Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Walking the waterfront

Saturday February 8 (Part Two)

I leave the ferry with a strong curiosity about the parts of the city I have glimpsed from the water – particularly the seafront and the enormous dome visible above the houses there. Maybe it’s a Russian Orthodox church and that’s the Russian Hill district?

I decide to follow the walking path along the sea and see what I find, starting at Fisherman’s Wharf. Moving past the tourist mecca of Pier 39, with its aquarium and ice-cream and souvenir barns and corn dog stands, I walk awhile before I push past to a different kind of tourist attraction: food. Below signs proudly proclaiming ‘Crab Season’ are a jumble of stands serving up crabs, calamari, fish and clam chowder. Piles of fresh crabs, still in their shells, sit alongside steaming hot plates. White-aproned stallholders serve a steady stream of customers, who stand around eating from paper bags. I’m tempted, but want to keep moving.

Past the restaurants; some seafood, some Italian (featuring seafood, and even clam chowder, on the menu). Past the rows of yachts and fishing boats. Past a black homeless man sitting quietly on the sidewalk, wearing a hat stuffed with eucalyptus branches and a sign written on cardboard: ‘THE WORLD FAMOUS BUSH MAN’. As I pass, wondering what it’s all about, I hear a scream from behind me and turn to see a blonde pony-tailed woman clutching her chest and staring at the Bush Man, gasping, laughing nervously. She doesn’t look scared, just as if she’s had a shock. Moments later, another scream, another woman looking at the Bush Man in the exact same way. What did he do?

Finally, I’m at the end of the wharves. Opposite is the Ghiradelli building, which I’ve photographed from the ferry. I’m not sure what it is, but I see people eating at what looks like a café up there. A coffee sounds good. I cross the road - and detour into the Maritime Museum on the corner. Then, I climb the hill to the Ghiradelli sign. This spot is also where the cable cars start their journey up Lombard Street, ‘the crookedest street in the world’. It’s the one you’ll see on most postcards and images of crazy San Francisco streets, lined with expensive-looking Victorian houses. This cable car is also the one you’ll see on postcards and brochures about San Francisco, illustrating its quaint ways of getting around. The cable car is wooden, with a red roof, and passengers sit behind a railing on two wooden benches, each facing the street from the middle. I’m almost positive that this is, in fact, used only by tourists. For one thing, it costs $5, far more than the $1.50 charged by all other cable cars (which look more like Melbourne trams) and the bus system. For another, it travels a scenic route, not a quick-way-of-getting-somewhere route.

The view from the Ghiradelli centre is amazing. I’m looking down on the sea, over a tiny stretch of beach beneath a cascade of white steps. I move to the steps to take my photographs, then follow them down to the beach. The sand is brown and gritty, like Melbourne’s city beaches. In the lightly falling rain, the beach is nearly deserted, apart from a couple of people walking their dogs. In one direction, the wharves I’ve come from; in the other, a hillside bend bordered by towering eucalypts, and a tiny wooden wharf with a single red boat moored there. Forget coffee, I want to see what’s around that bend. Camera around my neck, umbrella over my head, I head off. Occasionally, someone on a bike whizzes by me and up the hill. I’m impressed. Some of these people are obviously tourists: their bikes have the sign ‘Blazing Saddles’. They rent out bikes by Pier 39. When I passed, they had a lot of bicycles banked up. The rain is not good for business.

Every path I follow today is taking me somewhere unexpectedly interesting, and breathtakingly gorgeous. The bend in the road takes me to a park overlooking Fort Mason. It’s an old military installation, now converted into a community centre. It has a theatre, kids’ art classes, language lessons, a bookshop, conference rooms. A series of red-rooved Spanish-style adobe buildings stretches out below me, bordered by wooden piers and the ocean on one side and green lawns on the other. I wander the park awhile, photographing a statue of a weeping Virgin Mary, then climb down.

I follow the seafront, which soon turns into generous lawns and equally generous walking and cycling paths beside the road. On the other side, a line of Victorian mansions overlooks the sea. At the furthest point of the coast, the Golden Gate Bridge is visible through the fog. I am amused to note how many of the mansions are flying the American flag, and how many of them boast prominent signs about their security systems. One particularly patriotic house has a US flag and a Californian flag flying on either side of a US flag painted on the housefront. Small and tasteful, of course. This, I later learn, is the Marina district.

The waterfront stretches on like this, reminiscent of Albert Park/Middle Park/St Kilda. Joggers and cyclists frequently pass me. They are film star perfect in their designer sportswear and sneakers. I am damp and frizzy-haired in my black sheepskin boots, bedraggled blue jeans and black hooded cardigan, peering eagerly out of my rain-flecked prescription glasses from under my $3 umbrella.

Where the lawns end and a wharf houses yachts with names like ‘My Lady’, the path goes on into a national park area, Crissy Field. This is where the beach starts again, on the other side of a marshy stretch of lawn. My feet sink into it with a series of squelches as I cross. When I reach the beach, I look back and realise that I really want to explore another sight.

Where Crissy Fields begins, on the other side of the road, that mysterious dome looms large and close behind a screen of trees. I go back to see what it is. It is the Palace of Fine Arts, originally built for a world exhibition in the early 1900s. Next to it, seemingly in the same building, is the Exploratorium, a science museum. The building is amazing. Faux-Roman columns rise, dusky pink, towards the golden dome at the top. Weeping willows and Japanese blossoms, also dusky pink, grow at the building’s base and along the man-made lake at the foot of the dome. A fountain sprouts from the lake. The scale of it, more than anything, is awesome. This enormous structure in the middle of an inner-city suburb.

A young man jogs by in a Ripcurl sweatshirt. Briefly, I want to grab him and ask if he’s Australian, but of course I don’t. (I think they might have Ripcurl here now, anyway. It probably just means he’s a surfer.) I recall The Husband telling me that he did something similar in Guadlajara, stopped a man in the street wearing a Socceroos t-shirt.

On my circuit of the lake, I am asked by a French woman if I know how to get into the Palace of Fine Arts. I tell her I’m looking too, and she thanks me and disappears. After one entire circuit of the building, I am bamboozled. Finally, I venture into the Exploratorium. It is packed with families and squealing kids. I ask a woman at the snack bar counter how I get to the Palace of Fine Arts entrance. She looks puzzled.
‘No’ she says. ‘This is the Exploratorium.’
‘Yes, but how do I get into the Palace of Fine Arts?’
‘There is no Palace of Fine Arts. I think it used to be here.’
‘Oh. Really? How long ago did that happen?’
‘I don’t know.’ She looks annoyed. ‘We’ve been here a long time.’
The odd thing is that all the tourist maps and guidebooks still list the Palace of Fine Arts, separately to the Exploratorium. I guess they’re referring to the building itself. Still, it seems strange. As I head for the main road, the one away from the beach, I see the French woman in the distance. She looks annoyed.

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