Return to Capistrano

The other weekend, my sister came to visit us at The Aerie for a few days. It was a very good visit — she brought with her the only fall-like temperatures we’d had in Southern California (before today) in what has truly been a seemingly “Endless Summer”.

For one of our outings my sis, The Beloved and I decided to take a little day trip up to San Juan Capistrano. Capistrano is about 50 miles north of where we live. As part of our adventure, we decided to take the train. Amtrak runs nearly hourly north-south along the coast, so we figured why not? It was a nice ride, taking about the same amount of time as driving, and conveniently dropping us off right by the town’s small historic district. The area has a selection of shops and restaurants, a nice park and a petting zoo.


After getting a great, though not inexpensive, brunch at The Ramos House Cafe, we toured the historic district and then made our way over to the Mission. The Mission at San Juan Capistrano was the seventh of 21 missions founded by the Spanish in what is today California. It also contains the oldest building, a chapel, that has been in constant use in the state.


The Mission grounds have been restored over much of the 20th century (after falling into disuse for much of the 19th) and the current exhibits show what life was like when the Mission was founded in 1776, including the padres quarters, soldiers quarters, and how the local native Americans lived and adapted to Mission life. As someone that grew up on the East Coast, I’m always sort of amazed at the lack of West Coast colonial history coverage in schools. It seems as though the theory is that if it wasn’t originally settled by the English, it doesn’t count. Such a loss.

Original El Camino Real Bell

Perhaps for more than its historical significance, the Mission is also renowned because of the famous “Return of the Swallows” at the beginning of spring. The popular legend began in the early part of the 20th century and became immortalized by the song “When The Swallows Come Back to Capistrano”.

Nobody’s Home

The popularity of the event brought in thousands of visitors every spring. Sadly, these days, the Mission has about as many swallows as The Aerie does. Apparently, the decline of swallows at the Mission is thought to be due to development in the region and apparently now the swallows mostly nest at peoples’ houses and under highway overpasses. That might not make for great songs, but the Mission gift shop is full of swallow kitsch anyway.

Mission Bells


Mission Accomplished

All in all, the day was a great success — the Mission is a great place to visit and the grounds are a beautiful place for a stroll. If you ever find yourself in Orange County and looking to for something to spend half-a-day at, there probably aren’t many better places. I’m sure we’ll be returning again sometime soon.


17 thoughts on “Return to Capistrano

  1. It looks like a nice visit.

    Here in the middle of the country we did learn a lot about the early colonization of the southwest (including California), probably because we were part of the Louisiana Purchase … but, yeah, more emphasis was placed on New England.

    “They” have put up nets around the ‘buildings and walls’ at my workplace to keep the swallows away – after the nests were knocked down one year and it was pointed out that doing that was illegal. The nets worked this past spring. Or maybe the swallows just decided they don’t like us.

    • The above first sentence should say – “It looks like a nice PLACE TO visit.”

      And if you’d posted a pic of someone partaking of a beverage, you would have had one of ‘the swallows.’

      • GOM — I remember your swallow problems. I think we had that discussion when they started building the nest at our house. I’m glad that they’re not just destroying existing nests.

        I can’t believe that I missed a chance for a cocktail tie-in. There was a nice bar that we stopped in next to the train station as we waited for our ride home. Darn.

    • Tom — hah! Yes — the mission bells are real. And actually, they’re all over the place, because the old El Camino Real (the road between the missions) have them as markers every mile or so!

  2. The state Department of Education does require CA elementary schools to teach the history of California in the fourth grade. I remember meeting when I was a fourth-grader the author of the textbook we were using for the subject: she sparked in me the idea of becoming a historian (which, alas, I haven’t been able to make a living by). But the narrative was decidedly slanted against the Spanish missionaries and colonists, who were depicted as cruel and exploitative. Not much was said about the Anglo miners who killed entire Native American tribes just to dig up the land under their villages. :(

    San Juan Capistrano is my favorite of the California missions. The staff has done a great job of preserving the look and feel of a real Spanish mission. A priest still performs services in the chapel, if I remember correctly, and the garden is a lovely place to sit and think on how these old places are too easily lost.

    I still have a little porcelain swallow that I bought as a child from the gift shop. It’s kitsch, but kitsch can carry memories as well. :)

    • HG — I have a couple of friends whose children are approaching school age here in California, so I’m curious to see what the current teaching paradigm is regarding colonialism and the Missions. Maybe it matter who gets elected in November… ;)

      Of the Missions that I’ve been able to go to (San Diego, San Luis Rey, Capistrano, Santa Barbara, San Francisco Solano), I agree that Capistrano is the best and most beautifully preserved. I also think they have the best curated exhibits.

      We bought a Christmas ornament swallow… :)

  3. ahhh… I wondered if that train stop was a good drop off or not. good to know that it is.

    i was thinking that i learned a lot of mission history in elementary school. but my family also toured just about every mission in CA so I could be mixing the two. and i gotta say, while i might find missions interesting now, as a kid they were just one vacant adobe after another.

    • leendadll — I thought the train was really a nice way to get up there. Of course, once I took the train up to Santa Barbara and outside of Ventura we hit a bum on the tracks and were delayed 4 hours.

      I’m glad students in California are learning about their history. I noticed in the Mission they had a special exhibit for school kids — I saw several taking notes for what looked like a class assignment.

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