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Classic San Juan Bautista

Mission San Juan Bautista, image
Photo caption
Mission San Juan Bautista, the largest of the 21 California missions, sits atop the San Andreas Fault.

In Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 movie classic Vertigo, a distraught Kim Novak breathlessly describes a town that has been haunting her dreams: "It was a village square and a green with trees and an old white-washed Spanish church with a cloister . . . across the green there was a big gray wooden house with a porch and shutters . . . and next to it a livery stable with old carriages lined up inside. . . ."

Jimmy Stewart breaks in, excited, ". . . and an old wooden hotel from the old California days, and a saloon, dark, low ceilings with hanging oil lamps. It's no dream. You've been there . . . and it's been preserved exactly as it was 100 years ago as a museum."

People come to San Juan Bautista from all over the world looking for this scene.

It's still there.

At San Juan Bautista, 97 miles south of San Francisco, travelers see just about what Novak and Stewart saw in the '50s. Because the Southern Pacific Railroad bypassed SJB long ago, and probably because Highway 101 misses the town by a few miles, the town never became a center of commerce and today looks, and probably feels, much as it did 100 years ago. (Except for the fact that the tower that Novak falls from was taken down in the 40s. Hitchcock was dismayed, and had to recreate it in Hollywood.)

The Franciscans didn't know that Mission San Juan Bautista, the largest of the 21 missions, sits atop the San Andreas Fault. The 1906 earthquake almost destroyed it. The rebuilt mission is still owned and operated by the Catholic Church with Mass every Sunday. Flowers and trees that have clearly taken well to their environment fill the cloistered gardens. Nearby are group picnic areas.

The buildings around the green stand much as Novak described, and now make up the San Juan State Historic Park, (831) 623-4881. You can tour the Castro/Breen Adobe, and the Plaza Hall, Stable, and Hotel, from 10 to 4:30 every day (except Christmas, Thanksgiving, and New Year's Day). The carriages, and the fake horse that appears in Vertigo, are still in the livery.

Below the mission and the plaza is a valley covered by a patchwork of fields and crops. Across the valley rises the Diablo Range, golden-brown hills dotted with dark green oak trees, a quintessential California scene.

With its false-front architecture, downtown looks like a movie set. Local literature says you'll find Spanish, Victorian, and renaissance revival influences along Third Street, the town's main street. It is also lined with curio shops filled with trinkets and strange surprises-check out Terry's Candles. There are many an antique shop, a few art galleries, and a lot of eateries for a one-stoplight town. Pick up the "Events Calendar Membership Directory and Historic Walking Tour" brochure at local merchants or the Chamber of Commerce, at 402A 3rd St.

Teatro de Campesino, (831) 623-2444, holds productions in a small theater on 4th street. The lobby is decorated with posters from many early Luis Valdez productions. These days Teatro presents only about two productions a year-a casualty of the cutbacks in the National Endowment for the Arts.

Other wanderings around the San Juan area should include a trip to Fremont Peak State Park. The eleven-mile drive along a winding road travels through canyons and over ridges dotted with oak, pine, and madrone. The view from the top, on a clear day, reaches across Monterey Bay. Hiking trails roam through two climatic zones; one with scrub oak, manzanita, toyon and coyote brush, the other with open grasslands. Wildflowers sparkle here in spring and summer. Because of its unfettered views and high elevation, the park is fine for amateur star gazing and birding. There's an observatory run by the park ranger, and star-gazing evenings offered regularly in spring and summer, and sometimes in winter-call ahead. Fremont Peak has family and group campsites, and 40 day-use picnic sites. For camping or star gazing reservations call (831) 623-4255.

Other nearby recreation includes the Hollister Hills State Vehicular Recreation Area; (831) 637-3874. Or, drive through hills one hour south for hiking and rock-climbing at Pinnacles National Monument, (831) 389-4485.

Golf is also an option at the Ridgemark Golf and Country Club Resort in Hollister, (831) 637-8151, or at the San Juan Oaks Golf Club, four miles east of town, (831) 636-6113.

Shoppers might want to check out the gigantic outlet shopping mall, 11 miles north on Highway 101 in Gilroy. There's Ann Taylor, London Fog, the Gap, Bass, and many more.

Photography courtesy of Robert A. Estremo/Wikimedia Commons

This article was first published in January 1997. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.