Magazine article Sunset

Divine Escapes

Magazine article Sunset

Divine Escapes

Article excerpt

Three walkable towns welcome you into California's rich mission past

Amission town presents a classic image of early California: a graceful, centuries-old adobe or stone church fronted by a town plaza, perhaps with several stately pepper or olive trees. * A few such villages have managed to preserve the spirit of the early mission era. Their missions paint a picture of the past-and so do a handful of restaurants and hotels whose aesthetic recaptures that time. * We've highlighted three of the best California mission towns to visit-San Juan Bautista, San Luis Obispo, and Sonoma. All three are walkable and friendly, and all have carefully preserved their mission heritage. * Though missions exist as remnants of the Spanish Empire in four Western states, none are better preserved than California's 21, founded between 1769 and 1823. Stretching from San Diego north to Sonoma, this chain survived-active and intact-until 1833, long after many of the missions in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas had been abandoned. * Today, these lovely churches are some of the West's most historic and important structures. They gave the state its first road system, El Camino Real, and launched California agriculture-the state's first olive groves, vineyards, and citrus trees were introduced by missionaries. Despite their sometimes troubled pasts and struggle for preservation, the missions have always inspired romantic imagery.

In San Juan Bautista, pioneers-and wildlife-have left their marks

Set about 100 miles south of San Francisco, the tiny town of San Juan Bautista is just off U.S. 101 and State 156. But it is San Juan Bautista's place in time, not on maps, that's most intriguing.

At the heart of this town is a grassy plaza. On one side stretches Old Mission San Juan Bautista, with its long, graceful corridor of arches. On the other are old adobes, a wood-framed hotel, and stables-all part of San Juan Bautista State Historic Park. Even to visitors who have never been here, the mission and plaza may look familiar-both starred in Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 classic Vertigo.

Park aide Larry Kellogg puts the park's history into focus: "This was an important town in the 1800s. By the mid-1860s, 11 stage lines stopped here on their way between San Francisco and Monterey and Los Angeles .... Stand at the plaza and you can see early California cultures represented in the buildings: the Spanish, Mexican, and early American."

The mission is also full of quirky details that are less symbolic than simply entertaining. Case in point: Look closely at the floor tiles and you might spot dog, cat, and raccoon paw prints underfoot. As the story goes, when the tiles were made in the 1800s, they were left out to dry in the sun; animals walked across and left their prints.

Begun in 1803 and dedicated in 1812, this church was built after the congregation outgrew the original-and adjacent-structure. It is the biggest in the California mission chain, and the only one with three aisles.

Today, a wealth of decorative painting graces the walls. But what strikes most visitors is the dramatic altar and reredos, or carved altarpiece, with tall statues of saints backed by scarlet curtains. The reredos was created in 1818 by a Boston sailor, in exchange for room and board.

Don't end your visit there. Stroll the main drag, Third Street, past restaurants and shops selling gifts and antiques, all housed in old adobes and low, false-fronted wood buildings. Among the highlights: La Casa Rosa, which occupies an 1856 redwood-framed structure and is one of the town's most popular restaurants, and the San Juan Bakery, where children clamor for cinnamon buns.

Behind the mission, follow the wide, sandy pathway that was once part of El Camino Real. No asphalt, center stripe, or stoplights detract from this historic road. Instead, you may see a couple of roosters darting by, passing a massive graybeard pepper tree. …

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