07 February, 2011

Big Weekend: Big Sur part 1

We just got back from a long weekend away thanks to the Chinese New Year and the budget cuts that gave us a furlough day. So we headed south towards Big Sur staying in a lovely annex of a charming couple's home, atop a very high hill with a stunning view of the Pacific Ocean. We were about 12 miles south of Carmel and up a small lane off Highway 1. The lane wound its way up a canyon of redwoods with cabins amongst the trees - some small and rickety, some rather grand - until the road started to climb up and up. Then we turned onto a dirt track and climbed still further back into the glorious sunshine. It is really surprising how many houses are hidden up lanes like these. You see large collections of mailboxes by the side of the road, indicating they are there but you really can't see much sign apart form that until you get there.

So we arrived on Thursday evening, settled in and watched the sun set.

On Friday we had tickets for a tour of Hearst Castle at 2.20pm, way way down the coast. A drive of 90 miles along the Big Sur coast. This completely lives up to its reputation as one of the most stunning drives in the world. Well, I mean, I know I haven't done them all, but really it was stunning. It's also a challenging drive along winding roads on the cliff edge with sharp drops to the ocean below. We stopped a couple of times to look at the view and once, could hear sea lions way below, and see then tiny, lying on the beach and swimming in the cove.

 Look carefully. There are sea lions on the beach to the right and in that ridiculously blue water on the left.

After many miles of cliffs, the landscape flattened out to grazing land for cattle and less dramatic beaches. We could just see Hearst Castle high up in the hills to the left. And to the right, we saw elephant seals lying on the beach. We had been told we might. We hadn't expected to turn up, park the car and walk to within a few metres of the beach to see these enormous and, on land, ungainly animals. They come ashore in December to give birth or fight for supremacy, and then to mate before heading out to sea. The males can weigh up to 5000 lbs and are several metres long, with a rather silly looking trunk-like nose. Their calls sound like a mixture between loud belches and coughs and barks. We stayed for some time watching them. The babies were nursing. The mothers were sleeping which given that they haven't eaten since they landed over a month ago is understandable. And the males were using whatever energy they had to get periodically aggressive with each other. It was fascinating.

After that we headed up to the castle. Hearst Castle was built by the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst with his architect, Julia Morgan, starting after WWI and on until his death in 1951. He didn't finish and kept changing his mind. He knew everyone - Winston Churchill, Charles Lindburgh, Charlie Chaplin and many others were mentioned in the tour or seen in films shown to us, taken at the Castle.

It's all set up in a thoroughly over the top and American way, to this Brit who is familiar with the National Trust and the Stately Homes of England. You arrive at an enormous visitors centre that could rival a regional airport for size. There is a large screen cinema there as well as a bus station, several cafes, a huge gift shop for all things Hearst Castle. You are still miles from the Castle itself which you can see in the distance. Then you catch a bus up to the castle for your tightly controlled tour - there are lots on offer, we took the experience tour which is an introductory overview. It means there is no necessity to build a car park by the house or have tons of cars winding their way up the lane to the Castle. And it is a winding road up and up.

 Copy of a Donatello - pretty sure I've seen the original in Florence where it does not top a fountain held up by Byzantine lions...

 Would you look at this! Apparently they auction off pool parties. Last one went for $5000

The setting for the castle - and its guest houses, pools, staircases, terraces, tennis courts - is breathtaking. The castle itself is a real folie de grandeur. Somehow though it works. It probably comes across differently to people who haven't been to Europe. To Tom and I who have grown up visiting Italian churches, Spanish palaces or French chateaux, it's a bit strange seeing such a mish-mash of styles together, and seeing some things in odd settings - church misericords used as dining room panelling for example. But it's done with panache. The quality of what was bought is very high - well he was very rich. And had people hired just to scout out fireplaces and ceilings and such like in Europe. The ceiling in the dining room is like nothing I have seen before (very large carved figures in wood - including St Francis) - probably because WRH bought them and shipped them to the US of A. The French fireplace - a massive ornate affair - in the "Assembly Room" was bought from a sale - some other US industrial magnate had obviously fallen on hard times and had to let it go.

I would have liked a bit more detail on where it all came from - no labels by paintings or furniture or tapestries. There's a bit of a tendency in the tour to say "Hey, it's French and it's really old, wow!" when I would have like to know from where in France, by whom and how old. And a bit more on Hearst's life, how influential he was and so on. The tour was glossy and glib and gave you the impression he was a funny old buffer with loads of cash who spent all his time obsessively collecting European valuables. When really he was the Rupert Murdoch of his age, with the largest newspaper and magazine business in the world. There was very little about the period that he lived in - no mention of the war, or the fact he met Hitler, and not much about the Depression.

My favourite bit - the guest house Casa del Sol - or rather me imagining going to a weekend party there, drinking champagne by the pool, wearing a slinky thirties evening dress (Katherine Hepburn's from the Philadelphia Story in white and silver would do) before retiring to a corner room with one of the best views in the world to wake up to.

Emilia liked the pool with the temple. You could just imagine Fred and Ginger dancing around the edge.

Lottie liked the lion statues. And the gold ladies in the cinema - they are huge figures holding lights. She didn't like the cinema (doesn't like films) but quite fancied a gold lady in her bedroom, but smaller.

We left late, nearly 5 pm, with a long drive ahead. I drove. I was bit nervous about doing this in the dark - it is a dramatically winding road with cliffs - I may have mentioned that bit before. Actually it was fine. And as we drove north along the coast, the sun set and the sea turned purple, the sky changed colours and the Big Sur coastline looked more incredible than ever. These pictures barely give an impression.

1 comment:

Marie, Ireland said...

Great photos. I like your blog.