Hike 28 – Stairways and Sidewalks of North Beach, February 20, 2010
Excitedly, I jumped out of the bed on a beautiful Saturday morning. My wife would finally join me on a hike! We were planning to explore some of San Francisco’s stairway walks, the funky enclave of North Beach, and Coit Tower. The reason she has not hiked with me so far can be traced back to “The Incident.” Let’s flash back.
Imagine the sound of harps playing in the background and everything in front of you dissolves into a mess of shaky, squiggly lines.
We are back in the mid-late 1990’s, standing along a section of the Bruce Trail in Ontario, Canada. This is an 800 Km (500 mile) long trail along the Niagara escarpment from Niagara Falls to Tobermory. We’d hiked many sections of the trail before. I wanted to go on a long hike while my wife wanted a short one. I promised her we were going on a short hike. Unbeknownst to her, I had picked a route that could easily be extended.
I kept adding sections to the hike and so 12 kilometers became 12 miles and so on. Eventually she began resisting. At some point it began to drizzle too and she was totally miserable. By the time we returned to the car, we had covered over 16 miles and understandably, she was not at all happy with me. Since then I have had a tough time getting her to trust me on any issue, and hiking in particular. These days, she rarely accompanies me on hikes.
The sound of harps playing in the background and everything in front of you dissolves into a mess of shaky, squiggly lines. We’re back to the present now.
For this walk, she figured that things could not get too bad. This was an urban setting. She could easily bail out on me if I turned out to be lying. Besides, I had been missing company on my last few hikes and I sincerely wanted to go on one with her. So I had no plans of misbehaving or deceiving her this time.
We parked the car on Bay Street in front of Fort Mason and began our day. We walked along Bay Street for a few blocks and turned into Russian Hill Park and began climbing the stairs. From the top of the park, we had views of the Bay, Marin County and Alcatraz framed by Ghirardelli Square and Fisherman’s Wharf in the foreground. From there we proceeded towards Lombard Street.
When we got to the top of Lombard, I began heckling the slow drivers to drive fast. Like 100 mph, or 60 mph, if they were chicken. Unfortunately, nobody took up my challenge. My wife meanwhile tried hard to disassociate herself from me and walked away to take photographs of homes, trees, flowers and stairways. On this outing, I was happy to let her take most if not all of the photographs.
From the bottom of supposedly the crookedest street in the world (this is not true, it isn’t even the crookedest street in San Francisco; Vermont Street is), we headed towards Filbert Street. We walked along Filbert and crossed Columbus Avenue into Washington Square, the heart of North Beach. Interestingly, Washington Square features a statue of Ben Franklin and another of three fire-fighters, but not George Washington. Go figure. Talented artists were selling some amazing paintings there. We viewed their beautiful art in awe. In one corner of the park, a group of homeless men stayed warm around a fire, while some slept off their hangovers on benches.
From there we walked by the entrance of the Saints Peter and Paul Church to the Liguria Bakery at the corner of Filbert and Stockton. Their claim to fame is that they make only one type of bread – focaccia, in various flavors of course. When they sell out, they close shop and call it a day. We picked up some focaccia for our afternoon snack.
Next stop was A. Cavalli & Sons bookstore. On one of my many city rambles, I had once stumbled upon this charming little Italian bookstore that dates back to the 1880’s. They sold only Italian books, newspapers and periodicals. I found it interesting that there was enough demand for an Italian only bookstore in this part of the world. Naturally, for years, I had been wanting to bring my wife here.
What we saw was very disappointing. It had turned into a coffee shop called Cavalli Cafe that still sold some Italian books and periodicals. It was not the same because the cafe had taken over most of the space, leaving very little room for books. The vibe had changed, so we quickly left.
Since it was approaching lunchtime, I offered some dining options to my wife. I had researched them before heading out. We wanted to try a new place this time and after consulting our stomachs, settled on Caffe Puccini for sandwiches. While she got an eggplant sandwich, I ordered the minestrone soup and prosciutto sandwich. I don’t like eggplant at all, but her sandwich was delicious beyond words. So much so that I ate a quarter of it. This was one of the rare times I have enjoyed eggplant and if we ever go back there, that’s what I’m going to get. Meanwhile, Italian was freely spoken by customers and servers at the cafe, adding to the eclectic ambiance of North Beach.
After a satisfying lunch, we proceeded towards our next destination, Coit Tower. Unfortunately, we were hiking without a map and got disoriented. Instead of focusing on where we ought to be going, our minds no doubt were still enjoying the lunch we had just eaten. We must have been looking lost because a friendly local walked across the street and came over to us just to help us out. He gave us directions to Coit Tower, “Go straight three blocks to Greenwich and turn right and take the steps, a short cut, to Coit Tower.” That was it. San Franciscans have a well-deserved reputation for helpfulness and friendliness and we have experienced it many times.
Along the way we got distracted by the Italian French Baking Company at the corner of Grant and Union and stepped in to pick up some cookies and biscotti. When we ate them later in the day, they, like the focaccia bread from Liguria Bakery, were amazing.
Soon we were climbing the stairs to a very windy Coit Tower. Coit Tower is named after Lillie Hitchcock Coit or “Firebrand Lil” Coit. Apparently she was one of the more famous eccentrics of the city and was fascinated by firefighters. In her will, she left money for the beautification of San Francisco and for a monument to honor her firefighting friends. The money was used to build a 210 feet tall Art Deco tower in her honor and a bronze sculpture of her firefighting friends was place in Washington Park. In keeping with the San Francisco tradition of naming the place after one person and having someone else’s statue there, Coit Tower has a statue of Chris Columbus, not Lillie Coit.
You can find out more about her through these two links:
Wikipedia entry – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lillie_Hitchcock_Coit
Biography – http://www.sfmuseum.org/hist1/h-coit2.html
From Coit Tower we had views all around of the city by the bay and the cities around the bay. It included the usual suspects, The Golden Gate Bridge, Mt. Tamalpais, Marin County, Sonoma County, Angel Island, Alcatraz, Treasure and Yerba Buena Islands, and various other bridges and landmarks around the area. Inside the tower, there are a number of very interesting murals depicting “Aspects of California Life” commissioned by the Public Works of Art Project in 1934. If you are interesting in seeing them, here’s a link to a large (7.2 MB) PDF file. After we had our fill of the views, we headed down the beautiful Greenwich steps to Montgomery Street and towards Filbert Steps.
On our first visit to San Francisco in 1999, we just happened by accident to walk down the Filbert Steps. At the top of the steps, a friendly local told us about the history of Filbert Steps and Napier Lane, and we were hooked. It was great to go back to this charming locale again.
Back in the 1950s, this part of Telegraph Hill was a dumping ground. It was steep and ugly. A local resident, the late Grace Marchant, got the city’s permission to burn the dump and plant a garden in its place, turning it into a San Francisco treasure. Apparently she worked on it for 30 years and now her protégés take care of it.
We were also the lookout for some wild parrots here. This area of San Francisco is called Telegraph Hill with Coit Tower sitting on top of it. There is a documentary called “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill,” about some non-native parrots who have made Greenwich and Filbert Steps their home. Apparently a gentleman called Mark Bittner noticed a few of them first around 1990 and soon the flock grew. Apparently there are over 200 of them now. He got to know them and took care of them and the film documents his special relationship with these parrots. More information on Mark and the parrots is available here – http://www.wildparrotsbook.com/.
At the base of Filbert Steps, we turned north on Sansome Street past Levi’s Plaza. A young couple was asking for directions to the Filbert Steps and someone was helping them. I wasn’t sure if they were getting proper directions so I told them to go to Greenwich and turn right and take the steps up. They laughed and said that they were all set as that was exactly what the other person had told them. We laughed too because just a little while back, we were lost and had to rely on someone to give us directions. Now I was pretending to be an expert and giving directions to strangers. 😉
I consider a walk down these steps among the top ten things to experience in the city. Also, I highly recommend the documentary on the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill.
Our walk was now coming to an end. We continued on Sansome and picked up Embarcardero along the water and Bay Street all the way back to the car. I had thoroughly enjoyed this hike with my wife. Hopefully I had regained a bit of her trust as well. I vowed that I would give up long hikes if she agreed to go on hikes with me every weekend. While she did not agree on hiking every weekend, she agreed to do some more city walks with me as long as they were less than 4 miles long. I look forward to more of those in the coming weeks, months and years.
Note: Most, if not all of the photographs posted here, were taken by my wife.
Here’s a map of the hike courtesy of Google Maps:
Here’s a slideshow of pictures from the hike: