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San Francisco

03/06/02 12:00AM

San Francisco has three obvious things to offer Vermonters. One is salt water, which nearly surrounds the City by the Bay. A second is mild winter weather. The third is a fabulous ethnic diversity that is happily reflected in the city's equally fabulous restaurants.

But San Francisco's also a city made for walking. The whole town is less than 50 miles square, and it's crammed with beauty: fog-softened vistas, ornately painted homes, graceful bridges and hill-studded terrain.

And this is a city of history, from the Spanish to the 49ers to the hippies to the dotcomers. The dot.com millionaires, crawling with discretionary income, used some of that income fixing up old homes to a glory they'd never known. The paint went on before the stocks went down.

All of which makes San Francisco the ideal place for walking tours. You see this extraordinary city with eyes opened by knowledgeable, or sometimes just colorful, guides.

Before the Victorian Homes Tour, you may have thought, "Gee, these are nice old houses." After it, you know which ones are Italianate, which Queen Anne, and which are Stick Victorian. Before the Haight Ashbury Flower Power Walking Tour, you may have known that hippies came to San Francisco for a summer of love. After, you know that was in 1967, and how by '68, Haight Ashbury had succumbed to hard drugs and bad trips. Before the Foot! Walking tour, you may have thought you knew whose statue stood in Washington Square Park.

On the Victorian Homes Tour you learn that before the 1906 earthquake there were roughly 58,000 Victorian homes in San Francisco. Today some 14,000 of the city's "painted ladies" still stand. And their original drab colors have been replaced by peach, fuchsia, and sunshine yellow, often highlighted with the dotcomers favorite flave, gold.

Your first thought on the Flower Power Walking Tour is, "Wow, man, this tour is like deep." Guide Gary came to San Francisco as a hippie draft-dodger; he's vague about what he does and about many of the sights on the tour:

Like, "Golden Gate Park was built by the same guy who built Central Park in New York."

And, "Janis Joplin was part of the Beat generation."

And, "The geodesic dome was invented by Buckmeister Fuller."

The Buck-meister! On other tours, this would be criminal. On the sixties hippie tour, it's in tune with the vagueness of the times. After you've done the 1860s and the 1960s, you can lighten up with Foot!, the fun walking tour. Foot! Takes in Nob Hill, Chinatown and North Beach, dispensing a pacey mix of history, spot quizzes, jokes, and quirky facts.

Among the quirky facts, you'll learn that fortune cookies were invented in San Francisco, not China, and by a Japanese, not a Chinese. And that the first Black and first female cable-car conductor was none other than Maya Angelou! And that the statue in the middle of Washington Square Park is of...Ben Franklin.

This is Jules Older, back in Albany, Vermont, the Soul of the Kingdom.

Jules Older is the author of more than 20 books for children and adults and is a passionate outdoors enthusiast. You can reach him at older@vpr.net.
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