"The Missions" Churches / Temples / Mosques Tip by WulfstanTraveller

The oldest European-based settlements and buildings in California are the Spanish-Mexican missions and the towns that grew up around some of them. These number 21 missions and several support settlements, ranging from Mission San Diego de Alcala in an Diego in the south to Mission San Francisco Solano in Sonoma in the north. The mission system was created long the El Camino Real as both missionary outposts and a method of securing settlement and developing agriculture, etc., along the coastal stretch that the Spanish and Mexicans settled. They were spaced apart to allow safe travelling along the road, making it possible for travellers to travel in what was then a barely inhabited, vast, and barely known expanse of land, with safety and services always close by.

The earliest, such as San Diego, San Carlos Borromeo (Carmel), and San Antonio de Padua, and San Francisco de Asis (Dolores in San Francisco) were founded between 1769-1776, the last two, San Rafael and the Sonoma missions, were found in 1817 and 1823.

Some, such as San Rafael, are tiny and simple, while others, such as Santa Barbara and Carmel, are substantial structures, very large or very ornate.

Some are complete replicas, like San Rafael, while others, like San Miguel Arcangel, are largely original, yet most are partly reconstructed but partly original and still basically original sites.

Their settings vary. Some like San Francisco/Dolores and San Diego are in large urban areas radically altered from the Mexican era, others like San Juan Bautista and Sonoma are in small towns that still retain much of their Mexican-era layout and atmosphere. Yet others, like Soledad and San Antonion de Padua, are remote and surrounded by open countryside.

At the moment, unfortunately, one of the most important of all the mission structures, San Miguel Arcangel, with original Spanish artwork, is falling apart and, damaged by an earthquake in 2003, is closed. Otherwise, they are open to visitors and many include substantial remains not only of the main buildings, but of complexes and cemeteries, and have other Spanish/Mexican-era buildings nearby.

They are all along or near Highway 101, which largely follows the same basic route, slightly shifted, as the old Spanish highway, El Camino Real. This is marked with bronze bells along the entire route and in some areas, like San Juan Bautista, the original road still exists alongside the mission.

Directions: Coastal California, mostly along or near Hwy 101, from San Diego to Sonoma.

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  • Written Jul 16, 2009
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