By Antonio Malara
The weekend in San Francisco was the last trip of the “Californian Trilogy”, although I had studied the places to visit previously, all the details were planned while I was in San Diego. In agreement with my friend, we opted to spend only two days there and arrive by plane. We started looking for flights on the internet and in a short time we managed to find a perfect solution. Through a web platform, my friend managed to find a flight + hotel package at around $ 170 per person, it was incredible even because the hotel was an Hilton. In the days before the departure I worked hard to plan the visit to the city in the best way but I had to give up some places because there would not be enough time.
San Francisco was another dream I had wanted to achieve for a long time. This was another city of my cinematographic imagination. What I mean to say is that I discovered and dreamed it thanks to the numerous movies that I had seen and were set in this city. From "Vertigo" and "The Birds" by Alfred Hitchcock to "Bullitt" with the legendary Steve McQueen, "The Towering Inferno", the violent but fascinating San Francisco of Callahan's adventures until the extreme "Basic Instinct" that blew up my teenage hormones. I had an incredible curiosity to see the sloping streets live, I wondered if they were really that way or were emphasized by the movies. Besides, San Francisco had a different urban planning than other American cities, at least this was what I had perceived through the films. Also from the architectural point of view there was the Golden Gate Bridge, another destination I always wanted to see. Living near a strait divided by the sea, where for decades there has been talk of joining the coasts via a bridge, I wanted to understand what effect it could have looking at the Golden Gate. Certainly the bridge over the Strait of Messina would be much longer but that comparison was enough for me even if it was on a slightly smaller scale.
Our plane was supposed to depart from San Diego airport at around 8 AM but the fog delayed the plans that morning. During my stay in the Californian city, I realized that the temperature range in San Diego was a constant. This created a dense fog both before sunrise and after sunset. Normally this phenomenon was short-lived (30 minutes-an hour) but that morning our flight left with almost four hours of delay. This would have changed the plans in San Francisco, but in the meantime I had been able to reschedule them.
The flight was good and we landed that it was lunchtime. San Francisco airport is about 20 km from the center and is served by a very efficient train-metro. The thing that struck me most beyond the size was the organization of the airport. Large signs indicated the way to get to the station, which however was not close. We walked a lot and took different paths until we reached our destination; so far so normal. At the stop there was no trace of ticket offices, plus access to the train was blocked by high gates with doors that can only be opened with a ticket. I purchased tickets at the machines and noticed that the price varied according to the stop. This operation was not complex for me and I must say that I like automation. For a moment, however, I thought of the vast majority of people living in my places. If they had found themselves in that situation they would have been trapped, unable to buy a ticket on their own, they would not even have been able to go back because as the airport was conceived (rightly) there were no indications to return to the main exit.
As I said, the train moved to the surface and then went underground and became a real metro. We stopped at a station in the center of Market St. which was a very central street. When we have risen to the surface, absolute amazement! San Francisco was full of people, the main street was not as wide as the usual American streets. The modern and older skyscrapers stood together perfectly and there were an infinite number of shops, just like in New York. The memory of San Diego and Los Angels was now far away, the cities from the big streets where you live in malls rather than downtown. Our hotel was in Chinatown but in the center, the more we walked the more the sense of the city was perceived which in style was more European than American. Another pleasant surprise was the very elegant hotel, our room was on the upper floors with a nice view. The hotel was just two blocks away from the "Transamerica Pyramid", the famous skyscraper which is shaped like an elongated pyramid.
We stayed in the hotel for time to store our bags and immediately went out to explore. The part of Chinatown where we were was not particularly "Chinese", there was some streets full of shops with large signs but otherwise there was no oriental atmosphere. We headed to Market St. and along the way you could see new classic skyscrapers alongside the modern ones, after a few blocks they began to see even the first sloping streets. Market St. cuts the center of the city from southwest to northeast to end up in the port area called "Embarcadero". This street full of shops and people also attracted my attention for the architecture of the buildings. In fact, I noticed a beautiful skyscraper called "Phelan Building", the shape of this building were very similar to that of the "Flatiron Building" in New York. The difference is that the Phelan had the much wider wide part, so it did not have the "sheet of paper" effect. As we headed towards the Embarcadero I noticed that several other buildings had more or less the same shape. The design was probably a little affected by the crossroads that were many on Market St.
At the intersection with Powell St. there was one of the terminuses of the Cable Car, the famous tourist tram that went around the city. The nice thing to see was how the carriage was turned to put it back on track. The process was totally manual and was done by an employee, the man pushed with his back a large iron plate connected to the revolving wooden plate, which leads back to the tram in the direction of the tracks. Powell St. was so pretty and decorated for Christmas that we decided to follow it, the road ended directly in Union Square.
This square was a beautiful surprise for me, I had noticed it on the maps and put it among the things to see but I did not expect it to be so beautiful. Union Square was rectangular and spanned a slight drop in the middle of four streets. All around was already decorated for the Christmas holidays and a large Christmas tree stood almost in the center. The square was surrounded by large buildings that housed the largest chains of department stores such as “Sacks Fifth Avenue”, “Macy's”, “Neiman Marcus". At that time the skating rink had been mounted in the center of the square, like in New York at the Rockefeller Center. All around there was a serene atmosphere, many families with small children, children of all ages, the track was so full that I wanted to try the skating experience. I had decided to schedule it for the next day, even if I had never done it and there were risks, it was too tempting. Union Square at the time seemed like a mix between Times Square and Rockefeller Center, this was a nice surprise because I didn't expect such a thing. Seeing the people looking out of the large windows of Macy's, we decided to go in and do the same thing. We only went up a few floors and actually there was a different view of the square from there. The next warehouse we visited was Neiman Marcus, the most striking thing inside was a giant Christmas tree that reached the top of the building where there was a dome made entirely of glass.
Another beautiful street right there in Union square was Mainland St. this narrow street was barred by an openable white gate. In addition to restaurants with outdoor tables, this very characteristic street also housed prestigious brand stores such as Chanel, Hermes, Prada. Here too, the decorations together with the elegance of the boutiques and the fact that it was only for pedestrians, made the street a pleasant place.
Aware of the fact that Union square would have been my favorite area in San Francisco, we left that place and returned to Market St. where we walked the road through the modern skyscrapers of the Financial District and arrived at another characteristic place; the Embarcadero. This is the port area but it is an understatement to define it just like this. In reality this place is characterized by a large, very lively rectangular square where there are also many street artists. “The Ferry Building”, a building with a high clock tower in the center, divides the square from the pier. Inside the ferry there is a large market with many shops of various types but mainly food. It is precisely through this market that you exit on the pier that to be honest it is more tourist than commercial. In fact, even here there were many people, both fishermen but many ordinary people who used the area to walk with a breathtaking view over the "San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge". The view of the illuminated bridge is truly unique with a blue and yellow tinge against the black background. But that's not all because another beautiful view is the one you have from the pier towards the Ferry Building and the Financial District. Right on the roof of the building is the famous red neon sign "Port of San Francisco", behind it the tall buildings of the District characterized by cool lights. Even this place was more beautiful than I expected so much so that we stopped there for a quick dinner. After dinner we went back to Union Square to admire it at night, then we went to have a drink in a club to enjoy some nightlife. I don't think we were late that night because the next day we had planned the late morning visit to the Golden Gate Bridge.
The following morning we woke up around 9 AM but we didn't go straight to our destination. Leaving the hotel, we went to Union Square where my friend took me to visit a Williams Sonoma chain store where design items for the home are sold. I must say that in addition to the originality of the items on sale, the shop itself was pure design. A beautiful central staircase led to the upper floors from each of which there were windows overlooking Union Square.
After the taxi ride we arrived in the Golden Gate Bridge area at around 11 AM but we immediately had a bad surprise. The whole place was shrouded in fog, you could only see a few streaks of red but nothing else, not even the bay. Being a temporary atmospheric phenomenon we thought that it could be thinned out within half an hour so we entered the "Bridge Pavilion". This is a sort of museum-boutique with a red design where you can find many things about the bridge. From models of the same to beautiful photographs of the bridge under construction and obviously many types of souvenirs always focused on it. We got out of there after about half an hour and the fog had cleared a little. Now you could see the bridge but without the pylons, however we decided to take photos with that background which was still particular. Around midday we decided to cross it and we walked along the pedestrian path. Incredibly after about five minutes of walking the fog had disappeared giving us the view of the first pylon. It was a beautiful as well as unexpected show, personally I was convinced that we would not see anything while instead as if by magic all the red steel was clear all around us. A very interesting thing was to look at and study all those details, I liked to photograph things like cables and tie rods giving it a completely different perspective. Normally the image I had of the bridge was a whole, a harmonious figure of connection between two sides that is not thought of in a rational way. Seeing closely the size of the individual components made them understand their function, looking at everything from a new perspective.
While thinking this, I also noticed that on the bridge there were many people doing different activities, those who crossed it for jogging, those who simply reached the other side, or tourists like us who stopped every ten meters to take photos. The noise of the vehicles in transit was different from what you can hear in a simple street. The vibrations of the bridge caused by the sliding of the cars together with the reverberation similar to a thump when the vehicles passed on the junctions of the different sectors, created a general sound to which one began to get used to it. We had walked halfway across the bridge and there was still fog on the bay, when we arrived almost on the other side, this thinned out and allowed us to see the skyline. San Francisco was finally visible, though not very clear. We took several photos with this background which had always been covered during our walk. Unfortunately Alcatraz was still covered by fog but the city with its differences in height was still a beautiful sight. On our return to the pavilion area, the bridge was again covered in fog, although the tips of the pylons were visible this time. I took more photos but I was unable to capture the completely visible bridge. We stayed there for lunch also in the hope of going out and seeing the fog dissolved but nothing, even after lunch, the whole area and the view of the bridge were in exactly the same way as before.
After lunch around 2:30 PM we took a taxi and headed for the Maritime National Historic Park, there was another Cable Car terminus there. Our taxi driver was a really kind man, he explained to us that he would have made a slightly more scenic route to reach the place but not longer. During the journey he gave us a lot of information both on the places we passed and on San Francisco in general. We went through sites that would have deserved a more in-depth visit like "The Palace of Fine Art" but unfortunately the time was not enough. From the park there was a beautiful view of the Golden Gate, the bridge was smaller but in its entirety and the context around it also gave it greater depth. Besides, the details of how the fog covered part of the bridge were more noticeable. A "thin" strip seemed to have been deliberately laid right along the deck, everything else was visible.
Our intention was to get on the Cable Car and do the city tour that would take us back to Market St. The tram would pass right through the famous vertical roads with the intersections seen many times in the movies. Unfortunately there was already a lot of lines and normally this vehicle was always full, this would not have made the ride very pleasant. My goal was to look and photograph as much as possible so I only had one solution. I waited for almost everyone to come up and then I went to the outside right, it was a position that remained outside the cover. Holding my left hand to an iron pipe, I took pictures while holding the camera with my right hand. I must say that I succeeded in my intent, I enjoyed the ups and downs of the streets, I photographed and above all I was not crushed like the others inside the cabin. Obviously my view was limited to the right side only, there was no way to move around the vehicle. When we arrived at the intersection with Lombard St. the tram slowed down, my intention was to stop and visit this street characterized by continuous curves and the presence of many flowers. I had the opportunity to jump because the tram was going slowly but unfortunately my friend was stuck in the middle of the cabin and not having planned this detail, he would have been taken aback. All in all the tour was pleasant and productive compared to the time we had available. As usual, there were some very beautiful views that deserved a dedicated visit. Around 5 PM before going back to the hotel, I went around the Transamerica Building, practically taking a photo shoot. I really liked the design of this skyscraper and I focused mainly on the details.
At 7 PM I was in Union Square ready for my first ice skating experience. I must say that I had never gone on any type of skate or rollerblade but at the same time I was not afraid. The track was large and full of people, mostly all amateurs like me. Even though I had a lot of balance, I couldn't do the main thing; skate. It took me a long time to go the full circle and I just didn't understand the technique. My attention was caught by a boy of about seven years old! He was very fast, zigzagging through the crowd as if it were the easiest thing in the world. When I managed to stop him for advice, he simply replied: it's easy, it's like walking. I will never forget that life lesson!
We could have been late that last night in San Francisco as our flight would be the next day in the afternoon. After dinner, on the recommendation of my friend, we went to Macy's top floor to taste the cheesecake at “The Cheesecake Factory”. The night was pleasant for the atmosphere inside the restaurant, an elegant location with the windows that gave onto Union square illuminated. It was a perfect place but more suitable to spend it in company with a nice girl rather than with a friend. The weekend in San Francisco was at the end, on the morning of departure we went for shopping, personally I made good purchases in clothing stores, I bought things that were not found in Italy, or items that were cheaper in America compared to Italy. Even for San Francisco, I had the same state of mind that I had for Los Angels. The few days have been optimized to the best but the city certainly deserves a much more detailed visit. I must say that I didn’t have the impression of "a hit and run" experience, almost everything I did is still vivid in my memory. This was certainly because there was so much waiting on my part to visit the city. I probably could have used the month in California better in a general sense but I was good at organizing the individual weekends.
This post concludes the "USA" part of my travels, as I said in the Los Angels post this concerns the year 2012 and since then I have not gone back. Personally I’m satisfied with how I managed my organization and the photos I took. However, today I am even better in both points of view so a new trip to visit the same places would give me more motivation. As already mentioned, for the moment there is no plan to return but when this happens it will be even more beautiful and productive.
Pictures: Antonio Malara
Camera: Nikon D800