Monday, February 7, 2011

Going to California: San Francisco City Break on A Budget

I don’t know if there are any onomatopoeic words in English or Romanian or in any other language on earth to describe the sounds sea lions or seals make. However, it is the sounds they make that come back buzzing into my mind whenever I think of San Francisco, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Oh, and the rattling of the cable cars, running up and down the crooked streets. I finally got to see TchaTchafiko. It's the way my little brother and I used to pronounce the name of the city whenever we watched and talked about the fashionable Streets of San Francisco TV series, back in early 90s.

At first, we thought of using money more wisely than spending it on a 3-day city break in the Bay Area of California towards the end of our 7-month stay in the US. But we could not resist it – our travel impetus and having too much Southern California got us on the first Amtrak Pacific Surfliner we could book seats for online. A good idea, as long as all trains are equipped with outlets for laptops and offer café cars and ample room for legs – more than most business class areas in any posh airline. But trains stop in Goleta and those who need to continue the trip up north, to San Jose, Oakland, or San Francisco, need to take an Amtrak bus that serves the area.

We hit (not the tarmac, but) the walkway in front of the Ferry Building at 5 in the morning. Rodney, our very lively bus driver, had been so dedicated that he’d got to the destination 35 minutes earlier. That meant 35 more minutes of shivering in the chilly cloudy San Francisco morning. We put on some more warm clothes and headed for Pier 39 where we knew there were coffee shops and diners.

In the morning

“This is a smoking free bus, said Rodney at the beginning of our trip. And I have to remind you this is also valid for the bathroom. Lest you want to continue your trip walking, refrain from smoking. And bear in mind your seat neighbor will tell on you if they suspect you did that while in the bathroom.” OK, the bus ride was over and I could use a cigarette, just to take my mind away from the cold.

In case you arrive very early in the morning in any American city, just don’t have high hopes. Don’t dream of steamy coffee or hot tea, served with sizzling omelets or fluffy pancakes. That you can have, but only after 7:30 in tourist areas and after 9 in all other parts of the city. And don’t dream of public restrooms – they open late, only after a little energetic Asian or Mexican guy rubs them up really well for some thirty minutes.

Sunrise @ Pier 39
Our San Francisco morning hushed away all the clouds and revealed a clear horizon, from which the sun started to rise in glory over the bay and the Bay Bridge. At Pier 39, one of the most popular waterfront attractions of the city, the sea lions were stretching on their docks for another day of Sea Lebrities photo shooting. They first arrived here in 1990, in droves of 10-50, immediately after the 1989 Loma-Prieta earthquake. The friendly environment turned the West Marina into the home of more than 300 cute sealebrities, whose number amounts to even 900 during the winter.

Cute Sealebrities
After some overpriced cups of coffee and tea, we decided to head for the hotel, with hopes for a very early check-in. The road took us along the whole bay waterfront. Fisherman’s Wharf was quiet. We realized it was President’s Day and that the early check-in was an amazing idea. We walked north along the bay, passed by Ghirardelli Square and crossed the Marina District from East to West, until we got on Lombard Street. Then we walked again up north, towards Presidio Park, lingering along the crescent streets rich in exotic flower flavors and radiant Spanish colonial houses, with huge silvery bay-windows and large lavishly decorated stone patios. If you ever get to San Francisco, our wholeheartedly housing recommendation is Country Hearth Inn, at 2707 Lombard St, in a quiet residential area, very close to Presidio Park, with large clean rooms and more than reasonable prices.

Fisherman's Wharf
Marina District (close to Ghirardelli Square)

At noon

On our second day, just before noon, we met poet, translator, and anthologist Stacy Doris, a wonderful person and an exquisite professional. She lived and taught in Paris and New York and now she works and lives in San Francisco, with her husband and two children. We met in Central Sunset. 19th St. at Taraval St. is a quiet residential area, with long wide steep boulevards full of small businesses and cozy quaint cafés, most of them run by Asian families. We had a very pleasant conversation about poetry, expat life, and American realia. In spite of the general preconception, many poets show a really objective point of view on down-to-earth realities. Stacy was one of the few Americans we met who could give us valid explanations for some of the economic and social issues we had identified during our stay there. The significant number of homeless people in Southern California, for instance, she elucidated, was due to both local authorities' failure in dealing with the increasing number of underprivileged citizens or illegal immigrants, as well as historic federal policies regarding Vietnam-war mentally disordered veterans.

The route of trolley L (light rail) to downtown took us through the Twin Peaks area of San Francisco, a wonderful neighborhood set on two hilltops, with crooked streets and trees in blossom, with Victorian mansions set among small coquette villas. We simply could not help hopping off the trolley, then browsed the streets with the exciting feeling that the place could make a nice home for us anytime - but not then, not now, just sometime. So we hopped again on the next trolley and got downtown.

Twin Peaks residential area
Like all central areas of any American city, downtown San Francisco could have been packed with homeless, lunatics, or at least weird-looking people. Not the case here – it was not packed, one just could spot them here and there. Market St. crosses downtown westwards and connects Civic Center to the Ferry Building area. The liveliest part of it is around Hyde St., end of line for the San Francisco historic cable car. This is the place for the shopping addicts as well, as most of the important retailers are set here: Macy’s, Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s, Westfield Center, etc. If you keep going westwards, you’ll cross the financial district just before getting to the Ferry Building on The Embarcadero, very close to the Bay Bridge that links San Francisco to Oakland.

San Francisco Civic Center
On Market St.
Building in the financial district
The Ferry Building is the ferry terminal of San Francisco and one of the most important tourist attractions in San Francisco. It serves tourists and locals alike, as it hosts a very lively farmers’ market every day, between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Opened in 1898, it has been ever since the focal point for all commuters in the Bay Area. A columnist for San Francisco Chronicle said ‘The Waterfront without the Ferry Tower would be like a birthday cake without a candle’.

Ferry Building
 Going counterclockwise around the San Francisco peninsula, you will get to Pier 39. Around noon it gets as lively as possible. Cafes, bars, diners, souvenir shops, chocolate shops, all will invite you to spend money and take a part of San Francisco with you. Or you can just buy some Ghirardelli chocolate and sunbathe on a bench, delighting in some seal spotting.

Tons of chocolate
For a complete and heart-throbbing San Francisco experience, take a Cable Car trip - $5 one way or $13 a day pass. Not only it will take you through the most crooked routes and will offer stunning views of the city, but it will also make you snap and sigh each time it stops according to its schedule or because of an impromptu power break. Breaks are manual, operated by two men, one in front, one at the back. Hilarious. Just to gain some more strength, before jumping on the cable car at Powell St. (for the Powell-Hyde route), stop briefly at The Buena Vista and ask for an Irish coffee. It will spare you any fears and it’s tipsy-yummy.

In the evening
After a day at Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf, Marina District is the right place to be. There is no raspy touristy wheezing, only people walking barefoot on the beach, dogs swimming and fetching the ball to their master, children building sand castles, posh boats, amazing sunsets, and incredible views of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Marina before sunset
Alcatraz Island
Golden Gate Bridge
If you are on a shoestring budget or if you just don’t want to spend money on food, but only to get a glimpse of the true American sleazy dining, go to Original Buffalo Wings, on Lombard St. For only $6, you’ll get something like in the picture below. Plus domestic beers for $1.5. And you’ll know you wouldn’t have to worry about where you’re going to dine out tomorrow.

Safe travels!

How to get there: By train: Amtrak Pacific Surfliner, $61 a return ticket from San Diego By plane: all the American carriers, including Southwest Airlines Where to stay: Budget: Country Hearth Inn – 2707 Lombard St. Where to eat: Budget: Original Buffalo Wings – 2499 Lombard St.

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