Day 9: “Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair”

Napa / San Francisco / Alcatraz

I have to tell you: Sonora was OK, but the next bit was, at least for me, what I most looked forward to. The adventure part of out trip was pretty much over by now, and from here on out, we would cruise southwards on the coast, ogling surfer girls and maybe exposing our white, pasty bodies to an indifferent world. Though probably not in the Bay Area.

First stop, though, was Napa Valley. We decided to drive via Napa just to take a look; I pushed for the Artesa winery, which really is a gorgeous structure. It’s quite distinctive, literally built into the hillside, organically incorporated into the scenery. The wine is probably good too, but I don’t know enough about the stuff to tell you.

We arrived, and Stig was duly impressed with the scenery. Artesa also has a fantastic view of the surrounding area, and it feels a bit like standing in the future looking at old, venerable French wineries. Of course, it’s a pretty young industry in these parts, but they have the idyllic part down pat. As we entered, we were greeted by a gorgeous Russian girl who told us where the tasting was, and also that there would be a tour soon. “Cool,” we said. The inside looks like a cross between a swanky bar and an art gallery. Most other wineries go for a faux rural-Europe look, but Artesa takes it to the other side of the spectrum. And then some.

The last time I was here, I have to admit that the wine-tasting was my least favorite part. I don’t remember the other wineries we went to, but I do remember I didn’t quite care for the wines at Artesa, no matter how gorgeous the architecture. Still, I am older and wiser, and at the very least I’ve seen the bottom of far more wine bottles by now than I had then, so I decided that I must try. Stig had declined, preferring to drive. I was prepared to take over, but he was adamant. (I’m starting to suspect he doesn’t like being the passenger. Works for me, though.) I stepped up to the bar and asked for the different tastings. A very beautiful girl behind the counter gave me a quick rundown of the various sample menus. I went for the basic menu, because it appealed to my simple and unrefined sensibilities, and it was also the cheapest.

The girl gave me a quick explanation of the wine’s “personality” between glasses. I took my time with the wine and observed her. I felt like a creep, unwashed and unshaven, in a skanky t-shirt and shorts, but what can you do? I said to Stig “Man, she should have been in the bar last night. I so would have gone for her.” I paused, then continued: “Who am I kidding. I’d never have the nerve.” “No,” concurred Stig, “you wouldn’t”.

We decided to drop the tour and head for one more winery. So we left Artesa and headed for Calistoga for lunch and maybe another tasting. There was some confusion when Stig plotted in the address on the GPS and we ended up on Calistoga Avenue in Napa City instead of Calistoga. Stig, when I pointed out the discrepancy: “Fuck. OK, let’s haul ass for San Francisco instead.”

We headed for Fog City (I hadn’t told him this nickname for San Francisco yet) and were going to come right across the Golden Gate. Stig was pretty excited, as was I. The Golden Gate is one of the most recognizable pieces of architecture in the world, and it looks beautiful as it rests over the Bay. The view isn’t bad either, and if we were really lucky, we’d see a jumper. I wasn’t holding my breath, though.

But back to Fog City, because it certainly lived up to its name that day. “How far to the bridge?” asked Stig. “I think we just drove onto it,” I replied and pointed to the pillars that were suddenly on both sides of us. It was one of those days. You couldn’t even see the top of the bridge, it just faded into a grey void. “You’re kidding, right?” said Stig in exasperation, “I thought I’d at least get to see the damn thing!”

As we drove into San Francisco, the fog started to clear, and most of it was soon gone, though it was still overcast, that slate grey San Francisco sky hovering above. I was utterly delighted. We also had fun driving – I had forgotten all about how you can’t make right turns, so you have to make three left turns and so on. We missed the hotel twice, though to be fair, the second time around, we just couldn’t find it.

The hotel was spartan, with one of the oldest elevators I’ve ever ridden in. We decided to take the stairs for the rest of our stay, as neither one fancied getting stuck between floors in that ancient contraption (which would still be preferable to plunging to our deaths, but still)

We headed over to the Fisherman’s Wharf, which is a nightmare, but that’s where the Alcatraz ferry is. We were on the Alcatraz night tour. I’ve been to Alcatraz a few times before. It’s great fun, to be honest, but this would be a new experience.

Everybody knows something about Alcatraz; movies like Birdman of Alcatraz, Ecape from Alcatraz and Michael Bay’s greatest moment of pyrotechnical glory, The Rock (which also features a geographically impossible car chase) have used it to great effect, though one doesn’t need to seek out fiction to enjoy the fantastic history of the place. While it’s most known far its tenure as a prison, it has been a military base, and it was occupied by native americans in the 60’s (they offered to sell it back to San Francisco for some beads, apparently.)

These days, it’s just a tourist attraction, and all the focus is on its prison days. Of course, this is the most fun part, so go with it, I say. You get to walk around the cell blocks with an audio aid on your head. The tour is narrated by some of the old guards and the odd prisoner or two. They’re great fun to listen to, and it’s probably the best production of its kind that I’ve come across. “Now, you will find yourself at such-and-such place,” goes the narrator on the tape. “Walk towards cell number 107 and TURN LEFT!” And you do it. These guys aren’t fucking around. It adds to the already oppressive ambience of the place, but it also shows why these guys were picked to be guards there.

It’s a good tour, no doubt about it. It also has the added benefit of a great view of the city from the ferry. It was even better at night, the pretty San Francisco skyline all lit up, the Bay Bridge to port, the Golden Gate to starboard. (That would be left and right, incidentally)

Back on the mainland, we found a restaurant that was still open, and I enjoyed fish n’ chips while Stig went a bit further and ordered a seafood platter, and I was somewhat agog as he was served what appeared to be a troth of clams and other maritime morsels. After that, we walked back to the hotel via Columbus Avenue. I was surprised to see it was nearly dead; it was always hopping, or so I thought. Still, it was a thursday, and after eleven, but come on. Still, the Mission was too far away, so we stopped by Vesuvio’s for a pint of beer, then headed back to the hotel to rest up after a long day.

10.07.2008 • Permalink