Road trip to California – Days 6-7 – Paso Robles and Hearst Castle
Our road trip destination Paso Robles in central California is a charming town situated in zinfandel country among vineyards, lakes, historic missions and beaches nearby. There are more than 200 wineries in the Paso Robles AVA and some 50K acres under vine. We were there to attend family events so we did not explore the area as much as I would have liked and left many things to explore on another visit. The events were both held at local wineries so we did get to drive among the meandering country roads and taste lovely local wines. Downtown Paso Robles stretches from City Park along several streets lined with shops, wine tasting venues (several), cheese store and an olive oil store, not to mention many restaurants and cafes. It combined small town feel with sophistication and a lovely visual appeal.
The oilve oil shop We Olives offers award winning olive oils mostly from northern California. We stopped by to sample and buy a few bottles to bring the California flavours home. They also sell tapendas, vinegars, cured olives and mustards along with gorgeous olive wood trays and bowls which I also could not resist. You never have enough serving dishes. The cheese shop Di Raimondo is also an exciting place to check out. They specialize in hand cut cheeses both domestic and from around the world and have an impressive selection available to choose from. Once thing I missed and will go back for is cooking classes at Refugio, the kitchen of California cookbook author Brigit Binns who published 29 books, several for Williams Sonoma. Refugio, meaning refuge or a place of solace, is a state of the art kitchen where she apparently offers classes by local chefs as well as rental suites so you can immerse yourself in local food and wine. One of her books I wish I knew about before we left on the trip is Eating Up the West Coast: The best road trips, recipes and restaurants from California to Washington. I can’t believe I just found out about it now, but I ordered it so this may mean we have to do it again.
One place we did visited was the Hearst Castle, located in San Simeon about 30 miles north of Paso Robles. Visiting the castle was a last minute decision. We bought our tickets in the morning and rushed over to make it for the 11:00 am tour of the grand salons. There are several tours walking you through the various parts of the castle and we signed up for three of them: grand rooms tour, upstairs suite tour and cottages and kitchen tours. These were 40 minutes tours and we booked them back to back as we needed to be finished by three pm and get back to Paso Robles. There was plenty of time between the tours to walk around the property and enjoy the many aspects of this remarkable estate.
The castle, looking more like a European cathedral than a castle, was built high on the Santa Lucia mountain range in San Simeon at an altitude of 1600 feet, calculated specifically to position it above the clouds and fog that usually engulf the lower elevation and the coast. It’s always sunny at the Hearst castle. Money can buy you sunshine, evidently. Originally the estate sat on 250K acres that included mountains, meadows and a 14 mile coastline. The castle itself has been a work in progress ever since construction begun and even today scaffoldings are raised for completion and restoration, making taking a decent photo of the place nearly impossible.
What I found the most fascinating about the castle is that the architect who designed and built it over some 30 years was a woman. Hearst commissioned Julia Morgan, an architect then in her 40’s to built him a “comfortable” place on the site of his beloved ranch because he was tired of going there and sleeping in tents. I can’t blame him, I would have a castle built as well rather than camp in tents. Julia Morgan took on the project (remarkably, she had 700 major projects over her career) and construction begun in 1919 continuing through 1947. Still the castle was unfinished and remains unfinished even today. Over that period Morgan designed and supervised the entire construction including purchasing original design elements from Europe (doors, ceilings, furniture, floors, tiles etc.). Hearst lived in the castle and left it in 1947 when his health was failing and he required medical care that was not available in the San Simeon area.
The estate resembles an Italian village, with a cathedral, a “town square” and Mediterranean style cottages surrounding it. Did Hearst have a God complex, installing himself in the cathedral with the town “people” living below? One could get that impression.
By the time he begun construction on this estate Hearst had separated from his wife sending her and the kids to live in luxury on the east coast and had an open (public) relations with Marion Davies, a dancer and broadway actor. He never divorced his wife and had a life long relations with Davies. During the 30’s when the Hurst Corporation was on the verge of collapse Davies lent Hearst a million dollars to save the company. When he died he left her his share of the Hearst corporation, which we were told she sold back to the family for one dollar. Perhaps she cared for Randolph and was not the “gold digger” her mother raised her to be (these are her own words according to our tour guide).
The estate is as stunning today as it was in its heyday and I could just picture the Hollywood celebrities swimming in the famous pool, having a drink before dinner in the grand salon and dining along the magnificent long wooden table in the dining room. An invitation to the castle came as a summons in the form of a notice that a car would pick you up at a certain time and take you to the private Hearst train cars. The train would travel to San Louis Obispo where a fleet of vehicles would wait to drive the invited guests the remaining distance to San Simeon. It was a long journey in those days but I doubt anyone refused an invitation. Once you arrived you were taken care of by staff and had everything at your disposal. The only two prohibitions were amourous affairs among unmarried people and drunken behaviour. If you were caught undertaking one or the other you would be discreetly escorted away and not invited back, ever. One person who was never invited back was Orson Wells after Citizen Kane, a film character said to be modelled after Randolph Hearst. Hearst stopped any ads advertising the film from appearing in any of his publications. Regular guests in the castle included Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, David Niven, politicians, sports stars, journalists and famous female actors of the day.
Hearst was a collector of art and his vast collections and ongoing purchases from around the world were delivered to the construction site for Julia Morgan to incorporate into and find a place for in the castle. One thing that caught my attention was how comfortable everything looked in spite of the formal, art collection setting. I have visited castles and palaces that looked formal without a sense of comfort, but here every corner had a cushiony chair to sit on and a table to put your book and cup of tea. Clearly he understood the good life.
I am glad we did not miss the visit to the castle, it had an interesting story, history and spectacular architectural elements. You can read more about the castle here.
Tomorrow we will be leaving to begin our journey back and I have several stops planned, including visiting an olive oil mill, lunch at Basil in Carmel-by-the-Sea and dinner in San Francisco. Don’t change the channel. We’ll be right back.
Featured image photo credit: Hearst Castle, San Simeon (image credit: http://hearstcastle.org/