Contrast

One of my favourite things about visiting San Francisco is simply walking the streets and part of the attraction of the streets is the street art found on buildings all over the city. Mission District is the most famous and probably has the most murals but I stumbled on these contrasting efforts in the Tenderloin and Haight areas, respectively.

Saturday in Sausalito

I first visited California about five years ago on a music trip and two thoughts have remained with me:

  • how much I preferred San Francisco to Los Angeles
  • the lights on the hills crossing the Golden Gate on our way to Sausalito

Ever since, I’ve avoided Los Angeles and vowed to explore those Sausalito hills. Today would be that day!

I started out at the Asian Heritage Festival taking place nearby in Civic Center. Things were just getting going but I picked up a t-shirt, had a coconut waffle and tried some Kona coffee (none of which having much to do with Asia) before daring to try Dottie’s True Blue café. Overhearing a member of the middle portion of the queue tell his mobile phone that “yeah, we’ve been queuing here for an hour and a half now; but, you know, it’s kind of a famous place”, I started to look further. 45 minutes of wandering the Tenderloin later (as close to the streets of “The Wire” as I’m likely to find on this trip and a bigger contrast with the streets of Zurich would be hard to imagine), I settled on a guidebook-recommended Indian and Pakistani eatery called Shalimar (embarrassingly enough, as it turned out, right next door to Dottie’s).

The weather has been terrible on this trip so I didn’t venture out with any plans for a day trip but, by now, the sky was clearing up so I decided maybe it was worth heading out to Sausalito after all. Rough plan was to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, take the bus to Sausalito, wander about for a bit then take the ferry home. Approaching the bridge, this plan seemed a little optimistic: the sky turned grey again; fog appeared: the bridge walk was cold, foggy and blustery. Atmospheric, certainly, and definitely worth seeing the fog billowing in from the sea…but not something I’ll be doing again soon.

Stepping off the bridge…sunshine. Talk about micro-climates! Like a character from a Beckett play, I wait a while for the #10 bus to come before (unlike a character from a Beckett play) starting to walk. It’s just a couple of miles to Sausalito and I’m in the town at least half an hour before I spot the bus sailing past.

Sausalito turns out to more or less as expected: a small town on the bay with a single main street (Bridgeway) hugging the water and lined with upmarket shops and restaurants. Nothing remarkable except for the location which altogether makes it a very pleasant place to while away an afternoon. The weather was warm and sunny, with the fog rolling over the hills making for some impressive pictures.

Bridgeway offers some wine shops offering, in turn, wine tastings. The assistant at the first turned out to have Swiss parents and to have visited Zurich several times down the years; the second – Bacchus and Venus – is less chatty but offers particularly generous portions (that they also inexplicably have a branch in Truckee, Nevada, is worth mentioning because it’s so bizarre and a rare opportunity to use the word “Truckee”); I sampled four reds before staggering back onto the street. A little later, I grab a quick delicious flame-grilled burger at Hamburgers Sausahlito (“where the customer is rarely right”) before hopping on the 6.30 ferry back to the city through the mist, Golden Gate nowhere in sight.

Lake Tahoe

It’s a three hour drive to Lake Tahoe; today we:

  • gazed at Lake Donner
  • rescued/annoyed shrimp on King Beach at Lake Tahoe
  • juggled jumbo-sized pine cones
  • took a short but nevertheless near-disastrous hike through hills and water
  • passed through the brilliantly-named Truckee three times on our way home

It’s nice to get out of the city once in a while, wet feet and all.

Lake Donner

King Beach

Hike to Nowhere

Golden Gate Walk

I’m staying near the Bay Bridge; it’s an awesome sight each morning but it doesn’t
compare with the true original: The Golden Gate. Symmetrical, immense, a colour-coordinated guardian to San Francisco Bay.

For some time I’ve been following a blog dedicated to the California High Speed Rail project, which would provide a two and a half hour link between downtown Los Angeles and San Francisco. Given the current economic climes, the author never misses an opportunity to point out that the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges were both built at the height of the Great Depression, putting thousands to work and providing infrastructure for the subsequent recovery.

It’s not perfect; shamefully, its ability to carry trains (in addition to cars) has never been realised. Boarding a Sausalito-bound BART and traversing the Golden Gate would be so wonderful; think how much more exciting a view even than that from the red line T over the Charles River, bound for Boston. Nevertheless, to me, the Golden Gate is a potent reminder of what America can do when it can be bothered: when it put its massive resources to work and built nothing less than a symbol of the 20th century.

Today, in more interesting economic times, I mulled this and how things may or may not change in three weeks time as I merged with the never-ending stream of visitors and residents and walked its 2.8km span towards Sausalito before catching the ferry home.

Arrival in San Francisco

We’re flying 14km high in the sky at a speed of almost 900km per hour in a tin can containing hundreds of gallons of highly flammable liquid, passing over the Atlantic Ocean, Greenland and all of North America enroute to the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco. It’s a morning flight, the sun is shining in a clear sky….and these people have the blinds down. I have an aisle seat so it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference where I’m sitting – apart from being stuck needlessly under artificial light for half the day – but this just irritates me a little. It’s as if the 8″ LCD showing of “Tomb Raider” (or whatever) in the headrest of the seat in front is actually a serious contender for the amazing spectacle unfolding all around us.

Anyway…I’m still impressed that we can walk up the steps in cold, wet Dublin and emerge just ten hours later on the far side of a different, sunnier, continent. Maybe I’m turning into a plane geek but, the deceptive immediacy of internets and video conferencing aside, this is really far away. 6000 miles! What if the planes all gave up tomorrow? It’d take weeks if not months to sail back to Ireland; not possessing those skills I could never do it myself…what if civilisation itself crumbles during the next five weeks (looking more likely every day!)? I’d never make it back!

Anyway, suffice to say I quite like being back in California. A few weeks of work in San Francisco followed by a couple of weeks of holiday somewhere nearby should be good for the soul. The flight, only two thirds full with plenty of spare room, was comfortable, “Once” on the laptop was a very pleasant diversion and curious reminder of home and now, having taken BART into the city, I find my new home almost directly underneath the approach to the Bay Bridge in the SOMA district near the centre of town.

The weather is fine and the city full of possibilities.

Napa Valley

A rare treat for a visitor to northern California: an opportunity to gatecrash a well-planned trip up to wine country, taking in some pretty fancy and hard-to-get-into wineries and finally live out all my “Sideways” fantasies for real (well, the wine tasting bits anyway).

So, we started at some ungodly never-before-heard-of hour on a Saturday morning in order to arrive in downtown San Francisco where a limo would pick us up and bring us to Napa. No designated driver for us!

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It was a glorious morning and after some introductions – there were eight of us travelling and there were six Indian names to somehow memorise, so it took a while – we headed off, traversing the Golden Gate before passing through Sausalito and onwards up to Napa. I felt a bit guilty about crashing in on the trip but nobody seemed to mind, especially when it was revealed I was Irish. As an aside, sometimes it feels like a license to do as you like over here – jaywalk, crash parties, you name it!

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Anyway, for future reference, here’s where we stopped:

  • We stopped first in V. Sattui and this was, to my mind, perhaps the most enjoyable stop: $10 yielded eight tastings from their menu, none of which – interestingly – are available outside of the winery. I loved their off-dry Johannisberg riesling, did not love their Rosato and very much enjoyed their Zinfandel. Having something of a sweet tooth, I liked their Madeira enough to buy an entire bottle and create yet another massive packing problem for myself.
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  • Cakebread Cellars was undoubtedly the highlight of the tour. Cakebread are a small volume winery (100,000 cases per year) with such reknown that tastings are strictly by appointment only and whose appointments are not subject to adustment. I’m enternally grateful for the locals who stood aside to let me take their place. I won’t forget it: their Chardonnay was amazing, their Merlot nothing like a Merlot (richer, somehow than their Cabernet) and their Cabernet just stunning. I felt compelled to purchase a Cabernet for a Bordeaux-loving friend back home and a Pinot for a special occasion.
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  • Our last stop, Mumm Napa, allowed us sample something new: sparkling Pinot. These were a bit mixed than previous wineries but at least one worked very very well.img_2897.JPG

All in all, a wonderful day. It’s fascinating to see how every winery is setup for visiting, with some (like Sattui) even limiting their sales to just their winery. It seems to be a pretty common weekend activity over here and one that’s slowly being adopted in Europe where, for one example, I’ve heard of Bordeaux tours. However, I guess it’s not as established a pastime back home. California may be a young wine-producing region but they’re producing some amazing wines and, in this climate and with this scenery I simply can’t think of a better way to spend your Saturday.

As an “international”, transport will be interesting: Sattui offered a cardboard and polystyrene wine-carrying contraption that’s guaranteed against breakages of the precious contents within. We’ll see in a week’s time if British Airways allow me check in two big pieces of luggage and, if so, if it survove Heathrow.

Vertigo

Vertigo is on TV.

It couldn’t be better timing: after three weekends in San Francisco, I can recognise or can roughly place most of the locations…and there’s so many San Franciscan locations in Vertigo: Fort Point, the Presidio, Coit Tower and the Palace of the Legion of Honour all get a mention. In fact, the locations are as much an “extra character” as the famous music.

There’s something special about travelling to a place that’s featured in a favourite movie – and so many great movies (or at least movies that have stood the test of time) are set prominently in a great city: Manhattan, Vertigo, The Commitments, Lost in Translation, etc.

What’s the correlation?

Well, I dunno but, watching this, I’m painfully aware that I’m actually not in San Francisco…I’m in Mountain View. And nobody ever made a film – good, bad or indifferent – about Mountain View.