Sunday, August 8, 2010

Carmel Mission

While on our weekend trip to Monterey we did not plan to visit the Carmel Mission, also known as Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo, because my mother and I had both been there before, but when we found ourselves with a few minutes to spare, we decided to visit the mission gardens. Oops, big mistake – what we didn’t know was that the plaza gardens had undergone extensive renovation since either of us had been there, and they were bursting with flowering vines, shrubs and perennials that all seemed to be at their peak.

One starts the tour at a small gift shop attached to what is now a museum. Exiting a modest wooden door a large plaza is revealed that lies between of the museum and perimeter wall. The Basilica with its tower provides the backdrop. This stone structure was built in 1793 replacing an adobe chapel, which had been built to replace the original wooden church, built in 1771. The current church tower is of Moorish design and has nine bells in the tower.

While many of the plantings appear to be new, several old specimens remain including a pair of Taxus trees that dwarf the entrance to the museum, an old pepper tree, and a wonderful cork oak with deeply furrowed bark. Planting beds are lined with large cobbles and a raised portion of the garden is defined by a plastered wall with Moorish detailing and an integral wood bench. The layout of the garden spaces appeared true to the period but time did not permit verification of this. What was clearly not historic was the exposed aggregate paving with brick bands in the plaza – these seem to be a misguided 1970s era “improvement”.

Moving through a broad, stucco garden wall one enters the mission cemetery where several of the padres and over 200 Native Americans and Spaniards are buried. Plots are lined with abalone shells and stones, have simple wooden crosses and compacted earth paths. Some have bronze or granite headstones.

Given the time we had to spend at the mission these gardens would have sufficed – and their beauty and detailing would have satiated us, but following the tour path we entered first into an intimate, shady garden with benches, a fountain, glazed tile friezes and religious-themed sculpture. This quiet space opened onto a massive plaza more than four times larger than the museum/Basilica plaza.

The main plaza, like the first, had a traditional mission character consisting of a large expanse of open area surrounded by perimeter planting beds and one, large pentagon-shaped stucco, brick and deep-blue tile pool. The weathered brick of the fountain gargoyle conveyed its age. This space was so large and richly planted it was instantly apparent that we definitely did not have enough time to really enjoy the mission gardens, much less have a moment to look at the mission structures or visit the museum. We rushed off to make our 1:00 tour reservation, which I strongly recommend one avoid. The Carmel Mission deserves a half day visit easily.

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