Tourist First

Travel notes and advice from around the world. Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

California: San Simeon to Santa Barbara

The Neptune Pool at Hearst Castle, the lavish estate that William Randolph Hearst
built on land his father had bought decades earlier and where he had camped as young boy.

On a February 2020 visit to Paso Robles, Jane and I went an hour west to the coast to see Hearst Castle at the tiny community of San Simeon.  Having seen the movie "Citizen Kane," I was surprised to learn that it's not actually a biopic about William Randolph Hearst. The childhood, the relationships with this parents and other basic parts of the movie are entirely wrong. Orson Wells's masterpiece, often referred to as one of the best movies ever made, used buildings at San Diego's Balboa Park as "Xanadu," his film's version of Hearst's estate in the hills above San Simeon. Actually, those buildings are much more coherent and elegant than Hearst's hodge-podge lodge.

Paso Robles, the nearby wine center.

     Guides at the castle and a film shown there about its construction are quite reverential in referring to Julia Morgan, the architect who collaborated with Hearst on it between 1919 (when Hearst's mother's death freed him to start spending the family fortune) and 1947, four years before Hearst died at age 88.  During a time when Frank Lloyd Wright and others were creating a new architectural vocabulary, Morgan (who was a pioneer as one of the world's first female accredited architects) was content to do whatever her client wanted, and her client was a man who changed his mind often. It's known today as Hearst Castle; he and Morgan called it La Cuesta Encantada or Enchanted Hill.
     The several buildings, supposedly an homage to churches and palaces of southern Spain, is actually a pastiche, with bits of architectural salvage stuck here and there. Intricate wooden ceilings are installed (and, indeed, often cleverly enlarged) in some of the grander rooms. A Neptune sculpture lost its feet in order to fit in a fake temple facade at the truly grand Neptune pool, which started out as a small pool for Hearst's sons. The castle is a poor replication of the stately homes, castles and palaces that had captivated Hearst as a boy on a European tour with his mother. Its fame is due mostly, I think, to Orson Wells.  One aspect of the castle that I think most visitors miss is that it is unfinished. Its reinforced-concrete construction is still exposed on the exterior of some parts of the Casa Grande, the main building, and what was supposed to be the grand entrance to the complex is unfinished stairways around an empty concrete fountain or pool.
   After the castle, we went up the coast road to see elephant seals at Piedras Blancas beach, who show up here to molt, to breed and to give birth. They spend the rest of the year in solitary swims throughout the Pacific.  Hundreds of these large mammals (males can be 16 to 20 feet long and almost 8,800 pounds; females are much smaller) were lounging along the beach, with a few moving toward or out of the water. The males' large proboscises give the species its name.
    After the seals we headed back toward San Simeon and lunch from a food truck at the Hearst Ranch winery tasting room, which is basically across the coastal highway from the castle itself. The Hearst Corporation (which I worked for back in the 1980s at the now-defunct Baltimore News American newspaper) still raises beef cattle and produces wine at San Simeon.
   The next day, when we headed back to San Diego from Paso Robles, we took U.S. 101 south, stopping at Pismo Beach and Santa Barabara, where we found lunch on Sterns Wharf. That lunch, steamed clams and a three-pound rock crab at Santa Barbara Shellfish Company, cost us dearly, putting us in Los Angeles during the afternoon rush. Remember the opening scenes in "La La Land"? There was no dancing. It was after 8 pm when we arrived home.
   Here are some photos from our quick visits to San Simeon, Pismo Beach and Santa Barbara.

The Neptune Pool is adorned with the facade of
a Greco-Roman temple. Some of the architectural
elements such as columns came from ruins
in Europe; some are very faithful replicas.

When Neptune was too tall for the temple,
architect Julia Morgan had the feet removed
from this third-century Roman statue. Also
missing is the trident that he once held
with his left hand.

Casa del Sol is one of three "cottages" at
the complex. The cottages contained bedrooms
and sitting rooms, but for food and drink,
guests had to go to the main house,
Casa Grande.

The views of the Pacific are excellent from Hearst's "enchanted hill," but in all
fairness, most hills along the Central Coast must have similar views.

Casa Grande is the main building in the complex, built for hosting and feeding the
many guests who came to the castle in its heyday. The section to the right
appears to be reinforced concrete that was never given stucco or stone
cladding. To the left are 3,000-year-old representations of the Egyptian
 goddess Sekhmet, the oldest sculptures on the property. Hearst and Morgan
bought antiquities largely through European dealers. Casa Grande contains
115 rooms, including 38 guest bedrooms, a movie theater, staff quarters,
and the grand assembly room, dining room and billiards room shown below.

The top of one of Casa Grande's two towers shows
the detail that Julia Morgan's craftsmen were
capable of. She not only designed everything,
she supervised much of the construction.

Our guide called this the assembly room, because Hearst's guests would assemble here
to have drinks before dinner.

A fireplace in the assembly room. Like much of the adornments in
the house, it came from Europe.

The dining room. We were told that Hearst preferred to dine without
a tablecloth and with condiments like ketchup put out in their
original bottles. It reminded him of his childhood days
camping on this hilltop with his father, our guide said.

Bits of architectural salvage, as well
as new carvings made to match,
are found throughout the first floor
of Casa Grande, the only part
we visited.
 Our guide said Hearst was unusual for his time in that he allowed women
to join the men after dinner in the billiards room. Tapestries in Casa Grande
are all centuries-old antiques from Europe.

The indoor Roman Pool is beneath the estate's tennis courts. Hearst heated this pool
and the Neptune pool to 75 degrees. 
About four miles up the coastal road from Hearst Castle is
an elephant seal rookery.

Hundreds of the large marine mammals were
lounging on the beach when we were there. A
boardwalk above the beach gives visitors
a great view.

That's a male on the left. The pup on the right is throwing
sand on herself (himself?), something we also saw
the adults doing.

A bit of the rugged coastline near San Simeon.

Farther south, in Pismo Beach, homeowners are fighting erosion, a common
problem in coastal California.

A public stairway connects a residential street
in Pismo Beach with the actual beach.

Jane and I shared a lunch of steamed clams and
a steamed three-pound rock crab at the Santa Barbara
Shellfish Company on Sterns Wharf in Santa Barbara.

Sterns Wharf is large enough to accommodate a parking lot and several
restaurants, all just a few feet above the waves of the Pacific Ocean
in Santa Barbara. 

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