren’s play­ground; the drunks have been re­placed by chil­dren and their par­ents and it is now a de­light­ful place to while away an hour in the sun.

On the edge of Yerba Buena Gar­dens stands the San Fran­cisco Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art, which is an un­usual com­bi­na­tion of un­com­pro­mis­ing modernism and Sienese ro­manesque. It has a col­lec­tion of works from the 20th cen­tury. The usual sus­pects — Pi­casso, Matisse, Derain, Duchamp — are all rep­re­sented, but the San Fran­cisco MoMA also houses an enor­mous num­ber of pho­to­graphs and what are loosely termed de­signs, a cat­e­gory that in­cludes ar­chi­tec­tural plans as well as ob­jects such as arm­chairs and lamps.

For those who pre­fer ear­lier art, the place to go is the Palace of the Le­gion of Honor, a French-style palace built by rich fran­cophile San Fran­cis­cans as a me­mo­rial to Cal­i­for­ni­ans who died in World War I.

The col­lec­tion is as­ton­ish­ing. It con­tains ex­quis­ite sculp­tures from an­cient Egypt and Baby­lo­nia, as well as beau­ti­ful ob­jects from an­cient China, Greece and Rome. There is a large col­lec­tion of French porce­lain from the 18th cen­tury. There are paint­ings by Rubens, Guer­cino, Hals, van Gogh and Cezanne, among many other mas­ter­pieces.

There is also a spe­cial hall ded­i­cated to sculp­tures by Rodin, and an­other that re­con­structs a room in an 18th-cen­tury French chateau, com­plete with por­traits, furniture and ta­pes­tries.

The Palace of the Le­gion of Honor is lo­cated in Lin­coln Park, which looks down on the Golden Gate Bridge. From Lin­coln Park it is not far to the Pre­sidio, part of which has now been taken over by Ge­orge Lu­cas and his var­i­ous film com­pa­nies ded­i­cated to pro­duc­ing dig­i­tal ef­fects for films and com­puter games. There is at least one great restau­rant in Lu­cas­film’s com­plex: the weirdly named Pres a Vi. But then there are great restau­rants ev­ery­where in San Fran­cisco. They take their food se­ri­ously here and the variety and qual­ity of restau­rants is ex­tremely high. The pre­cip­i­tous fall in the dol­lar means most of them are ex­traor­di­nar­ily good value at the mo­ment. Greens, a veg­e­tar­ian restau­rant that has a glo­ri­ous view of the Golden Gate Bridge, is one ex­am­ple among many.

Greens is lo­cated in Fort Ma­son. (You have to book, but it is well worth it.) Fort Ma­son is next to San Fran­cisco’s ma­rina, where hun­dreds of posh yachts are a vivid re­minder of how many rich peo­ple live here. Al­ca­traz, the is­land that used to house the most no­to­ri­ous prison in Amer­ica, sits in the chan­nel op­po­site.

Next to the ma­rina are two of San Fran­cisco’s most in­ter­est­ing build­ings: the Palace of Fine Arts and the Ex­plorato­rium. The Palace of Fine Arts is an enor­mous, Ro­man-in­spired mon­u­ment with ti­tanic sculp­tures and in­tri­cate re­liefs. Built for the 1915 Panama Pa­cific Ex­po­si­tion, it has some­how sur­vived wind, rain, earth­quakes and the de­sire of de­vel­op­ers to pull it down and re­place it with of­fices or apart­ments. Walk­ing around it is a strangely in­spir­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. The Ex­plorato­rium is a science mu­seum full of ex­hibits you can watch, lis­ten to and touch. The imag­i­na­tion and tech­ni­cal skill that have gone into their de­sign makes the Ex­plorato­rium an en­gag­ing place to spend sev­eral hours on a rainy day. And if you have chil­dren with you, they’ll love it.

Mark Twain said that when the world ended, he wanted to be in Cincin­nati, be­cause Cincin­nati is al­ways 10 years be­hind the times. You don’t want to be in San Fran­cisco when the end is nigh, be­cause San Fran­cisco is al­ways sev­eral years ahead of the times. Many of the move­ments that have come to char­ac­terise con­tem­po­rary cul­ture — fem­i­nism, gay rights, e-com­merce and, more gen­er­ally, let-it-all-hang-out, do-what-youfeel-good-about he­do­nism — be­gan here.

A tol­er­ant and gen­er­ous at­ti­tude to plea­sure is one of the city’s char­ac­ter­is­tics, and it is why San Fran­cisco is a place where it is hard to feel de­pressed. Hang­ing out in cafes is one of the best things to do here: it may be an aim­less ac­tiv­ity but some­how, in this city, it in­stils the hope that, well, one way or an­other, things will work out.

And that’s be­cause, in San Fran­cisco, they usu­ally do. The Spec­ta­tor


Mist op­por­tu­ni­ties: The fog rolls away to re­veal the Golden Gate Bridge and the dis­tant city, main pic­ture; right, from top, cy­cling on An­gel Is­land; a North Beach cafe; a cable car

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