Day Special: American Beauty Independence
My new-found land: Discover
hidden bars and New Manhattan
shopping secrets. Daring to explore Los Angleses on foot and visiting a shrine
to the Englands Deep South's great romantic heronine.
By Jeremy Atiyah
When it comes to
30 June 2002
A miracle? It seems like it, when you consider that most of
There is no mystery about this. After all, Europeans colonised this coast before the Americans did. Nor did it happen very long ago. As recently as
He and his men spent the subsequent night encamped, surrounded by reeds, brambles and roses. And the next day in the morning they were sensible enough to annex this goodly harbour for
Because here it is, right beneath these manicured lawns and pavements and shiny cars: the foundations of the Presidio itself, that is to say, of
Not that the Spanish Presidio amounted to much back then. "What was pompously called by this name, had but a mean appearance," scoffed
In fact the original Spanish Presidio contained a church, royal offices, warehouses, a guardhouse and houses for soldiers and settlers. But the buildings and furniture, being "of the rudest fashion and of the meanest kind", hardly accorded with the ideas conceived by thrusting British explorers, "of the sumptuous manner in which the Spaniards live on this side of the globe". And it was laughably ill-defended. In short, summarised
As if in answer, a bank of ocean cloud suddenly blots out the sunshine. Perhaps this is the one point of continuity. The notoriously clammy and bone-chilling coastal fog of the San Franciscan summer.
It was certainly the fog that drove most of the Spanish settlers inland. I already know where they ended up: not here by the Presidio, but a couple of miles away, across the peninsula, where the weather was better, at the Mission Dolores. And this is where I am going now.
The mission, alongside the Presidio, represented the other essential pillar of the Spanish occupation of
The journey, either way, takes around an hour, though for
Meanwhile, I'm reaching the Mission Dolores. Stepping inside the chapel I confess to intense feelings of disorientation. Is this the same land that has given the world
And there's more. Later, from 18th-century drawings inside the mission buildings, I will see how this chapel once overlooked meandering streams, hills, Indian reed huts, and a scattering of animals at pasture. I look again, and gulp. Right outside this building, at pavement tables, people are consuming cranberry juice and bagels with smoked salmon for breakfast. Here in the gloom I am peering at sketches of Indians emerging from the reeds, handing gifts of fish and acorns to priests, with a hazy sun rising from behind the
Whose vision of paradise is this? Not
But by most other accounts the Spanish monks and Indian hunter-gatherers of
Such were the charms of Spanish California. Don't expect any drama to this story, though: we know how it ended. After its first 100 years, the Mission Dolores was already ruinous and crumbling, overgrown with fig trees and wild flowers. Today, I find its cemetery in a ramshackle state, with roses and lupins sprouting in the long grass, amid stones marking the graves of Italian, Irish and English, as well as Spanish, Catholics. I pause at the forgotten obelisk of Don Luis Antonio Arguello, "the first governor of Mexican California", then step outside to find a bearded dropout with a supermarket trolley, flogging a spare tyre, a pot plant and a pile of pamphlets. "And," he exclaims to me, lifting out a polystyrene box, "the most beautiful mould of Jesus I've ever seen. Wanna look?"
No thanks, I tell him, speeding up to overtake. Yes, the enterprising Americans got here eventually. It was they who built this impossibly picturesque city, after all, competing to set up farms, chop down trees, build sawmills, open workshops and pan for gold – but without ever quite forgetting the spirit of the place.
Or so it seems to me. And with this in mind, I decide to stop at one of those pavement cafés to order a dish of angel-hair pasta with sun-dried tomatoes and fresh basil. Over dinner, at sunset by the old Spanish Mission, I will take time to reflect a little more on the origins of the world's most wonderful city.
Jeremy Atiyah flew courtesy of American Airlines (0845 606 0461; www.aa.com). Return fares in July from Heathrow via JFK in
Jeremy Atiyah stayed at the Four Seasons Hotel on
A special introductory rate of $369 is available from now until 31 December, subject to availability (00800 6488 6488; www.fourseasons.com).
A cheaper alternative could be the atmospheric Archbishop's Mansion (001 415 563 7872; www.thearchbishopsmansion.com) which overlooks the historic