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Somehow I didn’t expect to see the ruins of an old stone church behind the high wall. After all, we were in the United States, the so-called New World. But this was San Juan Capistrano, the oldest town in California. A place jam-packed with historic houses, and an old Spanish Mission with a ruined church and a colonial-style garden.

San Juan Capistrano Mission

The Spanish style garden of the Mission San Juan Capistrano

Los Rios Historic District

Rios Adobe

The Rios Adobe, one of only three remaining adobe houses

It was the Los Rios Historic District that first attracted me to San Juan Capistrano. I had spotted it from a train window a year earlier, a jumble of old Spanish-style buildings, cacti and flowering plants, and the evocatively named Hummingbird Café. Now I was back to explore.

The settlement of Los Rios was founded in the late 18th century when the Spanish established a nearby Mission. They needed workers for the construction and, later, for the growing of grapes and production of wine for the sacrament. Although San Juan Capistrano was the seventh mission in California, it was the first to allow its workers to live outside the grounds. Houses were built in the Los Rios area for the neophytes (Native Americans who had converted to Catholicism and worked for the Mission). The original houses were in the adobe style (built from thick earth bricks), but only three adobes remain today.

Houses of Los Rios

Most of the houses in Los Rios are timber framed

Most of the existing buildings are 19th century timber-framed structures, a mixture of private residences, shops, cafés and other businesses. At the centre of the settlement is River Street: this is all that now remains of an ancient Native American track that once led to the ocean. We walked along the main road, stopping to look at the colourful clothes and bags hanging outside the shops. It was late February, but the place was already full of flowers. Trees were laden with fruit – oranges and avocados – and giant butterflies flitted about. Even on a winter Monday there were lots of visitors; we were glad we hadn’t come at the weekend!

Mission San Juan Capistrano

Ruined stone church

The stone church was ruined by an earthquake

Leaving Los Rios, we crossed the railway line and stopped for lunch at the Rancho Capistrano Winery which serves its own locally produced wines (this area was the site of the first vineyard in California). Then we walked towards the Mission, and I actually stopped still in surprise. Not only does it have a ruined stone church, but its garden and courtyard would not look out of place in a Spanish royal palace. I had the unreal sensation of having been transported back to medieval Europe.

Mission garden

Looking out to the garden of the Mission San Juan Capistrano

The Mission was established in 1776. It was phenomenally successful in the early years, with over 4,000 people converting to the Catholic faith. The original chapel (which still survives) soon became too small for the Mission’s work and work began on a “great stone church” in the European style. The church was a wonder of its age: the largest building ever constructed by the Spanish in California and the biggest stone church in the western US. Unfortunately, however, its splendour was short lived. It was completed in 1806 and destroyed by an earthquake in 1812, never to be rebuilt.

The Mission later fell into disuse, partly due to the effects of the Gold Rush. It was used as a private residence for a while, but returned to the Church in 1865. Serious attempts to revive the ministry began in the early 20th century and today it is flourishing once more. We walked around the old chapel, now very much in use, and watched some nuns sitting contemplatively in the ruins. Nearby was a long list of forthcoming events, both religious and secular. It was as if there had never been any interruption to the Mission. The original Spanish founders would have been proud of their work.

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