San Juan Capistrano
California’s most impressive Spanish mission
On Hwy–74/I-5, 3 miles East of Dana Point. Easily among the most impressive of California’s 21 Spanish missions, Mission San Juan Capistrano – in the eponymously-named town – shouldn’t be missed. Founded in 1776, the complex was devastated by an earthquake in 1812 which felled the enormous seven-domed Great Stone Church. (A modern church just north of the mission is a re-creation of the lost masterpiece.) The Spanish priests were so upset that they never attempted to rebuild. Subsequently, the ruins became entwined with bougainvillaea and acquired a romantic appearance much loved by camera-carrying tourists.
A more practical appreciation of mission life is provided by a small museum and several reconstructed workshops – but don’t leave before taking a meditative stroll around the beautiful gardens, or without spending a few contemplative minutes inside the Serra Chapel. Simply decorated by Indian frescos and 17thC Spanish reredos, the tiny chapel is the only surviving church in which Junipero Serra (the leader of the mission-founding Sacred Expedition) said Mass – and, dating from 1777, is believed to be the oldest building in California.
Come to the mission during March and you’ll be regaled with tales of the Capistrano swallows, which legend (and a hit song of 1930) describes as returning from their annual migration on March 19th, St Joseph’s Day. Sometimes the swallows do return that day; usually they don’t – but there’s a welcome home carnival nonetheless.
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