Royal Road: California's Spanish heritage comes to life in the religious centers created two centuries ago by Franciscan priests.


April 07, 1996|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

They call it "El Camino Real" -- the Royal Road. Road signs urge visitors off the highway to enjoy the sights, and bells mark the 200-year-old mission buildings that gave the route its name.

From San Diego all the way north past San Francisco, California's famed Royal Road, also called the King's Highway, winds its way through the state's Spanish heritage. Hugging the coastline, it connects the 21 missions established by 18th-century Franciscan priests to convert the pagan natives and solidify their faraway king's holdings in the New World.

El Camino Real is now more a state of mind than a road. No single line connects all 21 dots. The easiest way to visit all the missions is to follow state Route 101; none of the buildings is too far off that path, and signs clearly mark the way.

Although the missions were secularized by the Mexican government when it wrested control of the territory from Spain, many have been returned to religious uses. Some include ruins that look as if they haven't been touched in over a century. All have retained an aura of piety that commands the devotion of their congregations and the respect of their visitors.

Of course, the legacy of the California missions is a mixed bag, and those responsible for their upkeep know it. The Herculean efforts of the priests and friars are spoken of glowingly, but the disastrous effect they had on the native populations likewise is acknowledged.

Military men, who were never far away from the missions, were far more interested in conquering the natives than converting them. And whatever subjugation could not be brought about by force was accomplished even more devastatingly -- by heretofore unknown diseases the white men brought with them.

Still, Californians remain justifiably proud of their missions. The buildings themselves are beautiful, with towering spires holding bells cast generations ago, intricately carved wooden altars, quiet courtyard gardens and tiny cemeteries that hold the state's ancestors. For many cities, the missions remain centers of both religious worship and civic pride. And they can still inspire awe in visitors.

If you've got time, visit all 21. They were originally built one day's journey apart, and visiting one a day remains a good pace to set for yourself (even if cars can now take you from one mission to the next in one to two hours).

If time is limited, here are a few you might want to check out, working north from San Diego. But first, a few suggestions:

Keep in mind that many of the missions remain places of worship. Exercise some decorum. The folks in charge of the missions are unerringly polite, and they love having you around (especially because admission fees help pay for the buildings' upkeep).

Also, take some time to explore the surrounding countryside. By the time you're done, there won't be a segment of the central and southern California coastline left unvisited.

Except for major holidays, the missions are open daily. Most charge a modest admission fee.

Mission San Luis Rey de Francia (San Luis Rey, [619] 757-3651): Until the mid-1800s, this massive adobe structure was the tallest building in California. It still casts quite a shadow, with its scrubbed-white exterior and blue wooden dome, and may be the most visually imposing of the 21 missions.

Founded in 1798 and named for a 13th-century French king (which seems big of the Spanish), San Luis Rey de Francia sits on 6 1/2 acres, making it the largest of all the missions and earning its nickname, "King of the Missions." Visitors enter through TC converted barracks to the left of the church and pass through exhibit rooms tracing the mission's history and showing how the friars lived (note the rack suspended from the kitchen ceiling, which was the friars' way of protecting their food from rats).

The mission church, built in 1811, includes original adobe walls up to 6 feet thick. And while the altar appears more modern than some of its mission counterparts, the overall flavor is decidedly Old World. The original wooden pulpit and marble baptismal font are still used.

Mission San Juan Capistrano (San Juan Capistrano, [714] 248-2048): Founded in 1775, this is probably the most famous of all the missions, largely because of the thousands of cliff swallows that return to it every St. Joseph's Day, March 19.

San Juan Capistrano may have the most beautiful garden of all the missions, filled with climbing red roses that seem ready to take over the grounds. But the mission's most dominant feature is the ruins of the Great Stone Church, a massive structure that was begun in 1806 and destroyed by an earthquake six years later.

When you stand in the courtyard and look up at the hollowed-out remains, including a domed roof that looks like a broken eggshell, it's not hard to imagine the horror of that fateful day, when the earthquake struck while Mass was being celebrated. Forty bodies were eventually pulled from the rubble.

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