Think lavish palaces and imposing bastions are strictly Old World? Think again.
In our proudly egalitarian American minds, castles are an aristocratic symbol of Old Europe, or maybe ancient Asia. But there are at least two Old World castles here in the New World — and you won’t need your passport to visit either of them.
The first was a monument to one family’s wealth and power. The other was a massive “We ain’t playin’!” fortress with stone walls 18 feet thick.
Hearst Castle overlooks the southern end of state Route 1, aka the Pacific Coast Highway or — as most Californians know it — Highway 1. You’ve seen this stretch of road in at least a few dozen car commercials on TV over the years, but nothing equals seeing it for yourself.
The drive getting there, from north or south, is literally too lovely for words. If you chose to skip the castle entirely and just keep on going, few who’ve ever driven this highway would blame you.
But don’t do that.
You need to see this place — not just to drink in the incredible opulence, but to touch a big piece of modern American history. In their time, the Hearsts weren’t just major figures in the media. They practically were the media.
There are those who believe, with some justification, that they deliberately used their influence to push the United States into an expansionist war with Spain in 1898.
(It also made a legend out of Orson Welles, who wrote, produced, directed and starred in it!)
If you’re one of those who insists that America has never had its own royalty, what you learn here about the Hearst family just might change your mind.
Even in this era of mega-mansions and MTV Cribs, the splendor and comfort in which the Hearsts lived on this mountain is hard to fathom.
(NOTE: If any of you fans of the old Star Trek TV series feel like you’re suddenly having flashbacks, it’s no surprise. The set for the episode involving the Greek god Apollo clearly was inspired by this pool!)
Morro Castle — El Castillo de San Felipe del Morro in Spanish — was designed to make unwanted visitors to San Juan as uncomfortable as possible, and history shows they did a pretty good job of that.
Britain had Gibraltar. Spain had this place — and she needed it.
Madrid was getting rich off her Caribbean colonies — and just about everyone, it seemed, wanted a piece. Over the centuries, the British, Dutch and Americans would all try taking a bite out of Spain’s Caribbean holdings…starting right here.
Some countries even enlisted pirates to plunder Spanish shipping on their behalf. You know, that whole “plausible deniability” thing?
Bottom line, this part of the world was no place for a pacifist. Morro’s massive cannons fired iron shot the size of bowling balls, and the Spanish soldiers who manned them were cold-blooded professionals who “handled their business” with deadly precision.
England’s legendary sea captain, Sir Francis Drake, found out just how precise in 1595.
Drake, a full-time adventurer and part-time slave trader, figured he could force his way into San Juan with a British battle fleet at his back.
It must’ve been a majestic sight — a classic battle line of galleons under billowing sails, blasting away with their rows of guns.
The Morro garrison, apparently, was not as easily impressed as I am. Taking aim at Drake’s famed ship, the Golden Hind, the castle gunners calmly put one of their giant cannonballs right through his cabin.
Sir Francis took his business elsewhere.
The British got a measure of revenge soon after, storming the castle from the land side, only to have their army so ravaged by disease that they withdrew after a mere six weeks.
Today, the castle is listed as a national historic site by the U.S. Park Service and a world heritage site by the United Nations. It draws some 2 million visitors a year — and nobody gets shot!
The one thing Hearst and Morro castles have in common: You can’t actually drive right up to either of them.
You have to leave your car at the bottom of the mountain near San Simeon and take a tour bus up to Hearst Castle. Even if they let you drive up the mountain — which they won’t — there’s no place for you to park up there.
As for Morro Castle, a decision was made about ten years ago to return that area to its natural state. This led the Park Service to tear up the parking lot in front of the gate. So if you visit, be prepared for a little hike over a long gravel path.
Hearst Castle. Morro Castle. One symbolized power. The other projected the real thing. Both are worth a visit.