The Hearst Castle Visitor Center is some 1500 feet below the hilltop where William Randolph Hearst's monumental self-indulgence is built. The parking lot is huge, and on the Saturday we visited, completely full of cars. We cruised the rows before giving up and parking, along with other visitors, in the dirt off the access road.
Inside the center, shops and restaurants lined a vast glass-arched central atrium, teeming with people. The ticket line doubled back on itself four rows deep. When we finally reached the front and received our wristbands, there was still a half hour before we could board the bus that would take us on the five-mile ride to the castle.
|Visitor Center atrium|
By 1947, when construction was halted, there were three guest cottages in addition to the main house, or "Casa Grande", with its 56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms, and 19 sitting rooms. There were two swimming pools - one indoors, one outdoors - and 127 acres of gardens, tennis courts, a movie theatre, an airfield, and the world's largest private zoo.
The guy just didn't know when to quit.
|The front of Casa Grande|
|Central lily pond|
Bits and pieces of European statuary are crammed onto the facade of the main house, a pastiche of stonework that looks like icing on a wedding cake. A Spanish baroque Virgin Mary in a niche flanked by French Gothic tracery, beneath a Roman frieze, surmounts a quatrefoil and gargoyle strewn band with medieval knights' helmets. This crowns a wrought iron gate from a convent in Spain flanked by columns bearing figures of St. John the Baptist in the wild.
|Click to "embiggen"|
We enter through the back way, down a narrow doglegged hall. Inside the Grand Hall, they have fans blowing through the dark and stuffy room. Huge tapestries hang on the walls above blackened antique choir stalls. There's a stone fireplace large enough to roast an ox. Massive wooden tables display gilt and glass artifacts.
Arranged casually within the baronial splendor are overstuffed couches and armchairs slip-covered in the most fantastic fabric featuring more naked putti cavorting amid a hallucinogenic swirl of scarlet, pink and yellow against a liverish background. Perhaps they are playing among exploded viscera, or maybe it's just flowers and ribbons. I've never seen more hideous upholstery in my life.
The tour guide says this is where the Hearsts' famous party guests took cocktails. I'd need a drink, too.
The dining room was next - the huge table laid with blue willow plates and paper napkins, which Hearst preferred. There were even vintage jars of ketchup and mustard - one wonders if they are actual old jars or specially mocked up by propbuilders.
|The billiard room|
We were ushered into a private theatre that looked like a burlesque house, all red velvet and rows of polychrome female caryatids, their marcelled curls and fine features no doubt mirroring the likeness of Mr. Hearst's paramour, actress Marion Davies.
It was a relief to escape into the breezy California sunlight. We took a quick detour to see the famous Neptune pool, this summer empty of water due to our state's record drought. Still, it looked like the overbuilt set of a movie - and apparently was featured in Spartacus or some gladiator drama.
The buses back to the visitor center load beneath the tennis courts, which allowed for a quick detour to see the indoor Roman pool.
When we returned to the Visitor's Center, after more canned corn from Mr. Trebek, we checked out the souvenir and book store. We could have stayed to watch the movie about the castle, or eaten in one of the many restaurants - the Refectory, for sandwiches; the barbecue joint where you can eat Hearst Beef tri-tip; or La Cuesta Coffee for lattes. We could have gotten a souvenir coin or coffee mug with our initials on it. Instead, we bought a biography of Mr. Hearst, and Marion Davies' cheap but readable tell-all book, "The Times We Had."
Then, we drove out of there, and went walking on the beach at Cambria, where the sea air and salt smell blew the banal dust of Hearst Castle's opulence out of our lungs.