Mission San Juan Capistrano
One of the most famous and beloved of all the California missions is Mission San Juan Capistrano (26801 Oretga Hwy., 949/234-1300, http://missionsjc.com, daily 8:30 a.m.–5 p.m., adults $9, children $8). The lovely little town of San Juan Capistrano hosts flocks of swallows, which return every year at about the same time in the spring to fanfare and celebration by the whole town.
These celebrations began during the mission’s heyday in the 18th century, and may have been started by Native Americans centuries before that. (Swallows are really, really loyal to their nesting grounds!) In late fall and early spring, monarch butterflies flutter about in the flower gardens and out by the fountain in the courtyard.
Today, thanks in part to the famous birds, this mission has a beautiful new Catholic church on-site, extensive gardens and land, and an audio tour of the museum, which was created from the old mission church and buildings.
Inside the original church, artifacts from the early time of the mission tell the story of its rise and fall. This was the only mission church where Father Serra presided over Sunday services.
The graveyard outside continues that narrative, as do the bells and other buildings of the compound. If you love stories of times past, you could spend hours wandering Mission San Juan Capistrano, with or without the audio tour.
The complex includes adequate restrooms for visitors, plus plenty of garden and courtyard benches for rest, relaxation, and quiet meditation and reflection.
Regrettably, when you exit the mission into the charming town of San Juan Capistrano and stroll back to look at the historic buildings, you’ll be standing next to a Starbucks. But if you turn the corner, you’ll find yourself on the town’s main street, which positively drips Spanish Colonial history.
Each old adobe building boasts a brass plaque describing its history and use over the years. In names and decor, the swallow is a major theme in San Juan Capistrano, which nestles in a tiny valley only minutes from the sea.
© Liz Hamill Scott from Moon California, 2nd Edition