We arrived in San Francisco late, and reached our hotel at about midnight, shattered.  We later discovered that our hotel was quite a way outside of the city centre, a bus ride away.

The hotel reception area was an eclectic mix of artefacts from different countries – Thailand, China, Africa are my best guesses.  It was roomy and the reception clerks were humorous and made us feel at home straight away.  Our room was nowhere near as big as the rooms we’d become accustomed to, although it was clean and had everything we needed, including a coffee machine.  It had a fan but didn’t need the air con we’d had in Nawleans and Memphis (mind you, we hadn’t needed that so much there either). More importantly, they had “happy half hour” in reception between 5.30pm and 6pm every night, where all guests were given free drinks and live music was provided.  Very civilised.

We found out from some other guests that rooms here were $200 a night (we had no idea of room prices because it was all part of a package for us) and, having spoken to some young Irish girls who told us how expensive it was to live in SanFran (even more expensive than London) I began to warm to the area in which I was staying.

We didn’t have to rush too much on our first day, we only had to pick up our pre-paid tickets for the hop-on-hop-off bus tour.

“We need to turn right out of the hotel,” I said, “Then right again down here.”

I didn’t have my customary compass with me, so how the hell I thought I knew which direction I thought I was walking is anybody’s guess.  We walked for about an hour, and, having walked past more homeless people than  I ever see in London (I later discovered that San Francisco has a huge homeless problem) we ended up in an area that looked very prosperous but had very few pedestrians.  This was not where we were supposed to be.

Eventually, we found someone to ask, who told us we were nearer to the Bay Area than the Fisherman’s Wharf area we wanted. Still, it was good exercise.  We found an Irish pub where we stopped for a very late breakfast, and where we met a couple of lovely Irish girls, the ones I mentioned above.  When they told us how much they had to pay in rent, I nearly had a heart attack!  This made London positively cheap.

The Golden Gate

We ended up getting a cab the rest of the way, to Fisherman’s Wharf, picked up our tickets and did our first tour around the city centre.  The heart of San Francisco is pretty much like any other city centre, all the usual designer stores – Ferragamo, Herrera, Tiffany, etc, although, of course, without our English only stores such as John Lewis.

Our cab driver didn’t disappoint us with regard to the hills that made the car chase in Bullitt famous.  There were occasions when I was convinced that we were going to roll backwards, and on more than one occasion during our stay, I thanked the law of gravity.  In fact, I had to remind myself of it, it seemed impossible that we wouldn’t just fall off the Earth, some of the hills were so steep.  If I’d stayed in San Francisco, I’d have lost pounds, just walking up and down.

Later, we found the tour shop in Columbus Avenue, where we exchanged our voucher for our 48-hour hop-on-hop-off tour bus passes.  It just past 15.00 by now, so we decided on the downtown tour that day, before heading back to our hotel for the free drinks reception.

We decided to eat in the hotel that night and didn’t go out again.  I think Kate and I were both surprised at how variable the TV coverage was in each of our hotels.  Of course, we had expected local news, but thus far, national news coverage had been minimal, and the selection of channels was pretty limited.  (On the day we left, we discovered that one of our favourites, NCIS, was showing at 07.00 so we watched that rather than the news.)

Day two in San Francisco meant an early start to get our boat to Alcatraz.  It’s a bit of a must-do in San Francisco although before I got there I had mixed feelings about it.  It’s just over a mile from the mainland, and our guides explained that the prisoners had been transported, shackled at the ankles, on a train.  The train carriage was taken to the island so that they didn’t have to de-train the prisoners until they arrived on the island.  They gave them warm showers on Alcatraz because they didn’t want them to get used to being in cold water lest they get the idea that they should try swimming to escape.

There was a volunteer tour guide who talked us through the first couple of stages up on the island, which had started its life as a military base, but had become a military prison almost immediately and had later become the federal penitentiary for which it is now famous.  At the cell blocks, we were given audio headsets, with our guides ex-prison guards, occasionally interspersed with comments from prisoners.

The main prison blocks, B and C, were grim, the cells being only 5’ by 9’ with a small sink (cold water only), and bed and a toilet.  In D block, segregation, the cells were a bit bigger, but inmates were confined to their cells 24 hours per day, with only one visit to the recreation yard per week.

Part of the remains of Alcatraz

However, it was when we got to solitary confinement that the conditions became really bad.  Although the cells were inside and undercover, you could feel the wind blowing in from outside.  It must have been horrendous in the winter months, even though this part of the world doesn’t have the harsh winters of other parts of the USA.  It was pretty cold on the day we visited.

Further along in this block were cells referred to as “The Hole.”  When prisoners who had behaved even more badly were put in there, they were kept in darkness – according to the audio, once acclimatised, it was possible to see a little light, but still, I imagine that would have had a rather salutary effect.

I hadn’t realised before going to Alcatraz that there had been a rather nasty escape attempt in 1946 in which one of the inmates somehow managed to get into the gun cage and get hold of all the firearms there.  A siege followed, which lasted for two days, during which time two prison guards were killed.

There were significantly more escape attempts than I’d realised, some of which were partially successful, in as much as the men got off the island, but it seems they were all recaptured.

Alcatraz done, we travelled back to San Francisco and got a trolley bus back to our hotel.  For $2.50 each, we had tickets that we could use for us to two and a half hours, plus a good sightseeing tour of the City.

San Francisco from Alcatraz

The following day, we did our mammoth bus tour around the city.  It was a shame that this was to be our last day here, we were just getting to know our way around.   We went back to the hotel to prepare for the Big Apple.

© Susan Shirley 2017


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