|The Mission and the Mansion
||[Jun. 20th, 2012|06:55 am]
In mid-May we wended our way down the coast to Morro Bay and Bay Pines RV Park. Still in cramped sites; in this case although they claimed we’d be able to park in our site next to the rig, once the RV was in place (wedged as far to one side as we could get it) the only way to get our truck in the site would have been to fold in the steps and block the trailer door completely. Not recommended. We parked out on the street instead and walked in to the site for the week we were there. While the campground was nice and inexpensive, I think next time we are in the area we’ll stay someplace with slightly more room.
Bay Pines’ main advantage was its proximity to tourist areas, and tour we did. Mid-week, we drove into San Luis Obispo to see the Mission there. It was lovely, though the large gardens J remembered have been reduced by additional buildings serving the mission, which is still an active parish. The roses were in bloom and the garden was lovely; we took our time wandering the peaceful setting and the chapel. It was interesting to see modern touches blending so well with the ancient mission: new floral stencils gave a bright note to the white plaster walls in the sanctuary, and carved stone fonts inset into the entry walls spoke eloquently of the original construction in the late 1700’s.
After visiting the mission we meandered down a stepped trail leading to the creek that runs through town, a lovely greenway in the heart of the small city. You can always find natural water near the mission sites, since a good water supply was one of the criteria for their locations, along with “plenty of wood for fires and building material, and ample fields for herds and crops.” (Wikipedia: Architecture of the California Missions.)
On Friday we drove north to Hearst Castle, which I’ve wanted to see for years. We’d lucked into an evening tour. Only run seasonally, the evening tours combine the highlights of the different daytime tours, and feature living history volunteers dressed as 1930’s era guests inhabiting the various spaces of the mansion. I was grumping a bit as we drove up because low clouds had rolled in that afternoon, so the weather was damp and dreary. There was no way we’d see the famous swimming pools sparkling blue in the sunshine. How wrong I was!
We boarded the bus which would transport us up the narrow winding road to the castle, and set off, driving up the hill and right into the fog. About half-way up the drive, the bus broke through the cloud cover and rounded a turn, and there before us, gleaming in the golden late-afternoon sunlight, was the Castle. It looked like a gilded fantasy castle set on an island in the midst of a cloud sea. If I had seen it in a movie I would have laughed at it as over the top. As it was, it was simply magical.
We toured the grounds (and the outdoor pool, sparkling as promised) in the golden light and entered the house as twilight touched the gardens. Our tour wended its way through the house and we arrived in a colonnaded hallway facing west just as the sun was setting in the red sky, while alabaster lamps glowed in the evening garden. The whole tour was beautiful like that; our last stop, after dark, was the indoor pool, with its underwater mosaic of silver stars set into deep blue tiles. You could just imagine the glitterati of the era splashing there in a midnight swim.
The house and associated outbuildings were fascinating, especially when compared to the mansions of the Gilded Age on the East coast. Though luxurious, the various rooms were actually smaller and in some ways less ornate than the equivalent spaces of the Gilded Age. It makes sense when you consider that this mansion was under construction while the country was in the throes of the Great Depression. I found the Depression-era newsreel featuring Hearst himself exhorting people to buy and hire locally nicely ironic, set as it was against the massive wrought iron front door of the Castle, which I believe was imported from Europe. The place had something of a magpie esthetic, to be honest; oriental tiles rubbed elbows with Moorish inlay, which nestled up to European cathedral carvings set atop Roman mosaics. In a niche in a pseudo-medieval staircase we spotted a Turkish tile surround intended for a fountain, set there just because.
I would have liked a little more history and background from our tour guide and less of her chit-chatting with the costumed volunteers, though seeing guests in the Castle was definitely picturesque. Overall, a lot of fun, and the evening tour was by far the best way to see the Castle in its most flattering light.