Hearst Castle at San Simeon, California is a National Historic Landmark. The mansion was built by the media magnate William Randolph Hearst (1863 – 1951) and is described in my Lonely Planet guide book as ‘a wondrous, historic, over-the-top homage to material excess, perched high on a hill’. I couldn’t have put it better myself!
I was keen to visit Hearst Castle when we were in California and was looking forward to seeing the famed opulence and excess and I wasn’t disappointed. The inside of the house was divided into separate tours, so to see the whole of the interior would have required going on three different ones, each of which was quite expensive, so I decided on the Grand Rooms tour, which was recommended for first time visitors and would give a flavour of what it would have been like to have been a guest at the house.
So, without further ado, let’s set off and have a look around. Access to the mansion is by bus from the Visitor’s Centre. The journey up the hill took about ten minutes, but the weather was clear and the views over the countryside and to the sea were stunning. We had a guide with us who would be taking us inside the mansion before allowing us to wander around the terraces and gardens for as long as we liked. First he explained to us how Hearst had an idea for a holiday home to be built on the family ranch where they used to camp in the summer holidays. He employed an architect (the first licensed female architect) to design a modest house, but he kept changing his mind about what he wanted and she had to change the designs to accommodate his ever-growing art collection – the spoils of his European shopping sprees where he purchased everything from artefacts from antiquity to parts of medieval monasteries.
Moving into the building, the rooms we saw were filled with priceless tapestries, works of art, statues and beautiful furniture. Despite the opulence of the surroundings, Hearst liked to live simply when he was there as evidenced by the bottle of tomato ketchup on the dining table!
We were part of quite a large tour group so it was very hard to stop and take pictures of things as we walked round the grand rooms. If I stopped to take a picture (without lots of people in it!) I would miss the next part of the explanation of the items we were looking at. To try and explain what was in the grand rooms, in the absence of photos, imagine the entire contents of a several-hundred-years-old National Trust stately home all crammed into one room. And we saw several such rooms – each one full to bursting with treasures.
Once we were outside again we were left to our own devices and there was plenty of time to walk round and look at everything. The views from the terraces were magnificent.
The terraces were immaculately kept and had sculptures, small pools and fountains (most of them empty because of water saving measures that were in place at the time) around every corner.
From the terraces we could access one of the things I was most looking forward to seeing – the famed Neptune pool. This is what I was hoping to see –
This is what I actually saw – the pool drained for repairs.
My disappointment was considerable but, as our guide said, we were amongst a very small number of people who would see the beautiful mosaic tiles on the floor of the pool.
Walking on around the terraces we came to the building which housed the indoor Roman pool. It was beautiful, and full of water!
After we had finished our walk around the terraces and gardens we headed for the bus which took us back to the Visitors’ Centre. On the way back we passed the ruins of what was, in Hearst’s day, the world’s largest private zoo. When he died, most of the animals were sold to other zoos, but the zebra were set free and now thrive in the pastures around the estate – we saw them when driving along Highway 1 the following day.
I finished the visit by going into the Theater to watch the fascinating 40 minute film about the building of the mansion and what led up to it. I’m very glad I watched it because it gave a real insight into the history of the family, the story of Hearst’s life, the reasons for his magnificent art collection and clips of the Hollywood stars who used to stay in the castle.
I’m linking this gentle, opulent walk with Jo’s Monday Walk.