Thursday, October 1, 2009

SLO market and Hearst Castle

After successfully navigating our way out of LA, we stayed on the 101 and headed north to San Luis Obispo.  Much of the 101 is along the coast, so we had nice scenery (except for the fog).  We rolled back into the PeachTree Inn right around 6pm, when we had planned to, said hello to the innkeepers we had got to know only a few days before and set out for the market and dinner.  We only had to walk down the hill toward the downtown and then across a couple of streets and we hit the market.  On Thursday evenings, Higuera Street is closed for several blocks and the closed area is full of vendors of all sorts, some street performers, some colourful beggars, BBQs filling the air with smoke - you name it.  Even political conspiracy theorists have booths.DSC_3309





We had dinner again at the Big Sky Cafe and it was good.  They still didn't do reservations but we put our name on a wait list and went back out to enjoy the market for 20 minutes.  It was surprising but good, how many people were still wanting to eat at a restaurant, even though there were so many folks sitting on curbs having BBQ.  It looks like everybody benefits from having the market in town and a lot of the shops lining Higuera Street were open as long as the market vendors were there.

We went to bed at a reasonable hour because we had to be at Hearst Castle for 10am the next morning.  I had booked tickets online before the holiday and had chosen 10am without thinking about where we might  be exactly, or how long it would take to get there from here.  We had even passed by Hearst Castle on the drive down to L.A. and timed the drive from there to SLO and confirmed that it should only be a 30 minute drive.  However, in an abundance of caution, we left the Peach Tree Inn before 9 am.  We did encounter fog along the route, as we drove along the coast road.  We also noticed highway signs that instructed drivers to turn on their headlights and that when we realized that Americans still don't have the automatic-on headlights/driving lights that we do in Canada.  I turned to Peter and said, "How can it  be that we decided this was a great safety feature on cars in Canada and the Americans still don't do this?"  He didn't know.


As (I) expected, we arrived at Hearst 45 minutes before our timed entry.  We had bought the tickets online and ever since the screw-up with the rental car on day one, we were a little gun-shy about unconfirmed events.  However, our fears were unfounded as they had us in their system.  Because tourist traffic was a little light that morning, we got slotted on the next bus up the hill and didn't have to wait until 10:10.  The castle itself is a five mile drive up a winding road that, we were informed in a pre-recorded tour as we rode the bus, had not been paved until the 1930s.


Apparently, Mr. Hearst had kept a zoo full of animals at the time, including carnivores but only a few herbivore species remained roaming wild, like zebras.  We saw some Barbary Sheep on the way up but it wasn't until we were leaving the grounds that we saw the zebras.  I thought it was remarkable that any animals at all remained but apparently, they live their lives, reproducing and doing whatever zebras do when they aren't escaping from lions on the veld.


At the top, we piled out of the highway coach and gathered around our tour guide. She gave us some instructions about not wandering away, staying out of marked areas and told us roughly what we were going to see.  She also warned us about how many steps we would be going up and down, although this was clearly stated on the web site and everywhere else we looked.  They actually do have some tours for handicapped folks but you have to arrange for them specifically.  It turned out, as we went along, that she thought Mr. Hearst was the bee's knees and I wondered what she would say if I'd criticized him.  I chose not to.



I felt that the place was a monument to conspicuous consumption, the very embodiment of more money than brains (or taste, in this case).  Of course, some parts of it really were beautiful - they couldn't help it, like the carved ceilings he had buyers bring back from war-torn and poverty-stricken Europe.  It almost felt like he had looted some churches.  The reception area walls were lined with carved wooden choir stalls that no sane church would have sold unless they were desperate.  And there were huge tapestries hanging on the walls, rivaling the famed unicorn tapestries in The Cloisters for size, if not skill.  When we toured one of the guest houses, I wondered aloud about what appeared to be a 14th century devotional painting and how they managed to preserve it in the heat and humidity, as the atmosphere in the building was not controlled in any way, especially with tours traipsing in all day long.  Our tour guide claimed that the paintings were fine but I have my doubts.


There was a large mosaic that might have been Roman or merely Romanesque, in the entrance foyer and the tour guide indicated that this was now off limits for walking on because it had finally arrived at the too-delicate stage.  Just a year ago, we saw real Roman mosaics in a museum in Arles, France, and I was happy to see that Mr. Hearst had not managed to get one of those.

Our tour guide described how Hearst invited all sorts of famous people up to his castle but then he would lurk in his study and only come down to see them for a few minutes here and there.  She made it sound like he was shy and just wanted his guests to have a good time.  I got the impression he was more like a puppet master and I wouldn't have been surprised to find out he had secret passages where he could spy on them.  I checked some of the oil portraits on the wall for cut-out eyes but didn't see any.


At the very beginning of our tour, when we were outside on one of the many patio areas, a fellow tourist approached Peter and asked if he had a spare SDI card for his camera.  In fact, Peter had one and lent it to him.  I sidled up after and whispered, "How are you ever going to get that back?"  He explained that the guy would take the card back to his laptop that he had left in his car and upload the photos and then come back to the base building and give him back the card.  I thought it was pretty trusting of him.  Then he told me the card was only worth a few bucks so I stopped worrying.  As it turned out, this fellow was from Australia, visiting his brother who was a chef in San Francisco and he did exactly that - uploaded the photos and then went back searching for Peter and gave him the card back.  I know we tend to focus on the negative but I do believe there are more good folks in the world than bad, Mr. Hearst notwithstanding.


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