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[whitespace] Mission Santa Cruz
Photograph by Skye Dunlap

Chairway to Heaven: The tiny church at Mission Santa Cruz still holds Mass and is open on weekends. The pink windows allow for a heavenly haze that fills the room when the sun shines.

Mission Accomplished

Three missions, one afternoon, a heavenly feeling

By Justin Berton

TRAVEL TO THREE California missions in one day and realize that, geez, it feels like cheating. Like, it took Father Junipero Serra and company a couple days just to travel from Mission Santa Clara to Mission San Jose in Fremont. Now we can hit all three in less than four hours.

Here's how: The suggested trail, for those starting in San Jose, is to begin in Fremont, stop over in Santa Clara and finish big in Santa Cruz--which is, we note, the opposite direction of Serra and his Padres, who marched up from the south. But again, we drive cars, not oxen, so we can do these things more expediently.

And here's why: Mission-hopping, it turns out, is a delightful, pleasant way to spend a lazy afternoon. It's a slow-moving course on California/Spanish/Catholic/Native American history. Walk the grounds, smell the roses, sit in the cathedrals. Get back in the car, do it again.

And do it with little hassle. Missions are sparsely populated museums, which means the hosts have plenty of time to chat about the fascinating factoids not included in the history books.

Not surprisingly, though, all of the mission's free literature, written by church preservationists, portrays the Padres as harmless pioneers who did little more than plant farms and feed the curious Indians. In one euphemistic explanation of Serra's achievement, "the missions were the primary means by which the Spanish taught both Catholicism and the Spanish lifestyle to Native Americans."

So, modern mission travelers may want to brush up on these finer points before visiting the three missions, but once this is accomplished, know this: There's plenty of parking.


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New Economy Nomads: Travel to bohemian lands is affordable.

Call of the Wild: Never mind the rain--sunshine and wildflowers are ahead. Now's the time to plan great escapes.

Close-by Campouts: Getting-away-from-it-all on less than a tank of gas.

Be Reserved: Popular Parks Can Be Booked Online.

Exterior Decorating: Gadgets for the quintessential car camper abound and some are worth the price.

Ready to Run: Training for a marathon is 90% perspiration, 10% lunacy.


Mission San Jose

Drive north on Highway 680 and take the aptly titled Mission Boulevard, then turn right at the exit head and follow the street through suburban vanilla for five minutes.

Plenty of markings point to the big, white adobe building with the bell tower just past Ohlone Community College on the right side, nestled--yes, nestled!--at the base of the plush, green foothills.

Founded on June 11, 1797, by Padre Fermin Francisco de Lasuen, the San Jose mission once housed, worked and converted nearly 2,000 Ohlone Indians during its peak years. Inside the mission, a few doorways are still down to mission-era size--5-foot-9-inch clearance--and a few friar habits also remind us how small, pre-NBA, the average human being was more than 200 years ago.

The big draw, like most missions, is the church. But San Jose's praying house pales in comparison to the other two, so spare the time and use the cathedral for what it is: a really good hallway to the graveyard out back. (But, should you stop to look at the altar, there's a "hollow nail" hidden somewhere that's said to hold shavings of a nail from the true cross, the one Jesus died on. But we didn't see anything to suggest this was true, nor did we intend to rip apart the altar in the name of journalistic accountability. So, like we said, the cathedral leads to the graveyard.)

The gravestones, dedicated mostly to princely padres and super settlers, are Scooby-Do creepy: cartoonish, gothic, strange. One flat tombstone, stuck just a few feet from what seems like a 16th-century sculptor's life's work, resembles the kind plunked down in a front yard on Halloween night. Other stones tower with superiority and are handsomely detailed. Thousands of Ohlones are buried in the Ohlone Cemetery down the road on Washington Boulevard.

Before re-entering the cathedral, note the cool skull and crossbones carved in sandstone above the doorway. The symbol marked the graveyard for illiterates and non-Spanish speakers.

Leave the San Jose mission behind and walk across the street to enjoy a cold one at the Mission Bell Tavern. It's a good place for mullet counting and reminding oneself how hair used to be cut, pre-NHL.

Santa Clara

To get to Mission Santa Clara in 25 minutes or less, it's best to come back down Highway 680, take 237 west to 880 south, exit the curvy Alameda and follow the signs to the mission.

Mission Santa Clara is the gem of the trio, based on the grandeur of the mission and its clean carpets.

On January 12, 1777--just one year after the boys fighting the Revolutionary War on the other side of the continent finally stopped, mind you--Mission Santa Clara was founded and was the first to honor a woman, Clare of Assisi, as its patron saint.

The most impressive site at this mission is the cathedral, which can be enjoyed, by sitting in a front pew, for the altar, and looking heavenward, for the Davila-painted ceiling. The church has been rebuilt and done over more times than Carol Channing's cheekbones, but the difference is that Mission Santa Clara looks great. Also note the carved saints in the corners; that's not stone. That's wood. Also beware of crashing Saturday afternoon weddings. The church is booked through the summer. Or, hell, go right ahead. Enjoy a wedding.

Mission Santa Clara also offers a nice stroll through the garden, complete with olive trees, roaming roses and oak cork trees. Away from the mission, the university houses the excellent Museum de Saisset, which has on permanent display a time capsule filled with goodies by Serra himself.

Mission Santa Cruz

Jump back on Highway 880 south and head for The Hill. Traffic times are always hard to estimate, but getting into Santa Cruz should take about 45 to 50 minutes. Take the Ocean Street exit, make a right on Water Street and, if the stomach growls, look for the good folks at Rancho Burger on the right side of the street: charbroiled burgers, steak fries and homemade pie served up right. They close at 3pm and are closed on Sundays. Then another right on Emmet Street.

Look for the huge white church. Then look to the right. That's Mission Santa Cruz.

Not as pristine as Mission Santa Clara, or sadly neglected as Mission San Jose, Mission Santa Cruz falls somewhere comfortably in between. It's also possibly the only mission with a nickname: The Hard Luck Mission.

Due to not only its fair share of floods and earthquakes, Mission Santa Cruz was located on a hill above a pueblo Branciforte, a settlement of convicted criminals and thieves who, the story goes, robbed the mission dry one day when the padres were visiting Mission Santa Clara.

Mission Santa Cruz is also the only mission that gives a nod to the Native American experience. Down the street from the actual mission are the quarters of Native Americans.

About 10 years ago, students from UCSC and other volunteers restored support beams and the tiled roof just as it was 200 years ago: without nails. The roof is a slab of clay, salt water and strips of rawhide--note the dangling leather straps above. Behind the quarters there's also a nice garden and park benches for those who packed a lunch.

Inside, the tiny church attached to the gift shop is as peaceful as a bed of daisies. The poured glass windows are pink, which, when the sun shines through, gives the room a warm, fuzzy, atheist-converting feeling.

Mission San Jose 43300 Mission Blvd. Fremont, CA 94539 510.657.1797

Mission Santa Clara 500 El Camino Real Santa Clara University Santa Clara, CA 95053 408.554.4023

Mission Santa Cruz 126 High St. Santa Cruz, CA 95060 831.426.5686

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From the March 8-14, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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