Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Mission Impossible: Santa Barbara

Founded in 1786, just after the death of Father Junípero Serra, Santa Barbara is the tenth of the 21 Franciscan missions in Alta California. As one is constantly reminded in brochures and guidebooks, Santa Barbara is the “Queen of the Missions.”

While the outside is nice enough, there is no doubt that the interior is certainly the prettiest of the missions, as it is still an active parish and in great shape. The chapel itself is fairly simple, barring the elaborate altar with incredibly vibrant statues.

Even though this mission is in downtown Santa Barbara, I felt an incredible sense of peace there that I can’t explain, more so than other missions in the middle of nowhere. The Sacred Garden is the first thing one experiences upon entry and it sets the mood.

After admiring the various flowers and cacti, I skipped the historical video to head straight to the cemetery garden. There are two highlights here: 1) the enormous Moreton Bay fig tree, which is not nearly as big as “the” Moreton Bay fig tree, but I hadn’t seen that one yet, and 2) the skull carvings over the church doors.

After the entering the chapel from the cemetery, one proceeds through a museum in the former living quarters of the missionaries, but, after all we saw at La Purísima, I didn’t spend very much time there.

Even upon exiting, the sense of peace carries through with the fountain out front, built in 1808. Which made me really happy I didn't stop that day during the I Madonnari festival.

Mission Impossible: La Purísima

Misión la Purísima Concepción de María Santísima is a short detour off of Highway 101 on the outskirts of Lompoc, CA. Founded in 1787, La Purísima is the eleventh of the 21 Franciscan missions in Alta California. Originally in Lompoc proper, it was moved to its present location outside the city and on El Camino Real in 1812 after an earthquake destroyed the original church and vestry.

This is the most complete restoration project on the entire Mission Trail, with work beginning in the 1930s under the National Park Service and the Civilian Conservation Corps. The buildings and grounds are extensive with furnishings, tools, and even animal breeds (Churro sheep, goats, longhorn cattle, burros, etc.) from the Spanish period. More than any other mission I’ve visited, La Purísima really gives one the sense of what life was like back then. And, if you like the outdoors, there are twenty-five miles of hiking, biking, and equestrian trails to explore.

Because this is also a California State Park (but not one of the many closed due to the inherent cheapness of the California taxpayer), there is a Visitor Center and Exhibit Hall to get you oriented.

Doesn't this soldier seem happy to be working at the mission?

I'm sure the sheep and goats are happy too.

The monks were green even way back when: The fountain, above, was used for
drinking, with run-off piped to the lavanderia, whose run-off went to the cistern
where soap settled at the bottom and the remaining water was used in the gardens.

Over 1000 people were involved in weaving activities.

The monks apparently had a thing for EVOO.

Confessional or amateur puppet theater? You be the judge.

Is it a sin to covet a monk's bookshelves? If so, color me guilty.

Weekend Getaway: Santa Barbara

This month, for personal and professional reasons, The Boys* had to come out from New York to Santa Barbara, so I decided to fly down for the weekend. It was a bit pricey, but, not only would I get a chance to see two of my favorite people in the world, I would also be able to cross a few more missions off my list. Win-win.

I always intend to visit Santa Barbara when I drive down to L.A., but it suffers from being a bit too close to that city (and you just want to get there already, and not stop and play tourist). On the one occasion that I did pass through, I only had time for lunch at La Super-Rica Taqueria.** I drove by the Santa Barbara Mission; however, it was Memorial Day weekend and the annual festival of I Madonnari (Italian street painting) and therefore I realized instantly that it would be insane to try and find parking anywhere near there, so I headed back to 101 and up the coast.

What I didn’t realize was that there’s so much to see and do in Santa Barbara (beyond the Mission) that it merits more than a detour, and has earned its place as my first weekend getaway.

First on your list should be the Courthouse, one of the loveliest you’ll ever see. Located at 1100 Anacapa Street (on the corner of Anapamu Street—and, yes, there are many similar sounding and confusing street names in this city), this building is a marvel inside and out, with hand-painted ceilings, spiral staircases, Spanish tiles, carved doors, and gorgeous murals depicting early California history. From the tower, you get a great view of the surrounding city, ocean, and mountains.

The Santa Barbara Museum of Art is one of the top ten regional museums in the country, and can serve as a nice respite from shopping on State Street. While we originally went to the museum to see the sand mandala created by the monks of the Sera Mahayana Buddhist Monastery in South India, the exhibition that really caught my eye was that of stop-motion photographer Ori Gersht, who had some incredible pieces inspired by one of my favorite artists, Henri Fantin-Latour.

Ori Gersht, Blow Up: Untitled 4, 2007

What can I say? I have a weakness for flowers, even when they are exploding.

Speaking of flowers, worth a trip into the hills is the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden on Mission Canyon Road. The gardens, which cover 78 acres, feature indigenous plants of California, with a meadow section, redwood section, desert section, etc. We were lucky to catch a number of plants in bloom, especially cacti. Absolutely beautiful.

Another fascinating freak of nature, and I’m not talking about the dolphins down by Stearns Wharf (although, dolphins!), is the Moreton Bay Fig Tree at the intersection of Chapala Street and Highway 101. Planted in the 1870s and now a city landmark, it is ginormous.

Of course, as any viewer of Sideways can tell you, Santa Barbara County is also wine country. Just over the San Marcos Pass and through the Los Padres National Forest is the Santa Ynez Valley, home of killer pinot noirs and chardonnays. If you don’t have time to go vineyard hopping, on any trip down 101, I highly recommend a detour to the small town of Los Olivos and a visit to the Los Olivos Tasting Room & Wine Shop. While in the neighborhood, be sure to stop in at the Disneyesque town of Solvang and the La Purísima Mission just down the road in Lompoc.
Yes, almost all of the stores and
hotels in Solvang look like this.

La Purísima Mission

Finally, a shout-out to the Bath Street Inn—a large, comfortable Victorian Bed & Breakfast close to the center of town. My room was actually larger than it seems in pictures and I had a lovely balcony to boot. In addition to afternoon tea and evening wine and cheese, they serve a delicious, filling breakfast, with homemade granola and such dishes as stuffed French toast and baked eggs (which were so good I raved about them and they printed out the recipe for me unasked). A great place.


Word to the wise: If you ever fly in to the Santa Barbara Airport, be aware that the relatively short taxi ride from the airport to downtown will set you back about $45, including tip. The shuttles you see parked right next to the taxis outside the airport will make the same trip for only $27-30.

* See future posts on Utah. One of The Boys took the profile pic on this page.
** La Super-Rica Taqueria at 622 North Milpas Street is reputed to be Julia Child’s “favorite taco stand”; however, a local who knew her swears she told him she had no idea where that rumor got started. Regardless, the roasted pasilla chile stuffed with cheese and the chorizo tacos were almost worth the ridiculous wait in line.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Hampton Court, London

It might seem odd to spend a day at Hampton Court when one is in London for just a few days, but I chose to do so for a couple of reasons. One, it was the only one of the top London sites in 1001 Places to See Before You Die that I had never visited. Two, originally built by Cardinal Wolsey and later serving as one of the palaces of Henry VIII, it plays a major role in Wolf Hall (which I really will finish one of these days—really, truly). It also serves as the setting for much of the action in A Man for All Seasons, which I read for my Royals and Rulers book salon.

Visiting the palace does take a bit of effort as it is located in the borough of Richmond Upon Thames at the extreme southwest edge of Greater London. It takes well over 30 minutes by train from Waterloo, but the station is just a short walk from the palace, so overall the trip is not too bad. You can also arrive by boat, but then the travel time is extremely unpredictable (and can be hours).

As you can see in the above photo (taken from a postcard), the palace is quite extensive, as are the grounds. In fact, the palace itself is a bit confusing to navigate, so, once you arrive in the Clock Court, you may want to take the time to figure out what you most want to see and then head there directly using your map.

Anne Boleyn’s gateway and the astronomical clock

Really, use the map. I know that we ended up in a part of the palace that my friend had never seen before, and there were interesting things that I realized later we never saw. My favorite spots were the Great Hall and the Chapel Royal in Henry VIII’s State Apartments, the King’s Staircase and the King’s Guard Chamber (weapons!) in William III’s Apartments, and the gardens, especially The Maze.

The Great Hall, as its name indicates, is one of those huge medieval halls that served many purposes besides being a communal dining room, for example, Shakespeare’s company performed here for King James I. The hall is lined with magnificent Flemish tapestries depicting the story of Abraham and has an elaborately carved wooden ceiling. At the end of the hall is an incredible stained glass window from the mid-1800s depicting the arms of Henry VIII and his six wives.

Great Hall, Hampton Court

The King’s Staircase in William III’s Apartments is the most mind-blowing mural I’ve ever seen in a setting like this. It’s perhaps hard to see in this photo but the painting, by Antonio Verrio, wraps around the stairwell and onto the ceiling. It depicts William III dominating a group of Roman emperors (representing the king’s Catholic enemies) as well as a banquet of the Gods (representing the peace and prosperity of William’s reign).

The King's Staircase, painted by Antonio Verrio

The Hampton Court Maze is the oldest hedge maze in the United Kingdom. And I guess that might mean the world, because where else would they have hedge mazes that are older? Do the Chinese have some sort of hedge maze tradition that I’m unaware of? (Because, if so, China will move way up on my must-see list.) In any case, even though I am still recovering from the difficulties I encountered in the pineapple maze on Oahu, I love mazes of all kinds, so this is where we headed first.

Other lovely spots on the grounds include the Privy Garden, which was the private garden of the king and has a very geometric style, the Pond Gardens, which are sunken flower gardens that were originally ornamental ponds used for holding fish, and the Great Vine, a grape vine planted in the 1760s by Lancelot “Capability” Brown. [Side note: I’m really not sure which is worse, having the name Lancelot, or being called Capability.]

Privy Garden, Hampton Court

In short, there is much to see and do here, and Hampton Court is certainly worth the detour!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Borough Market, London

Nothing like a good cup of coffee for a Monday morning!

If you happen to find yourself in Borough Market, near London Bridge (and you should), be sure to check out the coffee at Monmouth Coffee Company on the corner of Park and Stoney Streets. Much like Blue Bottle Coffee in San Francisco, this is a place that takes coffee seriously (although, apparently, unlike Blue Bottle, they will deign to grind beans for you). Be sure to get the special pour-over filter coffee of the day and not espresso. Delicious.

Monmouth Coffee by Manic Street Preacher via Flickr

Borough Market is open on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays and is well worth the detour. Maybe I’ve been watching too much No Reservations, but, these days, this is the type of place where I prefer spending time on vacation, rather than any monument or museum. There are people selling all kinds of produce, as well as fish, meat, dairy, bread, and tons of prepared food. In fact, it was seeing all the spices available here that made me go a bit overboard when I was later in France. Stall vendors change depending on the day, but there are a number of permanent traders as well, so, if you are in the area, feel free to check it out any day but Sunday.

Sampling cheese at Neal's Yard Dairy

If you like cheese, I highly recommend Neal’s Yard Dairy, right next to Monmouth Coffee on Park Street. When I was there, they were very generous with samples and explanations about the different kinds of cheeses. I tried a few kinds of Stilton and Cheddar and all were to die for.

Chorizo Grill lunch

Also incredibly delicious are the chorizo sandwiches made by Brindisa Spanish Foods. Their store sells all sorts of meats and products from Spain, but make sure to stop at the Chorizo Grill outside to pick up their specialty, a ciabatta roll filled with grilled chorizo and piquillo peppers, and topped with arugula. Lunch heaven.

*Both the Borough Market and Covent Garden (27 Monmouth Street) locations of Monmouth Coffee Company, as well as Neal’s Yard Dairy, are open Monday-Saturday. Brindisa Spanish Foods is open Tuesday-Saturday. Unless indicated, photos are from each store's official website.