From cable cars rubbing shoulders with Segways, to wildlife in the city, Dinesh Raheja enjoys the contrasts that the city throws up
Starting with the fact that the iconic Golden Gate Bridge is not golden (it’s painted rust red), the beautiful American city of San Francisco is full of contradictions and dualities.
San Francisco is indubitably one of the most modern cities in the world with several world-famous corporations maintaining a presence here and Silicon Valley located nearby, yet this metropolis quaintly opts for old-fashioned public transport in the form of cable cars and streetcars.
Think about it: Uber has its world headquarters in this throbbing avant garde city, youngsters coast on its roads in with-it Segways … but charming cable cars which run on tracks laid in the middle of the street are also a reality here, not an old world anachronism.
Cable car with a view
One of the first things we do on our San Francisco trip is to embark on a pleasant seven-minute walk from our hotel, down Powell street to the turnaround at Market Street and queue up … or, as the Americans say, line up … for a ride on one of the famous San Francisco cable cars.
Grabbing a seat with a vantage viewpoint is difficult but it’s highly satisfying when I manage to do so. Especially when the cable car pretends it is a roller coaster and trundles up and down the city’s astonishingly steep hills at a brisk pace. Our cable car grunts to a sudden stop after navigating one such steep hill; and all the able-bodied passengers are called upon to push it further along the track. Success is greeted with resounding cheers!
San Francisco is a coastal megacity yet at times it can feel like a foggy hill station full of picturesque views. A city built on several undulating hills, San Francisco offers amazing vistas almost everywhere you turn. A cable car drops us off at the top of a hill from which I can see Lombard street running perpendicularly, far into the distance.
A lush-green, one-block section of the street is popularly called Crooked Street thanks to its eight hairpin bends. I have found driving down Mumbai’s Zigzag Road in Bandra and Harkness Road in Napean Sea Road a challenge but this San Frisco street is at another level. Cars navigate this crooked street at the strict speed limit: 5 miles per hour. San Francisco’s streetscapes captivated me.
Not all of its contradictions, however, are happy. San Francisco is one of the richest cities in the world yet on almost every downtown street corner, I see several homeless people and panhandlers, their meagre belongings packed into supermarket carts. I encounter them as soon as I enter the city after disembarking from the BART train. I am told that the city’s salubrious climate and liberal attitude is why they seek refuge here. But it is a tragic irony to see an ageing, homeless woman right across the street from the headquarters of Twitter!
Wildlife in the city
How many urban centres offer you a chance to see wildlife in the open the way San Fran does? I have a scintillating time at the city’s Pier 39 where I saw hordes of sea lions basking in the open. The overcast skies make Alcatraz island in the distance seem more mirage-like than real.
The island is a tourist attraction today but was a prisoners’ nightmare from 1934 to 1963. Once I shift my gaze from the island to the hundreds of sea lions perched on the floating docks below the pier, I remain transfixed for the next half hour. The shrill cries of the gulls and the deep bellows of the sea lions combine to make hypnotic natural music. The sight of an injured sea lion makes me cringe momentarily but soon I am immersed in watching these fascinating creatures dipping into the sea or just lazing languorously.
We are also lucky enough to spot dolphins below the Golden Gate Bridge. Walking on the bridge, a city landmark, is an adrenaline rush thanks to the sea, the sailboats, the wind surfers and the two dolphins gliding in perfect sync – like lithe ballerinas in the sea.
The city has its share of modern architecture like the unique pyramid-shaped Transamerica Tower and the Salesforce Tower, but it also blessed with several elegant turn-of-the-last-century buildings built after the 1905 earthquake that devastated the city. The boutique hotel we are staying in is housed in a 1925 skyscraper and I love the old world décor, the carefully restored and maintained wooden beams, the working fireplace and the huge elevator that has wooden panelling and a lime-green sofa! Even more gorgeous is a row of Victorian houses at Alamo Square; they are painted in vivid colours and are eloquently called The Painted Ladies. You might remember them from the theme song of the popular TV serial, Full House.
Urban yet green
Despite being a densely packed urban area, this bustling metropolis has several green oases. The Golden Gate Park is bigger than New York City’s huge Central Park. Even better: just 20 kms to the north of San Francisco is a sprawling expanse of forest called Muir Woods, with its treasure trove of Coastal Redwoods, the tallest type of tree in the world. I find stepping into Muir Woods is like entering a green Wonderland.
The height of the trees is of course breathtaking, but there is also a rapidly flowing creek and incredibly lush greenery all around that puts a spell on me. The tallest tree in Muir Woods is reportedly 250 feet high and 750 years old. Despite the presence of other tourists, there are stretches, especially on the trails off the wooden pathway, where you feel you have entered a primal space with just you in sole communion with nature. I ask a forest ranger what the woods are like at night after the tourists have gone. He admits: “It can get pretty eerie.”
On our last day in San Francisco, we putter around Union Square. There is a street performer playing the bagpipes … it is beautiful soul music and travels a surprising distance. It melds with the clanging of a cable car bell – the conductor is building up a rhythm – and the result is one of the most pleasant sounds of this curiously quaint city which harmonises its many contrasts into one captivating whole.