I try and limit my posts to our trudging about in the great outdoors around Monterey and central California, but occasionally we find some great indoors to visit and write about. The Old Mission at San Juan Bautista fits that category in a beautiful and quiet way.
The mission is an elegant journey into early California, with old world charm and the sublime architectural dignity of the missions. You walk about with a sort of quiet regard, infused with the spiritual aura of the church.
As we stand in the back of the colorful main chapel and look up, we see a large timbered roof a couple of stories above our heads, supported by the painted stucco arches of the main church nave.
The rows of hard wooden benches line the old tiled floor, their backs to us, compelling us to see what they see: The beautiful sanctuary and altar, backed by a hand painted reredos holding six statues. In three corners of the nave, votive candles cast light on visions of church icons.
Even the most chastened of visitors must give some way to the reverence of the place. It reminds me of looking up at the redwoods in Pfiffer Big Sur and thinking there’s something special going on here.
Built over 200 years ago, it’s the largest of the California missions and has served mass daily since 1797. Located on a bluff overlooking acres of farmlands and the original El Camino Real (The Royal Road) the grounds nervously share a common boundary with the San Andreas Fault.
A museum is housed in a wing of the mission that once served as the padre’s living quarters, with doorways that remind us that people were once not as tall as they are today.
Some of the manuscripts and artifacts in the cases predate the mission itself.
Gardens surround the state’s last remaining example of an original spanish courtyard.
The mission area is adjacent to the San Juan Bautista State Historic Park, which has preserved several structures from the 1800’s and gives some insight into the life of the community when it was an important way point between northern and southern California.
We were ushered out of the mission at closing time (4:30) and walked around the block to the Doña Esther restaurant, where we sat outside and enjoyed some Dos Equis and a few fish tacos. The streets of San Juan Bautista offer more restaurants, some antique shops and what is apparently a sunday watering hole for the two-wheeled leather-and-rivets crowd.
By about 6:30 or so, (no surprise) the fog and chill wind from Monterey Bay had made it through the nearby hills and made getting off the now chilly streets and back into the car a small relief. We are reminded once again…. don’t go anywhere around here, anytime of the year, without a spare jacket.
We’ve been to a few of the other missions, but San Juan Bautista stands out. In spite of nearby modern surroundings, it’s a more complete experience, somehow remaining true to its original intent. I would imagine a visitor from a hundred fifty years ago would feel pretty much at home.