Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Dipping Into the Ancient Hot Waters of Tijuana's Thermal Springs

As adventurous as I am, I still sometimes find safety in numbers.

So when my trip to a Tijuana mineral springs with the tour group Turista Libre got canceled last year, I didn't choose to go on my own instead.

I chose to wait—a whole year—until it was offered again.

Before Tijuana became a liquor-soaked destination of legal boozing (and gambling) during Prohibition, its main draw was actually its natural hot springs (agua caliente), formed ages ago by volcanic eruptions and seismic activity.

One such thermal spring (aguas termales) can be found next to the Tijuana River at Valparaiso in the Buenavista neighborhood of Tijuana, where health-seekers and border-crossing tourists have flocked since the late 1940s (according to Newsweek Mexico, 1949). 

Valparaiso—which translates to mean "Paradise Valley"—offers day access to its jacuzzi, outdoor hot springs, sauna, and cool pool, as well as spa therapies like massages.

I went outside of my comfort zone and signed up for a massage without knowing how much it would cost or how to communicate any preferences to my therapist.

Somehow it all worked out...

...and once I was thoroughly worked-over, I was ready to spend some free time exploring the rest of the property.

It's both rustic and tropical, with thatched sun umbrellas...

...and rock-hewn arches, retaining walls, walkways, niches, and more.

The characteristic red dome—part of Valparaiso's logo—is where you'll find the thermal jacuzzi.

It's not a "hot tub" per se—it's much bigger than that, and there are no bubbles or jets to enjoy—and the smell of sulfur in there can be overwhelming.

Silence is required for meditative purposes—but the locals completely disregard that rule and whoop it up in there.

The acoustics are incredible, so the absence of sound would be a shameful waste of the architecture.

The secret about Valparaiso that I found out soon after my massage was over was that there are also hot springs to enjoy al fresco...

...simply by climbing those rock stairways up to the top of the hill.

Up above a kind of mezzanine (or mirador), you reach a flat stone pathway marked by a list of regulations—to wear swimwear and shower first, and to not run or bring glass bottles.

We'd made a beer run at the convenience store near the border, so we were already well-armed with cans. Hopefully boozing it up with cervezas and tequila wouldn't negate the healthful effects of a good mineral soak, in 100-degree waters touted to contain sulfur, calcium, magnesium, and more.

After all, I needed a little boost to my circulation and immune system, for my cells to get oxygenated, and to expel some toxins. My vital organs needed some TLC, my metabolism to get a bit of a kickstart.

Who doesn't need an increased sense of physical and psychological wellness every now and then?

Even if I were to just get a placebo effect out of it, I'd take it.

Technically, I've now got a one-year pass to return to Valparaiso anytime I want—and with it less than three miles from the border crossing at San Ysidro, California, I could, I suppose.

Am I comfortable enough now to go back on my own, sometime within the next 12 months?


Related Posts:
Lessons of a Lone Traveler: Hot Springs Edition
Casting My Fears Aside

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Photo Essay: Getting to Know Hearst Castle, One Tour At a Time

The year before this past Christmas, I'd booked a trip up to the Central Coast to take the twilight holiday tour of Hearst Castle and visit the Cambria Christmas Market.

The night before I was supposed to make the four-hour drive up, I came down with food poisoning. I waited until the last possible minute and, in defeat, finally canceled my trip.

When the holidays rolled around this past year, I thought twice about trying again. I wasn't sure I could face something going wrong again—and having to cancel yet another trip.

In fact, it wasn't until I was already in Morro Bay searching for monarch butterflies that I even dared to check which tours still had tickets available.

After all, there isn't just one Hearst Castle tour. In addition to the special holiday twilight tours, there are five regular tours—and even more seasonal tours!

I finally settled on the "Designing the Dream" tour and confirmed my purchase; but when I arrived at the Visitor's Center, the check-in attendant made me second guess my choice.

"Have you taken the Upstairs Suites tour?" he asked. When I told him that I'd only taken the "Grand Rooms" tour so far, he pressed on.

"The Upstairs Suites tour just won the Staff Pick again this year," he said. "And you'll save a few bucks if you switch."

To be honest, my tour choice had been pretty arbitrary anyway—so even though I suspected there might be some hidden agenda to having me switch, I let it happen.

I just wanted to see something I'd missed all the way back in 2011, which was the only other time I'd stepped foot on the Hearst Ranch.

For instance, I'd somehow missed—or forgotten—the stories of the "zoo" that William Randolph Hearst commissioned for his San Simeon ranch.

On my shuttle ride up to the top of what Hearst called "La Cuesta Encantada" (or "The Enchanted Hill") I was desperate to spot some zebras.

I didn't—but I got a really good look at a herd of Barbary sheep, which was enough to blow my mind.

With eight years having passed since my first (and only) visit to Hearst Castle, I didn't remember a lot.

I couldn't recall whether the 1920s-era Neptune Pool had been open—and filled with water—back in 2011.

I just knew I didn't have any photos of it—and that it had been drained in 2014 and was closed for four years.

It finally reopened in 2018—and I was sure to document it this time.

Honestly, it felt like I was seeing everything for the first time...

...including the main building, Casa Grande...

...where I'd taken that "Grand Rooms" tour.

I could probably take that tour again and not remember much of what I'd supposedly already learned.

But I've got to make my way through the tours I haven't taken first—and maybe after the fifth tour, I'll have a better handle on the Hearst Castle story.

This time around, I was delighted to return to the North Terrace and once again cross the threshold of this Julia Morgan-designed masterpiece...

...which resembles something of an English castle, of which I have relatively limited experience.

We wandered through rooms upon rooms that had been built and decorated for guests (including the second-floor cloister suites)... well as the master bedroom suites (for both Hearst and his lover, Marion Davies), with their intricately carved and painted ceilings (the oldest dating back to 14th-century Spain, above).

Part of Hearst's suite on the third floor included the Gothic Study...

...a church-like setting that now houses various books (some relocated from the Main Library)...

...and other treasures collected by Hearst...

...including parchment lampshades crafted out of Gregorian chant sheet music.

After having climbed a spiral staircase (which makes for a total of 332 steps roundtrip), we reached
the highest point within Casa Grande—the Celestial Suite.

circa 2016 (Photo: L. Charnes via FlickrCC BY-NC 2.0

Up there on the fourth floor, you're just below the bells in the tower—a once-empty space that was converted into a sitting room and bedroom, completed and furnished in 1932.

While it used to be open-air—but San Simeon weather, with storms coming off the Pacific Ocean, necessitated glass being later added to enclose it—you can still bask in the glow as it filters through.

circa 2011

There is an elevator actually—intertwined with the spiral staircase in the turret—but if you're able-bodied, you're not allowed to use it. 

After all those rooms and decorative features, Casa Grande never got finished. With a nearly unlimited budget, he just kept adding onto it—as evidenced by the half-baked North Wing, which I'll see when I get back to do the Designing the Dream tour. 

And at some point, I'd still like to do that Holiday Twilight Tour.

No matter how much I do, I always feel like I'm still trying to catch up. 

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Hearst Castle
Photo Essay: Annenberg Community Beach House, Hearst's Lost Gold Coast

Monday, January 13, 2020

Photo Essay: The Mysterious Monolith That Landed Atop SoCal's Own 'Judean' Mountains

What would bring me to Peppertree Lane, driving up through the northeastern Simi Hills—those same hills that reminded Dr. Bardin of the Judean Hills outside of Jerusalem?

Shlomo Bardin talks to campers, with an inscribed excerpt from Isaiah 2:3, circa 1970s (Photo: American Jewish University, via Online Archive of California)

The House of the Book—a fixture on the Brandeis-Bardin Institute campus of American Jewish University, which, since 1968, has been the largest parcel of land owned by a Jewish institution outside the State of Israel.

Dr. Shlomo Bardin founded the BBI in 1941 as the "Brandeis Camp Institute" and headed it until 1976, the year of his death. (He's also buried on campus.) During his lengthy tenure, he oversaw the addition of this futuristic, cylindrical building—commissioning it of Sidney Eisenshtat, FAIA in 1954. It wouldn't be completed until 1973.

Not surprisingly, Brutalist-style monolith, appearing like a poured concrete spaceship, has become a sci-fi icon—with appearances in Star Trek IV: The Undiscovered Country (as the extraplanetary Camp Khitomer) and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (as the Command Center).

That may not exactly be what Eisenshtat—an observant Orthodox Jew (and past president of Congregation Beth Jacob in Beverly Hills)—intended when he took on the commission for the hilltop monument.

House of the Book (its name usually referring to a religious school or studies) is currently used as a conference center, performance space, and library—having hosted music ensembles, folk dancing, lectures, and song circles both inside and out.

Its art glass window panel and leaded glass, prism-like skylight offer intriguing details to a sculptural building that's got few decorative touches...

...except the three artificially-lit stained glass windows designed with a Star of David motif by alum Jerry Novorr (Class of 1980), who taught paper-cutting classes at the school.

They were added much later and might not exactly have been part of Eisenshtat's original vision, either.

Inside the circular main performance space (a.k.a. "beit knesset," or "synagogue," in Hebrew), the sound bounces off the semi-circular study spaces (or "beit midrash") and into your core. After all, weren't all temples built to be sung in?

According to an early floor plan, the original architectural design team also included associates Maxwell Rex Raymer (Eisenshtat's long-time lead designer), Harry H. Taketa, and Richard Y. Tochihara. Over time, the latter two seem to have faded into obscurity.

General contractors Willard Chotiner and his childhood friend James Gumbiner built the behemoth—but their building business went out of business long ago.

A bit of a local Jewish celebrity in his own right, Chotiner had been active with Brandeis-Bardin since the early 1950s, having served as a past president and chaired its board in 1976. He also served on The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles's board and helped found The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.

But in retrospect, Eisenshtat tends to get all the credit for the House of the Book—maybe because he was a beloved USC alum, or because he studied under Frank Lloyd Wright, whose influence on some of his work is evident.

Or maybe it's because he became known for his innovative synagogue architecture—or that he was so devoted to Judaism that he refused payments for his synagogue projects.

Or maybe I'm giving too much credit to the public acknowledgement of Eisenshtat's architectural legacy there in Simi Valley. The reality is that most of the information available online refers to the House of the Book's appearances in cult classics on both small and big screens.

In contrast, primary sources with key architectural tidbits lie stashed away in boxes, undigitized, accessible by special request only.

In fact, the best online resource I could find to provide context to the structure and its place on the campus was published last year by Los Angeles Review of Books. You can read it here.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Hollywood's First Jewish Temple, Restored