Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A Short Walking Tour of North Beach

How hard can it be?
One of my many guidebooks, Frommer's San Francisco 2012, has a few walking tours. Walking tours are great, because you get a feel for some of the city's more eclectic neighbourhoods without the risk of eating anywhere on the Health Board's watch list. Also you have the facts in one hand, camera in the other, and you can really nerd out while wandering around. Earlier this week a conversation with my Aunt Eileen highlighted the sad fact that I hadn't darkened the door of a museum or art gallery since my arrival, so on Saturday I took on North Beach hoping to retrace the footsteps of some of San Francisco's famous literary figures. I was assured that the tour would take 3 hours including a stop for lunch. As the route was only about half a mile long this seemed more than achievable. 

Oh, how young and naive I was.

Lolly had disappeared at some ungodly hour to meet up with a friend in the city and as she is stubbornly holding onto her Canadian number and my US provider isn't cool with me contacting foreigners we have this elaborate system of my iMessaging her in the hopes that she will wander into some free wifi. Surprisingly it usually works, but this time she was hiking around Angel Island so no dice. 

Left: Old Transamerica Building
Right: New Transamerica Building
They don't fuck around.
I set off on my own, camera, map and iPad (containing guidebook) at the ready and large "rob me" sign flashing overhead, and proceeded to check myself in on Facebook all over the place. Within a two block area I learned about the Transamerica Pyramid, the former four-storey high Montgomery block built on a redwood log raft that was there before the Transamerica Pyramid and once home to Jack London and Mark Twain among others, the Original Transamerica Pyramid which is now the Church of Scientology, and some of the oldest commercial buildings to survive the 1906 earthquake on Jackson Street. Allegedly firemen hauled a water hose from a mile away to save the whiskey factory in the Hotaling Building because they just loved whiskey, though it seems more likely that they were concerned about the stuff, ya know, exploding. I helpfully pointed this out to a lady attempting to give a more official walking tour and was not thanked for my efforts.

The Columbus Tower and a different, utterly uninteresting, building.
Having covered the first 0.01 square miles in only an hour I was feeling a little peckish, and decided to stop at the Columbus Tower (#6) to sample some of Francis Ford Copolla's wine, and cheese, and make Godfather jokes to the thoroughly amused waitresses. While examining the surprisingly dull menu outside what I had mistakingly thought was the Zoetrope cafe diagonally opposite the really quite difficult to miss iconic building, I noticed a bit of a commotion. 

Weirdly, the entire block was shut down by a cop with a whistle who I promptly began photographing (aint that quaint, I thought) along with about 75 other tourists (they must agree, I thought) when he suddenly pegged it across the junction as someone shouted Action! and a bunch of dudes in black suits with little white polka dots cantered down the street on all fours. I asked a stressed out looking dude with a good beard what was going on and he informed me I had nearly ambled out into a screamingly expensive take for Planet of the Apes thinking there was no traffic coming and that this would be a good time to exercise my God given Irish right to jaywalk. What fun! This calls for a glass of wine.

Of course.
So there I was in Zoetrope telling the waitress I wanted my first glass to be a masculine glass when Lolly catches up with me. I excitedly fill her in, peer pressure her into having a glass of wine with me and make some cracks about how she's been horsing around all morning to the still delighted waitress, who had never heard any of this before, when suddenly the dudes in the black body suits and white polka dots careen into the front door of the restaurant to perfectly illustrate my point. A little while later we emerge onto the street to backtrack to #1 for the Super Fast Catch Up Tour, which only takes 10 minutes this time. 

Somewhere between #8 and #11.
We acknowledge stops #7 - #10 in passing, which are now mostly strip clubs, with only a brief stop in the Naked Lunch cafe for a beer, pick up some books in the famous City Lights, and wander into the Beat Museum. There we meet Jerry Cimino, the affable curator, who tells us why we should part with $5 apiece for his little collection. At "Jack Kerouac's jacket" I'm convinced and we spend a thoroughly excellent hour reading poetry broadsheets and marvelling at the paraphernalia (no, not that kind of paraphernalia). We thank Jimmy about 8,000 times and he sends us over to Vesuvio, which conveniently is stop #12, suggesting we order the "Jack Kerouac". 

The Jack Kerouac regrettably turns out to be a tequila and rum cocktail, and as we sit there sipping and reading up on the next few stops we realise two things: First, that it is now dinner time and that the shops and museums on our tour are closed, but the bars still open; and Second that we are already three drinks in. We emerge sometime later into the sunlight, blinking and bemused that it is still day time in the way that usually only happens after matinee movies. 

Apparently this is the last photo I took.
We whizz past #13 and #14, spend a good ten minutes photographing ugly bowls in the window of Bondi Imports (#15) and at least twenty minutes in the card shop next door reading birthday greetings, which we find screamingly funny. Craving something more substantial than a sandwich we skip Molinari Deli (#16) note that the North Beach Museum (#17) has been closed since shortly after we left the Beat Museum several hours beforehand, can't find Club Fubazi (#18) and end up at the suggested lunch stop, (#19) O'Reilly's Irish Pub. The selection of traditional seafood and nachos available is thoroughly unappetising and the happy diners worryingly sparse, so we instead wander among the many Italian restaurants and stare forlornly at several hostesses who piquedly inform us of the length of wait. Lolly suggests we double back to a 'quiet' spot she had noticed around the corner called Tony's Pizza Napoletana, which has an unfathomable two hour wait but - I still can't believe the luck of this - a seat available at the bar. Not wishing to look like tourists we order a beer, and a little while later the biggest pizza on the menu. It is easily the most delicious food of any type I've ever eaten.

Having given a wine recommendation and our seats to an elderly couple whom we chat to for half an hour, we emerge into merciful darkness to seek out, on their advice, The Saloon - allegedly the oldest bar in San Francisco. First, though, we bound across Washington Square, read aloud the blurb on Saints Peter and Paul Church and observe the splendid views of Coit Tower (#21).

It's easily the best walking tour either of us have ever been on and as we relate our adventure to Francis, ("I'm on what you might call a J2 Visa") from Cork, and someone we'll call Mike in the Saloon, our new friends acknowledge that we must, at this stage, be exhausted and buy a round of Jameson to our health. There's a jazz band giving it socks down the back and we have a wonderful chat with our new friends, despite barely understanding anything Francis says. 

Waiting for the BART Lolly and I high five for having completed Frommer's Walking Tour of North Beach in a little over eight hours.
Monkeying around in North Beach.

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