When I’m inside the church at Mission San Juan Bautista, I love to look at the animal tracks in the tile pavers of the floor. Over 200 years ago, dogs and other animals ran across these tiles, and left their tracks behind. Unwilling to waste these carefully-made bricks, the Indian neophytes carefully laid them on the floor of the sanctuary, tracks and all. Now we stand in the Mission and marvel at this slice of life long gone.
Most people thinking of Mission San Juan Bautista tend to think of the climactic scene in the Hitchcock movie “Vertigo,” where Jimmy Stewart’s character attempts to stop Kim Novak’s character from hurling herself from its high bell tower. In reality, the bell tower featured in the film exists nowhere but in Hollywood celluloid images, but that shouldn’t stop you from enjoying the Mission, which was founded on June 24, 1797, the feast day of Saint John the Baptist, for whom the mission was named. There are extensive grounds to tour, as well as the sanctuary with the above-mentioned animal tracks. The current bell tower, unlike the Hollywood version, houses three bells, and is actually a campanario, or “bell wall.” Other interesting rooms attached to the mission include the original kitchen, as well as the priest’s quarters. Although extensively damaged in the 1906 “San Francisco” earthquake, the Mission was fully restored and still functions as the Catholic Church for the community.
Besides the Mission, which forms one side of the central Plaza of San Juan Bautista, the Plaza is bounded by the San Juan Bautista State Historic Park. The third side is the San Andreas Fault, literally. The far side of the stretch of grass drops sharply away, literally on the fault line, and gives a view out over the fields of the valley beyond. One one side of the Plaza, facing the Mission, the Zanetta House, with its historic Plaza Hall upstairs, and the old Livery Stable, form one side of the historic park. The other side, between the Zanetta House and Stables and the Mission, is made up of the Castro-Breen Adobe and the Plaza Hotel. Now a sleepy little town that time seems to have passed by, San Juan Bautista was once a very happening place, a hub where stagecoach lines met and many stages passed through every day, on their way to other areas. You can view some of these historic stagecoaches, including the wagon that went to the New Idria mercury mines, inside the Stables at the Historic Park.
The Castro-Breen Adobe once housed General Castro, governor of California in the Mexican era, as well as the Breen family, survivors of the ill-fated Donner Party. Behind the house is a courtyard where historic interpreters often demonstrate the cooking of the past, sometimes serving up tasty baked goods from the adobe oven. I recently got married in an Early California period wedding, and the courtyard provided the perfect historical background. Mission San Juan Bautista is also a popular site for weddings, and was also hosting a wedding on the same day.
The Plaza Hotel gives a glimpse of what amenities were offered to early-day travelers. If you’re lucky, the historic Plaza Saloon will be open, and you can buy a period bottle of sarsapsarilla and maybe get fleeced by “High Card Johnny,” the card shark in residence, who is a member of the San Juan Bautista Historic Park Volunteer Association. Every first Saturday of the month, the Plaza History Association hosts a Living History Day, where you can experience the sights and sounds of life in early San Juan. There is an even bigger event every June, on Father’s Day weekend, when you might find Mountain Men encamped in the Plaza, or a family with a Connestoga wagon heading through on their way to settle in California.
Other events are constantly happening as well, be it the Farmer’s Market that sets up shop in the downtown (all five blocks of it!) every Sunday, or antique street fairs, or the annual Indian Market and Peace Pow Wow. There is also a Gallery Walk along 3rd St, every second Saturday, where you can meet the artists and enjoy refreshments. Speaking of refreshments, the San Juan Bakery has some of the best bread you are likely to taste, plus cookies and pastries. Their spacious interior offers a place to sit and enjoy your coffee and baked goods, or maybe a tasty deli sandwich.
For restaurants, there are old favorites and newer offerings. Dona Ester’s is a place where I have celebrated many events, from my birthday to my wedding rehearsal dinner, just like the locals. They offer tasty and abundant Mexican fare, and I warn you that you might think twice before ordering appetizers with your dinner, because you will have to take something home with you. Jardines de San Juan also has Mexican fare, but in an outdoor setting, and terrific margaritas. You might even see a San Juan chicken or two wander through! (I love the San Juan chickens. These feral chickens are a fixture of town, and are seen all over, from roosters sitting on a fence, crowing, to mama hens with chicks casually wandering through yards.) If you want something a little out of the ordinary, head over to 4th St, and check out the Matxain Etxea Basque Restaurant. Basque food has some points in common with Spanish and French food, but is its own unique style of cuisine. Their paella is excellent!
You can even finish up your visit to San Juan with a stroll through the historical cemetary. The graves here go back to some of the early founding families of California, and it still has a “family” feel, with graves lovingly tended and decorated. I tend to visit the Breen family plots, and the Japanese section, as well as “smallpox hill,” where the victims of the 1868 smallpox epidemic were stealthily buried in the night. If you’re fascinated by history, the San Juan cemetary is full of it!
For such a small town, San Juan Bautista has an amazing amount going for it. Check it out if you’re passing through from the Bay Area headed south toward Salinas or the Monterey/Carmel area and points south. I guaratee you’ll be coming back!
Dona Esther Mexican Restaurant
25 Franklin Street
San Juan Bautista, CA 95045
Jardines de San Juan
115 Third Street
San Juan Bautista, Ca
Phone: (831) 623-4466
Matxain Etxea Basque Restaurant
206 4th St
San Juan Bautista, CA 95045
San Juan Bautista State Historic Park
Open Tuesday through Sunday
10:00 am to 4:30 pm