San Francisco’s Cable Cars

My first time in San Francisco and I felt as though I were in a state of shock.  It looked just like the movies but it was real, very real.   From the “Vietnam vets.” hustling for dollars and dimes at Fisherman’s Wharf and Haight Ashbury, to the open-sided cable cars grinding and ringing their way up and down those vertical hills, this was a movie-set.

Most great cities are walkable – with the exception of Los Angeles – and San Franscisco is no exception.  The one great drawback to this accessibility however, it that it is exremely hilly. But somehow, transfixed by the trolley-cars that rattle up those perpendicular slopes and listening to either the fog-horns in the Bay or the sound of itinerant Mexican musicians – depending on the weather – you forget the hills and throw yourself into the joy of being in San Franscisco, riding the cable cars, eating at Fisherman’s Wharf, taking trips on the Bay, gazing at the Rock (Alcatraz), and watching the sun goes down on The Golden Gate Bridge.

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If you ride the cable cars, there are a few things you should know.

There are three cable car routes in the city, but the two that offer the most attractive rides are the Powell-Mason and PowellHyde lines.  At Powell and Market streets, the cable car turntable serves as the beginning stop for the Powell-Mason line which runs from there up and over Nob Hill and down to Bay Street at Fisherman’s Wharf. The Powell-Hyde line starts from the same turntable and runs up over Nob Hill and Russian Hill before coming to a halt near Ghiradelli Square. Both lines take significantly different routes and end at different areas near Fisherman’s Wharf so it is important to know where in Fisherman’s Wharf you want to arrive.

For the best views when travelling, you want to be on the side that faces the bay.  That means the right-hand side for cars leaving from downtown and the left-hand side for cars leaving from the Fisherman’s Wharf area.

Fisherman's Wharf

The California Street line runs East-West from the Financial District, through Chinatown, over famous Nob Hill and stops at Van Ness Avenue. Since all the cars on this line have the same routes, the signs are painted directly on the car.

Looking down from one of SFs most famous streets

The Powell/Hyde line ends up close to Ghirardelli Square famous for its shopping and chocolates, and the Vietnamese restaurant owned by Don Johnson, the ‘Ana Mandara’.  Lombard Street is known as the “world’s cmost crooked street” and if you want to take some great pictures, then you should get off at Lombard.  If you plan to stay on, make sure your camera is at the ready because at the top of Hyde and Lombard you will have an unobstructed view of San Francisco’s Alcatraz Island, way, way down in the Bay.

San Frans view with Golden Gate Bridge and AlcatrazAt the end of this line (at Hyde and Beach) is The Buena Vista Cafe, where the locals insist that Irish Coffee was born.  Don’t believe it.  I’m with the good folk of Shannon Airport who claim to have invented it many years ago to comfort passengers held up by fog in the days when Shannon was a mere stop-off point for the ‘planes to the USA.  What makes me so sure is that I doubt if the rich cream you need for an Irish Coffee – and that you get at Shannon – would be served in the USA as it would be too calorie rich!

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The Powell / Mason line also passes close to Lombard Street but it is at the bottom, so the view you get is of the crooked street, like the postcard pictures you will see everywhere around.  The Powell/Mason stops off in North Beach, a quick walk to San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf near Pier 39, near some good eateries.  Best thing to do from here is to walk down to the Wharf and get one of those famous San Francisco sourdough bread bowls.

The California/ Van Ness car rides through the hills of the Financial District and hits the top of Nob Hill where you’ll find the most stunning views of the city.  For a real treat, go to the 19th Floor of the Mark Hopkins (Top of the Mark) and sip a dry martini, listen to some jazz and feel the buzz.

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Another popular drinking hole is The Nob Hill Tavern at California and Hyde. Polk Street is good for shopping before the cable car makes its way down the hill to Van Ness where it stops and goes back the other direction.  And just to throw in a bit of culture, if you’re into Gothic architecture, make sure to check out Grace Cathedral at California and Taylor.

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The cable cars start at 06.00 and finish at midnight.  Single cable car tickets were $7.00 when I was there, a 1-Day visitor passport was $21.00, a 3-day was $32.00 and a 7-day $42.00. There are trips around the rock of Alcatraz with its sinister watchtowers, from $33 to $110, the more expensive boat ride including a stop on the island and a tour of the grim penitentiary which once held Al Capone, The Birdman, and ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly.

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NEW ORLEANS IS JAZZIN’ AGAIN

I have just won third prize in a Travel Writing competition run by the Society of Women Writers & Journalists in the UK and I thought I’d put the piece up this week as my blog.

The article is about New Orleans’ recovery after Huricane Katerina had nearly destroyed it.  For some, it did totally destroy their homes and their way of life, but some survived to re-build the city and forge a new existence for themselves and their families.   I’ve loved jazz and the city it hails from all my life: I love the easy-going rhythm of life and the people’s insouciance to the travails and troubles that beset them but I take my hat off now to their stoicism and their love of life which has restored New Orleans to something of its former glory.

Third Prize:  Title as above

Lone musician on Decatur
Lone Musician on Decatur – Mari Nicholson

The saxophonist in the too small trilby sits outside a café on Decatur, playing a soft, seductive blues.  Just down the street, a trio runs through its repertoire while onlookers stand around in the sunshine and clap each solo.  Behind us, on the muddy Mississippi the paddle boats make their way downstream, the sounds of ‘Oh, Didn’t he ramble’ drifting across from the onboard jazz band.  Music is everywhere and everywhere it is good.

Mississippi steamboat
Mississippi Paddle Steamer – Mari Nicholson

For this is New Orleans, cradled between the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain, a dizzying jumble of black and white where European cultures blend with Caribbean influences and where the world’s finest jazz musicians can be found busking on street corners or playing for tips in the magnolia hung Jackson Square.

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The history of the city is embedded in the fading, peeling façades of the houses in the French Quarter their filigreed balconies overhung with lush greenery and fragrant jasmine.

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Balconies in the French Quarter – Mari Nicholson

Cemeteries full of crumbling marble tombs, voodoo shops and houses selling magic potions called gris-gris should lend a feeling of melancholia but they don’t.  This is a place where voodoo is a thriving  religion an where a funeral brings people on to the streets to follow the coffin while as many jazz bands as can be mustered tag along on floats to add to the spirit of the day.

Voodoo house on Bourbon
Voodoo House in New Orleans – Mari Nicholson

The French Quarter was the site of the original settlement and the heart of the city for 300 years and I start my stroll in Jackson Square, once the Plaza de Armes under Spanish rule in the 1700’s but now a green oasis in front of St. Louis cathedral, the oldest continuously active Catholic Church in the USA.  The Square is bustling with jugglers, dancers, tarot card readers, and voodoo priestesses, the whole sound-tracked by groups of itinerant jazz musicians.

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Zydecko Musicians in Street

Tarot Card Reader in Jackson
Tarot Card Readers in Jackson – Mari

Following the map in my self-guided walking tour (available free from the Tourist Office) I check off The Cabilde, from which Spain, France, the Confederate states and the USA have each at one time ruled New Orleans, before continuing through some of the city’s most attractive streets.  The leaflet illuminates important buildings from convents and haunted houses to the homes of writers Tennessee Williams and Frances Parkinson Keyes.  I hop on the Riverfront streetcar and for $1.50 I ride the 2-mile route along the Mississippi to the famous French Market and the stalls of the Flea Market.

Jackson Square
St. Louis Cathedral – Mari Nicholson

There are plenty of opportunities to stop for a snack or a meal and after a while I head for Café du Monde for coffee and beignets (doughnuts to die for, smothered in icing sugar).  New Orleans is gastronomic heaven whether you chose the world’s most famous Cajun restaurant, K-Paul’s at 416 Chartres Street or the more budget range La Madeleine for a croissant and chicory flavoured coffee but the two dishes you must try are Gumbo, the ultimate Creole dish, made with local Gulf shrimps, crabs and crawfish, and the more basic Red Beans and Rice, once comfort food for the poor but now elevated to a specialty.  Or chill out with a po’boy sandwich – crusty French bread filled with fried oysters, shrimps or soft shell crabs, roast beef, gravy and cheese.  We’re talking BIG sandwiches here.  Naw’lins don’t do small!

Bourbon Street
Most famous Jazz Club, Preservation Hall – Mari Nicholson

For many, the best time in New Orleans is after dark when the night beat of Bourbon Street starts up, when Preservation Hall hosts the oldest jazz musicians who play 30-minute sets, and the restaurants and bars fill up with customers.  It may require a pre-emptive cocktail or two to cope with the astounding decibels that reverberate in the seven blocks of Bourbon and the even more ear-splitting noise from the dark bars that line the narrow street, so head for the atmospheric Napoleon House at 500 Chartres or Pat O’Brien’s on Bourbon for a Hurricane, or a Sazarac, Huey Long’s favourite tipple, a potent mix of whiskies, bitters, lemon juice and aniseed liqueur.  Rumour has it that if you ask for a third the barman asks you to sign a waiver.

Inside a bar on Bourbon Street
Inside a bar on Bourbon – Mari Nicholson

Bourbon Street is fun but for the authentic jazz experience, head away from the yelps and yells of the crowds that congregate here, towards places like Vaughan’s on Dauphine Street, Tipitinas at Napolean Aveue, the House of Blues on Decatur Street or Snug Harbour on Frenchman Street.  If you are heading out of the French Quarter make sure you have the ‘phone number of a taxi company with you as you will find it impossible to pick up a taxi anywhere and, not to put too fine a point on it, you wouldn’t want to be wandering around New Orleans alone after dark.

If it’s Cajun music you’re after – washboards, corrugated tin, fiddles and accordions – or its faster variant, Zydeco, you can find this at Mulate’s on Julia Street where you can work off the fried catfish and dirty rice by two-stepping to the fast rhythms.  Instructors are on hand to give neophytes a whirl around the floor.

It’s easy after only a few hours in The Big Easy to put life on hold and forget Museums and churches.  There are shops to investigate, a horse and carriage ride around town to contemplae and a ride on the historic landmark that is the olive-green St. Charles’ Streetcar at Canal Street.  For $1.25 you can ride for 13 miles from the Riverfront to the Lake and on to the Garden District, to view the mansions built by the rich merchants in the last century, the lush gardens surrounding them dotted with trees hung with gossamer-like grey streamers of Spanish moss.

Alligator in Bayou
Alligator waits for the unwary – Mari Nicholson

Best of all is to take a trip on the bayous to observe Cajun life, so book up for a day’s tour through the swamps, either by kayak or cruise boat, and meet the trappers and fishermen, boat builders and farmers.  In the tranquility of these Cypress Swamps where turtles and egrets share floating logs in the waters, the noise of the city seems a long way away.  You can be lulled into a sense of non-danger but trail your hands in the water at your peril for the alligators move swiftly to snatch at anything that moves in these swamps.  And if the alligators miss you, the nutrias, a sort of giant water rat on steroids, might get you.

From the bayous to the grand houses of the plantation owners is like moving from one life to another, from “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” to “Gone with the Wind”.  Driving along the Mississippi River gazing at the antebellum dwellings will have you longing to sample a mint julep on one of the verandahs.   If time is short, the best two houses to visit both in the lives lived by the inhabitants and in the architecture, are Laura Plantation and Oak Valley Plantation.  The guides bring the houses to life with their tales of black slaves who laboured in the hot sun to cut the cane that made the owners rich and the claustrophobic life lived by the women of the house.  And, at Oak Valley Plantation, you can have that Mint Julep sitting on the verandah of the house and for a few moments, you can be a character in a Tennessee Williams play – if you can forget that you’re drinking a mint julep from a plastic cup.

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Plantation House – Mari Nicholson

The New Orleans motto is “Laissez les bon temps rouler” (Let the Good Times Roll) a maxim that took a knock after the Katerina floods, but along with the rest of Louisiana, the inhabitants of the city are doing their best to get the good times rolling again – and they are succeeding.

Despite the tragedy of Katerina, New Orleans is once more up and running and you can again enjoy a cocktail-to- go on Bourbon or Basin Streets -a lurid coloured concoction in a highball glass that you get to drink on the street.

As the locals would say – “Only in Nola”.

The Man - Louis Armstrong
The Main Man – Louis Armstrong

Photography Challenge 101: Landscape

Took me a while to think about some landscapes, and unfortunately, I was unable to get out and about to photograph some, so here is a selection of some of my favourites.

 

Chicago from Sears' Toweer
Chicago, from Sears’ Tower – Photo Mari Nicholson

This was taken on a fairly good day in Chicago from the top of the famous landmark, the Sears’ Tower.  The skyline is probably more impressive from ground level, but I found the view from above quite exciting.   See another Chicago photo, bottom.

 

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Citava, Italy – Photo Mari Nicholson

Citiva is in Lazio Province, within driving distance of Siena, Rome. and Orvieto.  Inside the mountain fastness is a quaint old town of cobbled stoned streets, a couple of good restaurants serving rustic food, and a Bodega where the wine flows very liberally.

Walking trails to Stanserhorn
Walking trails to Stanserhorn in Switzerland

This was taken from a cable car as we floated over the mountains in Switzerland.  I seem to remember that it was quite a long cable-car trip, longer than most I remember.  It was a magical journey over the mountains and villages below, the brown and white cows hardly visible and their cowbells muffled by the distance.

Village in the Madonie National Park, Sicily
Village in Madonie National Park, Sicily – Photo Mari Nicholson

One of my favourite places in Sicily, the National Park of Madonie, where wild figs grow along the roadside and just a few locals are left in near-deserted villages to sit outside their doors and chat to whoever passes by.  Now and again one sees a thriving village like this one, which is being slowly restored to its former glory by returning families who have made some money working elsewhere and now are coming home to reclaim their birthright.

Skyline with clouds - Chicago
Chicago skyline peeking from out the clouds

Tribute to Allen Toussaint

Allen Toussaint died of a heart attack on November 10th last. Aged 77, he was one of the great Jazz and Rock and Roll legends that influenced many of today’s household names, including Lee Dorsey, Irma Thomas and Ernie K-Doe. He collaborated with Paul McCartney, LaBelle, Robert Parker and Elvis Costello over the years and he was also a talent scout, record producer, studio owner, singer and arranger. He left New Orleans for New York in the wake of Katerina and it was when he returned to New Orleans that his career as a performer really took off.

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Toussaint receives Medal for Services to the Arts from President Obama Photo by P. Souza

 

Piano-player/Bandleader Jon Cleary, born in the UK but long-time resident in New Orleans and considered a native of the city, has long been a fan of Toussaint and in 2012 he recorded Occapella, a mix of popular and less familiar pieces penned by the legendary songwriter.

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Jon was one of the musicians asked to play at the Tribute Concert held in the Orpheum Theatre, New Orleans on November 20th, just prior to the internment.

The casket was placed at the front of the stage and friends, fans and fellow stars joined together to mourn the legend, then stayed to cheer his legacy. This legacy was celebrated by an all-star lineup of singers and musicians who took to the stage to perform his songs in genres that covered his work in pop, R&b, gospel and even funk. The recently re-opened theatre rocked.

For the finale, all the musicians, along with Mayor Mitch Landrieu, piled onstage and blew the roof off with a frantic rendition of I’ll Fly Away with Troy ‘Trombone Shorty’ Andrews and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
After Oh Didn’t he Ramble the pall bearers carried the coffin out of the theatre to the hearse, followed by the family and everyone who’d been on stage, as the band played  Just a Closer Walk with Thee in slow tempo.

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Allen Toussaint Photo by Derek Bridges

Outside, crowds had been waiting since the small hours to pay their respects. They waited almost silently as the slow march continued and as the coffin was placed in the long stretch limo hearse. Then they erupted, singing and dancing, twirling their umbrellas, and in general, giving one of New Orleans’ favourite sons, a joyful send-off. The family hadn’t intended for the traditional Second Lining, but they gave in to the crowd’s wishes and the place went wild.

New Orleans will continue, as it always has, but it will never be quite the same.

Deliverance in Louisiana

In response to The Daily Post’s weekly photo challenge: “Creepy.”

Not everyone finds the place creepy, but I do. The air is hot and humid, eerily still as the electric boat moves slowly through the swampy waters of the Louisiana bayous whose trees are hung with ghostlike, gossamer-fine, Spanish Moss.  I can’t see the shore because the branches of the trees that line the banks hang far into the waters, hiding just discernible movements and deadening the squelchy noises that drift towards us.  Now and then a snake plops from an overhanging branch and the shadowy form of a nutria, an animal like a river rat on steroids, can be seen slipping into the murky swamp through the yellow and purple wild irises that cover the banks. Household pets are kept indoors in these parts, cats and dawgs are all the same to a giant Nutria.

Crocodiles lurking on the Bayou

Turtles, herons, and egrets share floating logs, but trail your hand in the water and the log will move swiftly to snatch at it, for this is alligator country and ‘gators will eat anything that moves.  In the bayous, streams that are fed by the Mississippi River in the low-lying areas of Louisiana, these wetlands make ideal homes for alligators.

The culture of the bayou is Cajun:  a banjo is playing from somewhere over to the left and low voices are heard.  It’s not romantic anymore, it’s creepy and scary, as my memory flashes to Deliverance (1972) John Boorman’s brilliant, action-adventure film about four suburban businessmen who encounter disaster on a summer river trip.  The banjo duet and the film’s brutal action haunt me still, and this river, this boat, is a perfect scene from that film.

And I’m in the middle of it.  And the banjos play on.

Mrs. O’Leary’s Fire and What it Did for Chicago

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Chicago’s summer of 1871 was a scorcher.  Legend has it that the Great Fire of that year started in Mrs. O’Leary’s  barn on the south side of the city, when her cow knocked a kerosene lantern into some hay which ignited some wood, which set the city ablaze and … the rest you know.  Chicago was left in ruins.   The cause of the outbreak may be debated but the facts are well documented: over 300 dead, 100,000 left  homeless, and nearly 18,000 buildings burnt to the ground. For decades it had been a tough city – and a rich one – but not even Chicago could have foreseen that what would spring from the ashes would one day come to be considered the greatest outdoor museum of modern architecture in the world.

Immediately after the fire innovative young architects from all over the world poured into the city.  They devised new ways of building on Chicago’s swampy land, found ways of firming up the foundations and experimented with new methods of steel-framed construction.  A Mr. Otis invented the hydraulic lift, and in 1885 the first skyscraper was erected and Chicago became a vertical city.

We’ve been looking up to it ever since.

Entertainment in Chicago

Check into almost any downtown hotel and you’ll find yourself in the midst of a skyscraper forest, cheek by jowl with awe-inspiring architecture,  from the neo-Gothic Chicago Tribune building to the 100-storey Hancock Centre and the 110-storey Sears Tower.  The Observation Deck that tops this lures 1.5 million people a year to gaze at a cityscape that can only be described as awesome.  Seen on a cloudy day from either of these buildings the effect is dreamlike, as the clouds that you can almost reach out and touch drift in and out among the towers.

Not all entertainment is up in the clouds though.  Chicago has one of the best shopping streets in the world, Michigan Drive, the Magic Mile or Magmile to the locals call it.  There is the Shedd Aquarium on Lakeshore Drive, the nearby Adler Planetarium and the Navy Pier with its Ferris wheel, cinema, ice-skating, theatre and shops.   Trolleybus tour of the Lakefront, Oak Drive and various neighbourhoods offers viewing of a series of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, usually enhanced by snippets of history in easily digested soundbites from the driver.

The Mobs and Prohibition

But even he clammed up when I asked him about Chicago’s relationship with the mobs, for the locals are somewhat reluctant to talk about their gangster past.  Most would prefer to forget Chicago’s long association with the mobsters and their bloody feuds for control of the licquor supply during prohibition.

A few landmarks remain.  Capone’s home still stands at 7244 Prairie Avenue, but the garage that was the scene of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre has been demolished.   One of Capone’s favourite speakeasies at the time of his power, the Green Mill Tavern on North Broadway in the heart of the city’s clubland, is now a swanky Blues Club and shares a reputation for great jazz with Blue Chicago and House of Blues, but there are dozens of smaller clubs dotted around the city, listings for which cover five pages in a free sheet called The Reader: gospel and R. & B. take up another three.

Apart from jazz, there’s a wealth of evening entertainment in Chicago, the best of which after a hard day’s sightseeing is The Second City, the original stand-up comedy club and the forerunner of all comedy clubs around the world.  The atmosphere is relaxed and easy, snacks and full bar service available at your table, and it attracts an appreciative and receptive audience of mixed ages for cutting-edge satire.  If your taste runs to avant garde theatre then the brilliant Steppenwolf Group Theatre (equivalent to London’s  Royal Court) will not let you down.  Chicagoans love the summer and celebrate it with a variety of free concerts under the stars in Grant Park, ranging from classical to country, zydeco to Cajun.

Coda

In 1909, Daniel H. Burnham, the then creative planner and architect of the city  said “Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men’s blood….” and ever since then Chicagoan architects have thought big.  But don’t be overwhelmed by the city’s size.  There are corners that feel like villages and ethnic neighbourhoods where diversity is celebrated.   So feast your eyes on green-tinted glass buildings reflecting terracotta skyscrapers, and gaze upward at elegant curtains of aluminium and bronze.

For this is architecture to stir men’s blood.