Sunday, June 30, 2002

USA Independence Day Special: American Beauty

USA Independence Day Special: American Beauty

My new-found land: Discover Manhattan's hidden bars and New Englands shopping secrets. Daring to explore Los Angleses on foot and visiting a shrine to the Deep South's great romantic heronine.

By Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 30 June 2002

When it comes to San Francisco, Americans are unanimous. It is urbanity itself. It is handsome, worldly, cosmopolitan, cool and sophisticated. With those precipitous streets and terraced houses, those trams, bridges and ocean views, it effortlessly transcends all other world cities. The residents of San Francisco, according to this important sub-clause in the American dream, are uniquely fortunate, liberal and civilised human beings, enjoying the best music, art, food, wine (and real estate prices) on the planet.

A miracle? It seems like it, when you consider that most of San Francisco was built in a scrambling hurry, by people who had just arrived from the Wild West. I'm here on a fresh sunny day, in shirtsleeves, eating elegantly on a pavement, being served by a waitress who probably has a PhD from Berkeley. The notion that this lightly grilled tuna and that glass of chardonnay owe anything to the gun-toting, railway-building, Indian-killing, racoon-hat-wearing men of the prairies is clearly an absurdity. This city must have other origins. No citizen of Europe need find these hard to discern.

There is no mystery about this. After all, Europeans colonised this coast before the Americans did. Nor did it happen very long ago. As recently as 6 November 1769, in fact, did Gaspar de Portola of Spain find himself looking down from a neighbouring hilltop on to a bay the size of an inland sea. "We halted," he later recalled, of that blessed discovery, "in a level place, thickly grown with oak trees, having many lagoons and swamps."

He and his men spent the subsequent night encamped, surrounded by reeds, brambles and roses. And the next day in the morning they were sensible enough to annex this goodly harbour for Spain. They did so by erecting a cross on the southern side of its entrance – an entrance that would later become known as the Golden Gate. Which is where I am now, on a warm afternoon, looking at clipped lawns and trees and American flags and redbrick houses. Before being designated as parkland in 1994, this area was one of the most scenic army stations in the United States, but San Franciscans have only ever called it the Presidio.

Because here it is, right beneath these manicured lawns and pavements and shiny cars: the foundations of the Presidio itself, that is to say, of Spain's northernmost garrison in the New World. In 1993, archaeologists unearthed the remains of 5ft-thick adobe walls. I call it the proof, if any were needed, that San Francisco does have a history pre-dating Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead. The British too were here. Their first ship to enter San Francisco – under George Vancouver – arrived in the autumn of 1792. After waking up on his first morning to catch a pleasingly English glimpse of cattle and sheep grazing, Vancouver himself opined that this was "as fine a port as the world affords".

Not that the Spanish Presidio amounted to much back then. "What was pompously called by this name, had but a mean appearance," scoffed Vancouver's botanist, later. And Vancouver himself admitted that he had been expecting an actual city, before instead being shown "a square area, 200 yards in length, enclosed by a mud wall and resembling a pound for cattle".

In fact the original Spanish Presidio contained a church, royal offices, warehouses, a guardhouse and houses for soldiers and settlers. But the buildings and furniture, being "of the rudest fashion and of the meanest kind", hardly accorded with the ideas conceived by thrusting British explorers, "of the sumptuous manner in which the Spaniards live on this side of the globe". And it was laughably ill-defended. In short, summarised Vancouver, "instead of finding a country tolerably well inhabited and far advanced in cultivation ... there is not an object to indicate the most remote connection with any civilised nation". I just wish he had known what history had in store. What place has changed so much, so quickly, as California in the past 200 years?

In Vancouver's day, even places such as the pueblo of San Jose, on the southern fringe of San Francisco Bay, or Los Angeles further down towards Mexico, contained only 100 or 200 people, and otherwise comprised fruit trees, vines and gardens. George Vancouver had little clue that this coast would soon become the economic and cultural juggernaut of the world, home to beatniks, hippies, gays and dotcom millionaires. From where I am standing, I see the massive red supports of the Golden Gate Bridge; joggers in designer apparel padding the shoreline; vast highways funnelling distant traffic; aeroplanes cruising the skies; the Transamerica Pyramid twinkling from downtown. Everything around me has been imported, assembled, collected and constructed –in almost no time at all. Not even the natural environment seems to have been exempt from this process. Now it is wooded, but none of these grand old eucalyptus, cypress or pine trees turns out to be indigenous. When the Spanish arrived 200 years ago they found the shore overlaid by sand dunes, with grass and a few oak trees dotting the edges. Marshes along the shore attracted seagulls and pelicans, a few deer and the odd mountain lion or grizzly bear. Visitors described the land south of the Golden Gate as windswept and barren. Could a visitor from the 1790s, I ask myself, recognise anything of the modern city at all?

As if in answer, a bank of ocean cloud suddenly blots out the sunshine. Perhaps this is the one point of continuity. The notoriously clammy and bone-chilling coastal fog of the San Franciscan summer.
It was certainly the fog that drove most of the Spanish settlers inland. I already know where they ended up: not here by the Presidio, but a couple of miles away, across the peninsula, where the weather was better, at the Mission Dolores. And this is where I am going now.

The mission, alongside the Presidio, represented the other essential pillar of the Spanish occupation of California. Its function was to house monks, whose task was to convert native Americans up and down this coast. I am delighted to note that the relevant district of San Francisco still goes by the name of Mission. I'll get there from the Presidio by bus. Two centuries ago, travellers covered the same ground on horseback.

The journey, either way, takes around an hour, though for Vancouver the ride "was rendered unpleasant, by the soil being very loose and sandy, and by the road being much incommoded with low grovelling bushes". According to a Russian visitor, "Above half the road was sandy and mountainous. Only a few small shrubs here and there diversified the barren hills." Those barren hills, of course, now go by such names as Pacific Heights, Nob Hill and the Haight, and are best crossed by cable car.
Meanwhile, I'm reaching the Mission Dolores. Stepping inside the chapel I confess to intense feelings of disorientation. Is this the same land that has given the world Hollywood and the silicon chip? It turns out, in fact, that the Spanish missionaries had an excellent sense of timing: they reached this spot in the week in which American Independence was being declared on the other side of the continent. Today, the thick, whitewashed walls and heavy roof tiles of San Francisco's first building still present a startling image of an alternative America. Its cool floor tiles, saints, candles and Mexican altars astonish me as they astonished George Vancouver 210 years ago. He was dumbfounded by "its magnitude, architecture and internal decorations"; I'm dumbfounded that it exists at all.

And there's more. Later, from 18th-century drawings inside the mission buildings, I will see how this chapel once overlooked meandering streams, hills, Indian reed huts, and a scattering of animals at pasture. I look again, and gulp. Right outside this building, at pavement tables, people are consuming cranberry juice and bagels with smoked salmon for breakfast. Here in the gloom I am peering at sketches of Indians emerging from the reeds, handing gifts of fish and acorns to priests, with a hazy sun rising from behind the Oakland hills.

Whose vision of paradise is this? Not Vancouver's. In his mean-spirited view, the natives here were "a race of the most miserable beings possessing the faculty of human reason, I ever saw". They were "ill-made" and their "ugly" faces presented a "dull, heavy and stupid countenance". Their houses were "abominably infested with every kind of filth and nastiness".

But by most other accounts the Spanish monks and Indian hunter-gatherers of San Francisco lived agreeably together, off Mexican corn and chillis and native acorns and fish. A German naturalist who visited in 1806 was amazed to note that the Indian converts "three times a day ... get a measure of soup of meat, pulse and vegetables, about three English pints in size". And he himself did even better, stuffing himself on a "dinner of soup, roasted fowls, leg of mutton, vegetables salad, pastry, preserved fruit". The wine and tea – regrettably – were only of middling quality, but that was compensated for "by super-excellent chocolate".

Such were the charms of Spanish California. Don't expect any drama to this story, though: we know how it ended. After its first 100 years, the Mission Dolores was already ruinous and crumbling, overgrown with fig trees and wild flowers. Today, I find its cemetery in a ramshackle state, with roses and lupins sprouting in the long grass, amid stones marking the graves of Italian, Irish and English, as well as Spanish, Catholics. I pause at the forgotten obelisk of Don Luis Antonio Arguello, "the first governor of Mexican California", then step outside to find a bearded dropout with a supermarket trolley, flogging a spare tyre, a pot plant and a pile of pamphlets. "And," he exclaims to me, lifting out a polystyrene box, "the most beautiful mould of Jesus I've ever seen. Wanna look?"

No thanks, I tell him, speeding up to overtake. Yes, the enterprising Americans got here eventually. It was they who built this impossibly picturesque city, after all, competing to set up farms, chop down trees, build sawmills, open workshops and pan for gold – but without ever quite forgetting the spirit of the place.

Or so it seems to me. And with this in mind, I decide to stop at one of those pavement caf├ęs to order a dish of angel-hair pasta with sun-dried tomatoes and fresh basil. Over dinner, at sunset by the old Spanish Mission, I will take time to reflect a little more on the origins of the world's most wonderful city.

The Facts

Getting there
Jeremy Atiyah flew courtesy of American Airlines (0845 606 0461; Return fares in July from Heathrow via JFK in New York cost £565 including tax. The fare drops to £498.20 in September. Cheaper fares may be available through discount agents such as Quest Worldwide (020-8546 6000).

Being there
Jeremy Atiyah stayed at the Four Seasons Hotel on Market Street near Union Square. Double rooms at the hotel cost from $469 (£321) per room per night.
A special introductory rate of $369 is available from now until 31 December, subject to availability (00800 6488 6488;

A cheaper alternative could be the atmospheric Archbishop's Mansion (001 415 563 7872; which overlooks the historic Alamo Square, home to San Francisco's famous "painted ladies", terraces of brightly decorated Victorian houses. Double rooms start from $195. Visit for more information.

Wednesday, June 19, 2002

Hotel Kamp, Helsinki

Hotel Kamp, Helsinki

By Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 19 June 2002

The historic Hotel Kamp in central Helsinki, all sweeping staircases, ballrooms and heated ceramic divans, has, since its renovation in 1999, resumed its role as a solid bastion of European snobbery: a role for which it was designed in the days when the Russian Czars ruled Finland.
Having fallen into a decline after the war, the hotel was demolished in the 1960s and rebuilt as a bank. It was reopened as a hotel in 1999, refurbished to resemble the original in every possible detail.

Location, location, location
Hotel Kamp, Helsinki Pohjoisesplanadi 29, 00100 Helsinki, Finland (00 358 9 576111, Bang in the middle of the city, just off the gardens of Esplanade Park.
Transport: Nothing is very far away in a small city. The train station and the port are within a few minutes' walk. Senate Square is just round the corner.

Time to international airport: A taxi to Helsinki's efficient airport, 19km north of town, will take around 20 minutes and cost about €25/£16.

Are you lying comfortably?
Rooms are large and opulent. Finland is cold for much of the year, so the emphasis is on heavy draperies. Every conceivable extra has been thought of, from mains electricity sockets that accept both US and UK plugs to umbrellas that you can borrow on rainy days. The bathrooms even have heated mirrors. Suites, all individually designed, culminate in the 258 sq m Mannerheim which has a library, sauna, antiques, and dining table for 14.

The bottom line
Standard doubles range from €330 (£210). Better deals can be obtained through a UK short-break specialist such as Inntravel (01653 629010), which offers two nights' B&B from £284 per person, including return scheduled flights.

I'm not paying that: Puhkus, on Vilhonkatu 6B (00 358 9 627437), offers the cheapest centrally located beds in Helsinki: quads without bathroom for €70 (£45) per room, triples from €63 (£40) and doubles from €56 (£36) with shower.