We sat at an outdoor table at Trattoria Pinocchio in North Beach, spooning steaming minestrone, enjoying the passing parade of locals and tourists – and resting our aching feet.
What did my companions think of the 2 1/2-hour walk we'd just finished?
"It took me to places I've never seen, and I've been in the Bay Area for 35 years," said Dr. Babs, who lives in Sausalito. "It's a part of San Francisco everybody should see, and they should see it on foot."
Agreeing with her was Riley of El Dorado Hills, who added, "Our walk was much better than a treadmill. I loved that one vantage point where we saw flowering gardens on the left contrasted by the cement of the Financial District on the right, with a view of San Francisco Bay in front of us."
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The women were referencing our 1.5-mile self-guided tour through one of San Francisco's most unusual and desirable neighborhoods, Telegraph Hill. In a 49-square-mile city built on 42 hills, it's an exceptionally eclectic community perched high atop a former rock quarry. Ordinary streets that are already steep turn into steeper staircases and paths that wind up and down hillsides and alongside cliffs, through extraordinary gardens and verdant mini-forests, past cottages, condos and houses valued from $500,000 to $10 million. The vistas are among the most dramatic in any city anywhere. We saw the Financial District, the Embarcadero and San Francisco Bay in a whole new light.
For our excursion (rated "strenuous"), we plugged into "Walking San Francisco" by veteran guidebook author and San Francisco authority Tom Downs (Wilderness Press, $17.95, 218 pages). Of the 30 "savvy tours" his book offers, we chose "Telegraph Hill: Scaling the Stairways to Paradise." Why? Well, we hoped to see the famous parrots of Telegraph Hill and – I'm chagrined to admit – I'd never visited iconic Coit Tower.
Before we toured, I phoned Downs to ask him about what he calls "San Francisco's Shangri-La."
"I love the fact that the whole thing is a street grid that goes straight up the hill," he said. "It's amazing they put a neighborhood up there at all, and built stairways instead of streets."
Here, I've reproduced Downs' "turn left, turn right" directions, filled in our narrative and used some quotes from his book.
Start at the corner of Stockton and Filbert streets (in North Beach), walk one block north on Stockton Street and turn right on Greenwich Street: We passed typical San Francisco apartment buildings with fire escapes, and stopped at 1736 Stockton to view the Alpine chalet known as the Maybeck Building. "Berkeley-based (architect) Bernard Maybeck designed the building in 1907," Downs writes.
On Greenwich we paused to look at the steep climb ahead. Really, this was going to be fun – we just concentrated on the Victorian- and Edwardian-style architecture and ignored the burn in our thighs and calves.
A right on Grant Avenue and we were looking at the Transamerica Pyramid and the 54-story Bank of America monolith. A left down Gerke Alley gave a beautifully framed portrait of Coit Tower, our first destination.
Our climb up Greenwich continued through Pimentell Garden, "named for Samantha Pimentell, who tended the flora here for 25 years," Downs writes. The garden was bright with lilies, nasturtiums, philodendrons and ivy. We discovered that part of the fun of the walk was navigating the directions; it was like a treasure hunt.
Walk up to Coit Tower and Pioneer Park: Crossing Telegraph Hill Boulevard from Greenwich, we found the stone Greenwich Steps, a flight leading to Pioneer Park. We enjoyed an outstanding view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge, and eyed a massive bronze statue of Christopher Columbus, "a gift from his hometown of Genoa, Italy."
Downs explains how Telegraph Hill got its name: In the mid-1800s, spotters in a lookout station on the hilltop could see ships coming through the Golden Gate. Using a semaphore signal device (called a telegraph), they would alert the city of Yerba Buena to the approaching ships. This news originated by "telegraph" from the hill.
"The city's economy revolved around shipping," he points out, "and the bulk of the population would rush to the docks to greet each ship."
The art deco Coit Tower looms 210 feet, including the base. It was built of reinforced concrete in 1933, a gift to the city from heiress Lillie Hitchcock Coit. Though she was an ardent fan and honorary member of Knickerbocker Engine Co. No. 5 (there were many competitive volunteer fire departments in her day), it is a myth that she specified the tower be made to resemble a firehose nozzle. Nor is it true that Coit Tower is filled with artwork commemorating the deeds of San Francisco firefighters.
In reality, when the tower was completed, the question arose of how to fill the 3,000 square feet of empty wall space in the rotunda and the inner stairwell. Solution: Create a yearlong pilot program within the Public Works of Art Project and commission 26 artists to paint 19 murals. The murals are fascinating and deserve close study.
Visitors to Coit Tower can pay to ride the elevator to the observation deck at the top, where they'll find a 360- degree view of San Francisco and the bay. Unfortunately, the elevator was out of service on this Saturday, so I still haven't been to the top of the tower. But we did make it to the gift shop. Information: (415) 362-0808 and http:// gocalifornia.about.com.
Look for the sign to Greenwich Street at the top of the Greenwich Steps, and walk down the steps: We left the rotunda, turned right and took the downhill journey on a brick staircase through the woods, ending in a mini- parking lot where we admired the architecture of the recently shuttered Julius' Castle restaurant, opened in 1922.
At Montgomery Street, look for the continuation of the Greenwich Steps: We stayed on the left side of Montgomery and found a sign with an arrow pointing to the steps. This leg of the trip was an urban path winding behind cottages and through gardens and foliage – bamboo, ferns, ivy, bougainvilleas and flowers of all colors. As we descended the stairs to the street, we turned and looked back. An entire hillside was covered in flowers the color of butter – thousands of them.
At Sansome Street, turn right. At Filbert Street, turn right and ascend the steps: Up we went, eyeing the cliffs on the left. Downs writes: "Flowers cling to the cliffside, thanks to adventurous gardeners who rappelled down to plant seedlings."
The uphill trek on wooden steps took us through the Grace Marchant Gardens, "the most elaborate and lovingly tended gardens on the hill," Downs writes. They're named after a former Hollywood stuntwoman who started planting in 1950.
We detoured down peaceful Napier Lane and Darrell Place, under a canopy formed by trees. Suddenly, a chorus of screeches sounded from the canopy and a flock of green parrots flew in. They're part of the colony of feral South American parrots that were the subject of Mark Bittner's book "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill" and the film documentary of the same name. One thing about them: They're a beautiful sight in a setting that resembles a wildlife preserve. Another thing: They're loud.
At Montgomery Street, turn left: We did that at the top of the staircase and paused to admire 1360 Montgomery, an art moderne building that played the role of Lauren Bacall's apartment house in the 1947 movie "Dark Passage," co-starring Humphrey Bogart. Decorating the condo building are huge etched murals, shimmering silver, depicting nautical motifs.
Take a detour onto Alta Street: The cul-de-sac offers examples of architecture from different eras, as does nearby Calhoun Terrace. Our guidebook pointed out 31 Alta, a speakeasy during Prohibition, and 60-64 Alta, which sports a flock of ducks "painted beneath the eaves." Armistead Maupin once lived at 60-62 Alta. He wrote the witty, seven-book soap opera "Tales of the City," about San Francisco life in the 1970s and 1980s.
On her own, Riley peeked inside the foyer of 23 Alta and spied a cool wall mural.
Take a detour onto Union Street and Calhoun Terrace: We found two attractions. One was the dramatic view of Treasure Island, site of the 1939-40 World's Fair. Visible (especially through binoculars) is the white, crescent-shaped Administration Building. It's one of three structures remaining from the fair; the other two are hangars, not visible from our perch.
The second attraction is 55 Calhoun, a.k.a. the Kahn House. A quick jaunt down the Union Street Steps and a look upward gave us a good shot of the cliff-hanging building. Three decks and lots of windows.
Downs points out, "(It's) the work of Richard Neutra, the architect often credited with introducing the International style of modern architecture to California."
Return to Montgomery and turn right on Green Street: More great views, plus a chance encounter with Deirdre English, a 15-year Telegraph Hill resident and a journalism professor at UC Berkeley.
What's the attraction of living on Telegraph Hill? "It's on bedrock, so when the earthquake comes this will be one of the safer places to be," she said, only half-joking.
Then: "It has great views, nice weather and a lot of sun, and it still has some traces of the old North Beach beats, a free-spirited, liberal mentality which appeals to me."
Turn left on Kearney Street: We looked to our right and spotted a sign on an apartment building: 20 San Antonio.
We walked through the parking area, turned left and went down the Vallejo Street Steps, turned right on Vallejo and thus returned to North Beach.
As we finished lunch at the trattoria, Riley unclipped a pedometer from the waistband of her jeans.
"Can you believe we took 11,000 steps?" she asked in wonder.
"I sure can," Dr. Babs said.
Do we want to re-walk Telegraph Hill any time soon?
Dr. Babs groaned.
Riley said, "Sure – and next time I'm bringing my camera."