SAN JUAN BAUTISTA, Calif. — Visitors strolling down 3rd Street here often wonder why a long seat belt is attached to the old wooden bench in front of John Cravea's clothing store.
"That's to keep us old-timers from falling off," said a man, laughing. He sits there every day to exchange stories and keep an eye on the passing scene. Local folks have dubbed it the Liars' Bench.
Such a relaxed and friendly flavor is just one of the reasons for detouring from the busy U.S. 101 freeway in San Benito County to one of the best-preserved historic villages in California.
Four blocks of 3rd Street, which formerly was a stagecoach route, are on the state historic register, and the vintage buildings bordering a nearby plaza are part of a state historic park.
At one corner is the church of Old Mission San Juan Bautista, which has been in use since 1812.
While touring the town to view California's early Spanish, Mexican and American eras, visitors will discover some delightful dining spots and unusual galleries and gift shops. A big attraction is the annual arts and crafts show Saturday and next Sunday.
Walls Rebuilt After Quake
Despite being adjacent to the San Andreas earthquake fault, San Juan Bautista has remained intact ever since the mission was founded in 1797. The outside walls of the current church were rebuilt after being knocked down in 1906 by the same quake that leveled much of San Francisco.
Named for St. John the Baptist, the mission's wide church has three aisles leading to the altar. The altar was painted by Thomas Doak, a Boston sailor who was the first U.S. citizen to settle permanently in Spanish California.
On a self-guided tour of the L-shaped mission, you can view Doak's artistic work, which he traded for room and board.
Begin at the gift shop in the colonnaded monastery ( covento ) wing on the west side of the plaza. Visitors can tour 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (to 4:30 p.m. in winter). Admission is 50 cents.
You can peek into the padres' dining room and the kitchen, where Indians prepared hundreds of meals every day. In a window of the church office look for an ancient barrel organ that was said to intrigue the Indians. Another musical instrument is an Indian-made violin.
Next to the church, where Mass is still celebrated daily, is the mission cemetery with unmarked graves of more than 4,300 Indians. El Camino Real, the original mission road, is just beyond in the earth depression that marks the San Andreas fault.
Elsewhere around the plaza are other restored buildings that are part of San Juan Bautista State Historic Park. Go into the 1858 Plaza Hotel (adult admission $1; children 6 to 17 years, 50 cents) and buy a 50-cent brochure for a self-guided tour of four furnished buildings. It's open daily 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
On the first Saturday of every month, volunteers in 1860s clothing appear during Living History Days. Sarsaparilla, soft drinks and wine are poured in the hotel barroom, where visitors also view cardsharps playing poker and costumed girls dancing the cancan.
Next door is Castro House, built in 1840 for Jose Maria Castro, who was involved in political and military affairs when California belonged to Mexico. Later it became the home of Patrick Breen and his family, survivors of the ill-fated Donner Party that tried to cross the Sierra in winter. Many of the Breens' belongings are displayed in upstairs bedrooms.
Cross 2nd Street to visit Plaza Stable, which once served seven stagecoach lines that operated on the Los Angeles-San Francisco run and other routes. The stable is filled with a variety of surreys, buggies and wagons, as well as harness and saddles. Behind it is a blacksmith shop and early farm equipment.
Also go through the rear entrance of Plaza Hall next door. Built as a county courthouse, it eventually became the residence of hotel owner Angeleo Zanetta. The upstairs floor served as a meeting and dance hall. Also in the park is an old settler's cabin, a jail and fruit trees.
Walk along 3rd Street and its side streets to view other buildings, which are all described on the walking-tour map.
Get a free guide of San Juan merchants at the chamber of commerce, 3rd and Washington streets. The office is open every day from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Call (408) 623-2454.
Many of the town's adobe and brick structures, dating to the mid-1800s, now house shops and restaurants. A landmark eatery is Cademartori's, closed Mondays. Overlooking San Juan Valley is the Faultline restaurant, a favorite for Sunday brunch and continental dinners Thursday through Monday.
Known for its authentic Mexican food and casual atmosphere is Dona Esther, open daily from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Pink decor and antiques identify La Casa Rosa, along with tasty luncheon dishes and homemade preserves. Closed Tuesdays.
Mexican dishes are served daily in the beautiful garden patio of Jardines de San Juan.