saints at Santa Barbara missionOne wonderful thing about a trip to rediscover the missions of California is that so many are in settings where it’s very easy to imagine the lives of the padres and Indians who originally lived there. Most of the missions are isolated or in farm country where little has changed from the 18th and 19th Century — except for a tractor or two. At least that’s been my experience with the Central Coast missions. The mission at Soledad was the most isolated, but even the Mission San Luis Obispo, which is smack in the middle of a cute little college town, is so vital and integrated into the community that it seems very much in its original context. Then there was today when I hit Mission Santa Barbara and Mission Santa Ynez.

First the positive: both the missions are the only two I’ve seen so far that seem to have been placed in what would seem a logical spot. I know the main concern in founding a mission was the availability of water, but otherwise, a lot of them seem to be plunked down just anywhere. It’s as if a tired padre had put in a long day’s march, got off his burro and said, “I’m beat. I’m stopping. We’ll build here.” Santa Ynez and Santa Barbara, in contrast, are on hills with commanding views. But then maybe I’m too influenced by European Gothic churches which often doubled as garrisons and forts against invading hordes. Most California missions give the impression of being agrarian communes or pre-industrial factory towns — which, if you read about the padres, was sort of their intention despite the Spanish King’s ulterior motive to use the religious orders to fortify the coast. Santa Ynez and Santa Barbara, in contrast, look as if they could double as California versions of the Alamo.

So my problem with these missions? Nothing with the missions themselves. They are beautiful and, both seem to have been among the wealthiest of the missions, at least based on the artwork that was brought in, commissioned or created there. The surprising thing is that, of all the missions I’ve visited so far — and that list is getting to the point of including most of them — these two seem the least in context with their surroundings. The mission at Santa Barbara, as grand as it is, still doesn’t seem to work with a town filled with tony boutiques and a Riviera-like vibe.

Then I went to Solvang.

Solvang windmill

Did you know Solvang is a complete faux Danish village? (And, just an aside, but aren't windmills associated with Holland?)

Worse yet, Solvang is gearing up for something called Danish Days which is an extravaganza of Danish kitsch, including something a local told me I shouldn’t miss — Vikings on Bikes. I’ll pass. In fact, I decided that, after visiting the mission, I’d get the hell out of DØDGE.

Eric Northman from True Blood

Not that I have anything against the Danish, but they just don't hold my interest these days unless they are Vampires.

I had to work my way through fake thatched cottages, statues sporting Viking helmets and Danish pastry shops to get to Santa Ynez on the outskirts of town. Once there, I immediately barricaded myself in the interior and tried to get my mindset back into an 18th Century Spanish and Native American state of mind. Which, luckily, was very easy to do in this beautiful mission. One of the most exciting things about this mission is the wealth of artwork on exhibit that was designed and executed by Chumash neophytes. Once in Mexico, I attended a lecture on Mexican religious art. The professor noted that, while Catholicism profoundly changed indigenous Mexican society, indigenous Mexicans profoundly changed Catholicism, bringing their own mysticism and traditions to it.  Apparently the same thing happened at the California missions.

Here's the Archangel Gabriel painted by a Chumash convert in the 1700s -- painted, clearly, as a Chumash Indian.

madonna and child from Santa Barbara Mission

This Madonna and child could have been a Toltec statue from 800 years before the Spanish came.

Apparently,  this artistic melding is only part of the story. I’ve learned that when the local Indians joined the missions, it wasn’t just Spanish culture they were exposed to. Artisans from Mexico were brought up north by the padres to teach traditional ironwork, tin work and ceramics to the neophytes. As a result, the people who came to be called Mission Indians became a whole new culture with a melding of traditions of Old World and New World, North and Central America.

So my point being, with this rich heritage of Spanish, Chumash and Mexican influences, why try to create Little Copenhagen? Does anyone else see how out of whack Danish architecture looks against the burnt, golden California hills? And not just because everything that informs traditional Danish architecture is about the available building materials in the far north of Europe and keeping out that arctic wind. Not really the functionality one needs in buildings toward the south of California. As for Santa Barbara, the town may have remade itself in a mission architectural mode after a devastating earthquake early in the last century, but they seemed to have left the real mission behind. Mission Santa Barbara sits on its hill and the town doesn’t seem that involved with it. Heck, even in Sonoma, where our mission isn’t much more than an extension of the original garrison, it’s still used nearly every week for events, pagents, and religious ceremonies.

At this point, I felt I needed to recapture that old Mission feeling — or at least search for something a little more authentic. Which got me out in the countryside traveling through some beautiful rolling, golden hills filled with cows, vineyards and some of the best looking horses I’ve seen outside of Kentucky Bluegrass country. Then, surprisingly, I found myself doing the thing I wanted to do least as I take the last possible chance at vacation before the grape harvest hits. I wound up wine tasting. Or at least paying homage to my first crush, Fess Parker. I tell you, the King of the Wild Frontier has a beautiful and understated facility, very knowledgeable pourers (not necessarily a given at wineries), interesting and talkative locals at the bar and very drinkable wines.

spit bucket at Fess Parker Winery

Of course any fans of the movie Sideways will get the humor in a picture of one of the winery's spit buckets.

And since, I was veering into a Sideways sort of tour, there was only one place to head for dinner: The Hitching Post II in Buellton. Where, it must be said, I had the best meal of the trip so far. Better yet, the Hitching Post seems to fill the niche that The Girl and the Fig does in Sonoma: it’s largely a locals’ place. Which is how I ended up eating an excellent filet mignon and talking barbecue with an extremely nice couple.

Can’t get more authentic than that. So who needs a Faux Riviera or Ersatz Copenhagen?

Pictures from today’s adventure here.


I was surprised to learn that one of my favorite books as a kid, Island of the Blue Dolphins, was a true story. The Indian woman who lived alone on one of the Channel Islands for 18 years is buried in Santa Barbara Mission. Sadly, she died shortly after being recovered from the island and brought to the mission — a fact not told in the book. Even sadder: in the time since she’d been abandoned, her entire tribe had died out and there was no one who spoke her language any more. She returned to the world as the last of her kind.