SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — Although the swallows of Capistrano left town Monday to fly back to their winter home in South America, the 200-year-old mission is worth visiting anytime.
In recent years, archeologists have unearthed foundations and relics that make a tour of the old Spanish compound even more interesting.
Among the discoveries was the first metal smelter in California, where Indians made wrought iron. A railing they crafted for the choir loft is still in the historic Serra Chapel that dates to 1777.
That narrow adobe structure continues to be used daily for religious services, and is the oldest building in the state where Father Junipero Serra said Mass. He founded the mission as the seventh in the chain of 21 Spanish outposts established by Franciscan friars up and down the state.
Also visit the new St. John of Capistrano parish church, named in honor of the mission's patron saint. It replaces the Great Stone Church that was destroyed by an earthquake in 1812.
Also Tour Other Sites
On Sundays you can join a guided tour to other historic sites in San Juan Capistrano, Orange County's oldest town. Gift shops and restaurants offer additional enjoyment for visitors.
A pleasant way to reach Capistrano is aboard Amtrak, which has eight trains daily from Los Angeles and San Diego, as well as less-frequent service from Santa Barbara and intermediate stations. Call toll-free (800) 872-7245 for schedules and fares. You'll arrive at the 1895 depot, which has been converted into a popular restaurant and is two blocks from the mission.
If you drive from Los Angeles, head south on Interstate 5 to the Ortega Highway exit and go west three blocks to the mission entrance. Park on the street without charge.
Known as the Jewel of the Missions, the walled-in compound covers 10 acres and can be explored daily between 7:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. on a self-guided tour. You'll received a tour map at the entry gate, where adults pay $2 and children under 12 years 50 cents. The visitor center telephone number is (714) 493-1424.
On most Sundays volunteer docents in period dress wait just inside the entrance between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. to show visitors around.
Grounds Are Flowered
Although the Indians and padres planted only fruit trees, vegetables and other crops for food, today the mission grounds are covered with flowers and ornamental plants. Beyond the rose garden in the entry plaza, bougainvillea frames a statue of Father Serra with a young Indian.
It's flanked on the right by ruins of the Great Stone Church, and on the left by the bells that once hung in the church tower. The bells are rung only once a year, on March 19, when the swallows traditionally return to Capistrano from Argentina.
New efforts to save the vintage buildings are evident around the compound. You'll notice roped off structures that are being reinforced as part of a 10-year project to prevent damage by earthquakes. Off-limits are the soldiers' barracks, but you can visit the padres' kitchen and quarters a few steps away.
The kitchen is inside a huge chimney that has ovens in its four corners. In one of the padre's rooms you'll see a model of the original mission and a picture of St. John of Capistrano. The adjoining wing holds the Serra Chapel that's highlighted by an ornately carved altar brought from Barcelona.
Across the quadrangle are museum rooms with Indian artifacts and relics of the Spanish soldiers. Excavations inside and behind the building have revealed vats for making wine, for tanning animal hides and rendering fat for soap and candles.
The last Saturday of every month is Living History Day at the mission, when Native Americans and docents weave rugs and blankets, spin and cook in a beehive oven as in days gone by. Two volunteers roam the grounds dressed as Father Serra and a Spanish soldier.
To learn more about Capistrano's early times, join the guided walking tour of town that leaves at 1 p.m. Sundays across from the mission at El Peon Plaza. Adults pay $1, children 50 cents. Proceeds from the hourlong tours are used to restore the city's old adobes that you'll see on the tour.
Also visit the O'Neill Museum to view local memorabilia in a restored century-old home that serves as headquarters for the San Juan Historical Society. It's open Sundays from noon to 3 p.m. and Tuesday through Friday from 9 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.
The museum is on the other side of the railroad tracks at 31831 Los Rios St. Stroll along that street to see several of the historic adobe homes built during the mission's early days.
Rides for the Kids
Across from the museum is the Jones Mini Farm, where children can ride ponies or a donkey on weekends between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Rides costs $1.75. Call (714) 496-7328. Hayrides are available for groups and birthday parties.
If you're hungry, visit the nearby restaurant in the Capistrano Depot, which houses vintage railroad cars. A Dixieland jazz band plays there Sunday afternoons.
Across the street is Franciscan Plaza, a new multimillion-dollar tourist complex due to open soon with shops, a five-screen cinema and several places to dine.
Along San Juan's main street, Camino Capistrano, is El Adobe, a longtime favorite for Mexican food that's served for lunch and dinner daily except Sundays. Mariachis perform during Sunday brunch (10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.) and at dinner Thursday through Saturday.
Closer to the mission are Sarducci's Cafe-Grill, with tables indoors and outdoors, and Cafe Capistrano. Well known for fine food with a French flair is L'Hirondelle, serving Sunday brunch (11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.) and dinner daily from 5 p.m., except Mondays.
Just across the street you'll see the imposing St. John Church, built in 18th-Century California style and marked by a bell tower more than 100 feet tall. Enter through the side doors.
Round trip from Los Angeles to San Juan Capistrano is 120 miles.