Sonoma: an exquisite early California mission village

As much as I love the San Francisco Bay area, there are times when it all seems too crowded, too modern. I start yearning for an older, less-hurried California with plenty of open spaces and its Spanish-Mexican colonial roots clearly intact.

That's when I head for the town of Sonoma.

Actually, Sonoma is not so much a town as a charming time warp, a kind of California-style Brigadoon. The fact that the gentle grasslands surrounding the town are called the Valley of the Moon only adds to this faintly mysterious aura.

Getting to Sonoma, I discovered on the bright spring day on my last visit, lives up to the old cliche of being half the fun. Along the 45-mile drive north of San Francisco, the suburban landscape quickly gives way to brilliant green meadows dotted with mustard flowers. In the distance a rim of mountains appears bluish-gray on the horizon.

Even allowing for a stop at one of the many farm stands along the way for a jug of cherry cider, it takes only an hour to reach Sonoma Plaza. This eight-acre shady square in the center of town is an historic landmark, a splendid example of the Spanish colonial plazas that were the cultural heart of the early Califoria mission villages.

Rimming the plaza are a dozen or more venerable adobe buildings, most of which have been painstakingly restored during this century, some just a few years ago. The gradual addition of modern shops and services during the past 150 years have scarcely marred Sonoma's frontier feeling.

For most of its early existence Sonoma truly was a frontier, the site of the last and northernmost mission of the Spanish colonial chain. In 1834 the Mexican government, which now controlled California, sent Mariano Vallejo, a young Army officer, to take charge of the Sonoma mission and to keep watch on the russian settlements to the northwest. Much of Sonoma's current charm can be directly attributed to the enterprising Vallejo, who designed the town to be one- mile square with the spacious plaza in the center.

An excellent place to begin a walking tour is where Sonoma itself began -- at the Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma located a half block northeast of the plaza on Spain Street. A 50-cent admission charge buys a ticket also valid for the Sonoma Barracks, the Vallejo estate, and other landmarks of the Sonoma State Historic Park.

Construction of the whitewashed abode mission with its three-foot thick walls and massive beams began in 1823, but needed heavy restoration by 1913 when it had deteriorated into a crumbling hay barn. To the right of the entrance is a room containing displays on the original construction, the result of strenuous labor on the part of Native Americans who made each adobe brick out of a mixture of mud and hay.

A room at the left of the entrance is the perfect setting for a collection of 62 paintings by Christ Jorgenson, all delicate renditions of the 21 California missions. In a room beyond are artifacts that illustrate the rough pioneer life here: a board bed covered with cowhide and a candleholder fashioned from a flat rock with a hole in it.

The mission and gaily painted small chapel attached at the west are built around an open courtyard where most of the daily chores were performed. There is still a small vegetable garden as well as an ancient wall of prickly pear growing in clumps about eight feet high. To the east is a brick adobe kiln, some primitive barbeque grills, and a tulle hut designed as a replica of a local Indian dwelling.

Just down the street from the mission is a long two-story adobe building with wide balconies, the Sonoma Barracks built by Vallejo in 1836 to house his troops. As commander- general of all the Mexican forces in California, Vallejo spent the next 10 years keeping local Indian tribes and Russian settlements at bay. But he could do nothing about the group of Yankee frontiersmen who "seized" Sonoma in 1846 and announced the establishment of a free and independent "Republic of California."

The 30 or 40 US citizens, who were known as the Bear Flaggers, raised their homemade flag with a crudely drawn bear on it over Sonoma Plaza and occupied the barracks shortly thereafter. In the following months the Stars and Stripes were raised over the barracks, which became headquarters for US military troops commanded by Lt. Joseph Revere, a grandson of Paul Revere.

Today the barracks are a museum of California history and an interesting study in restoration. An audio-visual presentation in the barracks several times daily illustrates some of the remarkable work done on the barracks in 1976 when, among other formidable tasks, the building had to be reinforced with a steel frame against earthquakes. All visitors see, however, are beautiful hand-hewn redwood beams and warm earth-colored adobe bricks. From the front balcony the California state flag -- a bear flag, of course -- proudly waves.

From the barracks one can continue around the plaza, browsing among the adobe landmarks and small shops in between. One gracious cream-colored building is the 1858 Toscano Hotel, which still appears to be catering to its frontier clientele. Now an historic landmark, its Victorian lobby has its original wallpaper, potbelly stove, and round oak tables with hands of cards lying on top.

Not far away is the site of Vallejo's first home in Sonoma, La Casa Grande, which featured a three-story tower and was once the center of diplomatic and social life north of San Francisco Bay. Today only one wing, the servants' quarters, remains. Still intact, however, is the home of Vallejo's brother Salvador, a pastel-toned adobe building now housing a few intriguing shops.

The spacious plaza is an ideal place for a picnic, the supplies for which are close at hand. At the Sonoma French Bakery one can pick up a loaf of crusty sourdough French bread and then head a few doors down to the Sonoma Cheese Factory where, in addition to enjoying its taste, visitors can see batches of mellow Sonoma jack cheese being made.

About half mile to the northwest of the plaza is Lachryma Montis, the lovely estate where Vallejo lived for nearly 40 years after the Bear Flaggers had seized his domain. Although stripped of much of his land and power, he remained an important and well- regarded figure in state and local affairs.

As a vivid contrast to the Spanish adobe structures in town, Lachryma Montis represents what was the latest in Victorian Gothic architecture surrounded by a horticulturist's paradise. Dominating the front yard of the charming cream-colored house is an enormous grapefruit tree laden with outsize globes of pale yellow fruit.

By far the most unusual feature of the estate is the Swiss Chalet near the entrance that Vallejo had built in 1852 out of timbers cut in Europe. Inside the fanciful beamed structure are mementos of the Vallejo family, including photos of Mariano as a dashing young officer and of his wife, Benicia, surrounded by 10 of the couple's 16 children. The family's elegant coach, an 1859 French Phaeton, occupies a central spot.

The main house is arranged with original furnishings in such a way that it seems as though the Vallejos are just away on a short outing. In the red-wallpapered parlor a mother-of-pearl chess set is set for playing and a small guitar is propped up on the ornately carved loveseat. Almost all of the cozy rooms have small white marble fireplaces and lovely views of the lush landscaping outside.

The back door leads out to a fragrant garden studded with specimen orange trees and a towering magnolia. A grape arbor connects the main house with the rustic cookhouse, which served as the Vallejo's kitchen and home to their Chinese cook. The ktichen is still furnished with the old wood-burning stove and antique utensils. Next door is the simply furnished cook's room decorated with personal mementos of his faraway homeland: a bamboo desk, a teapot and cup, and a mahjongg set.

On the oak-studded hill behind the cookhouse is the large spring which prompted local Indians to call the site Chiucuyem or "crying mountain." Centuries later Vallejo kept the name, simply translating it into the Latin Lachryma montis.m He, like generations of Sonomans after him, was mindful of the past.

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